Skip to content

Prayer of Faith

9/17/17

O Faith, where would you be

if not for the world’s labor

with which I also groan

for that creation be reborn

is my prayer

 

O Faith, where would you be

if not for the victims of injustice

I am helpless to defend

for that they be vindicated

is my prayer

 

O Faith, where would you be

if not for others’ pain

which I have caused

for that they be healed

is my prayer

 

O Faith, where would you be

if not for the children

under my care

for that they grow in wisdom and favor

is my prayer

 

O Faith, where would you be

if not for the promise of Love

from whom I am estranged

for that we would be united

is my prayer

Advertisements

01.13.19 Isaiah 43.1-7, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22 Spirit is Biology Sermon Summary

Epiphany means “appearance” and the season kicks off with the visit of the Magi on January 6. Epiphany was originally the celebration of Christ’s birth in the Eastern Church. Since the fourth century the West and East reached a compromise: We would celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25 and Epiphany on January 6. This is why there are twelve days of Christmas.

One of the other major Epiphany “appearance” stories, when Christ’s identity is revealed, is the baptism of Jesus. Except for a brief story about the boy Jesus at age twelve, we have no account of his life from his birth to his baptism by John.

John’s was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But when Jesus was baptized, something new “appears.” At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends “like” (not “as”) a dove, and a voice from heaven declares, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When the church baptizes today, both messages are present; John’s baptism AND Jesus’ baptism. Christian baptism offers cleansing from sin and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit that made Jesus’ human birth possible, and it was the Spirit that revealed his divine status as Son of God.

Christian baptism proclaims both repentance and renewal, both human act and divine act. Baptism offers salvation not as a point in time but as a process of maturing through collaboration so we can become children of God, just like Jesus. This is why the Gospel of John can say that in Christ and with the Holy Spirit, we are given “power to become children of God, born not of blood, or of the human will, but of God.” (John 1:13)

This is the truth that appears with Jesus: The Spirit causes us to be reborn and adopts us into God’s family. In other words, through Christ and the Spirit you are as much a child of God as is Jesus.

You may find yourself arguing with this truth. You might say, “I’ve sinned too much.” But God answers that the Spirit has cleansed you of sin, and Christ has rescued you from its consequences.

You might argue, “I’m still sinning.” But God answers that Christ and the Spirit give you the “power to become a child of God.” It is a process. Remember Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, in human and divine favor.” (Luke 2:52)

You could argue that, “we’re merely adopted children, not real.” But the Spirit really unites us to Christ in the sacraments, we have communion with Christ through water, bread, and wine. So Paul can declare that, “because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6)

We argue with the revelation that we are as much God’s children as is Jesus for these and many other reasons. And that’s why it takes time, collaboration, the Spirit, and the resurrected Christ. But go ahead and argue. It’s OK to argue with God. Through Isaiah God even says, “Come now, let us argue it out. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

We need to have this argument so that God can win the argument. We need to see God win this argument so that salvation appears in our lives.

In our day, no one articulates this truth better than Henri Nouwen. In his Life of the Beloved he says, “Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” (p. 28) Using phrases drawn from scripture, he speaks the truth of being the Beloved thus:

I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover and your spouse . . . yes, even your child . . . wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one. (p. 31)

Nouwen understood the truth of Epiphany that we are as much God’s children as is Jesus.

Before the Epiphany, it was Isaiah who understood it best. Writing 600 years earlier to Exiles on the threshold of deliverance, Isaiah cries, “Don’t lose hope! God has not abandoned you! How could God abandon his own child?” God, reminds Isaiah, is our “creator, redeemer, and savior.” God “calls us by name.”

Does that mean we won’t have trials with waters and fire? No. But when we do, God is with us. Isaiah understood that salvation is not the absence of suffering, but rather God’s presence within suffering.

“All this,” Isaiah says, because, “You are precious to me, and honored, and I love you.” Isaiah understood the truth that we are as much God’s children as is Jesus.

