to hell and back

The first church we served was in Nebraska.  We were in the Presbytery of Central Nebraska.  At one of the presbytery meetings, there was a lay pastor ready to be certified.  He was answering questions about his beliefs and his sense of calling, his faith journey.

One of the ministers asked him about his views on Jesus Christ’s descent into hell.  The fellow didn’t know what to say.  My guess would be that was the first time anyone had ever asked him about it.  I can understand that; no one has ever asked me about it!  As you might know, there’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed saying about Jesus, “he descended to the dead.”  That’s from the modern, ecumenical version.  The original, traditional reading says of Jesus, “he descended into hell.”

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I honestly don’t remember the pastor’s name, but he took the opportunity to speak of Jesus’ descending into hell as an image of his own life.  He spent about two minutes telling us of his trials and tribulations.  (If two minutes doesn’t seem like much, get a stopwatch and time it.)  I really didn’t know him very well, but from what I did know, I knew he wasn’t lying about his experiences.  Meanwhile the poor fellow, the prospective lay pastor, was still up there, waiting for him to finish!  (By the way, he was certified.)

It was one of the more interesting presbytery meetings I’ve been to.

The epistle reading in 1 Peter 3 has some verses that are often associated with the so-called “harrowing of hell,” that is, the plundering of hell.  The harrowing of hell is said to be what transpired on Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Jesus visited hell and liberated the saints of old, and others.  There is no direct Biblical testimony to this, but it is based on a number of scriptures and the centuries-old witness of church tradition.  But let’s hold off on that visit for a few moments.

The lectionary reading actually begins with verse 18, even though the paragraph starts with verse 13.  Looking at it, I suppose I can see why that part was left out.  “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?  But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed…  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (vv. 13-14, 17).  “If suffering should be God’s will.”  Yikes!

Tucked away in the midst of that is this little gem: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (vv. 15-16).  Don’t get in people’s faces.  Don’t make them feel stupid.  Don’t be a jerk.  (That last sentence is from an alternate translation.)

Peter’s audience has had plenty of opportunities and/or demands to explain themselves.  They have had to deal with persecution.

Then there’s a transition to Christ, who “also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (v. 18).  He has set the example for them, and us, of underserved punishment and unjust treatment.

Then Peter’s thought takes a slight turn.  “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (vv. 18-20).

Who are these “spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey”?  There’s a curious story in Genesis 6.  There is mention of “the sons of God [who] saw that [the women] were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.  Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.’  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.  These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (vv. 2-4).

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[One image of Nephilim]

No one really knows who these sons of God and Nephilim were.  Theories abound about fallen angels, giants, unrighteous men.  Whatever the case, they were consigned into the prison Jesus visited.  In response, Jesus found them worthy of hearing his message of good news.

But then there was Noah, of whom he and his family “were saved through water.”  Peter says, “this prefigured [baptism, which] now saves you” (vv. 20-21).  The water of the flood, through which Noah and his family passed, prefigures, or foreshadows baptism.

So there’s water, but what about fire?  We’re back to the harrowing of hell, the plundering of hell!

The New Testament has three different words translated as “hell.”  So pick your favorite.  The first one, “Hades” (άδης), like “Sheol” in the Old Testament, is the land of the dead, the grave.

The second word, “Gehenna” (γέεννα), is the one associated with fire.  It goes back to the valley of Hinnom, where some Israelites burned human sacrifices to pagan gods.

The third word, “Tartarus” (ταρταρόω), is used only once—in 2 Peter 2:4.  In Greek mythology, Tartarus was said to be as far below Hades as the earth is below heaven.  Friends, that is a long way!

The word “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed (κάτω katō) means “down” or “below” and can be translated as he descended to “lower ones” or “those below.”  So it’s not a place; it’s people.

Some speak of a struggle with Satan.  Many have been really creative in describing how Jesus kicks open the gates of hell and demands the release of the captives.  One of my teachers had a dim view of this whole scenario.  He didn’t put much stock in portraying Jesus in a boxing match with the devil!

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Banu said that, after my surgery seeing me unconscious in the intensive care unit, with all kinds of lines hooked into me and a ventilator tube going down my throat, she could better appreciate Jesus’ descent into hell.  He came down to where she was.

(Actually, on occasion, that might be a good story for hospital chaplains to use when consoling those in the waiting room.)

C. S. Lewis said of the harrowing of hell, “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending.  There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

We’re told, “Whatever hells we may find ourselves in, whether in this life or another, Jesus is there waiting for us—and He has the power to pull us out.  Hell’s days are numbered.  Indeed, the only thing that keeps us there is our refusal to accept God’s love—and we may genuinely hope this love will [at last] prove irresistible.”[1]

How much during this particular Lent is this a meaningful word?

