Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Water and Fire

Ephesians 4:5  "...one Lord, one faith, one baptism..."

Late January always reminds me of my baptism.  That event occurred on January 31, 1988, nearly a quarter century ago.  I was 15 at the time.  I had started attending church about two years earlier with my grandmother, who had herself only attended for maybe a year before that.  It was a small church in a small town, and Sunday mornings brought out 25 to 35 people.  It was part of a three-point Methodist charge and during my few years there went through four ministers – Revs. Beckwith, Swann, Hogue, and Dunaway.  I still remember their names.  As a teenager, and one who attended willingly, I was an anomaly and the congregation simply didn’t know what to do with me. 
Rev. Swann decided at one point to hold confirmation classes for anyone interested.  My grandmother and I took part as did a couple of adults from another church on the charge.  I still remember sitting in the parsonage one evening per week, looking through an oversimplified booklet with cartoonish characters, meant to explain the most basic tenets of faith.  Finally, we set a date for our baptisms and confirmations.  Though my grandmother’s own grandfather had been a minister, there was no memory of her having been baptized, so she took part in that ritual as did I.

Baptisms at that church were exceedingly rare, and Rev. Swann was so young these might have been his first ones for all I knew.  It was an important day for me.  I had been soaking up what I could learn at the church and this moment of initiation meant a great deal.  It was a time of anticipation and pride -- of the good kind.  We had gone over the short ceremony in detail and I was ready. I had been instructed to kneel for the baptism (which, at most, could have been described as a light sprinkling), but my grandmother could not do so due to a bad hip.  But when the moment came, with a bunch of much older folks looking on, my 15-year old self felt a bit embarrassed and I didn’t kneel, but instead stood there as the pastor baptized me.  I’m sure no one thought about or even noticed this, but I had a sudden sense of guilt for failing to follow through on this one, simple action of kneeling at the altar. 

As the years went by, whenever I considered my baptism, this guilt would always crop up.  It was a small thing, yet it seemed big to me.  But now I realize that even this taught me a lesson in grace.  The very imperfections of our humanity that caused me to hesitate that day are what Jesus came to address.  The very act of baptism both cleanses us from sin and welcomes us into a lifetime of improving who we are through an on-going relationship with Christ.  Sure, I was weak that day, but it was alright.  To say the least, I had a lot left to learn. I still do.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Year of the Lord's Favor

Isaiah 61:1-2  "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me...to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor."

[Adapted from my New Year's Day sermon]

There has been a fair amount of hubbub about 2012 already, maybe more than for any year I can recall since 2000, what with all the talk about the end of the world and all. But let's place all that aside and focus on something productive. What will this new year hold for us?  It may seem to be a question every new year brings, but what can we do about the answer?  What can we do to make 2012 better than 2011?  How can we make our lives more meaningful and productive, how can we grow and help others to grow, in this coming year?

I think we can start by looking at a short passage from the Prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
   because the LORD has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim freedom for the captives
   and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
   and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
   instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
   instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
   instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   a planting of the LORD
   for the display of his splendor.

As we read these words, we need to remember that they are not really the words of Isaiah.  Instead, he is prophesying a future message of the Messiah. Did the words sound familiar? If so, that might be because they show up again in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 4.  Jesus arrives in his hometown of Nazareth and goes to the synagogue, where he stands up to read from the scroll of Isaiah.  He automatically find this text to read, and after reading the first few lines explains to the people, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."  To say the least, the people were not convinced.  It would not be the last time that Jesus' promises would be ignored.

In this passage out of Isaiah, five kinds of people are being addressed: the poor, the brokenhearted, captives, prisoners, and those who mourn.  Are we poor in spirit?  Are our hearts broken in some way?  Are we captive to sin?  Are we bound by the darkness and snares of this crazy world?  Do we mourn lost dreams?  If so, then this message applies to us. The good news is that Jesus is anointed to address these issues.  He brings good news to the poor, binds up broken hearts, releases prisoners from darkness, proclaims the year of the Lord's favor...

The year of the Lord's favor?  What does that mean?

"The year of the Lord's favor" simply denotes a new era of blessing.  It is not confined to a specific time in history or even a specific period of time.  It is available to all people, at all times.  Jesus speaks it into being, literally, by proclaiming it, both in Isaiah's prophecy and through his promise at Nazareth that the scripture is fulfilled.  The year of the Lord's favor is there for the taking.  The question is whether we will accept it. 

The human race has a terrible tendency to rely upon the self, and not upon the maker. Our churches are great examples of this.  In Asia, Africa, and in many other places, despite adversities such as poverty, oppression, and poor infrastructure, churches are booming due to trust in God.  It is no great news for a church to triple in size in a year, or spawn new churches in nearby communities.  And yet in the seemingly "Christian" West, with wealth, freedom, and established buildings, leadership structures, and everything else we might think necessary, it is usually an accomplishment if church growth outpaces deaths and drop-outs at the end of each year.  Why?  Because far too often our established churches and their denominations rely on programs and committees to do what God does best -- change lives. 

Every time the ancient Hebrews believed in God's blessings, blessings were showered upon them.  Every time they tried to succeed on their own, they met with utter failure.  There are no exceptions in the whole of the Old Testament to this simple fact.  What's more, they never, as a whole, learned the lesson.  Perhaps more amazingly, neither do we. Where is our faith?  Where is our common sense, even?  If we can call upon the creator of the universe and judge of the world for aid, why on earth do we try to do things on our own?  Why rely on our own fragile and finite selves when we can rely on God Most High?

So here we are, in 2012.  As we think back upon all God has brought us through, look ahead at all He can still do.  Remember that He wants to bless us, to change us, to redeem us, to refine us.  Let us make the decision that this will be the year; that starting today, we will heed the promise of Jesus and accept the year of the Lord's favor.  Jesus has proclaimed it, so let it come, let it be as he has promised.  Let this be the year that you open your heart, your mind, your soul, your life to God, to be changed forever.