Christmas on Location: The Temple Courts

PLEASE NOTE: THE GROUP LIFE BLOG WILL BE MIGRATING TO UPPC’S BLOG AS OF JANUARY 2020. PLEASE CONTINUE TO VISIT THE BLOG THERE!

The week or two after Christmas is always interesting. Some are relieved, while others are already excited for next Christmas! But all of us have to “go back to normal.” So it was also with the shepherds, who had to return to their fields after seeing the messiah. But they didn’t return unchanged — they praised God for what he had revealed to them!

Like the shepherds, we can return to our normal routines with praise and thanksgiving on our lips. Because the Christmas event is reminder that God is with us at all times, in all places, even the most ordinary! So we are invited, even beckoned, to seek God in our everyday, because with him we will find the purpose for our lives.

Luke is a master storyteller, and the first two chapters of his gospel sketch the outline for the rest of the story. This week, we looked at the final part of his outline — Jesus presented in the temple courts.

As we’ve journeyed through Christmas “on location” this year, you can note that the story begins and ends in the same place — Jerusalem, in the temple of the Lord. Luke is careful to also note that Mary and Joseph obey all the Jewish laws concerning childbirth (2:39). This setting concretizes who Jesus is and will become. But Jesus’ role as messiah will achieve victory for God’s people in a way that no one could see coming. No one, that is, except for Simeon.

One of the first, stunning features of Simeon’s song is that God intends the messiah for “all nations” as a light” to the Gentiles.” The Jewish people had every reason to believe that the messiah — a purely Jewish concept — was for their national benefit over against Rome or any other surrounding nation (note that the Greek for “Gentile” is ethnos from which we derive the word “ethnic.”) But Simeon’s prophecy here, which echoes much earlier prophecies even in our Old Testament canon, would still have been a reversal of the idea of messiah at the time.

Second, there is the troubling notion that Christ would cause the “falling” and not just rising of many in Israel, and that he would be spoken against. But mostly, that because of him, a “sword would pierce” his own mother’s heart. Not exactly what you want to hear on your firstborn’s big day at church.

Of course, the benefit of hindsight and the New Testament scriptures that follow help us understand that this falling, strife, and soul-piercing would be at least in part because of the upside-down method by which the messiah would win Israel’s victory — not by conquering suffering, but by joining it, and ultimately taking it onto himself.

Christmas on Location means that the arrival of the messiah (Greek, “Christ”) transforms the everyday lives of the entire world. It means that each of us can find the part that we are invited to play in the ongoing story of Christmas. It means that the Christmas story can be your story, too.

For reflection:
– When is the last time you actively inquired about the purpose of your life?
– Have you ever considered that you are being called to live out a specific role in God’s ongoing work (i.e. the story God is telling)?
– Do you believe that anyone, by God’s grace, can be part of God’s ongoing work (story) in the world? What assumptions does that statement challenge?
– How does it make you feel to consider that God is calling you to be part of his ongoing work (story) in the world? Is it scary? Exciting? Both? Other?

Christmas on Location: Jerusalem

Christmas is coming soon, but Dec. 1 was the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent basically means “Get ready, something is coming!”  It’s our opportunity to enter back into our spiritual ancestors’ experience of emptiness, silence, and waiting for generations for God’s Messiah, God’s “chosen king,” to bring a final peace and stability to the land.  

Speaking of “the land,” this year, we are having “Christmas on Location” in the holy land.  So, we’re going do some good ol’ fashioned learning as we also contemplate the meaning of Advent and Christmas.  We are going on a journey together to discover that what has become holiday sentiment for many of us, happened at a real time, to real people, in real places.

Luke’s account of the story (Luke 1:5-25) begins with “the time of Herod king of Judea.” It was a politically divided, tense, and violent time and place. Not exactly the way many of our Christmas stories are told.   But then the story takes a sharp turn!  In this corrupt and volatile place, “There was a priest” and his wife, both descendants of priests, and both seen as righteous in God’s sight.  These two are in stark contrast to King Herod.  But despite their righteousness, they were sadly unable to have children (see Elizabeth’s description of her experience in v. 25).

