Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christ our Refuge and Refugee

Isaiah 63: 7-9
Matthew 2: 13-23

Once again, in today’s scripture, Matthew lets us in on one of Joseph’s angelic dreams. Once again, the angel gives Joseph information that will save Jesus. Once again, Matthew gives testimony to God’s vulnerable power.
Herod, who was the Jewish Roman appointee over Israel, was infamous for his cruelty and suspicion. The Jewish historian Josephus records that Herod's later years were full of attempts to defend his throne against the Jewish Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees. In the final years of his reign his three eldest sons were killed on suspicion of plotting to seize Herod's throne. Earlier in his reign he eliminated all the prominent Hasmoneans. He had an elaborate network of spies, and he often executed people for real or imagined conspiracies against his throne. Josephus even talks about a plan, never carried out, to have all the Jewish nobility slaughtered at the time of his own death to ensure that everyone would be mourning at his death
However, Matthew’s account of the plot to slaughter the innocent boys under two years of age in Bethlehem is not recorded in Josephus or other historical records. population statisticians estimate that the “slaughter of the innocents” probably took the lives of around 20 children: By historical standards, not enough to recount.
So, with God’s warning, Mary and Joseph take their little baby out of Israel and into a land where their ancestors had before been subject to another paranoid plot by a Pharoah to thin out the population of Hebrew slaves by killing the infants because they were becoming too numerous and threatened his authority.
Matthew’s story also begins the commonalities with the Exodus narrative of Moses, also born under the threat of a tyrannical ruler executing children for fear of being overthrown. Matthew is the only gospel writer to show Mary and Joseph taking Jesus into Egypt, further highlighting the similarities between Moses leading his people out of bondage and Jesus leading the world out of bondage to sin and death.
Though I do my best to relate to Jesus and let him relate to me through our commonly shared humanity, I cannot claim to be a refugee like he was. Just because I have at points in my life “run away from my problems” doesn’t make me a refugee, and Jesus never ran away from his problems. But there are many in this world for whom today’s scripture reading provides a special touchstone of connection to their own lives.
Through scouting around on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees website, I learned that the total number of "people of concern" in the world stood at 21 million at the end of 2005. By the close of 2006 it was 33 million, the most dramatic one year increase in memory.
Hundreds of thousands of people became newly displaced in Columbia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sri-Lanka and Timor. Increased data-gathering in other nations such as the Cote d'Ivoire, Congo and Uganda increased the numbers dramatically. Even North America experienced dramatic rises in internally displaced persons as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
The point is that we now have a world that is increasingly "on the move" against its will. I hope that “hearing the numbers” in the context of today’s scripture reading gives you a stronger sense of connection with this issue than would normally be the case when hearing statistics of “millions of people.” Those of us who deny the issue or consider it unimportant remind me of the lazy person condemned in Prov. 24:33, "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest.."
One of the issues of justice that I have covenanted to work on through our covenant discipleship group has been to appeal to our national representatives in Congress to take a more diligent approach in facilitating the resettlement of Iraqi refugees displaced by our war in that country. The “land of opportunity” that we call home has been less enthusiastic about receiving refugees than we have been creating them. There are currently around 2.5 million internally displaced people in Iraq, meaning they have either lost their homes to destruction, or have been evacuated, but have not left the country of Iraq, and there are another approximately 1.5 million refugees in the neighboring countries of Syria and Jordan.
Of the comparatively small number who are actually processed as asylum seekers by the UN and submitted to industrialized countries for processing, this year the USA was given almost 15,000 applications, and as of Dec. 1st has only accepted around 2400. 2.5 internally displaced people in Iraq, and we absorb .1% of the load. I think we can do better, I think our representatives can do something about it, so I let them know that. We are currently being out-hospitalitized by the notoriously open-armed Swedes, who received almost half of the asylum seekers in 2007.
