music

crimson detergent

Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic.  Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus.  He was out of his mind.  He had lost his marbles.  The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head.  Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.

Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit.  Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated.  There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites.  It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London.  I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.

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The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”  I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns.  I’m not terribly fond of its tune.  I apologize to those who do like it.  As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.

However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”  I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it.  Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe.  But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.

Now, I’m warming up to the song!

As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle.  It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt.  Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride.  The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25.  I have included a chart of it which I will reference.

The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east.  The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed.  I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.

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We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court.  The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.

This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God.  The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil.  Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.

According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it.  Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.[1]

Now, back to that bronze basin.

Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business.  I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying.  With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup.  We might need a large container filled with water.

Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.”  To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene.  It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Or is it?  There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests.  There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing.  And as they say, this is not a negotiation.

If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21).  So clean up your act, or else.

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As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood.  The priests were literally washed in the blood.

(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks.  People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you.  The Germans came up with the term.  Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)

“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”

We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal.  Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus.  It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.

That book is filled with visions given to John.  (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.)  We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.”  What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth.  As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.

He sees people from every nation, speaking every language.  John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.

Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns?  Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio.  Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other.  Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune.  The Lord is the best audience!

Notice who’s right next to the throne.  It is the Lamb, slain for us.  What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter.  But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.”  However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb.  A little itty-bitty lamb.

4 exRemember Mary, who had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb?  She had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme.  The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s.  The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian.  This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues.  Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia.  He enjoyed a certain level of popularity.  Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!

We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.

We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?”  John replies, “I don’t know.”

The secret is revealed.  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message).  They’ve scrubbed them clean.  I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient.  How indeed can blood remove stains?

It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.

Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.

John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.”  The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.”  It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.”  Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience.  Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general.  We all are afflicted by sin.  We all feel the pressures of the world.

The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23).  Washing those robes is washing them with life.  It is washing death away.  When we put on those garments, we put on Christ.  We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27).  We wrap ourselves with Christ.

5 exWhat is to become of that multitude without number?

We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one.  “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.”  “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17).  The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.

There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection.  Still, there is power in the blood.  The blood is the life.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcR9k8o4I0w


subversive joy

Rarely does a scripture reading in a worship service last longer than a couple of minutes.  When it’s completed, we usually say something along the lines of, “This is the word of the Lord.”  The response is something like, “Thanks be to God.”

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How about a scripture reading that goes on for six hours?  We see that in Nehemiah 8.  And then when it’s finished, could we have our proclamation, “This is the word of the Lord”?  And how should the people respond?”  “Thanks be to God?”  Well, they don’t; they are crying their eyes out!

(Hold that thought.  We’ll get into it in a few moments.)

For many people, Nehemiah may not be one of the better-known figures in the Bible.  He and Ezra (who might be a tad better known than Nehemiah) were contemporaries.  Both lived as exiles in the 400s B.C.  They both made the trip back to Jerusalem about a century after the first group the Babylonians forced into exile.  Nehemiah came from east of Babylon, from Persia.  He was a political figure, serving as a governor.  Ezra was a scribe, so he was a spiritual / religious figure.

Very quickly, they heard of the sorry state of the Jews who had returned in previous years.  The walls around Jerusalem lay in ruins.

Nehemiah oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, despite the opposition of many enemies of other nationalities.  They didn’t like the idea of these Jews moving into the neighborhood and setting up shop.  It’s like when you have company, and they just keep hanging around.  It’s ten o’clock, then eleven o’clock.  You’re yawning and saying, “Well, it’s getting late.”  Midnight is approaching, and they still haven’t left.  Finally, you say, “Listen, I don’t want to be rude, but I need to go to bed.”

The enemies of the Jews were much more than rude.  They launched a campaign of intimidation—and some of it was violent.  However, their efforts failed.  Long story short, skipping a lot of events: the temple had been rebuilt a few decades earlier, though it seemed a pale shadow of the original one.  And yes, the walls also were rebuilt.

Some people see this chapter as the beginning of the faith we now call Judaism.  When the people were sent into exile, they couldn’t worship the way they had done for centuries.  There was no temple; they could no longer conduct temple worship.  What could they do?  They began to focus on the scriptures, the word of God.  Synagogues were formed, and they’re still around!  Gathering around the word in the synagogue was a forerunner to believers in Christ gathering in the church.  Christians would gather around the word, both written and living—and we’re still doing it today!

I mentioned listening to this six-hour scripture reading, but how about the ones doing the reading?  We skipped over the liturgists, folks like Mattithiah and Shema, and our old friends Bani and Akkub and all the rest of the boys!  They serve as translators from the Hebrew text to the Aramaic language, which everyone spoke.  (Aramaic lasted for centuries.  It was the language of Jesus.)  They also explain the meaning, so that everyone can see how it applies to them.

