The Fugitive Gospel

The lectionary for December 29 included a vivid description of the horrors that faced the Holy Family in the months following the nativity.  Matthew 2:13-23 provides a narration of the flight into Egypt and the resettlement at Nazareth.  This message was preached to the good people of  The Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.

What kind of Christmas cards are you apt to select for your seasonal greetings?  Do you send out the understated, serious card that can be received by folks of many (or even no) faith – you know, the wintry scenes or nature photos that say “Happy Holidays”?  Do you go for the cute cards – the “precious moments” nativities, or the cartoon Santas?  Maybe you like the funny cards, or the more personal cards that include your own photograph.  And, since we’re in church, I would bet that more than a few of you select a religious card, perhaps with a painting of the wise men or shepherds gathered around the manger, reminding us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” or inviting us to sing “Gloria in excelsis deo”.  Do you have a favorite?

Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (Luc-Oliver Merson, 1880)

No matter how you may have answered that, my hunch is that there are some things that you’ve never seen on a Christmas card.  I don’t believe that Hallmark or American Greetings sell many cards that feature an image of the Holy Family sneaking into Egypt as they run away from King Herod, looking tired and hungry and decidedly un-holy as they fear for their lives and wonder about the terror that they left behind in Bethlehem.  I’ve never seen a Christmas card featuring Joseph and Mary looking at real estate in Nazareth, a backwoods town some 65 miles – several days on foot – away from Jerusalem.  They are relocating, not because of a boom in Joseph’s carpentry business, but because they are afraid of Herod’s son, Archelaus – and what he might do to them if he finds out who Jesus really is.  And what about a lovely Christmas greeting featuring the mothers of Bethlehem holding their dead babies after Herod’s goons have gone through the village killing anything that looked to be male and less than three years old?  They don’t have a “precious moments” scene for that, I don’t think.

But aren’t those things a part of the Christmas story?  Matthew doesn’t tell us much at all about the birth of Jesus – we get a family tree, the story of Joseph’s dream, the wise men, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and then the move to Nazareth.  That’s all Matthew tells us about the birth and childhood of Jesus – and most of it doesn’t get so much as a mention in our traditional Christmas celebration.

I’ve thought a lot about this part of the story as I have wandered through Christmas this year.  And as I have thought, I have a lot of questions – and I’d like to share a few of them with you this morning.

First, let me ask you this: when Joseph took Mary and Jesus and ran into Egypt, was he a “refugee” or a “fugitive”?  A refugee is defined as “a person who flees for refuge or safety, esp. to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.”.  A fugitive is “a person who flees; especially: a person who flees one jurisdiction (as a state) for another in order to elude law enforcement personnel”.  Both come from the same word – the French fugere: “to flee”.

A refugee – a poor person seeking safe harbor.  Or a fugitive – a menace to society running from the law.  Which of those words best describe Joseph, Mary, and Jesus?

I would suppose that it depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?  I mean, because Jesus played for our team (or, more appropriately, I suppose, we should say that because we play for Jesus’ team), it’s easy for us to see the holy family as refugees – vulnerable and weak, fleeing one dangerous spot and ending up somewhere else while life is tenuous and survival is difficult.

But if you were to ask Herod’s soldiers, then those would be three of Jerusalem’s “most wanted”, right?  Fugitives who pose a threat to the status quo, and thus the safety and security of the Empire. The family seems to be an ordinary group, but they must be stopped by any means necessary.

Refugees?  Or Fugitives?  It depends on your perspective, doesn’t it?

Political cartoon by Art Young depicting Jesus on a “wanted-poster”. First published in “The Masses” in 1917.

Here’s another question that crossed my mind this week:  what makes me so different from Herod?  I mean, he’s the guy that everybody loves to hate in this story – especially everyone who’s on our team.  But what makes me all that different from him?

Like Herod, there are times when I find myself so eager to protect what I think of as “mine” that I push others away.  To be sure, I don’t usually resort to a gang of thugs on horseback riding over to your house to wipe out you and your family, but there are a lot of times when I find myself afraid of losing power and control, and my response to that is too often one of anger or insecurity.  Herod woke up every day and asked himself a simple question: to what extent will I use the power that I have to protect myself and my own interests?

Isn’t that a question that I ask myself every day?  One time I needed a pair of shoes.  I ran up to K-mart and found a pair of sneakers that was only $15.  Such a deal! I brought them home and remarked on the cost to Ariel, who said, “that’s probably because they were made by a six year old in the developing world, Dad.”  Were they?  I don’t know.  But surely some of the “good deals” that I got this past holiday season were there because somehow, my economic interest was more important than someone else’s right to food, housing, or safety.

Unlike Herod, I’m not the king of anything.  But like Herod, I have a lot of power.  And I like it.  And I use it.  What makes me so different from him?

Another question, along the same lines, but in a decidedly different direction:  What makes me so different from Joseph?  I mean, I hold onto a promise I’ve received from God.  No, I haven’t seen any angels, or had dramatic awakenings in the middle of the night, but don’t I know the same promise that he did?  Am I willing to trust God’s leading enough to follow a dream, even if it means going against the culture in which I live?

Joseph was willing to live on the margins of his world – to make due with less – because he believed that the things that God was doing were even more amazing than his dreams.  He left his home and his family and shouldered a set of responsibilities that were incredible because he thought that in some way he could be a part of the big, new thing that God was doing.  And every day, Joseph woke up and asked himself, “How am living into God’s promise, even in the midst of Herod’s world?  Isn’t that a question I could ask myself?

What makes me so different from Joseph?

To what extent will I use my power and privilege to protect my own interests?  How am I living into God’s promises in Herod’s world?

As we walk through these scriptures and consider questions like these this morning, what can we “take away” for our lives this week?   Perhaps I can remind you of three things this morning.

As the new year dawns, and as the political landscapes in our nation and world continue to evolve, let me remind you to be very suspicious about any claims that a nation, a military power, or a political movement might make about bringing in Christ’s kingdom.  History shows us that many, many times people have equated such power with Jesus, and almost every time, the church has lived to regret that – when we look back at Constantine’s efforts to legislate Christianity, or the crusades, or the “conversions” of many of the native American peoples to Christianity, almost always it seems as though the strategies used, the motives employed, and the end results were not exactly in line with what we know about the one who was born in a manger in Bethlehem. We pray for our leaders and hope that they are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we affirm that God, not any human being, rules the earth.  We do not do well when we confuse our political movements with God’s presence on the earth.  So pray for, and support our leaders – but remember that these men and women, as much as anyone, face the temptations that Herod faced every single day.