And so our savior shares this in common not with us, but with those Iraqis, Haitians, Lebanese, and Eritreans. How do our actions cause the Son of Man and sons of men to seek shelter? How does our callous disregard for and disinterest in the actions and inactions of our super-powerful empire of a culture contribute to the life of the little Sudanese baby who goes to sleep each night in the dirt in a refugee camp in Chad?
What about the little girls who pass the hours not going to school or talking on the phone, but standing in line waiting for their daily rations at an internally displaced person’s camp in Iraq? “The foxes have their holes, and the birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head and rest.”
The Good news for us is that God doesn’t judge us for having things easy. God doesn’t judge us for being born into fortunate circumstances just because his own son was born into such desperation. But God does judge us for sitting in the lap of luxury and doing nothing for those who are sitting in squalor. We are the goats whom Matthew tells us are turned away at the judgment seat when Christ says to us, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
God, being incarnate in the life of a little boy who had to be whisked away into hiding, was a refugee, but through the sharing of a human life also became our ultimate refuge. We can take comfort in God because we know God has been though it. And we can offer our sisters and brothers who are hurting comfort by assuring them that Christ walks with them. God has experienced the hardships of life, and usually more so than we. So when we seek refuge in God, it is not in some distant Deity: it is in a shared experience.
Isaiah says that “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” God doesn’t redeem or love or pity from a pedestal. It is his “presence” that saves us.
And it is his presence in the least of those among us where we will find salvation. Through the giving of our lives, or the giving of some portion of our lives, to the alleviation of suffering in the world, Christ presents us with the salvation from the damnation of believing the word revolves around us.
While Christ is a refugee, and because Christ is a refugee, he is also a refuge. He is an embodiment of God’s empathy. He cannot offer us refuge in the form of protection from the world. Belief in him will not keep you from getting into a car wreck or suffering from cancer, but he can offer refuge in the way of a loving embrace, a held hand as we face our days and trials. His name is Immanuel, God is with us. Amen

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4 Sermon: Vulnerable Power

Sermon Texts:
Deuteronomy 22: 13-30
Matthew 1: 18-25

I like word games. I sometimes get on the internet and play scrabble with people from all around the world. That’s fun. I also love a game called “Boggle” where you shake up this game-board that has all these dice with letters on each side, an then you try to make words out of the die that are touching each other.
Another of my favorites is called “Balderdash,” where you are given a word that you most likely don’t know, and then you make up a definition that you think will convince other people. You submit your definition for the word along with all the other players in the game, and the real definition is read too. The object is to try and guess for the right definition, and make other people vote for yours.
One game that kind of gets the engine in my mind working for sermon writing is free association. I read a word, and then I write down all the words or images that come to my mind when I hear that word.
When playing “free association” with the word “power,” or even more specifically “the power to conquer sin,” I can’t help myself but think of things like “triumphant,” “strength,” “overwhelming,” “defeating.” I may think of images like a “Mighty Wind,” or “an Empty Tomb,” or the “Fourth Horseman.” In my own mind, the word “Power” may be associated with a million other words and never attract the word “vulnerable.” “The Power to Conquer sin” might take on various costumes without ever reaching the image of a baby’s hand reaching out of a straw filled manger.
So this is how we know this idea comes from the mind of God and not from the mind of mankind. It just doesn’t correlate for us. It isn’t natural. It is non-sense. Power is the ability to have no vulnerability, right? A newborn baby can’t even conquer the art of standing on two feet, much less conquering sin.
Such things just don’t spring out of a creative author’s imagination, they are too counter-cultural and counter intuitive. So, we read this story in Matthew and in Luke with wonder and awe and mystery. Some have discounted the stories as factual accounts of history, but it matters not. Whether or not they are factual, they are true!
Never has such power been so vulnerable at any time in history as what we witness in this passage of scripture. Though it wasn’t what the lectionary prescribed for today, I wanted us to all hear Deuteronomy 22 so that we would all know just how vulnerable the Christ child was!
