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.

What the World Needs Now

This has been quite a year. This has been a year in which God has given us each an opportunity to recognize that the path set before us looks a little different, there are some curves and turns that we did not see before, and, with each new curve and turn, he is giving us the chance to say ‘yes’ to our transformation and ‘yes’ to our refinement. This has been a year when God has challenged us with the question – Does our love look like Jesus’ love?

Which brings us to today, on this day we light or fourth advent candle.  Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, today, Love.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote, 

There is nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can make that can be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known. Nothing you can see isn’t shown. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love. All You Need Is Love, Love, Love Is All You Need. Love, Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love.

Burt Bacharach wrote,

Lord, we don’t need another mountain, there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb, there are oceans and rivers enough to cross, enough to last ’til the end of time. Lord, we don’t need another meadow, there are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow, there are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine. Oh listen, Lord, if you want to know…What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love, no, not just for some, oh, but just for every, every, everyone.

Rabbi Yehuda Lave wrote

“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva called this “the great principle of the Torah.” A moral society will succeed; an immoral or amoral one will fail. That is the key prophetic insight. G-d did not make the demand that people love one another. That was beyond their remit. Society requires justice, not love. Good people love God, family, friends and virtue.  “Beloved is man,” said Rabbi Akiva, “because he was created in God’s image.” Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. God made each of us in love. Therefore, if we seek to imitate God – “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” – we too must love humanity, and not in the abstract but in the concrete form of the neighbor and the stranger. The ethic of holiness is based on the The vision of creation-as-God’s-work-of-love. This vision sees all human beings – ourselves, our neighbor and the stranger – as in the image of God, and that is why we are to love our neighbor and the stranger as ourselves.

Love is the spark and the fuel for the Holy events we observe in our remembrance of God’s gift of the Son to, and for, us.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.

In this, our initial introduction to Mary and Joseph, we see that God sent the messenger. God, meaning the full God, father, son, and spirit. They were all present, as they discerned that now was THE time, the plan that had been in place since before time began, before humans existed, before there was a need for a Messiah. The plan of redemption, of restoration, the plan that called for sacrifice and death, the plan with the purpose of life – life for all.  As father, son, and spirit stood there, were they crying, were they excited and hopeful, were they concerned, or were they stoic and determined? Did they grab ahold of Jesus and hold on to him with all their might, not wanting to let him go?  Did they have visions of the evil on earth running through their thoughts?  This shared angst of the three was compounded by the fact that Jesus was about to step out of heaven and onto his earthly path in the most vulnerable state possible – he would begin as a helpless infant. Now there was no plan B in case things got too difficult, there was not a quick getaway if it became too painful and intense, this was THE plan.  They were 100 percent confident with the plan, it was the perfect and, actually, the only plan to deliver all peoples.  However, as they stood there they were more than aware that this had never been done, God had ever ever endured through anything like this path… just how brutal would it be, how difficult would it be to watch?

The three surely experienced all of the emotions, all the concerns, all the tears, and all the rejoicing that redemption, restoration, and life would bring back to creation.

Jesus, just like us, would begin his path with faith – faith that he would arrive at the destination, faith that he would achieve the purpose, faith that he would, once again, sit with the Father.  But, still, this had never been done, God had never been subjected to this aspect of the human experience, especially not in such a vulnerable way – he would travel his path just like we travel our path.  He too would be enveloped by hope, the hope which step by step, would bring him to peace, as he chose to reside in that peace he would live in the joy which would hold him through temptation, rejection, grief, arrest, beatings, and even death.

One more element infinitely and ultimately identified their actions – Love.  God had this plan in place long before there was a need because God so loved his creation and his created. It was the factor that led the three to hold to each other on as long as possible, and it was love that led them to let go and send the willing Son to earth, to the world. It was love, ‘for God so loved the world that he…..’

Hope, Peace, Joy, and now, on our fourth Sunday of Advent we arrive at Love. Love binds all of these together.

Paul says to the church at Colossi, 

Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Colossians 3:14

 
What ‘things’ was Paul speaking of, what is bound together in perfect harmony by Love? To answer this, we must go back a couple of verses where Paul says.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

Colossians 3:12-14

Love is the variable factor that makes following God’s path different than mapping our own path. 

Mary and Jesus are on two parallel yet unique paths.  Mary’s path is a path paved with pain, misery, it will be a life turned upside down and knee deep in Eve’s curse.  Jesus will experience his path with all the emotions and experiences of the human journey plus his will include a death unlike any death of a human.  Parallel paths, different steps, the same purpose – to rescue the world that God so loves.

Much can be learned from the response of Mary as details of her path begin to unfold. Mary was already on her path when the angel appeared to her, she had already stepped on it by faith, she had already begun to grow in the hope that engulfs the path, she was already gaining a sense of what peace is, and possibly, she was seeing a glimpse of the joy that comes with residing in peace. 

Each year we approach the nativity and birth story as our tradition, we tie it to the songs that are known, we get with family and friends, we over eat and exchange gifts. We fill it with sentiment, which is appropriate as that is what you do when celebrating a birth. Each year we put up the tree and switch our music to the Carpenters and Bing Crosby a little earlier that the previous year, we watch the same gooey Christmas shows we have watched for decades, we remember, we treasure, we enjoy.  It is the ‘most wonderful time of the year!’ We settle into our cherished honored and comfortable traditions as we reflect on and learn from this group of people who were stretched in a time when life went in a direction they never expected.

Today, we focus on Mary, the teen that did not consider herself prepared to take this journey – the truth was, her entire life had been on this path, a path that turned out to be saturated with a hope-filled, peace-empowered, joy-inducing, love-binding journey –  everything about her life had been a journey of readiness up to this point.

An angel appeared to Mary and proclaims to her, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ God was not a new figure on the Mary’s path.  She had been on this path since childhood, she had stepped on the path by faith long before she even knew what faith was, she had listened to the teachings, followed the prophets words, and, like others, she had kept watch for the coming deliverer, the Messiah.  She had sought truth and grabbed ahold of it every time she discerningly discovered it.  This experience of the angel, however, especially an angel calling her ‘favored one’ was new and a bit disturbing.  The words ‘Perplexed and Pondered’ describe the reactions of Mary at this messenger.

A more vivid translation of the greek word Perplexed is the word Agitated.  This was a fully acceptable response, an angel shows up, which was not a common event in Mary’s life, in fact this had never happened to Mary, nor had any of her friends or family.

We don’t know a lot about angels.  The visual presentation of the Seraphim given in the prophesy of Isaiah 6, presents beings that would be terrifying to the say the least.  Imagine having that appear to you in in moment of quiet with no one else around.


Perplexed, agitated, is the emotion that Mary experienced, it was unsettling and upsetting.  This was something that had not been a fixture in her faith and she  knew not to just accept without proper truth seeking. We saw in our readings a week ago God calling us to be open to his moving but to not be gullible. This was an earthquake moment for Mary, it was a challenge to the faith in which she had become comfortable. Mary had not experienced angels and messages that spoke of ‘favor’, nor had any of the priests, rabbis, or even prophets educated her on this, it was totally new, it was totally, in her reality, without precedent.  Unprecedented things such as this must be questioned, there has to be consideration, she had to seek truth here in the same way she had learned to search for truth all her life.  Earthquakes happen, we are tasked with making sure they are good and true.

Next, we see the presence of a Pondering that rose in Mary. Pondering are the manner we consider and contemplate. She traveled beyond the experience and probably continued to turn it all possible ways in her mind to fully process the event. To better understand this verb ‘ponder’ we consider another verb, which comes after the birth of Jesus – the word Treasure. As shepherds appeared at the stable, as Simeon and Anna, separately approached the newborn Jesus in the temple, and even two years later as the wise men appeared at the doorstep of Mary and Joseph’s home in Bethlehem – Mary ‘treasured’ these moments in her heart.  Treasuring is different than pondering.  This treasuring response was much like a child’s baby book that a parent fills in the significant events in the life of the child.  These filled pages of the baby book then serve to remind in a sentimental way but also when affirmation is needed.  The purpose of pondering is to investigate and then accept or reject, the purpose of treasuring is to hold on to those affirmation moments for times when extra strength is necessary.

The angel informs Mary that she is going to have a child.  Mary was not half listening, No, she was processing as the experience progressed, she was paying full attention, she was fully present and in the moment.  Her response was very human, and again – very appropriate. She began to probe for answers – HOW? ‘How?’ She asked, ‘How is this possible? I am a virgin.’

