Tag Archives: Joy

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 1 – Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sunday’s Theme/Reading:
Introduction to the Psalms – Psalm 1

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

When I was in college, I spent my summers working as a cabin counselor at Stony Lake Lutheran Camp in West Michigan. Every year, in late May, the staff would gather from all over the state (or in some years from across the country and around the world) to spend two weeks getting ourselves prepared for the task of carrying out that summer’s programming. One of the most important aspects of that preparation was immersing ourselves in that summer’s theme, the set of big ideas that would tie the week together and provide the structure for each day’s activities. One particular summer, I remember struggling mightily with the theme that had been selected for us by our leadership staff: Life Is Good!

On the one hand, it was a great theme for a summer camp, right? I mean, we were out in the woods of West Michigan, in a place that we as staff loved more than pretty much any other place on the planet, and we were working with people that we loved and respected and doing work that was meaningful and joy-filled and life-changing. Most days, when someone else on staff called out the question – How’s life? – it wasn’t difficult to give the standard response with enthusiasm: Life is good! On the other hand, of course, there were those days when the campers had kept me up late, or the weather had been particularly awful, or we staff people were getting on each others’ nerves after being together for seven weeks with very little break, or I’d gotten bad news from home, and it was really hard to hear that question – How’s life? – and even harder to respond, Life is good!

As we begin today’s six-week series on the Book of Psalms, I have some similar feelings. Psalm 1, which most commentators believe is placed at the head of the book of Psalms because it summarizes the outlook of the whole collection, is a sort of Life is good psalm, isn’t it?

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked shall be destroyed.
(Psalm 1, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

Psalm 1 represents the conviction that God has ordered the world well, and that God has given God’s people a great gift in Holy Scripture, specifically in the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah. For the psalmist, those who heed the teaching of Scripture will be happy, fortunate, joyful, because they have committed themselves to a life of beauty and peace and wisdom and self-control, a life that accords with God’s desire for us and the whole creation. Conversely, those who refuse to adopt this way of thinking – the wicked – can expect to receive the logical consequence of their choice.

As with the whole life is good focus above, there are times when we can look at our lives and see in them the truth of this psalm: God presents a way of life that is good and pleasant and beautiful, and we can acknowledge God as the source of the happiness and joy that we are experiencing. We may indeed feel like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. But the opposite is also true. We have all experienced times in which we feel like trees planted in the middle of a desert, dried and withered, with leaves that rustle and crack in the wind, times in which nothing seems to go right, times in which the next person to ask you “How’s life?” is liable to get more than he or she bargained for.

So why start the book with this psalm? And why begin a series on the psalms with a passage whose truth might be perfectly clear one day and shadowed by pain and struggle and confusion the next? I think we start here because there’s something important in casting a vision of how the world should be. That’s precisely what’s happening here; the psalmist is encouraging those who sing these songs to orient themselves to a particular way of life, and to recognize that when things are going well, it is because of the gracious gift of instruction that aligns us and our lives with God’s purposes.* Alongside Psalm 1, of course, are the psalms of praise, songs that give us words to honor and glorify God for being holy and majestic, for creating a world of order and beauty, for choosing to dwell with us and bless us with the promise of grace. Next week, we’ll look more in depth at one of these psalms of praise, and consider how it helps us to see the world with eyes wide open to the power and presence of God being displayed throughout the earth.

Obviously, we can’t stop there, though many people would like to do so. I’ve mentioned many times before that we suffer from a spiritual malady in this country. We have a problem with how we look at (or refuse to look at) the reality of suffering. On the one hand, we have this tendency to take the logic of Psalm 1 and employ it in ways the psalmist never would. So, for example, when things go wrong for others, we assume that they haven’t been faithful, that there’s something about them that has brought God’s disfavor upon them. Similarly, when bad things happen to us, we are often overcome with guilt and shame, wondering what we’ve done to deserve it. If I had just had more faith… if I had just prayed more… if I hadn’t been so weak… none of this would have happened. When we do this to ourselves or others, we fail to recognize that we live in a world that is broken, and that good and faithful people often find themselves suffering just as much as the wicked. The psalms of lament give us language for expressing our despair, for bringing our lives in all their brokenness and pain and longing to the one who has promised to be with us. If Psalms 1 and 113 serve to orient us to a particular way of looking at the world, then the psalms of lament and trust – like Psalm 69 and 27 – serve to help us when we get thrown off balance, when suffering and pain disorient us and make us question whether or not God really has our backs.

After things fall apart, we also need handles to help us put our worlds back together. I feel confident in saying that all of us have come through suffering at one time or another and found ourselves drawn to new understandings of what it means to live with God. In some of the psalms of thanksgiving and praise – like Psalms 40 and 146 – we find language that speaks to a reoriented life of faith, a faith that knows the reality of suffering and loss and can speak with a new-found confidence in God’s power and presence in our lives.

