Prayer Together

01.10.21 adapted from the prayer of Thomas à Kempis.

Grant to us, O Lord,
to know that which is worth knowing,
to love that which is worth loving,
to praise whatever pleases you most,
to esteem whatever is most precious to you,
and to dislike whatever is evil in your eyes.
Do not let us judge merely by what we see with our eyes,
nor to decide based on what we hear from ignorant men,
but to discern with true judgment between things visible and spiritual, and above all to search out and to do what is well pleasing to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Amen.

Underwater

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had, for centuries, failed to listen to God, a people who had turned from God, a people who had continued to listen to voices that did not belong to God. In doing all of this, in passively rejecting God, they had hardened themselves to the very voice of God. They genuinely began to believe the lies and deceit they had surrendered to, and in the process they had sold their passions to the false promises of political and religious agendas – agendas that were hostile to God’s creation and the humans God had created.  Compassion and mercy were eagerly traded for promises of economic gain, national security, personal homogenous comfort, and a reality that was never real at all but instead a selfish fantasy. 

Now, however, God was telling the prophet that the people had suffered enough – enough to realize their horrible turns and the damage of of their choices. Now, the fullness of time had arrived, the people were ready to receive hope, ready to search for truth, ready to do the actual the work of comfort, willing to make the sacrifice needed for redemption.

If you really think about it you cannot help but come to the conclusion that it is an outrageous pattern, it is an absurd plan this plan of God. God, the one rejected by the people, in the end, is God, the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the people.

Actually it is not really that odd, it should probably be one of the most understandable things of God. After all it is what a parent does, we as humans have the natural tendency, in this one area, to act with the same automatic sacrifice as the creator.  It is our gut instinct to chase after the wayward child, to make every sacrifice possible in order to ransom back the rebellious beloved, we shed tears, we empty our bank account, we beg, we borrow, we do and do until we can do no more.  Our critics, the ‘experts’ on the outside say ‘do no more’, ‘you’ve done enough’, ‘you are just enabling them’, ‘walk away’, ‘wash your hands and live your life.’  But a response of walking away is impossible to fully do, it is a response that is doomed to failure because it is not a natural response to our very real struggles with the mercy and compassion of the breath that God breathed into us at creation. A breath that we have long disregarded but still often we find ourself longing – longing for the freshness of that air, that sense of relief as we breath it in after holding it in while we find ourself under water. 

It makes sense that the one area we naturally act like God is the one area we personally can identify with the compassionate response of God. God has shown mercy, kindness, and love towards us, it is natural with God, it is automatic.  Even though we struggle receiving it, it is our natural response as well.

God looks at his own creation, and those he created, with the same passion we look at our created.  To walk away, to wash his hands, is no more natural to God than it is to us.  God lives with limitations just as we do, God is still restricted by the choice he gave to humans. Eventually, everything we do is restricted by the choice of the one we seek to rescue.

Isaiah explains this to a people who are finally ready to hear, who are finally ready to receive, 

‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint, he does not grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’

Isaiah 40:28-31

It is then, when time is ready, when time is complete, when time is full, when we are ready to see and to hear and to receive, it is in that moment that God acts.  God defeats the Babylonians and sends the exiled home, God opens the heavens, he tears them apart, so that, at this perfect time, he can send a messenger to tell us,  ‘Look, there it is! There is the Hope that you are now ready to see! Look!! Grab ahold of it! It has been there all along but now the time is here! Now your eyes and your ears are open and ready to receive.’

God opens up the heavens, he lets us see the evil around us that we have somehow not seen, he startles us awake, he shakes us to the core – 

‘look you have not seen this before – let me wash away the very things that are causing your blindness, let me wipe your eyes clean, here step into and even under this water so I can lift you up clean!’

God opens the gates of Jerusalem, he permits the Persians to defeat the Babylonians, he lets the evil shatter the windows of our sacred buildings – all to wake us up, to pull us out of our complacency, to turn us back to him.  And then the messenger says, 

‘It is time, time to admit that your eyes have been closed, it is time to see truth and to turn back to God.’

‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’

Isaiah 40:3

In the wilderness, why does it have to be in the wilderness? Why? The wilderness is messy and it takes time to get there….you can’t sit down, you can hear very well, there is no coffee, and some of the people that do to ‘wilderness’ things are not the people we need to be rubbing elbows with! 

And why does it have to be a ‘messenger’? Messengers like Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptizer, and their ilk, their clothes are repulsive and their smell is even worse, their diet is ridiculous, and their message is intrusive and unfair. Really, for this we leave our buildings, for this we walk out of our city?

And yet, people went. They went out to the wilderness, they went out to the messenger, they went into the water, they went under.  It was filthy water before they ever stepped into it, and, after all the crowds descended into it – the water was a true health hazard.  Every possible filth from every possible filthy human being had been washed into the water, it was now just waiting to stick to the next victim.

Into this, Jesus stepped.  He didn’t just dip a toe, but he fully immersed himself, he was all in – feet, hands, face, hair, nothing was left dry, no part of his body was spared the disgusting impact of humanness and the human condition. 

And then, oh, and then, what happened revealed everything. It was a game changer, it was radical and it was revolutionary. The water liberally covered his body, it creeped onto every inch of his flesh.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, you are the Beloved;’ and God sighed just before saying, ‘with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:10-11

‘The heavens torn apart!’ God had broken through, God was set loose. Now, at the edges, there was God, now in the filth of humanity, God was there, now with us, God is here. God was no longer confined in a building, or by an institution, or a political party, or by a government,  God is here, God is there, God is present!

God was loosed.  Loosed. It was the first greek word we learned in seminary greek. loo’-o.  To deliver, to unbind, to free, to dissolve, to release.  It is a verb, is is an extreme action word, it is a ‘do’ or ‘doing’ word, it takes a deliberate effort, it takes action, it is not magical or automatic, it is not without expense or sacrifice, it comes with a steep cost. It takes something being torn apart, it takes a radical work that is beyond our human ability.  It takes stepping down into, and under, the filthy water of humanity and taking on that very filth.

And, here is the thing, when Jesus came out of the murky, filthy water,  the water was clean.  It surely still looked a mess, but now all the filth that had been floating around had now clung to Jesus. So now, those who stepped into the water after were stepping into water that could truly cleanse on all levels.  

To those of Jewish heritage, baptism held a very real, and needed purpose, to cleanse.  It was truly to clean off all that was unclean.  It was an early attempt to arrive at a level of hygienic safety removing all the contaminants that should inflict and harm. Now, this water, post Jesus, was truly able to serve in that fashion but now on a higher level. Now this water was able to remove away the contaminants of the soul.  Jesus took all of the filth on himself as he arose out of the water and would carry this filth with him to the cross.

This is why Priscilla and Aquila asked an enthusiastic believer named Apollos ‘which water were you baptized in?’ It is what Paul asked the believers ‘were you baptized in John’s water or in Jesus’ water?’ See the water made a difference – not the literal water, that water was much too shallow to hold all the filth it could not fully do the work of ultimate cleansing. It was just a water that got you ready for the true cleansing water, the water that would refine your focus so you can see. That water was much more than a physical element, it was forever.  ‘Was it the water where you left everything that would keep you from seeing Jesus, or was it the water that had been cleansed by Jesus?  It was important to differentiate – it was essential for Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, Apollos and for us to identify the water.

And we cannot miss the voice, may we never miss the voice, may we too come up out of the water and hear that voice.  A heavenly voice that has torn through and been loosed in our life. A voice that we can only hear when we go under and allow the cleansing water to wash away the gunk from our eyes and our ears, loosing us up see the presence and to hear the voice of God.  It is not a one time literal baptism but a continuous eternal Jesus water to which we can hear the ‘well pleased’ words of the Father, in which we can see the ‘step out’ guidance of the Spirit, to which we can recognize the ‘it is done’ promise from the Son. We are talking about the waters that have been created, cleansed, and offered to us by God. The waters which have ransomed and redeemed us, a work that we were, and are, unable to do for ourself.  Waters that have revealed the patience, love, mercy, compassion, hope, joy, and presence of God.

