Christian Seasons

Falling Into Our Own Pit

My friends over at Crackers & Grape Juice are providing daily Advent Devotionals. Last week I offered some reflections on Isaiah 5:13-25. Even though we are half way through the Season, it is not too late to get in on some very good writing based on the title of Fleming Rutledge’s newest book, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Her Introduction is worth the price of the book. But, you will want to her Advent sermons that span several decades.

He plotted. 

Legislation offered.

Legislation signed. Check.

Gallows built. Check.

Expecting to be celebrated, Haman illustrated the wisdom of the Proverbs, 

Dig a pit and you’ll fall in it.” 

Haman’s fall was not broken by the bottom of a pit.

They hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Esther is not about Karma. Facing annihilation, God snatched victory for his people from the jaws of the Enemy. Surrounded by powers bent to destroy, God emerged the Victor, his people the beneficiaries. Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, the consequences of which came at their own agency, God’s faithfulness stood in for their lack.

The scenario replays Judah’s confrontation with Assyrian King Sennacherib. Jerusalem was surrounded. King Hezekiah’s put his confidence in the LORD and resists the threats. He instructed the idols in the high places be torn down. As the figure head of all Israel, King Hezekiah led Israel to trust in YHWH. During the night an angel of the Lord struck down the enemy. Judah could not claim victory by its own agency. Only the faithfulness of YHWH could make up for Judah’s unfaithfulness. 

And just when it looked like Israel might move ever closer to discovering grace and reveling in it, they illustrate how God described the inclinations of the human heart,

I will never again curse the ground because of human beings, even though the inclinations of the human heart is evil from youth onward.

Fleming Rutledge wrote of Advent,

“ . . . it [Advent] is not for the faint of heart. To grasp the depth of the human predicament, one has to be willing to enter into the very worst. This is not the same thing as going to horror films, which are essentially entertainment.”

Yemen.

The U.N. will request $4 billion in relief aid for Yemen. From March of 2015 through to July 19, 2018,  it is estimated 6,500 civilians have been killed. Children make up 1625 of that number. Famine and disease have left Yemen devastated. Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia engage in a proxy war on Yemeni soil keeping their respective lands unsoiled by the blood of these innocents.

Humanitarian efforts are tricky. Blockades and battle zones make it hard to provide relief. Countries funding material aid to civilians also provide military support for the battle. For example, the United States provides support for Saudi Arabia’s interest. How is it that a Country will spend money on both sides of the conflict? This is not a new practice. And, the United States is not the lone culprit. 

In our sins we have been a long time . . . 

We set the agenda. Tout a high standard. We want to challenge the murderers responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. At the same time we must admit we approved aid to the sovereign country that sought his death. We support the agenda in Yemen that results in civilian deaths. We express outrage and threaten to withhold support, not at the death of innocent children whose names do not make the evening news. We wait until a man with a name and a high profile is killed in a foreign country.

We. Us. The prophet Isaiah did not stand outside of the practices that brought God’s judgment. He included himself. Woes figure prominently in the lyrics of the Song in Isaiah 5. Isaiah pronounces the woe on himself in the next chapter. We cannot escape responsibility for what is done by our proxies, by our common community.

No self-justifying argument may be made for unjust scales.

Lyrically the prophet calls attention to the treachery of the people of God. Direct confrontation would result in defensiveness. Israel’s prophets have a history of this practice.

There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing except one small ewe lamb that he had bought . . . Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man could not bring himself to take one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for his guest.

David demands justice for the man whose sheep was taken. He hears the prophet say, “You are the man!”

Jesus tells the story about a vineyard owner who having built the vineyard and the watchtower leased it all to tenant farmers. Once he concludes the story with the death of the owner’s son he asks, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers?” As we would expect the answer came, like David’s, rooted in the demand for justice. Just as the prophet informed David he was the man, the chief priests and the Pharisees knew Jesus was talking about them.

Maybe Jesus had Isaiah 5 in mind. Rather than a song he told a parable. The net effect is the same. Israel could not be guilty of such crimes. Could they? Would they recognize their error? Not until in exile.

