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Monday, December 23, 2013

What's in a name?

Names are funny things.  One of the largest industries in today’s world is the whole baby-naming market.  We can hire consultants for just names and some communities try as hard as they can to make unique names or unique variations of names (Shaniqua or Cheerokee).  We may have lost our minds when it comes to the whole name thing.  We publish lists on the most popular baby names and we read books on the meanings of names. 

            We had fun naming our kids.  My wife and I know that we wanted our kids names to mean something, so that when our kids asked, “what does my name mean?” we could answer with something better than “because we liked it.” (When we found out we were having a boy, I tried to convince Marilee that we needed to name him ‘Luke’ so I could say, “Luke, I am your father!”).  We agonized over names and we tried to be political, so as to not have one side of the family represented too much. 

           I had wanted to name our oldest daughter, “Autumn.”  In fact that was going to be her name until the day she was born.  I had heard of the name “Abigail,” but I was pretty sold on “Autumn.”  But on the day she was born, when the nurse asked us what her name was, I responded, “Abigail.” Abigail is a Hebrew name, from the Bible, that means, “My Father’s Joy.”  It just seemed to fit her and the situation we now found ourselves in as a family.  We have similar stories for our other kids, and we each wanted their names to be something significant.

            Today’s readings are all about names…well, one name in particular….ok...two names in particular.

            Our gospel reading is the familiar story of Jesus’ birth, told in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 1:18-25).  Matthew sets up the story for us perfectly by saying, “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child…(Matthew 1:18).  So we have here a young couple (no matter how old Joseph is, he is still fairly young) and they are engaged to be married.  What a wonderful time of life!  Happiness and joy abound and there is to be a celebration soon!

            Except Mary is pregnant.

            Now many of us know we live in a time when this would not be a particular problem.  In fact, in our day and age, this seems to be a normal transpiring of events: Boy meets girl, boy and girl have sex, boy and girl exchange names, boy and girl move into together, boy and girl have child and then eventually maybe boy and girl get married.  This is not the time nor the place to discuss the merits or demerits of such a situation, just be it to say that this caused a problem for Joseph. 

            Ancient Jewish purity laws called for a woman to be a virgin when she was married.  The punishment in more of the rural areas like Nazareth, the punishment for not being a virgin was either divorce (which involved disgrace and abandonment) or death.   

            But, why? Why is this such an important deal? Was it just that they were uneducated hicks…you know the sort that watch Duck Dynasty and drink beer out of a can? Or was it just that they were prudes and wanted to stop everybody from having a good time?  Or were they just not enlightened like we are (I mean you can see how well our current sexual ethics are working out for us!) So what was it?
            Well, mainly it was about a name.  In a time before DNA and genetic testing, family lines were extremely important to people.  This was a society were everything, from the throne to property lines depended on your family heritage.  As we have moved further and further away from hereditary rights, bloodlines have become less important (as well as our sexual purity). Joseph couldn’t legitimately give his blessing to a child that wasn’t his and he would mess up all the genealogical charts for generations to come.

            So Joseph, a righteous man, now has  choice to make…how to get ‘rid’ of Mary.  Perhaps if he lived in Jersey or worked with the Sopranos, there would be a different option, but Joseph decides to divorce her secretly. 

            And most of us would probably agree with this decision…I mean, after all, what else could he do? He couldn’t marry her and care for her child, could he? He couldn’t really kill her, right? So a quiet divorce sounds like the best option.  Things are desperate for the young carpenter and his fiancĂ©e.  And Joseph probably felt that God had  abandoned him, that God was distant from him and that there was no help coming from God in this situation.

That is, until, God pipes in.

            The Angel appears and first tells Joseph “do not fear” (v. 20).  Interesting choice of words…it is not that he should not fear because of the angel, but that he shouldn’t be afraid to marry Mary and to raise her Son.  The reason for this is because “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”(Mathew 1:21).  This is all done in fulfillment of Isaiah 7, which culminates with the baby’s name, “Immanuel”.


            What a name!

            But what’s in a name anyway?

            To understand this prophesy, we need to go back to Isaiah 7.  As we return to this text, we have almost forget everything we know about it.  We have imported the Christmas story so much to it, that we go back to see what was happening.

            It was a desperate time for the nation of Israel.  The country was at war and was about to be destroyed.  King Ahaz was frightened the king of Assyria would overwhelm him and his people would be enslaved, killed, or deported.  He is looking at the end of his reign, the end of his kingdom and the end of the world, as far as he knows!

            Into this, Isaiah comes to him and says tells Ahaz to ask for a sign…any sign! But Ahaz is so scared that he won’t ask for a sign. So Isaiah give him a sign anyway:

Behold the virgin shall conceive and give birth and bear a son, and his name shall be Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). 

            There has been a lot of discussion about this sign…does it present a miraculous sign? Is the “virgin” still a virgin when she conceives, etc?  I don’t necessarily don’t want to be dogmatic here, but I think we should take the following things from Isaiah.  First, the ‘virgin’ isn’t really a virgin.[1] There is nothing supernatural about the sign, as it is a reference to the time when the siege will be over.  Rather, the most important thing is the name:


            But what’s in a name?

