Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fourth Saturday of Advent: Christmas Eve

Fourth Saturday of Advent
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2011

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. (Matthew 1:18)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman. . . (Galatians 4:4)

A common complaint about Christian faith is that it insists upon particularity. As the story goes, there is this particular God who raises up a particular people in a particular spot on planet earth. 2,000 years ago a particular baby is born in a particular manger on a particular day. And yet, in the midst of all that particularity, there is supposed to be something universal happening.

This is an offensive claim for some folks. If God had meant for the particular story of Jesus to be one for all people of world—and the only true story—then why have it happen in such a small, insignificant, particular spot in history? Why not make something extraordinary take place in all parts of the world, with zillions of angels blowing trumpets and creating a ruckus, making sure that no one misses the point?

It appears that, when God immerses himself in human life and history, he does it in a particular way because that’s how real things happen. All true historical events are particular; none of them are independent of time and space. The earliest Christians were insistent on that theme: This is not a made-up story—it is real, it happened, we saw it all, and it happened in this way. Jesus was really born at a particular moment in time; he didn’t pop out of the sky or spin out of a magic lamp—he was born of a particular woman, in a way that binds him to all human beings throughout all history. The birth of Jesus is simultaneously particular and universal.

That God would be our help is one thing; that he would be our help by encountering the world in a particular way is another. It confounds us that such a particular act could have universal effect. But so our claim goes.

In the particularity of human life, God has sent his particular Son to be Emmanuel—God with us. And that is for us all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fourth Friday of Advent

The Fourth Friday of Advent
December 23, 2001

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. (Psalm 96:1-2)

We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions indeed are with us, and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart. Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. (Isaiah 58:11b-15)

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:67-80)

The prophet Isaiah was not shy about letting everyone know that their world was a wreck, and that God was keenly aware of the problems generated by his own people. That Israel would turn her back on God and lose sight of justice would break God’s heart and cause him to take action. The people had already suffered the consequence of their unfaithfulness by being hauled off into exile. But there was more that God would do.

Would God destroy his people and wipe them from the earth? Would he shoot lightning bolts and raise up hordes of scorpions to punish them? After all, isn’t that the way of angry deities? No, God would one day do something even more outlandish than that, and scandalize the world with his reckless behavior.

He would forgive them, and rescue them from themselves and all that sought to destroy them.

The psalmist relishes in God’s salvation for his wayward people, long before Jesus arrives on the scene. In Zechariah’s song of praise, he rejoices in the birth of his son, John, and looks ahead to his announcement that God is bringing forgiveness to his people.

Christmas is expressed in many ways: Through worship, in family and friendship, with acts of kindness of generosity. But at it’s heart it is about God’s reckless, unfathomable forgiveness that has come in and through his Son, Jesus.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fourth Thursday of Advent

Fourth Thursday of Advent
December 22, 2011

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. (Luke 1:57-66)

Most people go by the names given to them by their parents. There might be nicknames and legal changes that come along, but names are still given. We keep those names throughout our lives and they form part of our identity as human beings. It’s hard to really be human without a name.

When Elizabeth gave birth, it was rightfully expected by everyone that her child would be named after his father. It was a common practice in that time, so the local folks looked forward to seeing a little Zechariah running around soon. But her husband had been told by God that the child would be named John, and Elizabeth stuck to her guns when people challenged her. Zechariah believed the command about the name as well, and when he announced it, he was able to speak again.

The friends and relatives saw two things take place that caused them to ask the question, “What then will this child become?” The first was the unconventional naming of the child; the second was the miracle of Zechariah receiving back his ability to speak. If this child was not to be named after his father—one who served Israel as a priest—then what would he become? His birth was accented by a miracle. Will this child be special?

Indeed he was special. He announced the coming of Jesus and called Israel to repentance. He was also imprisoned and executed by Herod, dying young and committed to his service to God. He might have lived a lot longer if he had simply been named Zechariah and then followed in his father’s footsteps.

