A Season of Joy

In Advent 2015, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights considered some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 27, we ended that series with a celebration of the ways that the incarnation has changed our reality.  Our texts included Psalm 96 and Luke 2:1-14.

What, would you say, is the most popular Christmas song in these United States of America?

Well, I guess it depends on how you measure it. Time magazine searched every recording produced since 1978 and determined that Silent Night has been recorded 733 times in the past 37 years. According to the people at Spotify, however Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You is number one. If we shift our attention to Pandora, we learn that people in Pennsylvania listen to Christmas Canon as performed by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra more than any other holiday tune.

What is your favorite Christmas carol?

Why does it have that place in your heart?

Think about how we experience the music of this season. We sing it. We listen to it. We complain about it. It gets stuck in our heads. And then we listen to it some more, don’t we?

Allow me to suggest that we use the songs as an avenue for both memory and hope. For instance, when I hear or sing O Holy Night, I am taken back to the piano bench where I am trying to get my left hand to do what seemed so easy for Mrs. Sanner when she was sitting next to me. I’m about to give up, and I hear my mother from the kitchen call out, “Oh, David, that sounds beautiful! O Holy Night is my favorite.” I remember coming into this room as a young man and hearing Lois Peters sing it each year, and I think about the ways that Christmas in this place has shaped me. Christmas music is about memory, isn’t it?

But that song, of course, is not only about looking back. Remember that when we intone “chains shall he break, for the slave is his brother and in his name all oppression shall cease”, the only thing we are remembering is that we’ve prayed this prayer for a long time. The song points us to that which is still yet to come. Christmas music is about hope, too. That’s why we have to sing it over and over again.

There was no such thing as iTunes or YouTube when it was written, but the song that you heard as Psalm 96 has been high in the rotation list for centuries.

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

David Bearing the Ark of Testament into Jerusalem Domenico Gargiulo, 1609-1675

So far as we can tell, it was first written, or at least popularized, when David had Asaph and the band play it as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. For years, this sacred piece of Israel’s heritage had been where it was not supposed to be – first in the hands of their Philistine oppressors and then in a remote village, apparently languishing in a forgotten field. These lyrics first appear in I Chronicles 16, and they sure make sense in that context. Finally, it would seem that the Philistine threat that had plagued the nation for generations had been dealt with. National security was, at least for the time being, not a problem in Israel.

More than that, the people had a king. David is doing all of the things that the best kings do, and people are sensing God’s blessing in the midst of that. In addition, the capital city has been established, and Israel has a real identity. When this song is written, we sense that the people really believe that they belong to God and that God will keep his promises to them.

Not surprisingly, then, these words find their way into the book of Psalms – those tunes that were sung over and over again as the people worshiped YHWH in Jerusalem and throughout the nation. When the people rose up and sang Number 96, they remembered all that was good on that day when the Ark was restored – and they celebrated new experiences of God’s faithfulness:

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,  ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;  bring an offering and come into his courts.

Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”

The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.

The Psalm refers to a specific incident, to be sure, but also maintains an awareness of God’s continuing presence and the hope that God will deepen that presence in the days to come.

Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,  he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.

The song says clearly that God “comes”. Not, “came”. Not, “will come”. “He comes to judge the earth…” God’s intentions, say this beloved song, are to restore what has been ruined; to establish justice where that is lacking, and to bring order where there is chaos.

And because this Psalm is so clear about the understanding of God as one who comes, it has become a favorite among Christians, particularly on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Looking back through the lens of time, we can remember not only the ways that the Philistines were pushed back and the throne of David was established, but also the ways that those intentions of God were more clearly revealed two thousand years ago in the event the theologians call “the incarnation”.

We remember that first-century Palestine was characterized by brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear – and yet, he comes.

To King Herod in all his military might and wealth and power – he comes.

To those wise men in their towers, studying the mysteries of the ages from afar – he comes.

To homeless foreigners who have been told time and time again that there is no place for them in this town, in this city, in this part of the world – he comes.

To poor shepherds whose difficult labor mostly increases the wealth of others while not doing much for their own security – he comes.

For all of creation, in fact, He comes. He did come. He does come. He is coming. He comes.

And because he comes, we respond in joy.

Some of that joy is involuntary. According to the Psalm, the creation itself is so taken with the notion of justice being restored that the fields are jubilant and the trees are singing. And those of us with some greater level of awareness are invited to worship in joy and thanksgiving because we love and serve a God who comes.

IncarnationWe see that joy in the story that comes out of Bethlehem, where it seems as though everyone gets in on the invitation to share in what God is doing. The Angels, the shepherds, the holy family, and the whole community is blessed by the willingness of God to participate in the restoration of Creation.

On this, the last Sunday of 2015, I will remind you, dear friends, that while brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear are very much with us, they belong to the old order. These scourges, and those who inflict them, are derivatives from a world that does not know anything of the gentle, abundant, gracious and peaceful welcome of the savior.

I know, I know – you say to me that everywhere you look, you see these things. But I am reminding you that they are not of God and they will not last. As we end this year, let us remember that the situation in which we find ourselves or even the situation in which we are willing to place our neighbors is not congruent with the scripture or God’s eternal intentions.