As you think about the possibilities and the challenges that face you, personally, in the year to come – what you will save, spend, or give; how you will use your time; the places where you will invest your energy – are you acting because you are afraid of losing what is yours?  Or are you following the promise and believing the dream?  Let me remind you that you, no less than Joseph and Mary, have heard the promise of God’s salvation.  That you, no less than they, have the chance each and every day to make decisions that will put you in a position where you can pursue a life of grace and peace.  That today, and tomorrow, and the next day, you will face a hundred choices about what to do with your money, your time, and your energy.  Will you make those choices remembering that a light shone over Bethlehem, and that one shines in your heart as well?  You may be afraid – our brother Joseph was afraid of Archelaus, and settled in Nazareth as a result.  But will the fear and uncertainty that may lie in 2014 drive you to behave in ways that are selfish and greedy?  Or will the awareness of life in an uncertain world encourage you to be more generous and flexible as you look around you?

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

Establishing Partnership at the 2013 General Assembly of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, with Revs. Tut Kony and Moses Gatkouth

And lastly, let me remind and encourage you to spend time with the people who are “on the run” in our world today.  At this time last year, I was preparing for a visit to Africa, where we began the Presbyterian Church USA’s first “Tripartite International Partnership” by linking with the church in Malawi and South Sudan.  There was joy and hope as a team of folk from Malawi and Pittsburgh visited the world’s youngest nation and preached in her churches.  This month, I am frantically scouring my emails, looking to see whether our friends in South Sudan are alive or dead in the wake of violence there.  There are, by some accounts, more than 42 million refugees in our world today – people who do not have a home, whose kids are not in good, safe schools; people who may or may not have access to safe water, sewage, or other fundamental needs. We gather this morning to worship a savior whose first few years included living as a refugee in another country and who later became an “internally displaced person” because of the threat to his life.  And as we gather to worship the baby that Herod sought to kill – can you make room in your life this year to spend some time with the lost, the hungry, the frightened, or the vulnerable?  You don’t have to go to a camp in Palestine or South Sudan to meet someone who has a hard time seeing the light of Bethlehem; you don’t have to travel with Doctors Without Borders to encounter someone for whom the dream of Christmas – the hope of God with us – is just that – a dream.  A fuzzy, cloudy, dream.  Will you help someone else to glimpse that dream this year?

I’d like to close by sharing a brief meditation by Howard Thurman, entitled “The Work of Christmas”.  I share it with you in the hopes that as you plan your task of packing up the decorations, you won’t think that the work of Christmas has ended:

When the song of the angels is stilled, 


When the star in the sky is gone, 


When the kings and princes are home, 


When the shepherds are back with their flock, 


The work of Christmas begins: 


To find the lost, 


To heal the broken, 


To feed the hungry, 


To release the prisoner, 


To rebuild the nations, 


To bring peace among brothers, 


To make music in the heart.

All right, folks, Christmas is just about over.  Let’s get to work.  Amen.

The Visible Man (A Christmas Story)

As has been my custom for more than 20 years, Christmas Eve I told a story to the saints at Crafton Heights. It’s an original story, so far as I can tell.  I read a lot.  If you see something good in here, I probably remembered it from something else I read.  The inspiration for this story, and the truth to which it points (I hope) is found in Luke 1:46-55, the song of Mary known as The Magnificat.

Scott McBurney was not invisible.

He arose every morning of his life, trusting this to be the case.  He was not, and had never been, invisible.  He knew that.

He knew that even on the days when it felt otherwise.

When he was born, his parents were expecting twins.  And so when his sisters Susan and Sarah emerged from the womb, there was joy.  There was delight.  There was celebration.  There was…another baby!  Scott was born eight minutes after Sarah, to the utter surprise of everyone in the room.  For the first four days of his life he was known to all, including his parents, simply as “the boy”.

While a name was eventually found for him, along with a bedroom and the other necessities of life, he often felt as though he were, in fact, invisible.

Susan was the beautiful one.  She was simply stunning, and as the kids grew, she was never at a loss for a social life.  She lit up the social networks.  Scott did not.

Sarah was the brainy one.  Whenever the homework was arranged on the refrigerator, hers was the one with the most checkmarks, stars, or exclamation points.  She received a number of college scholarships and academic awards.  Scott did not.

Scott was the boy.  With the exception of being a triplet, he had about the blandest life imaginable.  Widely regarded as “a heck of a guy” or “one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet”, he still found himself – often – in the company of those who had forgotten his name.

He didn’t resent that.  He didn’t regret anything.  It just was, that’s all.

He taught High School English and Communications in suburban Chicago.  While there’s not much of an indication that he was anyone’s favorite teacher, the kids didn’t hate being in his class, either.

Late one autumn his second period Communication Arts class was studying Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.  He’d asked the class to take turns reading through the famous speech line by line.  At the end of the first paragraph, Marcus Dixon, a young man with a mild speech impediment, read, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in re- re- re- re- re- re- regard to it is ventured.”

And as young Mr. Dixon was wallowing in the re- re- re- of “regard”, Scott McBurney’s attention was drawn to Angela Wallace, who was hands-down the most attractive and most-intelligent student in the eleventh grade.  Although she had been blessed with looks and brains, kindness was not among her attributes, and she was very subtly, but unmistakably, drawing everyone’s laughter to poor Marcus’ plight.

And here, Scott did something he did not often do.  He assigned homework out of anger.  “All right, Miss Wallace,” he said.  “Since you are obviously so fascinated by the etymology of the word ‘regard’, I’d like you to enlighten the entire class.  On Monday, I’ll expect you to have a three minute speech, with at least four sources, on the meaning of and history behind the word ‘regard’.”

It wasn’t much, but Scott felt like he had to do something to support Marcus.

He was neither surprised nor disappointed when Monday arrived, and, like everything Angela did, the speech was flawless.  She was poised, relaxed and informative.  Scott, along with the eleventh grade Communication Arts class, learned that while much of the time “regard” is used to mean “esteem” or “glance”, it actually comes from a very old French word, garder, meaning “guard” or “watch”, and “re”, meaning “back” or with added intensity.  “Regard”, once upon a time, then, meant to look at, to watch out for, to pay attention to with some real energy.  Angela also pointed out that it carried with it a meaning of holding something or someone in esteem or respect.

And, because she was so, well, so Angela, she got an A on the speech and came out smelling like a rose.  And Scott McBurney gradually allowed that episode to fade from his mind for a few weeks.

On the Sunday before Christmas, Scott found himself in a place that was at once quite familiar and intensely uncomfortable: exactly halfway across the third pew from the front on the right-hand side at the church in which he and his sisters had grown up.  Susan’s children were in the pageant and it was expected that he would deviate from his normal routine and re-appear at the church to observe this spectacle.  And, because it was expected, and because he was still, in many ways, “the boy”, there he sat.

As he waited for the rest of the family to arrive and the service to start, he found himself humming the first line of a song that the kids at school had been playing over and over again: “I’m still alive, but I’m barely breathing / just praying to a God that I don’t believe in…”[1]

As he sat in that hard pew, it occurred to him that this whole Jesus thing reminded him of everything about his sisters that he resented.  He had grown up being taught to worship the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that wowed the multitudes with his amazing teachings and snappy miracles.  In other words, the Jesus who was every bit as attractive and intelligent as Susan and Sarah.  That, he thought, is why he had found it so easy to walk away from the church.