We have forgotten the value of questions for understanding, even within the conceptual walls of the church.  Much like in the time of Mary, the religious institutions have become the beacons of knowledge that was held in a vault – questions were repugnant, even now. Instead of asking ‘How?’ Or ‘Why?’ We say nothing in fear of sounding stupid or repetitive.  Mary asked a question that needed to be asked, ‘HOW?’  The messenger gave her an answer that met her need for knowledge without overwhelming. The answer gave enough needed clarification to give her the affirmation she sought.

The messenger then initiated the treasuring system within Mary.  The relevance of Mary’s situation was connected to the surprise and impossible pregnancy of Elizabeth.  The two affirmed each other.   Then comes the moment when all of the path before meets all of the path ahead, the moment when she recognizes that, indeed, this is the hand of God and that God can do the impossible, even those things never before done.  God can fill in that gap that seems unfillable.  And Mary responds with “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” 

So, we have an angel appear to Mary and proclaims ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’  ‘Favored One’?  ‘Favored One.?! Favored one, meaning that God is about to turn Mary’s world upside down, that she is going to become a social disaster, she will be uprooted from home and family, from the familiarity that is her life, much of her life would be on the run – Favored one, to have all her plans thrown out the door and now facing this great unknown, unknown because it has never been done? This is favor?

The irony of Christmas is that it is all about us and not about us at all, that it is all about giving while being all about receiving, it is all about self and not about me, or you.  Christmas is not the beginning of God’s love but it is the place where we so powerfully see it.

Christmas is actually the most appropriate way to end the year 2020.  It has been a year of unusual messengers that have brought unexpected messages.  We have been faced with unprecedented times, events, inescapable challenges.  Our usual way of life, of family, of work, of play, of church, have all been altered.  We have been faced with the option of forcing the ways of our past, of yesterday, to retain our normal for the future, or, instead, to ponder the agitation we experience with these challenges and consider that fact that God has broken through and is refining our path in preparation for our future. It has been a time when we have been given the opportunity to Love God and Love all Others, or a time to return to primarily loving ourself.  For such a time as this, we celebrate the time of a young lady who was faced with a similar challenge, a similar time, a time of refinement, recognition, and of surrender.  It is also a time for us to recognize the transformation God has done in each of our lives, and in our church.  I could spend paragraphs speaking of the Christians in our nation that have insisted on demanding their rights instead of loving others, religious institutions that have chosen litigation when facing the new twists and turns on their path, twists and turns that are mechanism for God’s transformation in our life.

I believe it has been a time when you, individually and as the small group of believers that go by the name Grace Fellowship, have indeed recognized that this world desperately needs Love. You have accepted the calling to be the avenues of that Love.

Love IS what the world needs now.

Faith, Hope, Peace, Joy, Love

He Has

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people who had the luxury to not listen.  After all, it would probably not be them who would suffer when Babylon conquered Judah, when the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, when the Israelites would be taken away from their homes into decades of slavery – no, it was not them, but, it would be their descendants.

Even though they would be able to escape the brunt of the pain and misery, they would not be able to escape the blame. For they had warning, they had decades of warnings.  Isaiah was one of those who made a full time job of warning the people who paid little attention to his message.  Isaiah warned them of the siege and the desolation, he warned them of their pain, he warned them of hopelessness and desperation.  He warned them, all the time, over and over. Sadly, even though the people thought they were avoiding the uncomfortable, annoying, and unpopular words of Isaiah, they were also missing the purpose and the hope of the coming events.  

The words that God gave to Isaiah to prepare the people so that they could then prepare their descendants, were not only words of doom, they were also words of survival, of life, of redemption, of restoration, they were words of hope.


So, as we arrive at Isaiah’s prophecy of the final section of the Israelites path, the path of restoration and hope – the people, who were not prepared for hope by their elders, were overwhelmed and devastated instead of the intended state of hopefulness. They saw the destruction of everything they defined as home, the saw the desolation of the land, the ruin of the temple, they saw the vulnerably of Jerusalem, they saw pain and misery, they saw a lot of work to be done and a lot of sacrifice to be made, they saw the surrounding nations that hated them as a people, they saw a necessity of their own unity where unity was nonexistent.  They needed hope.

It was in this time of time, a time of despair, that Isaiah calls out to God.

Oh, that you, God, would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence — As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil — To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! You did things we never expected, descended and made the mountains shudder at your presence. Since before time began no one has ever imagined, no ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work.

Isaiah 64:1-7

Isaiah, was calling out God, begging him to break into their world, to make his presence known, to do what only God could do.  The ironic thing was that the people had just seen God act in this very manner.  God had previously placed them into an environment where they were given the time to recognize and remember God. Time is not a deterrent to God so waiting was not a problem.  During God’s wait on the people, God had revealed his patience for them to not only remember God, but to begin to function as his people, to begin to be A people.  In this foreign land in a foreign status, the people had been without a temple, a visible presence of God.  The religious practice of their past was no longer an option, they had been forced to figure it all out.  In traveling this unfamiliar path, they had begun to be reunited with God.  In the absence of the Temple they begun to practice their faith locally, in the midst of others.  Synagogues had become a thing, relating to God everywhere and all the time rose as their religious practice, looking for God everywhere became their norm – they remembered their hope, they experienced God’s peace, inside they had changed, a miracle had taken place, God had ripped open the heavens, God had broken into their existence and they, miraculously, welcomed him in.

The people had waited, they had remembered their hope, nations around had seen the work of the God of the Hebrews, a work and a God that was totally foreign to these enemies.

Sometimes, before we can trust God for the now, we have to remember God that was for the past.  Before we can grasp the fact that God will do as promised, that God will carry us through the unseen and the unknown, before we can stand peacefully on the hope on our path for the destination that is now in front of us, we have to remember that God has.  He has already proven his faithfulness, he has already shown how our path is not untrod, it is not a path out of his jurisdiction.  We can head forward knowing that God will because we are able to look back and see that He Has done, how He Has worked. 

Then, as we remember, we can return to the mission, to the promise from God. In this week, Isaiah sets up God’s call on the Israelites who had returned home. 

You will rebuild the old ruins, you will raise a new city out of the wreckage. You will start over on the ruined cities, you will take the rubble left behind and you will make it new.

Isaiah 61:4

This takes us to Mary, this teenager facing a dilemma that was unparalleled before and it remains unparalleled today.  While there are echoes in Mary’s path of the paths of others and elements familiar to the journey’s of others, but Mary faced a destination that none others every had nor ever will travel.  Mary was about to birth the Son of God, the eternal King, the Messiah.  There is no way for us to be truly empathetic or sympathetic. For Mary it was not only a path unknown, it was a path that would never be known to anyone but this young  girl.  

In Luke 1:46-55 we see how Mary deals with her path.  Mary’s path begins with faith, the place where all of our paths begin.  Mary, before we are ever introduced to her, has stepped on the path by faith, having no idea of the details, and definitely having no grasp of the enormity of the destination.  She was faithful, she had listened since childhood to the stories of how God Has done, how God has been faithful.  Her path, just like our paths, began with stepping on to the path with no guarantees except that God already Has.

Second, we know that the Hope engulfed Mary as she willingly took step after step on the path – that is what steps do.  We can look at the explanation from the angel to see that Mary was already a willing participant in this plan. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ Mary had a choice, just as all humans have been given a choice, so, for the angel to say this, the choice had been made.  Mary traveled in hope. 

Third, Then an ever increasing hope, step by step, brought Mary to peace by the time she reached her destination – that is how hope grows, step by step. She had grown up hearing the words of truth, she then heard from an angel, there was affirmation through her relative Elizabeth, she now stood, and stepped on her path with a confirmed hope and peace. 

This is the reason for peace, peace eliminates the power of chaos and fear, it restricts the control doubt can have over us – doubt will probably always be around when we live in a world with doubtful choices but peace allows us to confidently coexist. Peace however, allows doubt to be the catalyst for seeking and searching truth, but removes the power that doubt can hold over us.

This brings us to joy, possibly one of the most difficult words in the Bible. Joy is a word that has to be defined by its context, and often times, those differing contexts can cause the word to have differing meanings that can confuse and conflict. 

Author Ann Lamott said, ‘I think joy and sweetness and affection are a spiritual path. We’re here to know God, to love and serve God, and to be blown away by the beauty and miracle of nature. You just have to get rid of so much baggage to be light enough to dance, to sing, to play. You don’t have time to carry grudges; you don’t have time to cling to the need to be right.’ 

Three Dog Night popularized the words of Hoyt Wayne Axton, singing ‘Joy to the world all the boys and girls. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, Joy to you and me.’

Henry Van Dyke wrote, ‘Joyful, joyful, we adore You, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flow’rs before You, Op’ning to the sun above. Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; Drive the dark of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, Fill us with the light of day!’ 