Please hear me: I am not minimizing the horrors of brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear. Those giants are every bit as frightening as were the Philistines, or King Herod, or any other power that attempted to take the place of the One who comes. So remember, as this year ends, so they, too, will end.

And as the new year will dawn before we are together next, let me remind you of the invitation you have received to participate in the order which is to come. Asaph and his band sung a version of it when the Ark was restored. David and his congregation reminded themselves of it time and time again. The Angels spent all night teaching it to the shepherds, who couldn’t wait to spread the news to anyone who would hear.

And now it’s our turn. Your call this day, beloved, is to be a herald. A living reminder that what is is not all that there is, and that we serve a God who comes. Let me encourage you to live your life as a testimony to the truth of which the Angels sang – the truth that brutality, scarcity, inhospitality, and fear belong to yesterday, not to tomorrow. Sing about the generous grace that has come, is coming, and is yours to share right now. Thanks be to God, who comes to judge the earth in righteousness and the peoples in faithfulness. Let that be the tune that is stuck in your heads in 2016! Amen.

He’s No Hero

Each year I write a story to tell on Christmas Eve.  My conviction is that my life was not changed by an intellectual, but by a  by a relationship – by a hope that came to me first in the form of a story.  Any story I tell is simply a reflection of The Story.  Some are better than others.  I hope that in this one, you can see something of the light of Jesus.  I like to read them out loud, and encourage you to do so, too.

If you’d like, you can read John 1:1-14 to get an insight in the The Story which led me to this story.  If the idea of these stories appeals to you, you might be interested in reading more.  I’ve collected them in a volume entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas, available at Amazon or by contacting me directly.

Derrick Brown was in a groove. The Imperial March from Star Wars was keeping time in his head as he administered CPR to the woman who’d collapsed at the supermarket. Here he was, channeling his inner Jedi as he sought to save a life on a Tuesday evening.

As the woman regained consciousness and Derrick’s partners put her into the ambulance for a ride to the hospital, the full-time English teacher and part-time volunteer firefighter smiled as he thought about the relationship between resuscitating the shopper and the lesson he’d already planned for his ninth-graders tomorrow. It was one of his favorite lessons of the year – they’d been preparing for a unit on Shakespeare, and he was going to help them learn to tell the difference between a comedy and a tragedy.

In tragedies, like Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet, the story ends with disaster and death. In comedies, such as Twelfth Night or The Tempest, a hero shows up in the nick of time and saves the day.

Believe it or not, that was Derrick Brown’s favorite lecture of the year. He was fascinated with the idea of heroes and heroism. It wasn’t so much that he collected comic books or anything like that – it’s just that he saw himself as someone who was capable of, and therefore responsible for, bringing that kind of order into the world. It’s why he volunteered as a first responder in his community even after teaching all day; it’s why he drove the sandwich truck into town every Saturday, passing out meals to those experiencing homelessness.

For Derrick Brown, life was supposed to be a comedy – it was supposed to turn out all right, and lots of times, it was up to him to make that happen. In fact, he had a t-shirt printed up that read, “as a matter of fact, I do think I’m some sort of a comedian”. He wore it under his Fire and Rescue shirt most days.

So yes, Derrick was a nerd. He was the kind of nerd who hummed a tune from Star Wars while thinking of Shakespeare while responding to a call for CPR. And he was fine with that, because most days, it worked. Most times, the fire was extinguished. Most days, the baby was born just fine. Most of the crises were averted.

He refrained from singing the Imperial March when he differentiated between tragedy and comedy for his young scholars the next day, but found that the tune remained stuck in his head as he waited for Aaron to hop into his car after school. Aaron was Derrick’s mentee – a sixth-grader who had come through some tough stuff but was fundamentally a good, good kid.

Derrick hadn’t been sure what to expect when he signed up to be a mentor, only that he wanted to “make a difference” and “turn some kid’s life around”. In other words, Derrick began his mentorship career because he wanted to be a hero to someone – to help avert tragedy and restore order and save the day for someone.

Derrick had been planning to take Aaron to see the latest Star Wars movie, but Aaron’s mother had called to see if he’d be willing to go with Aaron to choir practice instead. They had evidently scheduled this rehearsal fairly last-minute and she didn’t have any other way to get her son there. Even though Derrick didn’t think much of organized religion, he was more than happy to help this family solve their problem.

As he listened to the choir rehearse, Derrick couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a house of worship. He was not particularly opposed to any faith, but rather had a deeply-held sense that religion caused more problems than it solved. Looking around at the life of Jesus displayed on the stained-glass windows, he thought that Jesus, in particular, was a lousy hero. Even if all you knew of his story was provided in the images at which Derrick now gazed, you had to admit that for Jesus himself as well as most of his followers, there was no escaping tragedy and suffering.