And on any other day, or had it been any other reading, by any other child – well, it might have just slipped by.  But on this particular morning, his own niece stood up and moved to the microphone and read Mary’s song of praise, known as the Magnificat.  And as that halting soprano raced through the lines, one word caused her to stumble: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has re- re- re-garded the low estate of his handmaiden.”

Mary's Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission.

“Seriously?” Scott thought to himself?  “Regarded?”  And because he’d been brought to that pew every week as a boy, he knew that if he reached into the little cubby underneath his seat that he would find, in addition to some ancient bulletins and candy wrappers, a battered pew bible.  He thumbed his way to Luke 1 and there he satisfied himself that he had heard correctly: apparently, the Almighty is in the business of regarding…of watching.  Of looking for, or respecting, or guarding.  Of taking second glances. And he wondered.  And then he thought that maybe he’d been spending too much time at school, or, worse yet, too much time thinking about Angela Wallace.

A couple of days later he found himself back in the third pew from the front on the right-hand side of the church – his twice-yearly appearance (not counting the bonus points he’d earned for showing up at the children’s program).  And, as it happened, the preacher had chosen to read again from Luke.  This time, it was about the shepherds and the innkeeper.  And it struck Scott, again, that these were folks who were widely un-regarded.  Not worth a second look.  Shepherds and innkeepers and carpenters and unwed mothers were a part of the furnishings… but not here.

For the first time in his adult life, Scott McBurney wondered if this blond-haired blue-eyed popular miracle worker was, well, was not really Jesus at all.  Maybe that character didn’t even exist.

During the week between semesters, Scott sat down and read through the entire Gospel of Luke. It only took about an hour and a half.  And as he did so, he encountered an old man named Simeon, and Peter’s mother-in-law, and a tax collector, a centurion, a whole bunch of bleeding and disfigured people…an assembly of outcasts, all of whom would have been dis-regarded by the people of that time, as well as Scott’s own.  None of whom was worthy of any consideration.  And yet each of whom was sought out by Jesus of Nazareth.  Here was this son of whom Mary sang, honoring these people with his presence.  He was, in fact, regarding them in their lowly estate.  By the time he’d finished this exercise, Scott had left the shepherds and the fishermen and the sick masses…and wondered about himself.

Scott McBurney knew that he was not invisible.  But he never thought much about the fact that he had been regarded.  And somehow, that changed things.

Angela, and Marcus, and the rest of the second period Communication Arts class probably didn’t notice anything.  Mr. McBurney was still a nice guy.  He was still, mostly, the boy.  Oh, if anyone had had reason to thumb through his calendar, they might have noticed that he was spending more time not only at church, but in the feeding ministry the church ran on Tuesday evenings.  Had someone access to his checkbook, it would have been easy to see that his priorities had shifted dramatically.

Yet Scott would say that these changes weren’t really worth noticing, because they were merely symptoms of something more important going on.

He would say that once a person realizes that he’s been regarded, well, that person starts to do some regarding himself.  Once he realizes he’s been seen by Jesus, and he looks at Jesus, well…he just begins to look with Jesus.  And the world becomes a different place.

Scott McBurney is not invisible.  Nobody is.  Thanks be to the God who has regarded us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

IMG_1171Christmas Eve affords me with my absolute favorite view of the entire year.  It’s darker than it usually is…but I like to think that when I gaze at the congregation while they are holding their candles, just after we finish singing Silent Night, that we see each other more clearly than usual.  People who have hovered around the edge of the Holy, even on a dark and cold night, become more visible than we usually are.

When the writer of the Gospel of John was telling the story of Christmas, he didn’t monkey around with shepherds and angels.  He went straight to Jesus, and he said this:

“The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.”

(Jn. 1:14, The Message)

The Word – the Son of the Father – is the Visible Man.  God – in Christ – has a face.  And tonight, I celebrate that it looks like the people I get to worship with.

Scott McBurney took a couple of hours and read through a Gospel.  This Christmas season, I’d like to challenge you all to do the same thing.  Put aside the new toys, the fix-it projects, and the dirty dishes.  Grab your old Bible, or simply go to Bible Gateway, and look for a Gospel.  Read it in a new translation – like The Message.  And don’t read it for answers or for the Jesus you already know.  Read it as if you’d never heard it before. And look for yourself there.  Because you are visible there, too.

Thanks be to God, I can see you in the Gospel, and I can see the Gospel in you.  Never forget – you are regarded.


[1] Breakeven (Falling to Pieces), recorded by Irish band The Script, 2008 Phonogenic Records

The Problem of Prophecy

The fourth Sunday of Advent presented us with the chance to wrestle with some of the most familiar scriptures of this season.  What does it mean to say “a virgin will conceive”?  We looked at Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.

Somewhere in the 8th century BC, Ahaz, the king of Judah, found himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  For some reason, there is a bit of a power vacuum in the Middle East.  Perennial bullies Egypt and Assyria have their own problems, and that is allowing some of the smaller states to become a little more independent and, in some cases, a little more feisty.

Rezin, the king of Syria, checks in with Pekah, the king of Israel, and as they share some tea with hummus, they get to talking about the fact that they’ve never seen Jerusalem and wouldn’t it be nice to go there someday.  Since neither of their armies was concerned with fighting Egypt or Assyria, well, why not just take the boys out and conquer Judah while they have a little time on their hands?

The beginning of Isaiah 7 tells us that the attack fails, but that these kings begin to lay siege to the city, and Ahaz, the descendant of King David, and in fact all of Judah, are shaking like trees in the forest.

  Maarten van Heemskerck, Detail from Prophet Isaiah predicts the return of the Jews from exile (c. 1560)

Maarten van Heemskerck, Detail from Prophet Isaiah predicts the return of the Jews from exile (c. 1560)

At this moment, the prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz and says, “Look, don’t be afraid.  This will pass.  This plan cannot stand.” And then the prophet goes on to remind King Ahaz of his own weak faith, and says, “You know, King, if you don’t have faith in God, you won’t last either.  Ask God, and he’ll show you.”

Ahaz, who is not at all interested in being faithful, decides that he ought to say something that at least sounds religious, and so he says “Oh, heavens! I don’t need a sign from God.  I’ll be fine.  Thanks for everything, though…”

Isaiah, who has heard about every lame excuse in the book from this king, finally snaps and says, “Listen, the Lord is going to give you a sign.  You see that woman over there?  She will conceive.  And she will have a baby.  And by the time that kid is potty-trained, the world will be a different place.  By the time that Jr is old enough for school, that alliance that has you shaking in your boots will be a distant memory.  And because you just can’t believe the promises of God, well, you will fail as a leader.  That’s your sign.”