But John lived out another path, called the name given to him by God. His life ended harshly, but it ended with John immersed in the calling that defined him. He lived true to the God who had named him.

Along with our given names, many of us go by other names that have defined our lives: Lonely, unloved, unworthy, not good enough, too far gone, and others even more demeaning. We might not like those identifiers, but whether we like them or not, they come to form who we think we are.

But, like John, God has chosen other names for us. Names like Beloved son or daughter; child of God, and friend of Jesus. These kinds of names have already been given to us and we don’t often realize it. They are our real definers.

With names like those, what then will we become?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Fourth Tuesday of Advent

Fourth Tuesday of Advent
December 20, 2011

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

…truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me. (Psalm 66:19-20)

Mary has a significant role to play in the story of Jesus. She gratefully obeys God when he tells her of his intention to bring Jesus into the world; she gives birth to Jesus; she is present at his death and among the first to encounter the empty tomb. She is clearly an important player in this great drama.

Mary was correct in her prediction that all future generations would call her blessed. So far, that tradition has primarily been kept alive by Catholics, while Protestants tend to push Mary a bit to the margins. Nevertheless, she is important to the story.

In her prayer of praise, she lifts her eyes up to the Lord and acknowledges his heart for the lowly. She has experienced his favor for herself and she sees that same favor throughout the story of Israel. Mary demolishes the idea that the rich are the ones blessed by God; it is those in need who find his care. She sees Israel in general as needy, and in this mysterious, joyous anticipation of the birth of her son, she expects help to come to the nation.

There is a hint about God’s intention in the birth of Jesus in Mary’s prayer. She says that God’s help will come to Israel “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” That promise first appears in Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Mary understands that this gift of new life is for her, but not for her alone. It is the culmination of a promise made to Israel long ago—a promise for Israel, for the sake of the entire world—for the sake of us.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Third Friday of Advent

Third Friday of Advent
December 16, 2011

The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts. . . (Zechariah 7:8-13)

As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. (Psalm 40:17)

For we American church people, those who are in a place of suffering often become categorized as something other than us. We might have some widows here and there within our congregations, but we tend to be short on orphans, aliens, and the poor. We know they’re around, but they’re more out there than in here.

Aliens and the poor get a fair amount of press these days. Aliens are characterized as mostly illegal and a problem for American society. Sure, we have poor people, but as I heard someone comment recently, maybe it’s mostly their own fault—drugs, booze, and downright laziness will get you every time. It’s such a shame.

It’s easy for us to reduce people to categories that we believe do not include us. In our society we often create narratives for their existence, and then vocalize our preferences for legislation that will take care of the problems.

Many of us, however, are about five paychecks away from joining one of these unfortunate categories. Lose a job, lose a house, you just might be part of the category of people that used to be them. Get desperate enough, you might even sneak across a border for work. The line between us and them isn’t quite as distinct as we imagine.

People I know in churches that reach out to the poor and needy find their stories and identifications changing on them. The people they impact—even the ones who have messed up their lives—cease to be others and begin to be brothers and sisters. It’s a profound change, and an important one.

The Bible speaks so often about God’s heart for the needy and the requirement of the people of God to care for those in need, that it’s a bit startling. If we’re saved by grace and not by things we do, then what’s the big deal? It’s about souls, right?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe it’s about the whole person. Maybe it’s about all of us, and we’re all in God’s heart. There is no us and them, but only the us that God loves and draws into his circle of care and compassion. This is a participatory faith, not one of spectatorship.

In the birth of Jesus, we stop and remember that he was born in a poor place. Others recognized the needs of his family and brought gifts. Jesus was among the poor and found care.