On Ash Wednesday, I spoke of the ashes put on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I suggested perhaps this time we might not need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.

It’s possible we might be in our own Hades, indeed our own Hell, and yet, hope is here.  The word of good news, of gospel, is being delivered.

As we end the chapter, the good news of resurrection breaks forth from down below into glorious majesty.  Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (v. 22).  We speak of the triumphal procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  How can we not also speak of the triumphal procession of Christ freeing the captives and defeating the grave—literally plundering death of its ultimate power?  Who else has gone to hell and back?

Angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to him.  This isn’t some abstract nicety.  I’m not sure how often we encounter actual angels, but authorities and powers are forces we run into every day.  We can think of visible authority, like government.  There is easily recognized power, like the power of knowledge.  (Teachers, would you agree with that?)

There are realities more elusive and unknown.  Many of them we choose.  With others, we allow ourselves to be chosen.  We obey the authorities of money, of fashion, of “what will the neighbors say?”  We choose the power of life and death in the multitude of ways they are expressed.

We build up, and we tear down.  We affirm, and we negate.  We help, and we hinder.  All of that stuff has been made subject, all has been made subordinate, to Christ.

So, what about this Lent?  Are we to give something up?  Should we give up that which keeps us from answering others with gentleness and reverence?  Should we give up that which keeps us from having a clear conscience?  Should we give up that which imprisons us?

Thanks be to God, we have one who goes before us, one who leads in procession for us, one who has gone to hell and back for us, Jesus Christ.

 

[1] godoftheodd.wordpress.com/2017/04/07/the-harrowing-of-hell-what-really-happens-between-good-friday-and-easter-sunday


hypocrites

“Are you kidding?  Why should I go to church?  They’re a bunch of hypocrites!”  Have you ever heard anything like this?  Have you ever said anything like this?

The gospel reading for Ash Wednesday features Jesus criticizing hypocrites.  “So there; I’m right!”

I have a little story regarding my first experience of Ash Wednesday.  I was a freshman at a Roman Catholic university in Texas.  Mind you, I wasn’t interested in the Catholics or church in general.  One day, I was eating lunch with a friend in the cafeteria.  I mentioned how there were some students walking around with a black mark on their foreheads.  I thought it was funny.

My friend said simply, “Well, it’s Ash Wednesday.”  I had absolutely no idea what that meant.  He had a quizzical look on his face.  I had a blank expression on mine—but at least I wasn’t a hypocrite!

1 ashI’m about to do something which is not exactly authoritative, and that is, to define a Biblical word in English.  Here’s what the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says about “hypocrite”: number 1, “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion,” and number 2, “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”[1]

When Jesus disapproves of the hypocrites, is he thinking of our current-day idea of the word?  If Jesus is saying that we need to practice what we preach, then, as challenging as that may be at times, it still seems like something we can get a handle on.  And if we can’t, there’s usually somebody else who’s willing to point out where our words and deeds don’t match up!

I started thinking about the word “hypocrite” when I noticed the translation in the Anchor Bible.  In all three places where most English versions read “the hypocrites,” it reads “the overscrupulous.”[2]  That puts a different spin on the passage.  It sounds like what Jesus has in mind aren’t those who are frauds, but rather, those who want to “demonstrate their spiritual superiority.”[3]

Our word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek ύποκριτης (hupokritēs).  It originally meant “interpreter” or “one who explains.”  Later, it took on the meaning of “actor,” like one who performs in a play.

It’s this definition of “actor” that was the commonly understood meaning of the word for centuries.  So there wasn’t really a derogatory sense associated with being a hypocrite.  It wasn’t an insult.

It appears that it’s only well after the New Testament era that “hypocrite” takes on that negative meaning.  That is, of people pretending to be something other than what they are, of not practicing what they preach.[4]  So Jesus is saying, “whenever you give alms”… “whenever you pray”… “whenever you fast”… don’t be actors.  Don’t play a role.

After each time Jesus warns against behaving like the hypocrites, he adds this: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (vv. 2, 5, 16).  They’ve received their reward.  What reward is that?

What reward do actors receive—or at least, hope to receive?  Actually, Jesus tells us: “so that they may be praised by others” (v. 2).  Actors, and performers in general, want to be applauded; they don’t want to be booed.  Anyone who’s been on stage, be it for a school play or doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl, can tell you that.

If that’s all you want your life to add up to—the acclaim given to actors, to hypocrites—that’s fine.  But Jesus suggests something much better.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (vv. 19-20).

A life that only has the symbolic fifteen minutes of fame, in the end, isn’t much of a life.  Jesus concludes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v. 21).  So where is our treasure?  Where is our heart?  And what does that mean for us tonight?

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That ashy cross on the forehead reminds us of our mortality.  We are on this planet for a finite amount of time.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We often act like it isn’t true; perhaps we usually act like it isn’t true.  We are “hypocritical” in the purest sense of the word.