I also mentioned the people’s reaction.

Anathea E. Portier-Young has said, “Nehemiah 8 is one of the few places where Scripture talks about Scripture as such, showing us what happens when a community comes together to hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted.”[1]  I wonder what our reaction would be?

2 ne She continues, “When they hear the written word proclaimed and interpreted, people weep because they hear their sins spoken out loud and they know they are not innocent, but guilty.”  They know they have fallen short.  When they hear the word applied to their lives, no one feels like celebrating.  No one is shouting, “Glory hallelujah!”  They are not delighted; they are dejected.

I wonder, have I done my job if my sermon reduces everyone here to tears?  (I suppose there could be more than one reason for that!)

So there’s a dark cloud of gloom.  These people have been beaten down, and it looks like it’s their own fault.

What do their leaders say to them?  It’s something they weren’t expecting.  “This day is holy to the Lord your God.”  Okay, it is holy, but we’re not sure what that means.  Where are you going with this?  Are we in trouble?  Is God about to lower the boom on us?  Then comes the rest: “do not mourn or weep” (v. 9).

We don’t understand.  We thought this would be a call for wailing and fasting, a time of deep lamentation.

But the good news is just getting started.  “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).  That’s a lot to take in.  I wonder if they’re not like the psalmist, who sang to the heavens, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (Ps 126:1).  We were like those who dream.  There might be those who are still crying, but now, these are tears of joy—tears of euphoria.  Far from being commanded to fast, the command is to have a party!

This is how they are to respond to the word that has been spoken—to the word that has been preached.  In our churches, we have our own response to the word, which could include reciting an affirmation of faith, receiving an offering, celebrating the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, even making a public renewal of faith or a request for healing.

Likewise, the people in our text are also given actions in response: go, eat, drink, send portions to those in need.  Why should they do this?  Here we go again.  “[F]or this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Dan Clendenin tells us, “As the Scriptures often do, the story…offers a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and subversive piece of advice: do not yield to the spirit of despair.  Do not default to gloom and doom.  Instead, choose the radical option of genuine joy.  Yes, eat the fat and drink the sweet wine.”[2]

I like the way he describes our default setting: gloom and doom.  As a nation, we are too often expected, we are too often told, to adopt that as our baseline.  That’s our starting point, our initial frame of reference.  Our news networks (I say “news” tongue-in-cheek) enjoy pointing at each other, almost like mirror images.  We are bombarded with “breaking news” and ordered to cry out, “Where is the outrage?”  The pundits angrily, childishly, and self-righteously assert that the other side won’t be happy until America is a smoking pile of rubbish.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

In the face of all that, how can we have the audacity to be joyful?  As Clendenin says, “The opposite of joy is not sadness or sorrow but anxiety.”  We are an anxious people.  We stir each other up, and we seek answers in a variety of ways.

I understand medicine has its place.  I myself take anti-seizure medication.  Still, we go way overboard, and we spend a lot of money.  (Quick side point: some pharmaceutical companies have raked in billions of dollars during this past year and a half.)  Too often, we rely on drugs to give us an artificial sense of joy.  Maybe we can relate to the 1970s punk rock group the Ramones, who sang, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

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[During a visit to Austin, Texas in April 1983, my friend Rich met the Ramones at a record store. When he asked Joey Ramone if he could pose with them for a photo, he replied, "I dunno."]

Joy is subversive.

Take the example of Jesus.  During his earthly life, his joy was something that could not be stripped from him.  He chose to not let it be taken.  Consider his exchange with Pontius Pilate, who told Jesus that his life was in his hands.  Jesus said in return that any power Pilate had was granted by his heavenly Father.  (See John 19:9-11.)

Those are not the words of an anxious man.

We see in the letter to the Hebrews that the cross, a method of execution reserved for the lowest of the low, was a sign of shame.  Jesus refused to wear the shame.  He disregarded it; he rejected it.  Even that horrific treatment could not tear away his joy.

How much less does it take for our joy to be snatched away?  The secret is found in the message to the people that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

When I was in the Assemblies of God, we sometimes sang the worship chorus, “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength.”  There are many stanzas; each has one line sung three times and followed with “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”  You can just come up with your own lines.  One I remember in particular was, “If you want joy, you must ask for it,” or the more exuberant, “If you want joy, you must shout for it.”  Or, “If you want joy, clap your hands for it.”

I guess I don’t have to say we could sing about joy in ways a little less informal!

