Monday, December 24, 2012


Luke 2:41-52 is the only story of Jesus as an older child in any of the four canonical gospels. Neither Mark nor John tell us anything of Jesus’ life prior to his public ministry. After the birth narrative and the visit from the Magi, Matthew skips from the flight to and return from Egypt to the ministry of John the Baptist. In Luke, only a brief summary statement about Jesus’ growth and this story of Jesus at the age of 12 intervene between Jesus’ infancy and his ministry as an adult.

It seems that in telling this story of Jesus in the temple at a young age, Luke is giving us an indication of the greatness that is to come in the story of Jesus’ life. It was a common tactic in Greco-Roman literature of the first century to narrate some remarkable story from a hero’s early life that was an indication of the great things they would later accomplish. To some degree, this is not uncommon in the biographies of our own day as well. If we are going to hear the stories of successful people, we often want to know about their “roots”. Where did they come from? What made them who they are? Were there signs of their success early on?

This episode serves a similar function in Luke’s gospel. We learn that Jesus comes from a pious and devout family for they journey to Jerusalem for the Passover festival every year. But we also learn that Jesus is not merely the typical product of a devout family. At only 12 years old, Jesus is found sitting among the teachers in the temple, listening to them and asking questions that cause all those who hear him to be amazed at his understanding. Clearly, Luke wishes us to see that Jesus is maturing into one who can fulfill the remarkable promises that surrounded his birth.

What may be just as remarkable, however, is the restraint with which Luke accomplishes this. Although this is the only story of Jesus’ childhood in the canonical gospels, there are a number of stories about Jesus’ childhood in the many writings about his life not included in our Scripture. These other writings were deemed to not be faithful witnesses to Jesus and so were not included in the Christian canon of Scripture. Nevertheless, they make for an interesting comparison since most of them include stories which are almost comical in their miraculous content. In one a young Jesus molds doves from the mud he is playing in and then breathes on them to bring them to life. In another a childhood playmate stomps through the puddles in which Jesus is playing with the result that Jesus strikes him dead but will later raise him back to life after being reprimanded by Joseph. In yet another it is not Jesus’ power but his superior intellect which is on display when he lectures the tutor Joseph has hired for me him about how little he knows.

Compare those stories with the one Luke tells. This story from Luke’s gospel contains no miracles or signs. And while the people do marvel at Jesus’ wisdom, Luke says that he was listening and asking questions, not lecturing anyone. Although Jesus is presented as remarkable, the story ends with his submissive obedience to his parents. In contrast to the overly dramatic childhood stories of the non-canonical gospels, Luke’s presentation of 12 year old Jesus is almost mundane.

But there is power in this more subtle presentation of Jesus for it communicates what is most remarkable about him.  When Mary finally finds Jesus, she asks “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” Jesus responds by saying “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The word translated as “must” is the Greek word dei; a word that communicates necessity. There is a driving necessity in Jesus’ life to be about his father’s work and it is this necessity; this commitment to his Father’s will, more so than even his miracles or his wisdom, which makes him remarkable. This overwhelming necessity in Jesus’ life to do his Father’s will is the one thing we must not miss about Jesus in this passage of Scripture.

But there is something else we might notice here as well. Often we think of faith and family as two things that go hand in hand; one reinforcing the other. In fact, “family values” are sometimes spoken of in our culture as if they were completely interchangeable with Christian faith. In this passage, we certainly see that Jesus’ family is instrumental in shaping his own obedience to God. But we also see that Jesus’ obedience puts a strain on his family. Mary is clearly upset with Jesus when she finally finds him and Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph fail to understand what Jesus said to them about being in his Father’s house. Later in the gospels, Jesus speaks of his kingdom dividing families and in another place he declares his disciples to be his brothers and sisters over and above his actual mother and siblings. As important as family is, even as important as it is in the formation of faith, Jesus refuses to allow it to detract from the one overwhelming necessity of his life.