A little over a year ago I stood elbow to elbow with people who had come to understand that knowing their waters could mean life or death.  Folks that had been kidnapped and held ransomed just for the tint of their skin, their bodily features that identified their nationality, they were tortured, and threatened until they could identify someone who could ransom and redeem them, someone who had the right water.  Then, after they were loosed, after they were ransomed, they carried a ‘water identifier’. An often ten digit alphanumeric code that would say ‘they have been in the waters of deliverance, they are already freed’ to the next kidnappers who attempted to steal them away.

So we ask ourselves, which waters have I stepped into? What are the waters that I am permitting to pour over me? What are the waters that I am dependent on for my rescue? Out of which baptismal waters did I rise from?

We have just readily said goodbye to a year in which we have been confronted with the fact that there are things we, as humans, cannot change, things we can not control, things that are not only beyond our power but beyond the power of our institutions and the scope of our traditions.  We have faced the truth that we are not immune to everything, that we are not able to outrun the curse of our ancestors, that our status, wealth, power, and geography do not hold the arrogant place that we have thought was unshakeable.  We have been forced to see that we stand alongside all of humanity, not just those with whom we share a common belief, heritage, color, gender, philosophy, education, citizenship, or any other label. We do not have a baptismal privilege because the waters of our baptism were, or are, superior to the waters of others’ baptisms. We can now see the futility of waters of religious celebrities, of political parties, of worthy agendas and lofty philosophical aspirations.   Those waters are filthy, they only contain more filth that will stick to us.  Or, are our waters the waters that have been cleansed by and through the ultimate sacrifice? Are they waters that cleanse on the highest level, are they waters that give us back our sight, waters out which we can arise and hear. What waters were you baptized in?

We now stand at the start of a new year, just a couple of weeks in and we have already seen that, while there are things we cannot control, there are still things we can do, things we can search and seek, places we can stand, people for who we can stand, and things for which we can stand.   It is a year in which we, once again, have been invited to step down into, and under, the waters that will wash the gunk off our eyes and out of our ears, to let us see and hear what Jesus saw, what Jesus heard as he stepped out of the waters over 2000 years ago.

Waters that move us to authentic and genuine actions.  Actions that are out of that breath of God that leads us to act out of and with mercy and compassion.

This past Wednesday we all sat in shock as the sacred institutions of our democracy were breeched and defiled.  We saw many who had chosen to step down into the waters that only piled on hatred and filth, waters that could not cleanse, waters unable to give life, instead they were waters that multiplied the hate and chaos they were designed to multiply. For many, they came out dirtier and more hopeless than before.  There were those, those who didn’t really ever step into the waters but still, they felt the midst of the water as they stood near.  To those, those who did not leave with additional hatred but instead sensed that breath of God, for those they had to find that Comfort that God provided.

U.S. House Representative Andy Kim from New Jersey felt that need for the comfort.  In between the votes in the chamber after congress resumed the electoral process, Representative Kim had to get out into the building and view the destruction of what had taken place earlier.  It only took a few moments for his eyes to fill with tears while he surveyed the damage, he sought out a trash bag.  Soon, Kim was on his knees filling the large trash bag with cigarette butts and other refuse discarded by those who had unpatriotically trashed the sacred building.  For over an hour and a half Kim picked up these pieces of debris that powerfully said so much.  “I was cleaning up the Capitol because it was the right thing to do. That building deserves to be treated with respect, and it was desecrated,”,’ he replied when he was asked about it later.  Truth was, it was the only natural thing he could think to do as he sought God’s comfort in such a discomforting time.

