Naming Names

January 12, 2020, The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights joined the rest of the church of Jesus Christ in remembering the baptism of Jesus.  In addition, we took some time to ordain and install new officers – in our tradition, that means a third of our elders and a third of our deacons are starting fresh terms.  Our texts were Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I suspect that even if you have not played the board game Clue recently, you are familiar with it.  There’s been a murder, and each player represents a specific character (Col. Mustard, Professor Plum, Ms. Scarlett, etc.) who is at once both detective and suspect.  The game ends when the mystery is solved and the killer is named, along with the location and weapon.

We like those stories, I think.  From Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, we appreciate the image of a detective assembling a group of individuals and then walking them (and us) through the details of the crime until finally the murderer is named and the case is closed.  Sometimes we anticipate who it will be, and other times we’re surprised, but we always like to have that resolution.

The Prophet Isaiah, Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, c. 1510)

Unfortunately for readers of detective fiction, some of the mysteries in the Bible are a little more obtuse.  For instance, the Book of Isaiah contains four sections of poetry that are called, collectively, the “Servant songs”.  Chapters 42-53 contain these works, each of which points to a Servant of the Lord who will somehow participate in, point toward, or accomplish the work of the Lord.  Our reading today, from Isaiah 42, is the first of these poems.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the years by scholars, rabbis, and teachers who’ve sought to identify the “real” identity of the servant.  Many of these folks have treated it like an Hercule Poirot mystery, and have claimed to unveil the identity and thereby point the reader to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Lord’s methods.  To be honest, I am not much impressed with this sort of scholarship, and agree with Dr. Paul Hanson, who writes, “The scholarly debate over this text has been preoccupied with…the identity of the Servant… The resulting literature that has accumulated generally offers dreary reading with little genuine insight.  Although dozens of candidates have been advanced as the person or group designated as the Servant, the matter is as confused as ever…”[1]

I’ve read articles indicating that “of course” the Servant must be King Cyrus of Persia, who led a military campaign to defeat the Babylonians and thereby brought about the release of the Jews from captivity.  Others have speculated that the author of Isaiah was looking back to Moses, or maybe over at Jeremiah, or perhaps even in the mirror at himself.

And, because we’re in church, it’s very common to hear people say that any song with lyrics like “by his stripes we are healed” (such as we find in the fourth Servant song) can only refer to Jesus.

Why is it, I found myself wondering this week, that we spend so much time and energy seeking the precise identity of the Servant?  Here’s what I think: if the Servant can be proven to be Cyrus or Uzziah or Jesus or Elizabeth Warren or Donald Trump then it can and will mean many things, to be sure… but such identification would also mean, without a shadow of a doubt, that the Servant is therefore, obviously, not me.  And, to be honest, I think that life would be a lot easier for me if I was proven not to be the Servant of the Lord.

It’s like the time the preacher was pointing out the fact that the roof of the church was falling in, and at the end of worship one of the parishioners came up and said, “Reverend, I was glad to hear you say that you didn’t know where the money to fix the roof was going to come from.  For a minute there, we were kind of afraid that you thought that we had it!”

You see, in declaring that the Servant must obviously be some historical figure or other, that gets me off the hook of being expected to act as the Servant acts.  And yet just prior the first of the Servant songs, in Isaiah 41, we read that Israel – the people of God – is called God’s servant, the one who is chosen by God and upheld by God’s hand.

Isaiah 41:8-10                            Isaiah 42:1

You, Israel, my servant…             Here is my servant,

Whom I have chosen…                My chosen,

I will uphold you.                         Whom I uphold….

And if the Servant is in fact the whole people of God, well, that would include Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah… but it would also include me and you.  And, well, let’s be honest: if anything that the Servant is called to do is going to actually get done in 2020, um, Uzziah and Cyrus are not going to be terribly helpful.  But if God’s people – if you and I are the Servant – that changes things significantly.  And – to be clear – I think that we are called to be the Servant.  I’m going to assume that the things that are true of the Servant in today’s reading are, or ought to be, true of me and you as well.

But let’s put the idea of naming names on the shelf for a moment and consider the tasks at hand.  I mean, what exactly is the Servant supposed to do, anyway?  Here in Isaiah 42, we read that the Servant is called to bring forth justice.  The Hebrew word there is mispat, and it means the wholeness, the order of compassionate justice that God has designed for all of creation.  The mispat of the Lord is a demonstration of the right rule, the proper fitting together, of all parts of the created order.  Other tasks assigned to the Servant in this chapter appear to be revealing light to the nations. Note that the Servant is not called to reveal light to the Servant’s friends, or the Servant’s favorite people; rather, the light is shared with the entire world.  All people!