The apostle Paul, when writing to the church at Philippi said, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.’ 

But then James wrote, ‘whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,’

‘The Angel proclaimed ‘Don’t be afraid for I bring you good news of great joy for all people!’

And returning to our first writer, Ann Lamott, ‘Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.’

Joy is what happens when we take residence in Peace. A peace based on hope which stands strong on hope. A hope that takes us back to the reminders that God is faithful in the past, God is faithful in the present, God will be faithful in the future. Joy is what appears when we live in that peace. It was where Mary was living when she able to sing,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’

This Joy reminded her of the affirmation of her hope and peace, it is what gave her the capability to take up residence in God’s peace, that let her sing,

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy according to the promise he made to our ancestors.

Joy is the catalyst of our actions, our attitudes, our emotions, our responses, our lives.  Residence always require intentional actions, allowing in, restricting entrance, critiquing every aspect of what we permit to impact us. Joy is what enables us to hear the audacious instruction and comforts to the believers at Thessalonica,  

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens.  This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master.  On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil. May God himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.  The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!

Christmas is about Joy.  This is the reason that Jesus was born a baby in the lowly manger,  it is the purpose behind the journey to Bethlehem.  The journey of Jesus, was our journey, it was a journey that involved inconvenient journeys, frightening seasons, beautiful moments, loving relationships, devastating set backs, loyal friends, loyal friends that sometimes are not so loyal. Joy is a constant journey of vulnerability that permits us to be dependent on a God who gives us the power to survive and thrive in a world where we often feel that we do not belong.

Christmas is faith, hope, peace, and joy path, and next week we will see how that path is bound together to take us to our final destination – forever.

Be Found At Peace

Last week we lit our first Advent candle – the HOPE candle.  Hope was the catalyst for those who were waiting and watching for the coming Messiah. They did not have a clear grasp on the details of the arrival, the how and what of the Messiah – but there were those who were diligently waiting, constantly looking, and always hoping.They had the hope, and many had a thought or an idea, but in the end, nothing about the Messiah matched what they expected – which was a good thing.  It was the hope that kept Anna and Simeon in the temple, day after day, waiting to see the Messiah. It is the same hope for us today, a return of Jesus, a new heaven and a new earth, whatever all of that will look like and however it will all play out – our call is to keep an watchful eye and a determined hope.  Hope is the underlying theme of the Christmas story, it is actually the underlying theme of the Christian journey, including the crucifixion and resurrection, it was the hope of the promise to Abraham, it was the hope that sat with Joseph in the prison cell and with Moses on Mount Sinai, it is the same girding that the Holy Spirit empowers us with today.  Hope. Faith gets us on the path, Hope uses the path to prepare us for the destination.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. Hebrews 11:1-3

Hope brings us to peace.

Our Advent candle today is PEACE.  Peace is an end to hostilities, it is a comforting calming in the midst of anxiety, a sense of confidence in a time of insecurity – a necessary respite in the midst of chaos, fear, uncertainty, isolation, and all the other life situations that tie us in knots.  

In his letter to the believers in Asia Minor Peter wrote encouraging them to ‘strive to be found, by Jesus, at peace.’ 

It is an interesting choice of words, ‘strive to have Jesus find you at peace.

Listen to it in its context,

We wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, while you are waiting, be diligent, without spot without blemish, and be found by him in peace II Peter 3:13-14

Look at the words in bold, these are the emphasis words, words that give us a key to understand what Peter is saying.

Peter uses the greek word eiréné  (i-ray’-nay) for Peace.  It is defined as  one, quietness, rest.  eiréné connotes peace of mind; wholeness, and the joining together of all the essential parts.  It is a holistic state of being – Body, Mind, Spirit bound together, at peace in whatever the circumstance.

Look at the apostle Paul – a very religious and righteous man – he was faithful in his religion to the point of sacrifice and he was hopeful in in watching for the promised Messiah.  He, in his faith, accepted the mission to eliminate anything that would mislead and misguide the  followers of God.  His specific mission, was to stop this new ‘Jesus’ movement from diluting the faithful following the true God.  He had sought truth all his life, he had strived to live truth all his life, he had sacrificed everything for the advancement of truth.  He was a seeker, a searcher, and a hopeful follower.  On a path to the city of Damascus, he knew he was following God’s calling, and I think, he was right.  He was going to address the ‘Jesus’ movement, he was going to identify the followers of Christ.  He thought his destination was to stop the Jesus followers through any means necessary.  While on the path – God transformed Paul, he corrected Paul, God redeemed Paul, God permitted Paul to see why he was on the path.  Paul confidently approached the path by faith, on the path hope led him step after step, the hope of the path brought peace, peace allowed Paul to accept the new twist in his mission, a twist he had never seen coming until he arrived with peace. In reality this was not as spectacular as we would think.  Paul had spent his life seeking God and looking for the Messiah, the path led him to both.  Paul was not, however, expecting to become a Jesus follower, that was not the destination he was expecting.  When he hears Jesus saying, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ Paul biggest surprise was probably his own lack of surprise.  This was a natural step of his path, he just had not known it until now, he was not ready to accept it until this peace. Now, he found what he was looking for, the Messiah, he recognized that this Jesus, the one who had been his problem and mission, was no longer a problem but still his mission.  The hope and  peaceful steps allowed him to recognize and accept this destination, permitting him to go to the house of a Jesus follower, not to persecute but to learn, not to stop a movement but to be a part of this movement – not to dilute his faith but now to complete his it.  This was all a part of his path, he continued on the path, only now his mission had been clarified, refined, and defined.  Now his hope and his peace was anchored.  

2 Basics 2 Understanding

  1. The Holy Spirit moves us onto our path which the apostle Paul refers to as our ‘salvation journey,’ which is not a journey TO salvation but a journey OF salvation.  The path shapes and refines us FOR the destination which is earthly as well as eternal.  Stepping onto our path is an act of faith, faith lets us recognize the Hope of the path.  We may think we have the path and the destination figured out, or, instead, we may attempt to waste time on the path attempting to avoid lesson and transformation, however God builds the path time intentionally  in order to prepare us for the destination.  We responsibly ask questions to spot ‘wrong path’ signs – questions such as, ‘is this path in harmony or conflict with the life of Jesus?’, or, ‘does this path seem to be paved with a priority of Loving for God and Loving all Others?’  Doubts & questions are gifts from God to propel us to seek and search, to know God more in order to recognize the warning signs, even along the path.  Paul was on the path, a path that he assumed was taking him to destroy the Jesus movement, but, actually it was taking him to build up the Jesus movement.  The path, including an experience of blindness, were all part of the work of refinement enabling Paul to see and accept the ultimate purpose of the path. 
  1. Faith is where it starts. Hope provides a confidence that permits us to ‘hang in there’ on the path and to absorb peace regardless instead of our blindness, confusion, surprise, and fear. A wasted path that results in an absence of peace at the destination – such is the story of Jonah.  The prophet Jonah was completely at home proclaiming the message of God, he was not a stranger to calling for the people to return to God.  He had never scoffed at this mission until he stepped on a path and heard the destination coordinates.  Ninevah. (A side note here may be helpful – this is why God often does not give us the destination – we need the path to prepare us to embrace the destination). Jonah attempted to change the destination, he headed in the direction of ‘anywhere but Ninevah’, while on this new path he even did God’s calling, only to a different destination and a different people, it was actually a very successful work. Gracefully, God provided a resistant Jonah a ride back to his right path, the path designed just for him, the path paved with Hope that would not only take him to a people in need of hope but also to prepare him to communicate great news.  The path was intended to remind Jonah of his own hope path, letting him enjoy this path and destination with an unexpected peace. See, God wanted the brain in Jonah’s head to click on the switch of compassion and mercy letting him see that hope is a need of all people. Regrettably, Jonah used the entire path for pouting instead of hoping, therefore, at the destination he did nothing more and nothing less than God said to do, he failed to see Hope in action as he had failed to let God give him peace – instead of an experience of faith, hope, peace, love, and joy, Jonah ended up with a destructive worm, a destroyed vine, and a dastardly wind while finding himself at the geographical coordinates he deeply hated and despised.

