praise

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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.


crossing the bridge from anger to elation

There’s a cartoon which has been on the air since 1989, The Simpsons.  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  If not (I guess it’s somehow possible), here’s a quick look at the Simpson family.  The father is Homer, an overweight, bald, not-very-intelligent fellow who just happens to be a safety inspector at the nuclear power plant.  He loves beer and donuts, and his signature expression of alarm is “D’oh!”

His wife is Marge, a stay-at-home mom noted for a beehive style of blue hair.  Their son is Bart, a ten-year-old whose name, it’s been observed, is a fitting anagram for “brat.”  Lisa, their older daughter, is a socially conscious eight-year-old dreamer, artist, and saxophone player.  Then there’s little Maggie, who never speaks and usually has a pacifier stuck in her mouth.

There’s one episode in particular I want to mention, “Homer the Heretic.”  In Mark Pinksy’s book, The Gospel According to the Simpsons, this is one of the episodes he focuses on.

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On a bitterly cold Sunday morning, while the Simpsons are getting ready for church, Homer splits his pants and decides to stay at home.  So while the rest of the family deals with ice and snow, Homer takes a long, hot shower.  As it turns out, the church furnace is broken, so the congregation is shivering while the pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, preaches about the fires of hell, an image that brings a smile to Bart’s face.

By the time the service is over, the doors to the church have frozen shut.  So while Marge and the kids are stuck in a frigid building, Homer’s in a warm house, dancing in his underwear, watching a football game, and using the waffle iron to cook his own fattening recipes.

Finally, when the family gets home, icy and irritated, Homer concludes that he’s possibly had the best day of his life, so it must be a sign that he should never go to church again.  Homer defends his reasoning to Marge by saying, “What if we picked the wrong religion?  Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”[1]  In the end, Homer does return to church, assuming his usual posture on the front row, snoring during Rev. Lovejoy’s sermon.

I picked that episode because, aside from its being hilarious, was Homer’s conclusion regarding God’s mounting anger.  There is the feeling that God can get really ticked off.

I want to include this theme as part of the sermon because the lectionary reading of Isaiah 12 omits verse 1.  (I again trot out my usual complaint about, let’s say, uncomfortable verses being left out.  We can see them—they’re right there—so why not deal with them?)

Here’s what is considered uncomfortable or troublesome: “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”  Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away.

Here’s what might be considered an uncomfortable or troublesome question.  Has anyone ever felt like God was mad at you?  Or maybe at least irritated?  Or maybe at least disappointed?  Perhaps anything we might think of as negative?

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I will confess a bias in not believing that a God who is the definition of love itself could feel anger at us, even the desire to destroy us, the “very good” creation, as Genesis describes us (1:31).  I can accept God feeling sadness, feeling urgency, relentlessly pursuing us as “the hound of heaven.”  Still, I will admit it is a bit difficult to explain away terms like “the wrath of God,” which appears in both the Old and New Testaments.

I’m going to hurl some stuff out, which is a probably a combination of reasons and excuses.  I know there will be some of that stuff you do not agree with, to a greater or lesser extent.  (Frankly, I would be a bit disappointed—actually, more than a bit—if all of you agreed with everything I say.  Still, I don’t think we’re in danger of that!  And by the way, I find it quite distasteful when people tell you what to think.)

I want to say that belief in the anger, the wrath, of God is one point along a spectrum of a growing awareness in human development, in human consciousness.

I want to say we should be mindful of ages past when we felt like we needed to offer sacrifices to a deity that was mad at us—or at least one we had to appease to guarantee a fruitful harvest or peace from our enemies.

I want to say that we have projected parts of our internal makeup that we hate, fear, or are embarrassed about.  Some people call it our “shadow side.”  It’s almost like a God we create in our own image.

3 isI want to say that we are evolving past that, and acknowledging that, is still a faithful way of reading the Bible.