The Lord takes thought for us.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Third Thursday of Advent

Third Thursday of Advent
December 15, 2011

“I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds. For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.” (Psalm 50:9-12)

Sometimes people who believe in God think that God needs something from them. The sacrificial system of ancient Israel was complex and multi-faceted, and it served to orient the life of the entire nation around the God who had rescued them from their slavery in Egypt and formed them into his people. The system of sacrifice was not for God, but instead for the people.

Over time, however, folks began to see the sacrifices of Israel as a way to make God pleased with them. That way of thinking caused them to get very upset when Jesus arrived on the scene, seeming to play fast and loose with their systems of worship.

The Bible really doesn’t characterize God as needy. God doesn’t seem to need anything from us to get something to happen, like forgiveness or love. God does however, require some things from those who claim to be his people. For example:

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

While God is not needy, God embraced human need in the coming of Jesus. As an infant, Jesus comes to us as one dependent on human care and protection. When his family later feels threatened by Herod, they move to Egypt and find protection there. God is not needy, but in Jesus God has fully experienced human need.

When Jesus is described as Emmanuel—a Hebrew word meaning “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23)—the implications are breath-taking. In Jesus, the God who needs nothing from us, including our various sacrifices, has come to be with us. The birth of Jesus should fill us with wonder as we consider that God has fully invested himself with us. The story might explode later with a cross and an empty grave, but it begins quietly with a human birth that draws us into the life of God in a way that we can scarcely imagine.

God is with us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Third Wednesday of Advent

Third Wednesday of Advent
December 14, 2011

Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it. For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice that one should live on forever and never see the grave. When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they named lands their own. Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish. Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. (Psalm 49:5-15)

We human beings have been trying to buy our way out of death for a long time. Much of our contemporary debates about national healthcare are about every person’s inalienable right to keep disease, injury, and death from having their way with us. While we all might celebrate the wonders of medical science that have made many diseases either non-threatening or merely inconvenient, the result is that we deal with premature death much less frequently than we would have a hundred years ago. We’ll pay whatever is necessary to keep death at bay.

The psalmist speaks of the illusion that wealth can ultimately keep the rich from the same fate that awaits all human beings: death. Everyone probably understands this, but it’s difficult to accept the fact that even the most accomplished, productive life ends at the grave, making all that has been created by that person’s effort relevant only to the heirs. The grave—Sheol—has a room reserved for everyone who is born on planet earth.

But the psalmist anticipates something more than a stop sign at life’s end. People may not be able to buy their way out of death, but God will on day bring a rescue from the grave. The rescue is described in terms of a ransom—a price paid to retrieve someone from the clutches of kidnappers or other enemies. The psalmist sees that rescue coming, and hopes in it.

This ransom language would find its way into Jesus’ reflection on his own coming into the world:

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

In the coming of Jesus, people would once again anticipate God’s rescue from the destructive domination of sin and the grave that is its end. The truth will come out: We humans don’t have what it takes to save ourselves; it is God who takes the loving initiative to ransom us from the grave.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Third Tuesday of Advent

Third Tuesday of Advent
December 13, 2011

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:34-42)

I once worked with a man who had escaped from Russia in the late 1970’s when he was twenty-one years old. He told stories of being harassed and beaten by agents of the KGB, who were not shy about showing up at someone’s house in the middle of the night to take them away for interrogation or torture.

Jesus’ words about his future coming have often been interpreted as a warning that the faithful will be taken up into heaven while others will remain on earth to suffer whatever fate awaits them. He clearly states that no one but God the Father knows when all this will happen, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to lock a date on the calendar anyway.

Like my Russian friend, the Jewish people of the early first century knew what it was like to live in a police state. During times of rebellion there would be nothing to stop the Romans from hauling people off in the middle of the night, leaving others behind. In that situation, being left behind would be the better option. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans just a few decades later—costing more than a million lives—being taken would mean slavery or crucifixion. Happy would be those who were left behind.

Like his coming at his birth, Jesus’ return is expected to be to a world that is still broken and dangerous. Matthew 24 describes all the dramas that will continue before he comes back, and they are dramas that have been played throughout human history. Things are not expected to get better.