The pattern of Hope and Peace is the same many times over in the Bible.  Noah, a follower of God in a time when only he followed God was at peace in his own ‘rightness’, even though is was foreign, odd, and strange to everyone else.  His hope was in God and that firm foundation increased his peace daily, a peace that was formed on his path that led him to an outrageous destination..  As a result, when God told him of the coming flood, his response was not to question or to resist, instead, he picked up his saw, grabbed his hammer and went to work.  It was peace that woke him up each morning and put him exhausted to bed each evening.  Or, Abraham, who came from a long line of idol worshippers, idol makers, idol sellers, he had grown up with nothing except for false gods.  Then, the true God spoke to Abraham.  We do not really have the details of the dialogue except that Abraham accepted.  Abraham, too, was at peace saying yes, yes to this unknown God because Abraham had allowed the path to do its work of peace.  There were three wise men, who were not Jews, who, for most of their lives, had been watching the stars, reading the prophesies, hoping to see the moment when God would break in, so when God said ‘It’s time’ they saddled up, with a path given peace that enabled them to follow the star. There are stories of prostitutes and priests, politicians and tax collectors, Kings and Queens, military leaders and and dismissed marginalized people, there are rich and poor, there are women, men, and eunuchs, there are lower class, middle class, and upper class, there are greeks, romans, jews, gentiles, hebrews, and even samaritans, there are masters and slaves, there are good and bad, they are all on their path, each facing the choice of refinement and peace or pouting and being stuck.  Each faced a destination of joyously striving in God’s peace or an alternative to face their destination pouting, resisting, resenting, and seeing nothing but fear, hatred, and dread – that is their journey their path, that is our journey our path.

The Israelites faced a seemingly unbearable path that would take decades to complete, Isaiah spoke the Hope of their path to them, Peter spoke to a people who could only see suffering and pain on their path and he reminded them of their hope encouraging them to be found at peace. A strange prophet that wore even stranger clothes and held to a disgusting diet pointed out the filth of the paths that restricted many from seeing the hope that was already there. Two young people were put on a God awful path that could not have come at a worse time, but, as they traveled on that hopeful path, God prepared them for a peace that would carry them through a smelly stable,  years away from home and on the run, a vicious and paranoid ruler, a cradle set next to a nursing cow, visitors from the pastures and palaces, and the Son of God, the Messiah.

So, along the path, we have 2 essentials of our path.  

First, we are called to an ongoing search to know God, a constant pursuit.  We know God through the written truth through which we never cease to learn and are never unqualified to use. We know God through the person of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the example of his earthly life.  We also know God through others and everything around us – 

The 2nd second essential tool of the path – In order to do number one we must stay awake & pay attention. This was the final request of Jesus to the disciples before his arrest.  Staying awake and paying attention to others and everything around us, when this is accompanied by our growing knowledge of God we begin to notice and recognize notes from God, as well as identifying and eliminating those things inconsistent with God truth and the life of Jesus.

So, on the path, we learn and we notice, everyday of our life and every step of our path.  Mary and Joseph were different people by the time they arrived at Bethlehem than they had been nine months prior.  When Paul stepped on the path heading to Damascus he was a different person than he had been in the beginning of his religious vocation.  The same is said for Eve, for Noah, for Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, for Moses, for Joshua, for all the prophets, all of the apostles, all the new testament believers, and for each of us. There are others, individuals like Jonah, King Saul, Judas, Annanias and Sapphira, who chose to miss the preparation of the path, they died with no growth, no hope, no peace.

We are on the path, our path, let’s make the most of it.  Intentionally know God, do the work, pursue the relationship – knowing God is not a spectator sport.  Next listen, look, question, everything, look for peace with every step you take. Don’t limit the Holy Spirit on revealing peace to you by limiting your pursuit to only a few approved voices that align with your thinking, also do not block out anything that the Spirit can use to teach and strengthen you on the path.

In his book, Peace In Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh says,

‘We know how to sacrifice 10 years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on.  But, we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.  Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.  We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.’

Thich Nhat Hanh

God speaks, along the way, through many avenues and voices, God gives peace as we recognize him at work all over and all around us.  It is the description of the path of those detailed in Hebrews 11, people that were headed to an unknown destination letting God gift them with hope and peace on the path. Be found at peace

this is the encouragement given to us, it is the hope for a world in chaos, disappointment, confusion, hatred, pain, and death.  It is the lesson of, and during, the path – it is peace regardless of what we can or cannot see. It is Jesus’ call to the Abundant Life, to an intentional Life, to a Real Life. It is God’s call to us.

Hope and Peace.

Prayer Together

11.29.20 – First Sunday of Advent – Hope (based on Psalm 80)

O God, radiate Your light!

Lord, arouse Your strength and power, and save us!

Bring us back to You, God. Turn the light of Your face upon us so that we will be rescued from this sea of darkness.

Let Your protective hand rest on the one who is at Your right hand,
the child of man whom You have raised and nurtured for Yourself.

Then we will not turn away from You. Bring us back to life! And we will call out for You!

O Eternal God, Commander of heaven’s armies, bring us back to You. Turn the light of Your face upon us so that we will be rescued from this sea of darkness.

Amen.

Staying Awake

Waiting is tough, it can be extremely difficult.  The Christmas season has more than its share of waiting, it can be torture. Waiting to give and receive gifts, waiting for the food, waiting for family, waiting for beloved traditions, waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

One of my favorite torturous Christmas waiting stories came from a coworker of Andrea’s following a Christmas break.  She told of her three year old who could not wait for Christmas morning, everyday, and multiple times each day he would ask ‘how much longer?’  Finally, Christmas Day arrived and this toddler found that he still had to wait.  Way to early on Christmas morning, while it was still too dark to celebrate anything, the little boy appeared at his mom and dad’s bedside.  He quietly waited for them to wake up until he could wait no more.  He began to softly talk, then, when that received no response he spoke louder, again no response, he continued to increase the volume until it was clear drastic action was needed.  He reached up and began to gently tap, and then a little less gently tap on his parents arms.  When they awoke, again they told him he would have to wait a little longer.  Disappointed, he turned to walk away, as his mother reminded him to stay away from the tree and presents until they could all do it together.  Then tone of his response set of a warning bell in the mom’s mind and so she asked, “Have you already been to the tree and the presents?’ He responded no and continued out the door, she watched him walk away and noticed that on his feet were his new Spongebob house shoes that had been wrapped and placed waiting for him to open that morning.

Like I said, sometimes waiting is tough, but on certain occasions it is impossible.

Waiting is a mainstay of the our faith.  If you consider the Biblical historical events there is a huge element of waiting embedded in each.  Eve waiting outside the garden for a child, Noah waiting for the floods to come and then for them to recede, Abraham and Sarah waiting for a fulfillment of God’s absurd promise, Joseph waiting in a dungeon, Moses waiting for God’s affirming sign, Joshua waiting on the walls of Jericho to fall, Isaiah and Jeremiah and quota of prophets waiting on a people to listen, Elijah waiting on a mountain side, Joseph and Mary waiting on a miraculous birth, Anna and Simeon waiting for the arrival of the Messiah…. And the list goes on and on.

Waiting is universal but it is also unique to us humans.  An animal can crouch waiting on its prey, a plant can wait on gemination, my dog can sometimes wait on breakfast lunch and dinner and treats in between, but with each of these, when the moment arrives the anxiety of the waiting is complete.  Whereas, in our faith, the moments of waiting may be finally fulfilled, but each time of waiting is a sub wait of an ultimate wait.

It would seem to be an almost mean system, designed by a arrogant God, to toy and mess with us.  Actually, the waiting is a precious gift given by our merciful and compassionate God, our God who is also our biggest fan.

Actually, the waiting is only understood in the context of a more exclusively human characteristic – another gift from our loving God.  The waiting is really just a symptom of our larger issue, and that is the element of time. 

Dr. Christopher Davis of Memphis Theological Seminary says that ‘time was made for humans, not for God.’ adding, ‘Thus, God is not in a hurry.

This may be the most blatant disconnect between humans and God. God is in no hurry, we are almost always in a hurry.  God takes the time for the right time, we plow through seldom considering the collateral damage to ourself or others. Ironically, the creation of time is because we because we desperately need it. Time holds us back until it is the right time, time paves the way for us to be a part of God’s timing, time refines us to be ready and prepared for the exact time.  Time gives us the opportunity to allow hope to replace hopelessness, the hope that gives us the strength to wait and the power to persevere in the midst  of time.

Influential Greek statesman Pericles said, 

‘Time is the wisest counselor of all.’    Pericles   

The apostle Peter said,

‘But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.’    II Peter 2:8 

The apostle Paul said to the believers in Corinth,

I cannot stop myself from thanking God for all the tools he has given you in your wait for Jesus.  He has not only enriched your lives but he has guided you in your pursuit of a very personal understanding of your faith, your story, now you can not only live it out naturally but you can put that story into your words when anyone asks for an explanation. I told you Christ would do this, and now Jesus has!  It is amazing what God has done. In the midst of you waiting for him, in the midst of your struggle with time. Now you not only have God’s grace but you also recognize his blessing on this part of your journey, God has set all the tools in front of you that are essential in order for you to wait, the tools that are the power God has instilled in your to successfully flourish during this wait – you will be ready when Jesus returns. Even more amazing is the fact that, at that end of wait, end of our time moment, you will still be free from sin and guilt because of what Jesus has done for and given to you.  You can rest assured that God will do what God says God will do, we know because God always does what God has promised to be done!

