Life Among the Philistines

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 5, we heard the story of his sojourn amongst the Philistines as found in I Samuel 27-30.  Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in Philippians 4:10-13.

 

When I was in high school, I looked up to a man who constantly belittled my friends who were not from the church. If I were to miss a church event in order to, say, attend a concert, he would invariably say something like, “So, the children of Israel are out consorting with the Philistines again, eh?”

For a long time, I thought he was just hopelessly behind the times. “Philistines? I never heard of those guys. No, I’m going to hear Blood, Sweat, and Tears.”

biblical_israel_and_philistiaPhilistia is the ancient name for a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Judean foothills. Today, we know that geography better by the Hebrew name, pelesheth, or Palestine. In modern usage, to call someone a Philistine is to imply that he is crude or unrefined and perhaps somewhat oafish – like the giant Goliath, perhaps. The Philistines that we meet in scripture are a group of people who descended from emigrants from one of the Mediterranean islands. They are known primarily for three things: 1) they are called “sea people” and are renowned as sailors; 2) they mastered the use of iron well before the nations around them, and the Israelites were forced to depend on Philistines for help sharpening their tools and weapons; and 3) they produced and consumed an amazing amount of beer. Although we sometimes hear the word as a disparagement, the reality is that in many ways, the Philistines were technically advanced in comparison to the Hebrews and the other cultures around them.

They were, however, the sworn enemies of Israel. In fact, for all of David’s life, the Philistines had been making things miserable for the Jews as they conducted raid after raid into Hebrew territory. In David’s time, any Israelite in his or her right mind sought to avoid the Philistines like the plague.

But there came a time, as you just heard, when David actually sought out the Philistines. Sick to death of the unjust persecution he was receiving from the hand of King Saul, David sneaks across the border into Philistia and applies for refugee status. He and his band of about 600 soldiers, along with their families, approach king Achish with a deal: “Look, your majesty,” David says, “we’ve been providing protection for folks in this area for a long time. We can help you out, too. You hate Saul; Saul hates me; why can’t we be friends? Can this be a win-win situation?”

Achish says “yes” and in fact gives David his own town, Ziklag, to use as a home base. For the next year and a half, David functions as a sort of double agent. He keeps assuring Achish that he is attacking Saul’s troops and positions within Israel, but in reality, he and his men are destroying communities that belong to the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. They are enriching themselves, raising their esteem among the Israelites in the border areas, and managing to avoid the armies of King Saul.

Now, listen to me: there is nothing savory or redemptive about this period of David’s life. He and his men are essentially free-lance mercenary soldiers on seek and destroy missions. David is acting as what scholar Walter Brueggemann describes as a “con man of the first order”. He is ruthless and cunning and calculating and cruel.

And it may be that David would say that he had no choice; if he hadn’t been being pursued by the maniacal king of Israel, he’d have been able to stay home and tend sheep. By all appearances, every single choice open to David at this juncture of the story is a bad choice. And so he lives on the edge for a while…

menofdavid…Until things went south in a hurry. David has made such an impression on Achish that the Philistine King announces to David that he and his men will be needed to take part in a surprise attack on King Saul and the Israeli army. David is in a jam, because he’s depending on Achish’s good will to preserve his life and property in Ziklag, but he’s sworn an oath not to lift a hand against King Saul. The apparent solution comes from an unexpected source: the other Philistine generals refuse to fight if David’s in the mix. They say that David is too faithful to Saul and to the Israelites; he can’t be trusted to work towards their defeat. David and his men return to Ziklag, thinking that they’ve dodged another bullet, but discover that something horrible has happened. Listen:

David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day. Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and everyone else in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off as they went on their way.

When David and his men reached Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured—Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.

Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelek, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?”

“Pursue them,” he answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.”

David and the six hundred men with him came to the Besor Valley, where some stayed behind. Two hundred of them were too exhausted to cross the valley, but David and the other four hundred continued the pursuit.

The Capture of Ziklag

The Capture of Ziklag

Things go from bad to worse for David in a hurry. He’s being hunted like a dog in his own country, so he crosses into enemy territory. He spends months earning the trust of his Philistine boss, knowing that at any time he could be discovered as a fraud and killed. He comes home from the day he almost had to choose between attacking his own countrymen or revealing the lie he’s been living for the past year, and when he makes it home, he discovers that everyone he loves has been kidnapped and his home is destroyed. If that’s not bad enough, his own men are finally angry enough at him that they’d like to knock his block off and some of them are talking about stoning David to death.

