discernment

Transitions

1 Kings 3:3-15

Times of transition can terrify, particularly if you are the person called to lead people through them. Greatness also can arise from such times, however.

In today’s story we see Solomon as a young king, ascending to the throne following the death of his father, King David. Solomon was far from perfect, and would remain that way throughout his rule, with a particular tendency to make sacrifices in various places and eventually even allow other gods to compete with the one true God.

And yet, he made one brilliant decision early in his kingship, even though he was in the midst of doing what God really did not want him to do, worshiping away from Jerusalem. As he sacrificed at the most prominent “high place,” Gibeon, God came to Solomon in a dream and opened the door for the young king to request anything.

Oh, the possibilities! Military might could always be useful to a king. Or even better, a great treasury would put anything within reach: armies, the best weapons, the finest cities, the most comfortable life imaginable. What to request? What to seek directly from the hand of God?

Instead of relying on external signs of support, however, Solomon sought something internal, a gift to keep him in constant alignment with God’s will. He asked for what we traditionally describe as “wisdom,” the ability to discern good from evil so God’s people would always be led in the right direction.

Discernment of God’s will is the starting point for all of us. Solomon shouldered the burden of leadership mostly alone; we are blessed in that we can function as a community, seeking God’s guidance via the Holy Spirit as we come together as a church.

You may or may not be aware that Luminary has been experimenting with a new leadership structure this year. Twelve members and the church staff work together to replace the traditional Methodist system of multiple scattered committees. The primary role of the Church Leadership Council is discernment, the seeking of God’s guidance for the direction of Luminary UMC.

We have had monthly meetings and a day-long retreat in search of guidance from God about where we go next as a church. Eight months into this experiment, we have a few suggestions. And they are suggestions, not mandates. If the whole church cannot share a common vision for where we are going, then these suggestions will all be pointless.

Suggestion No. 1: We need to simplify our vision and mission statements. One thing we discovered early on was that no one could remember the current vision for the church. Instead, try this:

Our Vision: A world conformed to Jesus Christ. (Isaiah 45:23; Romans 14:11)

Our Mission: To draw people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. (Matthew 28:19-20)

If we can agree on those as biblically inspired, what comes next is a refined understanding of how we execute our mission. We need to focus our energy like a laser, trying to do a few specific activities very well. This understanding leads to two more suggestions:

Suggestion No. 2: Establish a system of small groups. Your CLC wrestled with this because we know it will be hard to do. We’re talking about a specific kind of small group, where about eight people pursue mission or discipleship together while also sharing mutual, loving accountability. Because this involves a change in church culture, we know the risk of failure is fairly high.

If we are successful, however, we would begin to function in a biblical, healthy way. Churches who make this transition successfully begin to reach the unchurched with the message of Christ at an astounding pace, doing great work for the kingdom. The small groups over time would become the basis for all our mission and evangelism efforts.

Suggestion No. 3: Establish an outreach ministry aimed at local children in need, and ultimately, their entire families. We can see from our demographic study of our parish that the need in this area is high. We already have a small team working on a pilot project for this fall, and we hope that pilot will turn into a big program for next summer. If you want to involve yourself in this effort, let me know.

We as a church have to talk about all of this quite a bit more. You’re also going to hear your CLC making suggestions in areas that are more administrative in nature, with subjects like debt reduction and a plan to develop the second floor to support the execution of our mission. Next week, after the 11 a.m. worship service and a brief lunch, we’re going to reconvene in the sanctuary to talk about these suggestions in more detail.

As a church, let’s remember that Solomon’s choice to first and foremost seek God’s will pleased God. Because Solomon first sought discernment, God also granted him the riches and honor most people would tend to seek. May we as Luminary United Methodist Church also be blessed in surprising ways as we first seek God’s will for all we do.

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With Us in the Last Days

Acts 2:1-21

The most immediate and personal expression of God usually is the most difficult for us to comprehend.

For many Christians, the first story that comes to mind regarding the Holy Spirit is the one we celebrate at Pentecost, the falling of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. While the Pentecost story found in Acts 2 is powerful, I have wondered if its mysterious tone contributes to the confusion even longtime Christians sometimes experience.