More than that, when Derrick considered all the people he knew who claimed to be in touch with the power of the Divine, he saw a good share of broken marriages and premature deaths and places where horrible things happened to good people. Again, he wasn’t opposed to religion – he just didn’t get it. It didn’t seem like it made any sense. And, let me be clear: Derrick was not interested in judging any part of Aaron’s life, but it sure looked as though faith had not paid off all that well for this kid or his mother. Aaron’s father was nowhere to be found, leaving his mother to raise three boys. Not only that, but Aaron’s mother was now dealing with the thrill of radiation treatments and weeks of missed work, waiting for an opinion as to whether the cancer that had struck her twice was going to come back or had been at least temporarily eradicated. It was hard to see what Jesus had done for this family, but it seemed pretty important to them that Aaron sing with the choir on Christmas Eve.

And so because he was a nice guy, and because he wanted to be a hero to someone like Aaron, Derrick was sitting in the rear of the poorly-heated sanctuary thinking about all the ways that Jesus had failed as a hero, at least in Aaron’s life.

“Yeah,” he thought to himself with a bit of a smirk, “If I were Jesus, things would sure be different…”

He had no way of knowing it at that instant, but those nine little words would change Derrick Brown’s life. “If I were Jesus, things sure would be different.” Here’s what happened next:

Because, like all good heroes, Derrick was essentially a problem-solver, later that night he actually allowed himself to think about what would look different if he really was Jesus. He didn’t start at the top, with issues like world peace or global warming. He thought about Aaron and his mother. Exactly what, he wondered, would he do if he had unlimited power? How would he “fix” the problem that was so central to young Aaron’s life?

The longer he thought about it, the more he came to see that his approach was flawed. In reality, of course, Aaron did not have “a” problem. It wasn’t just that his mother was ill or his father was a deadbeat or that the shut-off notices were piling up. Even if Derrick had been magically able to snap his heroic fingers and restore the boy’s mother to health, the bank account to solvency, and the father to some level of responsibility, the web of difficulty in which Aaron and his brothers found themselves was vast and complicated.

And sooner or later, of course, even a properly-parented and adequately warmed family will face death and grief.

He thought and thought about this conundrum for a couple of days, and was probably not at his sharpest when he got the call from Aaron’s mother at about noon on Christmas Eve.

“I’m sorry to bother you on a holiday,” she began. Derrick’s “hero antenna” went on full alert. Here was a problem – an opportunity for him to swoop in and make things right.

“The thing is,” she continued, “I’ve had a little setback with my cancer. It turns out that they want to keep me in the hospital for a few days. I hate to ask you this, but you see, I don’t really have any better ideas. The social worker said that if I could find someone to take the boys that would be fine. Otherwise, the people from Family Services will arrange for their care. The only problem with that is there are no homes in our county that are able to take three kids together tonight. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but…” and her voice trailed off.

Instinctively – without a thought, literally, Derrick Brown said, “Of course the boys are welcome with me.” And they were. He was, as has been mentioned, a fixer. And this was a problem. And for the next few hours Derrick filled his day with securing all the things that would be necessary for him to host three young boys for the weekend. He had a lot of good ideas and made excellent plans and didn’t even stop to think until that evening, where he once more found himself sitting in an unfamiliar church – a church that, contrary to his experience of a few days earlier, was jam-packed on Christmas Eve.

As the service unfolded around him, Derrick again considered the question that had preoccupied him in the past few days: “If I were Jesus, how would things be different?”

And he was stumped. He simply could not think of a way to tie this together in a neat little package. There were some ideas that were better than others. There were a few that, if not good, were at least good-ish. But the reality of the situation that faced Derrick Brown that Christmas Eve was that there were no heroes to be found. It seemed as if the nick of time would come and go and these boys would be facing peril no matter what anyone did.

Derrick was so struck by this notion that he forgot to pay attention when the kids’ choir sang. It wasn’t until the congregation offered that awkward applause that sometimes shows up in churches, where people are not sure whether the Almighty approves of clapping or not, that Derrick looked up to see Aaron beaming like the star of Bethlehem itself. Derrick quickly scanned the program and saw that there was a bible reading and then another number by the kids, so he sat up straight and focused and willed himself into the present so as not to miss the next song.

That didn’t help, because he was paying attention so well that he actually heard the Bible verse being read, and that catapulted him back to his thoughts about heroes and insoluble problems. The young woman up front was reading from the book of John, and she said, “In him there was life, and that life was the light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it.” That phrase hit Derrick like a ton of bricks: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it…

It occurred to Derrick that the reason that Jesus was such a lousy hero was the fact that Jesus was not any kind of hero. Jesus hardly got anywhere in the nick of time, and disasters piled up all around him. Jesus did not come to prevent, avert, or mop up after tragedies. If anything, Jesus came to transform disasters, or to demonstrate that tragedy is not our end.

Aaron and his brothers were not there singing about a God who promised them a happy ending with no unresolved conflicts. They were there to point to the fact that even in the midst of the darkness, a light shines.

More to the point, thought Derrick, Aaron didn’t need anyone to come and “fix” his life. What Aaron, his brothers, and a billion other children need is for someone who is willing to come and wait and watch and walk with them in the midst of their lives. When they sang, “Son of God, love’s pure light,” they weren’t singing about a hero. They were worshiping a savior.

Derrick took the boys home and put them to bed after church. And because he hadn’t expected to host guests, he didn’t have a lot of decorations in his home. So this is what Derrick did: he went into his kitchen and turned off all of the lights and he sat at the table and lit a candle. And he simply sat in the glow of that candle, and he thanked God that the darkness that filled the room was no match for the light that emanated from the candle. And he found a new song with which to keep rhythm in his life – one that has not, so far as I know, ever left him.

