Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

February 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Looking for God in All the Wrong Places” recorded in worship (12:33)
Feast of the Transfiguration, Year B
Texts: 2 Kgs 2.1-12; 2 Cor 4.3-6; Mk 9.2-10

According to tradition, Elijah never died. When he was swept by a whirlwind directly into heaven where he continues to live with God, awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Observant Jews still wait for and expect Elijah’s return; at the Passover Seder dinner, an empty place is set for him in case he shows up to announce the coming of the Messiah.

The Bible records that Moses died, but because nobody ever knew where he was buried it was widely speculated that he never actually died, either. Rather, because he was the most important prophet ever to speak for God, many believe that God took also Moses into heaven.

You may remember a few weeks ago the reading from Deuteronomy in which Moses delivers God’s message that God will raise up for the people a prophet like Moses. The books of 1 & 2 Kings suggest that Elijah was this prophet. Like Moses, he received the word of the LORD on Mt. Sinai—not on stone tablets, but in a still, small voice. Like the rod Moses carried, Elijah had a mantle that he wore as a symbol of authority. With the mantle he was able to do miracles, like when he used it to part the waters of the Jordan for him and Elisha to cross. Elijah was a great prophet in the tradition of the first great prophet, Moses. Both of them were said never to have died, but to instead live with God in heaven.

When these two holy men who still live with Jesus appear on the mountaintop with Jesus, it suggests that Jesus, too, is a great prophet in the tradition of Elijah and of Moses before him; that Jesus is the prophet written about in Deuteronomy. “You shall listen to such a prophet,” God said. That message is repeated on the mountain: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Six days earlier, Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus told his disciples to keep that identity a secret, but he then immediately began teaching—publicly—that he would have to be handed over to the religious authorities who would torture and kill him, and that he would rise again. This doesn’t fit the pattern: if he is a prophet in the tradition of Moses and Elijah, if he is really the Son of God, then we would expect that he will not die, either.

This is what is so interesting about the Transfiguration. It both fits the pattern of what we expect from the divine Son of God, and it doesn’t. All the markers of God’s presence are there: the mountaintop, the clouds and great prophets and shining glory, even the voice of God; but whereas Jesus openly taught about his coming suffering and death, the Transfiguration had only three witnesses, and they were told not to say anything.

After Moses came back from talking to God on Mt. Sinai, his face would glow with the glory of God. It was like holding a glow-in-the-dark sticker up to a lamp and then turning out the light. Unfortunately for Moses, like the sticker, the divine light shining from his face eventually faded. After he had delivered God’s words to the people and let them see his shining face, he would wear a veil; not so that people couldn’t see the glory, but so that they couldn’t see when it was gone. He may have worn the veil to remind people of God’s presence, or he may have done it to keep them from seeing him as a regular old human being just like they were.

St. Paul uses the image of Moses’ veil to talk about God’s glory. Like Moses, and like Peter, we see the glory of God in the shiny things, like the Transfiguration or the light from Moses’ face. We see God’s blessings in all the good things that happen to us: good health, a warm and safe place to live, a promotion, good fortune in the stock market. Like Moses and his veil, we think that God’s glory is only there when we see the light shining. When the light fades—when things are not going well, when trouble and misfortune set in—we believe that God’s glory and God’s blessing are gone.

That’s why when Jesus began teaching about his suffering and death, Peter took him aside and rebuked him, tried to set him straight. God’s greatest prophets and God’s Messiah don’t die. People won’t follow a Messiah who dies. That’s not shiny enough, not glorious enough. If Jesus wants people to listen to him, he’s going to have to give them a show, like Moses’ shining face speaking to him on the mountaintop.

In his book Hunting the Divine Fox, Robert Capon writes, “We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: he claimed to be God then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross… He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.”

Peter and James and John and all of us see God’s glory in the great and mighty and miraculous things. We see the glory of God in the shining face of Moses, in the immortality of the prophets who speak truths and perform miracles in God’s name. Paul says that to see God’s glory in only those things is to be blind. We are wearing veils over our faces that keep us from seeing the glory of God where it is really shining: not in the dazzling face of Moses or the radiant white of Jesus’ clothing, but in the face of Jesus himself—the Crucified One.

According to Paul, it isn’t Moses’ face, shining with glory that reveals God to us, but the face of Jesus—the face contorted in pain and breathing his last on the cross. It is in this ugly act of sin and rejection that we see who God truly is: not the kind of God who overpowers or erases evil, but the kind of God who wades through it with us.

This is what Peter and James and John and the others don’t get; and it is why Jesus tells them not to talk about the things they know until after his resurrection. Until they understand what rising from the dead means, they cannot understand what Messiah means, what the Transfiguration means, what all the healings and exorcisms and miracles mean. None of it makes sense apart from the cross.