As we stand at the start of this new year, this new opportunity, as yourself, into what waters are you being baptized?

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:1-2

Too Strong

On Christmas Eve, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, three American soldiers on foot found themselves lost in the heavy snow of the Ardennes Forest. As they desperately attempted to locate the American lines, they came across a cabin in the woods. Hungry and desperate for help, they knocked on the door. A German woman named Elisabeth Vincken, who lived there with her 12-year-old son Fritz, opened the door and was shocked to see three American soldiers. Recognizing that they were hardly older than boys and one was badly wounded, she invited them inside. The fact that they chose not to break into the cabin and threaten her for help made Elisabeth trust the American soldiers.   Elisabeth, communicating with the Americans in broken French, was cooking a chicken for the soldiers when there was another knock at the door. Opening the door, Elisabeth was shocked to find four German soldiers, one of whom was a corporal. They, also, were lost and hungry. When they asked for help, she replied that there were American soldiers inside, including a wounded one. After a long stare, the corporal replied that there will be no shooting on the Holy Night. Elisabeth collected the weapons of all the soldiers and left them outside and welcomed the German soldiers into the house. There was immense tension between the German and American soldiers, but the smell of roast chicken and potatoes kept a peace. One of the German soldiers tended the wounded American. After they ate their food, the soldiers went to sleep. The next day, the German corporal checked the map used by the Americans and told them the way to get back to their camp. He even gave them a compass. Elisabeth returned their weapons and both sets of soldiers went in opposite directions. 

The greatest hope is usually found in the places where the least hope is visible.

I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your  welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me 

Jeremiah 29:11-14a

The greatest love never fades and is never taken away

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

Jeremiah 30:3b

These things were said to a people who were on the wrong end of 7 decades of misery and pain, over 70 years of exile and slavery ahead, now away from their promised land – which was now a land of very little observable promise to even  return to.  It was here, on the human time line at point zero, that the timeless God assured them that there was indeed hope and that they would eventually see and grasp it in time. I cannot over emphasize the importance of understanding our ‘stuckness’ in time as opposed to freedom in God’s timelessness. It was a hope designed to endure almost a century, because it would take the people almost a century to recognize it – it would take that long before the people would be ready to receive it. Jeremiah called the people to live in a timeless trust of God’s hope –  to return to living their lives, while on a higher level trusting in God’s hope that this life was not permanent. Timelessness enables us to trust God even when our humanness screams for us to focus on time. Hope waits, it waits for us, God does not hide it, because God does not hide, he waits until we are looking and then he lets us find it along with him.

Listen to the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 147, 

It’s a good thing to sing praise to our God; praise is beautiful, praise is fitting. God’s the one who rebuilds Jerusalem, who regathers Israel’s scattered exiles. He heals the heartbroken and bandages their wounds. He counts the stars and assigns each a name. Our Lord is great, with limitless strength; we’ll never comprehend what he knows and does.  

God puts the fallen on their feet again and pushes the wicked into the ditch. Sing to God a thanksgiving hymn, play music on your instruments to God, Who fills the sky with clouds, preparing rain for the earth, Then turning the mountains green with grass, feeding both cattle and crows. He’s not impressed with horsepower; the size of  our muscles means little to him. 

Those who fear God get God’s attention; they can depend on his strength. Jerusalem, worship God! Zion, praise your God! He made your city secure, he blessed your children among you. He keeps the peace at your borders, he puts the best bread on your tables. He launches his promises earthward— how swift and sure they come!  

He spreads snow like a white fleece, he scatters frost like ashes, He broadcasts hail like birdseed— who can survive his winter? Then he gives the command and it all melts; he breathes on winter—suddenly it’s spring! He speaks the same way to Jacob, speaks words that work to Israel. He never did this to the other nations; they never heard such commands.
Psalm 147

It is when we connect that there is hope when no hope can be seen; when it dawns on us that just because we are hopeless does not mean hope is not there, when we are able to live and accept that unseen hope – because we have accepted and live in Jesus, hope itself, it is then that our praise is deep, it is then that our praise is sincere, it is then that are praise is truly about who God who is strong when our world seems to be much stronger than us.  It is then that we are praising the God who is strong for us when that which comes against us is too strong for us to overcome.