(This story was inspired by “A savior, not a hero”, a reflection on the death of Lazarus by Shannon Graigo-Snell of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary that appeared in The Christian Century on July 22, 1915.)

Jesus is no hero. Terrible things happen far too often for anyone to suspect him of being anything of the sort. Christmas is not about God the Father sending God the Son to earth so as to rescue people from some tragic ending. If anyone knows about tragic endings and the nick of time fading away, it’s God the son.

Jesus is a savior. A savior who can never arrive too late. A savior who is here to remind us that our ultimate purpose is to dwell in light and in love and in grace. A light that will pierce the darkness until that time when darkness is no more.

This is a dark night in a dark season in a dark world. ISIS. Famine. Abuse. Neglect. Cancer. Death. Fear. It’s here, or it’s coming. And yet there is light – a light that not even the fiercest darkness can dispel. Tonight, we remember, share, and point toward that light. It is, quite literally, the best that we can do.  Thanks be to God!

His Name is Faithful

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 20, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is called “Faithful”.  Our texts included Isaiah 49:8-18 and Matthew 1:17-25.  

 

You may have noticed a certain gloom that has fallen over some parts of our city in the last couple of weeks. On December 9, the Pirates announced that Neil Walker, aka “The Pittsburgh Kid”, would be leaving our city, our team, and the storybook “local champ succeeds” career that began at Pine Richland High School. When I heard that Walker was headed to the Mets, I remembered losing Bobby Bonilla to the Mets in 1992. Bonilla signed a fat contract, but his play was disappointing and he was traded a couple of years later. In 1999, he was re-acquired by the Mets, and once again was underwhelming and he was released by the team after that year.

Bobby Bonilla as I choose to remember him.

Bobby Bonilla as I choose to remember him.

In spite of his disappointing performance in the field, I’m here to tell you that in 2015, at the age of fifty-two, Bobby Bonilla was the twelfth best-paid person on the Mets payroll. On July 1 of this year, and each year until he is 72 years old, Bobby Bonilla will receive $1.2 million from the New York Mets – all because of a rather creative and very lucrative contract he signed in 2000. It is one of the most bizarre and famous contracts in history.

My hunch is that while you don’t get $1.2 million deposited into your checking account annually, you know a thing or two about contracts. When we buy a car, get a job, or hire someone to fix the roof, we depend on a contract to make sure that our interests are taken care of.

contractThe language of contract is complex, but it boils down to this: you do this and I do that. If you stop doing this, then I’m not going to do that. For example, when you finally decide to redo that bathroom of yours, you get a number of bids and finally select a construction firm to take care of it. As they work, you pay. When the work is done, you finish paying. Your pay depends on their performance, and vice versa, right? That’s how contracts work.

While we use contracts and contractual language all the time, we don’t often do so in the context of worship. The reason for that is that our relationship with God is covenantal, rather than contractual. In a contract, if one party breaks faith, then the entire deal is null and void. If your plumber doesn’t finish the bathroom, you don’t pay him any more.

In a covenant, however, each party agrees to uphold their end of the deal regardless of what the other party does. One of the most famous covenants in our nation’s history is the Declaration of Independence, which ends with these lines: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” John Hancock and Caesar Rodney and Ben Franklin and the rest of those fellows didn’t know which ones, if any, would commit an about-face and side with Britain after all. It didn’t matter to them – they were making that covenant with each other on behalf of the colonies they represented. That’s what a covenant is: you say, “This is what I’m going to do”, and your willingness to keep your word is not dependent on my behavior.

Covenants and contracts are very, very different kinds of agreements.

And you might think that’s pretty interesting, but you know, Dave, it’s December and I’ve got a lot going on and if you could just get to the point, I’d appreciate it…

Here’s the deal: Advent is a reminder of the fact that God invites us to participate in a covenantal, not contractual, relationship with him. In fact, all of the Old Testament is a testing of God’s willingness to keep faith with his people, even when they appear to be more than willing to leave him time after time after time.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), God’s Promise to Abraham

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), God’s Promise to Abraham

The story of the Garden of Eden reveals that God establishes and blesses his creation and asks humanity to care for it…and we rebel. Noah’s ark is the means by which God saves a people from oblivion and self-destruction, but two chapters later we’re already building a tower of Babel because, hey, who needs God anyway, right? God uses Moses to deliver the people from slavery in Egypt, and before the ink was dry on their passports, they were out there dancing around a golden calf. They enter into the Promised Land, and instead of trusting in God to care for them there, they start building altars to the Baalim and the Asherim and other gods of the Canaanites. Time and time again, God sends prophets and leaders and preachers and judges to remind his people of his love and to warn them of the consequences of disobedience, but it doesn’t seem to do much good.