The point is, the joy of the Lord is very much a lifeline, a power source, a fountain of rejuvenating water.  But it’s more than something to request.

Portier-Young says, “The summons to joy is the great surprise of this passage and the summit toward which all its proclamation climbs.  This joy is so excessive its grammar refuses to contain it, for ‘the joy of the Lord’ can [truly] mean God’s own rejoicing over the people who have drawn near with attentive ear and heart.”

In other words, joy belongs to God’s very essence, aside from any request we might make for it.  The joy of the Lord as our strength is what gives us life.  We become immersed in joy.  We live in joy.

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As suggested, there is much in our world today which desires to plunge us into anxiety, into dread, into constant nagging fears.  There are forces which employ shame and bullying.  Nonetheless, as he so frequently does in the scriptures, Jesus tells us, “Fear not.”

Likewise, when the congregation in Nehemiah hears the word of God, they are encouraged—they are ordered—to reject the shame, to reject the spirit of despair.  Their enemies are mighty.  There’s no question about that.  Still, they are to embrace a subversive joy.  We also are to do the same.  There is no room for the Holy Spirit and for the spirits of despair and anxiety to co-exist.  The joy of the Lord is our strength.

 

[1] www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-nehemiah-81-3-5-6-8-10-2

[2] www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20070115JJ.shtml


the blessing of babeling

The first nine verses of Genesis 11 tell the story of the Tower of Babel.  We hear that “the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1).  With that kind of unity, it looked like anything was possible!  The people moved to a plain, and at the town hall meeting, someone said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (v. 4).

PrinceThe place erupted with cheering and for the entire night, they partied like it was 1999.  (Yes, an unexpected Prince reference.)

After the groundbreaking, things went pretty much according to plan.  There were a few setbacks, but the important driving force was the mission to make a name for themselves.  All other considerations were secondary.  In his article, “Mankind’s War against Humanity,” Yonason Goldson draws inspiration from Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch.  According to the rabbinical critique of the tower builders, “if a brick were accidentally dropped from the top of the tower, the people would weep over the futility of the labor invested to carry it up.  But if a worker lost his footing and fell to his death, no one gave him a second thought.”

Labor unions weren’t exactly a high priority.

Still, there was one observer who had a beef with what was going on, and it went beyond worker safety.  The Lord wasn’t happy with the overall vision of this construction project.  “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (v. 6).  The Lord made the decision to “confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (v. 7).

Babel We might want to ask, “What the heck?  What’s wrong with everyone pulling together as a team?”  However, it wasn’t the unity which enriches that was guiding them.  As Goldson says, “The unity that should have uplifted humankind became twisted into a vehicle for corruption of the human spirit.  The solution was not to confound or confuse their language, as the popular translation suggests.  Rather, it was to mix together a multiplicity of words and thoughts so that understanding would become more elusive and, consequently, require more effort to achieve.”

A unity insisting on groupthink is a distortion.  Control of language and definitions is an effective means of controlling people.  When individual languages disappear, we lose the unique concepts and insights the speakers of those tongues were able to achieve.

Groupthink

Daring to question the party line, the approved ideology, can be hazardous to one’s health.  At the very least, it presents a golden opportunity to be shamed and excluded.  It seems that we today are not unlike that.  Thus we have, not a petulant deity, but a loving and liberating God who provides the blessing of “babeling.”  It is a blessing, not a curse, to be scattered and abandon “building the city” based solely on ourselves—not based on the justice and peace ultimately inspired by God.


mourning to morning

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (vv. 5, 11).

These beautiful, elegant verses from Psalm 30 often adorn little knick-knacks and more serious pieces of art.  They are truly inspiring lines of poetry.

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"Angel of Grief" sculpted by William Wetmore Story (left), a happy woman (right)

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?” (v. 9).  How about that one?  Is it poetry?  Sure it is, but how likely are we to see it on a coffee mug—or as a decoration on someone’s tee shirt?  Probably not so much!

What about the book of Lamentations?

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vv. 22-23).  This is truly majestic stuff!  I imagine there are some people who don’t realize it comes from this book.  Of course, it’s the inspiration for one of the most beloved hymns of the church, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

There’s a worship chorus many of us have learned, those who are familiar with some of the music of the Maranatha Singers: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; / his mercies never come to an end. / They are new every morning, new every morning; / great is thy faithfulness, O Lord, / great is thy faithfulness.”

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (v. 1).

That’s how Lamentations begins.  I wonder, what are the chances of those lines embellishing a plaque mounted on a wall in your house?  Compared with “great is thy faithfulness,” what are the odds of that appearing on the welcome mat at your front door?  Probably not so much!