I know this is hard to believe. Some of us have been working so hard to be a worthy child of God. We’re like the two sons in Jesus’ parable: The one who lived a sinful life and returned, and the one who lived a righteous life with his father. Both had to learn that regardless of anything else, they were children of the father. One of the sons didn’t argue about it. The other one did.

Go ahead and have that argument. It’s OK to argue with God. Only then will you discover God wins that argument and you are God’s beloved child.

12.24.18 Three Perspectives, Luke 2:1-20 Sermon Summary

JOSEPH

I have been angry about Rome for a while. We all have been. Yes, they have occupied our land for generations. There’s nothing really new there. But now there is this census!

It was never going to be a convenient time to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I had to go to Bethlehem as a descendent of King David. It was 90 miles, hilly, and bandits and wild animals confronted us all along the way.

What made it worse was that Mary was pregnant. And what an ordeal that has been for me! Here we were engaged, with everything settled, and I discover she’s pregnant. It was my right to leave the arrangement. Mary would have to fend for herself. It could have been much worse for her according to the Law. But I decided to separate quietly and move on.

Then this divine messenger visited me in my dreams. He assured me there was some meaning, some purpose in all this. This fatherless child will be called Yeshua, God saves. And I thought, It’s about time! I don’t know how much more Rome-thing we can take. Our religion’s been corrupted to keep the peace. We’ve already paid tribute and now this census meant that even more taxes were coming.

I thought: We do need a savior; but why this child? Why do I have to be involved? Why can’t I go along with own plan—find a new, a faithful wife, and surround myself with my own children? I can keep the business going. I can live and die like everyone else.

No. Now I’ll always hear the murmuring of the people as we pass by. I’ll always have to figure out how much to tell others. People will always be thinking I’m crazy or stupid or just too nice.  And I realized it’s not just the nation who needs a savior: I need a savior just to get through all this.

I’ve had nine months to get used to it. I’ve done a lot of reflecting and praying. My faith has grown, just like Mary’s belly. It’s stronger now. So we arrive in Bethlehem and there’s no room in the inn? We’ll have to sleep with the pack animals? With my stronger faith I’m OK with it.

I’ve learned that with a God who saves, I can handle anything. It’s not that it’s not hard, but the difficulty is made a little easier with God. And now that this child is born, we’ll see how God uses him to save others.

A SHEPHERD

It didn’t seem like a special night. It was cold, dark, and the sheep were napping on and off. Some of the other shepherds I knew—others I had just met. You get grouped with different guys all the time.

We were having the typical conversation: How we never have enough money; how physically hard the job is; how we wish we had a family—or if we did have a family, how we never get to see them.

Being a shepherd is hard. Most of us are kind of social outcasts. Some of us have earned that through bad behavior. Others of us just don’t really fit in. King David started out as a shepherd. I guess he was a bit of an outcast from his family—what with all those older brothers. None of the guys I was with that night, I can tell you, was going to be king.

And then it happened. A divine messenger appeared to us. At first we thought it was a wild animal, and we were ready to fight and kill. Pretty soon it was clear it wasn’t an animal. But we were still scared.

This heavenly being started talking politics! He said a savior was being born in none other than the city of David. We thought that was nonsense. The Roman Caesar called himself the savior of the world. They were calling him the Prince of Peace—right! They even called him the Son of God.

There couldn’t be two sons of God, right? And certainly not born in Bethlehem! So we wrote the vision off as an undigested bit of beef. But then a whole choir of these messengers appeared. They corrected our political thinking. They said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” “Don’t forget,” they were saying, “others may claim to be god, you might even have other things as gods. But your calling is to the highest God.”

We were shocked that this message came even to us shepherds. We are poor, marginalized, and uneducated shepherds. But we decided to go to Bethlehem and see. . .

A HEARER

We left early and I’m glad we did! I had no idea so many people from Bethlehem! We arrived yesterday and got one of the last rooms. Others have been arriving pretty consistently all day. I even saw a pregnant couple earlier. I hope they have relatives here, ‘cause they’ll never find a place now.

