Hope. Always.


Readings: Psalms 90; 149, Amos 5:18-27, Jude 17-25, Matthew 22:15-22

Ever since the world began, people have been predicting its end. For many that “end” is not so much a final obliteration, as a renewal when the evil, violence, and injustice will be swept away to make room for something better. The prophet Amos speaks of the day when God will “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” When we read headlines and watch the news, don’t we long for the same?

We can react to adversity with despair or with hope. While we may naturally tend toward one or the other, it is ultimately a choice. In the midst of suffering hope may seem futile or naive, but it has real consequences. Repeated studies show that a positive attitude promotes healing from illness and surgery. On a fundamental level, hope is essential to survival; hunger, thirst, and fear may seem like negatives, but they are hard-wired into us with an assumption that we will continue to live.

Though hope is more than a belief in continued existence. Despair also assumes existence but resigns us to inaction and victimhood, where hope spurs us to positive action. Hope makes charity possible, because it allows for positive change. Without the promise of hope could we even contemplate mercy?

In an age when tragedy around the world is broadcast into our homes 24 hours a day in high definition, hope can be hard to maintain. The truth is that on the whole violence in the world has been decreasing steadily for decades. Data and statistics are not necessarily comforting in the face of immediate crisis, so how do we work (and it is intentional work) to maintain hope? Minister and children’s television host Fred Rogers famously quotes his mother who told him the best thing to do in times of disaster is “look for the helpers” – people who move toward a tragedy to improve the situation. While it seems counterintuitive, could the Kingdom actually be ushered in when we move nearer to tragedy, where we are also nearer to mercy and charity? That is the end we hope for.

Comfort: We are closer to the promises of the God’s Kingdom every day.

Challenge: You can’t help everyone, but somewhere nearby there is a tragic situation waiting for you to inject hope into it. Find it and act.

Prayer: Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:7)

Discussion: Is hope something that comes naturally to you?

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Hope Astutely


Readings: Psalms 102; 148, Amos 5:1-17, Jude 1-16, Matthew 22:1-14

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of volunteers arrived to help the residents of New Orleans recover. Among them were con artists who accepted large down payments for construction work then skipped town. Every year Americans with terminal and/or chronic diseases spend hundreds of millions of dollars on unproven and frequently dangerous “cures.” People who can barely afford to eat donate money they can’t afford to televangelists who teach a  fraudulent prosperity gospel. Politicians convince generation after generation to blame the latest wave of immigrants (Irish, Asians, Jews, Syrians, etc.) for societal ills because they know fear mongering is good campaign strategy.

When people are desperate or afraid, they are especially vulnerable to the false comforts of people who tell them what they want to hear. The author of Jude warned early Christians to be wary of people spreading false doctrine that taught self-glorification over submission to Christ: “These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” Today we don’t worry much about the religious orgies contemporary with Jude’s audience, but we should be wary of leaders who conflate secular concerns like capitalism (and other economic systems), democracy (and other government systems),  or nationalism (and other tribalist systems) with Christianity in order to exploit our fears and insecurities.

In the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus describes the wedding of a king’s son where many were invited but chose not to attend, and this lack of commitment resulted in their deaths as commanded by the king. The king’s slaves collected a second round of guests including everyone they found on the street, but even these guests were not all safe, “for many are called but few are chosen.” Those chosen few sought hard truths over a diluted and convenient message.

Our world can be scary. Our instincts can be base. Many will take advantage of that combination to spread beliefs that are not in our best spiritual interests. False comfort is the enemy of true hope. Let us be wise and make sure our hope is placed in Christ.

Comfort: We can identify true hope by comparing it to Christ’s example.

Challenge: Be wary of people who would exploit your faith for their own gain.

Prayer: I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (Psalm 16:8)

Discussion: Are there any parts of your life where your secular expectations are in conflict with your religious ones? If not … why not?

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Hope Realistically


Readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Amos 4:6-13, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 21:33-46

Wouldn’t it be nice if people of faith were assured peaceful, healthy, uncomplicated lives? Some preachers – mostly of the “send us your money to pray over” variety – claim disease and difficulty can be overcome by faith alone, and that adversity simply fills a void where faith is lacking. The prophet Amos, describing God’s attempts to use drought, famine, and plague to convince the people of Israel to return to him, would claim differently. The faithful and the wicked suffered the consequences of the wicked together. When the world experiences similar troubles today, whether we believe they are sent directly by God or the natural consequences of our own misguided actions, faith is not guaranteed to shield us.

In Jesus’s parable of the landowner, tenant farmers kill the blameless servants who have come to collect the agreed upon share of the harvest on behalf of their master the landowner. One might expect the aura of authority lent by their master would protect the servants, but it does not. One can find many parallels in our modern world, where Christians continue to be persecuted for their faith. From actual martyrdom and execution to depression, addiction, illness, and crime,,, our faith exempts us from none of it.

If we are not spared suffering, why have faith at all?

Faith is the source of hope. We believe in God’s eternal plan of justice and salvation, and trust our sufferings are finite. As part of a larger body, we know the suffering and even destruction of one part does not have to mean the death of the whole. We stand in the center of the wreckage and devastation – and sometimes the wreckage and devastation dwell in the center of us – but we do not allow them to define us. In the face of seemingly endless disaster, is there anything realistic about hope? There is if our hope is dependent not on this moment, but on the faith that the Kingdom of God will not be denied. The ailing body of humankind will be raised to true life again. A stumble is still a step forward.

Comfort: God is with us through suffering, whether or not it is of our own making.

Challenge: When others suffer, let’s offer support instead of empty words.