            Immanuel literally means “God with us!”  The message that Isaiah wants to present to Ahaz is that despite the overwhelming nature of the events that are happening around you, God is with you. God is with you and will deliver you, save you from your enemies.

            That’s a powerful message.  Because Ahaz probably felt that God had abandoned the people of Israel.  He probably felt that God was distant from him and that really there was no help coming from on high. 

            How many of us feel the same way?  How many of us feel that God has abandoned us, that He is distant from us and that he is not coming for us.  This time of year, I always think about those people who feel that God has completely ignored or abandoned.

            I think of Scott, who was desperately trying to put his family back together after his wives numerous affairs and disastrous financial decisions.  “I don’t know where to go from here,” he said as he sat in my study.  “I don’t know who I am supposed to be and I don’t know how I’m supposed to get there.  Where is God?”

            I think of Alice who has been struggling with alcohol for such a long time.  “All I want is one more drink and then I can stop.”  Rehab never quite worked for her and she keeps losing the battle with the bottle. She has lost her job, her family and her God (she thinks).

            I think of Jacob, a youth group member who is trying to find his identity.  He feels an attraction towards men and feels that his family would completely reject him if they ever found out the truth about him.  “I mean, God hates fags, right?”

            And yet, we see the truth played out before us in this reading.  Jesus, the Angel declares, is God with us.

            God with us in our joy.  God with us in our despair.  God with us in our victory and God with us in our defeat.  God with us in our struggles and God with us in our sin.  God with us when we are happy and God with us when we are sad.  God with us in the crowd and God with us when we are alone.  God with us in all aspects of our lives. 

            This is the Gospel for us today, that God is with us.  God was with Joseph in those dark moments of his life, to give him courage to live out God’s plan for him.  God is with us in all situations of our lives.

            The theologians like to use big words and the word they like to use for this is “incarnation”.  That the fullness of God has come to dwell in the baby in Bethlehem.  This was a miracle in the biggest sense of the word because what it says is that, “I, God of the universe, Creator of heaven and earth, the one who has the power and the ability to preserve and destroy any life I see, have come to live in your world.  I want to experience all things with you.  I want to experience your joys and your sorrow.  I want to be with you in all things.”

            One of the great promises of the Old Testament is that “I will walk among you and will be your God and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12).  But there was always something that got in the way.  The people sinned, God got mad and He sent the people into Exile.  But When Jesus comes, he announces to the World, “I am here! I am with you! I am walking among among you! (or as John says, I will ‘dwell’ among you”

            And this promise has no end.  It is no surprise that Matthew ends with Jesus’ promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  Did you hear it? I am with you. 

            So what is in a name?

            First, we have a sign that God has not abandoned or forsaken his people.  God will never just cast us off to the winds.  That is a collective as well as an individual promise. 

            Second, we have knowledge that God is going through all things with us.  He is experiencing the joyous moments as well as the defeats with us.

            Third, we have a promise that God will never leave us or forsake us.  By coming in the person of Jesus as Immanuel, God has permanently identified with us.

            So no matter what you are going through this Advent period, no matter what joys and what sorrows you have during this period in life, remember that through it all, God is with us…God is with you…after all, it’s all in his name.

[1] The Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 has hmlc (which means ‘young maid’ and could mean ‘virgin’) and the Greek of the LXX has  paqehnoj (which means virgin).  Matthew definitely has the LXX in view and it is clear that he indicates that Mary was a virgin throughout her lifr

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Joy to the World!

          I meet a lot of people by accident.  It is just my lot, it seems.  Either I amble up to somebody and start talking (thinking they are somebody else) or people come and start talking to me, thinking I am somebody else.  At first, I was pretty put off by it, but before long, I’ve learned to roll with it.  I mean, we can all learn something from everybody and we should be open to new experiences every day.   Sometimes things go really well and we both walk away from the encounter having learned something or have just enjoyed each other’s company.   Sometimes, things go bad and then there is awkward moment that happens before one of us leaves.  But mostly, it’s ok. 
            I remember this one time, however, when I was NOT who was expected.  I was visiting somebody in the hospital and they clearly thought I was the priest to come and give them last rights.  Now, it’s important to know that this person was not anywhere close to dying.  They had come in for a relatively minor problem, but because I had been identified as a clergy member, they assumed that the end was near for them.  So, before I could stop her, out came a list of every sin she had committed…and we are not talking about minor ones here!  “Pastor, I had an affair with my neighbor and I never told my husband, I committed insurance fraud and I have a bunch of unpaid parking tickets!”  There was an awkward silence as she caught her breath, in which the doctor was able to say, “Ma’am….you are going to be fine.”  She looked at the doctor…then looked at me…then looked around the room at everybody who was in the room.  I have never seen anybody look redder.