This Power is so vulnerable, All it would have taken for it to not have come into being would have been for one person to shut her heart to the prompting of the Spirit. It would have only taken one man closing his mind to the possibilities presented to him in a dream. If instead he had thought of those laws prescribed by Deuteronomy and said to himself, “It was only a dream, this is what the law requires.” How many of us act on what comes to us in our dreams, anyway?
This sin conquering power that is embodied in this little child might have not even made it to the world if Joseph had of followed the letter of the law found in Deuteronomy. Our Lord, the conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, might have been stoned to death in the womb, along with his mother, Mary in the doorway of his grandfather’s house. But this vulnerable power prevailed!
Matthew describes Joseph as a “righteous” man. By “righteous” he means that Joseph lives by the Law. He is a just man. Yet, Matthew shows Joseph balancing the words of the law with what the Spirit stirs in his heart, he portrays Joseph opting for compassion over strict adherence. What does the Lord require of us?
The New Interpreter’s Bible Suggests:
As modern hearers of this story, we’re struck by the similarity between Joseph’s quandary and their own. We want to “do the right thing,” and we believe that somehow it is revealed in the Bible. We may belong to a church that claims to accept the Bible as the norm for its faith and practice and, yet, sense that the “Christian thing to do” does not follow the letter of the Bible.
There are some biblical commands that many churches, in all good conscience and with reverence for the Bible as the Word of God, simply do not obey. This is not only in such matters as the washing of feet (John 13:12-17) and holy kisses (1 Cor 16:20), but in more basic directions concerning divorce (Mark 10:2-12) and household structure and lines of authority (1 Pet 3:1-6).
Matthew writes for the same kind of church. As Jewish Christians who had always reverenced the Law, they sometimes found themselves torn between strict adherence to the letter of the Torah and the supreme demand of love to which their new faith called them (22:39-40). If they neglected the Law, they were accused by others, and perhaps by themselves, of rejecting Bible and tradition as the “unrighteous.”
But Joseph is pictured as “righteous,” even though he had decided to act out of care for another person’s dignity rather than strictly adhere to the Law. As it turned out, Joseph did not have to carry through on his decision, but the point is made: Matthew wants to instruct his church in being “righteous” (just, committed to justice) in a way that respects both the Law of the Bible and the Christian orientation to love, even if it seems to violate the Law.
Thus Joseph stands, at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples—indeed, for each reader of the Gospel. Joseph is already facing the “you-have-heard-that-it-was-said- but-I-say-to-you” tension that will be displayed in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-48)—the tension between the prevailing understanding of God’s commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.
By Joseph’s decision to obey the startling and unexpected command of God, he is already living the heart of the law and not its letter, already living out the new and higher righteousness of the kingdom (5:20). In a difficult moral situation, he attends to the voice of God, and he is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of this word from the living and saving God.
Truth be told, the rabbinic tradition had mitigated this portion of the Law by the time Mary and Joseph were faced with their respective decisions. The teachers of Law had decided that Deut. 22 was a bit harsh, and it was already uncommon to find people adhering strictly to these tenants, but still—the Power of God incarnate came into some pretty precarious circumstances, nonetheless.
The mysterious and earth changing power that is brought to life in this story about a boy coming into the world in precarious circumstances is a revelation to us about our God: who show’s forgiveness in a Father’s embrace, who takes flight in something like a gentle dove, in one whose power is through suffering, death, and finally resurrection.
God’s power is shown in our lives when we love our enemies, when we turn the other cheek to those who wrong us, and when we help those who are dire straits. The power of our God takes place in humble human lives and loves, and in this way we are part of this manger story.