Regardless, Jesus says to keep awake. The shepherds who were awake at the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth could have focused their eyes only on the sheep in their care. Instead, they became awake to a new reality, the birth of a child that signaled the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. We too can stay awake to all the turmoil of national politics and disasters while sleeping through the coming of the Son of Man. Plenty of people were awake when Jesus was around, but not all were awake to him.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Third Monday of Advent

Third Monday of Advent
December 12, 2011

Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with compassion; my house shall be built in it, says the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Proclaim further: Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem. (Zechariah 1: 16-17)

I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Revelation 3:12b-13)

When I think of God bringing all things to closure on planet earth, I imagine the “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1) that is just like a perfect national park, except better. It will be a paradise and there will be no need for buildings, roads, vending machines, or trash cans. The temperature will be ideal, food will grow on all the trees, and pollution and graffiti will be no more. I can run free without anyone bothering me.

The Bible, however, keeps talking about the image of a city—Jerusalem, to be exact. God speaks through the prophet Zechariah about his affection for the city of David. In Revelation Jerusalem is renewed and recreated as a heavenly gift to the world. The return of Jesus includes the restoration of a site in the Middle East that has been a hotbed of controversy and drama for thousands of years.

Why a city? Cities are where people interact, trade, engage culture, and make their own marks through architecture and engineering. Cities are also dependent on outside resources for fuel, food, and raw materials. Crime finds fertile ground in the city, and the need for governance is always high there.

The city is where intrigue is birthed—the plot to kill Jesus was hatched in Jerusalem, and when he was executed he was banished from the place of human life and crucified outside the city. Yet, God speaks of the city as the heart of his earthly recreation. Perhaps that’s why Jews, Christians, and Muslims can’t stay away from Jerusalem.

It occurs to me that God’s desire for human beings is not that they wander alone through a bountiful wilderness, but that they live together under his rule and reign, dependent upon him for all things. The new Jerusalem will be a city, but it will be one that draws people together for a shared life in the unhindered presence of God.

Our story starts in a garden, but it ends in a city where God says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). Now, that’s a city.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Second Saturday of Advent

Second Saturday of Advent
December 10, 2011

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5b)

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birthpangs. Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

I imagine that Jesus’ words to his disciples were just a bit disturbing to them, and also to those who would read them over the following three centuries, as the persecution of the church ebbed and flowed. If the first disciples were expecting Jesus to restore Israel to her former glory, then warnings about wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, and death would not be the good news they were desiring. It must have been disheartening to hear that people would rise up and distort what Jesus had done, and that folks would turn away in coldness.

It seems that every time we have a major earthquake or wars break out, people claim that this is it: Jesus is coming. These are the signs. The only problem with those kinds of predictions is that natural disasters and wars have been going on for a pretty long time. The torture and killing of people who are perceived to run cross-grain to the dominant culture is nothing new. It’s the way of the world.

But Jesus says that the good news of the kingdom, in spite of all that global ruckus, will still be proclaimed. Yes, the end will come, but it will come to a world that exists in upheaval, violence, and oppression. Those things are not aberrations; they are normative for the world.

Those who endure seem to experience and anticipate a different reality. We live in that tumultuous world, but we who follow Jesus have a citizenship in a different kingdom. We might accept the world as it is, but we know that God’s desire and plan is for a new heaven and a new earth. We endure not simply because we are hanging around and waiting for the end, but because God’s kingdom is real for us, and he has deposited his Spirit within us.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Second Friday of Advent

The Second Friday of Advent
December 9, 2011

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-5)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:37-39)

Christmas, here in the US, is mostly about happiness and the giving of gifts. The giant blow-up Santas, Snoopys, and Frostys that are powered by generators on people’s front lawns and accompanied by pop holiday songs, can only bring joy to heart of any worshipper. Knowing that the credit card debt we incur during the holidays serves to boost end-of-the-year retail sales in a damaged economy reminds us of the real spirit of Christmas. At least, it reminds us of some kind of spirit.

