Posts Tagged ‘Revised Common Lectionary Year B’

'21  The Coins of the Money Changers' photo (c) 2009, auntjojo - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple appears in all four gospels.  John’s version appears in the Revised Common Lectionary on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B.  Here is a sermon on this text that imagines what Jesus might do and say if he came in and cracked the whip in our congregations and higher governing bodies of the church today.

No More Business As Usual!

A Sermon on John2:13-22 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Unlike the tax collectors at their tables, the temple sacrifice sellers and the moneychangers could feel good about what they were doing.  They were a service industry.  The law of God decreed that people were to worship God by offering animal sacrifices, and not just any old runt of the litter.  Animals for worship had to be the appropriate species, whole and unblemished.  If you came to Jerusalem from far away, what a tremendous help it was not to have to transport these animals!  You could purchase just what you needed right there.  And not only that, if your coins were inappropriate for the house of God—if they had graven images of Caesar on them, for example—you could change them before you went in.  Then you could put money in the offering with a clear conscience.

The tables of the animal sellers and moneychangers were a welcome sight.  Their proprietors helped pilgrims keep God’s law.  This was especially true at Passover time when crowds of people from all over the world came to worship at the temple.  It did people’s hearts good to see so many worshipers, to see business booming, you might say.

What a contrast it was to what went on at the tax collectors’ tables: outright fraud!  Gouging the poor!  That was a disgrace!  Somebody ought to do something about that.

Like every Jewish man, Jesus regularly worshiped at the temple.  It began in babyhood when Mary and Joseph took him there to dedicate him to God, making their sacrifice according to the law.  At twelve years old, Jesus was already discussing scripture with the teachers there.  Jesus was thoroughly familiar with life in the temple.

On that fateful day when he entered the temple courtyard, Jesus stood there a moment observing it all.  But he was not pleased.  He saw crowds of people participating in the routines and rituals, but little genuine, deep-in-the heart worship of God.  What he saw there was not so much underhandedness (although some of that might have been going on) as it was spiritual emptiness.  The temple was supposed to be the place to encounter God.  But the people, and especially the religious leaders, the professional servants of God, had gotten so caught up in business as usual that they had drifted away from God.  The spiritual core of their worship was gone.  Nobody expected God to say anything new.  Nobody, or almost nobody, was listening. (more…)


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Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” Mark 8:35.  This is part of the gospel text for the second Sunday in Lent, Year B.  Often we read Jesus’ call to take up the cross and die as the call of the individual Christian.  Certainly it is the call of every disciple.  But it is also the call of every group of disciples: every congregation, every judicatory, every denomination.  If our worship and program schedules look successful–and no doubt some good is coming about–if things look okay, we presume they are okay, and thus we don’t have to worry about dying.  Christ bids the church to come and die.  If we want to put people in touch with the living Christ, then we must be willing to die to self as a church. 

In the sermon that follows I put it about as starkly as I ever have with my flock.  I had been at Morton Church for nineteen years when I preached this sermon.

Those who die with Christ will rise with Christ.  Lord, what in me needs to die?

Dying Into Life

A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 and Philippians 2:1-13

Jesus delivered one shock after the other that day.  Peter and the other disciples could not believe what they were hearing!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “suffering” go together.  Everybody thought that the Messiah was going to inflict suffering on the oppressors, not experience it himself.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “death” go together.  The Messiah couldn’t die!  The Messiah was going to kill all his—and our—enemies.

Peter and all the rest had really gotten their hopes up that, after so many would-be Messiahs had come and gone through the years—and yes, there were many—in Jesus, here he was at long last.  In Jesus they saw the power they thought it would take.  They had seen Jesus heal people, and subdue demons, and feed thousands on just a little food.  Jesus had to be the Messiah, and no, the words “Messiah” and “death” do not go together!

Nobody wants to hear the words “church” and “death” talked about in the same sentence, either.  But sometimes we can’t avoid it.  Recently we received the painful news that yet another small church nearby is closing.  We know what this means!  It means that children have left, many people have died, and that hopes and dreams have died.  Our friends in that congregation are living through hurt and loss.  And we can imagine them also experiencing a sense of failure, perhaps, maybe even shame because they can’t keep going.

