Blessed Are the Meek

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”. - Matthew 5:5

When we first began this sermon series on the opening to the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, this verse stood out to me. In the introduction sermon, I admitted that I don’t get how meek can be something God calls blessed. After the sermon, a friend of mine came up to me and agreed. 

“I’m not sure how it is possible to make that one make sense,” he confided. 

So much of our lives seem to be fighting for the opposite of meekness. We strive for respect, safety, power, and the right to a voice. Weakness and passivity are the road to failure in business, in relationships, in parenting, in self-esteem, in just about everything.

But what if meekness was not about lack of respect, safety, power, or voice? What if meekness was simply the absence of fighting for these things? What if the meek that are blessed are those who do not need to fight because they trust their blessedness… their inheritance is in God’s hands?

All the sudden, meekness is not to be avoided. It is the life where there is freedom from the need to control or prove things. It is the life of freedom to partner with God. The meek are not worried about grabbing their part of the earth because they are already assured of their inheritance of the whole thing in God. The meek are free and flexible to find and pursue God each step of the way.

Put that way, the meek in Christ are among the most blessed.

Jesus, we confess the ways we are bent toward pride and power and greed as ways of being secure. These words on meekness challenge the very core of this. Help us to begin to see the ways that we are already secure in you. Thus freed, show us how to be both blessed and a blessing in the freedom of meekness. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."  - Matthew 5:4

Knowing Jesus should make you cry more often. That is not always what we expect. Instead, we expect that Jesus will give us joy (John 15:11) and wipe the tears from our eyes (Rev. 21:4). We prefer those promises because we don’t particularly like crying.

But here’s the thing, when we come to know Jesus, we get a glimpse of love, grace, righteousness, and peace. Knowing these things means that we also recognize their absence in our world. So, when we witness oppression or hunger or abuse or even death, we are aware that it doesn’t have to be this way. The only proper response to this is to grieve as we look to Jesus in prayer. The good news is that in the midst of our grief we are given hope because we already know the love, grace, righteousness, and peace of Jesus. So, we are comforted.

But there is still more reason to cry. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul tells us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). In essence he is telling us not to hoard the comfort of Jesus to ourselves. Instead, we are to recognize that the places we see brokenness around us, we are to join in. We are to come alongside of the people around us. Our tears and our prayers bring to them the comfort of Christ.

So, do not be afraid to weep. Allow your tears to bear the comfort of Christ.

Dear Jesus, open our eyes to the world around us. Let our hearts be broken by the lack of your touch. Let our tears bear your comfort both to our own soul and to those of others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

Blessed Are the Poor

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” - Luke 6:20

There are a great number of people in our world who are ambitious for money. If you are not one of these, there is still a great likelihood that you afraid of poverty. I am convinced that more of us are driven by fear than by ambition. But either way, this verse today will challenge us.

In this opening statement in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares the place of our fear to be the place of blessing. Resist the urge to rationalize this away. Allow yourself to sit in the tension of these words.

I do not believe that Jesus commands those who follow him to be poor. I do not believe that Jesus values poverty above any other station. I do not believe that Jesus is telling us to become what we fear. But I do believe that Jesus’ intention is to transform our relationship with poverty… and with wealth.

Poverty is not to be feared because of Jesus. Because Jesus is, the poor are blessed with the kingdom of God. Those who have nothing else to cling to will find Jesus ready to invest his kingdom in them.

When we look at the poverty around us, let us look for the blessing of God’s Presence. Each person who has bottomed out, who is unable to provide for themselves, who has come to the end of their productivity, who has no power and no financial ability, whose opportunities are squandered or stolen… each of these is infinitely valued by Jesus. He chooses to invest his kingdom in these. Let us discover this and rejoice. Let us partner with the kingdom of God.

When we recognize the places that we are living from ambition or fear, let us begin to recognize the ways we cling to our self-sufficiency, our bounded safety, our justification and rationalization of our station, and how these things close us to the kingdom of God.

Hear once more these words of Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus’ intention is to bless. Poverty of spirit and poverty of bank account open both our eyes to our need and our hands to the provision of God. Jesus’ blessing is to invite us to no longer live by ambition or by fear, but rather by the secure investment of God’s kingdom in us.