I Corinthians 1:4-9

It was the exact right time as Joseph and Mary sat in a stable surrounded by by animals, feed, and poop, to see the culmination of their wait.  Sometimes the exact right time, the end line of a wait, finds us surrounded by poop.  It was by this time that these two young people had grabbed ahold of the hope God was setting in front of them.  It was not something visible that they could show others, it had been reinforced by events and words that could only be captured by the heart and the mind.  Hope is unseen, based on the unseen, but once we grab hold it guides us through time, it affirms us through the often hopelessness of our human response to time. 

Here is truth about time and waiting. Hope always precedes our problem. While we know that Mary and Joseph experienced difficulty and even doubts up to, and assuredly after, the birth of Jesus, we know that they were surely rejected and isolated, even moments of isolation from each other, God’s hope was still always there.  God’s hope and been a part of their journey from birth, it had actually be there before creation, waiting on the need to surface.

Over a century before the Israelites were attacked, conquered, and carried away to slavery, God already was revealing HOPE.  The prophets were calling them to return to God but at the same time their prophetic message was salted with Hope.  Isaiah spoke to a generation that they, themselves, would have passed by the time of the exile but their descendants would suffer – still, God spoke to the Hope that would be waiting for them.  This prophet did not speak with soft and gentle words, he was confronted and aggressive but still he could not help but point out that, even in their rejection of God, Hope would still be there waiting on the moment they would cry out to God. 

‘From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for God.’

Isaiah 64:4

The highly influential Charles Spurgeon, the 1800s British preacher still known as  the “Prince of Preachers” around the world, said,

‘God does not wait for us to return to him. He meets us. He comes to us the moment that we turn our feet towards his throne, [the moment we remember and cry out to him]. While we are, like the prodigal, a great way off, he sees us, and has compassion upon us, and runs to meet us.’ 

Hope always prepares us for the even greater hope, is enables us to weather the wait, it calls on us to be awake and alert, to see and participate in own preparation process.

I am convinced that this Advent season we are in a world wide time of wait.  A time when God is allowing us into our own preparation for the greater hope ahead, the greater wait on the horizon.  Seldom does has the entire world knowingly faced the same wait as it has this past year.  We have seen millions die and even more millions infected. We have been forced to step away from the life we considered normal and, instead, wear masks, meet on a computer screen, to stay in our homes, to shut down businesses, schools, and churches.   At the same time we have been confronted with some realities that we have failed to fully see up to this point.  God has opened the gates, he has forced us to open our eyes, he has woke us up and turned made it so that we cannot turn away from our problems, we can no longer ignore them.  In the midst of a pandemic we have seen protests in our streets spurred on by a deeply hidden in plain sight racism that has oppressed generation after generation of humans created by our God.  We have seen a divided country that has made sport out of our own destructive divisiveness. These plus many other realities have been in our view and impossible to ignore, impossible to dismiss.

But dismiss we often to.  It is probably the most powerful tool evil has in its tool box. We see the protests and proclaim that they should not be so noisy or violent, we hear of the political divide and we attack those with whom we differ using terms that villainize but never are truly and honestly defined. We choose to expand our division rather than seeking to bridge the gap.  We have seen churches defend their rights to gather at the expense of the health of their congregants and even more than that, the risk to those who encounter any that chose to act in a disregard of the health of others.  Even a pandemic has been politicized to the point that wearing or not wearing a mask is a political statement.

We have squandered an opportunity to let God grow us in our understanding of ‘Love all your neighbors.’  We have taken a moment of refinement to strengthen our ability to wait, to weather time, to grab ahold of the tools he has given us, to open our eyes and see what we have failed to see.  We have been surrounded by poop and instead of grabbing a shovel to clean up, we just added more. And, we then have found ourselves anxious, resentful, hateful, angry, delirious, scared, and sadly, in much the same way that we were before we had ever hear the word Covid.

This applies to us all, me included.

As Jesus spoke to his intimate followers in his final moment before his arrest, this was on his mind.  He knew that as he suffered the nonhuman horror that he was about to face, his followers would travel their own journey of pain, misery, frustration, and the temptation to default to hopelessness. He knew that these next days, as the followers faced all that was about to take place, Jesus knew it was not going to be the end of their wait, even this would further prepare them for more waiting, more unbearable human time.  So, he told them to watch for the signs, to not be unaware, to hold on to the hope from God who had never, and would never, let them down.  He called them to stay awake, to keep a watchful eye, to hold lightly their own speculation of how it would all play out, and to make the most of the waiting in between, to let God grow and prepare them, to hold onto the hope in the midst of the poop. To continue to trust, to hold on to hope, to continue to live and work, to continue to shovel and clear, to turn from the voices that called them to anything else, he was actually calling them to Hope that would lead to Peace, and to Peace that would stand them on Love, resulting in a Love that can carry a world.

To look for the coming blooms on the big tree, a sign that spring and summer are close.

Let’s return to where we started, with the words of Dr. Dr. Christopher Davis,

‘The reality is that God reserves the right to keep us waiting; time was made for humans, not for God. Thus, God is not in a hurry. The Lord is worth waiting for.  No matter how long it takes, no matter what you have to go through, when you get to the place that God has purposed, planned, and provided, or you receive what God has promised, prepared, and produced, you will gladly testify that it was worth the wait. Sometimes God uses slow because we are not ready for what God wants to give to us? Sometimes God uses slow because the ultimate end is not our gain but God’s glory.  We would do well to remember that God is not human, thus does not lie and has no need to repent. In other words, God is gonna do what God said. What we go through cannot cancel what God told us. Because God’s Word is more powerful than any struggle we go through along our way. If God said it, I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care what we have to go through. I don’t care what comes at us. None of it is strong enough to revoke, rescind, retract, reverse or repeal God’s promises. God promised to be the God of Israel, and they were to be God’s people. Thus, slow is never to be confused with no.’

Dr. Christopher Davis, Memphis Theological Seminary

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of  slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.  

II Peter 2:9-10

Let’s close with a look at a jumbled pile of bullet points (remember the the text  of this message will be included with the video posted tomorrow),

  • Wait and Time are realities in our humanity and our faith 
  • Hope is essential in wait and wait is essential in Hope 
  • Hope focuses us back on work to be done, waiting without hope leaves us longing for past normal and a failure to grow in the waiting 
  • Hope always precedes our problems
  • Hope is always our preparation for a greater hope
  • Hope enables us to wait, Hope empowers us to weather  time 
  • Hope is recognized when our heart is looking and our mind  is searching
  • Hope ushers us into peace and holds us there 
  • Hope is on God’s plan not our agenda 
  • Hope is on God’s perfect and timeless non-time table
  • Hope is grounded in God’s sacrifice and our intentional faith
  • Hope leads to Peace, Peace stands us on Love, Love carries the world

Today, as we begin this season of ‘wait’ we light the Advent candle of Hope, next week we will light the candle of Peace. In the meantime, this week, look for hope, grab ahold of it and don’t let go.  It may require that you let go of many other things, because sometimes it is impossible to keep a tight hold on Hope while holding things that interfere with hope, but as God refines and prepares you, the work he does will make the letting go worth the release of your grasp.

Really, What is Truth – Living a Life of Differentiation

We are in scary and bizarre times.  We are now approaching eight full months since we went entirely online for our Sunday worship.  At that time I am sure most of thought that we would be back together by summer, we are way beyond summer.  We had a surge in Covid cases then a decrease now we are hitting record numbers again and predictions of a surge of infections that we cannot fathom.  We have seen racial unrest and a major ‘Love your neighbor’ reckoning that should have been dealt with, by the church, decades, if not centuries, ago.  We have craziness in our politics and now an election just two days away that has many feeling anxious and afraid.  We have seen domestic terrorist groups come out of the woodwork, unapologetic white supremacy no longer hiding behind masks and hoods, and people of color continue to be killed. We have seen confusion at our borders leaving thousands of refugees in danger while border officials attempt to adapt to constantly changing rules and processing record numbers of families and children with as much dignity and humanity as  is possible under the circumstances. This morning we have faces on our screens that have dealt with trees and branches falling due to ice build up, power outages that have gone on for days, and neighbors depending on their fireplaces for heat and to cook, not to mention our homeless looking for a safe and somewhat warm place to take shelter.  In additions to those faces, we also are able to see those living in the southwest who have immediate family members fighting dangerous fires while leaving family at home with concerns of their own fires.  We also hear of the hurricane devastation to our south for a region that is still recovering from the last weather disaster. 

