12.25.2007

Christmas

The last 48 hours belied expectation. The house, stacked high with bags and boxes and bows simply could not be put to rights by Christmas morning. Not one, but two batches of candy failed - runny caramel and crumbling toffee. The mall, which we expected to be open until 11 p.m., closed at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Our favorite carol was left out of the Christmas Eve worship service. And, there was not that quaking sense of rebirth for which we'd spent weeks preparing.

There seemed, in the final Christmas countdown, no end to disappointed expectations. Do you ever notice how little disappointments mount? Kind of like the lime build-up on the shower head--little by little and the next thing you know, water is spraying everywhere but the place you expect it.

The lectionary for this first Sunday after Christmas is largely about thanksgiving - about establishing a real understanding and appreciation for the incarnate deity that was Jesus - a child of flesh and blood, born of Mary amidst the sheltering care of a bewildered Joseph. It also moves the story forward and sets up for the reader a series of failed expectations. It sheds light on the role shattered expectations played in the early life of Jesus and the role dashed expectations might play in our lives.

The Isaiah passage echoes the now familiar theme of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. A key here is the assertion that "It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them." The words foreshadow a time when the LORD, in concrete presence, saves the people.

The Psalms passage calls all of creation into thanksgiving and praise for the LORD. From the sea monsters to the cattle to the sun and moon and stars, all of creation is called upon to recognize the LORD's good works and praise him. The passage also further asserts the LORD's favor for those who are faithful.

The Hebrews text was written for second generation Christians - possibly Jews that were now following Christ. It is a text full of Old Testament references. The selected text focuses on the importance of Jesus' humanity to the establishment of a new with everyone-Gentiles as well as Jews. It is a text that already begins to foreshadow the role Christ's ultimate death on a cross plays in the establishment of a new covenant with all of humanity.

These three texts stress the themes of Jesus' human birth redefining and renewing the covenant relationship between God and the people, and then the passage from Matthew drives us further into the narrative about the life of this incarnation of God.

After a weary arrival in Bethlehem, a less than comfortable birth in a stable, and a visit by wise men bearing precious gifts, Joseph thinks that all of the drama is over. And then he receives another angelic visit. This time he is warned to flee to Egypt to save his son from Herod's jealous wrath.

Now, we need to take just a moment to really process what has happened in a short of expanse of time surrounding the virgin birth of the Son of God. We know that this tiny baby was born into a society oppressed and weary from political upheaval and tyranny. How many expectations were violated by this chain of events? How many people had their expectations dashed? What motivated these people to continue to faithfully follow God?

Beginning with Zechariah (John the Baptist's father and husband to Elizabeth), we have an aged man resigned to being childless (not unlike Abraham and Sarah) who, because of his commitment to his own expectation is rendered mute until he recognizes the miracle God has performed in his life. His expectation was dashed and replaced with a gift from God.

Then we see a virgin, engaged to a hardworking carpenter, who turns up pregnant before she is married. All of this is unthinkable in her society. She has shamed her family and that of her husband to be, all because she trusts God to care for her.

And what about Joseph? He has every right to have this woman stoned. And somehow he understands that this is not about his expectation, nor about what the society around him believes to be acceptable and right. Something bigger is happening here and he sets aside his own agenda and rolls with the action.

Then there is Herod. He knows he is in trouble. He knows that the people hunger for a savior...a remarkable act that will save them from his tyranny. He instructs the wise men of the East to bring him news of this birth which some say was prophesied thousands of years earlier. Instead, the wise men shirk the expectation of Herod and skip town.

When we enter the story this week, we have a couple ready to move past the shock and awe of the unconventional birth of this baby boy. They are ready to move on with life. And then Joseph is told to take his "wife" and "her" son and leave his hometown because this tiny baby has rocked Herod to the core and he is in a terrible temper. He's going to destroy this child if they do not flee.

Dashed expectations...plans turned topsy-turvy. The story belies expectation.