These stages – orientation, disorientation, and new orientation – are not linear. We go through them in different times and places in our lives, and there’s no guarantee that we will move easily from one to another. But they do represent authentic expressions of what life with God looks like, and so the psalms help us to express our joys, our sorrows, our longings, and our gratitude amid all the peaks and valleys of our existence. Wherever you find yourself, it is my prayer that in the Psalms you will find language that speaks to you, that gives you comfort and hope, and that draws you into deeper relationship the God who has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Welcome to the journey. May we be nourished by the honesty of these songs as they echo through our lives in the days and weeks to come. Amen.

*This way of looking at the Psalms through the lenses of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation was treated at length in Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, part of the Augsburg Old Testament Studies series. I am indebted to Dr. Brueggemann for his insight into the psalms and their relevance to our lived experience of faith in God.

Good News of Great Joy (Christmas Eve) – Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tonight’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 95:1-7
Preaching Text – Luke 2:1-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 On this holy night, we gather once again to call to mind the story of Jesus’ birth. In truth, this is a story that has become so familiar to many that it’s sometimes difficult for us to comprehend just how incredible it is. The story of a young couple relegated to the darkness of a stable, a child born among the animals and placed in a feeding trough, an angelic chorus announcing the birth to a group of shifty shepherds out in the field – the details are amazing enough. But what’s even more amazing about this timeless story is what it tells us about God and God’s desire for relationship with us. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest that there are three important truths for us to remember as we rejoice in the wonder of Christ’s birth.

The first truth is this: that Christ was born to us. That might seem obvious, but I think it’s easy for us to read this story in a vacuum and forget that God did not choose to take on flesh just for the sake of being human. God’s people had long been yearning for someone to save and redeem them, and the birth of Christ was a response to that yearning, an answer to generations of prayer and pleading. Jesus was born to a particular people in a particular time and place, and as inheritors of God’s promises to that people, we can claim that birth as a gift to us and the whole creation. Tonight we call to mind the birth of Christ to you and me, to our ancestors and our descendants, to all who continue to yearn for deliverance.

The second truth is this: that Christ was born for us! Martin Luther was fond of remarking that one of the most powerful realities we Christians can ponder is the idea that God’s love for the world includes both a general care for everything and a specific care for us as individuals. The story of the Incarnation – of God’s birth among us in Jesus – is a potent reminder of this reality. God looked down on our world, in all of its beauty and brokenness, and understood our need for salvation, renewal, and new life. God stooped to earth and became human for our sake, so that we would understand the depth of God’s love for us and everything that God made. That love was demonstrated in the life Christ lived among us, in his obedience, in his dying and rising to break the power of sin, death, and hell so that we might be free to live in him. Tonight, we call to mind the birth of Christ for you and me and all people, a birth through which God offers the good news of salvation for the whole world.

The final truth is this: that Christ is born among us. It’s important for us to remember that this celebration is not just of a birth that took place some two thousand years ago, but of God’s continuing presence in Jesus Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is given another name – Emmanuel, which means God is with us. Though Luke doesn’t include this detail in his story, I think it’s still an important one for us to consider as we ponder the significance of Christ’s birth. As disciples of Jesus, those who have been called and claimed by God, we have been joined to Christ, and God has promised that Christ will continue to be present to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we gather to sing God’s praises and tell the good news of Jesus, Christ is with us. When we receive these gifts of bread and wine, blessed and broken for our sake, Christ is with us. When we give thanks for all the gifts that God has given us and call upon God for help in our time of need, Christ is with us. This Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ in our midst, not just in the past, but tonight and every day.

Brothers and sisters, it is such a joy to be gathered with you on this holy night to rejoice in God’s greatest gift to our world. As you go out from this place to continue your celebrations in the days to come, may you be comforted, strengthened, and encouraged by these great truths: that Christ is born to you, for you, and among you. Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas! Amen.

Ascension of Our Lord – Sunday, June 1, 2014

 Sunday’s Readings:

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

It’s never easy to say goodbye to the people we love. When someone comes to be such an important part of your life that you can’t imagine what things would be like without them, and then you are forced to reckon with their absence, there is always a void, even in those situations when you know their absence is temporary. Anyone who has ever had to endure the pain of absence knows this truth all too well. Today we gather for what I would call one of the most counter-intuitive festivals of the Christian year: the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. Knowing what we know about the heartache of saying goodbye, it seems odd that we would set aside time to reflect on – and, in truth, to celebrate – the absence of Jesus.

Our readings walk the line between the two reactions that have characterized this observance: reverence, sadness, and fear at the departure of Jesus, as well as overwhelming joy and an outpouring of praise.  The first reaction seems obvious. The apostles and their company, the people who had walked alongside Jesus throughout his ministry of healing and teaching and preaching, who had seen their lives shattered at the sight of their Lord hanging on the cross, and who had been witnesses of the resurrected Christ, must have found it difficult to watch him leave them again. That seems to be the theme in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. There’s a reason those two angels needed to show up and bring the apostles back to reality: they were stuck, already yearning for Jesus even as he ascended from them, fearful that the commission that he had just given them would be too difficult for them to take on without his presence among them. They needed to hear the words of those heavenly messengers to move on: “Men of Galilee, what do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven!”