Further, the Servant is called to open eyes that cannot or will not see, and to release those who may have been imprisoned.  This is a tall order for the Servant, and you can see why it would be more convenient if the Servant was, indeed, someone else.  But if the preacher is insisting (as he is) that the Servant is us, perhaps the next question is obvious: how are we supposed to do all that?

You’re not going to like this.  I mean, for all I know, you don’t like anything I’ve said so far.  But you’re really not going to like this.  The question of how the Servant establishes and reflects the Divine intent is crucial.  I mean, few things are more frustrating than trying to accomplish a task without knowing how.

And yet the answer is, well, difficult.  The strategy laid out for the Servant is counterintuitive.  It’s not what we think it should be, it’s not what we want it to be, and it’s definitely unAmerican and, at least at times, it has been historically unchristian.

What we would like, of course, is to be able to bring about these ends by brute force or the dint of our own efforts.  We want to legislate these ends, or to impose them on others with a decree.  Isn’t that why we argue about who gets elected? Isn’t that why so many of us are trying to “pack the courts” in one direction or another?

Listen: at least three major religions have turned to the Servant Songs, Isaiah, and the rest of what we call the “Old Testament” for authority and inspiration.  Our Jewish siblings have practiced the Milhemet Mitzvah, which can be translated as “a commanded war”.  Our Muslim siblings have referred to the notion of a Jihad, or “holy war”.  And of course Christians have brought to the world the Crusades and the Inquisition.  Each of these Faiths, birthed in the Torah and God’s call to be holy, has an element that says something like, “You want justice? You want to know God’s love? Oh, I’ll teach you a thing or two about justice and love, buster… and you’re not gonna like it.  Hold on – Look out – ‘cause I’m about to open up a big old can of God’s purposes on you…”[2]

And yet it would seem by any measure that Milhemet Mitzvah, Jihad, Crusades, and Inquisitions are all inherently inconsistent with the call to the Servant in Isaiah 42 or the life of faith as demonstrated in the baptism of Jesus.  The strategies espoused in Isaiah 42 are simply foolish in the eyes of 21st-century Americans: there is no chest-thumping, there are no grandiose announcements, drone strikes, or attacks; the weak are not pushed aside, and faint hope is to be encouraged and not extinguished.

Baptism of Christ, David Zelenka (2005)

Matthew tells us that Jesus launches his mission in a moment of submission – or perhaps more accurately, submersion.  He has to argue with John the Baptist in order to undergo his own baptism, and then he places himself entirely in John’s hands and, holding his breath, he slides beneath the river’s surface, submitting himself in humility and even weakness.  Both Jesus and the Servant are called to lead as, well, servants.  The predominant posture here is not one of domination or dominion, but of trust and humility.

And all of this is relevant this morning as this congregation ordains and installs a group of elders and deacons who are charged to lead the congregation in the years to come.  We are declaring that you have been chosen to create conditions suitable for people here to grow in faith and to grow to be more like Jesus every day.  You will have responsibility for the operation of this institution and the stewardship of its resources.  How will you do this?

I hope and pray that you will seek to do it in a way that is consistent with the scriptures we’ve read this morning.  That means, I suspect, that you will have to do so from a position of humility, submission, and even vulnerability.

Vulnerability.

Oooh, Pastor, we don’t like that word.  I mean, no offense, but it sounds like what you are saying that a part of leadership means being exposed, or at risk, or even weak.

It might sound like that because that is exactly what I am saying.

Every week I get a dozen emails or advertisements from Christian ministries or businesses urging me, as a pastor, to do everything I can to make sure that our church is safe.  Right now, there are two overriding themes in these emails.

One is a call for church security.  I’ve gotten brochures offering to train our ushers to carry concealed firearms; I’ve seen advertisements for “discreet” metal detectors at the door, and even the creation of what would amount to a church police force.  The overwhelming sense that I get from these pieces is that while we can’t always count on God to protect us, Smith & Wesson will keep us safe and secure and send the bad guys packing.

There’s an even greater theological flaw when it comes to the other area: that of child safety.  This congregation – like every other wise congregation in the country – has developed a “Safe Child” policy.  We have talked about how we can protect children from abuse and train volunteers and staff so that our programs might be safe spaces for children and families.  This is good.  This is right. This is holy work.

And yet the mail I receive on this topic seems to center around a theme: we develop these policies, have these trainings, and enact these protections… not primarily because it is a pressing issue of justice and love; not because there is a theological imperative to honor, nurture, and protect children.  No.  These emails and advertisements and warnings are sent to make sure that I know we better have good policies so that we do not get sued and so that maybe even get lower insurance rates.