It is easy to count the disappointments and the failed expectations that surround us. It turns out that a life open to God's Spirit is without predictability. When we open our lives to Jesus we are left to figure out how our expectations and God's callings can be reconciled.

+Will we listen for the voices that help us see the next move?
+Will we have faith to make that move as advised?
+Where are the places that your life has been unexpectedly upended?
+Who was present with you in those unexpected twists and turns?

When we are spent from the labor and longing to rest in our deliverance, when we hunger to stay in the celebration and crave a lasting Sabbath, you tell us this is where our work begins. For the labor that is never over, give us strength; for the healing that is ever before us, give us courage. May our resting be for renewal, not forever; and may we work for nothing save that which makes your people whole. (Jan L. Richardson)

So may it be. Amen.

12.17.2007

Advent 4

As the two of us sit here in suburban Maryland, it is tough to imagine being a first century Jew or living next door to Isaiah as Jerusalem (and eventually the Temple--the Home Court of God) is about to fall. Saying we are worlds apart is an understatement.

Of course, we can share with ancient Israel frustrations about how our leaders function and we can speak with foreboding about what our country and culture may come to if we continue at this speed; but really, we (at least the two writing this) are not feeling too much of a sting. We both have places to live, we both eat warm meals every day, we both have cars to drive, and we both have jobs to drive them to. We really do not live in fear of the government or of someone persecuting us for the things we believe or the things we commit to, and we are not afraid of our country or religious center being destroyed by invading armies.

The Messiah (Savior) these writers were looking for seems to be dramatically different from one we can understand--they were looking for a military/political leader to rescue them from national disaster and today it seems our yearning toward a savior has more to do with an individual relationship.

For most of the history of Israel there was a covenant connection between The People and God. They knew that God would always be their God and that they would always be God's people. As time moved forward and the relationship vacillated from better to worse and back to better again, we see Israel (as a people) moving closer to and further away from God (as we do today as individuals). But they always knew that, in the end, God would be faithful to being in relationship with them--"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me." (Ex. 20.2)

The ancient Israelites wanted a King--a human, political, military, social representative of God. And eventually they got a line of Kings that began with Saul and eventually (officially) ended with Zedekiah in 587 BCE when the Temple was destroyed. Ahaz is the Judean King descended from David (as promised in 1 Samuel 16) faced with increasing political instability in the region as Assyria threatened the lesser powers. If Assyria defeated Judah and killed Ahaz, this would end the Davidic line--that is a lot of pressure on one's historical lineage. And Isaiah is advises Ahaz to stand firm in his faith and accept God’s promise, ignoring the political landscape around him.

Ahaz was looking for the political fulfillment of the prophecy, not the eternal fulfillment of promise toward relationship.

In the Psalm we get another political plea. It is a lament (estimated to be written also during the reign of Ahaz and near the fall of Judah) by a people who perceive that all of the turbulence and unrest around them is punishment by God. Their request for God’s face to shine is a request for reprieve from their constant struggle for land and autonomy. Save us God...send us power.

The Matthew text immediately follows the genealogy which establishes Jesus through Joseph’s family as a descendant of David. From what we can discern, Matthew's primary audience were Jews, and so the connection of Jesus to King David is vital. The writer is overtly making a connection his Jewish audience would appreciate and that would legitimate Jesus as the Messiah everyone was awaiting.

The salutation of Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome was probably written to a mixed community of Jewish Christians recently returned to Rome after being exiled in the mid 50s, and Roman Gentile Christians. In these first lines (3-4), Paul also affirms Jesus was a descendant of the Davidic line (a king by historical/societal/political standards) and the son of God. The great move of Paul is that he also affirms that the message of Jesus is also to the Gentiles--he’s calling for unity established through God’s grace.

But the difficulty that presents itself is that Jesus’s Davidic connection is about the only thing that the Jews were expecting. He was not the overpowering political or military leader. Instead, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phillipians 2.7).

It is this tension of the historic expectation of a political/social solution that puts Jesus at the crux of controversy and ultimately results in his crucifixion. The expected Messiah who would preserve the Temple and continue the Davidic line instead brought a message of love for more than just the Torah adhering Jew.