Have you ever had days like that?

Not only is nothing going right, but everything is going wrong. There are no good choices, and even the bad ones seem to be really, really bad. You’ve been trying your best, but everything you touch seems to turn to ash immediately. More than anything, you just want to go and pound on something or someone, but you have to be careful where to go because there is a growing line of people who are apparently eager to pound on you. Your only choices seem to be crash or burn. You don’t eve have the strength to cry any more.

I know you’ve had days like that; some of you have had weeks, months, or even years like that.

What do you do?

You may have noticed that our scripture readings for today skipped a few chapters of I Samuel. I did that because we’re primarily following David, but it might be helpful to note that I Samuel 28 records a day when King Saul was feeling that way. He was so down that in clear violation of Jewish law, he went to talk to a witch about his problems. The fact that the ruling king of Israel felt the need to do this reveals his isolation, fear, frustration, and spiritual bankruptcy at what’s going on in his life and his kingdom. To make matters worse, the witch informs him that not only is he going to die, but the dreaded Philistines are going to defeat the Israelite army. At the end of that episode, the once-proud, formerly gifted, powerful King Saul is left cringing and crying in the arms of this sorceress. In other words, Saul is simply unable to do anything that will reverse his fortune.

As he views the devastation of Ziklag, considers the abduction of his family, and comes face-to-face with his failure to live with integrity, David must feel the same way. Nothing has gone right.

And yet, somehow, David makes a different choice than did Saul. The best words in this part of the story come from David’s lips as he cries out, “Bring me the ephod!”

Do you remember back in chapters 21 and 22, when David went to get some help from the priests at the temple in Nob, and Saul was so irritated at the men of God for helping David that he wiped out 85 priests in a single day? There was only one man from a priestly family who escaped that day – a young man named Abiathar who fled to David for protection and came to serve as his spiritual mentor and advisor. And he brought along the ephod – the prayer tool used by the priests.

In his time of deep anguish, confusion, anger, and pain, David now says something that he hasn’t said in months: “Bring me the ephod!”

Whereas Saul, on the darkest of days, turned to a witch and sought answers in the powers of sorcery and evil, David sought the wisdom and strength of God even when he had no right to think it would accomplish anything.

Could David have turned to prayer sooner? Should he have? Where had Abiathar been for the past sixteen months? Was part of the problem that David was too in love with his perception of himself as a swashbuckling renegade? Was he so fascinated with his identity as a double-agent, or overconfident in his ability to strong-arm or sweet-talk his way through any problem?

Probably.

Could David have done things differently in the days leading up to this, the worst of them?

Of course he could have. But on all of those days, he didn’t call on God.

Today, he does.

When he is pressed between the armies of Saul on one side and Achish on the other while looking at the devastation of the Amalekites all around him, David sought to keep himself together by calling on the name of the Lord.

What will you do in the midst of your toughest trial? When you are squeezed flatter than a dime, beaten up, worn down, and pushed around… what will you do?

You can join with David and cry for the ephod. You can look to God for guidance and presence.

And I suspect that some of you now may be remembering that there was a New Testament verse read this morning, and you might think that this is where Pastor Dave pulls the golden cord and Philippians 4:13 comes raining down on our heads.

Having a tough day? Has your best friend’s dad tried to kill you, your boss threaten you, and your neighbors come in and kidnap your family while destroying your house? Just remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…”

Have you heard that verse before? Have you ever thought, “What a load of hooey?”

I’m here to tell you that the way many Christians interpret it, it is a load of hooey.

Celebrity megapastor Joel Osteen, for instance, wrote this in his online devotional:

When was the last time you declared “I can” out loud? It’s not something people think to do every day. In fact, most people tend to magnify their limitations. They focus on their shortcomings. But scripture makes it plain: all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle. It is possible to climb to new heights. It is possible to embrace your destiny. You may not know how it will all take place. You may not have a plan, but all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can![1]

Star athletes show up for games with this verse emblazoned on their bodies or uniforms…as if chanting this phrase will stop the interception or get me the game ball… as if that’s the most important thing…

Do you think that’s what Paul’s getting at here? Do you think that it didn’t occur to David to just “name it and claim it” and grasp the victory and go home as king?

Paul didn’t write this note to the church in Philippi in order to motivate them to go out and beat the world; no, he wrote these words about finding contentment and hope in any situation so that they could have the courage to continue to walk through the tough places while the world was beating on them.

