When The Shepherd is a Lamb

I came to appreciate many of the “classic” scriptures relating to the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus by listening to Handel’s Messiah.  During Lent 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are reading through many of those scriptures on Sundays, even as we study them during the week.  On 12 March, we considered the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 as well as John’s declaration about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29-34.

St. John the Baptist, El Greco, c. 1600

I’m not going to lie to you. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes that the Thrift Store would have rejected. When he preached, he called his congregation a bunch of snakes. There’s no doubt about it: the man was different.

And that may be what attracted so many people to him, at least at first. Almost like a car wreck, you know? You don’t want to look, you’re pretty sure that your sensibilities will be offended, but you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s just so…so…strange, that’s all.

To those who got past his people skills, his appearance and his diet, John was a wise teacher. More than that, he talked about the fact that he was the forerunner of someone more powerful, more important than he. The Messiah, said John, The Messiah is coming.

And so there he was one day not that long ago, and down the street walks an up and coming rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. And as much to himself as to his small group of followers, John said, “Look, there! That man is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world!”

What, do you suppose, is the correct response to that? I mean, are we supposed to blurt out an “Amen!”? “Huzzah!”

What do you suppose that the people who were with him thought about that? When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, what were they thinking?

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, they remembered Genesis 22 and the story of Abram’s call to sacrifice Isaac. One man was told, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, and give him to me…” And then, as you know, they got to the top of the mountain and there was an angel who prevented Abram from killing his son. And instead of the only son dying, a lamb was found and the lamb became the sacrifice. One lamb killed, one son spared, one family preserved.

Passover, engraving published in “La Saincte” Bible, 1670.

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, folks remembered the story of the Passover and the Exodus. An entire nation was told, “Each of you take a lamb, and with the blood of that lamb, your family will be spared.” And the dreadful night came and went, and as many people who had offered up lambs in their homes, that many people were spared, and God’s people were spared the apparent wrath of God. Many lambs killed, many families saved.

And could it be that when they hard about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they remembered the custom of the Day of Atonement? On that day, the priest would bring in two creatures, usually goats. One of these would be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin offering for all of the people. And the second animal would be a scapegoat, and would carry, or bear, all the sins of the people. The priest was to place that goat on the altar and confess all the sins of the people. Then a man would lead that goat from the altar into the wilderness and set it free. The goat would carry the sin of the people far away from them. Two animals lost forever, and a community restored to the presence of God, at least for another 364 days. (Lev. 16)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, c.1635/40

Perhaps when John’s friends heard him talking about the lamb that takes away the sins of the world, they remembered the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah had dreamt of a man – not a goat, not a lamb – who would take away the sin of the people. More than this, a man who would participate with God in a decisive act that will release people from the stranglehold of sin on their lives – not for a day, or a season, or year – but forever.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the lamb in Isaiah and the other lambs is this: each of the previous narratives describes an attempt to make things right with God. Each illustrates how humans can cover themselves with the blood or the innocence of another in an effort to somehow be presentable to a God who is very angry.

There is a key difference between Isaiah’s dream and the other sacrifices, however. In the stories of Abraham, the Passover, and the scapegoat, how much choice did the animals have? None. There they were, out with the flock one day and the shepherd picked them and led them to their deaths. They were victims, pure and simple, used capriciously by someone more powerful than they.

But not this lamb mentioned in Isaiah! Oh, it’s killed all right. But it’s killed because the servant walks deliberately into the suffering and death that the rest of us fear. The servant is no pawn, no powerless victim, but rather one who chooses to pour out his own life, who willingly takes the sin of the people not just into the next ZIP code, but away from them altogether.

So here we have crusty old John the Baptizer, complete with his camel-hair robe and his lunchbox full of locusts, and he points to Jesus and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” What do you suppose the people were thinking that day?

