Monday, November 28, 2016

John cries, Pay Attention! – 4 December 2016 – Second Sunday of Advent

The core of John's message is the same as that announced by Jesus, the nearness of God's reign (cf. Matthew 4:17). Matthew also identifies John as the one described by Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 40:3), reshaping the exilic oracle to point to the wilderness as the location of John's activity. These features of the text are typical of the manner in which Matthew weaves together a thick web of images and key words that resonate with important Old Testament themes and stories. – Aaron J. Couch

Matthew 3:1-12

Into the dark, quiet, watchful season of Advent bursts John the Baptist . . . His ascetic diet of locust and honey, his rough clothing, his earnest message of “Repent!” all seize the imagination. We sit up, take notice, of this voice crying in the wilderness, sensing we must give our full attention.

John stands as a man between times, and in Matthew's account of him, he is aware of it. He is a preparer of the way, sent to make all ready the One who is to come. His baptism is a baptism for repentance, a cleansing from the accrued detritus of sin. A sorrowful, humble recognition of the need for cleansing is part and parcel of its efficacy. Therefore, when the Pharisees and Sadducees come to the Jordan to be baptized, John is outraged. He sees them as insincere. They are not coming because they see themselves as stained and dusty, weary with sin, weary of the darkness in which the world hangs waiting. They are seeing this baptism as simply another gold star on their perfect charts. . . .

John is trying to shake complacency. His is a scream for attention, a grabbing by the shirt, in-your-face confrontation. “You think you're pure? You think you're favored? You think God can't do something completely new? Something is happening, and nothing will ever be the way it was! Wake up!”

John was a man of the in-between times, standing in the darkness, but straining for the light. And this is the mood of Advent. As we stand in the darkness and strain once again for the light, may we let our complacency be shaken, may we examine ourselves with eyes wide open, may we recall that in the Nicene Creed, which we recite almost automatically, there is a reminder that there is a new thing that God is prepared at some point to do: “Christ will come again.” – Judith Buck-Glenn

Isaiah 11:1-10

Having announced the judgment of God by which the mightiest of trees will be cut down (10:33–34), the prophet turns his attention to the stump that remains. Both the tree and the stump symbolize the nation of Israel as defined by the monarchy. The stump, the end of the tree, represents an end for the dynasty of David. But it is also the beginning of a new work of God. – Aaron J. Couch

Romans 15:4-13

The challenge for our nation during Advent, and especially following a contentious election, is to consider the meaning for each of us and for our congregations that the Apostle Paul admonishes us to greater and deeper concern for our neighbors.  

Paul insisted that the weak and strong should never despise each other, but instead act with love, accommodating as best they can the needs and scruples of their neighbors. – Aaron J. Couch

Judith Buck-Glenn is associate rector at Christ Church Episcopal in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.

Aaron J. Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.

Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 21-31.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Being Spectacular isn’t Necessarily Faithful

Aaron Niequist, a worship leader at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, writes about his movement from focusing on offering emotional highs each Sunday to the throngs that come to the large churches he has served. Writing in the most recent issue of Liturgy, he explains what, instead, seems to him now most crucial for people of faith.

Pressure to be spectacular can crush worship leaders, pastors, and anyone involved. Every Sunday cannot be the Super Bowl. Trying to create epic experiences every week—where everything needs to be bigger and better than last time—often leads to burnout and disappointment. No church has the resources of U2, and Sundays keep showing up with surprising regularity.

My friend, the writer and Episcopal priest Ian Morgan Cron, observes that many worship leaders feel weekly pressure to “go grab God and bring Him down … so that everyone can have a seismic experience, because that’s what they came for.” And if the experience was an 8.5 this week, the pressure is on to “up the production value” so that next week is an 8.75! (Can I get an “amen” from any of my worship leader friends? Or maybe a “Lord, have mercy”?)

Church communities are not consumers to be entertained or donors to be appeased. They are instead God’s deeply loved daughters and sons who need to be lovingly pastored. How can we make sure we are pastoring them well? Get clear about the question you ask that drives your worship choices. The question we ask will direct the outcome. If the driving (functional) question is, “How do we get the room pumped up in the first thirty minutes of the church service?” the answer will never be, “Corporate confession.” Or prayer for the world. Or silence. Or blessing our enemies. Or an extended reading from scripture. . . .