I’m not here to tell you that you are any different than David or Paul; you will face tough times, you will encounter difficult decisions, and some days the only choices you have will be horrible ones.   You will sense pain, or isolation, or frustration. That is not optional – it is the existence that we have been given in this, our life among the Philistines.

But which direction will that pain, isolation, or frustration send you? How will you respond to it?

Thank God for the ephod. Thank God for the encouragement and hope we can find when surrounded by even the most hideous of circumstances. Thank God that the story is not finished yet. Thank God that God has not left us, and promises not to leave us where we are now. Amen.

[1] “Today’s Word With Joel Osteen”, 1/21/2013 http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/2980275/posts

But…How???

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 1, we sat with Jesus as he revisited the topic of prayer in the Sermon.  Our readings included Matthew 7:7-12 as well as Paul’s discussion on “the law of love” in Romans 13:8-10.  A highlight of our worship was the confirmation of seven young people and the baptism of an eighth.  

 

How does prayer work?

I mean, what do you pray for? And how do you get it?

MoneyPrayerSome folks are pretty up front about what they think ought to occupy our prayer time. Joel Osteen writes in his best-selling book, “God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity.”[1]

When Gloria Copeland was preaching to an audience in Texas, she said, “God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you.”   Televangelist Jerry Savelle told the same crowd, “While everybody else is having a famine his covenant people will be having the best of times.”[2]

Comedian Emo Philips has a different theology. He said, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”[3]

Again I’ll ask, how does prayer work? And what in the world are we supposed to make of this next section in the Sermon on the Mount? If we take these verses at face value without paying attention to the context, they sure sound like God is in a hurry to give out all kinds of great stuff – like prayer is a sort of a religious home shopping network. If you’re poor, hungry, or sick, it seems, it must be your own fault. Why didn’t you ask, seek, or knock? What’s wrong with you? Not enough faith?

I’ve known too many people who were poor, hungry, and sick whose faith put mine to shame… so I’m going to suggest that we take a look at the passage in its context and see what’s really going on here.

Sermon_505_396In the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount, we are given a long list of seemingly impossible behaviors to master. Jesus tells his followers to let go of anger, to treat the vulnerable with respect and honor, to love the enemy, and to give generously to those who are in need, among other things. The sermon is verse after verse, point after point of what appear to be impossibly high standards.

By this point in the sermon, the disciples must have felt like throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Seriously? Come on, Jesus, how are we supposed to live like that? This is hard!”

After Jesus gives this string of amazingly high expectations, he returns to the topic of prayer. My sense is that Jesus is not urging his followers to pray for more stuff in these verses, but rather he is answering their eye-rolling, “how-in-the-world-are-we-gonna-do-this” questioning by saying, “If you’re going to be a follower of mine, and do the kinds of things that I do, you’re going to have to pray. A lot.”

One of my pet peeves is when people treat prayer as an add-on, a bit of wishful thinking, an insignificant verbal exercise that doesn’t really accomplish much. There has been more than one occasion, for instance, when I’ve been in the hospital praying with someone and a physician barges into the room interrupting me by saying, “All right, good, good, good, but we’ve got to get a move on, Pastor. We’ve got important things to do here.” You know, as if communication with the Lord of heaven and earth was a momentary distraction…

Many of you in this room have casually mentioned to me, “Hey, Dave, if you think of it, say a little prayer for…” And if you’ve done that, you know that my typical response is that I don’t waste my breath or my time on “little” prayers. Prayer is about reshaping me for God’s purposes in the world, and about equipping you and others to be agents of God’s presence and activity in that world. There’s nothing little about that.

And when I read these verses in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs his followers to ask, seek, and knock in response to the enormity of the task that he has laid before them, well, I think that Jesus has my back. Prayer is not “little”.

I’d like you to note the escalation of a sense of urgency in the words that Jesus chooses to use. Let’s say that you’re a fourteen year-old boy outside working in the yard, and you discover that you need something that your mother can provide. The windows are open, and what do you do?

You call to her. “Mom!”, you say. “Mom!” And you name the thing that you need. In other words, you ask.

After a moment, however, you notice that nothing has changed. She has not heard you, apparently. Your need is unmet. And so you stop doing whatever important thing it is that you are doing and you walk inside the house. In other words, you seek. Your “asking” has now taken on a little more energy and concentration, hasn’t it? You may still be wailing “Mom!” (OK, let’s be honest, if you’re a typical fourteen year-old boy, you haven’t stopped shouting…), but now you’ve put legs to your questioning, haven’t you? And you’ve changed the ways that you’re interacting with the rest of the world as you do so.

