A New Beginning
Nov. 25 A New Beginning * Malachi 4 * Psalm 132:1-12 * Revelation 1:4b-8 * John 18:33-37
I still remember one coffee hour after church in Bay Center a couple of years ago, as folks were sharing what they had had for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a reminder of how much things have changed in our culture, as people listed quinoa this and quinoa that, ethnic dishes, and even different desserts. We have had pretty much the same things every year since I was a kid, with the addition of tofurkey when my sister suddenly decided she was a vegetarian. If you tell my nephew that you are a vegetarian, he will respond: “I’ll pray for you”, but then he is my brother’s son, and worships bacon more than he does Jesus. In our house, most of us would be happy just having turkey. If that seems strange to you, then you most likely have never tried Kristen’s turkey. Anyway, as I listened at church that morning it also reminded me of the people missing from church, younger folks who could bring new things to the way we do church, along with different foods. We can blame my generation for breaking the old pattern of families passing on their faith to their kids, who then went to church. My generation is mostly absent, and these younger folks, currently obsessed with quinoa, skinny jeans and other peculiar things, are under-represented in church. I’m not sure if those two things go together, quinoa and absence from church, but if they would return to church, they can serve all the quinoa that they want!
We are finishing our brief look at the book Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church today. Strategy #6 is: “Be the Best Neighbors.” We need to know who our neighbors are, what is important to them, and seek to meet their needs as we are able. We embrace the diversity around us, seek to be compassionate and patient with all, and honor what is good in our community. We seek to help our younger neighbors find their calling in life, and support causes publicly that will make our world better, both locally and globally. As we look to reach out to our community, we also want to keep in mind that we don’t have to do all of this on our own, we can also increase our influence by partnering with other churches and organizations that serve our community. We celebrate what works, even when someone else is doing it.
The bulleting insert lists the 6 Essential Strategies from the book and includes some things that we don’t need to be successful. So with all of this in mind, and many other things too, we seek next to create a plan for our church as we look into the future. Change is possible, if we keep listening to God and discern what he wants us to do here. I think Kristen and I have been here long enough that we as a church can be more intentional about laying out that path forward, although I still need to work on getting to know the people around us and their needs better. In our various meetings and unstructured times, I have heard many great ideas and believe you have a sound foundation on which to build, but we want to make sure we are all on the same page and know what is going on.
The last chapter of the book is called: “Growing Young in Your Context: How to Create a Plan for Change.” As is noted in the bulletin, the first step is to listen: to God, young people themselves, our own hearts, research about young people, those who work with young people, older generations and our neighbors. We all know that new housing developments are coming soon, and according to demographic studies, millennials are the largest group of new neighbors coming our way. Many of you have already been listening and have a good idea of what our neighbors are like and have some insight as to what the newcomers may be like. The next step is to put these various stories together and envision what we hope this church will be like in the future, having successfully adapted to change and having reached new people. What will it take to get us there? What steps do we take now? We could even go so far as to write down that vision of the future, and image how we will interact with those new neighbors and church members. The book is a little light on actual things to do, and that is kind of the point. We must know our neighbors, and then come up with ways to reach them, not people somewhere else. What will work here may not work elsewhere, and what works in a different context may not work here. One method I will be starting once I can obtain a large wall map of Camas is to walk through the neighborhoods, keeping track of where I have been on the map, and you all are invited to join in with this. The first thing to do while walking is to pray for all of our neighbors, that God will bless them and plant the seeds in their hearts to lead them to Jesus, and perhaps even to come to church. We can also keep track of where we have talked to folks and have handed out invitations to our church.
As you may have noticed, I have been printing the mission statement of the United Methodist Church in the bulletin, which is: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We come here to worship and study God’s word and share our lives, but it doesn’t end there. We are called to be faithful and grow as disciples, but that is not an end in itself. We also are called to take our faith into the world and make it a better place. You probably noticed also from the bulletin that this is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. Next week is the first Sunday of Advent, as well as the start of the new church year, although I have been sneaking in Advent material since the Advent Season is just not long enough. This week, we celebrate that Jesus is the Lord of all, our King and the one we are disciples, students and followers of. We look forward to the day when he will return in final victory, while at the same time we celebrate his first coming into our world. We celebrate new beginnings for our church and for ourselves, as we remember all that God has done for us through Jesus. As Jesus first entered our world as a baby like us, helpless and crying in that manger so long ago but ever new, we too look for a new beginning, in our lives and in our church.
But first, let’s look at the final words of the Old Testament this week, from the book of Malachi, which we read earlier. Like most prophetic books, Malachi preaches judgement against the unfaithfulness of Israel, especially the temple practices that are polluting the land rather than glorifying God. As a result, God will be forced to act in order to bring the faithful back to him, although here at the end of the Old Testament, that has yet to take place. We are told in Malachi 3:
Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the LORD of heavenly forces. Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance? He is like the refiner's fire or the cleaner's soap. (Mal 3:1-2 CEB)
Who might this be? We are told in Malachi 4:
Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you, before the great and terrifying day of the LORD arrives. (Mal 4:5 CEB)
Who might this be? Our Lord himself says, in Matthew 11, about John the Baptist:
He is the one of whom it is written: Look, I'm sending my messenger before you, who will prepare your way before you. I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is violently attacked as violent people seize it. All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John came. If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let the person who has ears, hear. (Mat 11:10-15 CEB)
When I was a kid, we had a pastor who liked to dress up as Biblical characters, which is probably why John the Baptist seemed so compelling when I was younger and more imaginative. His clothes and diet would catch the attention of any youngster, but now I consider his role in God’s plan more, which is far more important if not quite as colorful. John had to come first, before Jesus. Jesus may come in power, but he needs someone to prepare the way first. That job has now been assigned to us. Not only do we seek to prepare the way for Jesus to come and judge our world in order to make all things new, we also seek to prepare the way for Jesus to enter the hearts of those who don’t know him yet. We of course should be doing this all year long, but Advent is a time when preparing the way for Jesus is our primary objective. Not just for those who don’t know him, but for those of us who may need to get reacquainted. After a long and difficult year, we need to slow down and come again to Jesus as little children, letting him cleanse us and give us a new beginning.
Jesus Christ--the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth…the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father--to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen. (Rev 1:5-6 CEB)
This is the king we serve, the one who:
was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice." (Joh 18:37 CEB)
Unfortunately, the holiday season has become one of the busiest and most stressful times of the year in our culture. We spend more money than we can afford on things we don’t need, and eat more than we need, while we have neighbors who can’t afford one present for their kids, kids who often go to bed hungry, and will return to school after Christmas to hear their schoolmates brag about all of the fancy new things they got. Our country has gotten more divisive, cruel and insensitive, obsessed with meaningless pursuits, while we have seen so many people lose everything in natural disasters. But it is into this world that the grace of God comes to save us and envelop us with love beyond what we can imagine, beyond what we often deserve. Jesus our King suffered here as we do but invites us to act in loving ways as he did. He shows us how to love when it is hard to do so, when we face difficult people and great trials. We have a King who walks with us now and promises to one day wipe away every tear, make all things new, and restore and redeem all of Creation.
So in the midst of the coming craziness of the holiday buying season, take time to be alone with Jesus our King. Rest in his love, breath in his grace, and remember his promises that will soon come to pass. Remember that this is a very difficult time for many people, so be kind and gentle with those you jostle with at the mall, and your friends and loved ones who struggle with depression and stay at home, for they all could use a little love and hope more than ever. As you are shopping for gifts, remember that what many people need the most is the gift of the love and hope found only in Jesus, given through each one of us.