Were they thinking about atonement? That’s the theological concept here, my friends. Atonement means bringing two sides together. Two parties who had at one point been enemies or at variance with each other are now together; they are now on the same team, so to speak. Is this what the followers of John were thinking? When they saw Jesus, did they do a quick survey of the scripture and think about the fact that the system of sacrifices would never get the job done? Did they realize the truth that animal sacrifice was a sort of endless loop wherein each year, each season, people came before a God who they thought of as angry and did their best to satisfy that anger with a burnt offering, and then felt glad to get out of worship alive?

What I’m asking is this: do you think that those followers of John engaged in a period of theological reflection and critical thinking in which they systematically debated the merits of the ancient system of retributive justice?

We talked a little about that on Wednesday night – that much of the Old Testament understanding concerning participation in the life of God seems to come from a place where everything is cut and dried, and you get what you pay for. Up until the time of Isaiah, largely speaking, the assumption of the people of God was that if you do what’s right, you’ll be blessed, and if you do what’s wrong, you’ll be cursed. It’s not a huge leap from there to the conclusion that if you are blessed – rich, healthy, well-educated – then you must be doing the right thing; and if you are suffering – sick, in pain, in grief – then you must be in state of sin or disobedience.

Isaiah 53 introduces a new kind of theology – one where God’s people are called to enter into difficult places in order that they might a) be closer to the people who are in pain and b) seek to release or remove some of that pain by carrying it themselves. As Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading Isaiah 53, written 600 years before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and say, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing that Isaiah was writing all about Jesus so far in the future.” I think it’s closer to the truth to say, “Wow, look at how Jesus was so intentional about living into the truth to which Isaiah pointed! How can I be a part of that, too?”

So I’ll answer my own question: I’m guessing that when John talked about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they didn’t stop for a long theological discussion. My sense is rather than sitting down and examining the theological implications of the statement that John made, they believed him, and they said, “I want to get a piece of this action. I want to have this in my life…” Oh, sure there was theology along the way. There was a time for reflection. But on this day, when they heard that Jesus was the lamb of God, they followed him. They wanted in on it.

Because whether they stopped to think about it for a long time or not, the implications of this are clear: that if success is not by definition a reward, and if suffering is not necessarily a punishment from God, then the suffering that they encountered was not indicative of the fact that God was angry with them. In fact, the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah and the declaration of John and the behavior of Jesus indicate quite the opposite: that sometimes, suffering can hold great meaning. Sometimes, pain can lead to blessing. Somehow, in God’s economy, our wounds can become the instrument of true and deep healing.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The good news of the Gospel today is that you are not stuck in a binary system whereby everything is either good or bad and you get exactly what you deserve. No, you are free to follow the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

For some of us, some of the time, following the lamb means that we are free to make different choices. Some of us have walked into the room this morning feeling trapped by the choices that we ourselves have made – we feel stuck with an addiction, hounded by a lie, guilty about our behavior, or imprisoned by pride and selfishness. I declare to you the good news that you are free – that you don’t have to do those things. God, in Jesus Christ, is releasing you from that kind of sin and inviting you to a new way of living.

And some of us, some of the time, need to know that following the lamb means that even those situations where we do not have choices are not what ultimately defines our lives. Your parents may have divorced, your boss may be a jerk, your neighbor may be a racist, or your child may deny the Christ. You feel pain even when it does not come from a choice that you’ve made. But I declare to you the good news that this pain, this brokenness, this suffering does not indicate that you have been rejected by God.

When John and Isaiah talk about the lamb by whose stripes we are healed, they open up the possibility that even the suffering we endure can have meaning and purpose. The grief that you have carried, or the loss you have endured, or the scars that you wear… these are not signs of failure or indications of God’s rejection of you. Maybe these are the things that have brought you to this day, to this point of being able to walk with some measure of confidence into God’s future as one whose struggles have contributed to the self that you now are.