But as you wander through the house, still asking, now seeking, you don’t find your mother. You still need whatever it is that you needed, and so you put a little more of yourself into this exercise and you climb upstairs, where you see her bedroom door is closed. And what do you do? You knock. And in knocking, now, the equation is changed slightly because you’ve got to shut up for a moment and listen. Your level of expectancy changes as you wait to see how you will be answered.

OK, I know that no analogy is perfect, and most of you are not fourteen year-old boys and your mother isn’t God. But do you see what I mean about this progression or escalation? When we are faced with something as difficult as living up to the standards described in the Sermon on the Mount, our only response is to be diligent and motivated in our discipleship and prayer.

I want to be honest: if we had to engage in this level of activity or intensity at a restaurant, we’d never go to that place again. In the restaurant, the customer is always right and the wait-staff and kitchen help are at the beck and call.

But in the life of discipleship, it’s not all about you. It’s about you becoming the person that God made you to be so that the people around you will not be blown away by your anger, violated by your lust, dehumanized by your dishonesty, or marginalized by your selfishness. The Sermon on the Mount and the life of discipleship, with all apologies to Pastors Osteen, Copeland, and Savelle, is not a means by which to make us fatter, happier, richer, or better-looking.

Jesus calls his disciples, and the Spirit God is asking you, to live as Jesus does. To model the lifestyle we see in scripture. So this passage about prayer is not about you getting more shiny stuff, as cool as that sounds. It’s a strategy for you to use as you begin to look, act, and think more like Jesus each day.

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell, 1961

And then to sum it up, Jesus gives us the headline – the Golden Rule, or as the Apostle Paul put it, the “law of love”. The result of our asking, seeking, and knocking should be that we are better able to respond to situations as Jesus would; that we are more apt to hear with his ears and to share from his heart.

How does this look in real life? Well, here are some ways I’ve seen it active in our community.

The “Law of love” looks like a six or eight year old who says to her parents, “You know, I’m pretty sure that I have enough stuff. Can we plan a birthday party where people come to have fun, but instead of giving me more toys, they bring things for us to take to the animal shelter or money we can use to help hungry people in Africa?”

It looks like an eighteen year-old man who goes out of his way to encourage and walk with some of his classmates who are physically or mentally challenged so that they have the opportunity to experience life in fullness and joy.

When a teacher donates some of her sick days to a colleague who requires surgery, yet has already exhausted his own benefits, it looks like love in action. He is able to care for his own family while fighting cancer, and has one less thing to worry about because someone has responded with Christ-like generosity.

Look, the way of life to which Jesus calls his followers is difficult, if not downright impossible at times. If we are going to be successful in our attempts to follow him, we’ve got to lean into God. We’ve got to be hungry for what only he can offer, and we’ve got to stick together.

I’d like to offer my deep and sincere congratulations to the young people who are making their confirmation today. You all are ready to begin the next phase of your discipleship. I know, I know, you have completed the Confirmation Class, but you need to remember that you are just getting started in so many ways. You probably know that in other places around Pittsburgh today they’re running the marathon. You probably also know that nobody got out of bed this morning and said, “You know what? I’ve got nothing better going on today. Maybe I’ll head on into town and get in on that race.” No, the marathon takes a lot of preparation and a long time to complete.

It’s the same with our lives of discipleship. Making your confirmation is great. It’s moving ahead with the journey that many of you began at a baptism you can’t remember. But being a Christian is not about just showing up and saying, “OK, I’m here, I’ve got this”. It’s about training and running the course and getting stronger; it’s about learning something more about the Jesus way every day; like the marathon, it requires growing, stretching, and even a little aching.

When we do it right, the world looks more the way God intends it to look. Welcome, confirmands. We are glad that you are with us. We need you and the gifts you bring as we share this journey.

I’ll close this sermon with a benediction I’ve used from time to time. My wife really likes it, and I think it fits for this morning – for the young new members and for everyone else who’s on the journey.

The way is long, let us go together.

The way is difficult, let us help each other.

The way is joyful, let us share it.

The way is Christ’s, for Christ is the Way, let us follow.

The way is open before us, let us go:

with the love of God,

the grace of Christ, and

the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner, 2004), p. 5.

[2] “Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich”, The New York Times August 16, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/us/16gospel.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/emophilips128947.html

Well, Hey, There… Handsome…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 31, we considered the implications of Jesus’ assumption that his followers will engage in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, as rooted in the portion of that message contained in Matthew 6:19-24.  The call to discipline was echoed in James 1:22-27.

