Approaching the Kingdom

Text: Matthew 25

I don’t really fly all that much, especially now with kids. Nevertheless, there is something that always happens every time I do fly. If you have ever flown, you know the routine. You check in and leave whatever bags are being checked at the counter. You maze through security and go to the particular gate listed on your boarding pass. Now, occasionally, the gate will change – even after getting your boarding pass. Therefore, it is imperative to continually check the gate signs to make sure the flight you want is the one that will be serviced at that particular gate.

Occasionally, I’ve had to make a mad dash from one gate to another to get to the plane that I really needed to be on. Those signs are helpful.

After a waiting period that is either always far too short or far too long, but never anywhere in the middle, the gate opens and the attendant starts boarding passengers. They scan my boarding pass, I make my way through the gate onto the plane and down the aisle to my seat. I settle in my seat and get my carry-ons arranged in a satisfactory wait.

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Why He Came Down

Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20

I imagine, if any of you were like me, your initial reaction when you heard about the events in Connecticut on Friday was not, “Sing aloud…shout…Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” My reaction was much more in line with an earlier verse from Zephaniah’s prophecy. In 1:15, he said this: “A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Yes, that is much more like it.

When I heard there was another mass shooting to add to the stats of 2012, then that the shooting was at a school, then that the school was an elementary school, and then that the toll was borne the heaviest in a Kindergarten class, my thoughts turned to my own children. My oldest will be a Kindergartener next year. I thought of some from our church and the many like them of that very same age in our own community.

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A Thanksgiving Meditation

Text: Haggai 1

(You’ll probably want to actually read the text before you dive into the rest, so go ahead and click on the link above to head over to the passage at Biblia.com. I’ll wait for you.)

I am going to take a wild guess here and say that of all the places in the Bible you might turn to for words to use for thanksgiving, a post exilic Minor Prophet is not the first place you might look. Of all of the doxologies, songs, and other expressions of gratefulness that the Bible has to offer, we don’t often look to the Minor Prophets.

And there is good reason for that. The Minor Prophets are not a generally cheerful lot. They are brooding. They are accusatory. They speak words of challenge and judgment, not of encouragement and praise. Thanksgiving, with its full tables, gatherings of families and friends, memories and reflections on good times and good things and good people, and the stomping over one another for those Black Friday deals now available to all of us on Thursday evening …

Wait a minute. Where did that come from? Sorry, I don’t know how that got in my manuscript.

Or maybe I do. For those of you who use Facebook, you have probably seen those pictures that people like to post with a person on one side and a block of text on the other.  They are usually quite humorous, and often quite insightful. There is one about Black Friday. The picture on the right is of a woman pushing an overflowing shopping cart. The text on the left says, “BLACK FRIDAY: Because only in America do we wait in line and trample others for sale items one day after giving thanks for what we already have.”

(You can see the card here.)

It had been twenty years since Cyrus had given the decree that the Jews could return home. In the first two exciting years, there was a mighty construction boom as they erected an altar for their sacrifices and even laid out the foundation for a new temple.

Then everything halted.

Well, not everything. The construction boom continued. Houses went up. And not just houses to protect from the elements. These were houses to brag about. Not McMansions by any means, but pleasant houses that Joe could go to Ben and say, “Have you seen what Dave over there has done to his house? I have GOT to get me some of that! Tamara will have my hide if she sees that at Sarah’s before I get her some.”

You see, life was pretty good in the Persian Judean satrap. Not blissful, mind you. There were still a few who could remember Jerusalem before Nebuchadnezzar. They could still see the glory of Solomon’s Temple in their mind’s eye. But compared to exile, things were really good! They had their own land back. Jerusalem was coming together a bit at a time. Persia was a pretty benevolent master. They had stirred up a lot of trouble with the temple business in those early years, but the threats and murmurings had settled down since work had stopped. There wasn’t really a need to cause more trouble when life was just settling into a relaxed, predictable cycle.