We were eating bread and watching everyone, talking about the Romans, of course, which is why we were all here in Bethlehem—to get counted. Rome is very efficient about such things. Man how we could use a King David again!

“What are the chances?” we were saying. Looking around at all these descendants of David come back to Bethlehem—maybe the chances are pretty good! Or maybe the bloodline has been watered down too much for such hopes.

Anyway, I’m not sure it mattered anyhow—God’s been quiet a long time!

We saw some shepherds walk through a bit ago. “Figures,” we thought. “Tourists make easy targets.” Shepherds are pretty sneaky. We were keeping our eye out for them.

But we didn’t really need to, because when they came back around they were really excited about something. I’ve never seen anyone so excited! They said they saw a vision like the prophets of old. The said they heard a message from God about the birth of a new king, someone who would save us—but not just us: This child would save the whole world.

And I guess that’s why they were so excited: Because if God had finally broken his silence to say he was going to save the whole world, then that must include even folks like shepherds. They had come into town to see this newborn king. They said he was wrapped in bands of cloths and lying in a manger. I could tell that pregnant woman was close . . .

If this is all true, what the shepherds are saying, then I’m going to start looking at life differently. I had concluded long ago that God wasn’t too interested in us anymore, so I stopped looking for God or listening for God.

But now, if this is really God’s doing, then I guess I need to be more open to God—especially in the ordinary things. . .

12.23.18 Titus 2.11-14 The Heart of Christianity Sermon Summary

12.23.18 Titus 2.11-14 The Heart of Christianity Sermon Summary

If you ask me what is the heart of Christianity, the answer would change from day to day. But in Advent, my answer would be, the heart of the Christian faith is the promise of God.

On another day, I’d agree with various theologians and say heart of Christianity is any of the following. It is the conversion of the secular to the sacred (Augustine). Or it is the transformation of the world through the incarnation (Chrysostom). I can agree that it is the right ordering of our thought (Aquinas). Or trusting the word of God (Luther). I would say it is surrendering to the will of God (Calvin), or the courage to counter our anxieties (Tillich). I can agree that it is living according to God’s parental claim (Barth), or realignment of our life around justice (Borg), or our healing towards greater Christlikeness (Rohr).

But ask me during Advent, and I will tell you that the heart of Christianity is patient faithfulness in God’s promise. Advent is my favorite season of the Church year, not because I love Christmas so much (I don’t so much), but because it is so honest. Advent says, “Hey, the world is a dark and lonely place, strife and war are real. Christ has come, but things aren’t perfect.”

And especially in contrast to what the world has made of Christmas, Advent says, ”A new car isn’t going to fix it, nor is a diamond ring, or a trip to the beach, or baking family recipes, or decorating the house.” Advent calls us to remember that God is faithful to his promises—that it started with Christ’s birth but that it hasn’t come in its fullness.

Advent says “Let’s be honest. Let’s complain and moan. Let’s remember God’s promises. Let’s celebrate Christ’s birth. Let’s hope in Christ’s return.” That’s the invitation of Advent: Patient faithfulness in God’s promises. But what does it mean?

First, we must understand what God has promised. According to Zechariah, the promise is salvation from our enemies so we may worship and serve God without fear. This begs the questions: Which enemies prohibit worship? Certainly there are political enemies. But they always fail.

The real enemies of worship are religious. They are the Law, devil(s), Sin (with a capital S), and Death (with a capital D). These attack our spirit, and Jesus said those who worship God must do so in spirit and in truth. For where there is weakened spirit, there is weakened worship. The promise is that we will be delivered from the Law, devils, Sin, and Death—liberated to worship God now and into eternity.

Advent asks, “Do you believe this?” Do you believe worship matters this much to God? Does it matter enough to God to free us now to do it? If you believe the promise that we are delivered from Law, devils, Sin, and Death, it changes your life today. You govern your life differently. You become “zealous for good deeds” in the words of Titus.