 

FlirtYou’ve seen it a million times. A man. A woman. They eye each other from across the room. Is something happening? Could there be a spark? Some excitement?

Hair is flipped. Legs or arms are folded or not. Eyebrows are raised, and heads tilted.

Laughter and … “Oh, hello, there, handsome…” “Who, me? Handsome, well, I don’t really know about that…”

Conversation. Innuendo. Risk. Suggestion.

Flirting. I’ve been working with adolescents for almost 40 years. I usually recognize it when I see it.

On the one hand, there is a certain helpfulness and utility to flirting. Somehow, in order for the species to survive, we need to establish interest in one another. The ability to “catch someone’s eye” is useful in determining whether there is a possibility of a real relationship with another person.

But when the flirt goes on too long, it can become counterproductive, if not downright dangerous. Signals are mixed. It can lead to harm – emotional, spiritual, and physical.

But we all know people who are really good at it, don’t we? People who seem to enjoy using a system of signals and actions that are designed to confuse, or toy with, or manipulate others. In fact, the two top definitions of “flirt” in Google’s dictionary are:

behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.

 experiment with or show a superficial interest in (an idea, activity, or movement) without committing oneself to it seriously.

Again, most of us have flirted in relationships at some time in the past. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are, relationally. But sooner or later, most of us stop flirting and dive in.

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

Christ Healing a Leper, Rembrandt (1650-55)

In the Gospel of Matthew, we hear of the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth. We are told of how he comes to adulthood in the shadow of his more prominent cousin, whom we know as John the Baptist. He comes to engage his community and the world by launching a ministry of teaching and healing. In so doing, Jesus catches the world’s eye – and he caught the eye of those who would become his first followers. There’s a miracle over here, or a profound message over there, and the social media is buzzing… “Hey, check this guy out…”

And then we get to Matthew chapter five and begin to hear the teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Here is a definitive pronouncement that we are not called to be primarily those who flirt with either God or the world.

The Sermon contains, as we have heard, a description of living the Jesus way – as peacemakers, or those who are poor in spirit, pure in heart, and so on. Living the Jesus way, apparently, means developing an awareness of the power that anger, lust, deceit, selfishness, or hatred can have in one’s life. The Sermon on the Mount, with its call to a life of integrity and intentionality, is not for the faint of heart. And I can picture Jesus eyeing his followers and saying, “Look, if you are here only because you liked the healings or the miracles, then you’d better keep walking, because the life of discipleship is intense. There is no room for flirting.”

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

Palestine: Sermon on the Mount, Vasily Polenov (1900)

And because the life to which Jesus calls his followers is so all-encompassing, he gives them three practices with which to engage their world and their Lord: generous giving, faithful prayer, and sincere fasting. These are behaviors, says Jesus, that will equip us to adopt this kind of lifestyle.

If we want to live lives that are reflective of God’s intentions for us as expressed in chapter 5, then we’ve got to be good at giving, praying, and fasting – because these are the disciplines that will mold us into faithful followers of Jesus.

We picked up this morning where we left off last week, in the middle of chapter 6. After giving his followers the mindset and behaviors that will allow us to live more like he does, he explores the danger of relying too much on what we have as we seek to define who we are. Material goods and money, he says, are to be used, rather than collected.

He takes an example from Middle Eastern culture. Judaism, Islam, and other traditions from that area all hold to some form of belief that if we look at the world around us or at each other with a malicious glare – what we might call today a “stink eye” – that we will wind up with harsh, judgmental, or miserly spirits. The opposite of an “evil eye” is the “simple eye” or the “single eye”, one that denotes an attitude of good will or kindness. If we have an eye that is trained in this fashion, Jesus says, we are more likely to be able to live by the light of God’s presence in the world.

Our reading for today concludes with the familiar passage in verse 24 about serving God and mammon. When Jesus uses this word, he was apparently using a word that, in his time, simply referred to money, although in the years after his death and resurrection, mammon came to represent a personification of the evil and idolatrous aspects of materialism and greed that seek to control us. Key to any understanding of this teaching of Jesus is his use of the word “serve”, as in the phrase, “you cannot serve God and mammon.” In choosing this vocabulary, Jesus is presuming the captivity of the human heart and spirit. Each of us will fall in line behind and serve something or someone. That is not in question. The question is, what will it be? Ourselves? Our own beaty or wisdom or fear or riches or worry? Our insecurities? Or God? We all live for something or someone, and we are all willing to direct our energies toward that thing or person. The question is not “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?”