Not many months afterwards, Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, is born.  When he gets a little older, the Assyrians stop by the area and demolish the Syrian army and the nation of Israel.  Hezekiah continues to grow and eventually takes over from his father, and when he does, he leads a return to religious faithfulness and rebirth.  And people throughout Jerusalem looked at Isaiah and said, “The man is a prophet.  He said it, and it was!”

JosephdreamingScene II.  About eight hundred years later, give or take, there’s a fellow named Joseph.  Unlike Ahaz, he is a deeply religious and faithful man.  Like Ahaz, he finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

Joseph is a mature and God-fearing man.  He has become engaged to a young woman who recently revealed the fact that she is unexpectedly pregnant. Joseph doesn’t know everything, but he knows that he had nothing to do with making this baby.

He also knows what the Law – the law that he follows, the law that he loves, the law that has shaped him – says.  The Law says that those who commit sexual sins should be shamed, driven out of the community, and even stoned to death.  If he is to be true to the religion that shaped him, he must facilitate these things.

Yet in addition to being a deeply religious and moral man, Joseph is a good man, and he doesn’t want to see Mary shamed, driven out of the community, or stoned.

Now let me just pause for a moment and allow this to sink in – that 2000 years ago, there was a conflict, at least in this case, between being a “deeply religious man” and being “a good man”.  Even then, it would appear, there was a lot of gray space in which God’s people wrestled.

So Joseph is caught between a rock and a hard place, and he’s unsure what to do…until God speaks to him in a dream and says, just as Isaiah said to Ahaz, “Don’t be afraid.  This needs to happen.  God is in this thing.  And the only way you can get through this is if you have faith.”

And he does.  And Jesus is born.

St. Matthew, Frans Hals (Dutch), c. 1625

St. Matthew, Frans Hals (Dutch), c. 1625

Scene III.  About seventy years later, give or take, the first generation of people who we know to be “Christians” are dying out.  The original twelve apostles, the ones who knew and loved and traveled with and followed and served Jesus, have begun to be killed for their faith.  Age is taking its toll.  A generation is being born who has never known Jesus in the flesh.  And the church looks to its elders and says, “Please, write this stuff down.  We can’t forget it.”  And so Mark, and then Matthew, and Luke, and John, write their accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.

And as Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth, he connects the dots, and draws a line between the words of Isaiah and the reality of Joseph and Mary’s experience.  He remembers what Isaiah said about the young woman having a baby and about that baby being a sign of God’s presence.  And he says to his community, “Listen: that prophecy was true for Ahaz and Hezekiah.  And it was true for Joseph and Mary.  And look – it is true for us, too.  The prophecy is fulfilled!”

Scene IV.  Almost two thousand years later.  A group of folks wanders into a church building and hears a couple of friends stand up and read some ancient documents.  In so doing, that group of people has to face the question, “What is prophecy?”

Are we here to listen to a foretelling of one event by another person, and to marvel at the fact that a specific truth was foreseen hundreds of years previous?

To put it another way, is prophecy like a laser beam? A pinprick of light that reaches from one specific point in time to another specific point in time, but is barely visible at any other point along the way?

Maybe.  Maybe in the 8th century BC, a man named Isaiah had a vision of a child who would be born.  Maybe God gave Isaiah a word that indicated that in that very spot, or close to it, nearly a millennium later, one specific child would be born and after all those years, someone would remember Isaiah’s words and exclaim “Ha!  Yes! There is truth!  God’s word has come to pass!”

But maybe prophecy is like a search light that illumines the landscape in front of us – the here and now – but also reaches into the future.  A light that is visible here, and visible there, but that also helps the folk along the points in between.

So maybe in 730 BC or somewhere around then, Isaiah is sent to speak to Ahaz and the people who were around then heard him and saw what happened and said, “Yeah, I get it.  Truth is like this.  God is here!”

And maybe – I don’t know, but maybe – somewhere three or four hundred years after that fact, there is another man who is facing a difficult time and he doesn’t know how he can make it, and he comes in from the fields after planting his seeds and wonders if life gets any easier.  And maybe that night, his wife tells him that they are expecting a child.  And maybe the next day, that peasant farmer goes to the local synagogue and happens to hear the words of Isaiah being read and it occurs to him, “You know, maybe God is with me after all.  Maybe I can get through this.”  And maybe he does.  And maybe Isaiah’s prophecy is illuminating for him.

And maybe another four hundred years later, Jesus arrives on the scene, and the people around that story remember what old Isaiah said and it occurs to them that yeah, this really is true.  Imanuel.  God is with us.  The prophecy has been fulfilled.  Still.  Again.  Whatever.

And maybe now, two thousand years after that, someone is saying, “You see, Carver, that’s why I don’t get involved with all of this.  This is so confusing, and I just don’t see how it connects with my life.”

I get that.  After all, nobody here, so far as I know, is the commander of a city that is currently being besieged by a couple of rival kings.  Probably, not even your neighbors are conspiring against you, hoping your house will fall so they can claim your property.

And I would doubt that we have anyone in the room who is engaged to a woman who says she’s pregnant, but don’t worry about what people will say because it’s the son of God and these things always have a way of working themselves out.

So maybe this scripture is just an old story and doesn’t apply to anyone.

Or maybe everyone here knows what it’s like to be caught between a rock and a hard place.  Maybe everyone has wondered what to do when none of the options seemed like good ones.  Maybe you have faced a decision and found yourself hoping and wishing that somehow, somewhere, there would be a sign.  Maybe you know what it’s like to raise your eyes up to heaven and say, “A little help here?  Can you please show me what to do?”

Friends, if the Word of God is like a laser that goes from point A to point B, then mostly, well, we’re out of luck.  If all the Bible is is a series of little red dots that go from one absolute speaker to another specific situation, well, we’ll know where we’ve screwed up, probably.  We’ll know what it feels like to be targeted as those who have fallen short of where we are supposed to be. If we’re lucky, I suppose, there will be a specific scripture that points right to what we need. But mostly, we won’t get much guidance from a laser.

But if scripture is more like a floodlight, well, then we can see where God has been.  We can see what has happened.  We can hope that God knows where we are now.  And we can trust that God will be with and for us in the days that are yet to come.

December 22.  The shortest day of the year.  Are you stuck?  Feeling like you have no options but bad ones?  Then come to the God who gives signs, even to people who say that they don’t want them.  Rest in a God who is willing to speak in dreams.

If you are fearing the darkness and tired of the cold, then ask God to direct and guide you in this moment.  Look in scripture.  Approach in prayer.  Worship with joy.  Work hard to do your best.  Rest when you need to.

The Good News of Advent is Immanuel.  God with us.

Immanuel with Isaiah, Ahaz and Hezekiah?  You bet.

Immanuel with Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men?  Of course.

Immanuel with the earliest Christians who were called into an unknown future?  Yes.

Immanuel here and now, with you, with me.  God with us? Bank on it.  Thanks be to God, who has spoken and still speaks, Amen.