            I was not who she expected…but then again, she was not in the situation she had thought.  I don’t know what ever happened to her, but I like to think that she took that moment as a real opportunity to look at her life, to rejoice in it and to change.
            Today’s Gospel reading is about expecting the right person.  Advent is about waiting with joy for the right person to come and to set all things new. 
            In our lesson, we find John the Baptist in jail.  John is one of those types of people we should probably expect to find in jail.  After all, he was bold in his proclamation and spoke the truth to power.  He even confronted Herod about his practices and that is why he wound up in jail. 
            Prison is a place of waiting…waiting either for release or for death.  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent the last two years of his life in a prison cell, reflected that “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”[1]  But John is waiting and he is uncertain about his waiting around.  He is not sure what it is all about.
            John had initially pointed out Jesus from the crowd.  When Jesus emerged from the crowd to be baptized, John declared, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) He says this with such confidence and such boldness that today’s text has us do a double take.  John has now been waiting in prison for a long time, that he sends his messengers to Jesus and asks the question, “are you the one to come, or should we expect another?” 
            Talk about an embarrassing question to have asked.  Could you imagine the discussion that John’s disciples have on the way to meet Jesus?  “So…he boss seemed pretty sure of himself…” “Yeah…what do you think Jesus will say?”
            It might be easy for us to look down on John, but don’t we do the same thing and ask the very same question?  We might have a little bit more wiggle room…after all, it’s been two thousand years , and Jesus still has not returned.  It’s been two thousand years and those miracles have not been as often as they were when Jesus walked the earth.  It’ s been two thousand years and some of us might begin to wonder… “Jesus, are you the one to come? Or should we expect somebody else?” 
            We get tired of waiting for Jesus to appear…or we get embarrassed that we are called Christians.  Some have answered the question by saying that yes, we have been waiting for somebody else. Various names have been put into contention: Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Mary Eddy, and the Bab.  Others have said that we put our eggs in the wrong basket and that we have been failed by God.  Others have said that there is nothing special about Jesus.
            Maybe the problem is with our perception of Jesus.
            I often talk to sailors who say something like this: I have been good and yet God hates me.  He doesn’t take care of me! Whatever that might be…working too much or not getting the duty station they want or not getting promoted.  They get angry at God and they express their hurt and anger.  But if this is how we view God, you are more than likely to be disappointed.  Because these things will happen to us.  Bad things will inevitably happen to us and we will be looking for another God.
            So we can imagine John’s disappointment as he sends these messengers to Jesus.
            When the messengers get to Jesus, He responds simply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:4b-5).  Jesus has this way of not answering the question that actually answers the question and here is no different.  His answer is an affirmation that the evidence speaks for itself.
            Jesus is looking back to the  prophesies of the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah 35.  Here we read,
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame man leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5).
            This was the time that was supposed to be inaugurated by the coming of the Messiah.  Isaiah had prophesied a time when the curse would be overturned and the kingdom of God would be established.  Jesus is saying that not only is he the one to bring this about, but that it is in fact happening as!   This is the significance of the coming of Jesus, and it is one that the Church needs to recapture.
            The third Sunday in Advent is known as ‘joy’ Sunday.  At about this time during the holiday season, most of us have probably lost our joy.  Stress has overtaken us as we have struggled with crowds to find Christmas presents.  We have endured office Christmas parties and we have watched enough holiday movies to drive us crazy.  Where is the joy? We may ask.

            And we are probably not alone in asking this.  Thousands of people around the world are asking along with us: where is the joy? Where is the joy that promised at Jesus’ coming? Where is the healing that was supposed to come along? Where is the blind that can see? Where is the deaf that can now hear? Where is the restoration of relationships, the politics that are not corrupt? Where is the answer to life’s problem?
            Let’s be honest, the world has expected more from the church and from the gospel.  The Church has often spoke about the greatness of Christ, but this has fallen on the deaf ears of the world. 
            I remember when I was younger…well in high school…and meeting a high school exchange student from Japan.  She was Buddhist and could not understand the Christian faith. She had a problem with the way we celebrated Christmas because we all talked about the ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’ of the season, but all she saw was sorrow and depression.  She could see nothing true about what we sung about or what we said was the holiday season. 
            And we have to say that this is true.  There are so many people stuck in the prison of their poverty, their depression, their addiction during this time of the year that they are truly asking, “are you the one we expected or should we look for someone else?”  Should we look for another answer, should we look for another Messiah?
            But the joyous message of the Church has always been: NO! Jesus is the Messiah! Jesus is the one who sets all things New! Jesus is the one who truly reveals God’s design for us!
            But what about the deaf? The Blind? The poor? What about those who are stuck in prison? What about those for whom the gospel was promised and yet there seems to be no delivery? Is there any true GOOD News for them?
            It may be hard for us, in our age of twenty four hour news cycles and addictions to anti-depressants, to believe that there is any good happening in the world.  But there is!
            It is found in the work of people like Shane Claiborne who has revitalized entire neighborhoods in Philadelphia by rehabbing old abandoned buildings and giving them to the poor. 
            It is found in the ministry of men like Oscar Romero who identified with the poor and oppressed in El Salvador to the point of giving his own life. 
            It is found in the work of institutions like the International Justice Mission that tries to liberate people trapped in the prison of slavery.  It is found in the work of local churches that work for reconciliation, salvation and peace.  Martin Luther King, Jr called this work the creation of the Beloved Community.
            There is good…GREAT news for them! God is at work in the world, utilizing the church to shed his glory and his kingdom! We are there to offer life to those who are outcast, good news to the poor and hope to the infirm. 
            Advent invites us to wait for God, but it also invites us to see God at work and to delight in the work of the Lord.  We are not to expect anybody else, because the one who has come is the one whom we have waited for and Christ is the one to establish this kingdom.  In this, we hope, in him, we rejoice. 