The temple was an enormous complex! The outer courts are where people would have been gathered to pray while Zechariah was inside the “holy place,” the temple itself (through the double doors in the middle).

The Incense Offering was given in the nave, which was adjacent to the holiest place, believed to house the real presence of God on earth. So, this was the closest Zechariah would ever get to God’s presence…or so he thought.

Priests function as mediators between God and people. But nevertheless, Zechariah is surprised when he has an divine encounter with the angel called Gabriel! The angel assures Zechariah that his prayer has been heard. We don’t know what prayer this means, but given God’s response to the prayer (v.13) I’m convinced it refers to Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s prayers to conceive a child.

Perhaps understandably, Zechariah has his doubts and asks for a sign. He is given one, though not one he might want — the inability to speak until the child was born.

And so, the beginning of the Christmas story, according to Luke, begins with emphasis on emptiness, silence, and waiting.

Emptiness: Earlier this week I asked the church staff to think of a time when emptiness is a good thing, and perhaps other times when it’s a bad thing.  (It’s good conversation starter over coffee, too).  For example, an empty stomach might be thought a bad thing — unless it’s the moment before you dig into a delicious Thanksgiving meal.  Then the emptiness makes the meal taste even better!   Surely it was painful for Z and E to have a home that was empty of children.  And I know that this part of their story resonates with the pain some of you have felt as you’ve longed for children, too.  But without minimizing their pain, this story is clearly telling us that their emptiness set the stage for the Christmas story, the arrival of the Messiah.  They became like their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah — miraculous parents whose child changed history.  They couldn’t have known that before today’s story.  But it would still happen.  It compels us all to consider how we might be experiencing emptiness this Christmas season. 

Silence:  Remember that as a priest, Zechariah’s job was to mediate God to the people.  Now, the people rightly concluded that he had a divine encounter.  But with the benefit of hindsight, I think there was much more to his silence than that.  This was the very beginning of God ushering in a new era, when God’s real, earthly presence would no longer need a human mediator.  In the language of the Message, an era when God, in Christ, would “move into the neighborhood.”  God’s presence would go from being mediated to being IM-mediate.  And what better way to demonstrate that immediacy than to silence this priest? We can only try to imagine how frustrating it would have been for Zechariah to be unable to speak, especially as they prepared for their firstborn.  Like emptiness, silence can be undesirable, even scary.  But it is usually what we need to be more aware of God.    

Waiting: We know that waiting was very familiar to these people.  Their ancestors waited to be saved from exile.  And they had been waiting ever since then for God to restore Israel.  They were agrarian and waited for their crops to grow and animals to mature.  The entire pace of life was slower than most of us can imagine as we have everything from air travel to Amazon.  But…we still have to wait for some things. Just last night, my mom, dad, wife and I were talking about how quickly time goes by.  But I remember one season that didn’t go by very quickly — about eight months of waiting for our daughter to be born.  Time has flown by ever since!  But those months were one of the most acute seasons of waiting I’ve ever had (I can only try to imagine what the waiting was like for my wife!)  I was excited and scared, and time just stretched on and on. It seemed like our daughter would never arrive!  But thank God for the waiting, because it allowed us to get ready (even though when she was born we didn’t feel ready!) Like Zechariah and Elizabeth’s experiences of emptiness and silence, this story compels us to ask about our own waiting this season.  700 years before today’s story, the prophet Isaiah gave God’s word to his people in exile: “They that wait on the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly with wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.”  

For Reflection:
Emptiness: In what ways is emptiness painful for you this season?  Acknowledge to God that your pain is real and needn’t be glossed over.  But at the same time, this story is a reminder that even our emptiness can set the stage for God to work, even in life-changing ways.
Silence: As the Christmas season begins, how do you feel about your experience of silence?  Does silence make you uneasy, or more calm?  Are your days already silent enough, and you’re excited to fill your ears with music, family, and friends?  Or are you in need of more silence, like Zechariah was, to become more aware of God in your midst?
Waiting: In what ways are you being forced to wait?  What are you waiting for? What are you going to do as you wait?  How will you spend that time? Does your waiting feel exciting, or burdensome? Or both?  What might the Holy Spirit be trying to tell you, or mature in you, during this season of waiting? 