Give Us A Sign!

Advent worship continued at Crafton Heights on Sunday 15 December.  We heard God’s word from Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-11.

If you have a Facebook account, you know what I’m talking about.  If you use email, you understand.  In fact, if you have ever, even once, logged on to the internet, you have gotten a message, tagged “urgent”, entitled something like, “Guys, check this out!” or “Hey, this is amazing!”  You have seen them plastered all over your virtual wall.

cute-facebook-timeline-covers-kittensKittens.

Cute, adorable, cuddly and playful.  Kittens.  Oh, there are a few puppies thrown in.  Some photogenic children.  But mostly, it’s kittens.

Why?  Seriously, why?  Not “For the love of God, man, please make it stop!” why?, but simply, “Why?”  What is it about the kittens – or, more likely, what is it about us – that makes this seem like a good use of the kind of technology that has sent humans to the moon and toppled dictatorships?

9481510-newspaper-cuttings-and-headlines-natural-disasters-and-tragediesI have a theory.  It’s not supported by anyone, so far as I can tell.  But this is what I think: I believe that in an over-stimulated, over-connected world that is now linked to a 24/7 news cycle, we need to know that there is still good news.  We are weary of the shootings, the racism, the debilitating poverty and the unending stream of negativity and….awwwww, kittens!  Aren’t they adorable?beautiful-christmas-cats-hanging-wallpaper

To put it Biblically, we want a sign.  We want to know that what we see isn’t everything, and that what we face is not interminable.  We want to hope that things are different than they sometimes appear to be.

And if we, the richest, healthiest, longest-lived, most-medicated generation the planet has ever seen – if we need to know that things get better and that beauty exists, well, then imagine the audience that showed up to hear Isaiah preach.  They were captives who descended from people who had been forcibly removed from their homes in Israel.  They’d lived for a generation in Babylon, the enemy capital.  They were aware that whatever passed for home back in Palestine had been destroyed and overrun; they were unable to fully worship; they were immersed in a foreign culture; and they wondered what was true.  They wondered if hope was something that they could afford, and if faith was worthwhile.

01. DESERT HILLS.And the prophet says, “Yes.  Yes, there is a future.”  And he starts with an image that they understand: he says, “Do you know what happens to the desert after it rains for a couple of days? How the dull brown apparently unending death is jolted with new life and color and vibrancy?  Well, beloved, that can happen in your world, too.  God’s purposes are for life and good.  The heat and the parchedness do not win.  Life wins.  desert_flowersRedemption is God’s intent.”  And then the old prophet and preacher gives his neighbors a sign that God is not finished with them yet.  Some parts of that sermon and sign, like blind people seeing or redeemed people returning home must seem impossibly distant.  Yet other aspects of those purposes are as close as the next rain shower.  There is good news for Isaiah’s people.

And for us.  We want a sign, too.

And yet if we, the most literate, technologically-advanced, nutritionally blessed generation with the cutest children and grandchildren ever imagined – if we want a sign, well, imagine how John the Baptist felt.

We heard about John last week.  Do you remember him, out in the desert, eating locusts, wearing the camel hair shirts?  When we last saw him, he was riding the wave of public opinion.  The crowds were coming out to see him and be baptized; he had challenged the religious and political leadership of his day.  After that, he found himself asking the king some tricky moral questions and wound up imprisoned for his troubles.  I can’t imagine that is what he thought was supposed to happen.  And so he wonders, “Is it true?  All this stuff I’ve said about the coming Kingdom…can I count on it?  Or am I wrong?  Have I wasted my life?”

 Used by permission © suntreeriver design

Used by permission © suntreeriver design

He sends his followers to ask Jesus, who is quick to reply: “Look, you fellows run back and tell John what you’ve heard.  Describe what you’ve seen.  The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, and good news is being preached to the poor!”  John’s reality appears otherwise, but this is exactly what old Isaiah was talking about.  God is on the move.  Grace is his intent.  Healing is real.  Love wins.

And, as readers of Matthew know, Jesus unleashed the new reality in amazing ways.  He spoke the truth.  He gave us God’s design.  He pointed to God’s future.  Jesus was, as we all know, amazing.

Yet the reality is that the future that Jesus described and to which Isaiah pointed is, in many ways, still the future.  Oh, none of us is in exile, really.  None of our neighbors are in prison for making helpful comments about the King’s sexual adventures.  And nobody we know is facing crucifixion.

And yet…and yet…we know that the world is not as it should be.  The world that we live and breathe and work and shop and play in is too full of abuse, debilitating poverty, addiction, persecution, and death.

And like the Israelites, and like John, we need to know that what we see is not all there is.  Our neighbors and our world need to be reminded that we will not always be where we are now; things will not always be as they are now.

To put it another way, we say that we are in Advent, a time of waiting.  Well, if we are willing to dedicate a portion of our lives to waiting, we must acknowledge that for which we wait.  If we say that we hope, we must point to that for which we hope.  We want a sign.

Beloved, this is the truth: you are the sign for this time and this place.  This congregation is a living reminder of the coming reality that God has promised to his creation.  The people in exile, and John in his prison, and folk up in down this street and across this city say, “Show me a sign”, and God holds up…well, YOU.

CHUP WorshipYou know, thank God, that God is a God who speaks.  Your presence here gives witness to the fact that you believe God has a word – not just for Hebrew slaves and first century prophets, but for our world.  You show that sign by your willingness to engage in worship together.  Your worship is strong and intergenerational.  It is full of the real parts of life – we laugh and we cry.

BaptismYou point to this God who speaks in other ways as you seek to understand the written Word.  Adult Faithbuilders discussions center on the Bible.  There are vibrant studies in the evenings for adults.  Your children and grandchildren are learning how to listen for and honor God’s word.

And this God who has spoken and still speaks calls us together in community.  Every week the front of the bulletin reminds us that a part of why we are called together is to “share life’s joys and sorrows”.  And you do that.

I have noticed here that when the specter of death emerges among you, as it does everywhere, no one is alone.  When the gift of life appears in your midst, there is shared joy.  When someone you love – or are learning to love, is in need of healing – you point to it.  You are learning what it means to be God’s people with and for each other.  You are recognizing that when we know God and seek to participate in his kingdom, we can’t do it alone.  We can only do it with and for others, whom we are learning to love and trust and serve.

IMG_6851And this God who speaks and calls us together empowers us to share his intentions with the world.  We believe that while there is great suffering and pain and dysfunction in the world, God’s purposes are greater still.  And so this congregation, this year, launched a ministry that wound up feeding 1300 starving families in 8 apparently forgotten African villages for three of the toughest months they’ve known.