Still, on this Ash Wednesday, perhaps we don’t need to be reminded “we are dust.”  We’ve witnessed plenty of dust this past year.  We don’t need to act.  Maybe in some bizarre, unwanted way, this is a gift; it is a grace.  How could that possibly be the case?

We are especially reminded that our prayer, just as with giving of alms (giving in support of others) and fasting, isn’t for show.  We are told, “go into your room and shut the door.”  That is where we get our inner strength, “in secret” (v. 6).  And thus empowered, we can display it openly.

And contrary to my earlier foolishness, that ashy cross isn’t an occasion for humor, but an occasion for joy.

 

[1] www.m-w.com/dictionary/hypocrite

[2] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann, Matthew (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1971), 73, 74, 78.

[3] Albright and Mann, cxxiii.

[4] Albright and Mann, cxvii.


idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)

Have you not heard?

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With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

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There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

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Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

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Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


Jonah, where is the love?

I said a couple of weeks ago that sometimes events happen during the week that must be addressed on Sunday.  Sometimes it works in reverse.  On Wednesday, Inauguration Day took place in an atmosphere of a, let’s say, rather argumentative transfer of power.  And look at who’s featured in today’s Old Testament reading.  It’s none other than that argumentative prophet, Jonah.  I don’t think he set out to be a curmudgeon, but that’s how he wound up.

1 jonI will connect the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah in a few moments.

Those who know nothing else about him remember that he’s the guy who got swallowed by a fish.  (Or was it a whale?  Whales aren’t fish!)

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah.  (I didn’t start going to church in earnest until I was in my twenties.)

Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those images that cling to a felt backboard.  Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me.  How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature?  He was there for three days and three nights!  How could he breathe?  Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

It really doesn’t work to just talk about chapter 3 without telling the rest of the story.  And what a story it is!

The book of Jonah has plenty of satire.  There are numerous places where the humor breaks through.  If you want a story filled with zany and sarcastic images, this is the one for you.  The first word of the book in Hebrew (וַיְהׅי, vayehi) means “and it happened.”  Once upon a time.

The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their wicked ways.  Something to understand about Nineveh is that it is a bitter enemy of Israel.  It might be the least likely place Jonah would want to visit.  He buys his ticket, but it’s for a ship sailing in the opposite direction.  It’s headed for Tarshish.  It’s thought to have been a city in modern-day Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

So basically, God tells him to go to one place, and he heads off for the other side of the world.

I don’t suppose anyone can relate to Jonah, that is, sensing God would have us do something—and our really not wanting to.  It’s “really not wanting to” to the point of running away as far as possible.

Very briefly, a storm breaks out, and the sailors are doing their best to handle it.  While the tempest is raging, Jonah is down below snoozing; he’s taking a nap.  They wake him up, and he winds up telling the crew to throw him into the sea, and the storm will cease.  Jonah is ready to die.  Anything is better than setting foot in that horrible city.  Even spending time in a fishy gullet beats it!

Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (Mt 12:38-41).  He sees himself in Jonah’s three-day tour of the deep.  The ancient Hebrews spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster dwelling in the watery depths.  Jonah prays, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2).  This is a picture of death.  When that critter upchucks the prophet—that must have been a serious case of indigestion—Jonah, figuratively, goes from death to life.  And just as Jonah emerges from the grave, so does Jesus.

I’ll jump ahead to chapter 4, which is after we find out his message has done its job.

This is not what Jonah wanted.  He was hoping they’d shake his hand, say “nice sermon,” and then go right back to their deliciously evil stuff.  Unlike Abraham, who didn’t want Sodom destroyed, Jonah’s already got a spot in mind with a good view of the city.  He’ll set up his lawn chair, kick back, and get ready to watch the fire fall!  Okay Lord, smite them, O mighty smiter!

Unfortunately for Jonah, God has the best interests of the city in mind, and Nineveh is spared.  This is where we’re treated to some of that argumentative character I mentioned at the beginning.  In verse 1, the Hebrew word for “displeased” appears twice, and the word for “angry” (חׇרׇה, charah) literally means “hot,” “to burn.”  One might say Jonah is blazing with fury.

Here’s where I connect some of the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah.  He would rather die than have things work out for the Ninevites.  Does that sound familiar?  When we watch the news networks, when we peruse social media, it seems like it would kill some people to say something good about “the others.”  I would rather die than give them a thumbs-up!

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As for Nineveh, things work out so well that when the king hears Jonah’s message, he not only repents but he also issues a decree.  “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7-8).

Even the animals have to repent!