220px-IsaiahOne of these prophets was a man named Isaiah, who was active in the 8th century BC. Before he started his ministry, God’s people had already been divided by a civil war and he further witnessed the fall of Israel to the Assyrian army. Jerusalem and Judah, the capital city, were on the block, and you could forgive the people for thinking that God had finally gotten tired of them, or worse, had forgotten all about them. While he’s not shy about naming the places where the Jews had left God’s purposes, he takes great pains to remind them of God’s covenantal nature: “How can I forget my promise?”, God wants to know. “Even if a mother could forget her baby, there’s no way I could ever forget the love I have for you. I’ve promised it. I’ll do it.”

Advent, as often as any other time of the year, is the time when we pull out Isaiah’s words to remind us of God’s willingness to be faithful to us in spite of the messiness of our own lives. Advent is a time to remember the Covenant.

Marriage of St. Mary and Joseph, stained glass window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Bay City, MI

Marriage of St. Mary and Joseph, stained glass window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Bay City, MI

Joseph and Mary had entered into a formalized relationship known as betrothal. That means that they and their families had engaged in a period of negotiation and offer and compromise resulting in a legally-binding contract to become husband and wife. And then, don’t you know, Mary shows up pregnant and it looks as though the whole deal is off – because she appears to have violated at least one of the terms of the agreement. In Matthew 1 we read where Joseph is mentally composing the speech which goes something along the lines of “That’s it, Mary, we’re done. I’m pretty sad about this, but I’m going to have to let you go…It appears as though you’ve decided to move in a different direction, and, well, good luck…”

But before he can even say this speech, God interrupts him and says, “Don’t do that, Joseph. Instead, go ahead and enter into a covenant with Mary – this is the way that I will display my love for and my commitment to the universe.” And so Joseph and Mary enter into the covenant of marriage, and Jesus is born, and the world comes to learn of Emanuel – of God With Us. It’s Christmas.

And as we stand here, it’s easy to celebrate the baby in the manger. Christmas is, for many of us, all warm and fuzzy. But Jesus is not only God with us in precious moments nativity figurines.

Advent reminds us that God is with us in the teaching, healing, discipling ministry of Jesus of Nazareth…and that God is with us during the horror of the betrayal and trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth… and that God is with us in the victory of the resurrection… and that God is with us in Jesus’ promise to come again in order to restore the universe to justice, peace, and God’s eternal intentions.

This Advent is a time to remember that all contracts will eventually end. Even Bobby Bonilla (or his heirs) will wake up on July 1, 2037 and NOT get paid by the New York Mets. Contracts come and go.

But the covenant in which God enfolds us is eternal. In Advent we remember that it was here before we were, and it will carry us after we’re gone. We are wrapped in the promise, and God is faithful to that promise.

I know that it doesn’t always feel that way. I know that there are times when we look around our lives or this world and we think that we’re on pretty shaky ground. For some, what was once one of the most joyous seasons of the year is now marked by emptiness or loss. For some, the darkness is heavy.

Tomorrow is the longest day of the year. There will be, here in Pittsburgh, only 9 hours, 16 minutes, and 56 seconds of daylight. And it’ll be just as dark on Tuesday. That darkness matches well the mood of many right now.

But God’s covenantal faithfulness does not depend on your emotions (or anything else that you do). It will be dark tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. But Wednesday, you know, will give you four additional seconds of daylight. Thursday will be even longer. And just as light returns to the earth, so too does God keep his promises. Allow the promise and faithfulness of Emanuel to remind you that what we see and experience is not all that there is.

Give thanks, this day and this season, for the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God. In Advent and at Christmas, he demonstrated his willingness to enter fully into our lives. And in response to God’s eagerness to embrace us within this covenant, let us then live as people who are grateful for the promises of God. We do not earn the covenant or the promise, but we can respond to them with joyful acts that remind ourselves and our world of God’s intentions for the world and all who dwell within it!

Remember that this week, when you blow it. Remember that this week, when your spouse or child or friends blow it. Remember that we are invited to participate in a manner of life marked by joy and thanksgiving and justice and hope and mercy and love. And look for ways to live into that life – even if it’s dark right now. Thanks be to God! Amen.

His Name is “Jealous”

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 13, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is called “Jealous”.  Our texts included Deuteronomy 6:13-15 and Eugene Peterson’s translation of  Romans 12:1-2.

FabricScissorsI might be wrong, but I would suspect that I am not the only person in the room who has been involved in a scene like this: picture 12-year old Dave Carver finally getting to work on the stupid homework from stupid history class that involved making a stupid timeline and collage. Just after young Dave finishes cutting out all of the stupid newspaper articles and stupid magazine photos, Dave’s mother walks into the room. Instead of motherly love and appreciation at seeing the young scholar her son was becoming, she let out a horrifying shriek. “What did I tell you,” she screamed, “about using my fabric scissors to cut paper?!?!”

hope-the-hydraulics-hold-upIf you haven’t been there, you’ve seen it in other places: cringe-worthy scenes where people are clearly using the wrong tool for the wrong job. Sometimes, it’s funny.

gun-safety

Sometimes, it’s frightening.

And if it’s your tool that is being misused, sometimes it is just infuriating, isn’t it? I mean, that’s yours! You care for it. You bought it for something special. You have an idea of how and why and where you want it used, and now some idiot is doing what with it? Do you know that kind of anger?