Likewise, Joseph’s choice to follow his heart over the letter of the law is an example of power in vulnerability, because he is making himself vulnerable to the possibility is doing a “new thing,” instead of just “sticking to the ‘gameplan.’” The law is solid, it is cornerstone of Joseph’s culture, and yet Joseph opts for another path. He’s going out on the limb that God is communicating to him, an ordinary carpenter. He’s willing to trust the angel’s message in a dream: that the unknown baby his fiancĂ© is carrying will save his people from their sins. And instead of distancing himself from such a crazy circumstance, he embraces that vulnerable power.
The vulnerable power becomes a boy, and Joseph teaches him and raises him. That vulnerable power grows into a man who teaches and loves and forgives his people. He walks up a mountain with a beam on his back and nails that vulnerable power up on a cross. And through this vulnerable power he saves his people from their sins, and lives up to his name: Immanuel, Jesus, God is with Us! This is how God is with us!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Advent 3 Sermon: Shall we wait for another?

Sermon Texts:
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Matthew 11: 2-11

What do we expect from our Messiah?
Though it may have felt weird, there is a reason we sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” followed by “Lo, How a Rose e’er blooming” this morning. I wanted us to have a tangible experience of these shifting expectations the followers of God have always had about our messiah.
The triumphal “glory of the coming of the Lord;” who “is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;” and who “hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; his truth is marching on” clashes, both tonally and thematically with the “Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, dispelling in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere.” We can’t just gloss over these unmet expectations for the messiah, especially when today’s passage from Matthew reminds us that John the Baptist himself wondered—“Was I mistaken? Is this the guy we’ve been waiting for?”
We didn’t spend much time on the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah last week, other than to say that the qualities of human behavior that are exhibited by the branch from the stump of Jesse (a metaphorical way of saying the Messiah would come from the line of David, who was Jesse’s son.) was “unnatural behavior,” and that sometimes our call as Christians is to behave in very unnatural ways. Since, after all, violence, vengeance, fear, and self-preservation are fairly natural things.
We didn’t really focus in on things in Isaiah’s prediction that this Messiah would “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” We also kind of skipped over Matthew’s account of John the Baptist, where he is inspired by this text in his ushering in of the Messianic age, saying
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
You can’t blame all the Jews who took a look at Jesus, and thought: “nice guy, but not the Messiah.” You can’t blame them because Jesus wasn’t doing the things that the Messiah was prophesied to do. This was even a bone of contention later on when the first generation of Christians were trying to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, even though he didn’t accomplish what the scriptures said he would.
The Second Coming of Christ was an idea developed throughout the beginnings of Christianity to help explain to the Jews how Jesus could be the Messiah, accomplish some of the tasks foretold by Isaiah and the like, and then return later (what they all expected to be in their lifetime) and accomplish the other things, such as destroying the wicked, reigning in majesty, expelling the invaders, etc.
But in the midst of Jesus’ first appearance, John, who had heralded his appearance at the Jordan, and had knelt before his feet, claiming to be unworthy to baptize him. This same John is growing somewhat impatient.
Leah Goodwin, of the Swedenborgian Chapel in Cambridge, MA writes,
John knows exactly who Jesus is. According to the story about Mary
visiting Elizabeth, John’s mother, while they were both in the womb, John knows
the very sound of Mary’s voice, even from the darkness of his own mother’s
belly. John knows, even before he or Jesus has a name, that this other fetus is
the anointed one, the Messiah. And knowing that, despite the cramped quarters,
he quite clearly expresses his joy with what must have been, for Elizabeth, a
startling lurch.
But times change, and the experiences of life complicate
what once seemed so clear. In this morning’s Gospel reading we find John the
Baptist, the great messenger of God’s coming reign, the prophet of the
wilderness, in a dark enclosure vastly different from the safety of his mother’s
We find him in prison - though, ironically, still in the wilderness,
for he is imprisoned, according to other sources, in the dungeon of Herod’s
wilderness palace at Machaerus. And this time, news of Jesus’ work in the world
does not have John leaping for joy. Jesus’ lordship, at least as far as John
sees it, is not quite so self-evident as it used to be.