How can God allow this to happen to good people?  How can God allow a church to die?  We sure don’t want that to happen to us! (more…)

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Temptation of Jesus in desert. HOLE, WILLIAM: ...

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Matthew and Luke let us in on the conversation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, but Mark simply shows us a picture:  Jesus is in the wilderness, tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts, and being waited on by the angels.  Here is a sermon on the gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, Year B:

Wild Beasts and Angels

A Sermon on Mark 1:12-15 with allusions to 1 Kings 19:1-9 and 1 Peter 4:12-19

Some would have us believe that once you are in relationship with Jesus, life is inevitably going to be easier.  It’s true that it will be better, because Jesus Christ gives us meaning for our lives.  But it’s hardly ever true that life will be easier.

Life certainly got harder for Jesus after he accepted his mission.  Mark says that after he was baptized, after he received wonderful words of assurance, the Holy Spirit himself drove—not nudged, not urged—DROVE Jesus out into the wilderness to face the enemy, Satan, who embodies everything evil.

It was a trial by fire, something like boot camp, where new military recruits are driven and tested to the limit because they may have to face what is even worse later: the horrors of war.  The testing time strengthens them for hard work ahead.

Matthew and Luke tell us about the conversations Jesus had with the enemy, and the logic Satan tried to use on him in the wilderness to turn him away from God’s plans.  But Mark simply gives us a vivid snapshot of the scene: wild beasts threatened Jesus, but angels ministered to him.

Many of Jesus’ early followers knew what it was like to be menaced by wild beasts, destructive forces beyond their control.  For almost the first four hundred years of our history, it was not easy or safe to be a Christian.  Soon after Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers fell victim to torture, imprisonment, and execution for bearing his name.

In Rome, wild, vicious rumors circulated about Christians, that they were cannibals, that they drank babies’ blood during communion.  Neighbors accused them of being antisocial because they couldn’t participate in many of the popular—and immoral—amusements of the day.  Those Christians were odd, second class.  When Christian families moved into a Roman community, residents complained, “There goes this neighborhood!”

Misfortunes of all kinds were blamed on Christ’s people because they refused to worship the Roman deities.  The Roman deities had to be placated, lest they send some horrible disaster.  Some thirty-odd years after Jesus died and rose, the Emperor Nero even blamed the church for a fire that destroyed much of the city of Rome.  Historians suspect that Nero set the fire himself.

Christians certainly made convenient scapegoats.  The early Christian writer Tertullian commented, “If the Tiber (the river in Rome) floods the city, or the Nile refuses to rise, or the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, famine, or pestilence, at once the cry is raised: Christians to the lions!”  (E.T. Thompson, Through the Ages, p. 23).

Christians to the lions.  Christians suffered greatly because of Satan and his evil cohorts prowling around them like lions.  And yes, some of our mothers and fathers in faith were literally thrown to the wild beasts.

Sometimes the whole world looks like a wilderness full of dreadful beasts, big and small.  Oppressive rulers living high on the hog while their people starve.  Big-time business executives bankrupting their companies, raking in millions for themselves while their employees’ retirement funds evaporate.  All kinds of beastly behavior leaving people afraid and unable to trust.

What is all the violence, hatred, and selfishness of the world if it’s not a pack of wild beasts preying on God’s children, ripping the human family apart?  (more…)

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Medieval leper bell at the museum Ribes Viking...

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What a poignant question that is.  The reality is that sometimes we don’t receive the relief and the cures that we long for and pray for.  Here is a sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany, Year B, that speaks to that question and to that reality.

The Answer Is Yes!

A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:18-22 and Mark 1:40-45

It is no wonder the sick man thought that Jesus’ answer might be “no.”  No was the answer he got all the time.  Leprosy, even in its mildest forms, what today we would call psoriasis, was one of those conditions that meant you were unclean: impure, unholy, unacceptable to God.  Could you live in town like normal people?  No!  Could you come into the precincts of God’s house? No!  Could you come into the fellowship of God’s people?  No!