Today, there are many different individual and corporate interpretations of what it means for us as "God's people / children" that continue to cause confusion around what we all expect in, and from, a Messiah.

It would be easier to picture the need for a savior if one is fighting a war in the Middle East, or if one is homeless on the streets of Baltimore, or if one is living in constant fear of rape and murder in Sudan.

But what about those of us that live relatively warm, safe, dry, violence-free lives already?

Does living a cushioned life make it impossible for such people to understand the deep need for a savior? Have we made a connection between physical safety, comfort, and health and our own salvation and the coming of the Christ?

+What is it we are yearning for?
+Do we need hope, meaning, rest, fulfillment, companionship, purpose, love, acceptance?
+What do we hope to be "saved" from?
+What do we need / desire a messiah to come and do in our individual lives and in our world today?

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

12.15.2007

Advent 3

The readings for this third week in Advent are unified by the expectation and fulfillment of dramatic, circumstance-altering, physical transformations that God enacts and that continue to connect the birth of Jesus to the Hebrew prophets. We are preparing to witness the fulfillment of centuries upon centuries of expectation born out of a culture whose faith in God is based on experience of covenant – promises made and relationships restored by the turning of Israel toward God and God toward Israel. The hope was for another miraculous covenantal act…thunder on the mountains, plagues, or liberation. No one was looking for the for the physical incarnation of God…God’s Son born of a woman.

In the previous week’s reading, John confidently announced the coming of one who would baptize the repentant with fire and the Holy Spirit. As time passed, and as the scrutiny of Pharisees and of Herod intensified, early believers held their breath. They watched and waited. Imagine their mix of emotions as there was no massive political upheaval, no broad sweeping societal shifts. Can you feel the awkward silence? The building doubt?

In our 21st century world, as we await the birth of Jesus, it seems odd to be reading about John the Baptist inquiring from prison about the validity of this teacher he hoped would be the Messiah. The Matthew text this week foreshadows the questions that inevitably rise in our own hearts as we await the birth of this Son of God each year. John is desperate for assurance that his teaching and sacrifices have not been in vain. He sends word…Jesus, are you really “the One?”

In Isaiah, the prophet comforts a people in exile, recently defeated by the Babylonians, accustomed by their history to cycles of success and hardship, by casting a vision of a desert transformed not just with a stream or river, but radically altered to be a swamp teeming with life. The lame will walk and the speechless will sing with joy. These are dramatic and abundant reversals.. And in their longing, the people also recognize that God has delivered them through miracles time and time again.

In Psalm 146, the author praises God for creation and for justice and for changing physical circumstances--feeding the hungry, freeing the imprisoned, opening the eyes of the blind. These wonders have been experienced and are surely reminders of God’s covenant with the descendants of Abraham.

The Luke passage is taken from the Magnificat, The Song of Mary – Mary praises God for the honor of using her body for the birth of the Son of Man. She references the strength of God’s arm and acknowledges that he has fed the hungry, fulfilling real human need. God’s actions through the ages have been a cycle of returning to covenant relations with the people of Israel. She remembers the kings that God has brought down and the lowly that God has lifted to great heights.

The letter from James was probably written to the first generation of Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine. These communities were not far from the experience of Jesus’ teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. They were still expecting the imminent return of their Messiah – still living in a covenant expectation. They were probably victims of great political upheaval preceding the final destruction of the Temple. James encourages these early Christians to have high expectations for altered circumstances. He reminds them that the rain does indeed come in its season to nourish the crops. He draws them back to the tradition of the prophets, and through them to the covenant that has been the underpinning of Jewish society, and encourages them to be patient in their suffering.

Returning to Matthew, Jesus almost echoes the Psalmist in his response to John “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Tell him what you HEAR with your ears and what you SEE with your eyes. This Jesus has altered the physical circumstances of people time and time again. This is no philosophical Messiah…this is not just about theoretical change. This is a man who is physically altering those he touches, those with whom he prays, those to whom he speaks. This is a man among the living with dirt on his feet and the smell of real people on his hands.