Listen: the call to follow God in Christ, to serve Christ, and to reflect the mispatof God in the world is, at its core, a call to love proactively.  And love, as you know, is inherently risky behavior. Love makes you vulnerable.  You know that if you have ever waited for an answer to a text, a card, or a call; you know that if you’ve ever left the porch light on and the front door unlocked hoping that maybe tonight a child would come home; you know that if you’ve ever watched someone you know to be made in God’s image engaging in behavior that is horribly self-destructive but you don’t know how to get through to them – all you know is that you can’t make them stop.

Love involves a handing over of a portion of your heart to someone else.  It is risky.  It is painful.  Just ask Jesus.

And yet, I think that both Jesus and Isaiah would declare, it is the most effective way to bring about lasting change.

In a few moments, I’ll invite the incoming officers to stand in front of the congregation and I’ll ask a series of nine questions. You might be tempted to think of this as one of those dry, procedural occurrences that make for longer worship.  But I’d encourage you to pay attention to them – particularly to question #8: “Will you pray for and seek to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”  My hope is that the new officers will reflect on that vow and find new ways to live it out in the years to come.

And maybe some of you are saying, “Phew, I’m glad I didn’t talk to the Nominating Committee. I couldn’t put up with that crap.  Who needs it?” But you see, my deeper prayer is that everyone will remember that while some small minority of our congregation is up here making promises today, every single one of us is being sent out into these streets for the next 167 hours with the same calling: to offer our selves in love for the life of the world.  To give all we are to establish the mispat of God in love and hope.  To be the living demonstration of what God intends for the whole world. And 167 hours from now, we’ll be back here, returning for encouragement, for replenishing.

Do you see what we have received?  Do you appreciate how we have been blessed? Do we have the courage and conviction to give that away?  Thanks be to God for the call to be a Servant people, cloaked in the vulnerability of love.  Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary Series on Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press 1995), pp. 40-41.

[2] See “Holy War: A Jewish Problem , Too”, by Rabbi Reuven Firestone.  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/holy-war-a-jewish-problem-too/

Finding Her Voice

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included many of the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  This year’s story was influenced by a number of stories it’s been my privilege to encounter in recent years, and is anchored in the declaration and promises found in Isaiah 40:1-9

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

What’s in a name?  Or, more to my point: what’s in a nickname?  Often a nickname can be ironic, as when the 350 pound security guard is called “Tiny”, or the way that people sometimes call a bald man “Curly.”  A nickname can be cruel or sarcastic, such as when the kid with dental problems gets referred to as “Bucky” all through middle school.  But sometimes, well, they just fit.

That’s how it was for Bertha Evans.  She was named after her grandmother, who lived next door, and even when she was a baby, “little” Bertha was called “Byrdie” so that people knew which Bertha they were talking about.

When someone carries a name like Byrdie, you might think that person is musical.  In this case, you’d be right.  I don’t know this for certain, but it’s been said that Byrdie learned to sing before she could speak.  Growing up, people would say, “Oh, Byrdie, you were born to sing!”  As she matured, she developed a lovely, flowing soprano voice that would put an angel to shame.  Her nickname became even more appropriate when at the age of 24 she married a man named William Finch.  That’s right.  From then on, she was Byrdie Finch.

Now, because she had been born blind, Byrdie didn’t read music in the traditional sense.  However, between recordings and Braille sheet music, there was nothing that she couldn’t tackle vocally.

She sang in a couple of bands when she was younger, and people say that she could have “made it”, but I always had the sense that she wanted to sing mostly because it made her happy, not because she wanted people to clap for her.  In recent decades, she’s sung most frequently in the church choir.  On occasion, she could be counted on to offer the Anthem or “God, Bless America” at a sporting event or parade.

Byrdie would tell you that she had a great life.  Her marriage seemed really healthy; her children were everything she’d hoped that they could be; she had a fulfilling career and great neighbors… Yes, life was just perfect… right up until the point that it wasn’t.

It was a January evening a couple of years ago.  She was heading home from the Arena, where she’d been asked to sing the National Anthems for the hockey game.  A drunk driver T-boned the car in which she was riding, and for a while it seemed as if that would be the end for Byrdie.  She lingered in the ICU for ten days, dealing with broken bones and massive internal injury.  She endured several surgeries in that precarious fortnight.  And then, she emerged from the twilight and regained herself.  The doctors were pleased not only with themselves, but with Byrdie’s recovery.