Jesus, your blessings are sufficient to free me from all of my fears. Your kingdom is worthier than all of my ambitions. Bless me this day with poverty that is met by your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Keenan Barberblessings, poor
Fingerprints of God

12   As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. - Colossians 3:12

The other day, I had coffee with a dear and valuable member of my church. The time together provided me the opportunity to point out the ways I had witnessed compassion and kindness in him that, in my estimation, wasn’t human. I told him that I was taking what I saw as evidence that the Holy Spirit was finding a willing partner in him.

My hope in the conversation was twofold. First, I simply wanted to share how excited I was at being able to witness God reflected in him. Second, I was hoping to encourage him on the off chance that he wasn’t aware.

It is far too often we Christians aren’t aware of the ways God pours into and through us. We have a hard time believing that we, as Paul says in our text, are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” But we are. And this is not because of how compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient we can be. This is true because God chose us in Jesus. Period. God chose us even when we were anything but compassionate, kind, humble, meek, or patient.

Then a crazy thing starts to happen when we become aware of that chosen-ness. A fantastic thing begins to happen when we believe that we are beloved. We learn to live from that relationship. We live like we are part of who God is and what God is doing. We clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Often, that starts pretty small… so small that, maybe, no one notices. But it shapes us as willing partners with the God who continues to choose us… pours his love into us. Thus shaped, we clothe ourselves a bit more… shaping us more… clothing us more until we find people over coffee remarking about the ways they see God’s fingerprints all over us.

I like those kinds of coffees. I am in awe of the way that God choses and clothes his people… even people like us.

Jesus, open our eyes today to know your great love for us. Help us to believe that you have chosen to pour the fullness of yourself into us. Inspire us to partner with you by clothing ourselves for the relationship. May our lives slowly begin to testify to You with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.

 

Keenan BarberGod, Holy Spirit
The God Hypothesis

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. - Luke 19:41-42

Many years ago, a German theologian noted a trend where people did not need what he called the “God Hypothesis” to explain things or to meet their needs. Instead of looking to God, they found their strength, boundaries, and understanding for life elsewhere.

There are a number of benefits to living this way. If we live as if God doesn’t matter, then we don’t have to abide by any expectations God might have upon us. We are free to pursue what we want, how we want, and without worry about any outside definition of what we should want. Theoretically, we don’t have to feel guilty (at least not for ways we damage relationship with God… guilt from our relationships with other people is a bit harder to shake). And it is a heck of a lot easier to communicate with other people who don’t expect God to be part of things. On the surface it sounds very freeing.

At the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus points out the downside to this “freedom.” People who don’t see Jesus miss the peace that Jesus brings.

I do not write this so that we can feel morally superior to an atheistic strawman (or even someone who is very real that you may know). I write this because all too often, we who believe in Jesus live practically as if God doesn’t matter. We do not look for God in our work. We do not look for Jesus in our entertainment. We do not expect the Holy Spirit to have any real practical influence on our daily lives. We certainly do not expect to find Jesus on a donkey riding into town. Is it possible that we also miss the things that make for peace?

So, what do we do? Let us be people who look for Jesus. Let us be people who begin to ask God to open our eyes to recognize where God is present in our work, in our entertainment, in our relationships, and in our daily lives. Let us be people who begin to take note and recognize and experience the ways Jesus brings peace.

Jesus, we confess the ways we get caught up in things and find ourselves in a place where you are “hidden from our eyes.” We desire to be people who know your peace. Will you help us to see this day the places you are with us? Help us to begin to recognize your presence, your guidance, and your peace. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Wisdom for Trials

2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. - James 1:2-4

This advice given to us by James, the brother of Jesus, makes a lot of sense. We learn in life. Our faith grows as we successfully face trials. I have heard it said that the difference between head knowledge and life knowledge is that life knowledge is head knowledge that passes through our hands. The information about our faith only becomes ours when we experience it to be true in life. So of course, the trials we face are opportunities to bring us to maturity in faith, lacking nothing.

Even though that makes a whole lot of sense, we are more often surprised when we come to times of trial. Instead of facing trials with joy so that our faith will be proven, we assume the fact that there is a trial is proof that faith does not work. “Shouldn’t God protect us from all of that?” we wonder instead. We find that we are all too easily swamped… that our hands seem to fumble with the opportunities to hold our faith in our trials.