[1] Letters and Papers from Prison

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Running on Empty

            Today I had one of those days.  You know the type….the days where nothing seems to go right.  I thought I had things under control…until the most embarrassing thing happened. 
            I ran out of gas.  Literally. 
            There I was, driving along and everything was going well.  Next thing I know, the car is sputtering and I am pulling over to the side of road…completely immobilized.  
            Of course, when this first happened…I didn’t realize I had run out of gas.  I ran through the myriad of issues for which I have had my truck towed in the last three months.  I was instantly hit with anger and the thought, “this can’t be happening to me!”  I have had to repair the breaks, the tires, the driveshaft, and the fuel pump all within the last year. I have towed this car more than any other car I’ve owned….or known about.  So I instantly thought that something was majorly wrong with it. 
            That was, until, somebody I was talking to reminded me that my fuel light had been on.  Of course my fuel light was on.  It’s almost always on.  I no sooner fill the car with gas the fuel light goes on.  I can go with days with my fuel light on.  And, in fact… I had gone days with the fuel light on.
            Then I realized….I had been driving for days with the fuel light on.  The time had finally come when it was completely out of gas.  I was stuck on the road…and there was nothing I could do about it. 
            I called the tow truck and waited for them to arrive.  I called my wife and my office to let them know what had happened.  I let the people who were waiting for me know what had happened as well.  And then I just…waited.
            As I waited, I began to think about my life.
That is NOT my car

            How often does this happen?  How often do I run out of gas.
            Now, to be honest, I have never actually run out of gas in my car…until today.  And I thought back to all the things that were going on in the last couple of days.  I can reason with myself that I was busy…I was too busy in fact.  I tried to pack too much into the last couple of days to make a quick stop at the gas station.  That lack of a trip to the gas station, messed up my schedule and the schedule of others.  I let myself down and I let others down…all because I was too busy to go to the gas station…to take care of my car.
            How many of us are running around on empty…spiritually…emotionally…mentally speaking? How many of us won’t…or can’t…make time to get some gas…to take some time and recharge.  We live in a go-go-go culture and society in which every waking moment has to be spent doing…something…even if that something really isn’t important. (watching Duck Dynasty is not all that important).  But we all have to be going.  And by going…we drain our fuel.
            And that’s the problem.  We try to go as hard as we can for as long as we can.  We take energy drinks rather than admit we need sleep.  We pay attention to our cellphones rather than talk to the people who are right next door to us.  We pretend we don’t need rest, to regroup, to recharge…and then we deny ourselves any chance to do so.  When we crash, we often crash hard, and we don’t need to.
            If only we would refill when we had the time.
            Isaiah talks about those who ‘wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and now grow weary.” (Isaiah 40:31)  Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Never growing weary? Never running out of gas? 
            Isaiah is referring to a number of things.  First, he is referring to the time when the Messiah will come and establish the kingdom of God.  At that point, those who wait will not grow weary (because weariness will not exist).  But he is also talking about one of the ways to renew ourselves. 
            We can be renewed by waiting for God…by cultivating our sense of God’s presence and coming.  We can do this by any number of spiritual practices.  We can fast, pray, read, study…sleep...(I’m of the opinion that sleep is a spiritual practice!)
            Or we can do this by taking care of ourselves.  Sometimes people spend too much attention on themselves (we call this selfishness), but often people don’t spend enough attention to themselves and they don’t attend to themselves.  After a while, this can result in all sorts of problems.
            Take for example any number of stressed out moms out there in Americaland.  They work hard at work…or work hard at home.  They take care of the kids and everything else and don’t take care of themselves very often.  They run far too long on far too little…and they burn out.  When they do, they are not very much good for anything else. 