This congregation, at this time, serves as a welcome beacon for dozens of neighborhood children who long to know that they are important to someone and that they can thrive in this community.  The Open Door ministry is a tangible sign of God’s love and presence on our street.OpenDoor

Downstairs, there is a food pantry that is bulging at the seams.  Three weeks ago, we thought we wouldn’t have enough food to share with hungry neighbors, and so someone stood up here and said that we thought we needed more.  And earlier this week I walked into the room downstairs and one of our most dedicated volunteers was complaining because there wasn’t room for all the food that was coming in.  God’s intentions for abundance are evident for our neighbors in tough times.

And to a generation that wants to see a sign and that was raised on visual imagery, I have one more.  This is one of our partners in our newest mission endeavor located in South Sudan.  Some of you know that for generations, folk from the north of that country have raided the south and stolen people into slavery.  This video clip is an image of a Christian leader who has brought a group of former slaves home to their village in the south. The Christian community in South Sudan and around the world has come together and now those who have lived in captivity are being reunited with their loved ones – because of the Gospel and Christ.  

These things are amazing!  They are fantastic, beautiful, wonderful signs of a God who comes.

I don’t want to sugarcoat things, or pretend that we live in a world without problems.  We know well enough that every day is a challenge.  I am very aware of the fact that it was all some of us could do to get out of bed and drag ourselves in here this morning, and we are preparing to go home to pain, to dis-ease, to a secret or shame that threatens to overwhelm us.  We are sinful and broken people who live in a world that is profoundly disrupted by sin and brokenness.  I know – believe you me, I know that sin and brokenness are unwelcome intruders.

But now, and here, I proclaim to you – and you to each other – that deserts do bloom.  That the deaf can and will hear.  That the poor can eat.  That the dying do receive new lungs. That those enslaved – by hostile neighbors, by abusive relationships, by debilitating drugs – that all those enslaved can be freed.  Addictions can be broken.  I proclaim that as the message from the God who speaks, who calls us together, and who sends us out.  And, seriously, my friends, isn’t that way better than kittens?

What remains is for you to explore what that means for you.  God is opening a new way of life in Jesus Christ.  That’s wonderful and amazing.  So what?

How are God’s intentions, promised to Israel and revealed in Jesus Christ, evident in your life?  How are you participating in those things with this, the body of Christ in this time and this place?

Celebrate those intentions now.  Point to them in your life.  Live the grace and truth of God, and share it as a sign, in your life this week.  Thanks be to God for this wonderful gift!  Amen.

You Tell ‘Em, Lord!

On December 8 the folks at Crafton Heights engaged the season of Advent by listening to the teaching of John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:1-12 along with the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-10.  

Do you remember that day when we were coming home from school, cutting through the yards down behind the bus stop and all of a sudden Mrs. Johnson came flying out of the house yelling at us because she was sure that we had vandalized her vegetable garden?  I mean to say, she lit into us that day.  And then, about a block on further, we ran into Kenny and Joe, who were laughing so hard because they were the ones who had smashed her pumpkins, and we got blamed for it.  Do you remember how scared we were to go home that day, afraid that she’d already told our parents and we’d get in trouble?

Do you remember you great it was the next day when your big brother, Carl, beat the living daylights out of Kenny and Joe?  Wow.  I still owe Carl for that one.  That was great.

Do you remember last July when you got that speeding ticket?  As I recall, you were rushing around trying to get out of a meeting at work in order to get home in time for your daughter’s softball game – I think it was the championships or something like that.  They caught you red-handed going 50 in a 35 zone.  I remember how you tried to plead your case, but that cop was not having any of it.  When you told me that story, I mentioned to you that my neighbor was a police officer and we made a few calls and by the time you got to court, you didn’t have any points or a fine.  That was sweet, wasn’t it?

Do you remember the time a bunch of self-righteous arrogant jerks showed up at the church retreat, but the speaker – I think his name was John the Baptist – really let them have it?  I mean, those guys were totally out of line.  They were so full of themselves, and John – BAM – he just let them have it.  It was just delightful to watch when they got what was coming to them!

Don’t you love it when you get to witness power being used to correct an obvious wrong?  We hate to see anyone victimized, and it seems so good when a poorly-behaving person “gets what’s coming to him”.  Next time you log onto Youtube, just type in “Bully gets owned” – you’ll see more than 70,000 hits.  When the “bad guy” finally gets paid back, well, it’s just delicious.

So delicious, in fact, that sometimes we fail to see just who the bad guy is and how the power is directed and what the “fix” could be.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee
Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

Our Gospel reading for today shows us a group of religious leaders from the first century who knew all the prophecies.  They knew that the Messiah was coming, and that he would bring truth and justice.  They knew that God’s anointed one would establish God’s intentions in a powerful fashion.  Yet too often, they – and we – assumed that those intentions were directed against someone else, rather than toward our own hearts and minds.

Here’s what I mean by that: John, the son of Zechariah, has begun to preach the nearness of God’s intentions for the world.  In doing so, he begins with an invitation to repentance.  The word that he uses is “metanoeite”, means “change your mind” or “act like things are different”.  And the crowds can hear that message.  Many people can understand a part, at least, of what he says, and so they open their hearts to the transformative word and their lives are shaped and arranged and re-arranged by God’s spirit.

But the religious leaders assume that God’s word is not spoken towards them, but rather given as a tool that they can employ against someone else.  In this view, the Word of God is not an invitation to consider how God is alive and active and moving in my world, calling me to be more like him each day; instead, it’s an instrument with which I am called to shape, to carve, to manipulate you into the person that I think you should be.

The church of Jesus Christ invites us to consider today’s scriptures during the season of Advent so that we might remember that the reign and rule of Christ is a gift – a gift that comes directed towards us – and so that we might remember that anyone who wants to follow Christ does so beginning with repentance.  If we want to follow Christ, we have to be willing to leave the path we’re already on.  Metanoeite is a word that contains within it a description of what needs to happen: if we are going to follow in that way, we’ve got to be willing to give up on this way.  If I’m going to live as though I believe that that is true, then I have to be willing to consider the fact that this may be less than the truth.

Given that realization then, let me invite you to think about something that really angers you.  When you look at our world, what do you see and want to scream, “this is evil!”?  I know that you are aware of plenty in the world that falls short of God’s intentions as you have come to understand them: it may be racism, it may be animal abuse, it may be economic injustice, it may be abortion…  Whatever the issue or concern is that has just come to your mind, let me ask you, for a moment, to not run and grab your favorite Bible verse.

This is what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid that when we confront that thing we understand to be evil that we are so overwhelmed by it that we pick up our scriptures and we start to use them to hack away at that issue, at those who see things differently, or at those who have not recognized the truth in the same way that we have.  We use the Word of God as a tool to prop up our own opinions, or we behave as if God needed our support to validate his own cause.

This Advent, ask for the truth of God to come to your life.  Ask the spirit of the Lord to show you the path you are on – and the path that you should be on – when it comes to your conduct and outlook on this area of life.