Maybe it’s clear by now that Jonah is a bundle of contradictions.  He senses his God-given duty, but he fights like the devil against it.  He sets off on the longest journey he possibly can and finds himself back at square one.  The thing that he believed would destroy him becomes the vehicle of his deliverance.  The message of the grace and forgiveness of the Lord becomes in him an occasion for anger and bigotry.

Jonah almost literally has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his job.  He’s successful in his God-given task, and you better believe, he’s mad as a wet hen about it!  And yet Jesus sees in Jonah a lesson for others.  That’s the power of grace in action.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us.  Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up.  He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city.

There is another connection between Inauguration Day and Jonah, and it’s a contrast, thanks to Amanda Gorman.  At 22, she is the youngest poet in US history to appear at an inaugural event.  Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” begins with these words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast.” [1]  Maybe Jonah can relate to that.

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["There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."]

She also references words from the prophet Micah.  Speaking of the vision of the Lord’s embrace of all peoples, we hear, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mi 4:4).  Vines and fig trees are signs of prosperity.

What a contrast.  Micah speaks of hope and courage, and Jonah sits under a bush, stewing with anger!

Still, we hear the words of Jesus.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Inauguration Day was four days ago.  How are we doing with loving our enemies?  Must we regard each other as enemies?

(By the way, the last verse in that passage, verse 48, has created plenty of confusion.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless.”  Rather, it means “complete.”  Jesus is saying we are to be completed, we are to be perfected.  In the same way, the US Constitution’s “a more perfect union” doesn’t mean a flawless union.  If that’s the case, Lord help us!)

Now, back to love!  Danielle Kingstrom speaks about love, saying, “Love is…not an easy phenomenon to engage.  It comes out of nowhere and rams into you like a semi-truck on the freeway.  It smashes all your senses and discombobulates your reason.  Of course, people are afraid of it!  It’s an explosion of accident and attention all at once.  What the heck do we do with energy like that when it surges?”[2]

Here’s a lesson for Jonah, and here’s a lesson for us.  She adds, “Love doesn’t have to decide what to ‘do’ about certain groups of people until love is face to face with the person.”  We can be face to face with people in a way that exudes disgust and disdain and dread.  So Jonah, where is the love?  (The Black-Eyed Peas asked that same question.)

“Love is like a mirror…  It shows you where you need to grow…  The thistles and thorns will stick us—it’s challenging to see a reflection of ourselves that we hadn’t expected.  But love is unexpected like that.”  It’s so easy to simply dismiss someone as lacking comprehension or lacking character.

And here’s a crazy thought: even if we hang on to those attitudes, even if we still look on them as enemies—even if we’re still not yet ready to make that step toward freedom—we come right back around to Jesus.  Love ‘em anyway!  Let’s take the actions, and refrain from the actions, that make life harder for them.  We don’t have to wait until bad stuff happens to us.  We can help each other walk a silver, if not a golden, path on this planet.

It’s like the question God poses to Jonah at the very end of the book.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).  I like the way the natural order is included in God’s concern.

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  At least, we’re not told the answer.  What is our answer?

As we enter a new political landscape (and they do come and go), let’s learn a lesson from Jonah—and from Jesus.  When we love our enemies, we must first deal with the enemy within.  (I need to learn this as much as anyone else.)  To the extent we have division and fear inside ourselves, we project division and fear outside into the world.

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We need to realize that we are worth loving.  We need to realize that we are loved.  We are loved by our Lord, but to really experience it at the flesh and blood level, we need love face to face.  There are those who never see that.

Let’s love our neighbor and love our enemy.  Who knows?  We might find they’re one and the same!

 

[1] www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35268337/amanda-gorman-the-hill-we-climb-poem-biden-inauguration/

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/daniellekingstrom/2021/01/no-love-let-us-remember-that-we-know-love/


light, an epiphany

As we learn more about the frightening arsenal that was present at the Capitol building, in and around it, we realize what a “bullet” we dodged.  As horrendous as the loss of life was—and even one is a deplorable tragedy—it could have been much worse.  Many of the rioters were carrying firearms.  Someone even had several Molotov cocktails on hand!

The fact that the attack occurred on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord has not been lost on many.  Epiphany, meaning “manifestation” or “revelation,” is usually illustrated by the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.  It speaks of the light of Christ shown to the Gentiles, to all the nations.

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I have developed a new appreciation for Epiphany and the season of Epiphany.  I’m not speaking of magic, but the reality and power of that light, with the prayers of the people, had to have some salutary effect.

Is there a lesson to be learned?  Without a doubt, justice must be done, but if we stop there, we cheat ourselves.  Laying aside the violence at the Capitol (and the threats that continue), our country still suffers deep divisions.  Like it or not, we have to live with each other.

Does compassion have anything to say to us?  “Hold on now,” some might say, “how dare you suggest that?  These are enemies, despicable enemies.  And we know we’re right!”

Now look into a mirror.  What do you see?