As you can see, celebration and lament often go together.  We’re good with the celebration, but how about the lament?  About 40 percent of the psalms are psalms of lament.  Lament is shot through the books of Job and of course, Lamentations.  Psalm 22 appears on the lips of Jesus on the cross.  (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  Lament appears throughout the scriptures.

Given the weight the Bible puts on lament, it would seem our worship would include at least a tiny bit more of it.  Our hymns scarcely mention it.  Churches that do lament better are the traditionally black churches.  No doubt, they’ve experienced much more of it.

2 psHere’s a question I’ve asked myself: how can we include lament—how can we include it in song—without getting morbid?  Is there such a thing as a liturgical Debbie Downer?

Psalm 30 portrays the other side of the danger, of the misfortune.  It is used as one of the psalms in the Easter season.  It speaks of life from death.  Aside from the little goody we’ve already seen, “What profit is there in my death,” we have verse 3: “O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”

Sheol is the land of the grave.  It is the underworld.  It is the land of the dead; it’s like Hades in Greek thought.  Not much happens in Sheol.  It’s a gloomy, gray place.  All the restaurants are closed.  All the musical instruments have been confiscated.  There’s nothing to read, nothing to watch, no fun whatsoever.  And as we see in verse 9, addressed to the Lord, “Will the dust praise you?  Will it tell of your faithfulness?”  The worship of God is absent.

Sheol is the land of the grave.  As such, it can include death in many forms: whatever is destructive, whatever is harmful, whatever is shameful.  As for the psalmist, what is presented is recovery from a serious illness.  Indeed, it’s an illness that first appeared to be terminal.

It has been a long night.

I’m sure we can relate to this in a literal way.  There are those nights that seem to never end.  Maybe we’ve even looked to the east, wondering when the sky would begin to show signs of light.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in body.  Perhaps we’ve been sick in heart.

Finally, here comes the dawn.  Maybe we’re still sick, but a sense of relief takes hold.  We’ve made it through the night!  Hallelujah.

“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”

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It’s been a hard road, as verses 6 and 7 tell us.  “As for me,” according to our poet, “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed.”

I like the way the New Jerusalem Bible puts it.  “Carefree, I used to think, ‘Nothing can ever shake me!’  Your favour, Yahweh, set me on impregnable heights, but you turned away your face and I was terrified.”  In Biblical thought, when God’s face is turned away, favor, special privilege, is suspended—if not canceled altogether.  Who can say what that would mean for any single person?  For that matter, who can say what that would mean for any single group?

The other night, while we were talking about the virus, Banu wondered about the next thing we’re supposed to be afraid of!

We must admit that for many, favor and special privilege are too often absent.

In 1996, Pastor Soong-Chan Rah and his wife Sue started a church in inner-city Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is the Central Square neighborhood, positioned between Harvard and MIT.  The students called it “Central Scare.”  That is, “the scary urban neighborhood into which you dare not venture.”[1]

After the church had been going for a little while, Rah was planning a sermon series, but he wondered, “What should I use?”  He considered the gospel of Mark, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or even Revelation, with God’s vision of the heavenly city.  Eventually, he decided to go with the book of Lamentations.  It’s safe to say the church growth gurus rarely suggest that one!

He felt the need to meet the people where they were.  Instead of glossing over their suffering, he wanted to address it.  He wanted to give them the language for it.  He didn’t want the “rah-rah,” exuberance to be the only word that was heard.

The status quo—the way things are now—isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration.  In many ways, the status quo is a cause for mourning, a cause for grief.

In his book, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, Rah comments, “Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed, because their lives are in a good place.  Tax rates should remain low.  Home prices and stocks should continue to rise unabated, while interest rates should remain low to borrow more money to feed a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.”[2]

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The book of Lamentations pictures a city and temple that have been destroyed and a people who have been forcibly relocated by a mighty empire.  Jerusalem, who “was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal” (v. 1).  She’s had to exchange her fine garments for a burlap sack.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place” (v. 3).  They have no place to call their own.

There is something we already incorporate into our worship that has a resemblance to lament.  It’s when we join in our prayer of confession.  When we confess our sin, we admit the wrong in our action and in our inaction.  We do this at the corporate and at the personal levels, that is, as a body and as individuals.  One would presume—one would hope—that at least a smidgen of lamentation goes with it!

As for lament itself, it also is expressed for all of us and for each of us.  Are we to take responsibility, to follow up on lament?  Is it enough to simply “feel bad” when it’s within our power to act?  I would suggest that St. James’ maxim of “faith without works is dead” would apply (2:14-26).

How about when we have little or no control over the situation?