The feast of the Transfiguration is not so much about Jesus being transfigured on the mountaintop as it is about the way Jesus transfigures our perception of the world around us. Through the lens of the cross, we begin to see the world the way it truly is. Those places we call god-forsaken are actually where God is most present. God has not abandoned us in times of trouble or pain; God has settled in beside us.

What this means for us is that Jesus isn’t just found in the obvious places, or the obvious people. He isn’t in the beautiful churches or the music that stirs our souls or the miraculous recovery from an illness. He is in the ordinary, the mundane, even the ugly. He’s in simple bread and wine and water. He’s in the heart that aches for another. He’s in the pitiful face of a human being begging for spare change. He’s in the grief that tears us apart when someone we love dies.

It also means that it’s not our perfection, our goodness, our strengths that reveal God, but our weakness, our humanness. Moses veiled his face so that people would not see his humanness when the light faded, but it is the humanness of Christ, especially evident in his death, that reveals God’s glory. That humanness that we share with him is where God is made visible to our neighbors and friends. The fact that God uses such imperfect and unreliable people like us testifies that there is nowhere God is not. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us… We…always carry in [our bodies] the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor 4.7, 10)

The glory of God is that Christ did not come as a savior only for holiest of the holy, people like Elijah and Moses who were so great and powerful that they never died and whose deeds and faces shown with the radiance of heaven. God’s glory is shown in a savior who came for all those who are flawed and broken and imperfect, all who suffer and die. In him our suffering and death have been transfigured to reveal the glory of God to a suffering and dying world. Everywhere death touches us—in pain, in illness, in grief, in anger, in injustice—that is where we see Jesus because that is where he teaches us what it means to rise from the dead.

The lesson of Transfiguration is not that we can’t stay on the mountain with Moses and Elijah forever; it’s that Jesus is forever with us on the plain, in the valleys and even on the cross. God’s glory isn’t revealed in the glowing white clothes or immortal prophets, but a God who lives with us, a God who walks with us, a God who suffers and dies with us. God’s glory is revealed in a God who rises from the dead with us.

Advertisements

Holy Controversy

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Holy Controversy” recorded in worship (11:42)
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany; Lectionary 04, Year B
Texts: Deut 18.15-20; 1 Cor 8.1-13; Mk 1.21-28

Although it’s been several weeks now since we read the story of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s gospel is trying to show us that we are still telling that same story. Jesus is baptized and the Holy Spirit descends on him. Immediately, the Spirit sends him into the wilderness to be tempted. When he comes back, he calls the first disciples and takes them to Capernaum, where he immediately begins teaching on the Sabbath, and immediately a man shows up with an unclean spirit. Once Jesus casts the spirit out, the news immediately spreads throughout all of Galilee. These are not a bunch of unconnected events, but a series of related incidents all resulting from Jesus’ baptism.

At the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus—but where did it go from there? It didn’t leave, but remained with him; it possessed him. We don’t tend to think of possession in those terms, but then we don’t tend to think of possession at all outside of horror movies. In the world of Mark’s gospel, Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, which is why when the man possessed by the unclean spirit shows up in the synagogue, Jesus cannot escape confrontation. Holy and unclean meet face to face, and a spiritual cage match ensues.

Whereas we celebrate baptism as a relatively quiet and mundane affair, Jesus’ baptism is anything but. His baptism does not allow him to blend in with everybody else, but instead sends him into direct confrontation with them. Mark tells us that the people in the synagogue at Capernaum were “astounded,” but he doesn’t elaborate on what that means. It could mean that they were all terribly impressed, but it could also mean that they were simply terrified. When the man comes forward to confront Jesus, the question he asks is telling: “Have you come here to destroy us?” I’ve always kind of assumed “us” referred to all the unclean spirits and demons possessing people; but what if “us” was intended to refer to the synagogue, to their simple community and traditional worship?

It might be that the “unclean spirit” in the text is not a demon in the classical sense—an evil supernatural power—but that it is demonic in that it is opposed to God and to God’s reign. It might be that the unclean spirit is the sense of “the way we’ve always done it” that Jesus disturbed—that Jesus came in order to disturb—by following the call of his baptism and teaching about the reign of God.

We often read these biblical stories of demon possession as archaic stories of mental illness, assuming that ancient people were too superstitious and naive to identify what we can now easily explain. Reading the story in this way allows those of us who have decided that we are not mentally ill to let ourselves off the hook. It allows us to forget that we are ourselves unclean before God; that we, too, need God to exorcise from among us the attitudes and loyalties that keep us from joyfully following Jesus’ call to participate in the hope of the kingdom. It would appear that it is us, not the ancients, who are too superstitious and naive to grasp that the story is actually about all of us.