Israel had become Haman. 

Digging their pit they had fallen into it.

Therefore my people will go into exile because they lack knowledge; her dignitaries are starving, and her masses are parched with thirst.

Listening to the prophetic songs and startling stories we discover . . . so have we.

Baptism: Jesus Burns His Draft Card

(Epiphany/Baptism of Jesus Sunday)

Mark 4:4-11; 

On October 15, 1965 . . . 

In a demonstration staged by the student-run National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the first public burning of a draft card in the United States takes place.

These demonstrations drew 100,000 people in 40 cities across the country. In New York, David Miller, a young Catholic pacifist, became the first U.S. war protestor to burn his draft card in direct violation of a recently passed law forbidding such acts. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation later arrested him; he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. (History Channel)

Ched Myers, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, published nearly 30 years ago, used an image that is sure to prove a trigger to many, “A modern analogy to baptism-as-declaration-of-resistance might be the pubic acts of draft card burning, which symbolized “induction” into the antiwar movement during the Indochina Conflict.

The analogy turns on how Myers considers draft card burning as a symbol of induction into the anti-war movement. It would be hard to overstate the way Jesus’ baptism declared his resistance to the Judeo-Roman institutions of his day.

Today, a symbolic act of resistance, an induction into what might be considered resistance to anti-immigrant sentiment, might be publicly declaring that you would open your home as “sanctuary” for immigrants at risk of deportation. 

For most of us who grew up Baptist in the past 50 years, baptism as a symbol has been more a church growth marker for denominational leaders and a form of personal security for parents and grandparents that their children and grandchildren will go to heaven when they die.

We hardly, if ever, talk about baptism as a symbolic act of resistance. In the United States of America, we don’t have an Empire to resist, do we? 

Alan Wolfe, noted sociologist wrote, The Transformation of Religion in America where, after interviewing ordinary people about their view of religion, concluded that every religion that comes to our shores is forever changed.

It does not maintain its original form.

And, this includes Christianity where we could easily agree that how we view baptism today is nothing comparable to Jesus’ baptism, even if we are baptized into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Rather than become obsessively concerned, angered or confused, let’s re-orient ourselves to Jesus’ baptism not so that we might feel a sense of guilt and shame but that we may see the Gospel enacted in the Baptism of Jesus. Let’s be reminded that what God revealed in Jesus at Jesus’ baptism is for us, for our incorporation and at least a sign and symbol of Jesus summing up the will of God that would result in the Cross and Resurrection. In short, Jesus’ Baptism tells the Story of God who is for Us.

Baptism is not less than symbolic, but it is more. Baptism practiced as a symbol is the enactment of a spiritual reality involving the body. 

Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)

When we over-emphasize the spiritual to the exclusion of the physical, we miss the drama. We come perilously close to making an old mistake.

Jesus’ baptism was physical. One of the errors confronting the early church was the idea that Jesus was a spirit-being, not a real-physical-human-being. Docetism viewed Jesus’ physical body as just a semblance, an “it only appears to be” sort of thing, not real.

To move baptism to a merely symbolic, spiritual act, and then determining that it is past its best by date, we risk conveying the idea that what matters in life is an unseen spiritual reality. The physical is just a part of the journey we will one day no longer need. And with it, any hint that baptism-as-a-declaration-of-resistance is gone.

Any loss of baptism-as-declaration-of-resistance proves Wolfe’s point, every religion that comes to our shores is forever changed. Maybe you see how the lack of connecting the meaning of our baptism with the meaning of Jesus’ baptism is one of the key moves that signals religion, even Christianity, has become a moral movement, ripe for a new legalism. 

When our baptism is stripped of its connection to the meaning of Jesus’ baptism we only have left things as they are. We create of Christianity something different than what it was. Rather than resist the temptation of earthly Empires we determine to influence them to be better moral actors. As such, the goal is to participate in the power of the Empire. When that happens, it is historically demonstrated that Christianity becomes something different than it once was. We lose the Good News. 