So that’s Acts, with its record of the apostles’ understandable reaction to the ascension of Jesus. But then we turn to Luke, and see something entirely different. The stage is set up exactly the same way: Jesus leads the apostles out of Jerusalem, instructs them to return to the Holy City and remain there until the Father’s promise is fulfilled, and then is carried up into heaven as he blesses his followers. Here, however, there is no mention of the disciples lingering in that spot, gazing into the heavens with heavy hearts. No, here the apostles head back to Jerusalem straightaway, with great joy, and they commit themselves to spending their days in the temple praising God for everything they had seen and heard! How do we explain the fact that Scripture contains two accounts of the ascension, written by the same author, recording two completely different reactions to the reality of Jesus’ absence?

Maybe we don’t need to. Each of these accounts represent an authentic response to the ascension of Jesus. The Church’s ancient prayer – Come, Lord Jesus – contains the longing we share for the bodily presence of Jesus to be restored to us, so that God’s will for the world might be fulfilled. At the same time, there is a long history in the Church of celebrating this festival with great enthusiasm and fervor. Why? What is there to celebrate about the Ascension of Jesus? What good could possibly come from the absence of God incarnate? Mark Oldenburg, professor of worship at Gettysburg Seminary, proposes the following theme for the observance of the Ascension: In his glory, we and Christ are together. That reality, it turns out, is good enough to totally justify every bit of that celebration and joy.

Despite the fact that Jesus is God, and though we claim that God is capable of anything, there is no story anywhere in Scripture of Jesus appearing in multiple places at once. When God walked among us in the person of Jesus, the presence of Jesus was limited to wherever Jesus happened to be at the time. When Jesus ascended to the right hand of God – as Paul asserts in the second reading from Ephesians and we affirm in the creeds of the Church – that presence was unleashed. No longer was it necessary to gather around the person of Jesus; instead, his power and presence are now available in every time and place.

Perhaps the more stunning thing about the ascension is that it makes the inverse true. That is, if we and Christ are together in his glory, then our humanity has now been bound up with God. Put another way, if the ascension means that there is nowhere that we can go where God isn’t present, it also means that the needs, yearnings, and longings of humanity are always known to God. In Jesus, God took on our nature, and by ascending that nature was also brought into the presence of God eternally. As Dr. Oldenburg so eloquently puts it:

The creature’s nature becomes part of the Creator’s.  No longer are human (or even creaturely) matters foreign to God.  They have become known, experienced, and important.  Again we see that there are no God-forsaken places or unGodly times, because God has experienced and taken into the very being of the Holy One all that makes humans hu­man –  from the shock of light at the end of the birth canal to the extin­guishing power of death.  Even despair and dereliction become a part of God. What we rejoice in at the Ascension is a culmination of God’s work of reconciliation, of at-one-ment.  With Jesus, the fully human one, where he belongs, we are no longer estranged from God.  God will no longer ask like the clueless angels at the tomb, “Why are you weeping?”  God comprehends.  And we may no longer play the victim’s trump card: “You don’t understand what it’s like.”  God comprehends.  Humani­ty has been given a place in the conversation of the Trinity.*

What a gift! What a comfort to know that the apparent absence of Jesus is in reality what makes possible our intimate connection with the triune God!

That gift makes itself known not only for us as individuals, but also for us as a church community.  The ascension unleashes the church to do its work in the world. While Jesus walked the earth, people were drawn to hear him, and any other voice that attempted to speak for him or on his behalf would always be judged lacking, seen as secondary to whatever Jesus himself might have said. Because of the ascension, the Church is free to carry out the commission given by Jesus himself: to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth! That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Church can say whatever it wants without criticism or complaint. That commission is always grounded in faithfulness and fidelity to the message that Jesus came to proclaim: That the kingdom of God has drawn near, and that God’s love for all the world has been demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the sake of the whole creation. But the ascension of Jesus makes it possible for the Church to exist and to love out its calling to be – as Ephesians puts it – “the Body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.

Brothers and sisters, today we celebrate an odd and wonderful festival. Even as we long for his return, we rejoice that, because of the ascension, Christ’s presence has now been unleashed for us and for the whole world. We marvel at the knowledge that Jesus bears our very nature to the presence of God so that we might be fully known and understood. We are humbled by the calling to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. On this Ascension Sunday, let us bless our God for the victory of our Lord Jesus, who died, rose, and ascended so that we might know his power and presence and be partners in extending it to a world in need. Thanks be to God! Amen!

*Mark W. Oldenburg, Here and Now: The Year in the Presence of the Resurrected Christ, (unpublished), p. 81.