But if the question is, “How do we form each person into Christlikeness for the sake of the world?” then all of the above will be deeply necessary and healing. And such a gift to all who are on the treadmill of figuring out how to top last Sunday.

I recommend that each ministry team try to name the question driving what you do. (Not the question you know you should be asking and answering, but the actual question framing your church and ministry.) Very little can change until this question changes. . . .

Even though I have grown up in Evangelical churches, I have been deeply moved while learning about and experiencing the historic liturgy. While I do not yet connect with every part (or understand it fully), I cannot shake the conviction that we need to find a way to integrate the ancient with the modern. . . .  

While trying to explain my interest in the liturgy to my wife, she offered a fascinating reflection: “It sounds like you basically want to offer the church a well-balanced meal every Sunday.” . . . For twenty years as a worship leader, I have offered one kind of meal every Sunday to my community. . .  Although strong on celebration, energy, gratitude, and earnest passion, it has been quite weak on introspection, lament, and concern for the world. . . I have learned to desire deeply offering my faith community a well-balanced worship meal over the course of a month.

Aaron Niequist is a worship leader, songwriter, and pastor. Currently, he curates a discipleship-focused, formational, ecumenical, practice-based community called “The Practice” at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. 

Aaron Niequist, “Too Much Bono in the Church?” Liturgy 32, no. 1 (2017): 42-45.

Monday, November 21, 2016

One will be taken; one, left – 27 November 2016 – First Sunday of Advent

The religious imagination chews on images that sometimes clash and sometimes feed depth to each other. Such is the beginning of Advent, a time when we consider ultimacy.

In these weeks, if we prepare for the coming of the Holy One, we anticipate our ultimate salvation. If we ponder in these weeks our own finality and that of Earth itself, we practice living with the knowledge of oblivion and, in so doing, we hold what exists in the present of infinite value. Whichever path we emphasize in Advent, our comprehension of Jesus’ presence will be strengthen and altered by immersion in a story that is at once ancient and new.

Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus indicates that the time before the temple is destroyed will seem quite normal. People will be engaged in the activities of ordinary life—eating, drinking and marrying. But all of that normalcy will be swept away just like it was in the story of Noah's flood.

The image of “one taken and one left” is employed as a core element of the premillennial dispensationalist idea of the Rapture. It seems more likely that, following the image of the flood, to be “taken” is to be taken away in judgment or death, while being “left” is to remain alive.

Jesus reiterates his warning that no one knows when this flood of judgment will happen. Jesus' followers will not be surprised when the temple is swept away, together with the political and religious system built upon it. Instead, they will recognize it as God's vindication of Jesus.

This Advent text assists the Christian assembly to make spiritual preparation to greet the Lord. It is not difficult for us to be deceived by the apparent normalcy of daily life and fail to recognize that the risen Christ is ready to meet us at this hour and every hour, whether in prayer, service to the neighbor in need, worship or Bible reading. Advent summons us to be alert during all of ordinary life, recognizing that the living Lord is ever ready to break into our lives with saving power. – Aaron J. Couch

Isaiah 2:1-5

As the Christian assembly welcomes the season of Advent, it receives a word of promise that rings with hope for the coming of God and the triumph of peace. . . In the religious imagination of the ancient world, mountains were the “thin places” where one might encounter the divine. This passage announces that the Temple Mount will be recognized as the reality to which the Mesopotamian ziggurats aspired; the reality of which the Greek's stories of Mount Olympus were shadowy intuitions—the home of the living God on earth. . .

The exaltation of Zion points to the preeminence of Israel's God. The whole human family will discover the goodness of the Lord and will seek God's instruction (Torah). The result will be the end of warfare and lasting peace. People will realize they no longer need weapons that produce death, so they will transform them into farming tools for sustaining life. – Aaron J. Couch

Romans 13:11-14

Paul directs his readers' attention to the future and to the salvation that God will accomplish, because that future is what gives meaning and direction for believers in the present time. . . Paul employs the image of putting on the armor of light, which suggests that there is a struggle involved in embracing God's future fully in the present. He also uses the image of putting on Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:27) as a metaphor for baptism. The two “putting on” images may be considered roughly equivalent. The promises and character of Christ may serve as a strong defense against the enticement of a life lived only for personal gratification, which sadly will lead only into darkness. – Aaron J. Couch

Aaron Couch is a co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon.

Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 5-14.