I want to say that, and more, but I also hear what Richard Nysse says about “the dark side of God.”[2]  And he’s hardly alone in warning about the danger in too easily dismissing or explaining away the qualities of God that give us trouble.  To be honest, I would be lying if I said I don’t feel conflicted about the positions I just outlined.  (Are we evolving or de-evolving?)

Nysse says Isaiah and the other prophets “were able to let the hard questions linger in the air until God answered.  ‘Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?’  Quickly shutting down that question is likely to provide little more than cheap grace.”[3]  He goes further, saying we must “tremble a bit when [we] speak the gospel.”

Maybe that’s the point.  I want to say that God’s wrath is not like our wrath.  When God withdraws, when God turns away, we experience that as pain almost too much to bear.  As the psalmist says, “By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed” (30:7).

So Isaiah trembles, but he is saved from his trembling: “though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”  “You comforted me.”  That serves as a bridge to the rest of the psalm.  This actually is a psalm, even though it’s not in the book of Psalms.  Another one is Habakkuk 3.

The word for “comfort” (נׇחַם, nacham) has the root meaning of “sigh” or “breathe strongly.”  So it follows that “one allows a person who has a severe spiritual or external burden to breathe again, thus removing what has caused him [or her] distress.”[4]  The prophet has felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest, but now… …he can breathe.  (I just called it a bridge, but it’s hard to move on from anything if you can’t catch your breath!)

Okay, we’re crossing the bridge, but what’s on the other side?  Verse 2: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  That seems fitting for a guy named Isaiah, whose name means “Yahweh is salvation,” or “Yahweh has saved.”[5]  That’s not a bad name to have!

From where does this salvation come?  How can it be found?  Verse 3 is the heart of the psalm.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  I’ll come back to this, but what are the people to do in response?  Are they supposed to come together and say, “Let’s keep quiet about this.  There’s not enough to go around!”?  No, they’re called to shout it out, to go tell it on the mountain.

Verses 4 to 6 call them to “Give thanks to the Lord…  make known his deeds…  proclaim…  Sing praises to the Lord…  let this be known in all the earth…  Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  They can’t sit on this—and neither can we.

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There was a festival among the Jews, the Water-Drawing Festival, which pointed to verse 3.  Very briefly, here’s what would happen: “The priests would go down to the pool of Siloam in the City of David (just south of where the Western Wall is today) and they would fill a golden vessel with the water there.  They would go up to the temple, through the Water Gate, accompanied by the sound of the shofar, and then they would pour the water so that it flowed over the altar, along with wine from another bowl.  This would begin the prayers for rain in earnest, and there was much rejoicing at this ceremony.”[6]

It was said, “Anyone who has not seen the rejoicing at the place of the water-drawing has never seen rejoicing.”  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  It must have been quite a party!

And it seems appropriate.  “With joy you will draw water,” not because you have to in order to stay alive.  You’re not drawing water because someone has commanded you to do so.  You’re definitely not drawing water so that you can sell it and make money off it!

This is a rich image—drawing water from a life-giving well.  Here are just a couple of examples elsewhere in the scriptures.  In Jeremiah 2, the prophet says that “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (v. 13).

In the New Testament, in the gospel of John, we see more about it.  In chapter 4, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  He says to her about the well, “‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’” (vv. 13-14).

In John 7, something happens at the Water-Drawing Festival we just looked at: something unexpected, something offensive that has some people wanting to arrest Jesus.  “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (vv. 37-38).

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into it to say drinking water from those wells can be seen as drinking in the Spirit—or as breathing in the Spirit, to go back to the words of the prophet.

I mentioned my reluctance, my unwillingness, to believe in a God of anger, in a God of hatred, even though we see it splashed like blood throughout much of the Bible.  Again, you need not feel the way I do.  But perhaps we can at least acknowledge times of torment, of suffering, of grief.  “God, why are you punishing me?  What did I do wrong?”  I’ve actually heard the question uttered, “God, why do you hate me?”