That is why the next thing that James says is so important. He writes, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” If any of you are fumbling with it, having a hard time applying it, questioning why you have to do it, or just downright not understanding, here is what you do: ask God for wisdom. Ask God to help us with this application process, this maturing process, this filling process, this understanding process, this going through trials of any kind to find ourselves complete, lacking in nothing.

If you are anything like me, you could use a prayer for wisdom. So whether that is within a specific situation you are facing or just a general need to ask God for help, let’s pray:

Jesus, we confess the ways we need help. We know that you have promised to give wisdom to us when we ask. So, we ask for wisdom in this moment. We ask for wisdom to see and understand and experience faith passing through our hands in life in the particular situations we are struggling with (here is a good place to name those). We also ask for wisdom for the rest of the trials we will face today.

 

Garden of Gethsemane

9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. - Colossians 1:9-10

I often have conversations with people who are wrestling with their faith. Several times, I have wanted so badly to believe for them. I wanted to tell them, “It is true! I know you are having a hard time believing it, right now. So, let me believe for you… attach yourself to my belief and I will carry you through!”

But faith does not work that way. At some point, each person must come to the place of belief on their own. At some point, each person must wrestle until they come to the place of trusting God’s will… of praying, “Thy will be done.” (Matt. 26:39, 42)

This last weekend, we witnessed this in the life of Jesus. Jesus never wavered in his belief in God, but he wrestled with what this meant for his life. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed about the things he knew he was walking into because of his obedience. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matt. 26:39, 42)

Jesus was not alone in the garden. His disciples were with him. But he left them a short distance away. This time of wrestling was something he needed to do alone. So, too, do we each come to times where we must wrestle with our faith or the ways it directs us. We cannot spare another person that wrestling.

But Jesus’ disciples were not without a role to play in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked them to stand watch and support him. He asked them to pray as he wrestled. In this way, he was not alone. In this way, none of us need to be alone. We cannot walk the road of faith for people, but we can pray and stand with them so that they know they are not alone.

As you wrestle in life, find people who will pray for you! Then become such a person for others. Become a person who prays that those around you “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” (Col. 1:10) Together, we will be able to believe and pray, “Lord, let your will be done in my life.”

Jesus, we ask that you fill us with the knowledge of your will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. We also ask that you help us to be people who stand alongside of and pray for those around us. In this way, let us become those who live from a place of vibrant faith and witness. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

A Mountaintop Experience

1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. - Matthew 17:1-8

In 1996, I was invited to be a leader on the high school mission trip to Ensenada, Mexico. I had no idea what to expect. I knew we’d be sleeping in tents alongside some 1,000 other high school kids and that we would be working in a small village leading Vacation Bible School – but beyond that I was not too sure what the week would look like. As the week came to a close, and the group participated in a debrief of the week’s activities, I found myself on cloud nine. It was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life.

We began the day with 1,000 voices singing worship songs and being inspired by a great speaker. Then we headed out to our little village of Villa Zapata and played with kids all day, sharing food and the word of God with them. We laughed and cried. We worked hard and we played hard. And at the end of the day, there was more worship music and yet another shared message. It was God from all sides.

To be honest, I didn’t want to leave. My life at home was nothing like this. I was working for Countrywide Home Loans at the time, and my work day was not particularly spiritually fulfilling. I had never experienced God in such a consistent and powerful way as I had in the dirt of Ensenada. Why would I want to go anywhere else? This was it. I should move here. I should never leave. I’ll set up my tent and just serve the kids of Mexico the rest of my days. It was never going to get any better than this.

When Peter is on the mountain with Jesus, he has an extraordinary God encounter – so powerful that he suggests to Jesus that he will build booths (tents or some kind of temporary housing) so that they can stay there on the mountaintop. But Jesus is pretty clear that he doesn’t see the top of the mountain as the final destination. Jesus has brought these three disciples here to have a very unique experience with God, to hear the voice of God – and then it’s time to come back off the mountain to continue the work that Jesus has called them to.