Compassion is not weakness.  It is not surrender.  It does not ignore crimes.  It takes a great deal of strength.

(On a side note, here’s a question.  Does compassion correlate to anything physical?  Can it be measured?  There is an episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds, “The Cosmic Connectome,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that might touch on that.  At the 3:30 mark in the trailer there’s a hint of what the episode says about such things.)

One of my favorite poems on light was written by Brian Turner in his book, Here, Bullet.  He is a US veteran who served in Bosnia and Iraq.  Turner speaks of Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.)  One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.  The poem is titled “Alhazen of Basra.”

2 blog“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldnt ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the minds great repository
of dream, and whether hes studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.

We have much to learn from Epiphany light.


calming the chaos

It was the evening of New Year’s Day.  There was a pitter patter of shower outside.  I decided to go for a walk; I wanted to hear what the rain would say to me.  Upon stepping outside, I realized the droplets were being outvoted by pellets.  A slushy crust was coalescing beneath my feet.  That’s okay, since the ice is making its voice heard, I’ll lend an ear.  So off I went into the night.

Actually, I did not lend an ear.  I was too busy thinking about my determination to listen to whatever precepts the precipitation presented.  Is there a word for me to receive?  It’s difficult to be aware if you’re trying to be aware that you are aware.  You wind up only hearing yourself.

In any event, it was a pleasant walk.

1 gn

It seems fitting that we would have that kind of weather on the evening of the first day of the year.  I say it seems fitting, in that our reading from the Hebrew scriptures for today, the Baptism of the Lord, is from Genesis—the first five verses of the book.  (You know: “In the beginning,” water, baptism, even if it’s a baptism of sleet.)

At his baptism, as the water flowed down his body, Jesus did hear a voice.  It was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).

There are two creation stories in Genesis.  The “macro” story is in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, the creation of the world.  The “micro” story is the rest of chapter 2, focusing on the creation of the human race.  We’re in the “macro” story and looking at the first day of creation.

With each of the days of creation, we have the repeated statement, “God said.”  God speaks, and something appears, something happens.  God speaks the word in creating.  Over and again, we are told God saw that it was good.  It is the word pervading all of creation, permeating all of the cosmos.

The gospel of John borrows from this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

Summing up each day of creation is the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day,” and the second day, and the third day, and so on (v. 5).

I want to include a side note.  I imagine you’ve heard it said the Bible isn’t a scientific textbook, or words to that effect.  If we read these words as though they were lab notes from a science experiment, we will miss the wonderful and beautiful truth these words really convey.

2 gnFor example, on the third day of creation, plants appear.  It’s not until the fourth day that the sun, moon, and stars appear.  To force these images into that system of logic is completely alien to how the ancients perceived it.  Obviously, they knew plants could not precede the sun!  Actually, to force these images into that system of logic is alien to how we ourselves use art and poetry.

Today being the Baptism of the Lord, I would like to focus on the first two verses, which are the reason this text was assigned to this day in the first place.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

The earth was a formless void.  The Hebrew word for “formless” (תֹּהוּ, tohu) also means “confusion” or “chaos.”  It was a nothingness of chaos.  The word for “void” (בֹּהוּ, bohu) also means “emptiness.”  It was an emptiness without form—an emptiness without shape.  The earth was a real “fixer upper.”

Some might say 2020 was a nothingness of chaos.

What we see is God bringing order to what is the ultimate picture of disorder.  (If it’s possible to have a picture of disorder.)  God is setting boundaries.  “God [separates] the light from the darkness” (v. 4).  In the days following, we see other things being separated, being distinguished.

Sometimes my dear wife Banu will prepare a dish with ingredients carefully portioned into distinct layers.  She often shows me how to eat it, sometimes using a fork to demonstrate.  I am reminded to not mix them together, so as not to deprive, or to diminish, the individual flavor of each element.  I am not to mess up the texture of the various components.  I am forbidden to bring disorder to order.

(Please understand: I’ve never been one to take a utensil and clumsily stir the contents of my plate around until I’m left with a blob-like specimen with the consistency of thick paste.  Furthermore, I’ve never been one to then say, “Hey, it’s all going to the same place anyway.”)

3 gn

Perhaps my favorite of the prophets is Jeremiah.  The Bible tells us more about him as a person than any of the other prophets.  And he has quite a story.  I mention him because, in a startling passage, he uses the word bohu (4:23-26).

“I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.”  The earth is again described as “void.”  He continues.

“I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.  I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, [he’s doing a lot of looking!] and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”

Walter Brueggemann comments on Jeremiah’s looking.[1]

“The fourfold ‘I looked’ is a staggering study of creation run amok, creation reverted to chaos…  [E]ach time the poet looks at the world, he sees more and more of creation being nullified, regressing to the murky condition of Gen. 1:2…”  God’s covenant with Israel “held to the [astonishing] notion that human conduct matters for the well-being of creation.  Working from that notion, the picture of this poem is grim.  Since there has been no obedience, there will be no viable creation.  Disobedience finally leads to chaos for the entire creation.”