Matthew writes, “When
John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” What Matthew might as well
have written is “when John heard what the Messiah was NOT doing,” because as far
as he was concerned Jesus was not sticking to the script. Healing, liberation,
good news, all right, but let’s get down to some apocalyptic business. Where was
the smiting? Where was the ax lying at the root of the trees about which John
had warned his disciples? Where was the unquenchable fire?
And so John, from
prison, sends his own disciples to inquire about the matter. “Are you the one
who is to come, or shall we look for another?” they are told to ask.
question is a bit shocking, if you think about it. How can John, of all people,
John who baptized Jesus all unwilling because he thought Jesus should baptize
HIM - how can John question whether Jesus is “the one who is to
Actually, it’s a legitimate question. Jesus was not the only person
claiming to be the Messiah, the “Anointed One,” running around in first-century
Palestine. He was also not the only folk healer, not the only social justice
speaker, not the only imparter of secret knowledge in the region, either. And
John, remember, is in prison, which does not immediately seem an appropriate
place for the Messiah’s forerunner and relative.
So, the question presents
itself: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Thus
confronted, Jesus uses the words of Isaiah, as well as a matter-of-fact call
upon empirical evidence, to answer. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he
says to the Baptizer’s messengers. “The blind receive their sight, the lame
walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Actually, yes, Jesus seems to say, look for another. Or rather, look at me
another way. Shift your perspective. No, my ways are not precisely as John
prophesied - but look around you. Quit ruminating about the missing winnowing
fork and the disappointingly absent unquenchable fire and the ax which is so
conspicuously NOT laid at the root of the tree. Wake up! What do you hear? What
do you see?
What John's disciples had heard was the Sermon on the Mount,
with its message of forgiveness, generosity, gentleness of spirit, heavenly
reward, and God’s care. What they had seen consisted of ten miracles, which
Matthew depicts as having been accomplished with an endearing mixture of
tenderness and authority. What they had not heard was a good dose of smiting, or
separating wheat from chaff.
Meanwhile, Jesus has the wherewithal to hold
the work of his own ministry alongside Isaiah’s promises of restoration and
healing. He specifically claims compassion as the sign of Messiahship. Jesus’
deeds reveal that the kingdom of God is already at work - already present and
spread out among the people whose lives are changed by his deeds. Jesus,
clearly, is not precisely the Messiah that John expected. “One who is more
powerful than John” has indeed arrived -- but his power is different, and
unexpected, and not altogether satisfying to John, John who is in prison, John
who will die an awful death, John who is not convinced that healing infirmities
alone is going to redeem Israel.
John the Baptist struggled to square his
vision of the Messiah with the reality of Jesus -- and he had every reason to.
We struggle, too. This struggle, in fact, is what the season of Advent calls us
toward. Advent is a reminder to us to let God out of the box, to let go of our
preconceptions about who this Messiah should be, to release our grasp on just
what we think our salvation should look like and where the Lord is going to lead
us in our soul’s journey.
Advent is a time in which we are called,
individually and communally, to open our eyes to the kingdom which we claim to
believe is already spread out among us. It is a time, I suggest, in which it is
worth asking this question: Shall I follow the living Lord, or shall I simply
follow my notion of who the Lord should be?
For Jesus is saying to us what
he says to John: “I did not come for titles, or to collect my kingly dues. I
came to bring life to the dead. Do not ask me who I am - look, instead, at the
life I am stirring inside of you.” The Lord abides within us, is present in
every level of our existence from inmost soul to the tips of our fingers. And he
wants to heal us. He desires that we be whole. The Lord awaits his chance at
advent within us, and he will never leave us. There is, after all, no need to
look for another.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dec. 9 Sermon, An Un-natural peace

Sermon Texts:
Matthew 3: 1-12
Isaiah 11: 1-10

“And a little child shall lead them….” This is perhaps one of our favorite images of the Kingdom of God—the Peaceable Kingdom. Isaiah casts his vision of what the world could be like, what the world will be like, when the Messiah comes. He uses the first few verses of our reading to describe the traits of the Messiah, then he spends the last few verses describing how the whole creation will respond to the leadership of the Messiah. It’s a beautiful vision, and one that has certainly made an imprint on our collective imaginations.