            A common example can be cited (and I may have cited it before).  When you are going on an airplane, when the stewardess is going over the preflight information, they talk about the air tubes coming down.  It is always stressed to put your own tube on first before you help another person.  The same is true to life.
            As I watched all the cars going by today, in fast paces, trying to get to where they were going, I wondered how many of them were low on fuel, low on energy and about to crash.  We should all take some time to refuel so we don’t find ourselves immobile on the side of road called life.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hope and Change

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We were all expecting…all hoping…that the Bears would win the Superbowl.  They were primed for the game, and as far as we knew…they were ready!  The gamed kicked off…and TOUCHDOWN, Bears! We were off to a fantastic beginning, but it was not to last.  Soon, our hopes were dashed as the Colts quickly regained the ball…and the lead.  Before we knew it, the game was pretty much over and the Bears had been defeated.
  So much for hope.
            Our world seems like it runs out of hope a lot.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.  Can there be any more cynical statement than this.  Underlying this simple statement is just an understanding that nothing ever really changes.  Nothing ever gets better. We can hear it in the desperation of our friends looking for work, those dealing with sickness, and those dealing with the heartbreak of broken families.

            Advent can be difficult for a lot of people, because in the midst of brokenness, in the midst of war, and in the midst of suffering, the church dares to declare hope. 
            We can imagine what it would have been like for the ancient Israelites.  In a lot of ways, their situation is the same as our situation: the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Ancient Israel was surrounded by their enemies.  The economy was taking a down turn and people were desperate for good news.  It must have seemed like the world was falling apart.  There was increased emotional distance between parents and children.  Newer technology scared older generations as the new generation embraced different values.  Politicians promised hope and change for the future, but people found that this hope and change seemed much like the  way things have always been done.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.
            Today, the message of hope can feel as an empty promise, a veiled attempt to cloud the pessimism of the future.  Our politicians have promised hope for the American people…a change in the way things ought to be.  But we see this hope diminished.  Our unemployment rate continues to be large, people continue their downward spiral into poverty.  Morals seem to be slipping as families continue to break up.  Addictions soar and drugs are celebrated in some parts of our country as others pretend not to notice the dreadful effects of addiction.  The sex trade continues to soar as millions of young men and women are enslaved every year to provide entertainment for people.  Our culture celebrates violence, anger and vengeance and peace feels that much farther away.
            The more things change, the more they stay the same.
            That might sound too grand…but our own lives echo the desperation we feel out in culture.  We try to change ourselves, hoping that our family will improve…or we medicate ourselves hoping that the pain will go away. We try to tell ourselves that things will be get better, but deep down in our heart, that refrain echoes in our brain: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
            But Isaiah points to a day when things will change…and there is hope that things will be better.
            There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)
            When YHWH established David as king, he promised that a descendent would always ben on the throne.  The Davidic kingship was supposed to be the way that God established his kingdom…his justice and peace here on earth.  But David’s descendants had other plans.  They departed from YHWH’s ways and justice and peace got obscured and the people of Israel lost hope that anything would change. 
            But now there will be change.  Because out of the ruins of the Davidic dynasty comes the promise of the Messiah.  This has been part of the plan since the beginning.  Because  all of those kings point to the promise of God that has been with us since the beginning of time. Genesis 3:15   I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. God had promised one offspring would come and set all things right, all things new.  This is the promise that Isaiah now picks up again.
            He describes this ‘branch’ as a king that will establish peace and justice.  He is filled with God’s Spirit, which creates in him the fear of the Lord (v. 3). 