Lest we think that’s an exaggeration, our own disobedience in tending the garden is leading to a twenty-first century version of chaos for creation.  We too often ignore God’s covenant, now expressed in the living Word, Jesus Christ, in our dealings with each other.  We foment disorder in each other’s lives.

As I’ve said before, sometimes events happen during the week that simply must be addressed.  The horror at the Capitol building on Wednesday is definitely in that category.  We witnessed a mob storm the building in an effort to disrupt the proceedings of a joint session of Congress.  For a while, the rioters had their way.  Officers were attacked, weapons were carried, windows were smashed, offices were ransacked, and worst of all, there was loss of life: four protesters and one police officer.  To use the Hebrew word, it was tohu.  It was disorder.  It was chaos.  It was an obscenity.

I posted something on Facebook that evening.  This was it: “This morning, aware that today is the Epiphany of the Lord, I wrote in my journal, ‘May the Lord shine today!’  No darkness, no violence, no thuggery can withstand that glory.  ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’”

Epiphany celebrates the light of Christ shining to all the Gentiles, to all the nations.  The visit of the Magi illustrates it.  When they asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, the powers-that-be in Jerusalem were terrified.  They feared the light shining into their darkness.

We are called to work for justice.  Jesus was all about that.  What happened on Wednesday had nothing to do with justice.  We didn’t see a Spirit-led struggle for justice.  Those folks were not guided by the Holy Spirit, and neither were the ones who urged them on, who planted the idea.

Our “God is a God not of disorder [not of chaos] but of peace” (1 Co 14:33).

I’ve been talking about creation as a process of setting boundaries, of bringing order to disorder.  Light is separated from darkness.  The sky is separated from the ocean.  The land is separated from the sea.

Are there broken boundaries in need of restoration?  Does order need to be brought to disorder?  Are there any things that need to be separated?

It’s important to take notice of something.  When God sets boundaries, it is indeed a creative act.  It isn’t a destructive one.  The boundaries are healthy boundaries.  They are boundaries that protect.  They are not boundaries that harmfully isolate.

4 gn

So, back to the beginning.  We are nine days removed from New Year’s Day.  Moving into 2021, what word is there for us?  “A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  The fresh breeze of the Spirit brings order to chaos; it brings harmony to havoc.

As for me, the story of my nocturnal walk reinforces a lesson I need to heed over and over.  I could do with some restoration of boundaries, so that I can rightly discern the Word from the many words bubbling up in my mind.

So again, do you have any boundaries that need to be restored?  Is there any chaos that needs to be calmed, that needs to be set in order?

Thanks be to God, who speaks the word that creates, and who speaks the word into our lives to calm the storm.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 59.


I will be with you again

U2’s “New Year’s Day” was released in 1983.  U2 has had many great songs, but to me, this ranks near the top.  (“Pride in the Name of Love” isn’t a bad song either!)  Clearly, this New Year’s Day is like none other for everyone in the world.  Of course, we’re all thinking of the pandemic (as if that isn’t way more than enough), but a fellow named Speed Leas spoke of five levels of conflict.

U2Levels one to three describe increasing degrees of difficulty.  At level four, people are no longer satisfied with getting their way.  Now they have to get rid of the opposition.  Some might say we in America are at level five.  (I think that’s a bit of exaggeration.)  At this level, people become fanatics.  They won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop.  They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.  The only thing you can do at this level is remove the opposing parties from each other.  In church contexts, a pastor may need to ask for protection and support from the denomination.

Do we need to ask for protection and support?

Under a blood red sky / A crowd has gathered in black and white / Arms entwined, the chosen few / The newspapers say / Say it’s true, it’s true / And we can break through /
Though torn in two / We can be one…

 

(In the video, Irish flag draped on his shoulders, Bono references Jason McAteer, who had just scored the goal that secured Ireland’s place in the 2002 FIFA World Cup.)


freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

1 ga

(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

4 ga
How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

5 ga

I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

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{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


we dreamed, and it was joy

Sometimes I will try to go to sleep.  Please note, I said “try.”  This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night.  There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not.  At least, I have found that to be true with myself.  Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world?  If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.

Dreams themselves can be funny things.  They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know.  Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways.  People have derived messages and gained insights from them.  That goes for me, too.  I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over.  More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.

1 ps

The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words.  They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems.  They’re too good for that.  They’re too sublime.  They’re too majestic.  They fire the imagination.  They are works of art.