Why? Advent answers because good deeds make a difference, even small ones. Mary was a small person, in a small village, in a small country. She heard God’s promise and believed. Mary gave birth, to a small child, in a small stable, and laid him in a small manger. Her child believed God’s promise, healed the sick, welcomed the outcast, confronted the powerful, and resurrected from the dead.

God takes small acts of good and magnifies them for the salvation of the world. What is begun by us as a small good act is taken up by God, completed and perfected, and results in salvation. Advent calls us to patient faithfulness in God’s promise, and even though only a small amount of time left is left this Advent, you can still show patient faithfulness.

Titus gives us some direction for “living the present age” between when the “grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all,” and our “wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ.” Between manger Jesus and monarch Jesus, during Advent, Titus gives us some things to consider.

Titus tells us to “renounce worldly passions.” The two greatest worldly passions on display this year are materialism and violence. Titus tells us to be “self-controlled.” I believe the greatest way to increase spiritual self-control is by contemplation on the risen Christ which is our destiny. The more you focus on who God has called you to be, you grow in your self-control to be that person.

Titus tells us to be “upright.” The biblical understanding of righteousness always includes interpersonal relationships. It refers to the just distribution of material and spiritual goods.

And Titus tells us to be “godly,” which in the original language is simply the opposite of “worldly passions.” So generosity replaces materialism, and peacemaking replaces violence.

Small deeds of goodness grow out of these attitudes. They are taken up and completed by God and they result in our salvation and the salvation of the world.

Jesus fulfills God’s promise; he has set us free for such good deeds, for worship on Sundays, throughout the week, and with our lives. When Jesus confronted the lawyers, cast out demons, battled sin, and overcame death, he set us free. And this is what we remember when we come to the table of the Lord—that God has set us free to worship him in church and with our lives—not only in Advent, but throughout the rest of the year.

May we perform small deeds of goodness with confidence that God always completes our best intentions through Christ, and that we participate in the redemption of the world through him.

12.16.18 Luke 1.26-38 There’s Something About Mary Sermon Summary

Scholars tell us that Psalm 131 might have been written by a woman. That came home to me in 1998 when I learned that my Lola (“grandmother”) had died and I was preparing her funeral. Lola was a humble and faithful woman. Her motto in life, through eight pregnancies and seven childbirths in a remote village in the northern Philippines was, “God will provide.”

Like the author of Psalm 131, Lola “did not occupy herself with things too great for her, but rather quieted her soul like the weaned child that was with her.”

My life, and maybe yours also, is such a contrast: I am very occupied. This may be especially true during Advent but if I’m honest with you, it’s true all year long. I’m so occupied, I am pre-occupied. While I’m occupied with one thing, I’m already doing another: Standing in line, and answering email; praying about one thing, worrying about another.

My soul is occupied. A synonym for occupied is possessed. That has concerning implications. What I need is to be dis-possessed, to let go of things, to not hold them so they do not hold me. I need to be more like the author of Psalm 131, more like my Lola, more like the preacher to the Hebrews.

That sermon ends with practical advice: “Show hospitality to others, for in so doing some have entertained angels unaware.” When we’re not occupied, when there is room in our lives, there is room for others. And where there is room for others there is room for angels. And angels are merely messengers from God.

St. Benedict (6th C) was the founder of Western monasticism. He takes the principle of Hebrews even further. In his famous “Rule” (community agreements) he speaks of the hospitality for which Benedictines are famous. We’re told to receive guests as if receiving Christ, to even adore Christ within the guest, for the guest is to us Christ himself. (Rule 53:1, 2, 7)

Perhaps the “rule” for us today is this: Christ is more likely to appear when we expect him. And we make room to expect him when we are not occupied. When we’re more like the author of Psalm 131, more like the preacher to the Hebrews, more like the Benedictines, and more like Mary.

