Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Love one another

            Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
            By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
(1 John 4:7-16 ESV)

The first thing that ought to jump out at you when you read this is that word “beloved.”  It practically screams relationship from the page!  The word appears first in John’s letter back in chapter 2.  John calls his readers “beloved” six times in four chapters.

1 John 2:7  Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard.
1 John 3:2  
Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

1 John 3:21 
Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;
1 John 4:1  Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
1 John 4:7  Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
1 John 4:11  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Six times in four chapters.  And yet the identity of John’s audience remains a mystery to us.  Maybe that’s because John knew he was writing to a wide, general audience.  For that matter, there’s nothing in the text to prove that this was written by the Apostle John.  Tradition holds that John was an old man when he wrote this letter from Ephesus (about 40 miles from the modern city of Izmir, Turkey).  The writing certainly sounds like John, though there isn’t any direct reference to his relationship with Jesus, and that seems a bit strange. 

I like to think that whoever this man “John” was, he had known the joy of living in community with a specific group of believers he had come to call “beloved.”  That takes time.  John isn’t just offering us a cliché.  I think he really means it. 

The six times he calls them “beloved” each address a different issue. 
·      The old commandment is what Jesus called the second commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and comes from Leviticus 19:18. 

·      What will we be like when we are finally perfected in Glory with Him? 

·      How do we keep our relationships healthy in Christ?

·      How do we guard against heretical teachings?

·      Where does our love come from?

·      What makes us beloved?

John asks his questions about love in the context of community.   He never says, “I told you what you need to do.”  He always includes himself in the discussion.  “Let us love…”

What can we learn from John and his church?   I particularly love the second question he discusses: “What we will be has not yet appeared.”  That isn’t just an End Times question.  Like all the rest, it is a question for right now.  What would happen if we (you and the church gathered around you) actually loved one another the way God first loved you – with deep, passionate, self-sacrificing love?  What would happen then?  What would we start to look like if we actually did that? 

What would we look like, as a church, if we conducted our relationships in such a way that we never needed to repent of anything we had said or done with each other?  What would we look like if we set out to become so spiritually discerning that we, as a fellowship, would be able to know the difference between teaching we need to pay attention to because it is so godly, and teaching we need to watch out for because it is false? 

How different would we appear if we really realized that the love we’re talking about, though supernatural, is not impossible or idealistic.  It is real and attainable.  Why else would John begin his letter by saying, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life?”  I always took it that this was John the Apostle being self-referencing about his relationship with Jesus.  But the emphasis he places on “we” and “our” is so clear!  “The Word of Life” has been manifest among us.  Jesus was not here once.  Jesus IS here now! 

Beloved (and many of you who read The Morning Watch are beloved to me), if God loved us the way we know he did, I’ll be bold like John and say, “we ought to love one another” the same way.  If the impending New Year is a time for new beginnings, no matter what your fellowship has looked like until now, take the time to reassess.  Take the time to let Jesus put into practice the kind of love he demonstrated on the Cross and in his life.  Begin to say to one another, “God so loved the world… what can I do for you?”

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Message: That I too may worship him

That I too may worship him
Christmas Eve

            Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
            “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
                        are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
            for from you shall come a ruler
                        who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
            Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.   
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
(Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18 ESV)

The story of the arrival of the Magi is really two stories that we need to pay attention to.  On the one hand this is the story of ancient astrologers – men who spent their lives interpreting signs they saw in the sky.  It is from people like these that the grand mythology of the zodiac comes.   We have no idea where they actually came from or how many of them there were.  Tradition upon tradition has developed them into the three we know.  We’ve even given them names. 

The legend that there were three and that their names were Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar dates to sometime in the 5th Century.  Most scholars believe the claim that there were three Wise Men comes from the mention in our text from Matthew 2 that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  With a little help from Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote the operetta Amahl and the Night Visitors for television in 1951, their persons are secure for a few hundred years more, at least.

Whoever they were, there is no question that their lives were forever altered by this one event.  Even their most basic beliefs about the universe and the gods whose identities they believed were portrayed in the heavens were shaken by what they saw the day they walked into a house on a street in Bethlehem about 2 years after Jesus was born.

The other story we need to pay attention to is the story of Herod the Great, who ruled as King of the Jews from around 36 BC to 4 BC, when he died in office at the age of 70.  Herod himself had no historic claim to the throne of David.  He and his family were converts to Judaism, and he had gained his position by being a supporter of those who killed Julius Caesar.   For his loyalty he was first appointed as governor of Galilee.  Some years later, when it looked like he was going to lose his grip on power, he fled to Rome and was elected King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. 