Behold, the lamb of God! It is the truth, dear friends. This Lenten season, we celebrate the good news that John was bold enough to proclaim: Jesus of Nazareth has come, and is coming, so that you might know life in his name. Claim that. Hold on to it. And more than that, live in hope and joy today that there is nothing in your life that is so broken or so bent that it cannot be made whole or straight. Remember, Isaiah 53 isn’t about Jesus. Jesus was about Isaiah 53. The call is for you and I to do and be the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.


I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.

Expecting 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 November 29, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is willing to break into human reality in surprising ways.  

Our texts included Isaiah 9:6-7 and Luke 1:39-45.


For our first Christmas as a married couple, Sharon and I set a spending limit. We agreed that we would spend no more than $30 on gifts, stocking stuffers, etc. We said we could afford a $30 Christmas.

Now, remember, this was a long time ago. When we got married, Ronald Reagan was president. The largest nation in the world was The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We we got married, there were only 2 Star Wars movies and Wheel of Fortune hadn’t been invented yet. When we got married there were only 23 letters in the alphabet.

OK, I made the last one up to see if you were paying attention. It was a long time ago. And because we didn’t have much money, we got creative. I remember picking an armoire out of the trash and refinishing it for her (we still have it, on the 3rd floor of our home). Once she got a sweater from the thrift store, and because I wanted her to wonder what was inside the box, I wrapped it with a mayonnaise jar half full of water – just so I could watch her shake it and try to guess what was inside that box. We had a lot of fun with that $30.

When we do it right, Advent is about expectation. And we need to be clear that it’s not only about “what am I expecting to get for Christmas”, but especially in Advent we are called to wonder, “Where will God show up next?”

MapIn about 740 BC, the people of Judah were in a boatload of trouble. Believe it or not, in those days, Syria was a red hot mess (I know, it’s so calm now, right?). The king of Syria, Rezin, formed an alliance with the king of Israel, Pekah. Together, these nations sought to wage war against Ahaz, king of Judah in Jerusalem. Things were looking tough from the outside.

On the inside, it was no better. Ahaz, as it turns out, was a spectacularly bad king – in a nation that had had a lot of pretty bad kings. He was afraid to trust that God would deliver his people, and so Ahaz entered into a treaty with Tiglath Peleser III, the king of Assyria. The good news was that Judah was not overrun by the Syrian coalition. The bad news was that now Judah was a vassal state, paying tribute to Assyria.

Isaiah, Raphael, c. 1512

Isaiah, Raphael, c. 1512

In this time of conflict, famine, intrigue, and fear, God calls Isaiah to be his prophet. And Isaiah presents himself to Ahaz and says, “Listen, you don’t have to worry. God will send a deliverer! It looks rough now, but soon, things will change. Expect something big.” You heard a part of his amazing words to Ahaz in the Old Testament reading this morning.

Not long after Isaiah uttered those words about a son being given on whose shoulders the government would rest, Ahaz and his wife had a baby, a little guy named Hezekiah. And, don’t you know, Hezekiah turned out to be a good king – a spectacularly good king. He spent about 30 years cleaning up his father’s messes. He restored the temple, he re-instituted the celebration of the Passover meal, and more.

Isaiah was proven to be a good prophet – God did indeed show up, a son was born, and he was wonderful. Hooray!

About 7 centuries later, believe it or not, the Middle East was a mess. Still? Again? This time, the Romans were in charge, having brought their troops in to “liberate” the folks in about 63 BC. The Empirical troops were scattered throughout Palestine, keeping the peace by throttling any moves toward freedom or self-rule. Jerusalem and its environs had a Jewish population that was ruled by a Roman governor who appointed a Jewish strongman named Herod the Great as “king in Judea”.

Herod the Great, James Tissot c. 1890

Herod the Great, James Tissot c. 1890

Whereas Ahaz was a spectacularly bad king, Herod the great was a remarkably, undeniably, amazingly bad king. Whatever the nation had gained during Hezekiah’s rule was certainly ancient history by then, and people of faith used to gather around the scroll of Isaiah and read his prophecies and say things like, “Wow, it’s too bad that God isn’t in the showing-up-around-here business anymore, because this is horrible. How cool would it be if God would intervene in our situation?”