Rev. Rah describes the book of Lamentations in several ways, including that of a funeral dirge.  Already in chapter 1 we see references to widowhood (v. 1), young girls grieving (v. 4), priests and elders perishing (v. 19), and a note that “in the house it is like death” (v. 20).

“Lamentations 1 depicts the reality of death and suffering that leads to the appropriate response of lament.  The city of Jerusalem has died, and Lamentations 1 initiates a funeral dirge in response.”[3]  Jerusalem is a dead body.  It must be acknowledged and mourned.  It must be honored.  “The funeral dirge is a reality check for those who witness suffering and allows mourning that is essential for dealing with death.”[4]

When we mourn, we remember.  Christopher Wright says, “Part of the horror of human suffering is to be unheard, forgotten, and nameless.  Lamentations is a summons to remember.”[5]  It “forces us to listen to every mood that the deepest suffering causes, whether we approve or not.  We are called not to judge, but to witness.  Not to speak, but to listen.”[6]

When Job’s friends heard of his misfortune, they traveled great distances to be with him.  They were true friends, being with him in his pain.  They were witnesses.  Of course, when he began venting his “every mood that the deepest suffering causes,” they began to judge!

Earlier, I expressed the concern about being morbid, being a Debbie Downer.  With that in mind, can we see the power of lament?  Can we see how it helps us to be real?  Can we see how it enables us to honor and care for each other?  Can we see how, through a meandering, circuitous route, lament leads to joy?

Clearly, not everyone has experienced the same degree of sorrow; not everyone has had the same amount of misfortune.  However, I think there’s something we all have in common—something we’ve all gone through.  And that is, the pain of growing up.  The feelings of rejection, of awkwardness, of embarrassment—that’s all part of the package.

For those who are still kids, I can tell you, “Hang on; you will get through it.  It might not seem like it, but you will make it.”  Of course, even as adults we still deal with that stuff, but one hopes we become better able to handle it and learn the lessons it provides.

5 ps

[photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash]

The remembrance and witness that come with mourning and lament do indeed impart power.  They lead us in the path of Jesus, a man acquainted with sorrows.  He walks with us through those never-ending nights.  And finally, here comes the dawn.  Our mourning gives way to morning.

 

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 1, paragraph 1.

[2] Rah, Introduction.1.13.

[3] Rah, Epilogue.2.1.

[4] Rah, 2.1.6.

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, “Lamentations: A Book for Today,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 39:2 (Apr 2015), 59.

[6] Wright, 60.


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!

2 jon

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/


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.)


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.”

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[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!

1 is

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.

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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


this was always the place

1 gnHave you ever been given a nickname regarding something you had absolutely no control over?  You know, like being called “freckle face.”  (Assuming, of course, you have a generous supply of freckles.)  How about addressing someone of petite stature?  “Shorty” would be a nickname completely unearned.  That would also be true if the name “Shorty” were used ironically, referring to someone seven feet tall!

Here’s another question.  Have you ever given someone else a name about something they couldn’t help?

A lot of that goes on in the Bible.  Consider the Old Testament reading in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder.  We’re introduced to Jacob in chapter 25, just as he and his twin brother Esau are being born.  And what does he do to his elder brother?  He takes him by the heel!  Darn that infant.  Just for that, we’re going to call you Jacob.[1]  You know—the name that means one who supplants, the one who will shove you aside and take your place, the one who will grab your heels and try to trip you.

(I won’t go into detail now, but he does wind up tricking his brother into selling his birthright.  He tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, the one that should go to the elder son.  Esau is furious and is dead set on killing Jacob, so Jacob hits the road to go live with Uncle Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah.)

Speaking of nicknames regarding something of which you have no control, my own name wends its way through history back to Jacob.  James, by way of the French (Jacques), back to the Latin (Iacomus), back to the Greek (Iakobos), and finally to the Hebrew (Jacob or Ya‘aqōv).  Am I a supplanter; do I scheme to take someone else’s place?

I guess I can take heart in that there have been, and still are, a ton of Jameses throughout time and space!

But let’s go back to that sneaky Jacob.  Pastor and writer Renita Weems says of him, “What makes Jacob’s story so incredibly engaging and kind of inspires the energy that we’re feeling now is that it is the first character in the Genesis story that provides us with so many different dimensions of a particular character.”[2]

She isn’t kidding.  Later on, Jacob wrestles with a man/angel all night long.  Eventually, the man throws in the towel, but not before getting in one last lick at Jacob’s hip!  Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (32:28).  His craftiness is rewarded.