How have your mountaintop experiences shaped you? Once you were there, did you want to stay there? Do you find yourself trying to recreate those same experiences rather than allowing God to take you to new mountaintops? And when you’re with Jesus, do you do more talking or more listening? “While Peter was still talking….” Jesus has a desire to reveal more, and God’s voice has to interrupt Peter’s talking in order that he can he heard. Do you talk over God? The voice that comes says – “Listen to him” (Jesus). Are you listening? by Keenan Barber

Prayer – As the season of Lent begins, I pray that you would find time to listen to Jesus and from that time of listening, grow closer to Him and hear his voice more clearly. 

Gospel Inheritance

11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. - Ephesians 1:11-12

We tend to think in terms of money and buying power when we think about inheritance. Often that is how an inheritance is quantified. But, then again, we tend to quantify most things that way. There is a part of inheritance that resists this pull.

A friend of mine graduated college and stepped into an inheritance in his family’s business. While this was a lucrative inheritance, it was also a call upon his life. He was invited into a way of life, an ethic, and a mission that had been his family’s for generations.

In our text, the apostle Paul likens the gospel to an inheritance. In many ways, our inheritance in Christ provides us with purchasing power in life. We find that God provides us with the wherewithal to move through both good and bad times with grace and goodness beyond our capabilities.

But it is also an inheritance that invites us into a way of life. We find that we are part of the family business of love, peace, and redemption in Christ. We are invited into a life that results in “the praise of his glory.” The inheritance of Jesus is to be invited into life that takes part in the glory of God.

Jesus, we confess the ways that we get caught up in so many other narratives in life. We need reminding that our inheritance is to be part of your glory on this earth. Teach us to set our hope in Christ that we might live for the praise of his glory this day at work, at home, in the car, in relationships, in silence, and each step of the way. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Gospel Love in Forgiveness

7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. - Ephesians 1:7-8

 

I often get the sense that there is a growing reluctance to repent. I am not sure if that is a cultural thing or just a thing that is growing in people around me. People work hard to hide, deny, or shift the blame for any brokenness or dysfunction in their lives. I get it. Life is hard enough as is without having to face the shame or guilt from our deficiencies.

Naturally, this creates a bit of tension when it comes to faith. The line from the church for too long has been driven by a perspective of an angry God looking to punish. I’m not sure if that really is anyone’s perspective. But a lot of people assume it is part of the package.

Not long ago, I got the sense that more was going on with God than anger at sin. For one, I became convinced that repentance is a relational thing with God more than a transactional thing. What I mean by that is that it is not like wart removal where God is just trying to zap as many blemishes as quickly and efficiently as possible. Rather, he knows us. It is part of his desire to be known by us better.

That is when this verse started to reframe things for me. It begins as we would expect. There is a connection between repentance and Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It is costly because it is important. It opens the way for forgiveness. But then there is this part about “the riches of his grace” and lavishing upon us. That doesn’t sound like God effectively and efficiently taking care of a problem. One does not lavish payment on a debt.

I began to wonder if God isn’t doing something else here… telling us something else. God is making a show of forgiveness. God is being lavish because our repentance is an opportunity for us to discover just how extravagant his love is for us. Perhaps it is our best opportunity to come to know the God who is not afraid to step into the darkest valleys to comfort and protect, to bring us to a place of wholeness in him.

So, maybe, just maybe, our reluctance to repent denies God the opportunity to do the thing he most desires to do. God wants to lavish upon us his love and grace. What better place to do it than where we are afraid we are least deserving.

Jesus, sometimes it is hard to believe the extent of your patience, your grace, and your love. I confess the ways I hide the worst of me from you for fear that you will not love me. Show me now the lavishness of your grace and love for me that I might believe not only for me but for the world. In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord

17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. - Ephesians 1:17-19

 

Each Martin Luther King Jr day, I spend a bit of time considering where I come from. I come from good, honorable, and Christian people. But I am very aware that my ancestors who were contemporaries with Dr. King did not see things the way he did.

I can remember speaking to a family member who is now in his late seventies. He told me that he remembers different drinking fountains and bathrooms and seating for whites and for blacks. As he spoke to me, I could see the sadness in his eyes. He tried to explain that he had no idea how wrong it was at the time. It was just the way things were.