In our lives today, family continues to be important. For many people, it is the primary means of discipleship in their life. Godly parents and grandparents can often do much more to disciple children than a pastor or Sunday School teacher ever could in the one or two hours we get each week. But family values are not faith and having a happy and healthy family is not the same thing as being about our Father’s work in this world. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims relativizes every other allegiance in our lives; including our allegiance to our family. When we are baptized, we become a part of the family of God first and our biological family second. When we are plunged beneath those waters, we become a part of a people whose life consists of a driving necessity to be about our Father’s work and it is that necessity which defines us as a people. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

With Us To Emmaus

Two disciples are journeying from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. On the way, they discuss the terrible things that have happened in recent days. They have seen the one they thought was Israel's messiah handed over to the Romans; beaten, and crucified by the very powers they thought he would defeat. They have seen their hopes and dreams for God's redemptive work in the world nailed to a cross and buried in the ground.

One who appears to them as a stranger begins to journey with them and asks what they are discussing. They are surprised by this question for everyone knows what happened in Jerusalem. They speak of Jesus' death as one of those incidents where people are saying "Did you hear about..." and they don't have to finish the sentence because there is only one tragic event about which everyone is talking and of which they are trying to make sense. Nevertheless, the two disciples inform their fellow traveler about Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and deed. You can hear their pain and disappointment bleeding through the pages of Luke's gospel. "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."

"We had hoped..."

Had. Past Tense. No longer. There is no hope now. Jesus is dead. For all his power, he was unable to prevent this tragedy of all tragedies. When his followers needed a miracle most, Jesus failed to come through.

This stranger who journeys with them has a different perspective. They thought the Messiah was one who would prevent these terrible things from happening. He points them to Scripture they had never considered to be speaking about the Messiah. He argues that rather than being a conquering warrior the Messiah was always meant to be a servant who would suffer with those who are hurting; one who would win his victory by weakness rather than strength.

As the three travelers near the village, the two disciples urge their new traveling companion to stay with them. He agrees and they sit down at table together. There, he blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them. It is only then, in this act of hospitality, this table fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, that they realize it has been Jesus himself who has been journeying with them all along.

This is not the text from which I had planned to preach this Sunday. It is one more often associated with Easter than the Sunday before Christmas. Nevertheless, I find it to be an appropriate word for the final Sunday of Advent. For in this season we remember that Christ has come but that his kingdom is not yet. In Advent, we are reminded that Jesus was the long-awaited prophet, mighty in word and deed. But we are also reminded that we are still waiting. That our hope has not yet been fulfilled. That our world is far from being filled with the peace and justice of God's reign.

Most of the Christian life is walked on that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We've placed our trust in Jesus. We've pinned our hopes for God's redemptive purposes in the world on Jesus. We've confessed that he was the one who could deliver our world. But then a 20 year old man walks into a school and takes the lives of 20 children and 6 adults after killing his own mother. And our confession threatens to become past tense. We had hoped that he was the one but what can stand up against this kind of evil? This kind of brokenness? We thought Jesus was supposed to put a stop to precisely this kind of madness. If in all of God's power and might, he failed to act in this most critical of times, this time when his intervention was needed most, this time when 6 and 7 years old were crying out to him for help, then perhaps he does not deserve our hope, our trust, or our faith. Perhaps we are best served by giving up on the idea that this world can ever change.

There are no answers in these times. There are no explanations that can make things better. Explanations don't bring children back from the dead.

But I do believe that in the midst of our darkest tragedies, Jesus walks that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus with us. I believe that when it seems that God is dead and powerless, he is actually walking right beside us. In all likelihood, we will not be able to see that it is Jesus who walks with us. The pain and tragedy are real; blindingly real. But Jesus isn't put off by our inability to see him. He keeps walking with us. He lovingly listens as we tell him about the tragedy, about why we've lost all hope and faith in him. And he keeps walking with us. He tries to show us that God is one who suffers with those who suffer. And he keeps walking with us.