In any case, Jesus’ baptism drives him into direct—and noisy—confrontation with the good, church-going people of Capernaum. His teaching is controversial, but it is not crazy. It has authority; authority that cannot be denied when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit. This is what Jesus meant when he said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10.34): there is no room in God’s kingdom for the demonic powers of the world and the human heart that are fundamentally opposed to God’s reign. Part of Jesus’ baptismal vocation is to confront and drive out those powers and to make way for God’s kingdom.

In the baptism we share with him, Jesus also calls us to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. Like Jesus, we also are called to exorcise the demonic powers that resist God’s reign of wholeness and healing. At first, we might imagine that we are called to be like Jesus, prophets going into synagogues and casting out demons, teaching with authority.

That sounds good on paper, but real life is a lot messier. The truth is we can’t just go around declaring what the will of God is because we just don’t know. We don’t need to look very hard to see that there are a lot of different Christian traditions in the world that teach a lot of different things. There are a lot of Christians who believe a lot of different things. The Church is divided on all kinds of issues ranging from the acceptance of LGBT people to gun control to abortion to care for creation. What clearly seems like God’s will to some appears evil and demonic to others. It is easy for us to begin to wonder who among us is speaking the words commanded by God and who is speaking a word that God has not commanded them to speak.

In the face of this ambiguity, it’s a lot easier to keep quiet, to leave the hard and often dangerous work of proclaiming the good news and striving for peace and justice to those who are called to be prophets. We’d rather not risk upsetting all the good, church-going people around us by saying something that might be unpopular. What this means in practice is that most of us keep silent while the loudest and brashest fight amongst themselves. What it means is that the same unclean spirit entraps us, causing us to wonder, “Has he come to destroy us?”

Christ has called each of us through baptism to be a part of God’s kingdom. God wants us to be proclaiming and striving, and as you may recall, God always gets what God wants; to resist Jesus’ call doesn’t lead to anything good. But we sometimes forget that Christ does not call us to do these things alone. We are also called to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, and to love and serve all people, following the example of Jesus. Part of fulfilling our baptismal calling is doing this work together. Like Jesus, that will lead us into controversy and confrontation. It may even mean some noisy showdowns in the middle of worship; but it also means that when we disagree with one another, we disagree not as enemies but as siblings, washed in the same baptism, members of the same community, each of us following the same Jesus.

God doesn’t call us first and foremost to be correct, but to be active. We may not always get it right the first time, but that is why we practice confession and forgiveness within this community God has given us so that we can learn and grow together into a fuller understanding of God’s will. We are mistaken when we think that salvation is an individual thing; God intends salvation to be communal. That means that all those different ideas and diverse perspectives that exist within the Church are not only acceptable but actually the way God wants it to be.

We need one another: left and right, extreme and moderate, loud and quiet, confident and doubtful, God calls us into community together so that we can push and pull one another, so that we can reign each other in and egg each other on. We are baptized into a community so that our community can shape us, and so that we can shape our community.

In our confrontations, in our disagreements and our conflicts, love is our starting point and our destination. We may know lots of things; we may know how right we are and how logical our own position is, but as St. Paul says, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. In love we are called to listen to one another, to talk together, to grow together. In love, we are all swept along together into the imminent and inexorable reign of God.

We will not always agree on what God is calling us to, but we are called to move forward; as Luther put it, we are called to sin boldly, and to trust even more boldly in Christ, that he will continue to cast out the unclean spirits that tell us not to rock the boat, to keep our heads down and keep quiet. As we continue to work for God’s kingdom, we do so in confidence, following where Christ calls us, repenting where we must, forgiving when we can, but always trusting that with Jesus at the head, we will end up right where God wants us to be.

God Always Gets What God Wants

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Third Sunday after Epiphany; Lectionary 3, Year B
Texts: Jonah 3.1-5, 10; 1 Cor 7.29-31; Mk 1.14-20

Moses, Elijah, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah. They are all remembered as great prophets of the LORD; but do you know what else they had in common? They were all failures. Even with the word of the LORD on their lips and sometimes the power of God in their hands, more often than not, people did not listen to them. Elijah thought he was the only faithful one left in all of Israel. Moses got so fed up with people ignoring him that he smacked a rock with his magic stick, instead of speaking to it like God told him to. Jeremiah’s message was so deeply unpopular he had to finish out his life in exile among the enemy because he was safer in Babylon than among his own people.

You know who wasn’t a failure, though? Jonah. Jonah was the most successful prophet in the entire Bible. He was so wildly effective that he went a day’s journey into this city that was three days walk across and sort of mumbled his message and left, and the ENTIRE. CITY. REPENTED. Nineveh was so penitent even the cows and goats wore sackcloth and fasted. Can you imagine what those other prophets would have given to have even a 10th of Jonah’s success? And yet, Jonah—the most successful prophet in the entire Hebrew Bible—ends this story crying in his beer. He should have been elated; he should have taken his show on the road and had the adulation of thousands, but instead when we leave him he is moping in the desert.