In the story of Jesus’ coming at his birth, we see a society fighting to retain its religious and cultural identity while living under the domination of Rome. There were multiple stories of life being told to the people. The religious story was one of keeping the Jewish Law and allowing the power elite to frame orthodoxy by their own preferences. The control story belonged to Rome, and it demanded allegiance to the Empire under penalty of death; there could be no lord but Caesar.

There were some who cried out with the psalmist, seeking God for a rescue. But when Jesus came, he was ultimately rejected as the rescue everyone demanded. He recognized that when he lamented over Jerusalem and reflected on their history of destroying their own prophets when they didn’t like the message. Jesus knew what was coming for him. There were other preferred, dominant stories, and Jesus brought something so different and so counter to the other stories that he was rejected by those who thought they had cried out to God for help.

It is interesting that we frame the celebration of Christmas within our own desires for happiness, comfort, and prosperity. But the story of the birth of Jesus is a very different one than the one we enjoy. The joy in his story came in the midst of poverty, mystery, paranoia, and mass murder, but also in the anticipation that God was acting in human history. Some would see that; others would not.

I have to admit that I like all the lights and music and fun of our Christmas celebrations. But I do have to ask myself: If all that was taken away, and all that was left to me was my confidence in the witnesses who have gone before me who tell the story of his coming, would that be enough?

Would Jesus be enough?

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Second Thursday of Advent

The Second Thursday of Advent
December 8, 2011

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday. Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices. (Psalm 37:3-7)

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Revelation 8:17a)

When people get together, there is drama. Whether it is nations, congresses, cities, neighborhoods, or families, something inevitably happens to cause division, strife, and orneriness. Give us the space to be together, to delight in one another’s company, to share a common life or mission, and we’ll pick a fight before the day is over.

When I was a kid we had Thanksgiving dinner at the home of some distant relatives. I was out in their front yard throwing a football to myself when a family—a young couple with two kids—burst out of the house next door and raced to their car, an older man at their heels. Once the people were in the car, the older man went to the driver’s window and punched the younger man in the face several times. As the driver pulled the car forward to leave, the other man kicked out the rear side window, shattering glass all over the kids in the back seat. I was told that, later in the day, the man doing the punching and kicking went to the home of this family with a shotgun and tried unsuccessfully to shoot the other man.

It appears that the argument was about telling other people’s kids to behave. Now that’s worth a killing.

Churches are like extended families (and sometimes like small cities), and some of the dynamics of strife emerge there, more often than we’d like to see. There are numerous denominations here in the US that are splitting apart in angry division. Some individual churches are attacking other groups of Christians vehemently. Still others attack the world at large, insisting that God hates the people that they hate.

It’s not possible to characterize the church as one thing, since it is so diverse and complex. Nevertheless, it might not be far off the mark to say that things are a mess.

When the rest of the world sees what we’re up to–since our more divisive and goofy antics are the ones that make the popular headlines—I don’t think they typically see a church that trusts in the Lord and does good (even though there are churches that do that) or one that waits patiently for the Lord and doesn’t fret (although there are churches that do that as well). We tend to be just as frantic and fractured as the rest of the world, and that’s what imprints the popular mind. It imprints us as well.

In the season of Advent we reflect on Jesus’ birth–his coming into the world. The world into which he was born was messy, and ours is no better. In Advent we also anticipate Jesus’ return to us. I wonder what kind of church he’ll find, in all its diversity and complexity, when that happens? If he returned today, what would he see?