And because he keeps walking with us, I do not believe that our blindness to his presence will last forever. If, in the time of our deepest tragedy, the time when we question our hope for God's redemption of our world, we can manage to show hospitality to a stranger...  If we can continue to enjoy table fellowship together... If, despite all the reasons to give up hope, we can continue to break bread together then our eyes will eventually be opened and we will realize that Jesus is far from dead. He has, in fact, been traveling with us all along. And though we may not be able to say it now, we will eventually be able to say of this time "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road?" even when we didn't recognize the one who spoke with us.

Then we will be a people who proclaim an Easter hope in a Good Friday world. Not because everything is OK. Not because there is no tragedy. Not because we are blindly optimistic. But because the resurrected Jesus, the God who suffers with the suffering, walks with us. Because God's love for us is so great that he took on our flesh; the weak and vulnerable flesh of Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, James, Jesse, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, and Allison. Because death is not the end of God's redemptive purposes in the world. Because he is present with us in the breaking of the bread until his kingdom comes.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What's So Great About Being a Nazarene?

In our Sunday evening services, I have been responding to questions that individuals in my congregation have asked. One of those questions was this: With so many different churches and traditions to choose from, 12 churches just in our own little town, what is the benefit of belonging to and attending the Church of the Nazarene? The very first thing I want to say in response to that question is that I regard all Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ and I think we can learn a lot from other denominations. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy participating in our minster’s association here in town, why I always strongly encourage our members to attend the community services we have with other churches every year, why our teens are currently learning about and visiting other churches in town, why we combined with the Methodists and Presbyterians for VBS this past summer, and why we are happy to have those same two denominations participate with us in our community 4th Wednesday meal. As the priest at the Catholic parish we visited just last Sunday reminded us, there is much more that unites us than divides us.

That being said, there are meaningful differences between the different denominations within the body of Christ. Furthermore, while our allegiance to Christ should always be held in higher regard than our allegiance to a given denomination, I do think there is something to be said for digging in deep and putting down roots into a single tradition. This is not because one denomination is without fault or superior to all the rest but because the only way to truly know Christ is to know his Church in all its humanity and brokenness. Our loyalty to Christ inherently entails some loyalty to a local congregation and, therefore, the tradition of which that congregation is a part.

I confess and rejoice that I was born into a family of Nazarene parents and grandparents and that this has a lot to do with me being a Nazarene today. In spite of that, I could have found a home somewhere else at any time. Instead, I have not only remained but become a minister in this denomination. That doesn’t mean that I think the Church of the Nazarene is perfect or without the need for Spirit inspired change. But it does mean there are good reasons I have happily stayed. Here are my top ten.

10. We affirm historical Christianity. This may seem an odd way to begin a list of what makes us distinctive as Nazarenes but I think it is important. There are some traditions and non-denominational groups which acknowledge little or no connection to the history of Christianity which has preceded their own fellowship. As Nazarenes, we confess the historic creeds of the Church and acknowledge that our story does not skip directly from Jesus and the apostles to our founding as a denomination in 1908.

9. Our Wesleyan heritage as a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. We typically refer to ourselves as protestants and John Wesley certainly wasn’t Roman Catholic. However, as an Anglican, he was part of a tradition that had found a blended, middle way between the Catholic and Protestant traditions which had alternately prevailed at different times in England. Since we often look to Wesley as our theological father, that moderate, catholic spirit has been passed down to us. The earliest Nazarenes followed the maxim “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”.

8. We believe that God’s prevenient grace makes salvation available for anyone who will accept it. This is not an attempt to put down our Reformed brothers and sisters. They remind us of the important reality that salvation is not first and foremost a matter of human will. It is primarily an act of God. However, we do not believe that God chooses to elect only a few for whom that act is efficacious. We believe that God’s work of salvation in Christ has freed every human will to the extent that they can choose to accept or reject Christ. While salvation is entirely by the grace of God, we believe that God’s Spirit enables our spirit to cooperate with that grace.