            What this results in is a different type of a regime.  This king is not interested in politics as usual, he is not interested in maintaining the status quo and he is not interested in perpetuating a bureaucracy.  Rather, he redefines what is important.  With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity or meek of the earth (v. 4).  While most modern politicians are good at rhetoric and sound bites, this ruler proves his concern by his actions.
            So great is this transformation that will happen, that the entire creation will be renewed.  Isaiah describes the highly unlikely pairing of a wolf lying down with a lamb and predators eating grass and ‘prey’ living in a world without fear.  What we see is a world at peace, a peace at rest, and a peace without fear.  Life will be valued for what it truly should be.
            Instead of “the more things change the more they stay the same,” in Isaiah’s prophesy we see ‘the more things change…they really do change!’
            This prophesy became the backbone for how Israelites viewed the world.  Sure things are difficult now….but change is coming!!! Victory is coming! The Messiah is coming!  
            But the further away from this event the people were…the more they began to sink back into their depression.  War gave way to more war, poverty became more prevalent and invaders came from the four corners of the earth to occupy Palestine.  First came the Babylonians, the the Greeks, and finally the Romans.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.
            But eventually, a new voice came on the scene.  After four hundred years of complete silence a young man appears on the scene.  He is wild eyed and crazy sounding….he dresses funny and eats bugs!  And yet….people flock to see him.  People come from all over Judea and all over Jerusalem to come and hear this man preach.
            And yet…they do! It should be no surprise to us that John speaks to a hunger…a desire to the people of Israel.  He speaks to the underlying yearning for the people.  His message is simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  It is a short simple statement of what John has preached.  There is no simpler sermon that has been preached and yet it connects with the Israelites on such a powerful level…because it addresses their deepest need.
            The key phrase in this passage is ‘the kingdom of God.’  The kingdom of God represents the sum total of Jesus’ preaching and of the New Testament message for all people.  We may find ourselves scratching our heads at this because we very rarely hear sermons preached on ‘the kingdom of God’ and besides a few praise songs, kingdom preaching is usually very limited to a couple of Sundays.  But this is not because the Church has abandoned the idea of the kingdom of God, but because we have found new ways to talk about the reality that John and Jesus preached about.  Paul emphasizes the gospel and talks about being ‘in Christ,’ which is the way that he expresses the kingdom of God. 
            So what is this kingdom of God?  Biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos suggests that the kingdom of God is the ‘end time rule of God.’ In other words, the kingdom of God is that time, at the end of time, when God himself will reign and establish the world as it ought to be.  It is the hope of the Old Testament, the yearning of the ancient Israelites and the point of the prophets.  We may take it as ‘shorthand,’ but there is a large theological significance to this phrase and so when John uses it, he is tapping into a cultural buzzword that people would have been familiar with.
            God reigning…all things created new…sinners judged, the righteous restored and the end of death and of sickness.  These are the principle things that the kingdom of God entailed.  We see this language all over the Old Testament.  Of course we saw this earlier when Isaiah talks about the root of the throne of Jesse.  We read that the messiah is coming to establish this kingdom, because the messiah is the king who establishes it.  But towards the end of Isaiah, we also read
"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.  18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.  19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.  20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.  21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  23 They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them.  24 Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.  25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain," says the LORD.  (Isaiah 65:17-25)
            Now that sounds hopeful.  That sounds like there is something to change, that sounds like things just might get better.  All of this is captured in John’s phrase, ‘the kingdom of God.’
            But it gets better for John’s listeners.  Because he says that not only is this kingdom is on its way, this kingdom is at hand!  In other words, it’s here! It’s now! This great kingdom that Isaiah talked about is here in the present.  That’s hope that nobody in Jerusalem or Judea could find anywhere else. 
            But so what? What does this have to do with us? It’s been two thousand years.  Lions still eat lambs, the poor are still persecuted and the sick still die.  Isn’t this just the same old case of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same?’  Has anything really changed?
            Well yes, something has changed.  Jesus came and died and was resurrected to new life.  That’s a change.  He also came and he changed us!  God established His people as a New Creation, as part of this New Kingdom and as ambassadors for the rule of God. 
            Sure, we may not see some great changes like Bears eating grass or children playing with snakes…but we see change.  We see communities that are dedicated to reaching out to the poor and the needy.  We see Churches establishing hospitals to care for the sick.  We see monasteries established to educate the outcast.  We see a redefining of values for an entire world. 
            We often grow cynical because we don’t see change happening fast enough.  When we do so, we fail to recognize two things.
            First, we fail to recognize that change takes an awful long time.  Think of how long it takes to change yourself, and compare that to changing the world.  Gandhi once said that we needed to become the change that we wanted to see in the world.  But that doesn’t happen overnight.  I know for me, change can be scary and it can take me a long time to get used to it.  For instance, even something simple like learning to not chew my fingernails took me years….and I still do it.  Why wouldn’t it take a long time to change the great things of the world like the foundations of justice and the values of society?
            The second thing is that our sin often clouds the work of God in the world from our eyes.  It is very easy to point out the negative things that are happening.  We are used to them and we see them everywhere.  But it is much harder to see positive change and to see the hand of God working in the lives of very ordinary and mundane events.  We often don’t want to see these things, because we want to wallow in our self pity and in our cynicism.  We want to disbelieve, because our hearts are prone to disbelief. 
            But the message of Advent invites us to chuck our disbelief.  Instead of falling into the cynical trap of believing that things can never change, Advent…and Christ….call us to trust in Him and to believe in hope.  It is the Enemy that wants to deny us hope, for us to fall into living out our hopelessness.  As theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “to live without hope is to cease to live.  Hell is hopelessness.  It is not by accident that above the entryway to Dante’s hell is the inscription, ‘abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’”  The devil would see us spend eternity rotting and wallowing in hopelessness, but the root of stump of Jesse brings new life.  The devil robs hope from us, but Christ restores us to hope and to life. 
            The more things change, the more they stay the same? Absolutely not! Christ has come…Christ is coming…and that changes everything!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Rush Limbaugh vs. Pope Francis

Talk about a bizarre world…I never even thought that the Pope would have listened to Rush Limbaugh, much less respond to him.  What is interesting about this whole recent debate is that this could create a dilemma for many conservative Christians who want to support the Pope and Rush.  This debate actually highlights an internal conflict within the Christian church…specifically the American church…and no wonder it has struck a nerve with so many people.