In fact, the people of Judea were suffering from what historians call “Messianic fever” – the strident hope or belief that God would send a savior to Israel – one who would bring freedom to God’s people forever.

It is in this context that an old woman named Elizabeth shows a rather surprising home pregnancy test to her even older husband, Zechariah. While they were shocked, and in Zechariah’s case even speechless, about this news, they took it in stride and were overjoyed at the ways that God was speaking into their own personal circumstances.

Meanwhile, about sixty-three miles to the north, Elizabeth’s teenage cousin was reviewing the results of her pregnancy test with even greater shock, since she was a virgin. And if Elizabeth’s husband was surprised, you can imagine how Mary’s fiancé took the news.

Statue of the Visitation at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel

Statue of the Visitation at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel

Mary and Elizabeth are vastly different people. One of them is still buying Clearasil and Neutrogena acne prevention while the other one is looking through the bins of Oil of Olay anti-wrinkle creams trying to find new batteries for her hearing aids. And yet our gospel reading for this morning records how each of them was able to recognize that amidst the upheaval of their world and their own lives, God was coming. The Messiah was on the way. Just like old Isaiah had promised, God was on the move. Again. Still.

Only when Jesus got here, he didn’t act like people thought that God’s deliverer should act. There was no kingly birth, and he did not play the part of the conquering hero at all. After decades of obscurity, he finally went public with his ministry, and for a couple of years seemed to be off to a promising start in terms of rallying the popular support behind his miracles and healing ministry.

But something happened, as it so often does, and the wheels apparently fell off of Jesus’ campaign to be the redeemer. He died in shame, crucified as an enemy of the state who had been rejected by his own people. It seemed as if it had all been a dream.

And then, as you probably know, things turned around in a hurry. God, in his wisdom, power, and strength demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus that he was, in fact, in the showing-up-around-here business in spades. His followers came to see that Jesus never intended to be a conquering hero characterized by military might and brute force. Instead, they remembered the birth of Jesus and the advent of his ministry as the time that God revealed himself in the power of love. The almighty came into our world cloaked as an infant. It was in sheer and utter vulnerability that the people came to see Immanuel – God With Us – had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And to us a son had been given. And he was wonderful. A counselor. He is the prince of peace, and of the increase of his government there will surely be no end.

Which brings us, dear friends, to you.

How did you end up here?

That’s a serious question. I figure this is as good a day as any to ask it, since we’re coming off a week when all but emergency workers and the unluckiest of retail clerks are given at least one day off and expected to be mildly reflective as to our life situations. How did we get to where we are professionally, or in terms of our education? How did we wind up being in relationship with our friends, lovers, children?

I’m pretty sure that the kid who wrapped up second-hand sweaters and used mayonnaise jars could not have looked ahead and seen me coming down the road… did you see this coming?

How did you get here? And what do you want? Again, I’m not asking what you hope your beloved will dig out of the trash and put on your third floor. I’m asking whether you ever think about God breaking into your life, your reality, your situation. Do you have a desire for God to change something in our world? Like the Judeans of Isaiah’s time, like Elizabeth and Mary, do you hope for God to intervene somehow, somewhere?

Are you waiting for God to change someone in our world?

Are you waiting for God to change something in you?

What do you expect this Advent?

You have done all the things that people do when they hope. You lit candles. You prayed, “O come, o come Immanuel”.

If the scriptures teach us anything about God’s relationship with his people and his creation, it’s that he’s still in the showing-up-around-here business. Our God is surprising.

So this morning, beloved – this first Sunday of Advent – I implore you: don’t just mutter a few prayers and go about your business. Don’t just say that you hope something is different and then go back to business as usual.

It’s Advent, and we are called to pray these prayers of hope. So by all means, let’s do so. But then let’s act hopeful. Let’s behave as those who are expecting that something will happen, something will change, someone will come.