Blessings this Advent,
MM

You Feed Them, There is Enough

I’m not sure when the “holiday season” starts these days. Is it mid-September when I actually saw Christmas items on some store shelves? Or maybe right after Halloween? In any case, it’s probably by the time Starbucks releases their long-awaited holiday-themed merch. When the holiday season does finally begin, two things come to my mind: meals and giving. In both cases, whether we’re hosting a meal or preparing gifts, we naturally ask our selves the question: “Is this enough?

That question has permeated all of human history, including the history told in the Bible. And far too often, the world seems to shout back at us, “No! There’s isn’t enough!” And this is what makes Jesus’ life so baffling. In particular the fateful evening when he fed thousands of people using only enough for a few.

Having just been given the news of his cousin’s brutal and unjust execution, Jesus retreats, no doubt to grieve. But his grief would have to wait as thousands of needy people call on him. Led by compassion, he serves them until nightfall, when his friends state the obvious: they’re hungry, so let them go get dinner. Jesus’ responses are legendary:
“You give them something to eat.”
Surely in some disbelief, they remind him they have only enough for themselves. Then his second response:
“Bring it here to me.”

The rest is, as they say, history. So what was Jesus seeing that the disciples weren’t able to see? In short, that God created a world in which there is enough. The key is learning to experience it, and then give it away.

Jesus’ view of the world apparently resembles the Genesis 1-2 world: a world of overabundant resources, given by a loving Father. But that view was corrupted when the man and woman were deceived by the serpent. Remember, his deceptions were not generic, but rather laser-focused. First, he would plant the seed of mistrust: “Did God really say you could not eat…?” When that fails, he would plant the seed of envy: “That’s just because God didn’t want you to actually be in charge, to actually have the final say in your own life. I thought he put you in charge, but I guess not…” Mistrust and envy make a wicked fruit, and human beings have been eating it ever since.

But Jesus insists on undoing those lies and showing people the greater truth–a truth that will set us free from mistrust and envy, free to give of the overabundance of God’s world … free to give as God gives. Here are six basic principles I’ve gleaned out of today’s story, and the Bible overall:

Our Creator provides what we need. I know it sounds too simple, but this is where it starts.  This is step one in telling the serpent to slither away! But do we really live like we believe it?  Do we live like God will provide despite the circumstances, like he did through Jesus and Moses before him — bread to a hungry people in a remote place?  (If you noticed that coincidence, good job; you’re supposed to notice it!) 

Our Creator provides differently than the world expects. God might give us SOMETHING quite different than what we expected.  How many testimonies include the phrase, “I never expected this to happen, but…” God might give TO SOMEONE who is different than we expected.   Finally, the toughest one: God might give to someone MORE OR LESS than he gives you.  Part of trusting God is refusing to judge what God gives, and to whom he gives it.

Our Creator does not guarantee that we’ll understand his provision. Back to the garden we go!  The sin Adam and Eve commit is grounded in the hubris that comes with insisting that the Creator of the cosmos operate only at a level that we understand, or even more, that we approve of!  But a so-called “god” whom I can fully comprehend is truly just a figment of my imagination.  

Our Creator does guarantee that we will be an instrument for his provision. Yes, there is an intentional similarity between God provided bread in the desert with Moses and bread in this remote place with Jesus.  But there is one crucial difference. In the Sinai desert, the manna appeared each morning on its own.  But in the new covenant, the bread doesn’t just appear. God’s people give their own, and God multiplies it.  Same God, same gift — new method. Why would God choose this method?