Jonah and the Whale, Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh, circa 1400. Public Domain

Read more…

The Waters of Creation

January 7, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Waters of Creation” recorded in worship (12:50)
Baptism of Our Lord, Year B
Texts: Gen 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mk 1.4-13

According to the Babylonians, the world was born in blood. When the storm-god Marduk slew his grandmother, the goddess Tiamat in the form of a terrible sea monster, he cut her body in two; with one half, he fashioned the heavens, and with the other half he made the earth. The world and all that is in it were fashioned from her guts and gore.

Illustration of an Ancient Babylonian bas-relief, possibly depicting Marduk fighting against Tiamat from the Enuma Elish. King, Leonard William [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

But the Israelites, living in exile in Babylon, told another story. According to them, the world was not born in blood, but in water. In the beginning, the world was formless and void and a wind from God swept over the waters. We don’t get the beauty and depth of the Hebrew poetry in the English translation. First of all, “formless and void” doesn’t rhyme in English like it does in Hebrew: the earth was “tohu vavohu.” The word “wind” can also mean “breath” or “spirit” or even more broadly, “life.” Even the word in Hebrew sounds breathy and pregnant with quiet anticipation: ruach.

And then there’s the word “swept.” Other translations say “moved” or “blew” or even “brooded,” but it can also mean to “flutter” or “dance,” perhaps we might say to “shimmy.” The line gives a sense of something vibrant and fertile and gentle from God that playfully tickles the face of the great deep. The act of creation is an act of joy and merriment, a work of wonder and curiosity, a labor of love. There is no cataclysm or upheaval, no violent acts of disruptive power; only the peaceful but dramatic image of God speaking into the darkness.

That is a drastic departure from the Babylonian narrative of creation, where the world is created in violence and baptized in blood. The book of Genesis was written down during the Babylonian Exile by people struggling to retain their faith and identity as people of God. As their neighbors recounted Marduk’s glorious and bloody victory over Tiamat to explain the world around them, the Israelites shared the story of God’s delicate and even whimsical dance at the beginning of creation. Where their Babylonian captors saw a world of to be brutally and violently subdued, the Israelites looked deeper to see the beauty and goodness of what God had made. Instead of killing a sea monster while creating the world, God made one, simply for the fun of it (Ps 104.26).

Mark presents the baptism of Jesus as an act of creation. Like the story of Genesis, it is affectionate and fantastical, suffused with life and love and possibility. The world began in water, and so does the good news of Jesus Christ. Initially, God separated the waters from the waters with the heavens. There’s another poetic detail in the Hebrew of Genesis that escapes our ears in English is that heaven—shamayyim—rhymes with water—mayyim. In Mark’s story, as the heavens are torn open and the Spirit of God once again descends on the waters, we are reminded of the act of creation as shamayyim once again meets mayyim. The scene dramatically shows us that God is at work doing something amazing; and this dripping wet man coming up out of the water immediately joins God in that amazing thing God is doing.

“Baptism of Christ,” by Dave Zelenka from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56385. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

The fact that Jesus shares this act of creation with us—that we have received with him the same Holy Spirit that first flitted across the face of the deep—means that, like him, we have been drawn into God’s creative task. The Babylonians saw the world as a cruel and brutal place, a place where people must be cruel and brutal in order to succeed. Our lives are anchored in a different story. The story of creation in Genesis was never intended to be a science lesson or even a history lesson, but a theological treatise: is a confident proclamation that although the dark and chaotic sea has existed from the beginning, the God who adopts us and invigorates us through our baptism is the God who peacefully, joyfully, even playfully brought order out of that chaos.

More than that, the story is a hopeful testimony to the work that God is still doing. We say that after God had created everything, God stepped back to take it all in and declared that it was very good. Then, on the seventh day, God rested; God did not retire, did not leave, did not quit, God rested. The story implies that on the eighth day—the first day of the new week—God picked right back up and got back to work creating, got right back to making what was very good even better. This creation story is echoed throughout the gospels, where on the eighth day—the first day of the week—God’s Son got up and did the very same thing. Though he had died, he did not retire, did not quit, did not leave; he stood up and continued on because God’s work was not yet finished.

It’s true that there is much that is wrong with the world. Anyone can see the evil that constantly threatens to destroy us, always worming its way into human hearts and human deeds like the waves of the primordial deep constantly chewing away at the shoreline. But unlike the Babylonians and their violent gods who overcame violence with violence, who ruled with force and might, our God shows us that though death and chaos surround us, life continues. The life that God has created—the life that God has given to us—is not overcome by evil and death. The life of God shared with us in baptism is life that keeps getting up, rolling away the stone, and fluttering over the face of the dark and chaotic deep.