In this painting, made in 1820 by Edward Hicks, you see what is described by Isaiah, but you also see in the background the circumstances that caused this Quaker artist to portray such a thing. Here over the shoulders of the animals living in harmony, we see William Penn and the Indians arriving at a treaty for the settlement of Pennsylvania, which was accomplished in one of the more humane arrangements of the British colonies. Hicks painting is the perfect example of American optimism, a trait that would characterize us as a nation for the next century and beyond.
In this next portrayal of the peaceable kingdom, by John August Swanson, a contemporary artist, you see the focus of the painting on the child leading the animals, and the vivid colors and depth of the painting conveys especially well for me the wonder and mystery that is embedded in this scripture by Isaiah. So, because this is the image that I always see when I read this text, I’ll leave it here for you to focus on too as we delve into this prophecy a little more.
One of the first records that I owned was the Michael Jackson “Thriller” album. I remember being entranced with the fold out picture of Michael in his white suit, lounging on the floor, and then perched up on his knee was a Tiger cub. I used to envy Michael Jackson’s personal zoo of wild animals, all tamed and willing to play around with him.
One thing that strikes me about this passage from Isaiah, what jumps out to us all at first, is the bit about the animals co-existing peaceably, without any need to kill and devour each other. It is perhaps most striking because it is so un-natural.
But, perhaps peace is un-natural. When we are attacked, it is fairly instinctual for us to fight back, and yet, Jesus tells us “when someone slaps your face, offer the other cheek also.” Isaiah re-organizes the food chain in his vision of the kingdom. Babies are free to stick their hands into snake dens without any fear of being bitten. Cattle and lions munch straw together. Though this may be an ideal for Isaiah, I don’t think it would be for the fans and producers of “Animal Planet.” Seems like boring television to me!
Isaiah hits something on the head though when he reverses the natural order of things in this portrayal of the kingdom. He is symbolizing that many of those traits that come instinctually to us, war, reprisal, vengeance, violence, will be transcended with the coming of the Messiah. We will receive a new birth into a new world where humans have no fear of violence and bloodshed because the creation will be restored to its original blueprints.
In Genesis, Isaiah no doubt noticed that the Garden of Eden didn’t contain any predatory behavior. He probably read in Genesis 1:30, "Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food"; and it was so.” And so Isaiah probably believed that a restoration to the natural order of things meant that creation didn’t inflict pain and suffering on itself in the quest for nourishment. The wolf lays with the lamb! The lion and the ox eat side by side?! The leopard and the kid?! What un-natural behavior! These are carnivores acting counter to their instincts. Or, are they transformed creatures? Are they “new creations” as Paul calls Christians in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5?
Isaiah also portrays some other un-natural behavior displayed by this “root of Jesse.” He says this leader will “not judge by what his eyes see, or by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Hmm. That doesn’t seem very natural either. Maybe Isaiah is cluing us into the seismic changes this kind of socio-economic change would have on the world by also speaking about the animal kingdom. If we expect that this kind of generosity and charity shown toward those who are poor and meek will just “naturally” come about as our society becomes more enlightened and compassionate, we are sorely mistaken.
Someone will always step in to stamp out the progress of the poor. There will always be those who view the power of the powerful resting on the firm foundation of the meekness of the meek. We must strive for the justice and peace of the world, but it won’t come if we discard God and prayer for technology and rationality. Technology and rationality are wonderful things, they are gifts of the living God, but when we abandon our hope and our faith in the power and grace of God for the solid and seemingly substantial power of technology and rationality, we are on a fool’s errand.