The Spirit rushed in like wind and danced like fire on about 120 of Jesus’ followers. They began to speak loudly in languages they did not previously know, attracting a crowd, some of whom accused them of being drunk.

In other words, the Spirit caused them to behave in a way that made people stare.

That can make people who don’t like to be stared at a little uncomfortable with the idea of encountering the Holy Spirit directly. Open yourself to the Spirit, and hey, the next thing you know, you might be speaking in tongues. (Speaking in tongues is biblical, by the way, although the gift should be used with limitations; see 1 Corinthians 14.)

It helps me to spend time studying what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit’s purpose in John’s gospel, specifically, in chapters 15 and 16. It is a purpose designed for the last days, the era between the Spirit’s arrival and the return of Christ, the era we live in now.

Working through us, the Holy Spirit accomplishes three particular tasks, laid out in John 16:8-11.

Task no. 1 is to provide a clear definition of sin. In this new era, all sin is rooted in the failure to fully declare in our hearts and with our mouths that Jesus is our savior. When we do this—when we humble ourselves enough to say we are dependent on God and cannot save ourselves through strength, intellect, wealth or power—we open ourselves to discerning what is and is not God’s will.

For most Christians, even devoted ones, it remains an imperfect understanding, of course. So many aspects of our broken humanity, in particular our emotions, still get in the way. That is why Scripture remains so important to us, even with the Spirit at work in us. We know God is unchanging, and that thoughts and feelings we experience cannot be from God if they conflict with clear scriptural teachings. We are blessed in the last days with dual revelations co-witnessing to Christ, one written for our eyes and one whispered to our spirits.

Task no. 2 is to declare to the world that Jesus is right in what he taught and continues to teach through the Holy Spirit. Now, it is not politically correct these days to declare anyone right. “Tolerant” has replaced “righteous” as the secular description of an upstanding member of the community. But guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to share with the world the definition for righteousness, as provided by God. Jesus, as revealed in the Bible, is the shining example of righteousness.

This is not as harsh a task as it might sound. The word “righteous” can have such negative connotations. But remember, from a Christian perspective, righteousness is best defined as loving God completely while at the same time loving other people as we want to be loved. We obey God, but a big part of that obedience is loving and forgiving people who are difficult to love, even when their sin touches us negatively in some way.

Task no. 3 is to declare that judgment already has come and remains under way. When Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross, he meant that his work to break the power of evil in this world is complete. As terrible and messy as it can be at times, our fight with evil is now a mop-up operation. The evil spiritual forces opposing God know they have been defeated because God’s Spirit is visible to them in the world.

Note that all of this involves our active participation. God wants us to play a part, in the process growing into the beings he intended us to be. Trusting the Holy Spirit, we are a people who are working to expand Christ’s kingdom and waiting for Christ’s return.

We may have other work we do to get by, along the lines of Paul continuing to make tents while in Corinth, but service to God’s kingdom is our primary reason to exist. Anything we put ahead of that responsibility likely is an idol.

Let me add something important: It is glorious work. If you seek meaning in life, know that the moments you walk hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit to serve God’s kingdom will be your best moments. We can even make what should have been otherwise mundane moments shine with the glory of God, if only we learn to constantly look for opportunities to let the Holy Spirit work through us.

Hear again the mystery in Peter’s words as he speaks of people working in conjunction with the Holy Spirit in these last days:

“Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

If you want a life that is more than what you feel you have now—if you want a life that transcends a normal life—engage fully with God’s Spirit. He is available to you always through prayer and meditation, in the sacraments, through Scripture, and in all those other places God has promised to meet you.

Right Under Their Noses

Traditionally, but not scripturally, there were three wise men.

Traditionally, but not scripturally, there were three wise men.

Matthew 2:1-12

From a distance, the wise men saw so much. At the same time, Jewish King Herod and his best advisers were oblivious to the most important moment the people of Jerusalem could imagine, the coming of the Messiah just six miles away from Herod’s court.

How do you see so much from afar? How do you miss such a big event when it’s happening right under your nose?

The wise men, most likely astrologers who advised rulers living in what we now call Iraq, responded to a sign in the sky by packing their camels and making a months-long journey to Jerusalem. For them, whatever was going on in Jerusalem was huge, and they needed to get there despite the hardships.