2 gnWeems goes on, “I mean, here we finally have someone we have some adjectives we can use—deceptive, clever, shrewd, subtle, whatever.  Before Jacob, we’re finding mostly characters are pretty one dimensional.  They pretty much do what God says and may protest a little here and there, but in Genesis, this is, aha, someone who’s human, the first real, human person.”

When called upon, he can also do an incredible Hulk imitation, though without the green skin!  He comes upon some shepherds at a well which is covered with a large stone.  Removing it is a job for several men.  Jacob, upon seeing the beautiful Rachel approaching, walks over to the stone and picks that bad boy up!  I don’t know.  Does this display suitably impress Rachel?

Still, all of that is in the future.

I started by asking about nicknames, but the real focus here is something deeper and more inward.  Jacob has a dream.  We’re told he comes to “a certain place” and stays there for the night.  The Hebrew simply says, “the place.”  And at “the place,” he uses a stone for a pillow! (v. 11).  Who knows what kind of dreams that might prompt?

I don’t want to get into the mechanics of dreams.  There are numerous interpretations of what they might mean.  Some people remember their dreams on a nightly basis; some almost never remember them.  I think I’m somewhere in the middle.

There was a dream I had for many years.  If you’ll indulge me; I’ve told this story before.  It dealt with McDonald’s, where I worked when I wasn’t away at college.  In the dream, I would be at various locations.  I might be at home, or maybe I’d be driving my car.  And in the back of my mind was this nagging fear that I should be at work; I should be at McDonald’s.

In the dream, it was always the case that it had been days, even weeks, since I’d showed up for work.  I would have the feeling that I needed to go to the store and check the schedule.  Was I in fact supposed to be there?  But I don’t remember ever making that trip.  Instead, I would wake up and realize, with a great sense of relief, that I was now at seminary, or later on, that I was now pastor of a church.

3 gn
I haven’t had that nightmare (yes, nightmare) for a long time now.  Banu once told me that I was subconsciously expressing my fear of working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life.  I believe there’s something to that!  At a deeper level, though, I think McDonald’s represented my sense of not moving forward.  It was a symbol of my needing to complete something.

All of us have had dreams, even recurring ones, that have had special importance.

Jacob has a dream that is exceptionally important—and quite vivid.  He dreams “that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v. 12).  The word for “ladder” is better translated as “ramp” or “stairway.”  Jacob dreams of a “stairway to heaven,” to reference the old Led Zeppelin song.

The Lord meets him and identifies himself as the God of his fathers.  God gives him the promise given to Abraham and Isaac, that he will inherit the land and his offspring “shall be like the dust of the earth.”  Furthermore, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (v. 14).  God promises to be with him until these things are fulfilled.

(On a side note, it’s always the men who are given credit for the number of children.  The women are mysteriously absent.)

After that promise of amazing grace, Jacob wakes up and it dawns on him, “God is here, and I didn’t know it!”  Something is stirring inside him.  Whoa!  God is here, and I didn’t know it.  That something stirring inside him is fear.  It is reverence.

Remember what’s going on with Jacob.  He’s on the run; he’s literally running for his life.  Is it possible he has only himself to blame?  Maybe.  How many times have we been on the run, seemingly for our lives, only to realize that we are our own worst enemies?

We come to “the place,” just as Jacob does.  Where is that place for each of us?  Where is that place for us as a community, as the church?  Where is that place where we stop running?  Where is that place where it might take a dream, a vision of angels ascending and descending, to make us realize that God has been here the whole time?  This was always the place.  It is a time of awe, of holy fear.

What does the dream signify?  What does Jacob’s ladder mean?  Now we’re back to the multiple understandings I mentioned earlier.  That’s certainly true with this dream.  If you don’t believe me, do an internet search for “meaning of Jacob’s ladder,” or words to that effect.  I imagine you’ll find two or three takes on it.

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[Jacob's Dream by William Blake]

One that I find interesting and helpful comes from Ephraim of Sudlikov, a rabbi from eighteenth century Poland.  He speaks of the “ladder filled with upward and downward motion [as] a metaphor for the religious life of any human being here on earth.”[3]  Very briefly, when we feel a profound closeness to God, we are ascending the ladder.  When we feel a profound distance from God, we are descending the ladder.

Ephraim says there’s nothing wrong with this.  It is an integral part of the spiritual life.  It is who we are.  It shouldn’t be lost on us that “God shows this to Jacob precisely at a moment in which he is alone and afraid.  It is as if God seeks to reassure him: ‘This very sense of alienation and disconnection you feel may yet lead you to find Me in entirely new ways.’  Just as your spiritual life wanes, it may yet wax stronger than you yourself thought possible.  And the waxing may owe much to the waning.”