Of course there never seemed to be quite enough flour in the jar. The wine always seemed to run out before the guests did. The flocks seemed pretty sickly. The ground was incessantly drier than the farmers hoped. And Persian taxes and the cost of goods seemed to make it difficult to ever have two coins to rub together.

The thought never struck them that they might have offended God when they stopped working on His house in order to protect their own heads. Besides, have you SEEN Dave and Sarah’s new paneling?

Here in America, we are blessed beyond measure. Oh, we complain about the economy and how hard life is. And certainly life is difficult when there are mounting bills and no job interviews. But so much is expected as a right here in America: heat or air conditioning, transportation, three meals, phone service, electricity, television and internet, a one-family home with more than one or two rooms and a reliable roof. These are assumptions here that are incredible luxuries in other parts of the world.

Think with me. Use your imagination to go back to your house. Wander through its rooms. Now stop. Whatever room you are in, look around. Look at the furniture, the window coverings, the wall hangings. Look at the tables and shelves around the room and what is on them. How much is there that you haven’t laid a hand on, except maybe to dust, in the last week? Month? Year? Decade?

And how many of you have already made out a Christmas list or mapped your route for Black Friday to add yet more stuff to your collection?

Are we really any different than the crowd in Haggai’s day, loving their paneled walls to the detriment of the work of God?

Let us give thanks this day for the many things with which God has blessed us. And let us remember that everything we have is God’s, something that He has given to us for a little while, not for ourselves, but for His own use and His own glory.

And let’s consider this Thanksgiving the greatest reason we have to be thankful. God has called us from the exile of death to the new country where there is the river of life, the new kingdom He is making ready for His bride. He has marked the path with His own tears and His own blood. He calls us to follow it and invite as many as we can to come along, too.

Let’s be thankful for that. Let us come together and make it our business to work on the house of the LORD – His new house that is His bride, the Church. Let’s make it our business not to grow our houses and our bank accounts and our nest eggs. Let us make it our business always to grow the kingdom of God that is – most thankfully – already ours.

And let us be grateful this day that we hear the words of the Lord to us that the crowd around Haggai finally heard once they started work back on the new Temple: “I am with you.”

Through the Fire

Text: Daniel 3:14-18

I would guess that most all of us have had the experience of God taking us places that we don’t want to go. As easily as we think of the place we’d most love to be in all the world, we can all think of places or situations where we certainly never want to find ourselves. For me it would be pretty much anything that involves large, pressing crowds. That could be a concert, a city, or just a cramped meeting space with only a dozen people. I like my space. I like having the ability and freedom to get out of the way rather than always being in someone else’s way – and them in mine!

There are other places I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go to an office where someone in a white coat comes in to tell me that either I or a family member has cancer or another terminal illness. I don’t want to go to a day where a police officer has to call my house. I never want to attend the funeral of one of my children. I never want to visit the day on the calendar when the money and the food and the gas all run out before the end of the month has come.

Daniel’s three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, found themselves being forced to go where they did not want to go.

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History Lessons

Text: Daniel 2:24-49

When we left Daniel, he, his friends, and all of his co-workers had been ordered executed by the king. As you remember, Nebuchadnezzar had had a dream that had frightened him very much. He asked his wise men – astrologers, sorcerers, diviners, and so forth – to tell him the dream’s interpretation. However, he also demanded that they tell him what his dream was. The text isn’t clear whether this was a test of his wise men’s abilities or if the king had been so scared by the dream that he really could not remember it. In either case, the wise men responded with desperate exasperation that no one had ever asked such a thing before, and no one but the gods of heaven could possibly answer such a request. Then they went on to basically admit that they did not have contact with those gods.

So Nebuchadnezzar rashly decided that they were all crooks that did not need to waste his time, so he called for his executioner and decreed that they should all be put to death – those in the room who failed to answer his requests and all of the rest of them in his kingdom.

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