That story is a stark reminder to me that we don’t always see things clearly. Clear vision is not something we are born with. Clear vision comes as we come to know Jesus. That is why Paul prayed for us the prayer from our text for today. That is why we are encouraged to pray these Scriptures for ourselves and our world.

Let us pray together Paul’s prayer that the eyes of our heart will be enlightened. Let us know the hope to which we have been called. Let us discover the glorious inheritance of being sons and daughters of God. Let us move in the immeasurable greatness of his power for us. This that we might clearly see and clearly work in our world in the love, peace, and power of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus, open the eyes of our hearts to begin to see ourselves the way that you see us. Confront the many untruths that we have believed about ourselves. Free us into our glorious inheritance in you. In the same way, help us to see our world through your eyes. Reveal the places where we need to confess and be reconciled to one another. Show us the places we need to correct the injustices we have not recognized. Make a way for us to live in your power toward your good purposes for all of creation. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Merry Christmas!

7 On each one of us God's favour has been bestowed in whatever way Christ allotted it. -Ephesians 4:7

Merry Christmas! As one of three boys, I remember Christmas morning always had a bit of competitiveness to it. I would excitedly open my gifts while keeping a running count of the number and quality of gifts my brothers received in comparison to my own. I used Christmas as an unofficial referendum upon my parents’ love.

As I read this verse during the Christmas season, I found myself wondering if I do the same counting in life. Do I measure the gifts that others receive as if they are a measure of God’s favor? Does this outlook make Christmas another unofficial referendum, but this time on God’s love for me and my family?

Just speaking those questions aloud steal their power. That is not the way God’s favor works. Our text this morning contends that God bestows his favor in the way that Jesus allots it. This allotment is not done competitively with a limited supply of love. Rather it is done with an awareness of the ways he binds us in one. Together we are bound together in and filled with Christ’s love to bring glory to God’s name.

As with every Scriptural truth, the blessing is not in rational understanding but in spiritual transformation. Here are the steps to allowing that recognition to transform us. First, let us allow the magnificence that God bestows his favor upon us to humble us in thanksgiving. That is enough. Second, let us confess the ways we measure and set up referendums in our competitiveness. Tell God that we are satisfied to be part of his favor! Finally, we must ask God to help us live in this new freedom in ways that glory his name, build his Kingdom, and bless the people he has created and loves.

Let us stop counting gifs this Christmas! Instead, let us rest in his favor given to us, for us, and for the world. Thus, we can gladly say, “Merry Christmas!”

Jesus, thank you for choosing me as the recipient of your favor! I am humbled and upon bended knee I declare that I trust you. Teach me to live in your favor in ways that bless you, bless the Church, and bless the world around me! In Jesus’ name, amen. 

The Choice to Magnify

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… - Luke 1:78-79


And thus begins the most famous response to Christmas in the gospel of Luke. When Mary finally comes to grips with the weight and certainty of the angel Gabriel’s message, she rejoices. While this was an appropriate response to being told she would be pregnant as the mother of Jesus, God in human form, it was not the only possible response.

The timing and the order of this pregnancy was not the way that Mary would have preferred it. Starting a family is a difficult decision for most people. They worry about whether their income can support the new expense. They worry about the ways the demands of the new baby will affect their career, their social life, and their relationships. Mary was betrothed but not yet fully married to Joseph. Their finances and career and social life and relationship with each other were not yet where they needed to be.

Surely, Mary had an equal opportunity to lament… to worry… to be afraid…. She had to look past all of these options to recognize the threads of promise, the fingerprints of God, and the whispers of hope. Mary chose to magnify her hope in God rather than her fear. She grabbed hold of God’s hand and chose to magnify the Lord.

This choice is the gift of Christmas. Not only has Jesus broken into Mary’s life, but he has been offered to each one of us as a friend, a savior, and a Lord. If truth be told, we don’t always feel ready for the ways this will turn our lives upside down. The worry, fear, and lament of this is often enough to drive good people from committing to know Jesus. But we are also given the opportunity to walk the way of Mary. We can begin to recognize the evidence of hope that God gives to us, grab hold of it, and magnify it as we join Mary in singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!”