What difference does it make that poverty remains, people go hungry, human beings are judged by their differences, and those on the edges of society are deemed less important than any other so long as our lives change very little?

If that is not Bad News enough, there is more. When our attempts to influence the Empire fail, we turn to our piety. We console ourselves with the conviction if we would pray and turn from our wicked ways things would be better. We miss that the error is trading Bad News for Good News, for thinking we could rehab the Empire rather than resist it. Our piety becomes therapeutic. This means that when our lives are difficult due to the forces that work against the Kingdom of God, we turn inward and make it all about our spiritual practices as if somehow God is looking for improved performance on our part.

If God were looking for better performers, what makes Jesus necessary? After all, the whole of the Gospel, we say, is that God does for us what we cannot do. Paul, in his letter to the Galatian Christians, reasons with them,

But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elements? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?

Why become a slave to a new law when you have been set free?

Mark sets up the dramatic scene of Jesus’ baptism. Everyone in Judea and Jerusalem is coming to John to be baptized. The Text reads they were baptized “ by John.” The “in” crowd came to John to be baptized.

Jesus comes out of nowhere from the North. Galilee and the areas north of Samaria were considered less than Judea and Jerusalem. Anyone from there would be immediately considered second-class, second-rate. 

Jesus comes to be baptized by John into the Jordan. 

The Jordan – the very water into which a leprous army commander washed in to become clean. The Jordan – the place where the waters were held back so the people could cross safely on dry ground to enter the land of promise.

The way Mark adds to the drama is that those who came from the South were baptized of John in the Jordan. Jesus was baptized into the Jordan. Orthodox artwork illustrated this story by showing Jesus entombed in the water.

Dramatically, Jesus comes up out of the water – pointing to Resurrection, and the Spirit descends like a dove. If we are still stuck on the idea that Jesus burned his draft card as an analogy, we will likely be looking for a dove rather than that which is like a dove. Analogies attempt to convey what is difficult to express. 

You are my beloved Son calls to mind the song sung by Israel,

I will declare the Lord’s decree. He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance and the ends of the earth your possession. (Ps. 2:7)

You are my beloved Son is tempered by the words of Isaiah the prophet,

I will put my spirit upon him,

he will bring forth justice to the nations,

he will not cry out or lift up his voice in the street,

a bruised reed he will not break (Is. 42:1)

Jesus’ enactment of the Good News is that in his baptism he identifies with those who are sinners, will suffer with them in death, and be resurrected to new life. This is the Kingdom Good News. It runs counter, is resistance to, the kingdoms of this world.

Notice that Mark moves the drama forward emphasizing the Baptism of Jesus with the Temptation in the wilderness.

What will Jesus be tempted with but to yield to the ruler of this world? He will be tempted by the same desire for power that is in practice in his day, and in ours. Mark paints those who threaten in the wilderness as wild animals, those that minister to the One who is Good News for us are angels. Mark is interested in the contrast that illustrates Jesus is God’s Good News.

Re-orienting ourselves around the meaning of Jesus’ Baptism calls attention to our induction us into a resistance movement – one that resists the lure of power, one that embraces the value of all human begins, one that acknowledges those on the edges of life in need of liberation and freedom. Re-telling the story of Jesus’ baptism is the reminder of the way God is for us and is God’s Good News.

Parents, when your children trust Jesus and want to be baptized you sign up to be their conversation partner as they learn to resist the powers of this world. You become an avenue of the Spirit where they will learn to trust the weak things of this world in defiance of the strong. 

However, parents, if we have not burned our draft cards, we will not know how or what to help our children with only giving them an empty form of the Good News, which is Bad News.

Church, our incorporation into Christ marks us as a resistance movement.

You who are hearing the Good News today may too be incorporated into Christ.

You who are in need of a community of people who will resource you with encouragement and fellowship to resist are welcome.

*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions/differences to the preached version.