Jacob now realizes, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).

Jumping ahead a few centuries, John’s gospel presents Jesus telling Nathanael, “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.’ [By the way, in Hebrew thought, a fig tree was symbolic of prosperity.]  And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’” (1:50-51).  John links Jesus himself with the gate of heaven.

How does Jacob finally respond to all of this?  He builds a shrine and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God” (v. 19).  Then he makes a vow in response to God’s promise of free and amazing grace.  He’s still not quite ready to fully trust God.  If you do this…then I will do that…

Thomas Whartenby tells us, “The man who has always lived by his wits now seeks to strike a bargain.  To the God who made gracious and unconditional promises, Jacob makes a very guarded and conditional vow: If you deliver, I will serve.  It is easier to build sanctuaries than it is to live the life of faith.  Conditional discipleship is much easier than unconditional surrender.”[4]  Can we all agree to that?

Yet, despite all of Jacob’s duplicity, despite all of his scheming, God is faithful.  Like Jacob, we come to our “place.”  And too often, we would rather be anywhere in the world but there.  We would rather be on Jupiter or Saturn than there.[5]

5 gn

Still, it’s true, that is where God meets us—where God has been waiting to meet us.

 

[1] יַעֲקֹב (Ya‘aqōv)

[2] billmoyers.com/content/god-wrestling

[3] www.beliefnet.com/faiths/judaism/2000/12/the-ladder-to-heaven.aspx

[4] Thomas J. Whartenby, Jr., “Genesis 28:10-22,” Interpretation 45:4 (Oct 1991), 404.

[5] Since we’ve been able to see both of them at night recently!


all the welkin rings

Psalm 148 is a song of praise, and it is an expansive one.  It’s about as expansive as you can get.  It includes the entire cosmos!  Verse 1 says, “Praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!”  The psalmist surveys everything within his understanding of the universe; the poet calls everything to praise the Lord.  (Special note: there could be other universes.)

1 psThere’s an interesting note about Charles Wesley, the hymn-writing younger brother of John Wesley.  We’re told that “the Christmas carol, ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was originally written by Charles Wesley to read ‘Hark how all the welkin rings’…  The entire ‘welkin,’ the entire sky and heavens, ring with the chorus of praise that embraces all creatures in their joy that the Creator has entered into creaturehood with them, for the salvation of all.”[1]

There are some scientists who are beginning to take notice of this kind of stuff, though they wouldn’t use the poetic phrases of a Christmas carol.  In his book, Cosmic Jackpot, theoretical physicist Paul Davies deals with one of the biggest questions of all:  why is our universe able to support life—why is it friendly to life?[2]  In his terminology, there’s no guarantee that, after the big bang, the universe would expand in a way that would allow stars to form, with planets orbiting around them.  He goes into variations of what’s known as the anthropic principle.[3]

However for me, anyway, scientific ideas like that cast Christian ideas, like the second advent of Christ, and Christ as Alpha and Omega, in a new light.  They provide insights into psalms like the one we have today.

As I suggested, Psalm 148 is an all-encompassing psalm.  It begins with what is the most distant (“the heavens,” “the heights”), and gradually moves closer to home—to what is more familiar.  We eventually get to earth, where the forces of nature are called upon to praise the Lord.  Then a little closer, the mountains and trees—and animals, both wild and tame—hear the summons to praise.

2 ps

Finally, we get to the human race.  The high and the mighty, as well as the low and the humble are addressed.  Last of all, in verse 14, the “faithful,” “the people of Israel who are close to him” hear the call: “Praise the Lord!”

Something that got my attention is verse 7: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps.”  There’s a real sense of dread at what lies down below the surface of the sea.  In his translation, Gary Chamberlain uses the rather colorful phrase, “Ocean deeps and dragons.”[4]  This taps into the visceral fear of what dwells in the depths.

If we can call upon the heights to praise, that which we glory in, then we must also turn our attention to the depths, that which we fear and loathe.  That which dwells in the shadows—the darkness that we avoid—is called to come into the light to join in the work and privilege of praising God.

3 psWhat does it mean for all these to praise the Lord?  We can understand the call to humans.  What does it mean for the sun and moon?  What does it mean for fire and hail?  What does it mean for mountains and all hills?  What does it mean for little critters and flying birds?  What does it mean for our cats and dogs?  Are they able to praise the Lord?  Or is all of this a bunch of whimsical nonsense?

In some way, at some level, praising the Lord is bound up with understanding our place in the universe.  And more than understanding it—celebrating it, not working against it.  It seems that it is only we humans who are able to act against our own nature.  Rocks and rivers don’t have that ability.  Neither, it seems, do maples nor mice.