The Hebrew word for that emotion is qin’ah, and it comes from a root meaning “warmth” or “heat”. It’s related to an Arabic word that means “to become intensely red” – to get “fired up” about something. Qin’ah is a word that refers to passion and zeal and ardor. Your dad probably displayed that kind of passion when he walked into the room the time you were using his brand-new carving knife to open up a can of paint.

You heard a moment ago that one of God’s names is “Jealous”. Deuteronomy, and at least a dozen other places in scripture talk about the fact that “God is a jealous God.”

Normally, when we think of the English word “jealous”, we associate it with a painful and negative emotion; we think of the “green-eyed monster”, and we don’t often have positive things to say about anyone who is acting jealous.

Yet the Advent God whom we love and serve is described in more than a dozen places as being a “jealous” God. The word most often translated as “jealous” in our English bibles is qin’ah.

God is passionate for his creation. God knows how we are made, and he knows why we are made. And if your parents get upset when they find you using the wrong tool for the wrong job, imagine how torn God becomes when he watches his beloved creation constantly using our gifts and talents and energy in the wrong places; imagine how God feels when we look to something other than God to tell us who and what we are. And yet that’s what we do, time and time again – while we were created to be in relationship with God and with each other, we so often give into the temptation to use ourselves and that which we have been given wrongly; we are attracted to that which will kill us, and God, understandably, is passionate about that.

This Advent season, in particular, I’d like to point out several things that compete for our attention and which we find attractive – seductive powers that would draw us away from God’s best and into a spiral of disobedience and brokenness that will tear apart our ability to live faithfully as God’s children.

Echo and Narcissus (detail), John William Waterhouse, 1903.

Echo and Narcissus (detail), John William Waterhouse, 1903.

For some of us, the number one thing that distracts us from God’s intentions and purposes in our lives is, well, ourselves. The ancient Greeks told the story of a young man named Narcissus, who was strong and attractive and remarkable in many, many ways. He was, however, extremely proud and he did not think that anyone else was worth his time – his only thought was for himself. One day, he was hunting in the forest and he stopped at a small stream to get a drink of water. As he bent over the pool, he saw his own reflection in the water and he fell in love with it, not realizing that it was only an image of himself. He stared at the pool for hours, and then days, unable to leave it, and he eventually died there. Today we use the word “narcissistic” to describe those who are so preoccupied with themselves that they are unable to pay attention to the world around them.

God created you to be many things, and surely beauty and remarkability are included in that mix. However, the point of what you have been given is not you, but rather how you share it with the world around you. Advent is a time for us to stand against narcissism and remember we were made to be in community with other beautiful and remarkable people.

I found this image on the internet and am unable to credit it appropriately. If you know where it's from, I'm happy to do so!

I found this image on the internet and am unable to credit it appropriately. If you know where it’s from, I’m happy to do so!

Some of us, though, hear the preacher say stuff like that and we say, “beautiful and remarkable, huh? Not likely. I try not to look at the mirror because I don’t like what I see or who I am.” When that happens, we find ourselves succumbing to the allure of an idol I might call “Consumption”. If narcissism tells you that you are all that and a bag of chips, then consumption’s constant refrain is “more.” You need more. You don’t have enough. You would be beautiful and remarkable if only you had this car or that outfit or those shoes or that lover. Again, you don’t have to look very far in this season to see how that idol is playing for our attention, do you? Turn on the television and see the freakishly proportioned human beings that are held up as models for what we ought to be like. Your teeth are not white enough, your chest is the wrong size, your skin is too wrinkled, and don’t even get me started on that hair. And that’s just our physical selves: the danger of the idol of consumerism is that it invades every corner of our lives – we are constantly told that what we have and who we are is just not enough – and so we have to seek to add to that by buying or seeking that something additional that will make us acceptable.

safe_image.phpAnother idol that would love to get between you and the Lord’s intentions for you this day is one of which we have heard far too much in recent weeks. The false god of “security” is one at whose altars we are all tempted to worship. Think, if you will, of the ways that we are encouraged to build our lives around fear:
• “those people” are coming to get us so we better get them first.
• we need higher walls and bigger fences
• more is better: more money in our retirement accounts, more weapons in our arsenal, more canned goods in our pantry…

Now look – don’t get me wrong: I have insurance and I lock my door and I put my granddaughter in a car seat and I try not to antagonize large humans who want to hurt me. I like security. Security is not bad – in fact, it is one of the promises of God.

The problem comes when I begin to think that the way to get security is by somehow amassing my own resources or strength or protection, rather than trusting in God and working with you to create a world where everyone, not just me, is more secure. Security is a gift from God enjoyed in the context of a community wherein all experience the presence of safety and shalom. It does not come from having a state-of-the-art alarm system or a thick stock portfolio or the biggest army on the planet.

Advent is the time of year when we remember that God demonstrated his passion, his ardor, his jealousy, his qin’ah for us by coming in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. God saw his beloved creation looking to sources like self, consumption, or security to provide what only God can give, and God’s response to that was to send his own self to us in a form that we could apprehend and understand. Jesus was, as his friend John said, God who became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.