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Second Wednesday of Advent

Second Wednesday of Advent
December 7, 2011

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:1-4)

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:4)

We often think of the scribes and Pharisees as a bunch of villains. They wear fancy religious clothing, they act pious, they are oily and scheming and generally up to no good. Jesus, however, had some things in common with these folks. Like them, he taught about the resurrection of the dead; like them, he valued the Law and the Prophets. He apparently even approved of them as teachers and encouraged his own followers to pay attention to them and to live out what they taught. The scribes and Pharisees sought to keep the people of Israel from forgetting about God and losing their identity as God’s people, so they continued to teach from their scriptures. Jesus approved of that.

What Jesus didn’t endorse was the disconnect between their roles as teachers of the faith and the way they actually practiced what they taught. More than once Jesus would call them “hypocrites” and condemn their duplicity. It wasn’t enough for Jesus that the teachers had their doctrines down pat; without those things being expressed in real life, the teachers lost credibility.

This might create a problem for some of us, because there is a way of thinking that equates authentic Christian faith with having your information in order. If someone pops up with a new way of looking at our cherished doctrinal convictions, then accusations of heresy and blasphemy (or, most chillingly, of being liberal!) abound. Correct information that translates into belief is big for us. Yet, there is a danger to equating faith with accurate doctrine. As James would say: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19).

It appears that Jesus would agree that information is a good thing. After all, he taught quite a bit and brought new ways of thinking to people who had been immersed in traditional Jewish faith. But the connection to life was crucial for Jesus. He pronounced salvation to the house of Zaccheaus as soon as the tax collector promised to make things right with people he had cheated; he celebrated the faith of the Centurion who trusted in Jesus’ authority; he healed a paralyzed man, lowered through a roof and sustained by the faith of his friends, confessing no understanding of his own. Jesus did not isolate faith into a simple creed or systematic theology; faith impacted the whole of life for him.

Theologians have long debated about the relationship between faith (often translated as right belief) and works (doing good things). While there can be distortions on either side, both have to be grounded in one thing: Our first love. Faith grounded in anything other than God’s love for us, including right thinking or right doing, is bound to go awry. When Jesus, in John’s vision in Revelation, speaks to the church in Ephesus, he celebrates their good works. But he stops them in their tracks when he reveals what they have lost: Their first love.

In Advent we celebrate both the birth of Jesus and also his anticipated return. At the end of it all, will he find us concretized in our right beliefs, or worn out by our doing of good deeds, and in either case claiming authentic faith? Or will he find us lost in the love of God, where belief is translated as trust, and good works flow out of love?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Second Tuesday of Advent

Second Tuesday in Advent
December 6, 2011

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:10-15)

The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. The Lord is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed. O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever. (Psalm 28:7-9)

King Jeroboam did not want to hear the prophetic words that Amos was speaking, and understandably so. Amos said that the king would die violently and the people of Israel would be hauled off into exile. So, in hearing these disturbing words, rather than change his ways and turn himself and the nation to the Lord, he told Amos to head south to the southern kingdom of Judah. Maybe he figured that what he couldn’t hear wouldn’t hurt him. He was wrong.

For his part, Amos confessed that he was not an expert at the prophetic role, but was just a humble working man. It was the Lord who had called him out and gave him this difficult assignment, and he obeyed. Amos wasn’t seeking power or notoriety; he was only responding to the call of God for that moment in time. While his word was good, the hearers did not hear.

Prophets who challenge the status quo are rarely heard. Just after the massive financial collapse of 2008, it was discovered that a number of economically-savvy people had warned about this disaster. If nations (particularly the US) didn’t act responsibly, then calamity would surely follow. Apparently no one who could facilitate change listened to the warnings, and the collapse came as predicted.

In the events surrounding the birth of Jesus we see the same kind of dynamics at work. Israel had long awaited her Messiah and prophets had told of his coming. Visiting astrologers from Persia came in search of the Messiah, and king Herod recognized that the time had come when his kingship would be exposed for the sham that it was. So he responded as quickly as he could with a violent act of infanticide. If you can’t hush up the prophetic words, then murder just might do the trick. Herod was also wrong.