Bizarre times.  Scary times. Exhausting times. Frustrating times. But, Hopeless times?

And so, in these times, on this morning, we gather.  We gather to seek and search for truth in a time when deceit has become acceptable and expected.  We gather to look for light in a time when darkness has become comfortable.  We gather to worship a God who does not desire us to live in fear, in exhaustion, in frustration, in hopelessness. 

The most frequently used group of words in the combined Old and New Testaments are the words – 

‘Do,’  

‘Not’, 

and the word ‘Fear’. These words in various forms are found 365 times. One for each day of the year.  One for every day to remind us that God does not desire that we live in fear. One for every day that we are overwhelmed, out of control, or simply not in control of our situation, the behavior of others and our surroundings.  One for every fearful situation, every tragedy, every failure, every loss, every emotional roller coaster, every time living in this world is more difficult than the day before. One for every single day that God desires us to live in peace, regardless of the situation and emotions.

This is not a ‘just don’t be fearful’ grouping of words, we know that would be a waste of words.  Sometimes ‘just don’t be afraid’ combinations of words are beyond impossible.

When our daughter Grace was very young, she was convinced there was a monster in her room.  Every night I would look under the bed, behind the door, in the dresser drawers only for her to eventually figure out that the monster was in her closet. So, I began looking in there as well – thanks to a Pixar animated movie where a furry looking blue monster with hhis annoying yet funny eyeball friend were able to not be seen hiding in closets by adults, an adult looking in the closet was a total waste of time.  There was no way for this adult, me, to sooth this fear from a child who was the only one capable of seeing the monster.  Finally, I realized that I was incapable of removing this scary monster from her bedroom and probably the entire house, but, I was capable of removing the ultra scary impact of this monster hiding in the closet.  So, we installed a latch at the top of the closet doors which made it impossible for the monster to get out at night.  So, after that, every night I would simply latch the monster lock and she could go to sleep in the same room with a monster in the closet.

God is not removing the scary things, we live in a world where we all have the choice to be scary, to be deceitful, to be hateful, to be racists, to be all the things that can hide in our closets – however, God give us truth, he gives us light,  which, in turn, gives us hope and peace. God gives us the latch to take away the need to Be Afraid in the midst of our scary situations.

Jesus, in our gospel passage, and Micah in our Old Testament passage, for this week, are both addressing this truth. They are warning the people of who they listen to and who they follow.  

“Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray” cried the prophet Micah, “those who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”

Micah 3:5

Micah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, was calling the people back to God before disaster hit, at the same time false prophets appointed by the politicians in conjunction with the religious leaders were telling the people ‘Everything is fine’ and the people were choosing to listen to the easy message.  All the while, Micah knew that the only way to avoid the oncoming very scary situation was only avoidable if they listen and turned to God.  The people, much like people today, didn’t want to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable, so they listened to the voices that were soothing, those who were not going to cost them anything, those who were not going to call for a sacrifice of any kind. 

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;” Jesus later proclaimed, “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Matthew 23:2-4, 11-12

Jesus, just two days from his arrest that would lead to the cross, was preparing his followers for another oncoming tragedy, the cross and their ultimate persecution.  His warning was also about who they listened to, they could listen to the politicians and religious leaders or they could remember the words spoken and lived out in the life of Jesus.  While Jesus was being called a radical liberal threat, the political and religious leaders were familiar to the people,, they were comfortable.  Jesus was pointing out the hypocrisy and deceit coming from the leaders’ mouths.

Jesus and Micah both were calling the people to seek truth and to step into the light. It remains our calling today. 

“O send out your light and your truth;” the Psalmist begs God, “let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.

Psalm 43:3

“We constantly give thanks to God for this” the apostle Paul  says later to the believers in Thessalonica, “that when you received the word” (Remember that ‘the Word’- Logon/Logos (root), a word that has been spoken by God/Jesus and implied through the life of Jesus-how he lived consistently – it is the truth) Paul continues “ when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

I Thessalonians 2:13

’What it really is – God’s word’ – Truth – Paul is calling the believers to live a life of differentiation, to separate lies from truth.  To not become comfortable with the darkness.


When we speak of ‘Truth’ and ‘Light’ we often designate the both to religious or holy things, but truth is for all things, all times, every area of our life.  Truth and Light are timeless. Our bibles give us God’s Words and his workings, it provides us with a real life portrait of this spoken and lived out word in the life of God’s son.  That Word, verbal and lived out, are to give us the wisdom and the tools to seek, search, and find, Truth and Light.

Biblical scholar Peter Enns puts it this way, “When we allow the Bible to determine our expectations, we see that Wisdom, not answers, is the Bible’s true subject matter.”

See, God gives wisdom to differentiate truth from lies, wisdom to differentiate darkness from light.  Truth does not always give us specific answers, because questions change over generations, but truth, and light, leads us to the wisdom to find the answer.  This is why God was so pleased when King Solomon, who could ask for anything he wanted, asked for wisdom.  God knew that wisdom could give him the ability to differentiate between truth and lies, between light and darkness.

Now, wisdom only takes us as far as our use of wisdom is permitted to lead. Solomon chose to step away from the wisdom he had been given and soon was unaware of the lies and darkness that he was choosing.

Oddly, in a time where we have access to facts and figures, it is also a time when we are least determined to search and find truth, it is a time when light is at our fingertips but we have become satisfied with darkness.  We settle for the information that comes from the source we have chosen because it appears to align most with our own viewpoints, we are fed our own choice of news by the algorithms that match our data, and we angrily defend our stance based on truth that has not been truly vetted by us. We get angry and hostile when other views are expressed which is what happens when we have not verified truth for ourself.  A recent study has found that this is a problem across the spectrum, young people, elementary age through college and young adults are ill prepared to find truth, instead they, like us, are settling for the lies and the darkness

Truth works in tandem with Light.  One leads to the other and then back again. Light differentiates between truth and lies – Truth leads us to a life in the light. Truth leads us to light, light leads us to truth. Truth leads us to light out of the darkness, light leads us to truth out of the lies.

When our power went out this past Tuesday we didn’t think much of it, however as the week progressed, the darkness and the cold began to take its toll. We had assumed that we were pretty tough, but as the numbers on our thermostat began to decrease, and we had to live in darkness and without Netflix day after day, night after night, we began to recognize a truth – we are not so tough. Solitaire and carrying branches can only keep your attention so long.  So, on Friday afternoon, when we first experienced power of light and heat and hot water….and Netflix, we were reenergized, we suddenly had the ability to carry more limbs and play more solitaire.  We could see as we walked down the hall, we could feel the tips of our fingers again, and home was home once again.  Now, it went out again after two hours, but those moments in the light were amazing!  We did get it back that evening, when we, once again, realized that we are actually super tough. 

Look at the difference – Darkness divides, Light unifies

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

I John 1:5-7 

Light or Darkness, it’s Your Choice

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds  have been done in God.”

John 3:19-21.

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” 

Ephesians 5:8

Four Questions to Ask Yourself in All Your Searches for   Light and Truth.

  1. Is it in harmony with God’s baseline to Love God and Love Others? Or, does it conflict with that baseline?  Is this going to enhance and grow my love for God and others? Does it lead me to ‘Love my Neighbor” does it lead me to “Love all my neighbors?’
  1. Does it hold back the darkness, or does it seem to have dark shadows itself” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse recently said, “When you find hypocrisy in the daylight look for evil  in the shadows.”
  1. Is it consistent with God’s word? Remembering that God’s  word is the words spoken by God, [which is not the same as the things that humans say God means] Also, God’s word is the transparent life lived by God in the person of Jesus Christ.  Is it consistent with the life lived by Jesus? 
  1. Will it lead me to have attitudes and actions that will guide me to a life that positively impacts others? Will it lead me to lead others to truth and light?

What is YOUR choice?

Wrestling til’ Daybreak

08.02.20

In seventh grade there was the group of boys who have already become ‘men’ – puberty for them was a thing of the past. Then there was the other half, like me and most of my friends, who were still a decade or two away from puberty.  Then, there was Matt, Matt experienced puberty prior to learning to walk.