Herod was a builder – probably where he gets the name Herod the Great.  He was also a ruthless and brutal dictator who was responsible for the deaths of many of his own countrymen, and as Matthew’s account attests, he was responsible also for the genocide of thousands of innocent children.

Herod’s story and that of the Magi stand intertwined in Matthew 2.  If we look at them side by side for a moment, they may touch our hearts on this Christmas Eve.  You see, both the Magi and Herod used the same phrase as they spoke about the birth of Christ.   The Magi had wandered into Jerusalem and were asking everyone they met, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”   Later, once Herod has called them to an audience with him, he repeats the phrase his advisors probably had told him; the phrase they themselves probably heard around the city, ““Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

But Herod had no intention of going the six miles out to Bethlehem.  It wasn’t a long way.  He could easily have gone himself. 

As part of Jesus’ adult ministry, he told a story we know today as the Parable of the Two Sons.  It is a quick story.  You can find it in Matthew 21.  My guess is that Jesus probably told it many times.  Jesus said, “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”

As far as their religion goes, the Magi were about as far from being Jewish as you could be when they arrived in Jerusalem.  Not that they didn’t know about Judaism.  These were scholars.  There is no question they knew the history and some of the traditions of the Jews.  And so they had staked their whole careers, their very lives, on saying “no” to the God of the Jews.  Though Herod’s family had converted to Judaism only a generation before, Herod had staked his whole career absolutely on being Jewish.  If at any point his loyalty to God had come into question, Herod would have been deposed in a moment.   So when you think about it, his whole existence depended on him saying “yes” to God.

How is it that it is only the Magi who finally make it to Bethlehem?  It is only they who actually go and worship Jesus.  And yet both the Magi and Herod had said, “I want to go that I too might worship him.” 

Now, listen carefully for a moment. 

Those who worshiped saw.  The Magi said, For we saw his star in the East.  They saw while Herod sat – even though the star was there for all to see, Herod took no notice of it until it was pointed out to him by the Magi.  While they saw, Herod sat and did nothing.

Those who worshiped went.  This may sound overly obvious, but they traveled from wherever they came from to Jerusalem and said, We…have come to worship him.  Then, they went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  While they went, Herod waited and did nothing.
Those who worshiped found and fell.  The text says they hurried to Bethlehem, “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”  Yes, Herod had said he too wanted to go and worship the child.  But to him it was all political.  He wasn’t even a real king.  He wasn’t even a real Jew.  The Magi found and fell.  Herod faked and frauded and did nothing.

Those who worshiped rejoiced.  When the Magi found Jesus, the text says, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”  When Herod found out who Jesus was, he did not rejoice.  He recoiled.   The Bible says he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  It was all politics to him, and he was King of the Jews, and he was not about to give up that.  The Magi rejoiced.  Herod recoiled, and still he did nothing.
Finally, those who worshiped opened and offered their gifts to Jesus.  This is absolutely key to their worship.  Not only did they go to see what had happened in Bethlehem, they offered the very best they had to Jesus, from beginning to end.  By contrast, Herod, when he finally did something, ordered the slaughter of every male child in the region who was two years and under, and offended God in every way possible. 

You are here tonight because you too are searching for the Christ.  Whether you come back tomorrow and the next day and the day after that depends on which brother you turn out to be.  It isn’t a long journey from where you live to where Christ is.    His star still rises in the East if only you will take the time and do something. 

Will you sit and wait and fake and fraud and recoil and then lash out and blame God because you have failed to find?  Or will you be like the Magi who saw and went and found and fell and rejoiced and opened and offered?  You see, it isn’t enough just to say, “that I too may come and worship him.”   You have to put your life on the line… and go.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

An Epiphany

            For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
            Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
(Titus 2:11-15 ESV)

Titus 2:11 is one of those verses where how we translate it makes all the difference in the world in terms of how we believe about certain things.  Those of you who have no interest in language and shades of meaning will be bored to death in the next few moments, but hang in there.  Here are the component parts of the sentence:

Grace is the Greek word “charis,” which literally means “that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness: grace of speech.”  Most Christians today were taught a very narrow view that “grace” means merely “unmerited favor,” and has to do with salvation exclusively.  But it seems clear, when taken in context, that narrow view is not Paul’s intent.