At the intellectual level, we might say, “I really don’t believe that.”  But it can be there deep within our psyche, rumbling around like a monster in the basement!

5 isStill, the awesome, wonderful news is there is a well from which we draw the water of life.  The monster is slain.

Yahweh is indeed salvation.  In the eyes of his foes, he becomes the monster to be slain on the cross.  His risen life fills us now and satisfies our thirst.  As the priests poured the water on the altar, so we pour out ourselves, so that the river of the Spirit continues to flow.

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.

 

[1] Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 18.

[2] Richard Nysse, “The Dark Side of God: Considerations for Preaching and Teaching,” Word and World 17:4 (Fall 1997)

[3] Nysse, 442.

[4] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983), 271.

[5] יְשַׁעְיׇה, yesha`yah

[6] www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/yeshua-and-the-sukkot-water-drawing-festival


warm up the celebration

It might seem strange to use Matthew 24 as one of the readings for World Communion Sunday.  This snippet of scripture portrays wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, betrayal, people being led astray.  What kind of communion is that?  Actually, this might be a good description of our world!

This comes right after Jesus’ disciples are “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty of the temple.  In his gospel, Luke adds “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (21:5).  So how does Jesus respond to his starry-eyed friends?  He asks, “You see all these, do you not?  Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2).

What a party pooper.

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"I'm the party pooper"

But he wasn’t wrong.  In the year 70, fed up with the constant rebellion of the Jews, the Romans rolled in and destroyed the temple.

(Here’s a quick note.  Actually, anything we humans build will eventually disappear.  This building we’re in right now will eventually crumble to the ground.  We are in a doomed structure!  And that word “structure” has one than one meaning.)

Still, the reason I picked this passage for today comes in verse 12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”  Back when I started reading the Bible in earnest—when I became a Christian while in college—that really jumped out at me.  It still really speaks to me.  The love of many will grow cold.  Love growing cold—that’s not a very pleasant thought!

It’s not a very lovely thought for World Communion Sunday, is it?  In some ways, it might be true of us today.  Love is growing cold.

Having said that, it’s also true that actual witch hunts rarely happen anymore.  People are not routinely burned at the stake.  And then there are stories from the 1600s of Presbyterians and others in their dealings with Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism.  They decided to help the Baptists and grant their wish.  Since Baptists believed they needed to be baptized again, they were bound with heavy stones and tossed into the river.  Here’s your baptism!  (Still, I cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports!)

2 lmIn any case, there are some things one hopes we have left behind.  One hopes we aren’t put to the test if our civilization were to come crashing down!

A time when people were put to such a test was when the Babylonians invaded Judea.  The nation was under military occupation, with hundreds and thousands sent into forced deportation—the Babylonian exile.  The invaders destroyed the original temple, as the Romans did the second temple centuries later.

According to the book of Lamentations, during the siege of Jerusalem, food began to run out.  Apparently, some even resorted to cannibalism.[1]

The part of the book we usually focus on is in chapter 3, verses 19 to 24.  We do see the author acknowledging the dire straits.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (vv. 19-20).  The grim reality is recognized.  “But this I call to mind.”  We’re turning a corner.  There’s a light in the darkness.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (vv. 21-22).  Even in the depths of despair, hope is still alive.

In verse 23—the mercies of the Lord “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”—we have the inspiration of that great hymn of the church.  And for those who didn’t know the Biblical origin of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” here it is.  It comes from a time when civilized society has collapsed.  Even when we humans screw up on a colossal scale, God is still faithful.

(Who knows?  If our civilization collapses, maybe some wise person will be inspired and pen lyrics to encourage those who come after.)

3 lmOur poet proclaims, “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (v. 24).  Unfortunately, the struggle continues.  A few verses later, he says, “When all the prisoners in a country are crushed underfoot, when human rights are overridden in defiance of the Most High, when someone is cheated of justice, does not the Lord see it?” (vv. 34-36, New Jerusalem Bible).  Lord, what are you going to do?