7. We Are Not Fundamentalist (but neither do we exclude fundamentalists from our fellowship). Nazarenes have an extremely high regard for Scripture. We confess that it is “inerrant in all things concerning salvation.” Wesley described himself as “a man of one book.” Yet we also recognize that one can not read this one book without making use of reason, experience, and tradition. Our understanding of Scripture does not require us to choose between a faithful interpretation of Scripture and modern scientific and historical research. We believe that the two can easily co-exist. However, neither do we make an attempt to exclude those from membership who do see a conflict between modern science and their faith. We believe there is room for both approaches in our tradition.

6. Global Fellowship and Missional Unity. In a time when “denominational loyalty” is in decline and “church hierarchy” is often viewed with suspicion, I actually think our denominational structure is one of our great strengths. Nazarenes enjoy a fellowship and mutual support structures across a district that independent congregations do not. Furthermore, even denominations which have such a fellowship often go no further than a district or conference level. By contrast, Nazarenes from around the world gather every four years. Our most recent General Assembly was the first to consist of more delegates from outside the United States than from within and also the first to elect a General Superintendent (the highest office in our denomination) from outside the United States (Eugenio Duarte of Cape Verde, Africa). Additionally, while some churches see the budgets we pay to the district and the general church as a drain on local resources, I see them as an opportunity to pool resources and carry out ministries in other parts of our district and the world that simply would not happen if it was left up to each local church to plant churches or send missionaries.

5. Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. I am proud to be a part of a denomination that has an organization dedicated specifically to compassionate ministry to those in need across the globe. NCM works in impoverished areas throughout the world, especially providing nourishment and education for children through their sponsorship program. In times of disaster, NCM is often quick to respond because they have already been working in the area where the disaster struck. When they do not already have resources in place, they are quick to funnel resources to those who do.

4. The Church of the Nazarene began with the stated mission of serving the poor of the inner city. In contrast to the “white flight” pattern of many churches in North America today, Phineas Bresee (usually considered the founder of the Church of the Nazarene) envisioned America’s cities as “centers of holy fire.” As such, service to the disadvantaged in the urban core of America cities has been a part of our identity from the beginning. In fact, the name “Church of the Nazarene” was chosen to reflect the humility of Christ who called lowly Nazareth home and was to be reminder that Nazarenes were always to find themselves among those of humble means as well. To be sure, we have not always lived up to that heritage but it is an encouragement to know it is a part of who we are. A renewed insistence on the presence of Church of the Nazarene in the urban core is not a strange, new development for us but a reclaiming of our ecclesial DNA.

3. The Church of the Nazarene has ordained women for ministry since its inception. In a world where a large number of denominations still do not allow women to serve as ordained ministers (and others won’t allow women to hold any office of authority whatsoever), I am thankful to minister in a denomination whose ordination practices reflect Paul’s words when he says that in Christ “there is neither male nor female.” In its 100 year existence, the Church of the Nazarene has always held that women are just as fit for every office of ministry as are men. While there is certainly more work to be done in this area (since female ministers still make up a very small percentage of senior pastors in the Church of the Nazarene), the ordination of women is certainly one of the reasons I am proud to be Nazarene.

2. Our Colleges and Universities. This one is especially personal for me. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for Eastern Nazarene College. My time at ENC changed the course of my life in a number of ways. Obviously, my faith already played an important role in my life before college since I chose to go to a Nazarene school but the “conversion” which took place in the way I understood my faith while I was at ENC was, I believe, no less significant than the life changing stories we often hear from others when they first come to Christ. The existence of eight colleges and universities (in addition to the Bible college and seminary) spread across the country where Nazarene young adults (and many non-Nazarenes as well! Two other ministers in Clinton attended Nazarene schools when they were younger.) can find a “safe” environment, full of trustworthy mentors, in which they can ask the hard questions of the Christian faith while also gaining competence in their various future vocations and professions is an invaluable resource for our denomination and the Church in our country as a whole. So many of the graduates of our schools go on to become the lay leaders of our local churches as well as Christian professionals who engage others in their field in thoughtfully Christ-like ways. I know that we are not the only ones with great schools but the schools we do have are, in my opinion, one of the most encouraging things about being a Nazarene.