The ones who remain in hope, however, continue to look to the Lord. They know better than to bank on the machinations of the dominant ones in power. Instead, they speak out their confidence in God: “O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Second Monday of Advent

Second Monday of Advent
December 5, 2011

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! (Psalm 25:4-7)

“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:31-32)

Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead. . . (Revelation 1:5a)

Certainty isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. There are a lot of things about which we’d like to be certain, but sometimes our desire to grasp tightly to our certainties creates problems for us.

The people who were quizzing Jesus about the resurrection didn’t believe in it in the first place. Their questions to Jesus weren’t about learning from him, but rather intended to trip him up. They wanted to discredit Jesus in order to shore up their certainties. Jesus, of course, turns their own scriptures on them. His reference to the Hebrew scriptures doesn’t prove the resurrection of the dead; it merely points to the confidence he had in God’s intentions for his people.

The psalmist asks God for a deeper life in knowing God’s ways, for mercy, and forgiveness for past sins. The prayer assumes that God is listening and responding, ready and willing to grant the requests that resonate with God’s heart. The psalmist is confident in God’s attentiveness and willingness to act.

Certainty isn’t what we need; we need confidence.

Certainty in the unshakable rightness of our doctrines can easily replace our confidence in God—after all, when you’ve got all the answers, the mystery evaporates and maybe you don’t even need God any longer. When you’re certain that you’ve got plenty of money, you start forgetting about how God meets your daily needs. When you’ve got your life all figured out, it’s easy to quit looking for the surprises that God brings and you forget that very often, our preferences run counter to what God desires.

In the opening chapter of Revelation, Jesus is referred to as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead.” We have confidence in what God will do because we have confidence in Jesus, who once said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus is our faithful witness to the character, nature, and intentions of God. We have confidence in our life with God now and in the life to come because Jesus has gone before us, the firstborn of the dead.

Our so-called certainties can box us in. It is confidence that we need.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The first Saturday in Advent

First Saturday of Advent
December 3, 2011

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and for ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

Religious people can be tough on one another when they suspect that someone thinks differently than they do about something concerning faith. Some of the people who were wary of Jesus were busy about doing that, and thought that they’d come up with a really clever way to trap him. They figured that he was in trouble regardless of his answer about taxes: If he said it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would expose himself as a compromised Jew; if he said it wasn’t lawful to pay, then they could report him to the Roman authorities as a lawless rabble rouser.

Jesus, however, turned the tables on them with his simple words, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Paying taxes to Caesar were just part of their reality. There would always be someone in charge who demanded payment for services rendered, whether real or imagined, and Jesus didn’t seem concerned about that.

His words, however, strike a disturbing chord. There are things that go to Caesar that are different than the things that go to God. Taxes are about money and represent the economic fuel that keeps governments moving. But that which goes to God is different from any kind of economic or material substance. On that, Jesus does not want his hearers to be confused.

Christians, however, throughout the ages have indeed gotten confused about this. From Jesus’ coming at his birth to the gatherings of the first Christians, this confusion has caused persecution and hatred. By the fourth century people began to confuse the Empire with the Church—a confusion that exists in some form even today in certain places. In the 1930’s and 40’s, people in Germany began to allow Hitler’s agenda to be compatible with the state church’s agenda. Even in the US we often confuse our nation (or at least our preferred political party) with the desires of God.

If some sort of tribute is inevitable when it comes to nations and rulers and governments, then what sort of things are for God? What things are separate, unique, and sacred? Jude says it well: Glory, majesty, power, and authority. That belongs to God. Let Caesar have his taxes.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The First Friday in Advent

First Friday of Advent
December 2, 2011

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows. . . . You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore. (Psalm 16: 4a, 11)

Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice. . . (Amos 5:14-15a)

The ancient people of Israel had no end of opportunities to worship the various gods of the surrounding nations. One of the worst was Molech, a god borrowed from the Phoenicians, who demanded the regular sacrifice of children. Others, like Baal and Asherah, were more about fertility and prosperity, and caught the attention of the Israelites when they wanted plenty of children and more productive crops.