Bringing salvation.  The word is “soterios,” which always means only one thing: salvation of the soul.  However, this verse is an example of only 5 times in the Bible where the (feminine) noun appears in the neutral form as an adjective.  The strong implication is that the appearance of salvation refers more to the Savior than to salvation in general. 

Appeared.  This is the fun word in the sentence.  It is the world “ephiphaino,” meaning “to show to or shed light on,” literally, “to make visible.”  When everything becomes clear to you, you say you’ve just had an epiphany.  That is this Greek word.

All men.  Here are two dicey little words which determine the precise meaning of the whole passage.   In Greek, “panta anthropois,” meaning “all people” (as opposed to males only).   In fact, the phrase never means males only.

How we put these words together can mean totally different things.  One set of translators favors this reading, as exemplified by the English Standard Version: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.”  The clear implication is toward a universalist view: Joy, sweetness, pleasure are found in the person of Jesus, the Savior, because he saved all humankind (ie: no one goes to Hell, regardless of their deeds or beliefs). 

The other view is best seen in Young’s Literal Translation, “For the saving grace of God was manifested to all men.”  Here, the “epiphany” is available to all.  Jesus has been plainly seen by all humankind, but there is no implication that all people have apprehended what was seen.  This places the Incarnation squarely before us, as obviously as the Babe in the manger, and yet it doesn’t make any judgment as to whether any or all of us understands what we’ve just seen.  Noah Webster’s Bible of 1833 (yeah, the dictionary guy) goes just a little further with this thought, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” 

Are you still awake?  If you are, then you’re probably asking, “Then how DO we decide how to translate this passage?”  The answer is that we always look at Jesus and begin there.  Did he teach a doctrine of universal salvation? 

Jesus said, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”  (Matthew 13:41-43 ESV)  Luke 16:19-31 has Jesus telling us the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man has wound up in the burning fire of torment.  And, just to give a positive spin, in Matthew 11:28, Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Clearly, Jesus meant us to understand that it is only in coming to him that salvation and rest for the soul are to be found.  And yes, there is a place of eternal torment, whatever that means.  And no, not all will receive the gift of grace.   So we’re going to have to favor Young’s Literal Translation here: “For the saving grace of God was manifested to all men.”  Though I’d love to hear from any of you Greek scholars out there who think this kind of exeget… (yawn…) …ical work makes a great devotional time with the Lord. 


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sold Cheap

            Shake yourself from the dust and arise;
                        be seated, O Jerusalem;
            loose the bonds from your neck,
                        O captive daughter of Zion.
            For thus says the LORD: “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” For thus says the Lord GOD: “My people went down at the first into Egypt to sojourn there, and the Assyrian oppressed them for nothing. Now therefore what have I here,” declares the LORD, “seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised. Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”
            How beautiful upon the mountains
                        are the feet of him who brings good news,
            who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
                        who publishes salvation,
                        who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
(Isaiah 52:2-7 ESV)

Has something you’ve done left you feeling like you are lying in the dust; as they used to say in the old west, “Lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut?”  I think most of us have had that experience at some point in our lives.

If that’s you, the Enemy of your soul wants you to believe that when you messed up it stained you forever, and that there is no recovering from this error.  Everyone else can be restored, you suppose.  But you may as well forget about ever gaining God’s complete favor and full forgiveness.  

If you have ever felt that way, especially if you have disqualified yourself from being used of God in any real way because you’re “not good enough,” there is good news.  There is a way to get rid of the noose that is around your neck. 

The first thing you’ll have to come to grips with is the low price you were putting on your own value.  Though Isaiah 52 doesn’t say this explicitly, the fact is that we sell ourselves very cheaply when we sell ourselves into bondage.  Do you have any idea how much value you have to God? 

A friend of mine told me this week that real forgiveness is always tragic, because it isn’t just “forgetting about” some way in which someone hurt you.  Real forgiveness is having a valid indictment against someone and letting it cost you and not the offender.  Giving up your right to judge is costly.  That’s what God did because he loved you.  He gave up his right to judge you.  Instead of hurting you, he chose to take the pain on himself. 

You were sold cheaply, Isaiah says.  And, to kind of quote C.S. Lewis, there is a deeper magic: you are redeemed – bought back -- without money.  That’s how we come to know his name – that’s the way he redeemed you: without money.  Isaiah also invites us to “come buy wine and milk without price and without money.” (Isaiah 55)

Beloved!  The gift God gave you is still valid!  You can’t mess up enough that he will revoke his promise.  He bought you with the price of his own Son, and now he wants to use you.  And it won’t cost you a cent.