This week, look around you for signs of God’s reign and power and love. Watch out as the God who spoke through Isaiah and came to us in Jesus and lives in our community is active in the people and places around you. And for his sake, keep up with him as he moves in the quiet, dark places and shows up in the most unlikely ways.

I’d like to close, not with my own words, but with some from a message that Pope John Paul II shared 2002:

… Advent… helps us to understand fully the value and meaning of the mystery of Christmas. It is not just about commemorating the historical event, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea. Instead, it is necessary to understand that our whole life should be an advent, in the vigilant expectation of Christ’s final coming. To prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, will come one day to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize his presence in the events of daily life. Advent is then a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come and who continuously comes.[1]

So what are you waiting for? Let’s wait. Now! For the One who has come, is coming, and will come again. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] General Audience at the Vatican, given on December 18, 2002 https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20021218.html

Some of the basic framework for this message was developed from thought I encountered in Under Wraps: The Gift We Never Expected, a series of Advent studies published by Abingdon Press.


What happens when you hear your name being called?  This spring, the folk at Crafton Heights Church are examining the ways that God has called to God’s people in the past… in the hopes that we might be attuned to those calls as they come today.  The scripture for April 19 included the calls described in Isaiah 6:1-8 and Luke 5:1-11.

When I was a kid, one of my best friends was a fine young man named Nathaniel. There were lots of reasons to like him, and a few reasons to be envious. One of the silliest things of which I was a bit jealous was his name.

This is what I mean: growing up in the suburbs in the USA in the 1970’s, how often do you think I was in a crowd and heard someone yell, “Hey, Dave! Dave?” And how often do you think I turned and said, “Yep?” And then the person who had called my name looked at me with irritation and said, “No, not you. Please. I meant Dave Lock, or David Cummings, or Dave Tang, or…” Carver. Hmph.

WavingIf it hasn’t happened to you, you’ve seen it. Someone calls your name, or maybe even just points and waves, and you respond, and then it dawns on you that they are talking to or looking at the person over your right shoulder…And you feel like a complete loser.

I must have had fifteen people in my high school class named “David”. It got so I just pretended to never hear my name. I did not like to respond when it was called. But how often do you suppose my buddy heard, “Hey, Nat! Nat! – no, not you, the other Nat!”

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Last week, we began a series of messages that focus in on the call of God, and we said specifically that there are two things on which we can hang our hats: that God is a God who calls and that you are call-able. This morning, I’d like to explore the nature of the God who calls and, perhaps more centrally, our response to that call.

As we begin, I’d like to ask you to think with me for a moment of every single time in Scripture where God’s presence overshadows someone, or God’s Spirit calls out, or God’s angel appears and says, “Hey, you – yes, you…Look, you know that the world’s in a bit of a mess right now, but, hey, good news! I have an idea. Here’s my plan…”, and the person who is being called says, “Oh, hey, great! I was hoping that you’d ask! I love the concept, Lord, and as a matter of fact, let me show you a few ideas of my own that I’ve been working on…”

Um, Dave, we can’t think of any place in the Bible where that happens.

Of course you can’t. That stuff is not in the Bible!

Every call of which I’m aware features the same essential pattern. The Lord or an angel shows up, and when that presence is finally noted, the first thing that the divine messenger has to say is “Fear not!”, because people are always so unnerved by the fact that God is actually calling to them. Then, the plan is laid out and the call is extended and with a few notable exceptions, the response is generally, “Uh-oh. Me? Really? Have you thought this through, Lord? I’m not really sure you’ve got the right person here…” And often, the one who is called by God will go ahead and list the reasons why the plan that God has just can’t work in this situation.

And as the person is talking about why God’s idea is such a bad one, they are not usually listing excuses like, “Oh, Thursday’s no good for me, Lord. What about Tuesday? Sunday? Oh, no, Sunday is my only day to sleep in…” It’s not a conflict in scheduling that prevents the call from being heard.