No where was this categorization more obvious than in Physical Education class. Everyday, class would begin the same, when seemingly a 1,000 seventh grade boys would cram into the small locker room to change into our required gym clothes.  Not only was this a challenge because of space, but also, because the past puberty seventh grade men would just walk up and rip the lock off their locker, while the pre pubescent seventh grade boys would be in a panic, scrambling to remember their combination – at the end of class, we would all crowd back into the same locker room to take the required shower all together in the no privacy group shower room. It was terrifying.  Coaches would stand at the exit door to make sure everyone had wet hair before leaving. In between the beginning and the end of class, there was the actual class.  Small, beanpole, frightened boys playing games such as Dodge Ball against huge and hairy men. 

While the Friday Seventh Grade Dodge Ball games were enough to send shivers down the spine of a 7th grade boy….we were unaware of the true evil coming our way – until we did, it all began on a late fall Monday, in third hour.

The Wrestling unit.

The coach had quickly educated us on the first move, this was holding down your opponent or freeing yourself from your opponent. Followed by coach pairing us up with our opponent for the entire wrestling unit. His method of choosing partners is best described as ‘sadistic’.  From the beginning pair up, his strategy was painfully obvious – man against boy. The most terrifying of all pairings came at the moment when coach, sporting an evil smirk, yelled, ‘Anthony’, then taking a long pause to build the suspense, his evil smirk gradually widened as we turned and looked at all men waiting to be chosen. There was only one man left, I had been keeping track. He looked at me, and the fear in my eyes, and then turned to Matt and said ‘Matt, you will be Anthony’s partner.’

Coach was now in his happy place.

As Matt and I were called to the wrestling mat, instead of walking to the center of the mat, Matt walked directly to me. He bent his head down to my ear, remember that Matt was a giant, whispering, ‘I will be in thee floor position.’ At this point it was all semantics for me, on the floor or kneeling, the outcome would be the same.  I had resigned myself to a death on a Monday in late fall on the mat in the wrestling room during third hour.

As we took our positions, I unsuccessfully attempted to hide my fear, coach blew the whistle. Matt quickly rolled out of my grasp – exactly the way Coach had instructed, his next move, however, was a bit more unorthodox.  He rolled to his back, pressed his shoulders to the wrestling mat and yelled, ’Anthony pinned me!’

Coach still had the whistle hanging between his teeth, but now his evil smirk had change to a look of pure confusion.  His joy was gone, his sadistic anticipation of a bloody match, had evaporated in an instant.

Matt stood up, looked at coach, and said, ‘I don’t do wrestling.” He then walked away from the center returning to his seat on the edges of the mat.  

It was a surreal moment as coach raised my hand in the air and instructed me to return to my seat.  The next day we coach announced that we had completed the wrestling unit and would be moving on to the second part of the basketball unit.

Matt was now a hero for all the seventh grade prepubescent boys.

Wrestling is probably the world’s oldest sport, dating back to 3,000 BC.  It was introduced into the ancient olympics in the year 708 BC. My, career in wrestling, began, and ended, on a mat in the wrestling room of West Junior High School of Norman, OK, in the year 1973 AD, during third hour on a late fall morning.

The grandson of Abraham, the son of Isaac, the father of Joseph, was a hard and successful worker, but not really a fighter, or a wrestler, he was more of a runner (as in run away), he was a natural manipulator, an even better deceiver, but, he was not a fighter.  However, he was about to face the most epic of all wrestling matches.   

Jacob was on his way home, it had been 20 years since he had run away from a fight at home, a fight, with his brother which he was sure to lose.  During that 20 years he had married 2 sisters, had children by both wives and servants, had amassed a fortune, and realized that he was a good business man. He had also, for the first time, met his match in Laban, his deceptive and manipulative father-in-law….who had warriors to fight for him.

Jacob had weighed the odds of facing his scheming father-in-law, or, facing his brother Esau, who had surely been nursing a very justified grudge for the past 20 years.

As he secretly snuck out of Laban’s house with his wives, children, servants and possessions, he headed home, on the way, Jacob attempted to soften the anger of Esau by sending daily gifts. As he approached the ultimate face to face confrontation, Jacob delayed the inevitable for one more night.  Continually calculating the potential risks, Jacob split up his family, people, and possessions and hid them safely to minimize his losses. Then, after enlisting the use of all of his strategies of manipulations, Jacob went back to the overnight camp and prepared for a night alone.

Even with all of his selfish faults, Jacob was a very determined man.  His very name meant ‘one who holds onto his brother’s heel’ – which is what he was doing at his own birth.  Even in the womb he was determined to get, and be, the most of every category.

Back at camp, as Jacob was alone, there was a man who gave Jacob no option but to engage in the epic wrestling match of a lifetime.  It was dark so Jacob could not see who he was against, but the possibilities were endless. It could have been the ghost of his father, Isaac, who Jacob has deceived, or his bother Esau, who Jacob had deceived, or his father-in-law,  Labah, who Jacob had deceived. That was just the top three most obvious choices.  He did not realize it but he was actually about to engage in an all night wrestling match with God.  If the fight had been during the daylight, Jacob would have never engaged, he would have recognized the odds were definitely not in his favor, Jacob would have employed his most successful maneuver, he would have run away.  It was dark though, and Jacob unknowingly, engaged in an epic struggle.

God, being a father, fought like a father. He withheld his own power to match that of his child Jacob. This was not just a struggle of Jacob with God, it was also a struggle for God against Jacob.  In many aspects, Jacob had been in this wrestling match his entire life.  Battling the powers within himself that were constantly at war with what he knew was right.  Choosing to mistreat and mislead loved ones, leaving them with no choice but to compete with each other for his love and attention; the very ones who should have been able to rest in his love and acceptance, his wives and his own children.  Then there were those who love for Jacob was betrayed by his determination to ‘get more’ – his father and his brother.  This was not Jacob’s first wrestling match, but it was his first honest interaction that mattered, this struggle was pivotal and essential in the life of Jacob.

There is something very different in a wrestling struggle and a mere street fight.  In a fight your goal is to destroy your opponent, to a the point that he cannot even rise up as the fight is over – in a wrestling match, your goal is to prevail, to take inventory of all of all your resources, your strengths and your mind, and then use those resources to out maneuver, to out wit, and to out discern your opponent.  In the dark, when you do not know who your opponent is, reading the situation and the powers against you is much more difficult – all you have is your own resources doing all you can to prevail.  

As a sliver of daylight became visible on the horizon and the two men were still struggling, God,  released his power through a gentle touch.  A touch that displaced Jacob’s hip – a touch that broke Jacob, a touch that reveled to Jacob that this was no ordinary opponent.

Let go of me,’ God said to Jacob.

‘I will not until you bless me,’ Jacob replied.

Jacob was beginning to recognize the fullness of this situation.  While getting a blessing had been the goal of his life, he was fearful yet interested in the possibilities of this moment.  This was a transformative moment for Jacob, his struggle now turned inward, no longer being about prevailing but, instead, it now was about coming to terms with himself.  Understanding that his life was meant to be more than just about Jacob, but, quite possibly his life was about something larger.

The Jewish understanding of the concept of ‘blessing’ was not the self-centered, fortune cookie vision, that we have now. A blessing was given so that the blessed would bless others. God was going to bless Jacob so that, in order with the promise that had passed from his grandfather, to his father, and now to him. 

Understanding the full meaning a blessing, and understanding the cultural and religious understanding of the day, is essential for us to understand the transformation taking place in Jacob. A truly selfless spirit had to exist to receive such a blessing, and, until this struggle with God, Jacob did not have such a spirit. This struggle was the nudge, or push, that connected the dots for Jacob, he had an epiphany as the sun rose that morning. He was finally ready and willing to receive the blessing that he had been seeking his entire life.

Jacob used his greatest power, the power that he had been endowed with in the womb, the power to hold on.  As the night-long exhausting wrestling match depleted Jacob’s strength and power, he held on to this opponent. To which his opponent said,

‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’

God to Jacob

It was all very fuzzy but Jacob thought he heard the words ‘striven’, ‘God’, ‘humans’ and ‘prevailed.’  Jacob had no problem with the word ‘striven’ that had been the storyline of his life, a constant struggle with someone, but the words ‘God’ and ‘Prevailed?” 

‘Have I just wrestled with God all night? and, did I win?’

Jacob to himself

As Jacob considered the implications of his opponent’s statement, an opponent who had now withdrawn himself, Jacob began to have, as he allowed, an experience of transformation. He could see beyond himself, he realized his role in the course of the world, he was humbled and depleted, he was broken, he was being rebuilt.  He now walked with a limp, but there was also a change in his countenance, no longer was he dependent on his own wits to survive, life was much bigger now. He was not perfect, there would still be a lot of rough edges but this was at least a partial metamorphosed Jacob. As can be seen in the name he gives to this place, ‘Peniel’, meaning ‘I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ It was a transformation that his life was no longer about prevailing, he wasn’t a prevailer, he was a runner – he had not prevailed, all he had done was to hold onto God, and in the struggle, he had been preserved.

