Monday, November 24, 2008


By Dr. Richard Guentert

[Based on Isaiah 64:1-9]

As we make preparation for the coming of the Christ child, we remember that for ages the church has prayed: “Come, Lord Jesus. Come!” It is a prayer for the Ascension in reverse. It is a prayer that the transcendence of God might make itself known in the immanence of God. It is a prayer for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John 14: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again . . .!” It is the Advent prayer of Christians during their life-long pilgrimage through the recurring cycle of the Church Year.

Such a petition – for the epiphany of deity – is not unique to Christianity. It was also the plea of ancient Judaism centuries before it became the mantra of the Church. However, in those days it took a slightly different form. In our Old Testament lectionary text for this week we encounter such a petition – replete with mixed motives.

In Isaiah 64 the plea carries with it contradictory reasons for desiring the advent of the divine. At first, the demander’s invitation is wrathful (verses 1-2).

To paraphrase: I wish you would tear away the holy hindrances that keep your Presence from us, and make yourself known – right here, right, now, right in our midst! Come like a fire that disintegrates everything in its pathway. Come like a fire that makes water bubble and boil and become a vanishing vapor. Do this in a manner that makes your adversaries tremble and the nations quake. COME AND GET THEM!

[There is an allusion in verse three to God’s Exodus epiphany on the quaking mountain – the cataclysmic, multi-sensory scene of the Ten Commandments being delivered to Moses.]

But by the end of the lectionary passage, the invitation becomes a merciful plea . . . a remarkable reversal in the demeanor of the demander.

To paraphrase: But despite everything, you are the First Fashioner who has formed us from the dust of the earth. It was by the handiwork of your fingers that we were shaped in accordance with your will. So please don’t be too upset with us, O Divine Creator. And we plead with you not to hold our transgressions against us, all the way into eternity. We humbly beseech you to remember that we are the beloved, the work of your hands. COME AND SAVE US!

In summary, Isaiah’s plea starts out with wanting God to burst into the present as The Vengeful One, but he ends up wanting God to come as The Merciful One who has ceased keeping track of our wrongs, and tempered any long-held hostilities toward us.

In between these two differing reasons for desiring the coming of God, there is a complaint that God has been absent from the scene for far too long (verse 4). This complaint then turns to blame.

To paraphrase: “After all, our sin is due to your being upset with us; and you know that we wouldn’t have gone astray if you hadn’t hid yourself from us” (verse 5b). It actually feels like you’ve concealed your presence from us and in so doing just handed us over to our own propensities for wickedness” (verse 7b). IT”S ALL YOUR FAULT, GOD!

At first they wanted God to appear in their midst and reign down wrath on those who were undeserving of God’s grace. But in retrospect, it occurs to them (and via them, to us) that “all of us are the undeserving.”

So in this Advent season what is the motivation for our seeking the fresh appearance of Christ? – to make sure all those other folk and situations get punished by an A.W.O.L., even-the-score kind of God? – or is it make sure that WE (all of us) get made over afresh, and graced by this God of presence, goodness and benevolence?

It is the latter which is the underscored sentiment again and again and again in Psalm 80:3, 7, and 19. “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

It is the sentiment of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians in chapter 1, verse 8-9. “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

But never ever imagine that you can figure out or pre-determine the time and place of this intervention. All you can do is: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. Keep Awake!” (Mark 13:33, 37). Prayerfulness, perceptiveness and unpretentiousness – those are the personal disciplines of preparation we are to nurture throughout this Advent season 2008.

Having The Eyes of Your Hearts Enlightened - A Meditation for the First Sunday of Advent


Finding ourselves on the waning side of the Thanksgiving celebration and on the eve of the liturgical season of Advent, we read the Ephesians text with the twin themes of “gratitude” and “anticipation” washing over us. We, like the writer of Ephesians, “do not cease to give thanks” for each expression of the church, and we often include the church in our prayers of thanksgiving in our Lord’s Day assemblies. Likewise, we anticipate afresh on this first Sunday of Advent the unity God wills in Christ Jesus - “to put all things under his feet and [make] him the head over all things for the church."

Some have called Ephesians a devotional meditation on the reconciliation God is making possible by uniting all things in Christ. That certainly should resonate with us as we recall the new identity statement of the Disciples of Christ – “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Advent becomes a fresh opportunity for the exploration of the role that our faith plays in de-fraging the frays and foibles of our frantic affairs.

This prayer-text is a petition offered in anticipation of the kind of “wisdom” that takes notice of such unity. And it is offered in expectation of the kind of “revelation” that is attentive to the possibilities for such unity.