Isaiah told of the Messiah bearing the “Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council and might.” These virtues don’t come naturally to us. They must be bestowed on us by our creator. They are as unnatural to us as straw is to a lion. Yet, they are virtues we have the capacity for when we walk in the light of God. They are qualities that can change the world for the better through us if we open our minds and hearts to the fire of the Spirit.
So, how can we mirror this un-natural proclamation in our lives? First of all, we can pray consistently and regularly for the Spirit’s guidance, especially when it comes to acting on the behalf of justice for the poor and the meek. If we think we will just “naturally” arrive at a passion for helping those in need, we will probably go through our whole lives without ever helping those who are less fortunate. It isn’t natural for us to show concern for and expend our time and resources helping those who are on the down and out. If Darwin is right, and natural selection of the fittest is the evolution of ours and all other species, then it is far from natural for those of us of power to be concerned with the well-being of the poor and meek.
It is God’s pervasive and persuasive compassion that spills over into our own hearts and souls that stirs compassion in us, not some kind of natural response to suffering. The natural response to suffering is to turn our backs on it and run away. But God has made us more than simple slaves to our instinct. Even when our gut sometimes says “turn away,” and “run away,” our God speaks to us through our hearts and says “turn not thy face from me,” “abide here with me.”
We need God’s inspiration to be God’s people and servants in the world. It’s not just going to come to us because we find our rear end in a pew a couple Sundays a month. We need to be on our knees praying for God to mold us and make us the instruments of this branch of Jesse. We need to put to use those gifts which we call “fruit of the Spirit,” which spring from this very branch. We need to follow our Master’s lead in not judging by what we see and hear, but instead on the guidance of God.
If we want the peace that is pictured in these beautiful verses of Isaiah, then we need to recognize that peace isn’t accomplished without justice. If we want peace, we must pray and work for justice. This isn’t just a socio-economic reality. If you want peace in your family, then you must address the difficult things that we might rather sweep under the rug. If you want peace within yourself, then you must rectify the wrongs you may have wrought on yourself. For some this may come in the act of forgiving yourself. For others, it may come in holding yourself accountable for some buried sin.
Another way that we can open our hearts and minds to the life changing Spirit who makes us “supernatural,” is by consciously gravitating to the opposite of the way we “normally” or “naturally” do things. We bury ourselves in the comforting pillows of what comes “naturally” to us sometimes to the extent that we muffle out the voice of the Spirit. This season, As a way to prepare for the Christ child who turns the world upside down, try turning your own world upside down in little ways.
Do you more naturally seek comfort in the fellowship of others? Try withdrawing from others so that the Spirit can speak to you in the silence. Do you more often retreat from the world when the going gets tough? Look for solace in conversation or in the vibrancy of being surrounded by others.
Do you cherish the image that some may have of you as one who “tells it like it is,” or “always speaks his mind?” Try being more indirect. Are you one who shrinks from giving your opinion? Try speaking up.
Are you one who takes the initiative all the time? Try restraining your power. Or, perhaps you feel more comfortable “following the leader.” Maybe it is time for you to step out on a new path and lead people in a new direction.
I’m not saying this to discredit your self-understanding. I’m suggesting this as an exercise that may bring us to greater self-understanding. What we may think of as our “natural” inclination, our instinct, may simply be a barrier to the Spirit’s movement through us. Our Bible is full of stories of people who were asked by God to do things that made them very uncomfortable—for God to achieve justice and peace on this earth, it is going to take us behaving in ways that seem very unnatural. So don’t let your faith be lulled to sleep with the false notion that God will never ask you to do something that you’re not comfortable with. Sometimes grace strips us of the natural, and clothes us with something mysterious and supernatural!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Dec. 2 Homily

We had the hanging of the greens service, and a communion service, so our homily was a little shorter than usual. Following is the call to worship during which we decorated our sanctuary for Advent, the scriptures, then the homily.