There was just one thing: while she was in the ICU and enduring those surgeries, they had to put a breathing tube down her throat.  I don’t know if you’ve ever had to have one of those, but I’m here to tell you that as essential as they are at times, they are anything but comfortable.

When Byrdie came out of the ICU and was removed from the respirator, she struggled to speak. The physicians assured her that it was normal, and that there had been a great deal of trauma, and that if she was just patient, everything would work out all right. Well, she tried hard to be patient, but things were most assuredly not all right.  Three weeks after the tube was removed it was all she could do to whisper.  After two months, they did some tests and determined that the intubation had damaged her vocal cords.

By April of that year, Byrdie was pretty much out of the woods in terms of her major injuries.  That allowed her time to undergo a series of surgeries on her vocal cords and voice box in an attempt to restore her speech.  She tolerated those procedures well, and before long she was able to get around much as she had prior to the accident, and was fully independent – or should have been.  The problem was that her frustration with her voice was so significant that it plunged her into a deep depression.  Byrdie could have left the house, and she could have rejoined her social circle, and she could have attended her granddaughter’s preschool graduation – in fact, she could have gone back to much of her own life – but to do most of those things, she had to talk, and there was nothing she disliked more in those days than the sound of her own voice.

As the months went by, that voice regained strength, but it was most definitely not the same.  It seemed to have dropped at least an octave.  People did not recognize her voice: when she she answered the phone, people thought it was her son. She was ashamed and embarrassed.  She spent most of that summer, alone and silent, on her back porch. There, she did a little reading, a little knitting, and a lot of sitting.

In September, her neighbor and friend, Naomi Jones, invited Byrdie to a lecture at the Museum of Natural History.  She wasn’t crazy about it, but Naomi was persistent and without even knowing the topic, Byrdie capitulated and trudged along to the fourth row of a lecture she didn’t want to hear, on a subject she didn’t know, being offered by a scientist she’d never heard of.  Byrdie was, for all intents and purposes, a “captive audience”.  “The things I do for you, Naomi”, she mumbled as she waited for the thing to end.

Passerculus sandwichensis – Savannah Sparrow

Except something caught her ear.  The presenter was a young researcher from a Canadian university who was reporting on some field work he’d done recently.  His team visited a secluded island on the Canadian coast with the aim of determining whether it was possible to teach adult songbirds a new “language”.  He presented a lot of complicated methodology and science, but the thing that fascinated the folks at the Audubon Society was this: a significant percentage of adult savannah sparrows successfully learned “new” mating calls over the course of a summer. The ornithologists played recordings of a different population of this species over and over and lo and behold, the local birds started picking up on the new tunes.[1]

When the lecture had finished, the researcher seemed quite pleased with himself, Naomi felt a burst of accomplishment at having coaxed Byrdie out of her back yard, and Byrdie, well, Byrdie was quiet… which was nothing really new.

Here’s what I do know: that three weeks after the lecture, the new choir director called Byrdie and invited her to choir practice.  She laughed at him and then hung up.  A few days later, the pastor called.  “Byrdie, be honest.  You have a voice.  It’s not the voice you’ve always had, and it’s going to take some practice – but we both know that you’ve forgotten more about music than any of the rest of that bunch will ever learn.”  There was a pause, and the pastor added, “And besides… I know how much you love Handel’s Messiah.”

Oh.  Messiah.

If you had ever heard Byrdie sing, you would have thought that the soprano part of Messiah had been written with her in mind.  I mean, when Byrdie sang out recitatives like “and lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them” and “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God…”, well, no matter who you were you were ready to launch into the chorus of “Glory to God!”  In that community, Byrdie Finch was synonymous with Messiah.  And now someone else was going to voice the angel.  It was more than she could bear.  However, she agreed to attend the practice, and offered to do what she could to coach the soprano section, but she knew that she’d be unable to sing a note.

When the evening of the rehearsal came, however, the choir faced an unexpected challenge.  Due to the fact that several members had gone off to college, one had moved, and another had a nasty cold, there was not a single alto in attendance at choir practice.

Did Byrdie remember the lecture about the savannah sparrows?  Did Naomi nudge her? I don’t know.  But I do know that Byrdie didn’t leave, and that she said that if she could get her new voice box to cooperate, she’d try to sight read the alto line.  And so the rehearsal began.

The tenors started, as always, by singing about God’s comfort, and about valleys being exalted.  About halfway through that piece, it occurred to Byrdie that the first time the altos sang anything in the entire Messiah was when they, and they alone, would announce “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…”  When that piece starts, there is no chorus to hide behind, and no heavy instrumentation to lean on – just the pure tones of the alto voice – a voice that Byrdie wasn’t sure that she had.  And in her anxiety, she requested that they skip that number for the first rehearsal.  And, as it turns out, for the second.