All of this is dependent upon a heightened capability to be aware . . . aware of what is, and aware of what more can be! The Ephesians phrase suggests that the prerequisite for this is to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened.” What a fascinating, imaginative and poetic way of stating the author’s summons to awareness. It would be like our saying: You must have the ears of your mind attuned. Or, you must have the taste buds of your spirit stimulated. Or, you must have the touch of your intuition sensitized. All our senses are marshaled in the service of discernment.

The directive to have the “eyes of our hearts enlightened” is a summons to deeper insightfulness. And it is an insightfulness that finds prophetic and messianic specificity in the Ezekiel text (34:11-24) where God is portrayed as “paying attention” – with all senses alert – to the scattered, the strayed, the injured, and the weak (verse 16). God’s remedy is the establishment of a new shepherd – David – the ancestor of the Messiah/Shepherd whose Advent we await in this season of the Church Year.

Christ Jesus is the long awaited Messiah/Shepherd whose teaching about righteousness and judgment finds its expression in the other lectionary text of Matthew 25:31-46. Having the “eyes of our hearts enlightened” we are summoned to attentiveness and life-giving ministries of care among the hungry, the thirsting, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. For as we offer mercy to any one of the least of these, we make a pleasing offering to the Messiah/Shepherd – the perfect Christmas gift, if you will.

In worship last week many sang the hymn “We Gather Together To Ask The Lord’s Blessing” (No. 276 in Chalice Hymnal). As I thought of this lectionary text from Ephesians I was stuck by these lyrics in the hymn - - - “The powers that oppress us now cease to distress us, O God be present with us, and make your will known!” That certainly must be the prayer of a fragmented world in need of the wholeness that only unity in the message and ministry of Christ can offer. May the eyes of our hearts be so enlightened. And may our Advent confidence be in the re-birth of Christ’s reign afresh – “not only in this age, but also in the age to come” (verse 21)! It is, indeed, “the hope to which he has called you” (verse 18)!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

November 23 Sheepish Behavior

Matthew 25:31-46

“Lord, when did we see you like that?” When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters you did it also unto me. And the sheep are stunned. But we weren’t trying to be religious or anything. We didn’t know. Maybe that is why there are called sheep here. They didn’t know. Aw, I just had a little left over time so I helped make the Trinity meal. Yeah, I called on some folks who were sick, but the truth is, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say. I didn’t know I helped feed hungry people, I just dropped a few bucks into the offering plate.

God says, “Surprise. That’s the way that it works. In the end you are judged by whether or not your faith drives you to do some good for the least and the lost.”

The goats on the other hand, are equally surprised and monumentally disappointed. These are the people who thought they were going to heaven, but find out at the last minute that they are going to be on the outside looking in. They are rejected because they didn’t care for the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. They did not respond to human suffering, so God’s judgment is harsh. And they don’t like it. “Lord when did we see you? We were waiting for you to come back? I even put a bumper sticker on my car, “In case of Rapture, this car will be unoccupied.” I read the Left Behind books, and I believed the right things, I kept my nose clean and didn’t do many really bad things.”

But the Lord says, “You don’t you get it. I said I’d return and you used that as a reason to feel smug and superior to others with that arrogant bumper sticker. Hoping to see the cars and planes crash when their drivers and pilots were snatched into heaven at the rapture, that’s just sick. Well, do I have news for you. I came back already and you missed it.”

But the goats had not been able to hear what the Lord told the sheep. “When did you come back? We didn’t see you!”

“Whenever you passed by human need, you passed ME by.”

Can’t you just hear their response? No fair. We were looking in the clouds. You never said you would be so sneaky about it. Give us a do-over!

Jesus tells them being part of this is much more than what you believe in your head. It’s what you do with your life. It is more than trying not to repeatedly break the Big Ten Commandments. It is about how you align yourself in the world. Do you align yourself with the lost and suffering, does your faith make you roll up your sleeves and get busy, or do you align yourself with those who would just make up excuses why you shouldn’t help people. Because that is easy to do.

Sometimes we can look at folks and say, they got themselves into their problems through their own bad choices. My helping just helps people abuse the system, and doesn’t teach them personal responsibility. And sometimes, there is some truth to that, but it isn’t true for everybody who is hurting and it doesn’t give us a pass on trying to reach out and do some good. Jesus seems to be saying in this passage that if you worship God and somehow are indifferent to the plight of those around you, then you are not worshiping the Bible’s God, you are worshiping a false idol, a cheap knock-off that isn’t going to do you any good at the final judgment.

It’s hard. And we don’t always get it right. This passage has been at the heart of my faith from the day I first heard it and I’ve been trying to get it right ever since. When I went to seminary from LeMars, IA, I had my first encounters with homeless people. A guy on the street asked me for money for food and I remembered that my grandfather told me not to give out money, but if they are really hungry to buy them a meal. That way you know they won’t be buying booze with the money. Made sense, don’t give them money for beer, cause that’s what I was going to by for myself with the money.