My appreciation for Mary has grown over the years, and it’s not because I went to Notre Dame. I knew that there’s something about Mary before that—actually about the same time the movie came out. It took a while because of my anti-Catholic bigotry, but then I met sincere and faithful Catholics whose devotion to Christ was not infringed upon by their devotion to Mary. In fact it was enhanced by it.

Now I see that Mary is the premier New Testament example of faith, after Jesus, and alongside Abraham, the premier Old Testament example. The evidence for this is in her attitude towards Gabriel. Here is Mary minding her own business, being not too occupied, when she is visited by an angel and shows hospitality.

She does not reject or dismiss the angel. Instead she is “perplexed” and “ponders what kind of greeting this might be.” Is this good or bad? Is this safe or threatening? Is God pleased or displeased?

Her attitude towards Gabriel reflects her attitude towards life. She is open and available. So she finally says, “Here am I; let it be to me according to your word.” And then she is the first person ever to receive Christ into her life.

I wonder if we can be so open? Advent is intended to open us up, to dis-possess us before the light of Christ’s birth fills us. But instead we fill up Advent to overflowing. Can it be different this year? I believe it can be, and the way is through contemplation.

Pope Gregory the Great (6th C) was inspired by Benedict. He wrote that, “Either we fall under ourselves with sinful thoughts, or we are lifted above ourselves by the grace of contemplation.” (Dialogues II, III) This was true of Benedict, and of the author of Psalm 131. It was true of Mary, and can be true of us.

Contemplation is the opposite of occupation. In contemplation we spend time pre-occupied with God. We shut out other activities, quiet other voices, and make ourselves open and available to God’s angels, to God’s messengers, that is, to God’s Word.

Often people will engage in contemplation at the beginning of the day. But it can be done at any time of day. Through the centuries people have found that certain things help them in their contemplation: Candles, beads, isolation, repetition, icons, a cup of tea.

It doesn’t take a heroic effort to practice contemplation, just the time it takes to put a child to sleep according to Psalm 131. And some moments of reflection. This is what happened with Mary when she was perplexed and pondered.

Following her example, contemplation could even occur at the end of the day. You could, before going to bed, reflect upon the inconveniences, interruptions, or perplexing situations you experienced? What was God saying to you? What is God still saying to you?

This Advent I invite you to contemplation as the opposite of being occupied. We may discover with Mary, who surely anticipated being a mother, that God uses our ordinary expectations, when coupled with openness to his Word, to accomplish something as marvelous as the salvation of the world. “For none can guess God’s grace, till Love creates a place wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.” (Come Down, O Love Divine, v. 3)

After the visitation from Gabriel, Mary went to visit Elizabeth, her much older, six-month pregnant relative. Why? To verify? For solidarity? Whatever the reason, what she realized was that God was already at work. The announcement of her pregnancy was news to Mary, but God was already at work in Elizabeth. God is always already at work.

We come to this table each week towards the end of our worship service. It is already set. It has been set for an hour. It’s like God has been expecting us, for God is always already at work. I invite you to come to this table open to receive, like Mary. For here it is not angels whom we receive unawares, but Christ himself. Amen.

12.09.18 Isaiah 11.5-9, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 An Advent Spiritual Check Up Sermon Summary

For those of us who live along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, it’s easy to take the biblical metaphor of the mountain for granted. The same is true of Advent.

Many of our Christmas images come from the book of Isaiah. It’s a long book written in three stages over two centuries. It addresses people in various places: People who are being threatened; people who have been exiled but on threshold of returning; and people who have returned but who are changed. These are people many of us can relate to.

Isaiah’s message to all these people, and to us, is that no matter what, God is still your God and you are still God’s people. Peace will return to you. But Isaiah also saw a future where this is true for ALL people, and even all creation.

The Christmas images come because Isaiah promised a Savior. The Savior would not be a warrior, or a politician, or a person of success by any measure. Instead, the Savior would be a child. “A child has been born unto us,” to use his familiar words; a peacemaker for the whole world.