As the hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, / Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!”  Seizing that hope keeps our love from growing cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the spiritual disciplines of the prayer of recollection and of secrecy.  (Again, that’s not the secrecy as opposed to keeping confidence.  It’s the secrecy Jesus displays by telling people to not turn him into a spectacle.  He heals and then tells the people to not broadcast it all over the place.)  I gave as another example of secrecy the over-the-top behavior of the guy praying very loudly, confessing his sin, in a quiet time and a quiet place.

In her work Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun speaks of the discipline of celebration.[2]  It’s the discipline of abandoning oneself to joy, of giving in to the spirit of gratitude and love, of just letting go.  That covers a lot of ground; it has many different aspects, but there is something she says I readily understand.[3]

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One of them is “taking yourself less seriously.”  Some of us have more trouble in that than others!  I’ve often thought a key quality of our bearing the image of God is a sense of humor.  We humans didn’t invent humor.  Where can humor come from but a source of infinite joy and good will?

Did you know that humor is a powerful weapon?  Brian Doyle in The Thorny Grace of It speaks to this point.[4]

“Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness.  What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you.  It advances the universe two inches.  If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words.  You and I know this is possible.  It is what [Jesus] said could happen if we loved well.”

Cynicism and mockery can’t appreciate the pure, uninhibited appeal of genuine and authentic humor.  There’s an easiness of spirit, without which we can become brittle.  When we’re brittle, we don’t have flexibility.  When we’re brittle, our sense of humor becomes twisted.  We laugh at the expense of others.  We sometimes give them nicknames, and they aren’t friendly nicknames.  We can become vulgar.  We can’t laugh at ourselves.

There’s something else that goes along with love growing cold.  The discipline of celebration entails gratitude.  When love grows cold, we have the “celebration” of ingratitude.  In our country, we seem to have taken the celebration of ingratitude to new levels.  For instance, many of our so-called “reality” TV shows extol the virtues (or should we say, the vices) of it.

5 lmIngratitude and love have a hard time co-existing.

The apostle Paul has his own take on love.  “Love is patient,” he says, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

A friend of mine years ago said he sometimes would put his name in the place of “love” in this passage.  It was a lesson he needed to learn again and again.  Let me try.

James is patient; James is kind; James is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James’ love has not grown cold.  That can be a high bar to set!

A posture of love that is kept warm by the Holy Spirit enables the discovery and cultivation of gifts from that same Spirit.

I began with the comment that using the reading from Matthew 24 (with the “love growing cold” business) might seem to be a strange one for World Communion Sunday.  But why not?  If there’s one place where love is meant to be warmed, it is at the table of Holy Communion.  This is where “celebration” of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and joyful, life-affirming humor is to be found.  And surely the entire world is where it needs to happen.

The apostle says, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).  That word “complete” (τελειος, teleios) is also translated as “perfect”—not perfect as in flawless, but as in finished.  We are not yet complete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).

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What awaits us is awareness of the infinite bursting heart of love gazing into our very being, burning away the coldness and resounding through all the worlds with fierce, irresistible euphoria.  Paul is fully known—nothing is hidden—and yet is loved all the more.

Those cold hearts, overcome and warmed with the spirit of celebration, is the foundation for all of the spiritual gifts.  We are empowered by the Spirit and sent forth into a world that is dying for communion.

 

[1] “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:10)

[2] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 26-28.

[3] Calhoun, 26.

[4] www.loyolapress.com/products/books/spirituality-inspiration/the-thorny-grace-of-it


Spirit-filled language

For about the first five years after my conversion, my coming to faith, getting saved (although we still are being and will be saved—it’s not a one and done thing), I was in the Assemblies of God.  I never was the stereotypical Pentecostal.  I never got the hang of throwing my hands up in the air and shouting, “Hallelujah!”