No, the readings from Isaiah and Luke today are typical: when God invites someone to step more intentionally into God’s purposes for the world, there is almost always an immediate cry of confession. “Oh, woe is me! I am not worthy! I am a man of unclean lips! Get away from me, Lord, because I am a sinner.”

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006).  Used by permission.  Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006). Used by permission. Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The call to serve begins in confession. It does so because when God shows up, the veil is lifted just for a moment, and the perfection and holiness of God is perceived a little more clearly. That’s what Isaiah saw, isn’t it? He was actually given a vision of the Lord, and of those who are in the presence of the Lord saying “Holy, holy, holy…”

I’m not aware as to whether you’ve ever been invited into the presence of God, but I am sure that you know something about the Lord. God is love. God is light. God is faithful, right? God is all of those things, and more besides.

But you won’t find anywhere in the Bible that says, “God is love, love, love” or “light, light, light”. God is those things, to be sure – but there is something about holiness that is at the root of God’s very nature and existence. We affirm that every week when we pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

God is so holy that it is his name – or his name itself is holy because of its connection with the Lord. God is holy. God is not like us – “Holy” means “set apart”, or “separate”, and carries with it a sense of weightiness or heaviness. God is not on the same scale as we. One writer puts it this way: “This word applies to God because God Himself is totally other, separate, sacred, transcendent, reverend, and set apart from every created thing.”[1]

There is a sense in which I can think of myself as smart, funny, wise, moral, tall, old, or any other adjective. And when I do that, I always measure myself in relationship with the other people around me. I compare myself to the rest of the people in the room and think that I am or am not any of those things.

But when the creator of joy, of life, of good, of size and perspective makes himself known…well, then, I’ve got nothing. I am none of those things in comparison with Him.

To put it another way – I may be perfectly capable of and content to cruise around in my own mediocrity and general all-rightness, but when I am invited to stare unblinkingly into the Light of the World, then I become profoundly aware of my own failures, regrets, and general un-holiness. When I see some of who God is, and become more aware of who I am, then it is easier for me to get in line with Isaiah and Peter and say, “Uh-oh, um, no – I can’t. I’m not the right guy for this.”

When God calls to Isaiah, and when Christ summons Peter, and just about every other call in scripture all boils down to this: the Lord is saying, “Look, I know you. I made you. I love you. Of course you are my person. Of course you can do this…as long as you remember that it’s my plan, and not yours. My strength, not yours. My holiness, not yours.”

A calling from the Lord provides me with a grounding and an orientation as to who God is and who I am. When I am well aware of who I am, and the ways that I fall short, or am bent or twisted, and yet somehow in the midst of that am somehow useful to God, I can carry out the business with which I’ve been entrusted in a fashion that is marked by humility.

When I say humility, I not only mean approaching God with a sense of perspective about where I stand in relationship to God, but where I stand in relationship to you and other people who are also called and loved by God. When I remember that I am not “all that and a bag of chips”, I am more useful to actually accomplish the tasks that God has set before me in partnership with others.

Sports Illustrated...$1?  How old is this photo?

Sports Illustrated…$1? How old is this photo?

There was another Dave in Pittsburgh a few years back who said something that really struck me. Dave Parker was a superbly-fashioned specimen of humanity who was, as it turned out, really, really good at hitting a small ball with a large stick. He was so good at it, in fact, that he became the first person ever to be paid a million dollars a year to hit a ball with a stick. When asked about it, Dave Parker said, “Every team needs a foundation, and I’m it. They ought to pay me just to walk around here.”[2] He told Sports Illustrated, “There’s only one thing bigger than me – and that’s my ego.”

Now, I’m not here to bash Dave Parker, or to take a few of his comments out of context. Rather, I want to use them as a reminder that those who have been called by God have a deep appreciation for the essential goodness, power, glory, and love of God as well as their own brokenness or failure. That leads them to a sense of humility and perspective that allows for growth.