Jesus, this Christmas, we thank you for the testimony of Mary. We thank you for her boldness from a precarious place to seek deeply to see you, to trust you, and to live from you. Grant us the courage to boldly grab hold of the grace, the love, and the friendship of Jesus. Help us to choose to doubt our doubts and believe. Let us magnify the Lord this Christmas! In Jesus name, amen.

Christmas Comes

78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ - Luke 1:78-79

Prophets played an important role in the times of Scripture. They had a way of cutting through all that was going on around them and pointing out where God was at work. We human beings, we need that. We need it because we get used to our routines and sight lines in life. We develop our ways of viewing the world that accommodates everything we think we know and think we need.

Every once in a while, we need a prophet to step in our way to help us to see what we haven’t been seeing.

In our text, the realities of life did not seem difficult to interpret. The daily life of the common person was still defined by oppression. The story of two babies being born didn’t seem to change anything. One was a baby born to an old Jewish couple (John the Baptist’s parents). The other was a young couple whose pregnancy and marriage may have been a bit out of the traditional order of things. There didn’t seem to be anything remarkable here.

But there was. Sometimes it takes a prophet to help us to see. These births were anything but ordinary. That young couple, Mary and Joseph, would bear into this world no ordinary baby. God was on the move. Humanity was being invaded by the tender mercy of God. It would flood over them like the breaking of dawn. The darkness and shadow of death that for so long had taken up residence in our expectation would be washed away in the light of Christmas.

So, Christmas is near. We know because of the Christmas music, gifts, decorations, parties, and all that we have come to expect. But let us also lift our eyes to see. Let us keep the words of the prophet in our ears so that we can recognize what is happening. In Christmas, “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high breaks upon us, to give light to we who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

Dear Jesus, Christmas is near. Prepare our hearts for the opportunities to rejoice and give and love. In the midst of all that we expect from the season, lift our eyes to see You. Let us know your mercy and your peace. Free us from the darkness and the shadow of death so that we can walk in the way of your peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thanksgiving Freedom

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  - Galatians 5:1

There are a whole lot of things that we typically associate with slavery. We think of oppressive relationships. We think of economic systems. We think of exploitation. Surely, the apostle Paul would have us stand against things like this. But in this passage, that isn’t what he is talking about. In this passage, he is talking about the Bible… or rather, how people he knew were misusing the Bible.

When Paul wrote this text, certain people tried to convince other Christians they needed to obey the rules in the Bible perfectly. Their basic idea was that if you are good enough, God would approve. If you didn’t follow the rules, God wouldn’t approve.

Now, Paul hated this line of thinking. He felt it cuts people off from the grace of Jesus. He equated living in a way that relies upon our own effort to slavery. Jesus came to free us from that slavery!

Paul wants us to live from our relationship with God instead. He writes, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Perhaps living in faith and hope in the Holy Spirit is even more important than being good all of the time. Even if someone could perfectly follow the rules, it would be like having a son or daughter who learned to live perfectly from a book or list of rules. They might put together a great resume, but their Heavenly Father would miss the opportunity to intimately be part of it all. 

The best way to learn to live for God is in relationship. We pray and read the Scripture to learn to love like God loves. As we experience God’s Presence and grace, we are shaped by that love. In this text, Paul will eventually say that this is the way that the rules get obeyed in the way they were meant to be obeyed.

So, if your inability to toe the line keeps you from prayer. If you have guilt or shame that you just can’t shake. If you can’t seem to quite pull off being a good Christian, relax. Jesus has set you free from those things. Use that freedom to love God and be loved by him. That is really the only way to grow in the character and depth of your heavenly Father any way.

Dear Jesus, thank you that this Christian way is a way that leans into you. Thank you that you forgive and pick me up as readily as I need. Thank you that you love me. Please shape me by that love so I might live fully the freedom you give me. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Broken World, Glorify God

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. - 1 Corinthians 10:31

 

Many years ago, a friend of mine asked me who I thought the greatest Christian of all time was. I remember thinking about it for a few moments, slowly picturing than discarding so many of the names of the giants of the church. Eventually, I replied, “I bet it was some un-named farmer at some point in human history who would pray and love God each day as she ploughed her field or tended his livestock.”