How do we find and celebrate our place in the universe?  How do we join in the cosmic dance of praise?  How do we take part as all the welkin rings?

A key aspect of that is stewardship.  We humans have the privilege and responsibility of being stewards of creation.  Sadly, for much of creation, our role as stewards has been a curse.  With our cruelty, pollution, and violence, it continues to be a curse.  If we humans were to suddenly disappear, I don’t think planet Earth and everything within it would miss us very much!

Stewardship is another of those expansive terms.  It encompasses a whole lot of stuff!  Too often in the church, the word is relegated to so-called “stewardship drives.”  (And on that point in particular, we often think of it as what we “have” to give, as opposed to what we “get” to give!)  In Genesis 2, God puts humans in charge of the garden.  It’s something we address throughout all of life.

Praising the Lord, joining in as all the welkin rings, is not about a mentality of scarcity.  It is very much a mentality of abundance.  Our Lord, who the psalmist calls all of creation to praise, is a Lord of abundance—even lavish abundance.  Our Lord is a Lord of mysterious abundance.

The scientist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, once made a comment I believe illustrates this, even though that was not his intention.  He said due to a glorious accident, we have become “the stewards of life’s continuity on earth.”  He agreed we are stewards of creation, although he didn’t use the word “creation.”[5]

It is a very good thing that we continue to learn, but at times I’m reminded of God’s responses to Job, after he has questioned the ways of God.  Job is asked things like, “Which is the way to the home of the Light, and where does darkness live?” (38:19, New Jerusalem Bible).  Or this: “Will lightning flashes come at your command and answer, ‘Here we are’?” (38:35).  There are always mysteries, things to discover!

One of the most wonderful discoveries is, as the psalmist says, how God “has raised up a horn for his people,” that is, raised up strength for the faithful (v. 14).  As we find our place in the universe, as we joyfully accept our call to be stewards, we receive strength from God and pass it to all those around.

Rachel Wheeler wrote an article titled, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life.”  In it, she reminds us, “Everything…is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it.  But where is ‘away’?  Of course, ‘away’ does not really exist.”[6]

She has an interesting take on Jesus’ feeding the multitude as it’s presented in John’s gospel.  “What do we make of Jesus feeding the five thousand when he is reported as instructing his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”[7] (Jn. 6:12, NRSV)?  Other translations use the language of waste: ‘Let nothing be wasted,’[8] the implication being Jesus and his disciples gathered up what was left over, not just to indicate the generous nature of the miracle, providing more than enough for those gathered, but also to set an example for others.”[9]

My mom used to tell me, “Waste not; want not.”  What we throw away, we leave for others to deal with.

4 ps

Does all of this sound like it only has a tenuous connection for this Christ the King Sunday?  That might be true if we were dealing with just any king.  But this is a king—and a kingdom—like none other.  It’s a kingdom that is based, not on power, at least not power the way we usually envision it.  It is a peaceable kingdom, as envisioned in Isaiah 11.  The good news, the gospel, of that kingdom is good news for all of creation.  It is an expansive, all-encompassing gospel.  The Hebrew term shalom doesn’t simply refer to our ordinary word “peace.”  It is an expansive, all-encompassing peace.  It points to heaven on earth.  “For God so loved the world…”

A moment ago, I mentioned how Jesus desires that nothing go to waste.  Well, maybe there is one thing it’s good to waste—which is, to waste time.  I’m not talking about wasting time the way we typically think of it, as Pink Floyd once sang, “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.”  No, this is wasting time with God.  Many would say, “Wasting time with God is not very ‘useful’; it’s not very ‘practical.’”  Still, I would say, “Do waste time with God.”  “Do pray.”  Do sit in silence.

As we truly praise the Lord, we draw closer to the King.  We show ourselves to be citizens of that realm.

“Hark how all the welkin rings / Glory to the newborn king.”  We discover our place as all the welkin rings.

5 ps

[1] oldsite.processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2007-12-30/1st-sunday-after-christmas

[2] Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).

[3] www.anthropic-principle.com

[4] Gary Chamberlain, The Psalms: A New Translation for Prayer and Worship (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1984), 181.

[5] Wim Kayzer, A Glorious Accident (New York: Freeman, 1997), 92.

[6] Rachel Wheeler, “Of Trash and Treasure: Implications of Zero Waste for the Spiritual Life,” Spiritus 19:1 (Spring 2019), 95.

[7] Greek word for “lost” (απολλυμι, apollumi) means “destroy” or “perish”

[8] Revised English Bible: “so that nothing is wasted”

[9] Wheeler, 97.