If we allow ourselves to think that being a disciple is a part time hobby, then we miss the boat. God created us for, and expects from us, singularity of purpose and faithfulness.

In this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his followers to adopt patterns of behavior that will transform us into the kinds of people that God intends us to be. That exortation is echoed in the letter from James, who reminds us that it’s not enough to simply hear the Word, we’ve got to internalize it and practice it. The way that we exercise our ability to choose to serve God rather than mammon or some other idol is to engage in behaviors like giving, prayer, and fasting.

I had a fascinating conversation earlier this week with someone who is unable to worship here, but who faithfully reads the sermons online each week. He said to me, “Dave, I think you had a good, strong message about fasting last week, but to be honest, I wish you would have gone a little harder. You didn’t leave me wanting to fast. I’m not sure it sounded all that attractive.”

Listen: I don’t really want you to be a person who just loves fasting, or is proud of the fact that you prayed an extra thirty seconds yesterday, or that you bought the homeless guy a sandwich. I mean, those are good things – but they’re not the point. The point is that I want you to be a person who is like Jesus. Fasting and praying and giving are all merely exercises that allow us to get to be that way – they are not ends in themselves. I am happy to teach you more about doing any of those things – but not because they are somehow super attractive to us.

I get piles of advertising material for youth and children’s curriculum and retreat centers and special events. I wish I had a nickel for every time I read the words “awesome” or “dynamic” or “intense” or “thrilling” in the context of advertisement for church youth events. I hate it.

Maybe you should come to the CHUP youth group some time. Those words are not always the fairest way to describe what we do or how we do it. Sometimes, youth group is boring. Sometimes, we play games that bomb. Often, we sing songs that are corny. There are lots of nights where youth group isn’t “awesome” or “thrilling”.

Even if you’ve never been to the CHUP youth group, you probably believe me when I say that, because, well, lots of you have been bored to tears in this very room. You’ve been irritated by other people’s children and frustrated at having to endure songs that you didn’t get to select. And don’t even get me started on how hard these pews are, how cold it is in February or how hot it is in July.

And yet, here you are. Why?

Because none of that is why you are here. As a kid, when your mom dies or your parents divorce or a classmate overdoses, you’re not looking for “awesome” or “intense” when you come to youth group. And when the rest of you get a call about your plant shutting down or have high hopes for your kids that are dashed or get that horrible call from the doctor’s office or have to come up with a framework to think about racism or ethnic violence, well, the songs that we sing here or the noise that those kids make suddenly look a lot less important than the destination of faithful living to which we are traveling together.

You know this: we are not here to be entertained (and that’s a good thing for you, Carver!).

We are here because we think that this is the best place to be molded, reminded, nagged, prompted, prodded, or encouraged into following Jesus a little longer or a little better.

And you know this: that sometimes following Jesus can look a lot like a slow, boring advance in righteousness.

And that’s OK.

Jesus is not here to flirt with us, and he doesn’t have much time for people who are merely looking to be coy with him. Jesus came in order to give all of himself for all of creation in the expectation that we would do the same for him, for each other, and for our neighbor.

We praise God for the times that the life of discipleship is “awesome”!

More importantly, we praise God for the process of discipleship that equips us to do hard things, to grow fruit in each season, and to hear and act on what we have heard. May our lives this week be an opportunity to exercise our faith in the hopes that we look and act a little more like Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Working Out

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 3 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, notably prayer, as found in Matthew 6:5-8.  We also considered Peter’s words to his community as found in 2 Peter 1:3-11.  

 

MorningPrayerPeter, James, and John, like Andrew and Philip and Jesus himself, got up every morning and entered into a time of prayer known as the shacharit. That word means “morning light”, and just as their fathers and grandfathers had done, they welcomed each day with a time of prayer. Each afternoon, they and other faithful Jews would find time to pause for the mincha, or mid-day prayers; and at day’s end the maariv would be said – the prayer of nightfall.

These prayers, proscribed in the Talmud, had been a part of Israel’s history for centuries. So when Rabbi Jesus begins his sentence in the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “when you pray…”, His followers know something of which he is speaking. For these disciples, prayer is not “if” or “should”, but “when”. Prayer happens. And in this teaching, Jesus is apparently not only instructing them as to how to pray, but indicating that his expectation is that even in the new age that is revealed by his coming amongst us, prayer belongs. There is nothing about the incarnation that changes the need for God’s people to pour themselves out to the Lord in prayer.