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Adoption Not Abstraction

Adoption Not Abstraction
Galatians 4:4-7 (Is. 61:10-62:3 & Luke 2:22-40)

When the Santa Ana winds blow in the California desert, you get events like the Thomas Fire that began on December 4. It is now considered the largest wildfire in the history of California. Read More

‘Twas the Night Before

’Twas the Night Before

Isaiah 62; Luke 1:46-55

On Dunder and Blixem! To the top the porch to the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all! 

Donder and Blixem? Really? Can’t the preacher even get their names right?

Our Anglicized version is Donner and Blitzen. The German, or Dutch, version was used by the poet who retained the last two reindeer names meaning, Thunder and Lightning. 

Whether it was Moore or Livingston, the poem loved by many since 1823 translates parts of a story from the fourth century. A young man’s parents died. He was left with quite a bit of money. Burdened by the sights of those in need, young Nicolas could be found helping with his wealth. 

It may be that the Story of the Three Dowrys is the one that eventually captured the imagination of a young poet some 1500 years later. After all, down a chimney? Really? The story goes there was a man with three daughters. Their poverty was so great they would never marry. Learning their situation, young Nicolas gave them three bags of gold coins. The father protested the gesture after the first two and that led to young Nicolas tossing a bag on the roof plunging it through the chimney into the stockings that were drying by the fire.

The period in which young Nicolas lived it was against the law to be Christian. Not long after the law changed, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra and the stories of St. Nicolas took on a life of their own. 

Thunder and lightning. 

I could not help but think of the Sons of Thunder whose mother requested that her sons get to sit on Jesus’ right hand and left hand. Thunder. The noise making sound that follows lightning.

When Dan Reynolds, lead singer of Imagine Dragons, decided to tell his own story of pain and depression, he included a song about his long desire to make some noise. The title of the song? Thunder. 

In a driving beat, Reynolds put his memories to lyrics. I admittedly took some liberties with the way the lyrics show up in the song.

I was lightning before thunder.

Not content to ride in the back seat, Reynolds was dreaming of bigger things. Not a yes sir, not a follower, he wanted more than to take a number and a seat in the foyer.

Who did he think he was? 

He was lightning before thunder. And now, those who were laughing in his classes found he had been scheming for the masses. Dreaming big. No riding in the backseat, he’s smiling from the stage while others are clapping in the nosebleed seats.

He was lightning before thunder.

Somewhere between the night before you could say that God planned lightning. It wasn’t so much a dream as it was his own gift. We have told the story of Jesus associated with Christmas to the point that we have decided Jesus was God’s gift to us! But, that is our projecting onto the story; a way to make the story about us.

The Story of Christmas is a story about God. To make the story about us is to miss the thunder. Maybe the reason some early Christians did not like Christmas and chose to celebrate the day before was that the day had become a day about us, about human beings. 

However, the story of Christmas is about God. It is the story that points out just how bad human beings missed what God is like. How we got God wrong. It is part of the story we do not want to admit. We like the tinsel and the bows. Tarnish Christmas with the truth about us and we just might have to renounce what it has become until we get God right.

But, we won’t get God right projecting on to God what we think we need. We will only get God right when we take God revealed in Jesus for what is right about God.

And what is right about God?

Take the lightning.

The prophet Isaiah declared a word from God for God that the devastation created by a combination of unfaithfulness and judgment for ignoring the people among them considered marginal – widows, orphans, and immigrants, even refugees, would be turned around. In words clearly pointing out how occupation works, that is when a foreign power is in control, someone is always benefiting from your hard labor. 

The LORD has sworn with his right hand and his strong arm: 

I will no longer give your grain to your enemies for food, and foreigners will not drink the new wine for which you have labored. 

For those who gather grain will eat it and praise the LORD, and those who harvest grapes will drink the wine in my holy courts.

It wasn’t just about ridding the land of the oppressor,

Look, the LORD has proclaimed to the ends of the earth, “Say to Daughter Zion: Look, your salvation is coming, his wages are with him, and his reward accompanies him.” 

And they will be called the Holy People, the Lord’s Redeemed: and you will be called Cared For, A City Not Deserted.