So, Isaiah says in our passage for today, the wolves, leopards, lions, and bears (“Oh my!”) won’t eat lambs, goats, calves, or cows. And children will play near snake dens without fear. These are captivating images. And one of his favorites images is the mountain of the Lord. Here Isaiah says, “They will not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain.”

It’s easy for us who live in Colorado to take this for granted. But let us not forget that mountains where people meet God in the ancient world. Mountains reach towards heaven. And though it may take an arduous climb to summit the mountain, afterwards we arrive a place of rest and changed perspective. The world looks different from God’s point of view.

This is why our theme this Advent comes from Isaiah 2:3. “Come, let us go the mountain of the Lord, that God may teach us his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” This is Isaiah’s Advent promise. We see it being fulfilled in Christ’s coming. And we await the complete fulfillment in his promised return.

We’ve been waiting a long time. How can we keep faith while waiting? First Thessalonians is the earliest book of Newer Testament. It addresses the anxiety of waiting, as some in the community had begun to die. The Thessalonians were asking, What happens to them until and when Christ returns?

Nearly 2000 years on, we’re still waiting. What shall we do while we wait? Shall we despair, lose hope, abandon the faith? Shall we become apathetic? Shall we pursue a life of leisure and entertainment? Maybe we should explore the world, or exploit the world? Should we try to accumulate as much as we can? Shall we take up a causes? Most of us “embusy” ourselves while we wait. (I coined that word!)

Paul’s answer is none of these things. Instead, while we wait, we should “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Any time of year this is good advice, and in January you might set a New Year’s Resolution to do more of these things. But it’s Advent, and instead of three more things to do in this busy season, maybe think of these as brakes, as guides, as the criteria for a spiritual checkup during Advent.

What does it mean to rejoice, pray, and give thanks? First we have to deal with “always, without ceasing, and in all circumstances”! If we were actually to do this, we couldn’t do anything else! To do one precludes the other two, so they even contradict each other. Perhaps the best way to hear this is that “any time is appropriate” to do any of these three.

The easy ones are pray and give thanks. Here Paul is probably referring to intercessory prayer during which we ask for God’s help in our own lives or in others’. It’s always appropriate to ask for God’s help, and it’s never hard to find someone or something to pray for.

Giving thanks probably refers to concrete things. Think back on your day or your life. What blessings have come to you? It’s always appropriate to give thanks, and though it maybe hard, everyone can find something to be grateful for.

Rejoice is the most interesting one. Remember some people who rejoiced. The Magi rejoiced when they saw the star. Zacchaeus rejoiced when Jesus invited himself over for dinner. The crowds rejoiced when Jesus entered Jerusalem, and also when Jesus bested his opponents in argumentation. Those who reap rejoice at the harvest, Jesus says in a parable. And the Father rejoiced at the Prodigal Son’s return.

There is a sense of celebration in this word. Paul is telling us to find something or someone to celebrate and to do it!

This is Paul’s prescription for those who wait: Rejoice, pray, and give thanks. This Sunday of Advent we have come to the mountain to receive instruction to walk in God’s ways. We have been Instructed to rejoice, pray, and give thanks.

Rejoicing adds joy to our lives. Prayer reminds us of our dependence on God. And thanksgiving makes us sensitive to God’s redemptive action in our lives. Check in with these when overwhelmed, fragmented, distracted, uncentered, or lost this Advent season.

How will you remember to do this? Think of the word “repent.” The meaning of repent starts with a change in your thinking. Make a change to Rejoice, Pray, give Thanks. Changed thinking leads to different behavior. Different behavior leads to a different destination.

If you repent this Advent—Rejoice,Pray, and give Thanks—it could lead you to a different Christmas.

The Lord’s Table is an Advent able, a waiting table were “We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.” It’s also a table of repentance. Here we Rejoice in the presence of the resurrected Christ. We Pray for God’s grace to help us. We give Thanks for God’s gift of salvation. Let us come to this table in this spirit of waiting and repentance.