So when we pray…what is supposed to happen? What does prayer look like for a follower of Jesus?

Praying-Hands-over-BiblePrayer is personal. That is to say, it is not a performance. Jesus cautions his disciples against the practices of the “hypocrites” – people who pray in order to be seen by other people. The Greek word hypokritēs originally referred to actors on the stage – people who read lines that were not their own in order to be seen and heard by an audience. Jesus is saying that our practice of prayer is not for the benefit of any earthly audience, but rather an attempt to communicate with the One who created us.

I say that with the full realization that I am skating on some pretty thin ice here. If you take a look at the bulletin you have in your lap, you’ll see that in twenty minutes (if you’re lucky), we’ll enter into the “Prayers of the People”. That’s when you’ll all be quiet and I’ll speak. If we’re not careful, we may find ourselves tempted towards hypocrisy, wherein I’m up here talking, not to the Lord, but to you – or, even worse, to myself.

There is room for public prayer – provided that we realize and remember that we’re talking corporately with the Lord, and not merely about God. One analogy that I have for public prayer is when both Sharon and I are talking on the computer with our granddaughter. We’re both here, and only one of us is talking – but the purpose of the talk is to communicate with the one on the other end of the line – not for me to impress my wife with what a fantastic grandfather I am.

And public prayer is not limited to our Sunday worship, is it? When we type “Amen” on those Facebook posts, or send out a tweet indicating that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims…”, are we really engaged in prayer? Or are we wanting to be seen and noticed as being the kinds of people who might engage in prayer? It’s not wrong to do these things – but we need to ask why we are doing them.

According to Matthew, Jesus uses a word here that is found nowhere else in the Bible, and, so far as we can tell, nowhere else in ancient literature. He talks in verse 7 about heaping up empty phrases, and he uses the word battalogeo. Because nobody can find this word anywhere else, its meaning is uncertain. You may recognize the end of that word as logeo, related to logos, meaning “word” or “study.” The Greek word battalizo means “to stutter”, and most translators believe that Jesus is saying that prayer is not about making up words just because they sound good, but rather, prayer is about communicating with our Creator. We don’t pray to hear ourselves speak anymore than we pray to be heard by others.

Not only is prayer personal, but it is to be done with the intention of pleasing God. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that people who get caught up listening to their own prayers will find that they themselves are the answer to their prayers – we aren’t really interested in taking the time to wait for God to listen to us, so we listen to ourselves and then move along…[1]

In prayer, we are invited to bring ourselves alongside of God in order that God might help us to experience life on God’s terms, and so that we might come to see things from the perspective of the Eternal, rather than our own lives.

For example, a few weeks ago a friend of mine asked if we could go fishing together. My friend knew that fishing was something that brought me great joy, and she recognized that fishing is something that I know something about. In asking, she indicated a willingness to fit the trip into my schedule; as we went, she followed my footsteps and my actions, and was very teachable. While she asked a lot of questions, she also did a lot of watching and a lot of listening – all in the hopes that this mystery called “fishing” would be more understandable to her, and that, perhaps, we might even be rewarded with the joy of a shared meal and fellowship of the table. Do you see what I mean? My friend brought up the idea of fishing to me in a way that demonstrated respect, love, and hope.

Now, contrast that friend with another, who called and said, “Listen, Pastor Dave, I’m in charge of the bake sale next week, and I need you to get me two pies by Friday.”

I like pies as much, or more, as I like fishing. There’s joy to be had – but the second friend was not interested in relationship or any kind of involvement – for friend #2, the request was simply a means to an end: fill the table at the bake sale and have a good fundraiser.

Please understand that there’s nothing wrong with asking a friend for a favor or running fundraisers. But the first conversation was more like prayer ought to be. The second conversation was based on utility and transaction, not on intimacy and shared life experience. Like the best of friendships, prayer is not a way for us to get stuff, or to get stuff done.

Prayer, at its best, is a way to open ourselves to the Lord in a way that is pleasing to him. It is an acknowledgement that he knows us better than we know ourselves, and therefore we approach God with a mind to getting ourselves to where he is, rather than demanding that he show up and do what we need him to do right now.

And along those lines, then, prayer is not only personal and pleasing to God, it prepares us for faithful living. That is to say, when I rise to offer prayer to God, the primary purpose is not to alert the almighty to something that may have otherwise escaped his notice.