We gather here as God’s baptized to be reminded of this. We come here on the first day of the week to hear again the stories of God’s good creation, to renew ourselves at the font of God’s promises, to be sustained with the life of God’s Son at this table, and then, as at our baptism, we are sent out once more into the wilderness, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our worship here is preparation for life outside these walls, rehearsal for the eternal reign of God.

God’s work of creation is not done; God is still creating, still bringing life and order out of death and chaos, still proclaiming the world to be very good. Washed in the water over which God’s Spirit broods, we are the place where shamayyim and mayyim meet; God’s presence within this community—within us—and our presence within God’s world are part of God’s continuing work of creation, bringing life and light out of death and darkness.

This is what it means when we say that, in baptism, God saves us. Salvation is not being assured of a place in heaven (though that may be a part of it), but rather being assured of a place on earth. Salvation is the promise that God has something for us to contribute to the redemption of this beautiful and broken world we call home. God saves us by bringing us together into this community where we might bear witness to what God is doing.

Jesus wasn’t baptized by John in the Jordan because he needed repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was baptized so that God’s creative act of washing the world clean could continue through him, and so through us. Through our connection to the life and death of Jesus in baptism, God’s moment of creation with the Spirit dancing over the waters becomes a part of us, and we become a part of the new thing that God is doing to renew the face of the earth.

It’s not hard to look around and see all the terrible things that are happening. War and famine, poverty and crime, addiction and abuse, partisanship and polarization. It’s not hard to imagine that God is either absent from or ignorant of all the terrible things happening in God’s “good” world; but baptism reminds us that God is neither absent nor ignorant. Quite the opposite, in fact: God is active and busy bringing renewal and redemption. The world is not born in blood, but in water, and the cleansing waters of God’s righteousness—the waters in which we have all been washed—are even now rinsing away the world’s tears and scouring out its stains. In baptism we become the drops in God’s flood of healing and redemption; water suffused with the Holy Spirit of God.

And so we gather here to be whetted again for God’s work, to be reminded that God’s answer to the world’s pain is alive in us, and we go out because we have been sent. Among us, God is proclaiming peace and healing to a broken world. We have heard the good news, and in Christ and through is baptism, we are the good news. Thanks be to God that all the stuff out there that terrifies us is not the end of the story. Thanks be to God that through the waters of baptism the work of creation continues.

In the Flesh

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “In the Flesh” recorded in worship (12:04)
Christmas Day
Texts: Isa 52.7-10; Heb 1.1-4; Jn 1.1-14

When I was in high school, I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. It’s a test that scores you in different vocational and technical abilities and interests and suggests what sort of job you might be qualified for when joining the military. I scored pretty high, and of all the recruiters I talked to, I liked what the Air Force people had to say the best: they wanted me to work in intelligence.

So, I signed up. By my senior year, I was filling out paperwork for joining the ROTC program and learning about the Officer Training Program. However, in the midst of filling out a mountain of forms, there was one innocuous little questionnaire that asked about allergies. I had hay fever, so I checked “yes,” and that one “yes” prompted a follow-up form that asked what sorts of allergies I had. Now, in the military, hay fever isn’t a big deal; but eczema is, and in between the first form and the second, I developed a case of eczema. After graduation—after I had already accepted the ROTC scholarship at my school’s scholarship presentation ceremony—I was told that I was no longer eligible for ROTC due to my medical condition. I could still enlist, of course, but that was not what I was hoping for.

This was the first time that my body failed me; as I continue to age, I know it won’t be the last. Our bodies are wonderful things, but also fragile. They are in so many ways weak and vulnerable. As a child and young adult, I remember being afraid of getting sick or injured, but I never really expected those things to happen to me. As I have gotten older, though, and begun to slowly experience the edges of my health and strength, chronic illness and serious injury all of a sudden seem more real: I’m beginning to truly comprehend that those things could happen to me—I could one day have a heart attack or develop diabetes or break my hip.

Our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, as frustrating and demeaning as they might be, are nevertheless what make us who we are. They give our triumphs and our accomplishments meaning. We hear it all the time: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” If human beings were made of metal and gears, the great pyramids at Giza would not be at all significant. If we all had minds like supercomputers, nobody would remember Albert Einstein. But more than that, it is the frailty that frames our existence that gives us our hopes and our fears, our insecurities and our desires. It is because we are all constantly marching towards death that we strive to accomplish something that will outlast us, whether that is a discovery or accomplishment or construction, or simply building a stable and loving family.