People with leprosy had to live alone outside the town walls, wear disheveled clothes, cover their mouths and cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever any normal person was near.  Work was out of the question. To survive they depended on pennies tossed at them by softhearted people.  The givers were careful not to get too close, though.  Any contact with an unclean person would render them temporarily unclean and banned from the community and the house of worship themselves.

If Jesus said “No!” to the man’s request, that would be no surprise. Jesus might be just as disgusted by the man’s condition and as wary of contamination as everyone else.  God frowned on those who were unclean—that was common knowledge.  Jesus’ answer could very well be “no!”

There are times when it’s tempting to conclude that Jesus’ answer to suffering people now is “no.”   How many times have we prayed and prayed and prayed for sick or troubled people, but we see little or no positive result?  How our hearts long for a complete cure!  How our souls beg God for help!  Yet no cure is forthcoming.  The sickness progresses, and they die.  Jesus’ answer then seems to be “No, I don’t want to heal you.  It’s not my will.”

When people develop modern equivalents of leprosy, such as HIV infection, “no” is what they often hear from the community, and even from the church.  “No, God doesn’t want to heal you,” some are quick to answer.  “Your sickness is a punishment from God.  You deserve to be sick and more.”

And then there’s the mechanical model of healing: God will say “no” to your request for healing unless you satisfy the faith requirement.  “Let’s measure your faith,” God says in this model.  “No, your faith is not quite strong enough.  The answer to your prayer is no.”

But what about people with permanent disabilities?  Is “no” the answer Jesus gives them?  It certainly is the answer humanity often gives them.  Education is just one arena where this happens.  Parents of children with severe disabilities go to the officials and plead, “Could you please provide an assistant so my child can go to school?  Could we please work out an Individualized Education Plan that will help my child learn?”

Learning is a crucial form of healing for these children and for everyone.  But consider this comment by someone in the U.S. Department of Education some years ago.  The official said that people with disabilities are inevitably morally responsible in some way for their condition.  In other words, they deserve their misfortune, and therefore it’s okay to make only a small effort to provide them an education.  That official’s comments sum up a common attitude. Some school officials and some other parents seem to wish special needs children would simply go away.  They want to say “no,” and they will say “no” if you don’t hang in there and advocate for your child.  Is God’s answer “no” too? (more…)

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Here is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B.  It was written a few months after Hurricane Floyd devastated our area.  Our community needed Jesus to take us by the hand and lift us up.  About two-thirds into the sermon there’s a marvelous true story about the healing of a congregation.

He Will Lift You Up

A Sermon on Isaiah 40:27-31; 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10; Mark 1:29-39

There she lay burning up with fever.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was too sick to go to Sabbath services at the synagogue, too sick to help with Sabbath dinner, too sick to come to the table.  The flu, or whatever the illness was, had knocked her flat and drained her strength away.  There was no aspirin or Tylenol, no antibiotics or antiviral agents, and no intravenous fluid replacement.  Bathing her with cool water was only available method for fighting the fever.  Her caring family did the best they could.

The illness was a strain on the whole household.  Several generations lived there together, and everyone’s hands were needed to keep everything going.  The mother-in-law’s hands were needed, but even more her presence was needed.  Her place was empty.  And if Peter’s mother-in-law was anything like some of the people I know, she lay there worrying about being a burden on everybody.

Her worried family brought Jesus home straightaway from the synagogue, and before he could sit down, they told him about her.  They had just witnessed the authority with which Jesus had cast an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue.  Surely Jesus could help their sick loved one combat this fever.

In our household of faith, we have so many people to tell Jesus about.  Look at the number of people on our prayer list, and there are many more named in our hearts!  Some are literally down in the bed.  Some are growing weaker and weaker.  Many struggle with chronic illnesses or chronic pain.  Many are so tired they can hardly go.

Just as many sick people and their loved ones gathered around Peter’s house that evening, many are gathered around and inside our household of faith.  Some have been knocked flat emotionally.  They have fallen into a pit of depression that seems to have no bottom.  Down, down, down.  Some suffer from mental and spiritual anemia.  Their strength is spent.