“Lord, there are people starving to death in Africa right now…”

“WHAT?!?!? Why wasn’t I informed? I mean, I’m over here worried about finding you a parking place yesterday and taking care of the Powerball, and now you tell me people are hungry?”

“Lord, my mother has cancer…”

“Cancer? Holy moly! Last I knew she was headed for a screening. When did this happen?”

Do you see? If what we say is true – that is, if God really is all-powerful and all-knowing – then we can’t pretend that the purpose of prayer is to make sure that God gets the news about the latest natural disaster or health report.

So if prayer is not meant to catch God up on all the news, what’s it good for?

What if the purpose of prayer is to train us as people who are useful as we seek to join God in bringing about God’s intentions for the world? I think that is what Peter is getting at in the letter to his friends that you heard earlier. He offers a list of practices: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, patience, service, kindness, and love. These are the means, says Peter, by which God’s people connect with God and become blessings to the world. But this list is not a vague set of notions – it’s a concrete set of attributes that are found in the heart of God. And the way we become people like that is by working out.

IMG_1041This is a set of steps that comes from one of the exercise groups that meets at the church. People are concerned about being fit and healthy, and they want to strengthen their heart and other muscles. So they come in here and they follow some steps and work together find that it makes a difference in their lives. If I tried to do these steps at the pace the class does them, I’d die – because I’m not training myself. For the folks in the group, though, it’s attainable because exercise is about doing a number of things that they know how to do in a way that increases the likelihood of their being healthy people.

A Prayer for Those At Sea, Frederick Daniel Hardy, 1879

A Prayer for Those At Sea, Frederick Daniel Hardy, 1879

Similarly, prayer is given in order that we might grow in our ability to become pliable and useful in knowing God’s heart and therefore in living God’s intentions in the world.

We don’t pray about hungry people to make sure that God doesn’t forget them… when we pray about hungry people, sooner or later we find ourselves caring enough about their hunger to want to raise money, or to encourage them, or to change the structure in our world so that hunger is satisfied.

When we do it right, we find that praying for a church that is healthy and strong and engaged and ready to demonstrate the love of God to the world might just lead us to a place where we say “yes” when someone in the congregation invites us to join in a ministry that shapes a world that is more reflective of God’s intentions for it.

When we read Jesus’ cautions about how not to pray, there is a sense of fear that might be present – how can I pray out loud when Jesus warns us against that? What if I am piling up phrases? What if I screw up my prayers? I know – most of you really don’t like praying out loud because you don’t want to make a mistake.

We’ll talk more about how we can pray next week. For this week, I’d like to close with an encouragement to not get too hung up on it. My sense is that if you ask questions about how we ought to pray, then your heart is moving in the right direction.

Again, to quote Bonhoeffer:

In the last resort it is immaterial whether we pray in the open street or in the secrecy of our chambers, whether briefly or lengthily, in the Litany of the Church, or with the sigh of one who knows not what he should pray for. True prayer does not depend either on the individual or the whole body of the faithful, but solely on the knowledge that our heavenly Father knows our needs. That makes God the sole object of our prayers, and frees us from a false confidence in our own prayerful efforts.[2]

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (1963 Macmillan paperback, p. 182).

[2] The Cost of Discipleship (1963 Macmillan paperback, p. 183).

His Name is “Jealous”

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

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

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

gun-safety

Sometimes, it’s frightening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Malawi 2015 #7

SSclappingSarahToday our team learns of one of the realities of partnership as well as conflict. One of our members, our sister Sarah from South Sudan, will have to cut her participation in this journey short and return to South Sudan today. The reason for her departure is that she needs to attend a memorial service for a dear cousin (“more like a brother”). This young man was amongst the thousands of people who “disappeared” during the earliest days of the conflict that began in December 2013. Her family has finally decided that to move forward in their journey towards peace and wholeness, they need to accept the fact that he is gone and punctuate that with a service.

As you can imagine, prayers for Sarah and her family are appreciated; pray also for her disappointed Malawian hosts, and, most of all, for peace to come so that there will be no more “disappearances” in any of our homes.

Most of our team learned of Sarah’s loss at an amazingly informative briefing that the South Sudan delegates led for our team yesterday morning at the lake. We spent well over an hour getting some of the history and context for South Sudan and Sarah’s family’s experience made the horror of the conflict all the more immediate. Gregg Hartung was able to video record the entire presentation and we look forward to making that available to anyone who is interested in the months to come.