Do you catch it? The lightning is the description of what God will do. The thunder is the noise that erupts at what God has done. The story is about God and it takes in people.

But, often before the thunder, there is the before. It is found in the then. Lightning then thunder. You have listened before. Once you made the connection between lightning and thunder you noticed that the further away from the lightning the longer the delay in the thunder.

The then, the before the celebration, the praise, may be described as the night before.

Somewhere it is always the night before.

Power may not return to Puerto Rico until next May. 

You recall the images from the destruction after hurricane  Maria. The news just in time for Christmas? 70% of Puerto Rico is still in the dark. Christmas is one of the longest-running festivities on the Island. 

Not.

This.

Year.

Scenes of apocalyptic horror roll up on shore. Diesel generators create air quality concerns. Clean water remains a constant need.

Separated by more than two thousand years and a different cause, Israel after the exile in Babylon could well be imagined by considering the conditions in Puerto Rico.

No matter the preparations the night before, escaping Maria was not an option for the island.

No matter the warnings the night before, escaping the fist of Babylon was not an option for the nation not much larger than an island.

Those words of Isaiah, words that were more than Isaiah’s. They were God’s words to a people who returned home to unexpected devastation. They had been warned. Judgment fell.

No amount of preparation could ease the blow of what they would see, think, and hear from their enemies. 

Somewhere it is always the night before.

No matter the cause, the correlation is the same. It is always the night before for nations, people, families, and individuals. We feel the devastation and the pain just the same. Always.

And when the weight of the world gone wrong comes to bear on us we feel empty, darkness and out of shape.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters.

The conditions out of which the voice of God spoke have been described as chaotic – Formless. Empty. Darkness. God’s calling creation into being could well be considered a birth story. 

Fast forward to young Mary. 

Israel is now occupied territory, again. For those who view their land as an identity marker, occupation may well be worse than exile. Sure they looked at the Temple as a reminder of God’s presence. They could worship with a degree of non-interference. But, they were ruled by others, by Rome.

Poverty reached nearly everyone one. 

And here we are. Israel under Rome is formless, empty and dark. Occupied countries fit formless as they are subject to the ruling power. They are empty, often finding little hope. Darkness overwhelms.

Out of those conditions as a people and as individuals, Mary is visited with news she would experience the power of the Spirit of God. She would be overshadowed by the Most High. This is lightning before thunder.

And the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.

We cannot but help making the connection that God intends to do what he spoke of through the prophet Isaiah,

You will be called Cared For, A City Not Deserted.

Before we make haste to Luke 2 and the thunder, we need to hear the lightning. 

His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him.

He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because the thoughts of their hearts; 

he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. 

He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.

The Good News is that those who have not been cared for will be. And, it will come at a cost. And this is how we know we may have gotten God wrong. While we are busy giving and receiving gifts, those for whom Mary’s words apply take in those who have no gifts to give and none to receive.

Those in Mary’s song are those who are rescued from those . . . well . . .  like us. Those of us who think Christmas is about one more gift for us. 

The Good News of Christmas may be Bad News. That is if we persist in thinking that Christmas is about our own lightning before thunder. If what we hope for is what we put on our list, confident someone will give it to us.

We fit Paul’s description, “professing themselves wise, they became fools.

And, the Good News, the really Good News, is that despite our getting God wrong, God got us right. On our every night before, God comes to us, not we to him. Jesus came to us having renounced that for which we aspire. God came in weakness while we put on our facades of strength. 

God came to us and was not on our list. That is lightning.

God loves us. That is thunder.

The angels announced the thunder . . . 

I proclaim Good News of great joy that will be for all people; Today in the City of David a Savior was born for you, who is Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.

Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to people.

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*I often have a manuscript available but do not always read it. It is part of my preparation. There may have been slight additions to the preached version.

Making Advent Great Again #MAGA: A Conversation with Emily Hunter McGowin

Who knew the sloganeering of a Presidential campaign would afford us a way to highlight the great mystery of the Incarnation? Consider it much like the Apostle Paul flipping, “Ceasar is lord,” to, “Jesus Is Lord.” Read More