When the wise men arrived, however, no one in Jerusalem seemed to know what they were talking about. Jewish King Herod had to ask the wise men when the sign in the sky had occurred, despite having consulted with his chief priests and scribes.

So much for the “Little Drummer Boy” television version of Christ’s birth, where a star shines so brightly that its tail points toward the manger like a neon sign at a roadside motel.

The best astronomical explanation for the wise men’s sign in the sky probably lies in a series of conjunctions involving Venus and Jupiter near the constellation Leo and its bright star, Regulus. Such conjunctions would have screamed “a king is born in Judah” to these astrologers while going unnoticed by others. (For a detailed explanation of this theory, view this slide show.) It’s also possible the star was a supernatural event, unusual in that it was intended for the wise men and no one else.

Regardless of exactly what motivated the wise men, it seems God spoke to them in signs for a simple reason. They were seekers. They spent their lives anticipating great events, looking for signs in the skies. God grants guidance to those who actively seek his will.

I’m not suggesting everyone take up astrology to hear from God. In this case, I think God simply was speaking to these seekers in a language they understood.

They also were the kind of men who were not afraid to go out into the world. These weren’t ivory-tower academics. They knew how to get those camels across the desert; with God’s guidance, they knew how to deal with the evil, wily Herod, heading home “by another way” to keep the Christ child safe.

And perhaps most importantly, they were ready to respond to the truth that had been revealed to them. They accepted God’s revelation, and they acted accordingly, honoring the Savior of the world.

The wise men stand in stark contrast to the corrupt King Herod, a man who sought his own glory rather than that of the God he should have been serving as the leader of the Jews. In many worldly ways, Herod was a great king. Certainly, he was a great builder, expanding the Second Temple and building the fortress at Masada.

He also was mercilessly shrewd, murdering his own wife and two of his children when he began to consider them threats. That ruthlessness is seen again in what we call “the massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 in an attempt to kill the Messiah. Blinded by his worldly concerns, Herod could not have seen God’s glory if the baby Jesus had been born at his feet. Here was a Jew who should have spent a little time studying Psalm 2.

It’s not hard to see which model we should follow. Like the wise men, Christians should be seekers of God’s truth, listening for God’s sometimes subtle answers.

As seekers who begin to hear, it also is important to respond bravely. Do we put our possessions and even our lives at risk? What is our equivalent of getting on a camel and riding into the desert?

I would like to know more of the wise men’s story. I feel certain they were changed forever by the experience. For some reason God chooses not to give us those details through Scripture, however.

At least we are allowed to make a similar journey. We can be wise men and women ourselves, pursuing and worshiping Jesus as the Christ.

Farewell

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (NRSV)

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

————–

This has happened to me before. About the time I think the occasion is special, and that I’ll probably have to deviate from the standard lectionary texts for the week, one of the prescribed readings provides us with exactly what we need.

On my last Sunday in the pulpit at Cassidy UMC, the lectionary practically begs me to use Paul’s benediction in his second recorded letter to the church at Corinth. I’m no Paul, but I’m certainly comfortable using the same words to say goodbye to the people of Cassidy that Paul used to close his letter.

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.

This actually is the most difficult part to translate. A lot of other translations say “rejoice” rather than “farewell.” I’ll just go ahead and conflate the two possibilities today, even if it’s not good use of the Greek. This is farewell, but we also should rejoice.

Yes, we’re experiencing changes, but we are a people who can go through such transitions without fear. We gather in worship and in service because we know God is with us in all we do. His Holy Spirit is upon us, and that constant knowledge gives us constant joy, even when a less familiar future stands before us.

The Holy Spirit is in the people of Luminary UMC and in me and my family, so I know I can rejoice in where I am going. God’s work will be done. The Holy Spirit is in you and is in Pastor Tom Hancock and his family, and I know God’s work will continue to be done here.

Put things in order.

You have put things in order, and will continue to do so, I am sure. Despite the struggles we’ve had in recent years, struggles tied to personal losses and a decline in giving, we have managed the situation well. The debt is gone. Church revenue and spending are about equal, leaving our reserve intact. You are well-positioned to make sound ministry choices in coming years.