Not only is our flesh weak, it is capable of great evil. In our desire to be remembered, we begin great undertakings that sometimes do more harm than good. In our desire to protect ourselves and stave off death, we treat other people like enemies or problems and deal heartlessly with them. Our fears and weaknesses have taught us to judge others based on their background or appearance in order to keep ourselves safe from them. A man begging for change on the street becomes a threat; a refugee from a foreign war becomes a burden.

All these liabilities of our flesh are what make Christmas so amazing. The story of Scripture is the story of a God who has a vision of a wonderful existence—a God who creates and forms, teaches and instructs, guides, threatens and punishes, forgives and relents in order to try to accomplish that vision on earth—and none of it works out quite like God hopes. Adam and Eve walk out of the garden, Noah gets drunk after the flood, the Hebrews worship a golden calf in the wilderness, Saul and David fail as kings, Israel fails as a nation.

The story of Christmas is a story of a God who finally decides that the only way to really get through to people—to really connect with people—is to do it on their level; to slip into skin and finally experience our hopes and fears, our sorrows and joys, the full beauty and the unfiltered danger of life on earth in the flesh. So that is what God does: the Divine Word, through which all things came into being—the life that is the light of all people—became flesh and lived among us. He willingly decided to become vulnerable and weak so that God could finally know what it is like to be one of us, and to speak with us out of that experience. Jesus made himself vulnerable to shingles and chicken pox, stubbed toes and broken bones so that he could feel our pain and understand why we fear it. He risked death at the hands of bandits and soldiers and finally a violent mob so that he could understand why we so seldom step up to do something that is dangerous but right. He died so that he could understand our frantic avoidance of it—but also to begin to take away our reason to fear it.

At Christmas, we celebrate that we do not worship a god of wood or stone or precious metal, but a living God, a God who has become flesh and bone and experienced all the triumph and failure that comes with it. We profess our adoration for a God who gave up the power and glory of divinity to become just another bag of bones like us; but we also celebrate the God who in doing so, gives us the incredible power to become children of God—children who take after our Father.

You see, Jesus came to be among us because of the evil and the darkness our fleshy fear has caused in the world. Because of our desire to build empires that outlast us, our fear of death and pain, we have separated ourselves into hostile tribes and factions, each camped out around our little charcoal fires telling stories and drawing stick figures depicting the evil things those other tribes will do to us if given half a chance. We live in a dark world, punctuated by these little pinpricks of light that are full of the lies we tell ourselves.

Into this darkness, the true light of the world has come; he has stepped into the darkness to illuminate the truth, to help us see one another as we are. To do this, he crossed the boundary between heaven and earth and became one of us so that he could understand us, connect with us on our own terms. The power he gives us—the power to become children of God—is the power to do what he did: to cross boundaries, to enter into the experience of others whom we hate and fear—and who may hate and fear us—and to understand them, connect with them on their own terms. The power Jesus gives us is to become incarnate to each other.

Today of all days, we remember that this tremendous work of God is not confined to a baby in a crib, not even to man who lived 2000 years ago. Christ continues to be incarnate to us in the meal at which we gather. His flesh and blood is a constant reminder that he is with us, and that he will once again come to finish what he started. But more than that, in this meal, he is incarnate through us. His flesh becomes our flesh, and so our flesh becomes his flesh. In this meal, Christ is born in us to continue his work of being God-with-us, God-with-the world.

The good news of Christmas is that God’s work is not old news; it is still continuing. I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of ugly things happening. There is a lot of darkness in our world: a lot of fear, a lot of pain, a lot of anger and hatred. It’s dark out there. Especially at this time of year! It’s literally dark out there—a lot. It is into this darkness that Jesus is coming. It’s into this darkness that Jesus is sending us so that the light of the world can shine through us into the darkness and illuminate the truth.

To Tell the Truth

December 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “To Tell the Truth” recorded in worship (11:10)
Advent 3, Year B
Texts: Isa 61.1-4, 8-11; 1 Thess 5.16-24; Jn 1.6-8, 19-28

One of the best parts of Advent is getting to hear all these wonderfully hopeful readings from Isaiah. These oracles of comfort and reassurance so powerful that they have been woven into our consciousness through song and poetry. They inspire hope in us; hope that the world is not only capable of becoming more than it is, but that someday it will be more.

It is hard, some days, to believe that this is true, but we still hope. We hope for a world in which the brokenhearted are bound up, in which the captives are released. We hope for the year of the LORD’s favor. We hope for a time when injustice and inequality will be no more, when peace will reign on earth, when love and mercy will outweigh hatred and conflict. That hope gives us strength; it helps us to be able to look beyond the terrors and troubles of our world to something bigger that God is doing, to something grander that God is bringing about. That hope invites us to imagine the great things that God has in store for us.