I don’t know why I replied that way so many years ago. But I still hold to that answer.

So often, we imagine that Jesus is hungry for us to do great things for him. We assume that God is too important or lofty to consider the common things of our lives. But this text from the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians pushes us to consider Christ in our everyday. The choices we make in faith are opportunities for us to be part of nothing less than the glory of God.

Is it possible to plough a furrow to God’s glory? How about close a business deal… or eat a meal with family or friends? How about changing a baby’s diaper?

The beauty of this verse is that it is not speculative but inviting. It invites each one of us to try it with whatever is closest at hand. Are you about to drive home from work? Try to make your way in traffic with your heart set upon God being glorified. Try speaking with the people you pass in the office or on the phone as if the weight of glory was in the air.

If we do, we will find that the default patterns of selfishness or anxiety are crowded out. We may find our plans more interruptible but we will also discover the grace and presence of God in every square inch of our lives.

Don’t be disappointed if you can’t sustain the effort. Over time, little efforts will turn to habits which will be filled with a way of life that knows God always and everywhere. But great things with God always begin here and now in that thing that is as common as everything.

Jesus, thank you for your intimate love for us. We bless you that you whisper eternity into our every breath. Help us to take up your invitation to live in glory. Help us to do it this moment, today. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Broken World Love

…we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. - 1 Corinthians 8:1-3

I had a discussion with two church members about one of the divisive or hot topics of the day. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the topic was. Think of the one that gets you most riled up or most sends your friends into indignation. Got it? Pretend that’s the one.

The two church members disagreed about the issue.  To their credit, they disagreed very respectfully. But they still disagreed so they asked me where I came down on the issue.  I decided to sidestep the question and exit the conversation as gracefully as possible. In retrospect, I think I avoided the argument because I still wasn’t sure that it mattered where I came down on the issue until I could figure out how I would come down.

This Sunday, we looked at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he addressed one of the hot topics of his day. The first thing he said about it was, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Before giving an answer as to where he came down on the issue, Paul wanted to make sure that the Corinthians knew how they came down mattered most.

When we move in knowledge alone, even if we are right, we move with the temptation to lift ourselves and lower others. “We value truth and justice,” we tell ourselves.  Maybe we do.  But justice and truth are not best served by knowledge that puffs up.  They are best served by love that builds up.  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing are the fruit of love.

So, I have been trying to figure out how to engage in the polarizing issues of the day in love. I am trying to be sad rather than mad.  I am trying to avoid pointing out other people’s faults and instead listen to their pain. I am trying to love. And it is in the loving that God is most clearly known through me.

Jesus, we thank you for the ways you love us no matter where we stand. We thank you for your grace that reconnects and forgives. We want to be people who move in your love. Help us to engage with even the difficult things of our world in ways that build up the people around us. This… so that we might be part of the healing, grace, and love you offer to us all. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

Keenan BarberMonday Message
Christ Undivided

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? - 1 Corinthians 1:10-13

The truth is that churches are broken. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because Christians are broken people. Usually, it is when Christians don’t think they are broken that churches manifest brokenness most clearly.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul is writing to a broken church. Ultimately, the brokenness of the church is alright. When Christians are aware of their brokenness they tend to rely upon God. Paul tells us that God “is the source of our life in Christ, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption….” (1 Cor. 1:30). That is a pretty good place to be: broken and filled with the life of Christ.

The problem for most churches comes when we notice other people’s brokenness and not our own. Apparently, that was happening in Corinth. The members of the church were segregating into factions. One might follow Apollos with the implicit idea that those who do not follow Apollos are missing out. Now, you probably don’t know much about Apollos or Cephas or how they differ from Paul. So, rarely will you find Christians today saying they belong to Apollos.

The problem is that doesn’t always mean we aren’t part of the factions shown in Corinth.

One faction in Corinth is very apparent in our churches. The apostle Paul says that a group in the church in Corinth said, “I belong to Christ.” That sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? It is a good thing if it is said in brokenness. The problem is that too often it is said with an awareness of other peoples’ brokenness rather than our own. So, the subtext is, “I belong to Christ but I’m not sure you do.”