But I’m grateful for my time among the Pentecostals.  As one who usually lives in his head, I gained a heartfelt faith among them.  And I developed an appreciation for when the Spirit really gets going in worship.  I learned that while singing certain songs, it’s okay to clap your hands.  (Amazing!)  I really love the hymns set to classical music, but sometimes you’ve got to go with the flow and start moving!

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I start by mentioning the Pentecostals, because when my faith journey led me to the Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants, I sometimes would hear the Holy Spirit described as the silent member of the Trinity.  Reflecting on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, I would have never described the Spirit as silent!

Having said that, we should remember that the Holy Spirit acts in many different ways—something the Pentecostals also acknowledge.  In John 3, Jesus says, “The wind [the Greek word[1] can also be “spirit”] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8).

In Acts 2, we have the image of the Spirit “like the rush of a violent wind” (v. 2).  You can’t put the Holy Spirit in a box.  Sometimes we think we can legislate or regulate the Spirit, but using a box leaves us with a bunch of stale air.

How appropriate this is for the feast of Pentecost.  It comes from the Jewish feast of Weeks or Harvest, which was celebrated fifty days after Passover.  (The word “Pentecost” means “fifty.”)  Just as with Passover, people came from near and far for the festival of Pentecost.  In our scripture text, when the Jewish believers speak in other tongues, travelers from many nations hear them praising God in their native language.

The Holy Spirit isn’t tongue-tied.  To borrow on Jesus’ image about the wind blowing where it chooses, when you hear the sound of the Spirit, there’s no telling what language is going to be spoken!  It will be whatever is needed.

(Quick question: what’s the largest number of people ever to fit into a car?  According to chapter 1, about 120.  They were all in one Accord.)

The bit about the car aside, there is something wonderfully unexpected about this event.

Danielle Shroyer, pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, says about this, “I have no idea what plans they had for the future of the faith up there in that room, if they had any at all, but there was no paper napkin with this mess drawn on it.  Because nobody in their right mind would consider anointing a whole house full of prophets in the span of one day.  Nobody except the Spirit of God.”[2]  It’s almost as crazy as trying to squeeze all those people into a car!

In the Bible, prophets are those who have a word from God—it’s not something they just invent.  As these people come streaming out of the house, they are delivering words from God.  Even though they don’t understand what they’re saying, other people do.  They hear them proclaiming “God’s deeds of power” (2:11).

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Something demonstrated by these Pentecostal prophets is that God speaks our multitude of languages.  We aren’t expected to speak one uniform language.  That goes beyond the actual words we use.  Here’s a good example: when we hear something we really agree with, we might say, “Now you’re speaking my language!”  So we’re also talking about cultures and sub-cultures.  We see that in our country; we can even see that in our local community.

But guess what?  The Spirit flows through and embraces all of that!  We can see it in the community which begins to form as a result of the Pentecost event.  We can see it in Peter’s sermon, which explains what’s going on—an explanation that is badly needed, since some in the crowd are convinced that the folks speaking all these different languages have been hitting the bottle!

As a result of Pentecost, the scripture says about three thousand become followers of Jesus.  Verse 42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

What can we say about this community, the early church in Jerusalem?  It looks almost like heaven on earth.  People are in awe of them; wonders are being done through the apostles.  They share all things in common.  (If that really is “all things,” I’m not sure how I feel about that one!)

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (vv. 46-47).

Maybe it’s inevitable, but this particular version of community does not last for long.  Maybe the community gets too large for a specifically “communal” way of life to work.  Many believe that it is descriptive, but not prescriptive.  That is, it’s a picture of how it was, not how it necessarily had to be.

Matt Skinner comments, “The idea of community simultaneously attracts and repels most of us.  We long for the life-affirming benefits that community can bestow, but we resist the demands that community makes.”[3]  There has always been a powerful strand of individualism in our country; that’s both good and bad.  We often go too far in that direction.  I can think of ways in which I myself am probably more American than Christian.