In Advent, we celebrate the fact that God comes near.  God chooses to speak.  God invites us to hear.  So when it comes to consumerism and greed, or our culture’s changing views on sexuality, or the racial divides in our world, let me implore you to begin with an open heart.  Where do I stand when it comes to my own greed and acquisitiveness?  How do I understand the power of my own sexuality?  In what ways am I shaped by the color of my skin?

I need to ask those questions in light of God’s word.  I need to know where I am a creature of habit, with biases and fears and insecurities.  I need to confess that I am broken in each of these areas, and more.  When that happens, then I realize that the Word of God that comes is a gift to a world that is not as it should be, rather than as a threat to be used against those who are different from me.

Look at it this way: Advent points us to a story in which all of the best characters are humble and lowly and tentative.  There is an unwed teen mother and her newborn baby; there is the quiet man who has been publicly shamed by the fact that his fiancée is pregnant before their marriage; there are the shepherds who have been told for their entire lives that they are insignificant outcasts.  The backdrop for the entire narrative is a backwater country that has been filled with an occupying army and is seething with resentment and oppression.  God’s word, in this case, does not come in order to break people.  No, in fact the opposite is true: God’s word comes to those who are already broken.

This month, I invite you to join me in asking God to mold our hearts so that we might first hear his word and then shape our lives to it before we go out and pound other people with it.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon principles or act as if every proposition is equally valid…but I am suggesting that if we begin the day secure in our own success and confident because of our correctness, then when we look to scripture we’ll be tempted to use it as a weapon, rather than receive it as a gift.

We do that, don’t we?  We hold onto our favorite Bible verses and we just let other people have it.  Most of us, at least in this room, are probably too polite to do that to strangers.  We don’t run down to the bus stop or the Walmart and start beating up people with the Bible.  But when it comes to one of those issues that we care about, and we think that we’re going to get into a discussion with someone else here, well, too many Christians are tempted to want to fill our bag with favorite scriptures as if we were collecting rocks to throw at an enemy.

This morning I was struck by the fact that John called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers.  Serpents that are full of poison that can kill.  And that image collided with Isaiah’s prophecy of children who play near the homes of venomous snakes.  And I was horrified to connect the dots in my head and realize that in many ways, our own religious practice can be toxic to our children.  I was horrified to think that in many ways, church can be a place where children are abused in one way or another.  The news has been overly full in recent years of accounts wherein some children have suffered physical abuse.  But that’s not the only poison in the church, is it?  If we make the church a place where we are right and they are wrong; where God might love everyone but we’re clearly his favorites; where hate is taught as a theological virtue…then we are no better than the religious leaders who came out to challenge John.

Each Advent, we deck out the sanctuary in purple and blue not only because those are the colors of royalty, but because those are the colors for reflection and confession.  The Kingdom of heaven is near.  Thanks be to God for that.  How can we shape our hearts and our lives so that we might be appropriate recipients of and ambassadors for that Kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together, and where the poison has no power over the child?

Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Change your mind.  Act like things are already different.

 

We need you so desperately, O God:

we need to accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.

Too often, we choose flickering candles and bulbs over your true light:

we choose to hide who we truly are;

      both the sins that shame us,

      and the potential that frightens us.

Too often, we choose quick fixes over your true justice:

            we choose to be right rather than righteous,

                   in our countries, our communities, and our covenants.

Too often, we choose cheap thrills over your true joy:

            we choose to fill our lives with what we can own or ingest,

                 we choose safety over surprise.

Too often, we choose our schemes over your plan:

            we reject leaps of faith in favor of small, secure steps,

 we reject selfless giving in favor of our own fiscal prudence.

We need you so desperately, O God.

We need your light, your justice, your joy, your plan.

Hear us, forgive us, and help us accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.  Amen.[1]

 


[1]  This Advent Prayer is adapted from a longer version written by James Hart Brumm, ©2008 Brummart Publishing.  Used by permission.

Karma or Consequences?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  On 1 December we finished our Fall series by hearing the disheartening tale of Abimelech (after this, we really need to take a break for Advent!).  The scriptures for the morning included Judges 9:1-25, 50-57 and Romans 7:21-8:2.

OK, I was going to start this message with a warning that this could be the most disheartening passage that you’ve had to hear in the Christmas and Advent seasons.  But then I remembered that this is the place we come to hear about King Herod slaughtering the babies in Bethlehem, so if you show up and are surprised or grossed out by the story of Abimelech murdering his seventy-ish brothers, well, it’s not my fault.

All of that being said, we do want to acknowledge that this is one of the most pathetic scripture readings I hope you’re forced to endure this year.  Lots of times, I know, I stand up here after someone has read a confusing or daunting passage, and I say, “Don’t worry, friends, there is good news here.”

 

James Tissot (1836-1902), Abimelech Slays His Seventy Brethren

James Tissot (1836-1902), Abimelech Slays His Seventy Brethren

But here’s the deal: there is virtually nothing redemptive about this story of Abimelech, the murderous son of Gideon.  This is horrible.  You heard the story: a young man (whose name translates to “My father is the King”) is so eager to seize power that he runs out to Shechem and, waving his father’s name around quite a bit, inspires the Israelites to make him their king.  Of course, if he’s going to be king, he’s going to need an army.  So they raise the money – and did you notice where they got it?  At the temple.  Whose temple?  The temple of “Baal-berith”.  Do you remember who Baal is?  The Canaanite fertility god… But look, he has a new name: Baal-berith.  “Berith” is a word that means “of the covenant”.  In other words, Gideon’s failure in leadership has been so complete that by the time his son is old enough to make horrible decisions, Israel has decided that Yahweh is not the God of the covenant – Baal is!  Do you see how bad things are?  And this is at the beginning of the story!

So they raid the offering plates at the temple to Baal so that Abimelech can hire some thugs who then go with him on his murderous mission.  As you heard, one of his brothers, Jotham,  escapes the slaughter and lives to tell a parable, in which the trees go out looking for a leader, but the only one willing to do the job is the thorn bush – a worthless, shadeless weed who makes promises that he is unable to fulfill.  The point of his parable is essentially that if the Israelites think they made a good choice in selecting Abimelech, well, more power to them; but if they made a bad choice, well, don’t come running to Jotham. 

Who is the main character in the story we’ve read this morning?  Abimelech.  Who else shows up here? The Shechemites, the “worthless fellows”, Jotham…  There’s someone who is not mentioned here…  Nowhere in Judges 9 do we hear the name “YHWH.”  Is God absent in this story?  I mean, let’s be honest, if he’s going to skip out on one, this is a fine one to miss, because there is nothing redeeming here.  Plus, the Israelites have apparently decided that Baal, not YHWH, is the god of the covenant.

This is the truth: God may be silent in this chapter, but God is not absent from it.  Twice we hear the narrator reminding us that God was involved, even when he is not invoked or worshiped.

I think that’s helpful for us to remember – that we cannot confuse God’s silence with God’s absence.  Have you ever experienced the silence of the Almighty?  Have you ever been in a situation that seemed horrible and bleak and empty, and was even worse because you could not get a sense of where God was or what God was saying? 