Our Creator does not need our money, but insists on our trust. In the words of Bono, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”  Of course he isn’t.  What God desires from us is our heart.  The greatest commandment is not “Love the Lord with all your money.”  It is, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” But here’s the thing.  The one who created our heart, mind, soul, and strength, knows exactly what guides them. And so Jesus taught… 

Our Creator gave us hearts that go where our treasure is. Note the order.  Most fundraisers will try to appeal to your heart, so that you will then send your treasure that way.  But Jesus teaches the opposite. Your treasure doesn’t go where your heart is — your heart goes wherever you send your treasure.  

You want to invest your heart in things that pass away?  So did Adam and Eve. But if you want to invest in that which will never pass away; if you want to take part in miracles; then listen to Jesus, as he says “Bring what you have to me.”  And watch him multiply it, not only for others, but your transformation as well.

For reflection:

  • Make a simple, bullet-pointed list of that which God has provided for you. Include material and non-material provision. Does anything surprise you?
  • Of that which God has given you, what can be used to provide for those around you? Again, include material and non-material things.
  • God calls us to be wise stewards of what we’re given. Are you giving to others (church, charity, etc.) in a way that you feel is wise?
  • The feeding of the give thousand also calls us to be ready to give in a way that feels risky, even ridiculous. Do you ever give in a way that feels like this?
  • What is one thing you could do to take a step out of “safe giving” and toward faith-informed “risky giving?”
  • If your heart goes where your treasure is, do you manage your wealth in a way that directs your heart toward God, what God cares about, and God’s promise to take care of you?
  • What is the interplay between providing for yourself, providing for your loved ones, providing for others in need, and relinquishing control of all your providing in the hands of God?

Moses – The Burning Bush

Fire. There’s just something about it. I mean, sure it is an essential ingredient in the creation of what we call “human civilization,” and sure we know what it is scientifically. But there’s still something mysterious about it that deeply resonates with us. Maybe this is why God’s presence appears in the form fire.

Until this point in Moses’ “origin story,” God has appeared pretty much as a passive, distant character. Only at the end of chapter 2 does God appear to be active, but in the background of the story. Here, in Exodus 3, God appears powerfully on the scene. So powerfully, in fact, that God becomes the main character of the story.

When God appears to Moses in the burning-but-not-consumed bush, he tells Moses to remove his sandals because Moses is standing on holy ground. The presence of God is sacred, or set apart, from the ordinary. So the inevitable day-to-day grime that appears on the bottoms of our shoes has no place there. It’s a reminder that even though God wants to be near us, and even to be known by name, our proper posture toward God is one of deep reverence (what the Hebrew calls “the fear of the Lord”).

So what is it about God that we revere? Of course there are the “qualities” that we read about like omniscience and almightiness. But look at what God is doing here. God sees… God knows… God is concerned… God has come. God’s compassion and action for oppressed people inspire our reverent awe.

What follows is a dialogue between Moses and God that is among the most memorable in the Bible. Moses asks questions and God answers. Moses’ hesitation about the task God is calling him to do is palpable. But Moses becomes for us one of scripture’s most powerful examples that if you want to know God, you have to go with God.

The concept of “personal conversion” has a precedent in scripture, but combined with the staunch individualism of our culture it can lead to a “personal religion” that is indifferent about the state of the world. But Pastor Aaron put it best when he said “Salvation is a full contact sport.”

For reflection:
– Think back: have you ever experienced a sense of “calling?” Would you say it was God calling you? If not, where did the calling come from?
– Tell the story: If you have had an experience of calling, what was it?
– Look forward: Are you in a season of change? In what way might God be calling you now?

Blessings,
MM


Moses: By Faith

Our Lent series on repentance led us to Easter, where Jesus’ resurrection promises the forgiveness of sins, but also the believer’s entry into an entirely new world. So it’s fitting now to begin a new teaching series on Moses, who is perhaps most famous for his role in leading the Hebrews to a new land.