In Advent we remember God’s passion and purpose for us and we ask God to once more remind us that God, and God alone, makes us sufficient and complete. That God, and God alone, gives us identity and purpose. That God, and God alone, directs our steps.

In light of God’s qin’ah – God’s raging passion and zeal for us, what are we to do? I might suggest three simple steps that we can take that will shape us for living as those who are grateful for the fact that Jesus came and expect that he will come again.

One thing that we can do is simply to believe that God does love us, is passionate about us, and is willing to be our source and stay in the world. The primary narratives in the beginning of the Bible all deal with someone’s inability to wrap their heads around the fact that God can be trusted. Adam and Eve eat the apple, Cain kills Abel, the Israelites wander through the desert for a generation, the kingdoms fall all because someone can’t believe that God is either concerned enough to or capable of paying attention to the world that he’s made. The primary response to the passionate love of God that fills this room and your life is to accept it, say ‘thank you’, and trust in it.

Once we believe that God’s qin’ah is for our good and that of the world, then we move more deeply into it by paying attention. We look for the places where God is moving, and we participate there. We look for the places where we experience God’s absence, and we ask him to reveal himself there. A couple of weeks ago I asked a high school student about her prayer life, and she said, “I just try every night as I am getting ready for bed to talk to God about the day. I try to remember to thank him for being there, and I tell him the stuff that I’m worried about.” She is paying attention – keeping one eye on God and the other on the world around her.

And when we trust that God’s passion is for us and on us, and we pay attention to where the purposes of God are erupting in the world around us, it’s easy to make ourselves available for God’s work and God’s priorities. Our calendars and our bank records and our social media posts are reflective of the things about which God is passionate because we are intentional about connecting with God in those places. That’s what Paul is saying to his friends in Rome when he reminds them to take their everyday lives and put them before God as an offering.

You may or may not notice that every week Glenn or Ray or someone stands in the back and counts the number of people who are in the building. Every year Kate fills out a form indicating how much money came in and out of this church. Neither of those things are the primary measure of this congregation. What matters, first and foremost, is not what you do in here on Sunday morning, but what you do with the thing that Paul calls your “your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life”. If we filled this room on Sunday morning with hundreds of people who all said the right things and sang the songs perfectly, but our world was not changed, we’d be doing it wrong. The time that we spend in here is not an end in itself, but rather a reminder of God’s passion for us and a refresher as to how we can be equipped to say “no” to the idols of our day.

We are often tempted to think of jealousy as a negative characteristic, and it’s not one that 21st century American Christians associate with God that often. Yet there is something amazing and powerful about jealousy if we understand it as a deeply-held love that is angered when the object of that love is threatened by something that is less than the best. Jealousy – even our human understanding of it – is a reminder that we are deeply loved and thought to be of worth. This Advent, let us remember that we are, indeed, deeply loved. We have, in fact, been richly blessed. And we will, by God’s grace, be able to participate in and share that love, not just for an hour on Sunday mornings, but in the reality of our daily lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Dangerous God

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 6, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who seems willing to send those he loves to dangerous places.  Our texts included Nahum 1:3-5 and John 20:21.

 

You’ve heard the old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” right? “Like father, like son”?

Think about your parents. Which characteristics did or do they have that you’d like to think are present in your life? And where are you just a little bit afraid that you’re going to wind up being exactly like your mother or father?

Think about the people you know. How often are you surprised to find out that two people are related because they just seem so different from each other? And how often can you see clearly that, yes, these people definitely came from the same stock?

This is Advent, the season of expectancy and hope and joy; the season where we celebrate the fact that God’s own son has come into the world. Jesus, the pre-existing Son of God the Father, is here! Hallelujah!

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Vegetation, Michelangelo, c. 1510

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Vegetation, Michelangelo, c. 1510

There are many in our world who talk about Jesus as though he’s some sort of an exception to the “like Father, like Son” principle. How many times have you heard something like, “Well, that God in the Old Testament, he was just so angry and vengeful all the time. All of that smiting and judging and punishing. But then Jesus came and he was so kind and loving and humane. I like him a lot better.”

As if God is the really grouchy, crotchety old neighbor who’s always chasing the kids off his lawn while Jesus is the boy scout who shares milk and cookies with children and shovels other people’s walks just for fun…

Have you encountered that line of thinking before? I have to say that it’s not really that helpful, because while we perceive the person of Jesus differently than we perceive the person of the Father, scripture is clear that they are one in essence. As Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30).

That means that all the power of God is present in Jesus. And all the love of Christ started in the heart of the Father.

Don’t get me wrong – God is immense and powerful and limitless. You heard that in the reading from Nahum, although we could have just as easily turned to a dozen other prophets or the Psalms. The Bible is full of places where, when God shows up, there’s thunder and lightening, or even worse.

And yet when God chose to reveal himself in a more complete and intimate way, he chose to be present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

And again, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like Jesus didn’t know a thing or two about power. Do you remember the time he cleaned out the Temple, and sent the moneychangers flying? Hoo-boy, that was something. Do you remember how angry he got when he saw people using God’s name to do despicable things? Yikes.

And yet, he chose most often to reveal himself in vulnerability and even weakness.