How shall we prepare this house for the coming of the King?
With branches of cedar, the tree of royalty.
Sing 211 “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” vs. 1 as cedars are placed.
How shall we prepare this house for the coming of the eternal Christ?
With garlands and a tree of fir and pine, whose leaves are ever living, ever green.
Sing 211, vs. 2 as garlands are placed
How shall we prepare this house for the coming of our Savior?
With wreaths of holly and ivy, telling of his passion, death, and resurrection.
Sing 211, vs. 5 as wreaths and holly are placed
How shall we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Son of God?
By hearing again the words of the scriptures, and focusing on the Word made flesh.
Sing 211, vs. 6 as Bible and nativity are lifted up.
For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
Glory to God in the highest!
Sing 211, vs. 7

There's an advent candle devotion, if you have an advent wreath at home, in the middle of your upper room devotional booklet, or at Upper Rooom

Isaiah 2: 1-5
Romans 13: 11-14
What time is it? Well, pastor: it’s Dec. 2, and with all this stuff we’ve done this morning, if you don’t know what time it is, and we still have communion to go after this, then I’d say we have a problem! You know that I sometimes forget my watch, and have to borrow one of the choir member’s so I can make sure everything is moving along smoothly here.
But what if I were to answer that question, “what time is it,” with something like: Well, the night is far gone, and the day is near! It looks fairly light out there, doesn’t it? Perhaps you’d think I was having a meltdown right here in the pulpit. Well—I’ll risk that and repeat Paul’s words of hope and focus to us: because even though he was writing this 2000 years ago, Paul knew what time it was then, and he would tell us the same thing this morning if we could put him in a time machine. He’d say: “You know what time it is! How it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
All of this pageantry this morning is to remind us of what time it is, because sometimes we go through this season like we are asleep. These green symbols of our faith, full of meaning and beauty, are to help us wake up to the presence of the Christ child who comes into our life sometimes as unexpectedly as he came into the world. So, we’d better be awake and ready to receive the gift. You probably remember you or your children waking up on Christmas morning just as the sun peeked over the horizon, ready to open all the new gifts under the tree. Paul wants us to live with that kind of enthusiasm in our daily existence. Why? Because it is sunrise. The son has Risen, and the gift of the resurrection awaits us.
How do we prepare ourselves for such a thing? I remember as a kid on Christmas morning, my parents always made us wait in the hallway while dad got the video camera ready to film us walking into the living room, and mom would make sure Santa hadn’t left anything undone or without a tag on it. Likewise, we Christians are in something of a “holding pattern.” We’re awaiting the coming of the kingdom, and Paul tells us to get ready by living like it is already here. Like it is already daytime. We should lay aside the darkness and put on the armor of light. We can approach life like we are already resurrected, because in a very real way we already are!
But as Bob Dylan sang in “Meet me in the Morning,” “They say the darkest hour, is right before the dawn.” Sometimes the “waiting is the hardest part.” (I could go on.) When the night is far gone, and the day is near, that is sometimes the hardest time to see clearly. This is why Paul recommends we put on the light of Christ now—so others can see the resurrection life and follow us to Mt. Zion.
Isaiah proclaims that all the nations will one day come streaming in by the multitudes like a parade of salvation coming to hear their instructions. Isaiah tells us what the Lord will do—He’ll beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. The world will be peaceful and harmonious. We can give testimony to this vision by living lives of peace in the here and now. This is what it means to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path. That is what Paul is talking about: living honorably as in the day, not caving into the spiritual violence of drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling, and jealousy.
What time is it? The night is far gone, and the day is near! Salvation is closer to us now than the day we became believers. Let us put on Christ by taking in Christ. Let us turn our back to the darkness through repentance for our sin. Let us face the coming day, which we live for and celebrate in the elements of this table: the table of communion, the table of light!