Psalm 126 is one of those works of art.  It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.”  What an awesome image.  “We were like those who dream.”  It had to be a dream!  These were people who had been exiled to Babylon.  They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears.  The world as they knew it had ended.  And yet…

I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam.  It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse).  It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska).  It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).

I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers.  Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future.  Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given.  We need them!  And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah.  The New Testament has one or two, here and there.

The word chalam has another definition.  It also means to be strong, to be robust.  It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump.  Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam.  The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.”  Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy?  Those who do not dream are unhealthy?  They are not strong?  They are not robust?

According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  They can’t control themselves.  Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

2 ps[Here is a joyful person!]

The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah.  It also appears in verses 5 and 6.  It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.”  What is their response to what the Lord has done for them?  What is their response to be like those who dream?  It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!

The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?”  It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”[1]

The psalmist does something interesting.  It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  And then there’s a transition.  Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4).  (That’s the desert in southern Israel.)  We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.

Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert.  This isn’t the time to let us down!  Don’t let our dreams turn to dust.  We just got our singing voices warmed up!  We were making beautiful music.

Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).

What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping?  Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded.  Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.”  It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion.  It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated.  Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop.  Maybe the ground will not be receptive.  Is it rocky?  Is it sandy?  Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?

The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time.  Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1).  How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word?  Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns?  Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?

Or will our efforts end in tears?

Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow.[2]  “Joys are hidden in sorrows!  I know this from my own times of depression.  I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.”  He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor.  We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”

3 ps

[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]

It really is too easy to focus on the negative.  One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests.  I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys.  We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life.  Please understand me.  In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us.  We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.

I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer.  There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep.  (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” (page 124)

I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.”  I find depths of meaning in that.  Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall?  Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy?  Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace?  I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.

The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).  That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves.[3]  “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

How has our harvest been?  How have our crops fared?  Is our livestock chalam?   Can we carry our sheaves with joy?

The psalmist would have us be dreamers.  During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers.  Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be.  It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”[4]

It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts.  We might be weeping for a season.  And yet…  God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.

We dreamed, and it was joy.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=VLPP3XmYxXg

[2] henrinouwen.org/meditation/joys-are-hidden-in-sorrows

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7yMUIezLSE

[4] hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventB/Advent3BIsa61Ps126.html


light up the sky

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  Rip it into shreds.  Let the fire fall.  Light up the sky!

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So begins Isaiah 64, our Old Testament text for today, the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This chapter is a prayer of lament—a communal lament, a lament of the entire nation.  That’s not exactly how we think of Advent.  That is, if we give it much thought!  In any event, maybe that’s the perfect theme for this year.

Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent.  It is a time to reflect, to repent, to reevaluate how we are living life.  It is a time to reconsider our life of faith in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  Certainly, those are concerns throughout the year, but in Advent, they are meant to especially come into focus.

It might be considered the difference between chronos and kairosChronos is time measured in seconds, hours, years.  It is clock time.  Kairos is time measured in moments, especially the right moment, the opportune moment.  It is time as experienced.  Advent might be considered kairos time, with the understanding that kairos time can’t be willed into existence.  However, we can prepare ourselves for it.

Advent begins in late November or early December, smack dab in the midst of the holiday season!  Can’t you hear the well-wishers and jingles from every nook and cranny?  Hallmark started showing Christmas movies last month.  This is no time for sober self-examination.  Live it up!

Scriptures like the one I just mentioned might only prove the point of those who don’t like Advent.  What’s all this doom and gloom!  Or as Batman’s arch enemy the Joker would say, “Why so serious?  Let’s put a smile on that face!”

2 is(Please note: it is possible to have a genuine check-up and still be of good cheer!  Trust me, I’m no fan of sourpusses.)

Jonathan Aigner, who teaches music to elementary school students and also serves as music minister in his United Methodist Church, has some thoughts on the season of Advent as a time of expectation.[1]

“It prepares us.  It leads us through all the steps in the story so that we can experience the hope and longing.  We look in on John the Baptist crying out, ‘Prepare ye the way!’  We feel some of Mary’s joy and anticipation.  With each week, the longing and anticipation builds.

“But it’s a discipline, and part of discipline is having to wait for the events to come.  In this case, the discipline includes holding off on the celebration while the rest of the world, which doesn’t particularly care about the true reason for Christmas, is busy with its own frenetic energy and excessive indulgence.”

Reflecting his calling as a musician and lover of Advent hymns, he laments,I’ve been put on the spot in front of the choir and the congregation by Advent grinches.  I’ve been insulted and maligned in adult Sunday School classes.  (Ironically, children are usually quite receptive.  It’s the adults who sometimes act like children.)”

Really, what does our consumer culture do with words like, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, / And ransom captive Israel, / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear”?  That business about “captive” and “lonely exile” doesn’t lend itself very well to commercials intent on selling you a car, complete with a red bow mounted on the roof!