I know that you have.  I can’t think of anyone I know who has not, at one time or another, experienced the silence of God.

Yet I can promise you, my friends, that not once, since the day you were conceived, have you ever known the absence of God.  If God were to leave your life or this world, it would simply cease to be.  The Creator is integrally linked with the creation, and you could no more be absent from God than you could cease breathing.  Do not, now or ever, interpret the silence of God to mean that God is not present.  Even here, in one of the slimiest chapters you’ll ever hear in church (although not, I’m sorry to say, the slimiest chapter in the book of Judges), God is found.

That leads me to a second observation about this chapter: we serve a God who is willing, apparently, to allow us to live with the choices that we make.  Every now and then we hear a reference to “Karma” – and it’s almost exclusively a negative reference.  Karma is popularly thought to be a cause and effect phenomenon wherein when you do something bad, someone or something comes back to punish you as a result.  When we think of karma, we often connect it with a vengeful or punishing force.

What we see in Judges is not karma – it’s the simple affirmation of the fact that God empowers us to make choices and expects us to live with the end results of those choices.  Isn’t that the main point of the parable that Jotham tells to the people of Shechem?

This is a good time to remember where we are in the overall story.  We’re studying the book of Judges, right?  And do you remember what a “Judge” is, and what kind of job description that title carries with it?  A “Judge” is raised up by God to restore righteousness and truth and to lead the people back to God.  Isn’t that the pattern that Ehud, Deborah, and the rest of the Judges we’ve studied have followed?  God’s people rebel, and start worshiping an idol, and then get miserable, and then get oppressed by someone like the Moabites or the Midianites, and then God calls someone and equips him or her to defeat the enemy and lead the people to a place where they are able to choose faithfulness.  But remember what I’ve said: that the deeper we go into Judges, the darker things get.  And now, please notice that things are so bad that it’s not the Midianites or Amalekites who are oppressing us – it’s us!  We have made such poor choices that the other nations don’t even have to come in to screw us up – we are doing it to ourselves. 

Abimelech is not a Judge.  He is not a bringer of justice or a restorer of peace.  He is a selfish, godless, petty tyrant who is bent on seizing power for himself.  He chooses to live violently and he winds up dying violently.  The Israelites choose to make Abimelech their leader and thereby find themselves increasingly removed from the gracious and generous intentions of God.  It’s not karma.  It’s simply the consequence of their decisions. 

Remember that, my friends: that while there are times where God is willing to rescue us from the misfortunate effects of our choices, there are plenty of times when God allows us to live with the consequences. 

So we know that God is present, even when God chooses to remain silent; and we know that God allows us to experience the consequences of our own choices.  Add to that the reality that we often wind up paying the freight for the choices of the people around us, and that presents us with a conundrum: what do we do when our reality is shaped, apparently, by evil? 

Chances are that none of you have ever been in a village filled with frenzied idol-worshippers celebrating the murder of seventy men and which finds itself degenerating into a culture of violence, lawlessness, and anarchy.  I could be wrong, but I don’t see that kind of reality in our lives.  So in that case, the scene that is depicted in our reading seems remote.

Yet I would suspect that chances are good that you’ve been in a situation where it would appear as though none of the choices are good ones, or at least that the effort you can expend to “do the right thing” seems hopelessly futile. 

How are we to live when we are in a situation in which there are no good options – only “less bad” ones?  What happens when we are surrounded by evil and brokenness?

I’ve seen that a few times…as I read the description of life under Abimelech’s rule, I remembered walking through Soweto, the township near Johannesburg South Africa that was home to some of the ugliest and most vile scenes of the apartheid era in that nation.  I remembered visiting orphanages in Mexico and in Africa where there seemed to be an overwhelming number of children and an amazing scarcity of resources.  I remembered having the opportunity to visit East Berlin and Leningrad and other places behind the Iron Curtain as the bankruptcy of Soviet communism was most apparent.  I remembered sitting in my friend Mary’s living room in Rochester, New York – a drafty, unheated, uninsulated, unpainted room that not only didn’t have enough furniture or food for her family, but seemed to be lacking in possibility of there ever being enough.

You see?  I know that you’ve never been to Shechem, but I know that you have experienced evil and brokenness; I know that you know that promises are not always kept and cancer sometimes wins and community often fails and the darkness just keeps increasing and deepening.  You’ve felt the silence of God and experienced the burden of consequences.

What do you do?

Welcome to Advent.  Our world wishes it were Christmas, full of peace on earth and good will to men.  But we know that it’s Advent.  A time of waiting and hope.  A time of increasing darkness and silence.  And yet… And yet…

Each of those places that I mentioned a few moments ago – Soweto and Berlin and orphanages and poverty-stricken neighborhoods – was full of people who chose to believe that God was absent.  They could not apprehend the presence of a promise, and so they lived as though God was nowhere.  And their choices reflected that.  And their lives did, too – just like the folks in Shechem.

But that’s not what I remember most about those places.  What I remember most is that in each of these instances, there were vibrant outposts of believers who chose to live as though they believed that God’s silence did not necessitate God’s absence, and so they lived as though God was now here.

The external circumstances of the lives, just like the letters on the page, are the same: G O D I S N O W H E R E.  Yet the way that we arrange those lives, and the way that we arrange those letters, makes all the difference.

 

  Death of Abimelech, Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913-1996)

Death of Abimelech, Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913-1996)

At the end of the day, Abimelech gets his.  How?  After leading Israel through a tempestuous period of vengeance, ethnic and tribal conflict, and tyranny, he winds up attacking a tower filled with those who once supported him.  And he dies.  How?  Because “a certain woman” dropped a millstone on his head and inflicted a mortal blow.

Seriously?  The reign of terror ended when someone dropped a kitchen utensil on the head of a thug?

Yup.

Who was she? We don’t know.  An anonymous woman chooses to act in the only way possible using the only materials at hand.  And the narrator comes to remind us that God’s presence was demonstrated as God’s people were once more free to choose well and wisely.  A certain woman, acting within her character and using the things that she had, chose to live as though God was Now Here.

You can’t change the world.  You can’t do everything.  When you are surrounded by Advent darkness, sometimes it’s all you can do to keep your head above water.

I know that.  But you can choose to act, beloved, as though even though there are things that you cannot do, God can.  You can live in the midst of the evil days as if God is Now Here.  Like the communities I witnessed in Soweto and behind the Iron Curtain, in the orphanages and amidst overwhelming poverty, we can choose to live with an awareness of hope and a largeness of spirit.  We can frame our days to deal with the realities that face us – including the fact that we’ll be threatened by evil and brokenness.  But we can do so knowing that evil and brokenness are not the end of the story.  It is Advent.  But the Christ-light is coming.  Begin your day with an affirmation of the presence of God and even those days that seem silent will become less oppressive.  Because God is here.  And always has been.  And always will be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.