12.02.18 1 John 1.4-7 Isaiah 2.2-5 Light Unto Our Path Sermon Summary

I love Advent, but it can be hard. I love hearing the promises again, like of nations beating their swords into plowshares—that is, of nations dropping food on each other instead of bombs. But it’s hard because even though Christ has come, the promises have yet to be fulfilled. I find this one-or-the-other thinking changes the message of Advent from good news into bad news. Fortunately, there’s a way to hear the good news again.

The John community, which produced the Newer Testament books bearing that name, tends toward binary thinking. Binary thinking offers clarity. It simplifies the world. It expedites decision making. It can provide us a goal. So there are some good uses for binary thinking.

John’s community loved binaries. Some binary terms from books of John include: purity/sinfulness, fellowship/dissent, light/darkness, obedience/disobedience, truth/lie, love/hate.

Jesus used binaries to inspire goal-oriented behavior. He told his disciples to “walk through the narrow gate, not the wide one.”  He also used binaries when teaching. To the would-be disciple who wanted to bury his recently dead father, Jesus said “let the dead bury their own dead.” To the one who wanted to say goodbye to his family, Jesus said no. (see Luke 9) And another time Jesus said, “whoever loves father, mother, son, daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10)

These binaries may sound harsh, and they certainly are hard. But they are effective illustrations of Jesus’ point. They do, however, invite interpretation and discernment.

Perhaps the most pervasive binary today is the political one of left/right. Everything gets sorted according to this binary.

When discerning the best option, it’s helpful to remember Jesus also saw middle ground. In Mark 9:38-41 John rebukes someone casting out demon because they were “not following us.” Jesus responds to let it alone, because “whoever is not against us is for us.” Did you see that? It wasn’t just the binary of either for us or against us. Jesus created a middle ground for folks who were not against us.

So how do we benefit from the binaries in scripture without losing sight of the middle ground? How can binaries inspire us to “the pursuit of holiness” without causing despair of our falling short? Because we can give up on serving others, on prayer, on generosity, on forgiveness, even other people if we don’t recognize some middle ground.

Here’s how I do it. First, we have to acknowledge that the binaries exist. But we can also look for that middle ground. If we’re open to the Spirit’s leading, we may find it. The prophet Isaiah encouraged the wandering Israelites, “Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” (Isaiah 30:20-21)

Second, within the binary, accentuate the positive independent of the negative. So, for example, when Christ calls us to love him more than family members, I find a way forward by recognizing my need to always grow in my love for Christ, but not to decrease my love for family. I think that’s the spirit of his teaching.

We say Gospel is Good News, but we often forget it looking for bad news. We say, “God is a Savior. That means you are a sinner. Let me tell show you how bad of a sinner you are . . .” Why not say, “God is Savior, and this is Good News because we need a savior” and leave it at that?

We say, “God is Light, and you are hopelessly lost in darkness. Let me show you all the darkness in your life . . .” Why not say, “God is Light, and that’s Good News because we need light. God lights our path”?

I was recently asked if, because I’m Presbyterian, I preach fire and brimstone. “Not too often,” I replied. On the contrary, I get criticized for not doing so often enough. I figure most people know the bad news, and my job is to proclaim the good news and let the Spirit do the convicting.

So I preach forgiveness, love, and generosity, and the Spirit bears these fruits in your lives. Or she doesn’t. And if she doesn’t, is it because I should have berated you with bad news first? Hopefully I find the faithful middle ground.

That’s what I invite you to do, too. “Let us go to the Mountain,” Isaiah says, “to receive instruction and guidance.” This Advent, listen to the binaries. There’s good news and there’s bad news, and often there’s a middle ground. And if you get discouraged, emphasize the good news without dwelling on the bad news.

If you can’t walk in the light, walk towards the light. We can’t stop the nations from waging war, but we can move ourselves towards peace with someone. Make your way towards the mountain. Eventually we’ll get there, step by step, with God’s help.