The New Testament book called “Hebrews” helps Christians understand our faith in the much, much broader context of the stories of “the ancients” — our predecessors in faith. In particular, Hebrews 11:23-29 recounts some of the most memorable moments of Moses’ life of faith. But many of us have not taken much time to consider what the ancients have to teach us. Rather, the modern mindset is often reversed, beholden to the assumption that what is younger and newer has more to offer than what is older and time-tested. This reversal of logic is fed by the ubiquitous consumerism in which we live, which preaches that it’s our right to have our unique needs met, and it’s our right to have whatever is new and updated.

Still, we know what it means to recognize the impact of those who have gone before us — those who had to live by faith in a future they would never see. Consider the experience of looking through an old family photo album. These aren’t just people in weird clothes or with odd hairstyles. You’re looking into the eyes of our mothers and fathers, our recent ancestors who were then experiencing as much uncertainty (or more) as we are now. Reading stories of the ancients is like looking at the family photo album of our faith. And Moses is in a lot of the photos.

Moses’ faith was so influential that he is one of only two people who lived during the Old Testament period and then also appear in the New Testament, when Jesus meets with him and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. Moses’ faith was so influential that Jewish people to this day retell the story of the exodus from Egypt, which Moses led under God, during Passover. Moses’ faith was so influential that it helped him persevere being hotly pursued by the most powerful army in the world. Moses’ faith was so influential that thousands were saved from bondage, thousands would come to know themselves as God’s people, and eventually through Christ countless billions through the centuries would become adopted daughters and sons of the most high God and be set free from the bondage of sin and death.

And ironically, Moses didn’t even physically make it to the land God promised his people.

For the next 17 weeks, we’re going to journey with Moses. We’re going to see what his story can tell us about our own stories, how his faith sets the stage for our faith, and how his life became the archetype for Jesus, who is the “pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

For reflection:
– Can you think of something an ancestor of yours did that you still benefit from? (Example: a great-grandparent that immigrated to the U.S.)
– Can you think of something you are doing now that is setting the stage for a future you may never see?
– When you think of Moses, what are the first things that come to mind?
– When you think of Moses, does anything distasteful or unpleasant come to mind?
– What does it mean to you, to “live by faith?”

Many blessings,
MM

A Remembering Community

Paul’s instruction about taking the Lord’s Supper

“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you…”

With these words, Paul is explaining to the early Christians in Corinth something of primary importance for life and faith: the Lord’s supper.

The Hebrew context here is crucial.  Jesus didn’t choose his elements at random.  He ordained this sacramental meal for the Church from that time until today in the context of Covenant.

Through the history of God’s people recorded across the entire biblical narrative, a pattern emerges.  God makes promises.  And people fail to remember (see Hosea 11:1-2 for how God perceives our forgetfulness).

It is no wonder then that when Jesus introduced the bread and the cup as the new covenant in his body and blood, he commanded that we “Remember.”

Of course, remembering that for which Jesus died — the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God — also (ironically) means we can forget.  We can forget the sins that so easily ensnare, and celebrate the liberation Christ won for us!  After all, God in his omniscience is described as effectively “forgetting” that which has led us astray and embracing us, whom he loves so dearly (see the story of the lost son for a powerful image of this).

We come together as the Christ-community and express his love in many ways:  worship, song, prayer, learning, serving, laughing, crying.  When we gather as the Christ-community, we enact that for which the Lord’s Supper stands.  We are doing this in remembrance of Him.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever experienced the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist)?  What was your experience like?
  2. Have you ever forgotten something that you knew you should have remembered?
  3. When someone in our close community forgets something important (like a birthday) what is that experience like?  Why?
  4. Some people think ceremony or tradition is superficial or unnecessary in a  community.  But Jesus clearly knew that ceremony was essential.  What do you think?
  5. What intentional steps can you take this week to “Remember” Jesus’ good news each day?

Many blessings,

MM

The Story of the Covenant

Deuteronomy 6:20-25

It’s interesting how knowing more about our past informs our present, and even our future.  When I was in high school, I didn’t understand why the study of history was interesting; it seemed like a bunch of irrelevant black-and-white photos and phrases like “Federal Judiciary Act of 1789.”  Ugh.

Thankfully, I later learned more about how history impacts the present, and that intersection is really where knowing our history becomes not only interesting or relevant, but crucially important to our identity and future.