The promise of scripture is that no matter what might be happening around us, God is still at work. Though wars may rage, peace is coming. Though people are imprisoned by poverty and injustice, their chains will be loosed. Though oppression and hatred fill the hearts of humankind, righteousness will prevail. It makes no sense, and we have no reason to believe it, except that the one who is promised to bring these things has already shown us that God not only works in spite of the evil of the world, God even works through it. The hatred and fear that nailed Jesus to the cross not only failed to stop him from proclaiming God’s good news, they actually served to help him do it. On the cross, God took the worst that we could dish out and turned it around to serve God’s own purposes. That is why we can hope for God’s promised future in the midst of our troubled present.

Advent is God’s reminder to us of this promise. In the midst of all our busyness and preparation for the holidays, with all that is going on in the headlines, we step back from the voices pulling us in a million different directions to sit together to listen to the voice of God reminding us that this promise is true. The words of Isaiah and John the Baptist and others wash over us once again, calling us to patience, to hope, and to preparation.

This promise that God shares with us in Advent is special, because it not only tells us the truth of what God is doing, it also invites us into that truth. Isaiah proclaimed the restoration of Israel, and his hope in God’s deliverance caused others to join him in testifying to that hope. He foretold that they would raise up ruins and rebuild cities, and inspired by that hope they picked up shovels and got to work, dreaming of a day when their labor would be complete.

When John recognized that the Light of the World had come into the world, he testified to the light, and his testimony brought people in droves to be baptized while they waited for the promise to come true. In the same way, our hope in God’s approaching salvation incites us to be a part of it. The truth of God’s promise inspires us to imagine God’s restoration, and at the same time, that promise changes us; in hearing the truth, we become the truth of what God is doing in the world.

The end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is an example of how God’s truth changes us. 1st Thessalonians is probably the first letter of Paul that we have in the Bible, making it the oldest book of the New Testament. One of the primary reasons that prompted Paul to write this letter was the deep grief and anxiety felt by the church at Thessaloniki over the fact that members of their community were dying before Christ’s return. They believed that Jesus was due back any moment, and they were distraught that the dead might miss out on the new creation Jesus was going to establish. Paul reassures them that the dead in Christ will by no means be excluded from what God is going to do at Jesus’ return, and he follows up this reassurance with these final pieces of advice: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…”

That might sound trite and empty to us, but, when Paul says “rejoice always,” he isn’t telling his listeners to deny the reality of their suffering and find the “silver linings.” He is encouraging them not to allow themselves to be broken by that suffering, to resist being overwhelmed by it so they can also recognize and celebrate the beauty and joy that they have as well and to continue to hope for and work for the fulfillment of God’s promise. When he says “give thanks in all circumstances,” he’s not telling them to be thankful for what hurts them, but to develop a capacity to recognize how God takes even our worst suffering and turns it around bring about new life and new hope through the power of resurrection.

In other words, Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to recognize the truth—the truth of their grief and fear, but also the truth of their hope and joy. Life is both; to deny one or the other is to deceive ourselves into false hope or fatalistic misery. All around us there is a din of voices that are full of lies of both kinds as they distract us from the gospel; but this hope remains. In order to keep ourselves and our world focused on this hope, we have been invited to share this truth. We need to acknowledge the danger we are in and the damage we are doing to ourselves and others, but we are also reminded that Jesus is coming to make all things new.

During Advent, we take time to intentionally remember the truth of God’s promise. While stores and radio stations are already celebrating Christmas, we stubbornly wait for the holiday to come on its own time. We cultivate the patience and the preparation with which we must continually wait for the fulfillment of God’s promised reign. We remind one another—and ourselves—that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is about to return. In the face of doubts and hedging and second-guessing, we hold out hope for the promise of God that will change the whole world.

We hold onto this hope because we have already seen it at work. Jesus has already come into the world, bringing life and salvation. God has already begun to change this world, starting with us. The work is not yet finished, but we have this assurance that one day, it will be. Whatever else happens in the meantime, we can be assured of this.

This hope is contagious. Even as it promises a new future, it begins to bring about that future in and through us. Isaiah sees ruins and imagines a city; John looks for the light and testifies to it; the Thessalonians mourn their dead and wait for the resurrection. As we wait, and as we hope, we begin to see glimpses of God’s truth breaking through into our own.

We need this truth. It reminds us that what we can see and what is happening right now is not all there is: something greater is on the way; that someone greater is coming. Those who hoped for God’s promise, who believed in God’s truth, testified to it so that we might also have hope. As that hope inhabits and changes us, we, too, are invited to share that hope with the world around us, to remind God’s people that they have not been abandoned. The true light is still coming into the world. The devastations will be rebuilt, the ruined cities shall be repaired. The brokenhearted will be bound up and the captives released. The dead in Christ will be raised, and we have been called to testify to this hope. The one who calls us is faithful; the one who is coming into the world will do this.