Regardless of the choices, worshipping any of the local gods instead of the one true God did not end up well for the people. Ultimately it was a significant part of Israel’s downfall and ultimate exile. When the people looked back over the disasters that had destroyed their nation, they would surely lament their abandonment of God.

Their turning back to God was not, however, merely a cognitive affirmation that Israel’s God was better than the others. It was a turning that was to result in a transformed way of living that would be demonstrated in the community that was God’s people. Worshipping the one true God would result in life rather than multiple sorrows, and that life would look like the seeking of good over evil and establishing justice—that is, making right that which had gone wrong—in their land.

When Jesus appeared on the public scene, one of his earliest messages—borrowed from Isaiah 61—rings with this call to goodness and justice:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19

We’ve got more than our share of seductive gods in our US culture. We have gods of consumerism, materialism, politics, and religion. We hear the call to worship the stuff that makes end-of-year retail numbers look good; we are told that if we give full allegiance to a particular political party, we stand on the side of right and all will be well; the demands are made to let self-interest rule supremely and let the poor fend for themselves, and prosperity will follow; we are lured into certainty when we are told that our brothers and sisters in Christ are our enemies if they don’t see things exactly as described by some new prophet. And so our sorrows are multiplied as these gods promise us the Moon and instead deliver us into Hell.

In the coming of Jesus, who comes as God’s anointed to bring, among other blessings, liberation from the worship of all that is not God, we are confronted with life rather than death, with good rather than evil, with justice rather than oppression. It’s not just that we might be freed from the grip of those idols, but also that we might not worship at their altars and preach their gospels.

In this Advent season, perhaps more than in other years, reflecting on the past, present, and future coming of Jesus is crucial for us. We are in a bad economy that demands consumption in order to prosper; we are entering an election year when promises of justice and goodness often ring hollow and draw us into the worship of political preferences.

God help us. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The First Thursday in Advent

First Thursday of Advent
December 1, 2011

. . . yet you did not return to me, says the Lord. (Amos 4:6b)

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 3:11-13)

The prophet Amos spoke harshly to the people of Israel. In chapter four he speaks for God, who chronicles all the disasters that have come upon the people, taking credit for each one, yet lamenting with each remembrance that the people did not return to him.

Israel’s history as it is told in the Bible is one of the people’s faithfulness that morphs to idolatry and unfaithfulness, and then back again, over and over. It’s a roller coaster ride of relationship with the God who had called them to be his people for the sake and blessing of the world, and the cars were riding off the rails. Amos speaks harshly, but behind the words we can hear the heartbreak that God seems to suffer because of the people’s refusal to come home.

I don’t know about you, but I find it easy to avoid God in both bad times and good—I don’t discriminate at all. When times are bad, I’m busy figuring out how to get things back to normal again or being just plain depressed about the circumstances. When things are going well, then I forget about God all together because I’m feeling self-sufficient and able to take care of myself. I think I have a lot in common with Amos’ first audience. Maybe you can identify with that.

In light of what the early Christians expected and what the Scriptures teach—that everything that now exists will one day be transformed into God’s new heaven and new earth—Peter asks the question that cuts to the heart of our core identity. As God’s people, expecting what God will one day bring about, how should we live? What kind of people should we be? Peter doesn’t point to natural disasters as motivators for repentance, but rather recognizes that we belong to God’s future, even though we live in an earthly present. So do we live within the boundaries of the present status quo (this is a particularly important question in a US election year, when the season on hatred and false witness is open to all), or do we live as citizens of the kingdom of God?

Peter says that we do, indeed, wait for God. But we also live as God’s children, set apart by him for the blessing of the world.