Listen to my appeal.

How do I boil down three years of appeals from the pulpit to a sentence or two? How about this:

Stop inviting people to church. Never do that again; I should have said it this directly earlier. Instead, start inviting people to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Church” is perceived by the lost as a place, a building on a piece of ground. The lost also might at first glance judge the people inside the building to be too old or out of touch. But Jesus Christ, known through his radical teachings and his sacrifice, is attractive to all when properly understood.

Every other appeal I might make would be rooted in this change in attitude. Understand the difference in these two invitations, and you’ll understand the need to go off site to reach people. Your soul will work like a lost person detector, and with time and prayer the Holy Spirit will guide you to reach the lost with your actions and words.

Invite people to know Jesus Christ, and the part about people coming to church will take care of itself. Some of your new friends in Christ will naturally want to be with you on Sunday.

Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

I don’t know if I have much to add to Paul’s words here. It is the ideal state for any church. It is my prayer you exist always in such a state. Last week, we talked about the power of the Holy Spirit falling on the church at Pentecost. Deep prayer and the study of Scripture tune us into God’s will, and a willingness to obey what we hear brings peace.

As for the holy kiss part—well, that’s an act from a different time and culture. Instead, do those things we do now to show we’re in communion with each other. Look your brothers and sisters in Christ in the eyes, touch hands, touch shoulders, and say, “I love you.” Offer forgiveness when mistakes are made and personal hurts occur. Lord knows, the world needs such love.

All the saints greet you.

Remember, we are one church, regardless of what buildings we may enter on Sunday. We are one in Christ for all eternity. This includes the saints who have passed into the full presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you at Cassidy, now and forever. Amen.

 

Next Generation

2 Kings 2:1-14

Christians pray for Christ’s return. But assuming such a return happens later rather than sooner, what do we seek for our next generation of Christians?

The pre-Christian story of Elijah and his tag-along successor, Elisha, helps us answer such a question.

Both men spent much of their ministries drawing the people of Israel away from false gods and back to the one true God. For awhile, their work overlapped, with Elisha serving as Elijah’s disciple, learning what we might call the way of the prophet.

A time came, however, when Elijah had to go to God and Elisha had to remain behind. Elisha knew what was coming, as did other prophets in the area; in the second chapter of 2 Kings, it is easy to see that Elisha was upset by the coming loss of his master.

Elijah just wanted to be with the Lord, it seems. He tried to leave his disciple behind as he moved toward his rendezvous with God, feebly telling Elisha to stay, sounding like an old man trying to discourage a loyal puppy.

Elisha followed, however, until they finally reached the river Jordan, the place where Elijah knew God would come for him. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up, and smacked the water, causing it to part. Elijah and Elisha reached the other side with dry feet.

It was here that Elijah’s love for his disciple became evident. “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” he said to Elisha. It is a precious question, one any generation should ask of the generation coming along.

Elisha responded, “Please let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” referring to the spirit of prophecy that had been on Elijah. In this request, Elisha honored what Elijah had been doing, and made it clear he wanted to continue a life rooted in God’s will. Elijah described fulfilment of the request as a “hard thing,” but said if Elisha saw him taken, his request had been granted.

Elisha received this gift from God, seeing his master ascend to heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire. Picking up Elijah’s fallen cloak, Elisha rolled it up and parted the Jordan the same way his master had, a sign God had granted that double portion.

And that, I think, is what we want for the next generation: A power greater than our own. We want to do great things for God ourselves, of course, as great as possible. But we also want each generation to grow in grace, to build on what has been done.

We pray that in the process, the next generation receives that double portion, better communicating the truth about God’s nature and God’s love, understood most clearly now through Jesus Christ.

There is the discipling of one generation by another—the importance of faithful teaching cannot be overemphasized. We also prayerfully seek greater portions of other gifts from the Holy Spirit for those who will follow in our footsteps toward the full establishment of the kingdom of God. Greater gifts of discernment and evangelism immediately come to mind.

Generational transitions brought on by old age and death sadden us, of course. All disciples love their godly teachers. Our consolation is that such transitions also bring us closer to the day when Christ appears, his power over all things made complete.