I am not aware of a time when the world has ever been changed for the better when a group of high-minded, confident, self-assured, incredibly talented people who knew all the answers showed up and got to work on the rest of us.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

On the other hand, though, think of what Jesus did with a small group of broken-down, second-career people who had been given a glimpse of who he was and of the ministry to which he was inviting them. When we are humble, we are teachable; when we are humble, we are better able to see the gifts that others have brought.

I like the story of the man who had been looking for a church in his new community. After being disappointed in several congregations, he showed up at one a few moments late. As he walked into worship, the group was praying the unison prayer of confession, and they said, “we have done that which we ought not to have done, and have left undone that which we ought to have done…” As he found a seat, he beamed, “At last! These are my people!”

God is not calling you to be the star of anything. God is asking whether you will go in his power, with his agenda, into a world filled with people who are every bit as broken as you are. He’s asking if you can see them with his eyes and love them with his love. He wants to know if you can share with them the gift of forgiveness as a starving man shares a loaf with his friends, and to invite them to deepen their own walk with the Lord so that they might encounter God in all of God’s holiness.

God did not call me because in all of his wisdom he thought that the world would be blessed by how holy I am. He called me for the same reason that he has called you: so that we might remind people that they are already wrapped in God’s holy presence.

So you – yes, I’m talking to you – do you realize that this calling God is reaching out to you? That he knows exactly who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re capable of, and is still calling? That he is calling you now – not the you that you think might show up in four or five years once you get a little more this or a little better at that. He knows you, he loves you, and he’s reaching out. Can you find the voice to say, with Isaiah, “Here I am. Send me.”?

By God’s grace – with humility and thanksgiving, you can. Amen.

[1] Jack Wellman, writing at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/05/24/what-does-the-word-holy-mean-bible-definition-of-holy/

[2] Quoted in Randy Roberts, Pittsburgh Sports: Stories From the Steel City (University of Pittsburgh, 2000), p. 206.

South Sudan Partnership 2015 #7

Each year I spend a couple of weeks in late April or early May working like a dog. I am lifting, shoveling, digging, shifting, smoothing, raking, pruning… I am doing the work of a gardener, planting seeds and preparing my beds for a season of productivity, growth, and nutrition. And each year, I find myself at the middle or end of May and the beginning of June and I’m, well, stopped.

The garden isn’t finished, of course. That won’t happen until a couple of weeks into October at the earliest. But there comes a time when the work of preparation ends and the work of nurturing, of waiting, of anticipating, and of cultivating begins.

In a few hours, we’ll get on a plane and fly for five hours to Dubai, UAE. Not long after that, we’ll get on another plane and spend fifteen hours winging our way towards Washington, DC, where we’ll unearth my old Toyota and head for Pittsburgh. Our time in South Sudan has come to an end.

If you were to ask me what we’ve done, the first thing I’d do is point you to the six prior entries in this narrative. But the reality is that each of these only provides a description of how we’ve spent our time. In reality, what we’ve done is the work of the gardener. We can’t stand here now and point to a school or a church that’s been built because of the work of our hands; there were no rallies or crusades. Just as my garden doesn’t look all that fruitful on Memorial Day, there is not much apparent in South Sudan or ourselves that is different now as compared with eleven days ago.

But of course, planting seeds is a significant and prophetic act. Even when the nature of the landscape has not significantly been altered, the reality of that place has changed as the seed lies latent in the soil. And so it is when the seed lies latent in the soul. There is change, growth, pushing, stretching, breaking, climbing and…eventually, Lord willing, a harvest.