And Moses knew this.

That’s why he commanded the budding nation of Israel to never forget who they were.  As J.A. Thompson notes: “The original covenant [with Moses at Mt. Sinai]…was not simply an event of the past which concerned Israel’s ancestors only, but was the concern of Israel in every age.  The original Israel held within it all later Israelites.”*

What’s interesting is that, anticipating the need to “pass the baton” of nationhood from one generation to the next, Moses gave instruction about how to explain the “stipulations, decrees and laws” of the people.  The answer: Learn our story.  Tell our story.  

The connection between ancient Israelites and today’s worldwide community of Christians is, of course, Jesus Christ.  Jesus fulfilled the original covenant, and thus established a new covenant in himself, rather than in the Law.  Those who are in Christ therefore also share in the story of the covenant people, all the way from the beginning.

For reflection:

  1. What are some of the stories from your personal life that still inform who you are today?
  2. What do already know about the Bible and the story it tells?
  3. What do you still need to learn about the Bible?
  4. Learning and telling the story of our faith is always done better in COMMUNITY.  Are you connected to “Group Life” at UPPC?

 

 

 

 


*J.A. Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008) 128.

Between Two Fires

There are two things every human being needs:

Belonging and Purpose.

In John 21:7-17, after having denied even knowing Jesus only a few nights beforehand, a despondent Peter goes fishing with a few friends.  And because of the overflowing grace of Jesus, Peter and his friends are stunned to experience Jesus, now alive in his resurrected glory, cooking breakfast for them on the shore.

What follows is one of history’s most…awkward exchanges.  Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  (Note: if you have to be asked three times, you must not be showing the love too well.)  Of course, these three times echo the three times Peter had denied Jesus just a few nights earlier.  Jesus is reinstating Peter as an apostle.

Jesus is taking a dead relationship and resurrecting it, by giving Peter a renewed sense of belonging and purpose.

Even in this moment, Peter must have felt like a fraud.  He knew what he had done, and how he had failed.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, we should all feel like frauds to some extent.  All have fallen short of the glory of God, Paul reminds us, so we rely on the grace of God for giving us a seat at his table.  Because of Jesus, we know we belong.

But belonging is just the beginning.  Belonging exists to strengthen and empower one’s purpose.  One doesn’t belong on the football team just to talk about football, or on the fire department just to watch movies about fires.  Jesus gives Peter his purpose: “Feed my sheep.”  Because of Jesus, we know we have purpose.

For reflection:

  1. Where do you find a sense of belonging and purpose?
  2. Do you see yourself as having the ability to help other people find belonging?
  3. What role can you play in helping others find purpose?
  4. The apostles catch 153 fish — far more than they needed in that moment.  What does that tell you about God’s plans for the world?

Blessings,

MM

 

 

 

God’s Timing is Perfect

Luke 19:1-10

The life we are living is a gift.  Even though life has its “ups and downs,” even the chance we have to experience life had to have been initiated as a gift long before we could have understood it or contributed to it.

And there is a narrative arc that extends from before you were born until this moment, and what links that narrative together is Grace.

The grace of God is manifest to us in three ways, the first of which is known as “Prevenient Grace.”  It refers to the ways God was at work in our lives before we could have had an awareness of him.  We might see that grace as we look back in reflection, but at the moment we couldn’t have recognized it.

In the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector was eager to get a glimpse of Jesus.  But what led him to that state of mind?  How did he feel when he realized that Jesus already knew who he was and had plans for him before they even met?

For reflection:

  1. Can you link 3-5 events in your life story together to see how they led you to where you are today?
  2. Life can be really tough; can you see the work of God’s grace in your story even in the most difficult chapters?
  3. If your story is one of God’s grace, what can you infer about the lives of others you know?  What about strangers?  Enemies?
  4. If God has been at work throughout your life, what does that mean about your present?  Your future?

Stories are meant to be shared — if you’d like to share some of your story, you’re welcome to in the comments!

Many blessings,

Mike