He was now ready to face life, all the unknown, with no guarantees, no assurance of victories or personal gain, no recognition of importance or worth, but now, he was facing life with hope, sustainability, mercy and humility, all grounded on love.

In in order to understand the pertinence of Jacob’s wrestling match with God, to our own lives, let’s jump forward a couple of thousand years.  We end up at a wilderness place with thousands of hungry humans along with an exhausted Jesus and his weary disciples. Jesus has been denied even the shortest of breaks as he has, once again, has seen the oppression, the suffering, and the misery of the people.  His compassion and mercy compelled him to address their needs.  His passion makes it impossible to ignore. His, was a gut response to the needs, it pushed him to release, to heal, to free. There was an everlasting line of needs, one after the other. Jesus lived in the Kingdom of Heaven, even while on earth, a dwelling place that he calls all believers to live in,  a place where the physical needs of others are of priority to address, when the earthly reality is that the Roman Imperial system, as well as the existing religious system, did not see physical needs such as health, hunger, disease, poverty, shelter, abuse, and education as issues of priority.

So, when the disciples suggested that it was getting dark and that it would be best to send the crowds home, Jesus was perplexed.  There were still needs to be met, plus, now the people were hungry.

‘You feed them,’

Jesus to Disciples

‘We do not have anything to give them,’ the confused followers said, ‘we didn’t plan on feeding anyone, let alone a crowd this size.  We don’t have anything! What good can 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread for all these people?’

While what they didn’t have was the earthly focus of the disciples, the kingdom focus of Jesus was on what they did have.  They had a starting point. Jesus took that bread and the fish, and broke it all apart and distributed the small, tiny pieces into the baskets to be passed among the people.

The disciples had to be horrified at the thought of passing these basically empty baskets among the hungry crowd, to a crowd expecting something great to happen. The disciples had to be frustrated.  Jesus needed to rest, the crowds were hungry, the line for help was endless, they were in the middle of no where, it was time to go home.  The disciples were upset, they were struggling, they were in an epic wrestling match.  It was daylight, they could see their opponent, it was the whiny and complaining crowds with all their needs, their suffering, their oppression, their ancestral passing down of this oppression based largely on pigmentation, their nationality, their societal placement, the color of their skin, their enslavement, their poverty, and now their hunger.  They were not prepared and now it was on Jesus, and the disciples to provide.

‘When would this end?’ They questioned.

The more their frustration simmered the more they realized that the crowds were not their opponent, much like Jacob, they were wresting against Jesus, they were wresting against God.

Jesus was the problem, God was the source of this ridiculous situation. If Jesus did not have to stop every time a hurting person appeared this would not have gotten so out of hand.  If only God were to instruct Jesus to dismiss the needs sometimes, if only he would moderate the passionate compassion of Jesus.  Afterall, there were more important and pressing things to get to.

As with all of Jesus miracles, the miracle of creation to this moment of needs and hunger, we do not know the technical details of the abundance of food that filled every person in attendance that day, but we do know that the day ended with an abundance. It could have been a magical moment when the tiny broken pieces strangely multiplied, or it could have been an even more miraculous transformational moment as the people put themselves aside realizing they didn’t have to take more than they needed, or possibly seeing the contribution of the fish and loaves spurred them to realize they also could contribute.  Regardless of the how, the reality is that there was not only enough food there was actually an abundance.

The disciples then realized that their struggle was not with the crowds, nor was it with Jesus, it was with themselves. It was about a struggle with trust that came with living outside of the Kingdom of heaven where earthly things are allowed to hinder us from answering the call of God. Keeping us from addressing issues of injustice, oppression, deep inherited baggage that is more than humans can bear, hunger, sickness, racism, hatred, dismissal, disregard, poverty, and all suffering. All the things that tangle our roots and restrict our sight.

A wrestling match can bring us to transformation if we hold on. A struggle can show us what we have instead of what we do not have.  What is your struggle, what is God bringing into your vision?

With an attitude of willingness to be a part of God’s answer to our prayer, let us pray.

Transitions are Tough

hungry birdsOver the past few months we have had the honor of witnessing the birth of several birds in nests scattered outside our house.  

About two weeks ago, there was an even greater thrill as we happened to be watching as three little birds prepared to leave the nest outside our bedroom window.  We realized this was taking place as they began to take turns flapping their wings while jumping around the nest.  

Then it got interesting. The largest of three walked to the edge and stood there.  Teasing us with many “will he fly off now?” moments.  Finally, he took the leap, and it was truly a leap, straight to the ground with a thud.  The remaining two birds, a bit more hesitant, followed the example, and seemed to have the same failure as their larger sibling.  From what we could see, none of the three succeeded in the art of flight, they all just fell to the hard earth. We were certain that this was the end, they had all failed flying and we would soon be in the bird burial business.

Even in the surety of their failure, we continued to watch, often having to run to windows in different bedrooms.  We saw the squirrels coming closer as if they had been waiting for this moment.  We also knew that there were other, more aggressive and larger, birds witnessing this embarrassment, or, should I say, opportunity, unfolding.

We, in our infinite wisdom, were sure that these little birds we had become intimately attached to, had not been ready to attempt flying and had met their doom.

As we continued to watch, however, we noticed their mom and dad.  Neither was grieving or blaming the other.  Instead, Dad was watching from the highest branch on a bush near the back fence, while mom was standing on the ground, strategically positioned between dad and the babies.  As she stood there you could see her aggressive stance ready to attack the other opportunistic creatures.  One at a time, mom escorted the tiny poor fliers to the bush by our back fence, their new home, where dad received and congratulated each one with the bird equivalent of a high five.  It was not long before all three ‘not yet ready for flight’ birds were back with mom and dad and ready to continue their journey and their training….only now with more privacy, at least from the nosey Anthony family.

I have to be honest however, for the four humans watching, it was a pretty scary process. We gave up hope many times.

Later, as I thought through the experience, I remembered I had been awakened that morning to a very busy, and noisy, mom and dad.  While I had grown accustom to the parents feeding the birds early each morning, this morning, the morning of the kids’ first attempt at flight, mom and dad seemed to be executing the feeding process with a special and intense urgency. The children were receiving an extra portion of breakfast with a veracity that, as to yet, had been unseen. Don’t be fooled, they had always enjoyed feeding time but nothing matching the intensity of this day.  Mom and Dad knew the kids were going to need even more strength and power than ever before.  The kids, for their part, were taking advantage of this preparatory process for an adventure that was far greater, and riskier, than anything the nest had ever offered over the course of their entire lives.

The preparation before, during, and even after, was calculated and amazingly exhausting and emotionally draining.  At least it was to us humans, we were exhausted and spent even after having only experienced it from the spectator seats.  As the five birds disappeared into the bush, we four humans headed to the kitchen to feed ourselves and to prepare for the semi-calculated and amazingly exhausting and emotionally draining adventure of our average day that lay ahead.

I cannot claim to have any real empathy with a mom and dad watching their children take a necessary and deadly leap in order to move ahead in life. 

I can, however, say I watched my oldest child walk up the ramp to enter pre-K at Monroe elementary in August of 1998 and then, not too much later in the day, driving by the school to assure myself that he was not standing in the middle of the busy street (my wife later admitted to having done the same thing).  I actually remember watching, and hating, the transition, as each of my five kids walked the same ramp over the next five years, and driving by later just to make sure they, too, were not standing in the middle of the street.

Then, this year I watched as that same son walked another ramp to receive his college diploma followed by a drive to Stillwater later in the week to enroll my fourth child in her first year of college.  This means that we will be driving her to live in a place that is not our house in less than two months.  In the meantime, we have taken our third child to the airport to fly away to a summer volunteering experience in Hawaii as number two headed to Colorado for her summer job.  Finally,  I have listened each day as our youngest has gotten himself out of bed very early each morning for cross country practice and lawn mowing.

I lay in bed wandering when we transitioned to a time when he no longer needed me to wake him up and take him to practice or work.  I lay in bed wandering when he, our fifth little bird, approached the edge of the nest.

Maybe I do have a little bit of empathy for my dear mom and dad red bird friends that lived for a short time outside my bedroom window.

Paying Attention,

Rick

totalled Toyota VanOh… and we had to say goodbye to our Toyota van on May 4th due to the fact that we were rear ended by a school bus as I was driving Andrea to school (the irony has not gone unnoticed).  Goodbye to the van that each of our children learned to drive in and where almost 300,000 miles of memories took place.  It was tough to see it driven away on the tow truck.


Transitions are tough.