So, I take this guy to a convenience store and he asks if he can get a hot dog, an orange juice and some chips. As we approached the counter to pay for it, I was feeling like a sheep. I could just hear the words of the Lord ringing in my ears, “Well done, good sheep, enter into the joy of the good shepherd.” But the words that I really heard came from the clerk who started yelling at me for helping. “This bum gets a sucker in here every day. You just spent more money on giving him a handout than I make in two hours working this job. Idiot.”

I walked sheepishly out of the building. And I was discovering that it is hard to do the right thing. But this passage remains. It is tough, and we won’t always get it right, but we have to keep responding, we have to keep trying and not get discouraged.

With the downturn in the economy, word is out on the streets that this church is the place of last resort that people can come to to get some help. There are a lot of needy people out there, with all kinds of needs, not just financial. And sometimes it just wears me down. Some people have legitimate needs, others are running scams, and I can’t always tell the difference. And I’m trying to get stuff done, I trying to do my job and someone comes in and interrupts everything. I used to find myself getting a bit angry, but then I found a way to calm myself down. When I see their faces and I feel my blood pressure rising, I just say to my self, “Jesus Christ, is it you again?”

I already know the answer.

David J. Clark

Ankeny Christian Church

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking Risks for the Kingdom of God

Matthew 25: 14-30

It's incredibly easy to do the wrong thing with this week's gospel text, to fall into that trap of reading through the assumptions of 21st century Americans who survive within a system of capitalism. So when Jesus tells this parable about those who invested being rewarded and the one who didn't invest being punished, it's all to easy for us to say, "Yes, it only makes sense."

But therein lies the problem. Jesus' parables didn't necessarily make sense in the way we think of making sense. There was always a twist. There was always something that made his audience stop and think, "Wait a minute! Did he say what I think he said?"

And so we might find that Jesus' original audience were not 21st Century American capitalists. They were not indeed. And principles of investment were not the same then. In that day and time, investing with the bankers was the unsafe thing to do, the risky thing to do, perhaps the wrong thing to do for someone who valued their master's holdings.

Jesus is talking about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. He's talking about taking risks, doing what might be socially looked down upon, doing what is unsafe for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

Dan Mayes

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Be careful is not advice I like!

Matt 25
The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

25‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.* 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.*

I have to begin my reflections on this Sunday’s text by telling you a recent story about how unwise I was this last weekend and how much I do not like a text telling me I have to be always on guard and wise!

It was Saturday, mid morning, and I had pulled up the old carpeting and had begun to lay down the new, easily installed carpet squares in its place. With minimal cuts I knew I would finish this project early and spend the rest of the day laying in my hammock listening to the last of the birds sing on that unusually warm November Saturday. However, in one quick and foolish move I managed to allow my brain to forget all the rules I have been taught since birth about using carpet knives. A simple rectangular cut around the air duct is all I had to do. On any other given day I would have applied my lipstick around the edge of the duct, laid my carpet tile down, pressed hard and removed it with a perfect impression of where to cut the tile in a safe but accurate manner. However, instead I took the short cut, I did not prepare wisely and I just began cutting in a way that placed the cutting edge both in an upward stroke and headed straight for my left hand if something were to go wrong. YES I KNOW NOT TO DO THAT! But I did anyway! 16 stitches, a near loss of conciseness on the way to the doctors office, a $600 doctor bill, and 2 hours of my day later I was not in a mood to read the lectionary and particularly not in the mood to read a text that seemed judgmental, exclusive and full of advice about how we should prepare and make wise decisions.

Yet, to be fair to the text and the community that it was being spoken to this text may well have seemed like a pep talk rather than judgment or unwanted advice. It may well have felt like the talk that is given by parents to their children just before they go off to camp, or to college or some adventurous camping trip. A word to the wise to be careful, to remember what you have learned or to think before you act. Words that every parent hopes that their children will listen to and take stock in and yet know deep down that even the best of children make mistakes. So you tell them again, again and again in more and more dramatic ways with the hope that maybe then they will remember. Stay alert and remember what you have been taught. Be strong and be ready for whatever comes your way because it will.

I still don’t like this text because it seems in part to speak in an exclusive way that seems contrary to other stories of Jesus who is always welcoming of the edges but the context and purpose might be different here. It does occur in Matthew in a series of advice and pep talk kind of stories. The next story is about the “talents” which could be a parent advice story as well. I will leave it up to you all to figure our where to go from here… hope this gets you thinking about this text and please be careful and don’t be foolish and unwise this close after an election!