The Church…and money…so many conflicts…and there has been an interesting history of the relationship between the two.
Things erupted a couple of weeks ago when Pope Francis I issued the statement, The Gospel of Joy in which he criticized what he called ‘unfettered capitalism.’  The Pope had in mind an unregulated state much like what we saw at the beginning of the 20th century and is advocated by some conservatives today, including Rush.  According to Rush, capitalism is the cure for life’s problems and should be allowed to continue unhindered. 
There are many conservative Christians in the US.  That is, there are many Christians who support the Church, but also support and embrace a conservative capitalist worldview.  They read both the Bible and Ayn Rand and do not see a struggle between the two.  But the Pope has correctly identified that there is indeed a conflict between them.
Jesus famously said that “You cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24).” It is indeed on this point that many Christians really falter.  The Pope, in his statement, is echoing this statement and he is saying that there is something wrong with somebody who has money as their ultimate goal. 
It is at this point that Rush shows his theological ineptitude.  Rush has identified himself as a Christian in the past, but he has had questionable theological positions, such as wanting to remove the book of Revelation from the Bible.  So I think we can all understand that Rush is not a Bible scholar.  What is dangerous is when he criticizes a Christian leader for taking an issue with something that Jesus takes issue with. 
The Pope’s concern is Jesus’ concern…what an uncontrolled love of money does to us and does to society.  When money becomes the primary goal, it dehumanizes us and robs us of the opportunity to provide compassion and love to other people.

The Bible is filled with concepts that (if ever practiced) would drive any capitalist completely crazy.  For instance, the book of Ruth encourages people to leave food in the field, free for the taking (2:3).  Nobody charged the poor for this food and to do so was actually illegal!  We could discuss the practice of completely canceling debts every seven years….not to mention the prohibition on charging interest on loans. 
The point is that the Bible at many different places comes into conflict with the practices of Capitalism.  The American Church, however, at times has identified American Conservative Republican values with Christian values.  The Pope’s comments have brought this conflict out into the open once again, thus creating a dilemma for many Christians.
Perhaps it is time for the Church to re-examine its views on the economy and answer the question, “Who do we owe allegiance too?”  After all, you can’t serve both the Pope and Rush at the same time. 

Wake up! An Advent Reflection

So…be honest….how many of you enjoy coming to church? I mean, really enjoy waking up and getting ready for to come to church? If you have kids, you know that this is a weekly struggle of getting them roused and out of bed, dressed to be somewhat acceptable for societal standards and then throw some breakfast down them and throw them in the car to get them to church on time. 
            In my house, Sunday morning normally begins something like this:
            Me: Owen…wake up.
            Owen: uhhhhhhh…….(rolls back to bed)
            Me: Owen…WAKE UP!!!! We have to go to church!
            Owen: uhhhhh……..why do we have to go to church?
            Me: Because God said so!
            Owen: I don’t want to go to church!
            Me: I don’t care what you want to do….you are going to church! Now GET UP!!!!
            So, this conversation probably sounds familiar in your household.  Church has never been a place that most people have bounded out of bed and headed towards.  Even time is different at church.  I can watch a movie and it feels like no time has passed at all, but a 15 minute sermon….oh my!
            In a lot of ways, I can sympathize with kids…and others…that don’t find church enjoyable.  Growing up, I never wanted to go to church.  Of course, I was an atheist, so maybe that had something to do with it.  I remember one Christmas when my friend really wanted to bring me to church.  He mustered all his nerve up to ask me to go to church.  When he finally did, I simply responded by saying, “Church? Church? It’s Christmas Eve, why would I want to go to church?” (Irony is not lost on me now)
Most of us are probably not morning people...