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Being filled with the Holy Spirit gives the disciples a new vocabulary.  They begin to speak a Spirit-filled language.  The Spirit gives them a boldness they did not have before.  Previously, they were filled with fear of retribution.  After what happened to Jesus, some had given up hope.  “You know, it was a lovely dream, but it’s time to be realistic and get back to business as usual.”

But with the coming of the Spirit, everything changes.  People get fired up.  Those dreams begin to come true.

Still, before we get too carried away, we are reminded of something.  David Lose presents what he calls “two of the paradoxes of Pentecost.”[4]

The first one is that “the Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them.”  With the coming of the Spirit, they aren’t allowed to go back to business as usual.  They can no longer focus on looking inward, focusing on themselves.  They are compelled to look outward.

The Spirit still does that today.  Lose says, “Our congregations will not discover themselves until they give themselves away.  No amount of time spent on developing a mission statement or devising new member campaigns can substitute for looking around one’s neighborhood and asking, ‘Who needs us?’ and ‘What can we do with our resources to bear God’s love to…the world?’”

Along those lines, his second paradox of Pentecost is, “The Holy Spirit doesn’t prevent failure but invites it.  Or, to put it slightly differently, the Holy Spirit invites us to find fulfillment and victory in and through our setbacks and failures.”

I’m reminded of Banu’s and my ordination service.  At the end of the service, both of our pastors gave us charges.  My pastor instructed me to tell my story of being in a distant land.  (He was referring to my faith journey and also my experience with brain cancer.)  This is what Banu’s pastor told her: “I charge you to fail.”  If we’re afraid of failing, we’ll never risk anything.  We’ll be content with business as usual.

Our friend David has a problem with the saying, “Failure is not an option.”  He believes “that kind of mindset is paralyzing too many of our congregations.  Failure is not only an option, it is inevitable.  The problems this world—and our congregations—face are too great, too complex, and too significant to imagine that we will hit upon the best solution the first time out…or maybe ever.”

We’re reminded that “success will not always look like success, and victory may often come disguised as defeat.  The question isn’t whether we’re successful, but whether we’re faithful.”  Obedience to the Holy Spirit can lead us down paths that we otherwise would avoid.  That’s the trick of learning to speak Spirit-filled language.

Elsewhere, the apostle Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Th 5:19).  I like how the Revised English Bible puts it: “Do not stifle inspiration.”  This is addressed to the community at large.  This is addressed to the church.

Still, I’m forced to ask myself, “How often do I speak Spirit-filled language?  Do I quench the Spirit?  Do I stifle inspiration?”  Again, this includes more than the actual words that come out of the mouth.  Spirit-filled language comes from the heart of a Spirit-filled person.

Borrowing from today’s prayer of confession, I must admit that too often I hold back the force of the Spirit.  I fail to listen for God’s word of grace.  I need God’s mercy.  I need my timid life to be transformed by the power of the Spirit—and to be filled with a flaming desire to be a faithful person, doing God’s will for the sake of Jesus Christ my Lord.

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I imagine that I’m not the only one here who needs to ask those questions and to have the grace of that transformation.  I imagine that I’m not the only one who needs that fire to be stoked once again—if it even has been lit!

So be a feather set loose in the wind of God.  Let the wind of the Spirit blow on any dying embers and be fanned into a flame.

 

[1] πνευμα, pneuma

[2] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/pentecostcnt

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

[4] www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1575


the fox and the hen

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was talking about sermons.  (I confess, I don’t remember who it was!)  He was commenting on how the usual approach many people have is to make three points.  (There’s a saying some people quote on occasion: “three points and a poem.”)  He said he doesn’t bother with three points; he has enough to do with one point!  He figured if he could deliver a sermon with at least one thing to take away from it, then he did his job.