Faith engulfs us in Hope, recognizing and living in that Hope lands us at the home of peace, choosing that Peace over chaos and fear creates in us a Joy that is not overcome by the darkness, and wrapped around all of this, binding it together, is Love.

Let’s take a look back at the message of Jeremiah to a people who have now been conquered, exiled, and enslaved, after they had witnessed the completed destruction of their land, their city, and the temple, a destruction that honestly had begun with them as they disregarded how to care of the land. Now Jeremiah is telling them of hope that they would experience in 7 decades, and he addresses the elephant in the room, the fact that they are powerless, and their oppressors are powerful – too powerful, too strong for them to overcome.

We land at Jeremiah 31:11 where God wraps the ‘how can it be possible’ and ‘how will we see that strength?’ in a mere 15 words. 

‘For Yahweh has ransomed and redeemed Jacob from one who is too strong for him.’

15 words, in which we will pull out the 6 words that explain, affirm, and assure our faith and our hope. 

HAS – notice the tense of this word, it is something that has  already happened, it is not a ‘will’ happen, or even a more formal ‘shall’ happen, it is a ‘HAS’ happened.  God is assuring the people that necessary actions are already in motion, their rescue is already a reality – now it is up to them to grasp it – which will take 72 years. Remember, we are shackled by time while God is timeless – to us, 72 years is hopeless, to our timeless God it is just enough [time] to do the work of transformation that must be done.

RANSOMED AND REDEEMED – Two words that both appear as verbs in the midst of these 15 words.  Both are actions taken by God on our behalf.  Ransom is to pay a debt for the release of the person in bondage. It is an exchange of some kind involving something of equal or greater value.  Ransom is Deliverance.  Redeemed is to recover something that belongs to you.  To take back something that originally belonged to you.  Ransomed is deliverance that has already been secured, Redemption is a recovering and return of that which belongs to God.

JACOB – God says that he ‘has redeemed’ and that he ‘has ransomed’ Jacob.  Jacob, is the son of Abraham, who originally received the promise, Jacob, not only had the promise past to him but he also was the physical mechanism, he moved the promise from ‘a person’ to ‘a people’, meaning he had a lot of sons.  As we saw in Galatians last week, and in Ephesians this week, we, through Christ, as adopted sons of God, are a part of that ‘people’. Meaning, that Jeremiah spoke to the descendants of Jacob, their blood ancestor, our adopted ancestor, and, in using the person Jacob, he was addressing the descendants.  This people – ultimately including us – are ‘the Jacob’ that Jeremiah names. 

TOO STRONG – this is self explanatory but seldom self realized and accepted.  We humans can, and will, come against someone or something, that is too strong for us to overcome, to defeat.  There will always be a darkness that we are too weak to navigate.  The depiction of the man, Jacob, is replete with his weaknesses, as are his descendants, as are we.  That is the role of the Spirit, to ‘come along side’ of us, especially when we facing that which is too strong for us.  As God says that he will deal with that which is too strong for them, they are in a time when their oppressors, the Babylonians, are physically too strong for anyone or any nation.  However, at this point, seven decades before, God is raising up that which will be strong enough to confront the Babylonians – the Persians.  The Persians will be conquers of the Babylonians, and their King will be the strong power that allows them to return home.  God is our power when we are against that which is ‘too strong’.