When we disagree about a bit of theology or practice with someone, we are pretty quick to question if “those” people are really Christians at all. I guess it is plausible that “those people” might not be Christian. But the moment we make that a part of our own definition, then we are just part of the quarrels of a broken church… or, as Paul puts it, we are part of dividing Christ.

The answer for a broken church is the grace found in the cross of Jesus Christ. Grace in the cross for us and for them. When we say it like that, the “them” gets swallowed up in grace to become part of us. And, when that happens, the broken church is able to say, “We belong to Christ undivided.”

Jesus, thank you for your grace that has grasped me in your embrace and is making me whole. Thank you that your grace is meant not just for me but for every person around me. Show me how to be part of your embrace for a broken world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Jacob's Ladder

50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,* you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

John 1:50-51

This Sunday we explored the story we commonly call Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis 28. In the story, a guy named Jacob fell asleep under the night sky while on a long journey. God appeared to him in a dream and revealed a stairway between heaven and earth with angels going up and down.

The man awoke the next morning and was keenly aware that God had revealed Godself to him in his dream. He trembled with fear and declared that the place he slept was the gate of heaven!

When we follow his story from that moment, it is hard to see where his dream had a discernable impact upon his life. He was less than upstanding before the dream. He was less than upstanding after his dream.

None of that should surprise us. Many of us have had experiences like that. Perhaps it was not a dream of a stairway to heaven, but it was a moment where we were keenly aware of God’s love, forgiveness, guidance, or presence. Perhaps something in a sermon or a song or a sunset struck us deeply. For a moment, God and faith and us all seem to be clear and balanced.

The truth is that many of us have also walked away from experiences like that and not done much with them. Perhaps we have been buoyed for a bit and were thankful that God lifted us. But we were no less a scoundrel after than we were before.

In the gospel of John, Jesus pushes a guy named Nathanael to dive more deeply after such a moment experienced under a fig tree. He said, “That impressed you? You will see more than that if you use that to press closer to me. Let it affirm you not just to go about your business but to follow me. And if you do, you will see that heaven and earth are connected in me!”

There is no end to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus. Those moments are invitations to begin to see life through a lens of faith where we can be part of the stairway that connects heaven to us.

Dear Jesus, we long to know your touch to strengthen us for the journey. Perhaps that is only half of the story. We ask that you would also give us courage to allow your touch to define our journey. This, that we might be part of heaven being known here on earth. We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Being Worthy

13 Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ 15And he laid his hands on them and went on his way. - Matthew 19:13-15

We tend to love this text.  We think its sweet because we tend to be a culture that values our kids.  We are more likely to think too highly of them.  So discipline is hard for us.  We find ourselves more interested in the happiness of children than anything else.

We look at the disciples in our text and think: “What bullies!”

But, I’m not sure we are all that much better.  The disciples were operating in a culture which told them who was worthy of attention and who was not.  To the disciples, kids were not.

We may add children to our list of who is worthy, but usually that is children who fit our cultural expectations.  I know because I have been around Youth Sports for some time now.  We tend to love kids as long as they conform to a certain image.  We love a winner.  We love a well-dressed and well-behaved kid.  We are quick to shoot nasty looks at a family in a restaurant whose kid is having a meltdown.  I’ve been at Little League games where the parents literally groan when certain kids come to the plate. I’ve called out to my own daughter when she was more interested in the ants on the field than the soccer game she was playing in by saying: “You better be good at math!” (Subtext, soccer is not your path to college.)

Even our love of kids has cultural boundaries… we love success… we love power… we love well-behaved and clean.

Part of Jesus’ point is to let them all come to him – even the snotty nosed ones… the ones tantrum-ing on the ground… the colicky ones… the uncoordinated ones… the ones with special needs… the less than cute ones.

 

Jesus’ real point in this passage is that he wants us to approach like those kids. We aren’t to come in power or cuteness or put together-ness.  We are to come as if we bring nothing to the table.  We are to come as the kid who can’t hit and isn’t good at math… we are to come so that we can be loved, accepted, and embraced.

Jesus, thank you for loving us and making room for us at your side.  We confess the ways we see children and ourselves with the expectations of worthiness.  We ask that you show us your great love for us as we bring nothing to the table.  Then show us how to love others with the same fullness and grace.  In Jesus’ name, amen.