Exhaustion and depression can strike groups of people. That was the case for Israel in exile.  As a nation they were powerless.  Babylonian soldiers had rolled through Jerusalem, destroyed their homes and their spiritual home, the temple.  Then the Babylonians marched them hundreds of miles to Babylon.  Deportation.  Captivity.  And Israel couldn’t do one thing to stop it.  The Babylonians flattened the people’s souls as well as their homes.  Overcome with despair, they found themselves wondering whether there even was a God.  And if there was a God, where was his power?  Where was his love?  Had God forgotten them?

Our region is dotted with abandoned houses and businesses where floodwaters rolled through.  The Harbour West apartment complex still looks like a war zone.  Hurricane Floyd knocked people off their feet economically, emotionally and spiritually.  Those who are working to help them back up can witness to the toll Floyd has taken, how the trauma has provoked a variety of emotional and physical illnesses.  It is heartbreaking to see.  And that takes a toll on the recovery workers.  They are tired and sad. (more…)

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What exactly is an unclean spirit?  And how does Jesus exercise his authority over unclean spirits?  Notice in the painting at the right that the uncleanness comes out of the man’s mouth.  Here is a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B:

What Is an Unclean Spirit?

A Sermon on Mark 1:21-28 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, all of a sudden, a man started shouting, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus, Nazarene?  I know what you’re up to.  You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”  Can you imagine the sensation?

Some time ago our friends at First Presbyterian Church uptown in Rocky Mount and at Lakeside Baptist Church had just this sort of thing happen in their churches.  One Wednesday night when a group of First Presbyterian folks gathered for a meal and Bible study, a man they didn’t know wandered in. Their Director of Christian Education was leading the study, and she graciously invited him to have a meal and join their study.  He was quiet at first, but as the study went on, he began to grow agitated and then launched off on a tirade about why the Bible does not permit women to preach, or to teach in any setting that includes men.  The DCE managed to keep her cool, and dismiss the group with prayer despite the man’s ranting and raving.  The men in the group escorted him out, and they alerted the police.

The following Sunday, the same man went to worship at Lakeside Baptist Church, which had recently called a woman as an associate pastor.  Again he was quiet at first, but then he disrupted the worship service just as he had the Bible study.  The deacons tried to escort him out, but he resisted.  Eventually the police were called to resolve the situation.  Turns out this man has done this in other places, too.  He crusades against women in the ministry.  Needless to say, his behavior shocked and upset people.  He may or may not be mentally ill, but I think most of us would agree that he is spiritually disturbed.  There is something unclean, unholy in his behavior, an unclean spirit lurking about him, negative, disruptive, generating turmoil.

In Jesus’ day people thought unclean spirits were behind illnesses and other phenomena that they couldn’t explain.  The word “unclean” didn’t necessarily mean literally dirty, although it could mean that. The word “unclean” basically meant disordered, mixed up, out of place in some way.  A man with deformities, for example, would have been considered unclean and therefore unfit to approach God to perform priestly duties in the Temple.

This week as I studied, I tried to put my finger on just what an unclean spirit is, and here’s the summary I came up with: An unclean spirit is a disruptive spirit, a negative force or power that resists the will and way of God and oppresses people.  Unclean spirits hold people captive, hold them down, preventing them from being healthy and whole as God intends.

In Jesus’ day, unclean spirits were thought to be behind what we now call epilepsy, an electrical problem in the brain, and behind mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia that we now treat medically.  People with these illnesses seemed to be possessed by forces from beyond themselves.

We no longer attribute those illnesses to unclean spirits because we have an understanding of what’s wrong and we have means to treat it.  And yet, there are so many other disorders and troubled situations where negative forces really do seem to be in the driver’s seat, oppressing people and causing untold pain to them and to those around them.  (more…)

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The Revised Common Lectionary for January 22, 2012 pairs a selection from Jonah 3 with the call of the first four disciples in Mark 1.  Both texts certainly involve making a change in direction.  Here is a sermon that looks at the story of Jonah as a whole and focuses on what it took to get Jonah turned around.