Prayer: Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me. (Psalm 17:8-9)

Discussion: Do you think there is anyone who hasn’t somehow caused someone else to suffer?

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Hope Cautiously


Readings: Psalms 24, 150; Amos 1:1-5, 1:13-2:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Luke 21:5-19

Advent is the season when we prepare for the arrival of Christ. This arrival has a dual nature, as we celebrate his birth and Bethlehem and anticipate his eventual return. Every year it is a cycle within a cycle.

The history of injustice similarly repeats itself. Ethnic tensions, disregard and abuse of the poor, corrupted court systems, war crimes, and other ills have existed throughout all of human history. Whether or not we like to admit it, no nation or people is immune. When the formerly oppressed gain power they may take their turn to become the oppressor, and are blind to it because they still think themselves righteous.

Such was the case with Israel when farmer-turned-prophet Amos spoke to them. Israel had struggled long and hard to become a prosperous nation, but Amos told them they were no better than the wicked nations surrounding them. Amos accused the Israelites of “selling the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals […] trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way.” The leadership of Israel declared themselves righteous because they followed the rules of sacrifice and ritual, but they were indifferent to God’s greater demands of love and justice.

The theme for this first week of Advent is Hope. The flip side of hope is recognition that the world can be bleak, for why would we hope if we didn’t long for things to be better? Amos reminds us part of that recognition needs to be an examination of our own hearts, actions, and inactions. It’s human nature to believe our actions are justified … and to provide justification when we aren’t sure. We don’t always want to face ourselves when we’ve been part of an injustice or we’ve been willfully ignorant about our own contribution to societal problems. If in reading that last sentence you assumed it was accusing you of something specific … it wasn’t but maybe your consciences is. Maybe start there.

The good news of Advent is that we don’t end “there.” In the weeks ahead, we will live into the promise of Hope.

Comfort: Hope is promised to everyone.

Challenge: This Advent season, begin an examination of your conscience and begin owning up to the things that get in the way of hope.

Prayer: For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good (Psalm 122:8-9)

Discussion: There are countless things to hope for. Which is most pressing to you right now?

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Come to the Banquet


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Numbers 23:11-26, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 22:1-14

After the Parable of the Husbandmen, Matthew presents us the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. In the first parable, a landowner hired tenants to farm his vineyard. When he sent his servants and son to collect, the tenants killed them. The landowner killed the tenants and replaced them with more suitable staff.

In the second parable, a king prepares a wedding banquet for his son. He sends servants to gather the invited guests, but the guests refuse to come. He sends more servants, who share details about the sumptuous feast, but the guests seize, mistreat, and kill them. After the king’s army destroys those who rejected him, he sends more servants to invite anyone they can find, until the wedding hall is filled. One guest is inexplicably without wedding clothes, and the king throws him out.

We could interpret these parables as lessons about a harsh God, but these stories – especially read back-to-back without the artificial separation of chapters – say something more poignant. In both parables, the God figure generously invites people to participate in his abundance. The people not only repeatedly reject his offers, they kill his true servants. More than simple disobedience, or even indifference, the rejection is a deep betrayal. These lessons say God’s default attitude toward us is one of eager welcome, and that trying his patience to the breaking point takes some serious effort.

When the king invites the second group of guests to the banquet, he makes no distinction between good and bad. The guest who rejects the wedding clothes (which would have been provided by the king) has already been forgiven, and still chooses to dishonor his benefactor. When we accept the invitation to God’s banquet, Christ has already wiped the slate for us prior to our arrival, but we would be foolish to take it for granted.

No matter what harsh teachings you may hear, remember God does not eagerly pounce on your failure, but desires you to enjoy life in his abundance. It is not something we can win or that God capriciously takes from us, but it is ours to lose.

Comfort: God is rooting for you to accept Him.

Challenge: Some people are determined to reject God. We are still to love them.

Prayer: Generous God, thank your for the life of abundance you freely offer. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like rejecting God? What did you do?

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We interrupt our regularly scheduled Advent broadcast … or do we?


As we embark on the the fourth and final week, I want to acknowledge I’ve received some questions about the Advent themes and the “traditional” order they’ve fallen in. For some people and traditions the themes of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy are familiar, but the expected order is different. For others the actual themes themselves may vary.

It’s all OK.

Traditions like Advent wreaths, candles, and the season itself don’t exist for our slavish dedication. They are rituals we have created to periodically remind ourselves of certain aspects of our faith. The point of them is not whether the pink candle is for Joy or the fourth week is for Peace, but to help us reflect on our need for Christ to enter our lives and the world.

Maybe mixing it up is a good thing. When people ask whether I get tired of reading the same scriptures every year, of hearing the same story of Jesus being born,  or of celebrating them same seasons over and over, my answer is always: “No, I don’t, because even though the stories don’t change, I’m in a different place in my life and faith journey, so I am always hearing and learning something different.” Mixing up the weeks of Advent provides another opportunity for fresh perspective, while at the same time providing a familiar and comforting framework.

In a couple days our readings will include the Magnificat, the words of Mary as she praises God for using her as a vessel to redeem her people. Mary’s prayer speaks new messages to me every time I read it. It doesn’t change, but I do. For some people though, it will be the same every time, and that’s fine. They made need a slight change to hear new meaning, and an unexpected difference in the order of themes or a fresh Biblical interpretation like The Message may provide the catalyst.

So if your regular broadcast of Advent has been interrupted, I hope that has helped you see, hear, feel, consider, and learn new things. Christ enters the world in unexpected ways. Expect that.