I Hope…

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Advent 2, Year B
Texts: Isa 40.1-11; 2 Pet 3.8-15a; Mk 1.1-8

Advent is apocalyptic. Last week, we heard about stars falling from heaven and the Son of Man coming in clouds, this week it’s the heavens dissolving in fire and the elements of the earth melting away. We do not generally consider ourselves apocalyptic people, which is why it is kind of strange that we should so intentionally remind ourselves every December of these strange and confusing passages of Scripture while we prepare for Christmas. It seems incongruous, at first; what does any of this have to do with a baby in a manger?

Russian Orthodox icon of the Apocalypse. Public Domain.

And yet, at the same time, it is also strangely appropriate that we should read and reread these texts. We know that all things must eventually come to an end, and we need look no further than the headlines to imagine a number of different ends that await humanity. This year, as we enter into the season of Advent, the threat of nuclear war hangs heavier than it has since the ‘80s; we are growing more and more concerned with the changing climate that could raise sea levels and change weather patterns; we are already seeing the effects of water shortages and food shortages in different parts of the world, as well as the mass movement of refugees; we can foresee a time when the resource that provides our main supply of energy is spent.

These are very real threats to human existence and growing more real every day. Compared to these, the promise of the coming Day of the LORD seems ethereal: a fairy tale or an anesthetic to keep us from panicking over the danger we face. When faced with the facts, it is much easier for me to believe that we are going to make ourselves extinct in one of these ways than that we will suddenly be saved from ourselves by divine intervention. Many days, I’m not sure if I believe that Jesus will suddenly appear again and magically herald the dawning of a new era; but I do hope for it.

That is what these scripture readings during Advent offer us: a message of hope. Hope that the story doesn’t have to end the way it seems it inevitably will, hope that things can turn out differently. Instead of a seeing only a world where might makes right and a few powerful men can dictate the fortunes of 8 billion people, the promise of God helps us to hope for a world where peace and justice reign, a world where righteousness is at home.

It is this hope that offers us the opportunity to live differently, to expect the unexpected. It is hope that invites us to reject the very real ways we are contributing to our own destruction through the lifestyles we live and the choices we make and choose a different path: a path of holiness and godliness. This change of direction is what Scripture calls repentance; it isn’t so much a command to change what we’re doing as it is an opportunity to examine ourselves and our world and finally realize what is truly important—a chance to hitch our wagon to a star.

The hope scripture offers is not empty and baseless, but founded on generations of stories of God’s past faithfulness. As we gather to worship, we remember all the ways God has been faithful: from saving Noah from the flood to giving Abraham and Sarah descendants; from delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt to leading them through the desert; from the return from exile to the coming of the Messiah. I find it much easier to believe that we will destroy ourselves than that God is going to swoop in and save us, but these stories of God’s faithfulness give me hope, and sometimes hope is believe enough.

“Hope.” 1886. George Frederic Watts and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of all death that threatens us, God gives us reason to hope for deliverance because God has shown us that even death is not enough to stop salvation. We hope that no matter what might be in store for us, God will still be able to fulfill the promises God has made. And even in the midst of this hope, we are reminded that the fulfillment of the promise doesn’t always look like we expect. The mighty savior that God sent was not a great and powerful king, but a child lying in a manger. He was humble enough to be baptized by someone unworthy to untie his sandals, and submitted to death on a cross rather than conquering his enemies.

As disciples of this savior, we live off of hope. We imbibe hope. It is our hope in God’s promise against all odds that sustains us in the face of certain doom, that allows us to choose a different path because we can imagine God’s alternative. This is the hope that sustains us as we gather around table and font, the hope that washes the sins and cares of the world from us and gives us strength to live lives of righteousness in the face of great resistance. We proclaim the mystery of this hope every time we share in this meal: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Advent is apocalyptic. That is not to say that Advent deals with the end of all things, but the revealing of all things. “Apocalypse” is a Greek word that means “revelation.” When we talk of the apocalypse, we are talking about the time when the truth will be revealed and the world will finally see what God has always intended for it to be. In short, it is the revealing of everything for which we have hoped.

In days like these it is easy to wonder what’s taking so long, why God can’t bring about this revelation now. In these days scripture reminds us that God’s delay is not slowness or laziness or forgetfulness, but grace—salvation, even. God is giving us a chance to live into the hope of God’s promise, to turn away from the death that entices us to our destruction, and to instead choose life. God is patient with us because God isn’t interested in saving the handful of individuals who happen to be ready now; God’s goal is no less than to save the entire universe. Thanks to God’s patience, we still have a chance to change the story and choose a new direction. With God’s help, we may just be able to continue growing together into the people God has created us to be. With God’s help, we may just avert the disasters we are now creating. With God’s help, we may just grow beyond our pettiness into a world that looks more like the one God has in mind… I hope.