Is this what John expected? Is this what the people of the covenant had waited for over the centuries? Their experience historically was one of commandments, fidelity and sanctions. Were they anxiously waiting for a baby that would became a humble carpenter who taught us how to love, to forgive and to be forgiven rather than becoming a superhero, a politician or a king who took the world by force?

In the first week, we pondered our own expectations of how the story will end. In the second week, we considered whose voices might be revealing God’s work among us today. This week’s readings call us to look for the tangible physical signs of God in our lives and in the lives of our whole world; then we, along with John, must decide if we believe this is the Son of God. And then, if we do, we must each what difference that might make in our lives and in our community.

+Who is this Jesus, whose birth we await?

+What do I know about covenant? How does the history of covenant shape me as a Christian?

+Do I really expect Jesus’ presence in my life to bring about radical, physical, circumstance-altering change? If I do, do I share that expectation and faith with those around me?

Oh come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home. The captives from their prison free, and conquer death’s deep misery. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent 2

Sometimes it is hard to reclaim the original impact of words written thousands and thousands of years ago. We are an over-stimulated, jaded crowd. We have to peel away our context and really return to a different time and place.

Each writer this week is calling for a new world order…not just a supreme leader but a new structure…a new way of being. And they aren’t just calling for it…they are calling their communities to it, envisioning it, advocating for it, asking (pleading) for it, they are hungry…desperate…for it. They cannot go on living this way—they are asking for radical change.

Imagine Isaiah…imagine John the Baptist speaking today…

“…Now is the time to turn back to who God created you to be. It is difficult to do this the way the world currently exists, but I am here to tell you that you have it within you to live the life of true Nature...true Creation.

If we will trust what we have been told and what we have seen in Jesus, we can live in ways that create more joy and goodness every day rather than defending against pain and difficulty.

One has come who gave us the power...the Spirit within us to put our own needs to be right and liked and comfortable aside so that we can see and hear the needs of the other people around us. God shines light on the difficult and cold and dark places of our world and we are the ones that must look in to those illuminated places.

The cat will lovingly play with the bird. The Democrat and the Republican will engage in open and honest conversation. The American Consumer Patriot and the Iraqi Tribal Leader will put down their weapons with their fear and insecurity and embrace one another as brothers. The superficial high school student and the person with disabilities will work together to embrace everyone who is scared to stand out. The native peoples that came before us and the invisible immigrant peoples that make it possible for us to buy cheap tomatoes will share an embrace of forgiveness to the people that exploit them.

In this new Creation people are willing to step outside of their home fortresses of isolation and hold the hand of their neighbor. Yes, the lion will lay down with the lamb, but more impressively the radically religious will share a meal with the gay and diseased and poor and abused and divorced and imprisoned and uneducated.

…Hey presidents and chairpersons and elders and bishops and principals and partners…your titles have blinded you. The only titles that matter are Seeker and Child of God.

You count plenty…just as you are, not because of your power or authority or policies or borders or… All that stuff doesn’t really change the world…only God can do that…and only people ready to embrace a different way will see and be in that changed world.

I pray that all of us can be freed from the power and the status that burdens us and leaves us sucked dry, unable to love, to gather together, to enact the Kingdom of God.

+Is there a prophetic voice today?
+Who are the prophets speaking to you?
+What do those voices say to you today?
+Can you see their vision? Can you taste it?
+Do you know how to live into that vision?

O come thou Root of Jesse's tree, an ensign of thy people be; before thee rulers silent fall; all peoples on thy mercy call. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent 1

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Surely you’ve seen the bumper sticker celebrating 1/20/09, the date of the next presidential inauguration. We know that on that day, we will have a new president. But what do we really know about that day? Some of us have a vision that it might be better (more peaceful, more open, more collaborative and cooperative). The only thing we can be certain of is that it will be different; but we do not know the whole story.