1. Entire Sanctification and the Possibilities of Grace.  Our doctrine of Entire Sanctification declares that we are a people who are optimistic about the transformative power of God’s grace in this life. Our optimism does not stem from a naivety concerning human nature but from the hope that the Holy Spirit can make us truly new creatures in Christ thus fulfilling God’s promise to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. There is little doubt that we have overstated this claim at times in our history. Even as our article of faith on Entire Sanctification has been recently revised in positive ways, I have made no secret of the fact that I believe it needs to be revised further still. Nevertheless, I think we are right to continue to proclaim that it is possible for the Holy Spirit to turn all of our affections toward the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, even in this life. Even as I am painfully aware of our many failings to live up to our calling as Christ’s body in this world, it is good to be a part of a denomination that boldly declares that those failings do not have to be the norm of our existence. We believe that the possibilities of God’s grace are so great as to include a whole and complete sanctification of our lives for God’s purposes in this world. For that I say, “Thanks be to God.” 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Preparing the Way in a Broken World

In the third chapter of his gospel, Luke introduces John the baptist as a prophet. He does so by giving him the literary introduction typical of prophets. Consider the following:
"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzzah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." Isaiah 1:1
"On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal..." Ezekiel 1:2
"The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem." Micah 1:1
These are only a few of the introductions of the Old Testament prophets but they are enough to show that Luke is doing the same thing for John when he says:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
Not only does Luke give John a prophetic introduction. We also see in the next few verses that John does what prophets do; he calls Israel to repentance. Clearly, Luke wants us to see John as speaking on behalf of God in the same way that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets had done before him.

In addition to letting us know that John was a prophet, this prophetic introduction, like its Old Testament counterparts, also locates John's prophetic word in history. More than merely giving us a date for John's ministry (which any commentator will tell you it actually doesn't do all that well), it tells us something about the world in which this word from God came to John. It tells us that John ministers in a world where Rome reigns supreme, its power overwhelming and unquestionable. It is also a world in which the largely despised Herod Antipas serves as an underling of Roman power. In other words, it tells us that, not unlike the days of Israel's earlier prophets, Israel finds itself under the thumb of foreign rule. I imagine that for a first century audience the simple mention of the names of these rulers would have been a reminder of all they felt was wrong with their world.

In the midst of these hopelessly corrupt politics, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. This, I think, is an enormously important statement by Luke in its own right. That even as the Caesars and Pilates and Herods of the world seem to hold all the power, God still speaks. And of all places, God speaks not in the courts of rulers, the halls of power, or even in the religious spaces of temples but in the wilderness. Neither is John's message a profound one; a simple baptism signifying repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins. But Luke tells us that this is how God speaks.

Furthermore, the word that God speaks through John is one of deliverance from exile. Luke tells us that this is what was written about in the prophet Isaiah when he said:
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
These words come from Isaiah 40:3-5, verses which proclaimed the end of Israel's exile in Babylon. By quoting them here, Luke is letting us know that John prepares the way for the Lord who will bring about the end of Israel's exile.

It goes without saying that although we believe John's proclamation that Jesus is the one who has come to end our exile, that end has not yet come in its entirety. We still live in a world of Caesars, Pilates, and Herods though they go by different names. Luke teaches us that in all the corruption and complexity of the politics of our world,  God still speaks and God's kingdom will still come. We are a people who are called to prepare the way for our coming Lord by our own repentance leading to forgiveness.