Since returning from the Team Building, Trauma and Healing retreat in Yei, here are some of the ways that we have been worked over by the Gardener who called us to this place:

Sharing a meal with some of our PCUSA Mission Co-Workers

Sharing a meal with some of our PCUSA Mission Co-Workers

  • We have met with a team of church leaders from the Nuba Mountains, a region in Sudan that is facing daily atrocities at the hands of the Sudanese government. Some have termed this “genocide” – and it surely seems like the Christians and others in that area have been targeted for destruction. You can learn more about this situation by clicking here or here.
  • We re-engaged the churches of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church by participating in worship. On Sunday January 25, five of us were privileged to preach in congregations, and Pastor Gary accompanied our friend Pastor Thomas into the women’s prison, where he had a deeply moving experience.
  • We have shared space here at the Guest House with our colleagues from the PC (USA) Mission Agency. A small team of leaders from our denominational headquarters and the denomination’s Washington Office is in this region and it has been a blessing to share our experiences with them.
  • We have been humbled to spend time with seven of our church’s Mission Co-Workers. Normally, these pastors, educators, development specialists, and evangelists are scattered throughout the nation, but because of the tense situation throughout the country these days, they are all concentrated here in the capital. We were thrilled when they accepted our invitation to dine together and share a some of their heart with us.

    Sharing a meal with some of our PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers

    Sharing a meal with some of our PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers

  • For a few hours, we were just tourists. We visited the markets, lunched along the Nile, and explored the city. Particularly moving was the opportunity to visit the monument to Dr, John Garang, the man who is most deeply associated with the independence of South Sudan. As I have said, when visiting another place, it’s always a good idea to learn about the person whose face is on the money, and here, that person is John Garang.

As we prepare to get on the plane, I’m ready to tell you that we feel a little like my garden must feel in mid-May: torn up, plowed under, turned around…and ready. We have been given this experience. We carry seeds that as yet have not borne much, but we trust that the work of this trip does not end when we get on the plane.

This is the view from Jebel Jesu ("The Mountain of Jesus"), the church in which I preached on Sunday.  As far as you can see there are dwellings - none of which, I was told, existed five years ago.  This speaks to the explosion of this region since independence in 2011.

This is the view from Jebel Jesu (“The Mountain of Jesus”), the church in which I preached on Sunday. As far as you can see there are dwellings – none of which, I was told, existed five years ago. This speaks to the explosion of this region since independence in 2011.

Pray with us, and pray for us. Pray for seeds sown in our lives and in the lives of those with whom we’ve come in contact these days. Pray for those who live in fear and uncertainty, and for those whose days are shaped by the horror of what one human being can do to another. And pray for those people anywhere and everywhere who would seek to live in a way that reflects the Lord’s intentions of peace, wholeness, and prosperity for all of God’s people.

The past two Sundays I have preached from Isaiah, and pointed to the ancient prophecies of healing and redemption. I’ll close this narrative of tilling, toil, plowing and seed-planting by offering his words. Just as the seed packet bears an image of the fruit that is to come in due time, so these words from scripture describe the end for which God has destined his creation.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare

a feast of rich food for all peoples,

a banquet of aged wine—

the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy

the shroud that enfolds all peoples,

the sheet that covers all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears

from all faces;

he will remove his people’s disgrace

from all the earth.

The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;

we trusted in him, and he saved us.

This is the Lord, we trusted in him;

let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9)


Oh Lord, hear our prayer.

Jebel Jesu, the worship site where I preached on 25 January.

Jebel Jesu, the worship site where I preached on 25 January.

At the Garang memorial.

At the Garang memorial.

Lunch along the Nile River.

Lunch along the Nile River.

We were joined along the Nile by this little fellow, a Malachite Kingfisher (my favorite bird!).

We were joined along the Nile by this little fellow, a Malachite Kingfisher (my favorite bird!).

We were presented with lovely gifts by the Women's Desk at a farewell banquet on Sunday evening.

We were presented with lovely gifts by the Women’s Desk at a farewell banquet on Sunday evening.

The banner presented to Pittsburgh Presbytery by the women of SSPEC details the Fruits of the Spirit.  May we nurture those in our lives and in our world.

The banner presented to Pittsburgh Presbytery by the women of SSPEC details the Fruits of the Spirit. May we nurture those in our lives and in our world.



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.