Today, most Christians are convinced we already know how Christmas turns out. We know the beginning and the end of the story. We already know that this is our Savior who will fulfill his purpose on a humiliating cross one spring after being born in the requisite humble manger in the cold darkness of December. But is that really the whole story?

Looking at the lectionary texts for the first week of Advent we find writers who did not know the whole story. They had different images and processes that they were hoping for…they each had their own ideas of what a better life (their salvation) might look like. Each reading this week is written in a different historical context, and each of them seem to be looking toward a future day when things will be different (presumably “better”) for the people of God than they are today. It reminds us of lines in Reid Bush’s poem “Unforeseen”: “It's hard to know when you need to / what it is you're going to want.”

In Psalm 122 we find a poet that could not be a bigger fan of Jerusalem. This writer is so happy that she has had the chance to spend time in “the house of the Lord”. Jerusalem
is the place that gives all of Israel a common history and a current common location to “give thanks to the name of the Lord”. She prays for its peace, its prosperity, its security, and its goodness. The writer of this psalm is hopeful that the future of Jerusalem will bring more of the same success and power and glory it has already enjoyed in the past.

Isaiah shares with us his idyllic vision that one day Judah would be the nation held above all other nations—the Israelites would determine how everyone else acted and lived. He saw an especially nationalistic vision of the law governing the world coming from Zion—the word of the Lord would flow from Jerusalem and the God of Israel would teach everyone how to live together. It was a dream and hope and prayer of how the future would turn out.

Paul takes it a bit further and offers more explanation and direction. He has the luxury of knowing the history of Israel. He knows the story of the temple being built and destroyed and rebuilt, he knows the national history of Israel and its sporadic fidelity, and he knows the Psalms and the visions of Isaiah. He saw the life and death of Jesus play out in front of him. And he had his own intimate and dramatic and powerful connection with Jesus through his own call experience. As he writes to the new community of Jesus followers in Rome,
he does not emphasize national salvation and glory, but instead puts much more energy toward how the individual believers should live so they could be ready. He does this because he, like Isaiah, sees “being saved” as imminent: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

But in Matthew we find Jesus setting a different tone. His vision of the future…of the coming of the Son of Man is not as rosy. He talks about unknown hours, about women being swept away, about people disappearing, about thiefs in the night, about keeping watch at an unexpected hour—these are much less comforting and welcoming thoughts than those of a great nation rising to the top of the world. He does not explain what “the coming of the Son of Man” will mean or look like…only that we must be ready because it will happen. Jesus is pushing toward something more than national power. He seems to be speaking more directly toward the individual listeners present. He turns the other three texts on their heads. He reminds them all that we do not know when or where or how “this” will happen—he only assures folks that we must be prepared.

Today many of us hope the future will be better. We remember how good things were and hope those days will return. We dream, hope, and pray that our world will somehow get its act together and all of our humanitarian and ecological problems will be solved and we will be “saved.” We think that because we can look at the whole Christian story found in the bible we know exactly what we are getting when we pray “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” We assume, like the Psalmist, Isaiah, and Paul, that we know what it means when we ask for Jesus to be born in to our hearts again this Christmas season.

So often the theme for the first week of advent is “watchfulness.” Unfortunately, we spend a lot of our time watching only for things (events, solutions, scenarios) that we want to see. We are a society focused on products and outcomes. We have goals and we benchmark our progress toward those goals.

But the reality is that like the psalmist, Isaiah and Paul, we don’t know the whole story. We’re watching for something that we can’t see quite yet. We’re racing toward a finish line with an unknown location. What if we were, instead, mindful…mindful of what we do not know and faithful in our prayer that God’s will be done and that our hearts and minds and hands are prepared as instruments in the construction and realization of the Kingdom?

What if in our mindfulness, in our understanding that we must be ready, we ask ourselves some guiding questions:

+How do I expect the story to end?
+How am I prepared to participate in the story?
+What do I need to move toward a reality that I cannot fully understand or imagine?
+Am I willing to let God’s story prevail over mine?

O come, Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind. From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.