Oddly, it was the German colonel who made the decision that it would be a night of peace, and a German single mother who chose to enforce that decision by removing the weapons from the equation.  It was a decision, made and enforced by those who represented a country and military that had committed the brutal genocide killing over 6 million Jews and almost a million ‘unacceptable’ people from groups such as Disabled, Romas, Homosexuals, and anyone who disagreed with Hitler.  The ironic thing in that house where enemies were sleeping was that the decision for peace was attributed it to being Christmas Eve – ‘The Holiest night of the year.’ It was an officer, who was part of the regime that was intentionally seeking to wipe out complete people groups that said the world ‘Holy’. The irony is outrageous, but it is also gives a glimmer of hope.  There, in that cabin with 9 people crammed in together, the majority who considered others in the cabin as extreme enemies – because of an attribute of God, HOLINESS, that one man said there will be peace.  On that night, somehow, truth broke through, on that night a German officer took the risk to recognize ‘Holy’. On that one night, at least one person remembered his path and the hope he had forgotten – this remembering led him to peace and peace is difficult to not share.  It was surely one of the many sparks that ended the war less than 9 months later.  That night, God rounded up all that he had done in the officer’s life since childhood and on that night, that perfect night, it came to fruition, in the fullness of time, the timeless God said ‘now’ and a man changed history at least for the 9 people in that cabin on Christmas Eve night.

What is our hope, what keeps us on the path and living according to the God who does not work on our time?  John explains it best,

Even before our beginning there was the Word, the Truth, the Son, there was Jesus.  He was with God and he was, in fact, God.  Jesus existed at our beginning with God. Everything that was created – God created it.  There was nothing that was created by any god other than The God.  He gave life to everything that was created, and his very existence brought light to everyone.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish the light. Jesus came into the very world he had created but a world that did not recognize him.  He came to his own people but they actually rejected him.  But, those who believed were given the right to be, and refer to themselves as, children of God. Don’t be confused –  this was a hugely diverse group! Masters and Slaves, Jews and Gentiles, Men and Women, and every possible label you could imagine – of course God does not see those labels so it is not surprising that such diversity was drawn to Jesus. See, we were adopted by God, we are, therefore, children of God due to the fact that God put on flesh. God became a human and lived birth to death just like all humans.  Those around connected the dots that the life of Jesus was a reflection of God, they saw love that had no boundaries or end, and they saw God’s glory – they saw the Father’s sacrifice.

That is our hope.  A hope that has already been accomplish and completed.  We, while living in a world bound by time, are able to rise above that and enjoy the freedom of God’s timelessness.

That is our hope.  A hope that has already been accomplish and completed.  We, while living in a world bound by time, are able to rise above that and enjoy the freedom of God’s timelessness.

Prayer Together

01.03.21 – prayer adapted from Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed be you, O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, in him you have blessed us with every spiritual blessing. You chose him to be holy and blameless before you in love, and therefore, since you have chosen Jesus, you have chosen us, for we are in him.

It pleased you, through Christ, to adopt us, it was your will. God praise you, praise your glorious grace which you showered on us as you showered it on Jesus. It is unfathomable that through the blood of Jesus we are redeemed, we are forgiven, all because you have lavished your riches on us, riches we do not grasp or even begin to understand.

God, we recognize that our wisdom and insight is limited, and that sometimes we fail to follow what we do not see, even worse, we often fail to follow even as we do see.  We also know, however that you are wisdom and you are insight allowing us to understand that Jesus was always your plan.  

We are impatient but you are timeless and your patience is limitless, therefore when it was right according to the fullness of our time you set Jesus on our paths. We usually don’t see your plan, if ever at all, but you have given us hope, peace, joy, and love to know that it is there even when we focus on hopeless, chaos, unsettledness, and hatred instead of your promised plan.  

We fail to see that we have already been given our inheritance as your adopted children.  We know that our path is according to your plan, your will, your purpose – purpose for us and purpose for all of humanity and eternity. On our path you engulf us with your hope.

God, we hear truth, which is all truth, we hear your salvation, you adopted us and marked us with the promised Spirit – this is what we know about the inheritance you have given.  This is what permits us to live in your redemption, as your people, and to praise you as we exist in your glory.

Amen.