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Of course, as already suggested, this year the celebrations are muted.  A pandemic has a way of doing that.  And so, perhaps we can relate to the communal lament of the Jewish people well after the return from exile in Babylon.  (This part of the book likely deals with that time period.)  The initial joy at the homecoming has gradually faded.  Things aren’t working out as well as was hoped.  The prophet recognizes the sin that has worked to overturn, to infect, the dreams of the people.  (More on that point later.)

Please understand.  I’m not saying Covid-19 resulted from sin!  Still, the way we’ve treated each other and the planet has been more than a little sinful.  Maybe Mother Earth is voicing her disapproval!

Let’s follow the original thought of verse 1.  Rip open the sky, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence…  When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv. 1b, 3).  Some big-time seismic activity is on the agenda!

Maybe that can be expected, because the prophet says, “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 him” (v. 4).  The apostle Paul quotes that in 1 Corinthians 2:9.

Things start to get interesting.  The scripture says, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5).  Come now, who’s really at fault?  You took off and left us to our own devices.  It’s been noted, “If parents left a bunch of toddlers and puppies at home for a few hours and the house was a shambles when they returned—would we blame the puppies and toddlers for making the mess or the parents for leaving?”[2]  In a way, blaming God for our sin is as old as the human race.  Adam pins the blame on the woman he says you, God, created.

4 is

I remember watching a football game a few years ago in which a receiver dropped a pass in the end zone, missing a chance at a game-winning touchdown.  (I won’t say what team it was.)  Afterwards, referring to the play, he tweeted, “I praise you 24/7!!!  And this how you do me!!!”  Hey, it wasn’t my fault.  I need to make sure the coach knows about this.

Having said all that, truth be told, the Hebrew here is unclear.  It could also go something like this: “because we sinned you hid yourself.”  The sequence is reversed.  Still, I think it’s more fun to blame God!

We quickly move on.  “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…  [And again] you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (vv. 6a, 7b).  The word for “delivered us” (מוּג, muwg) means “melt” or “dissolve.”  We are being dissolved by our wrongdoing; we are melting into it.  It is swallowing us up.

Isn’t this an inspiring thought for Advent?  Don’t worry; we’re getting ready to turn the corner.

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (v. 8).  There’s a transition.  We belong to you, O God.  The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Make of us what you will.

Can we relate to this image of Advent?  This isn’t the advent of gentle Jesus born in a barn.  This is the advent of the grand and glorious power from on high.  We hear a desperate and disconsolate cry for deliverance.  A sincere plea for release from prison can only come from a heart of faith.

There is a confession of how the temple and cities have been ravished.  The anxious and accusatory appeal finishes the prayer: “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?  Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (v. 12).  It does end on a dark note.  It does turn out to be a lamentation.

On that note, is there honesty, even beauty, in lament?  If so, what is it?

When my sister and I were kids, our family celebrated Christmas in much the same way as others did.  My dad strung the lights out on the house, sometimes putting some in the bushes in front.  We put up the Christmas tree, glistening with ornaments, its own lights, tinsel, and an angel gracing our presence, hovering high above.

Then, of course, there were the presents.  This was, after all, the crowning feature to the whole business.  We tore open the gifts and we posed with them while my parents photographed us.  (I don’t know if others had that tradition.)  However, it didn’t take very long until the novelty wore off.  It only took a couple of days—sometimes even later on Christmas Day itself.  “Is that all there is to it?”  I had a rather empty feeling inside.

5 is

For my parents, there was an almost palpable sense of relief.  “I’m glad that’s over!”  It was communicated that, when all was said and done, Christmas was a chore.  (Maybe it was just them who felt that way!)

I’m not sure what I felt was exactly lament, but it was close to it.  I felt like I had been robbed.  I felt like I had been robbed while getting presents on a holiday which many people lamented was being commercialized.  (Again, maybe it was just me who had that feeling!)

We as a nation, as a church, need to own our lament.  We need to acknowledge it—especially this year.  Something tells me that won’t be difficult to do!

How does lament help prepare us for the Lord’s advent?  Can we see the honesty in it?  Can we see how, in its own way, lament paves the way to healing?  We short circuit the process when we take a short cut—when we jump to conclusions.  That can lead to a refusal to mature in the faith.  Too often, I fear I’ve done that.

Lament can lead to healing when we come clean, as stated earlier, when we repent.  It’s when, by the grace of God, we change our minds (which is what “repent” literally means).  We are made ready to welcome our Lord’s advent.  We have the promise of the apostle Paul that God will “strengthen [us] to the end, so that [we] may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 1:8).

Come Lord, light up the sky.

 

[1] www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2020/11/23/how-to-explain-advent-to-people-who-think-its-already-christmas/

[2] www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/advent1b