            My attitude was a long way from the Psalmist’s attitude: “I was glad when they said to me, let us go up to the House of the Lord.”  Glad?  As a kid, I never went to church gladly.  I always resentfully and never found it joyful….simply boring.  I mean, after all…what does the Church have to say to me? To us? To the World? Anything? What can the Church offer?
            This really is the question that the Church asks itself again at the beginning of Advent.  As we begin a new year, the church asks itself, “why do we exist? Do we have any meaning? Is there a purpose to this?”  In the midst of the holiday season, after the busyness of the year, the Church often forgets why we are here and what we are about.
            It’s almost like every Advent, the Church needs to be reminded about its purpose, its vision and its destination. 
            That’s why Advent starts off with these magisterial images of a new world.  Isaiah kicks off our new year with a vision of a different world…a world renewed…a world changed…by God.
In days to come the mountains of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, ‘come let’s go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in its paths.  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples.  They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:2-4 NRSV).
            Now talk about an unbelievable picture! Not only will there be world peace…but people will ask…and WANT to go to CHURCH!  Seriously, though, we see that the world is to be transformed into a different place…different from the one we know…the one filled with anger and violence, warfare and strife.  It sounds almost too good to be true.  But it’s not…it’s the Gospel in action.
            Isaiah’s vision is meant to inspire the people of Israel…and the world…to look forward to a new dawn.  The time of Advent is a time to refocus on where we are going as a people.  We have been wearied by reports of World events…of wars and rumors of war…that it is hard for us to imagine that anything else could be different.  One of the reasons perhaps that many people find church ‘boring’ is because we have forgotten this vision of where we are going.  We have forgotten the message that we are supposed to be living out.  We have forgotten to offer people the very thing they are looking for: peace.
            The vision of Isaiah offers something completely different than anything the world can offer.  We often speak of ‘peace’ in political terms.  And while the vision definitely encapsulates this, it is much more expansive than this.  It is for the Hebrew word ~wlv that captures the sense here.  This means ‘completeness’ or ‘wholeness.’  People will be so at peace that disarmament will be an individual project, where people will give up their weapons and contribute to the common good by providing food for all.  
            But how is this supposed to come about?  We sometimes read a passage like this and we think that this is going to happen overnight, as if we don’t have to do anything.  We can sit back and let nature take its course and peace will magically appear.  But that’s not how it happens, is it?  This vision of Isaiah is the destination to which we are heading. It is God’s promise, but the way we get there is to live ourselves into it. 
            That is why Paul, in his letters to the Romans, tells people to ‘wake up.’ “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’ (Rom 13:11 NRSV).  What does he mean by this?
      Paul has been talking about how different the Christian life is in light of the promises of God.  He is trying to get the people to live into those promises of God.  He says that we should lay aside the ‘works of darkness’ and put on the ‘armor of light.’ What ‘light’ is Paul talking about? It is the same light of Isaiah. The early Church theologian Origen says, “the light is dawning everywhere, and the reign of darkness is rapidly coming to an end,’ which is because of the decisive work of God in Jesus Christ. 
            Paul declares that it is a ‘new day’ and because of this new day, people are changed people.  What is remarkable is that even in the midst of preaching the gospel of grace, Paul declares the ethical imperative for the people to enact the gospel promises of peace. We are to become ‘peace’ people…a community of Shalom.  We are to ‘walk in the light’ and to encourage others to live into the gospel values of peace and love and wholeness.
            I love when the church gets this right…and we do!  We have to remember that it was the Church that built and developed many of the early hospitals.  It was the church that retained a love of education and sought to educate much of the world.  It was the church that led the way in developing orphanages and it was church that has helped many people get back on its feet. 
            Personally, I remember a time when my church personally helped a young family get back on their feet.  It was near Christmas time and this family was living out in their car.  They had a very small child and another child on the way.  Our small church, with its budget stretched beyond imagination stepped up and provided a place for them to stay.  We were able to get the young man a job so he could work and provide money for his young and growing family.  This was a time when church ‘worked,’ when we were able to be that community of shalom.
            But too often, the church has lost sight of this.  I mean, how often have you heard of a church that has been a shining example of shalom to the world?  Too often, we get bogged down in internal conflict within the church.  We fight over…well everything! We fight over what type of music should be played, we fight over the color of carpets and we fight over who said what to whom.  Forget ‘world’ peace…often times we would like to find peace in our own church!
            And yet, isn’t this the entire point of what we have been celebrating? Isn’t this what Jesus, Paul, and Isaiah point us to during this time…during every time?
            What would happen if we took these passages seriously? What would happen if we truly began living in peace? What would happen if we became a ‘shalom’ people?  Sound too good to be true?   Maybe…but when people become captivated by the message of peace…with the message of the gospel…anything can happen…at any time!
            There is a reason that Jesus warns his disciples that the kingdom of God can break out and occur at any point.  Advent should be for us a time to stay alert for new possibilities, for new signs of the coming of the kingdom.  Jesus warns his listeners that life may seem to go on normally, as if nothing would ever change.  But here…and there…change can happen! The kingdom of peace can break in at any moment.
            You may have heard the story that happened during WW1 on Christmas Eve, but it is worth telling again.  The trenches of France were hardly a place where peace could reign…it was hardly a place that peace could have a foothold! People had been shooting at each other, killing each other and it seemed like there would be no end.  Then Christmas Eve came around and there was a ceasefire.  Somebody began to sing ‘Silent Night’ and before you know it, others joined in.  The German lines heard the singing and then they began to sing the song.  In that moment, dreaded enemies…people who had been shooting and killing each other just moments before, were joined together in their hearts and in their voices as they sung of eternal peace.  After this, hockey games happened between the two sides and there was, for a brief shining moment, a living realization of Isaiah’s vision.  Peace had come into the world! 

            As Advent begins, we hear the Gospel call back to the vision and promise that God has for the world.  We are called to come awake and to live out the gospel values that help embody the kingdom of Peace that Jesus has come to establish.  We are called to look out for signs of that peace that is breaking into our world.
            People have learned to ignore the Church because we have strayed from our vision.  Instead of a kingdom of peace, they see a people who have lost their way, who no longer know what they are living for.  The church has often times lost its excitement and passion for the coming kingdom… to embody the promises of God.  They may hear us singing our Carols and our Hymns, but they don’t think we mean them. 
            Advent is a time for us to renew ourselves and our Church.  At Advent, God calls us to
Wake Up! 
            But the message is not, “Wake up, we have to go to church.”
            No, instead, the message is and always has been, “wake up…it’s time to be the Church.”