Holy Timeout

A Sermon on Jonah 1:1-2:1a and Acts 9:1-9

Imagine what it would be like to move forward, full speed ahead, with total confidence.  Imagine what it would be like not to have to struggle with doubt or indecision or anxiety.  Feeling certain certainly does feel good.  Complete certainty—what an appealing possibility!  Or is it?

For the two men in our scripture lessons today it was full speed ahead.  Paul was on his way to Damascus to conduct a holy roundup.  Filled with conviction, he climbed up on his horse and headed out.  This was holy war!  Paul knew in his heart that these people following the Jesus Way were wrong, dead wrong.  These people of the Way were dishonoring God and disrespecting God’s good law.  They were condoning sin and leading others to do the same.  For the sake of the true faith and true belief, they had to be stopped.  Whatever it took: inquisitions, beatings, prison, even death, just stop them!  Full speed ahead in the name of the true religion.  Full speed ahead in the name of God!

Paul was sure he understood what God wanted.  But Jonah indeed did know what God wanted.  God was calling him to go to Nineveh and preach the good news of repentance.  That was clear.  But Jonah didn’t want those no-good Ninevites to be saved, so it was full speed ahead for him in the opposite direction.  God would just have to find somebody else.  Being God, God certainly could find somebody else if God wants to.

“I’m outta here,” Jonah declared.  He went down to the seaside, and bought a ticket on a boat bound for Tarshish.  Then he went down into the bottom-most part of the boat.  Then he went down into the oblivion of sleep.  He wanted to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.  He didn’t even want to think about those people!

No uncertainties nipped at Jonah’s heels or Paul’s heels.  It was full speed ahead!—but in both cases in the wrong direction.  They were both certain they knew better—better than those Ninevites!  Better than those people who belonged to the Way!  By implication, even better than God!  We can take it from here, God!

Thinking they know better has gotten the people of God into trouble time and time again.  Assuming they know the way has gotten them into trouble time and time again.  Where has arrogant certainty led the church through the ages?  Into crusades, so called “holy” wars. Into violence against one another, Protestant versus Catholic, Anglican versus Presbyterian.  History is full of Christian fights.  (more…)

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Painting of Samuel learning from Eli

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Here is a sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B:

A Call in the Night

A Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 with allusions to John 1:43-51

The problem wasn’t so much that the word of God was rare.  The problem was that listeners were rare.  Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, are a case in point.  Along with Eli, they were supposed to be serving as priests at Shiloh.  But instead of serving and leading the people of God, Hophni and Phineas exploited them to serve their own appetites.

These were dark times in Israel.  But the ark of the covenant containing God’s written word was still there, and the lamp on the lamp stand in the sanctuary still burned.  That was where Eli’s helper, Samuel, slept every night.

It was night in Israel in more ways than one.  Those who were supposed to be listening to God weren’t.  And God was getting ready to speak and to act, to do something about it.  In this sleeping youngster, God saw someone who would truly listen to him.   “Samuel, Samuel!” God called.

At the sound of his name, Samuel was awake.  It must be Eli.  Eli was elderly.  His eyesight had grown dim.  He often needed Samuel’s help.  Samuel hurried to his side.  “Here I am,” he said.  “You called me.”

Eli was surprised.  “No, I didn’t, son.  Go on back to bed.”  Twice more this happened.  Now even though Eli’s eyesight was dim, his insight wasn’t all gone.  He discerned that the voice calling Samuel by name was God’s voice.  “Samuel, it is the Lord calling you.  Go back to bed.  If the voice calls again, answer, and say, “Speak, Lord.  I’m your servant, and I’m listening.”  So Samuel went back to bed, and waited.

In many ways it is night now.  Every day the numbers of the dead in the violence in Iraq grow, now to over 2,100 Americans and by an estimate President Bush cited on December 12, 30,000 Iraqis.  (Note: this was preached in January 2006.) We are bound to remember them as well, for Christ calls us to love and pray for our enemies.  Most of the Iraqi people are just trying to survive.  The costs of war are always a nightmare.  How can we describe this as anything other than night?

