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.

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.