There was a very successful advertising campaign in the 1970s for a perfume, the tagline of which was “if you want to get somebody’s attention, just whisper.” In some ways, Jesus of Nazareth was the “whisper” of the omnipotent, omnipresent God.

Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son, was sent by the Father into a world longing for the presence, healing, and justice of God…that Jesus had access to all of the power, might, majesty, and weaponry of God. And yet he chose not to use it.

And there were times when his closest friends, once they figured out who he was, could not believe that he was setting all of that aside. Do you remember when Jesus and his followers were going through Samaria and his disciples felt disrespected and unwelcome? They turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, now can we call down fire from the sky and destroy them? Because these people are really getting on my nerves, Jesus.” (Luke 9:54). I mean, that’s an Old Testament strategy if ever there was one, right? And do you further remember that not only did Jesus refuse to permit his disciples to go all fire and brimstone on the neighbors, but he rebuked them for even suggesting it. He shut them down cold, saying “Look, fellas, that’s not the power we are using here…”

The incarnation – the presence – of Jesus is a demonstration that compassion is stronger than hatred, that hope is better than fear, that grace triumphs over judgmentalism, and that, at the end of the day, love wins. Deeper and more powerful than the raging anger and world-shaking, tree-tossing, pillar-of-fire-and-smoke power of God is the astoundingly simple, disarming, and vulnerable truth that brute force and coercion is not what God is best at. There’s a deeper, stronger, more eternal truth, and it is love. That’s Advent in a nutshell, right? That’s Christmas – love wins!

Which leads me to one of the scariest things that Jesus ever said. It is so frightening and so intimidating that Carly could only read one sentence from the Gospel this morning. You all thought she got off easy and were remembering the day I made you say things like “Mephibosheth” or “Ahasuerus” when you were lay reader, but I’m telling you that Carly laid down the hardest Gospel truth of all this morning. What was it?

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

Listen, beloved: if we are paying any attention at all to what happens in the Gospel, that sentence should scare the pants off of us.

As the Father has sent me…

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eisenberg

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eisenberg

How did the Father send? Naked. Vulnerable. In a pall of shame and suspicion. In poverty. As a child refugee whose parents had to flee to another country to save not only their own skins, but that of the One who created skin. Humbly. In poverty. Armed, not with fire and brimstone, but with love and truth.

As the Father has sent me…

To whom did the Father send? Not to those in the palace. Not to the prominent, successful, or the religious insiders. But to those on the margins. To the excluded and beaten up. As one of my favorite theologians has put it, Jesus was sent to the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead.[1]

As the Father has sent me…

For what was Jesus sent? To submit himself to the will of the One who sent him. To offer himself as a sacrifice. To reach out. To empower.

Do you hear that, church? As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Like that. To them. For this.

“Uh, er, yeah, Jesus… that sounds pretty intense. I mean, like, you know, a lot of commitment. Don’t get me wrong, Lord, I really want to be a follower and all, but, well, I’ve got a lot going on right now. And I told my mom I’d be home before dark. My show comes on at 9. And I have this thing on Saturday…”

Jesus of Nazareth, whom in the Nicene Creed we say is

the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…

that Jesus looks at us and says, “OK, I called you to follow me. I showed you how. And now I’m sending you. This is how you do it.” And most of us, most of the time, don’t like it. Encountering the Advent God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth is a dangerous thing because this God seems to expect so much from us.

A lot of us can point to a time when we met the Lord and we said, “Wow, I really need help right now.” We look at Jesus in all sincerity and say, “You are right. I need a little forgiveness. No, I need a lot of forgiveness. Yes, thank you Lord. Thank you for that forgiveness. You can just put it right over there.”

And we’re serious when we say that. We’re serious when we ask for forgiveness and we’re grateful when we say thanks. But Jesus comes in and sets his love and forgiveness down and then stands around like a the pizza guy waiting for a tip. Actually, it’s worse than that, because Jesus comes all the way in and he never wants to leave. I tell him to put that really nice (OK, that really big) box of forgiveness and love over on the counter and I’ll get to it later, but he opens it up and starts to unpack it and begins to rearrange the furniture of my life, critiques the art I have hanging inside, and even starts nosing through the medicine cabinet and the pantry. Jesus strolls into my life and starts acting like he owns the place?

He does, of course.

Following Jesus is scary business. We serve a dangerous God who doesn’t seem to hesitate to send those whom he loves to dangerous places.

Too often, we get caught up in our own safe places. We don’t want to leave what we call “the comfort zone”. We get into a nice routine, doing what feels good, following our patterns, and pretty soon our faith gets stale and predictable. We catch a glimpse of Jesus, whispering for us to step closer to him, and we notice that he’s moved away from our comfort zone. And so we find ourselves in one-on-one conversation about real stuff that matters…we find ourselves face to face with another human being who is homeless, or a refugee, or a kid who needs an adult mentor…before we know it we’re packing our bags for a place that seems so far away…we’re standing up for the rights of someone else…and we find ourselves trusting in the One who called and sent us more than we trust our 401(k) plans, our security systems, our concealed carry permits, or ourselves.

And it’s just plain scary.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

Never forget that. God bless us in the scary and dangerous places of this Advent journey. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Eerdman’s 2002) p. 205.