How can we describe it as anything other than night when there’s deep economic distress: layoffs abound along with the fear of layoffs, while top executives pull in hundreds of times more income than their employees.  In some cases their lowest ranking employees have to depend on Medicaid.  The state of our economy means suffering for many and hard, hard work for our friends on the front lines, at social services, trying to help.  And they’re trying to help with fewer and fewer resources.  You may disagree, but it seems to me that something’s out of whack when our representatives are cutting taxes on the wealthy who can afford to pay more, while cutting care for the elderly, poor and disabled, and meanwhile there’s an expensive war to pay for.

How can we describe it as anything other than night when self-centeredness seems to be the rule everywhere?  Shadows of all kinds fall.  Sorrow strikes everywhere.  And need of all sorts is everywhere. (more…)

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John the Baptist (detail) , by Matthias Grunewald

The gospel lesson for Advent 3B from John 1 shows us another side of John the Baptist.   Here, John is a witness who points to Jesus the Light.  The church is called to point people to Jesus.  But do we have to “wow” them in order to do that?  And if we think we have to “wow” the people we’re trying to reach, to whom are we really pointing?

John the Witness

A Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-34, 3:22-30, with Allusions to Isaiah 40:1-11

John the Baptist attracted attention.  Matthew, Mark and Luke describe John’s distinctive appearance, unusual diet, and fiery preaching style, and no doubt that was part of what drew attention.  People came from miles around and lined up to see him and be baptized.  But John also had a following and disciples of his own.  He didn’t just have spectators.  If John were in ministry today, he could have a successful organization all his own.  It might even have an interesting name, such as Wild Honey Ministries.  People might line up to buy John’s books and DVDs as well as to be baptized by him.  He would get lots of hits on his website.  John the Baptist attracted attention.

The Gospel of John reports that the religious authorities took note of this and sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to investigate.  They wanted to know more.  Who was John?  What was this all about?

John was quick to say in a number of ways, “This is not about me!”  He immediately and decisively pointed the questioners’ attention elsewhere—namely, to Jesus.  “It’s all about him,” John declared.


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Jan Brueghel the Elder, John the Baptist preaching

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Here is an Advent sermon about what repentance looks like, and in particular, what repentance looks like in a church setting.

Get Out of the Way of the Lord!

A Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-5 and Mark 1:1-8, Second Sunday of Advent—Year B

God was on the move into the future, the prophet Isaiah declared.  And the people of God needed to get ready to go with God.  But on the road to the future, the obstacles in the literal wilderness weren’t the only obstacles that God would have to overcome.  God would have to overcome the obstacles in the people’s hearts.  What was in God’s way?  Try stubbornly held beliefs, attitudes, fears, and just plain old habits.  Try exhaustion.

Sometimes people don’t want to take the risk of hope.  Why get their hopes up?  I can hear them right now raising objections to Isaiah’s vision of a new journey to the Promised Land:  “Isaiah, this is too far-fetched.  What if we fail?  Isaiah, we don’t want to get disappointed again.  No, thank you.”

Somewhere in the back of their minds they knew that if God wasn’t through with them, then God could still ask, expect, even demand something from them, something that would cost them.  Daring to hope opens you up to pain all over again.  You might have to drink the cup of suffering.

Some of the exiles found comfortable lives in Babylon.  Why put that at risk?  Others wanted to go home, but were afraid to make the journey.

To get the exiles moving, God had many obstacles to overcome.  “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah cried.  “Cut a road!  Open out a way!  Make room for God!  Push over the mountains!  Raise up the valleys!  Smooth out the rough places!”  And that includes those in your hearts.  To put it bluntly, prepare the way of the Lord also means get out of the way of the Lord.  Get out of the way and let God lead.  Set aside whatever gets in God’s way and let God have God’s own way.

It was a lesson that God’s people had to learn again and again.  Even the great apostles Peter and Paul had to learn to get out of God’s way.  (more…)

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