But here is what happened: as each rehearsal began, she listened to the tenor.  I mean to tell you, she listened.  Even for a person like Byrdie, for whom listening was a lifeline on a minute-by-minute basis – she listened to the words of the tenor.  And she heard.

Byrdie heard in those ancient words that God’s desire is that creation be comforted.  She heard, as if for the first time, that reconciliation was at hand.  She knew that voice crying in the wilderness, and she dreamed of mountains being made low, valleys that were exalted, and rough places that were made plain.

The words stuck with her – a voice, crying in the wilderness.  She thought about the immense and intense work and effort of reconciliation and healing.  She went back and she read and re-read Isaiah and came to understand that the line to be voiced first by the alto about the glory of the Lord being revealed could only be heard after the tenor sang of the years of suffering and estrangement and pain and injury and loss.

Sitting in the upstairs choir room listening to her old friends do their level best to master one of the greatest musical scores of any age, Byrdie finally grasped this truth: that the glory of the Lord is revealed to people who have lost – and then found – everything.

For her entire life, Byrdie had been in such a hurry to be the angel singing of glad tidings that she had missed out on the fact that valleys were not exalted in a day and mountains were not brought low overnight.  After her accident, and after losing her voice, and after losing herself… she knew the truth she had always known, but she somehow understood it more deeply – that in the midst of great loss and pain to the point of being incapacitated – at that time, and to those people would the glory of the Lord be revealed.

She had known the lyrics since she could read: “And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together – for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

And in that room, she finally knew the score.  All flesh shall see it together.  Don’t think that line was lost on Byrdie Finch, either.

And so for the rest of the Fall, Byrdie continued to spend time on her back porch.  Only now instead of knitting, she had her tablet out, and she was listening to, and then singing along with, some YouTube videos that featured the Alto parts for Handel’s Messiah.  She found that as her familiarity with the part grew, her voice sounded less grating.  She began to talk more, and even laugh. She read stories to her grandchildren again, and found that she was even looking forward to choir practice.

On the last Sunday of Advent that year, Byrdie Finch walked with the choir, as usual, to the front of the sanctuary.  And for the first time ever, she sat to the far rightof the chancel – where altos sit.

And after the plaintive wailing of the tenor, the crying in the wilderness, and the promise that literally moves heaven and earth, Byrdie sang out in an alto voice the words she had come to love.  And what the altos started, the choir finished – adriving chorus in ¾ time, written in A major with an Allegro tempo, announcing the coming glory of the Lord.

A few moments later, Byrdie took the congregation to new places with a solo they had never heard her sing before: “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, lift up thy voice with strength: lift it up, be not afraid: say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”

Because Byrdie knew.  She had lived through the exile, borne witness to the glory of the Lord, and knew that she could, without fear, lift up her voice with strength and even encourage others to do the same.

And you might think that is the end of this story, and it might be an appropriate place for me to stop.

Except for this: you see, Byrdie retired earlier this year. Like a lot of folks in their sixties, she thought that she’d find all sorts of things to do.  She read.  She puttered around the house.  She played with the grandkids.  And she loved all of those things.  But she wanted something else.  Something more.

So now she volunteers twice a week.  Byrdie Finch is a docent at the Aviary – one of those lovely people who greet you, who help you to learn something about a particular bird or perhaps locate a species if you’re in one of the large rooms.

You might be surprised to find a blind person guiding a bunch of birdwatchers. Some of them sure are – and others have no idea that she can’t actually see what she’s talking about.  Someone will say, “But where are the blue-bellied rollers?”, and Byrdie will listen, and then point in the direction of those gorgeous creatures.  Photos will be snapped, children amused, and tours will continue.

And every now and then someone will see her name tag and say something like, “Byrdie Finch eh?  Wow, you were born for this!”

“I don’t know whether I was born to do this or not,” is her standard reply.  “But I know that I can, and I will gladly do it today.”

After everything, Byrdie Finch has learned to find and to point others toward beauty and comfort.  She never dreamed she’d be singing alto or spotting birds, but in the midst of the valleys and the mountains the glory of the Lord was revealed to her and through her.  And after traveling through all the valleys and the mountains, Byrdie Finch learned a new song. My hunch is, so can you. So can we all.  Thanks be to God whose glory is revealed!  Amen.

Listen to the Glory of the Lord as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir…

[1] So this really is a thing: you can learn about it here: https://www.audubon.org/news/an-experiment-teach-sparrows-new-songs-proved-wild-success

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.

Uh-Oh

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.