Our gospel reading in Luke has neither one nor three points; it has two points!  They involve a fox and a hen.  There’s another saying along the lines of a fox guarding the hen house.  (My inspiration for the sermon title.)  That would be an unfortunate scenario for those living in the house!

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{Foxy, our dog from long ago--not the "fox"}

As we begin with verse 31, we hear, “At that very hour some Pharisees” show up and give Jesus a warning.  What’s going on right before this?  According to Luke, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (v. 22).  His theme is, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (v. 24).

The stage is set.  The Pharisees accost him after he enters the city.  They tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Herod has been hearing things about him.  We’re told “he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.  Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’  And he tried to see him” (9:7-9).  I’m sure he has nothing but good intentions!

This Herod, Herod Antipas, is the son of Herod the Great.  This is the Herod who ordered the massacre of the Holy Innocents, the slain little boys of Bethlehem, in his mad attempt to stamp out the young Jesus.

Herod Antipas first had John the Baptist arrested because he denounced his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (3:19-20).  That was a big no-no.  Later at his birthday party, when the daughter of Herodias was dancing, he drunkenly asked what she wanted.  After consulting with her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mt 14:6-8).

It appears that bloodlust runs in the family!

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We don’t know if the Pharisees are giving Jesus a good faith warning.  Are they sincerely concerned about his safety?  Or do they want him to get the heck out of Dodge because, to put it lightly, they just don’t like him?  Herod having put Jesus on his hit list would be a convenient excuse.  Either way, that should be enough for Jesus to heed their warning, “Hit the road, Jack.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  Jesus is undaunted.  He wants the Pharisees to give “that fox” a message.  Herod is a fox.  He is cunning and sly.  He’s one slippery devil.  He’s a sneaky one.  But calling someone a fox can also mean that they’re unimportant, not worth getting all hot and bothered.  It is not a compliment!

Jesus wants them to tell him he’s going to be “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (v. 32).  I’m going to keep doing what I do.  Jesus refuses to be diverted, even though he probably knows this won’t end well.

The late Bruce Prewer said, “This is no pretty-boy Jesus, no sentimental dreamer.  Jesus knew the score.  He mourned the bloody death of cousin John.  But he was not going to be intimidated.  He was a man in charge of his own destiny.  A tough Jesus.  ‘Go tell that fox I will move on when I am ready.  Not before.’”[1]

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul in Philippi when he was unjustly arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail (Ac 16:35-40).  When the officials found out he was a Roman citizen, they were scared because they didn’t give him his due process.  As a citizen, he had rights they violated.  They sent word to have him released, but Paul demanded they come and tell him to his face.

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Maybe that’s enough about the fox.  Let’s move on to the hen!

In this section, Jesus begins by lamenting the history of Jerusalem—how it has seen the murder of so many prophets.  Here’s a little sample: Uriah (Jr 26:23), Zechariah (2 Ch 24:20-22), those killed by King Manasseh (2 Kg 21:16), and we could go on.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem” (v. 33).

The heart of Jesus is broken.  He pours out his soul in sorrow.  He has longed to gather the people of Jerusalem; he has ached.  He has wanted to protect them under his wing.  Applying feminine imagery to himself, Jesus has wanted to be their mother hen.  To continue the metaphor, the people have been wayward chicks, refusing the care of mother.  This is a true picture of anguish.

A moment ago, I mentioned how I was reminded of the apostle Paul.  Now the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind.  He has been called “the weeping prophet.”

He cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?  O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:22-9:1).

Jesus finishes by telling the disobedient people “your house is left to you” (v. 35).  There’s the suggestion that it’s been left desolate, in a state of disorder.  Some say he’s referring to the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans.

It’s a picture of abandonment.  That’s what happens to us when we choose, so to speak, to reject the protection of the mother hen.  We are left at the mercy of the fox.

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{"Jeremiah" by Michelangelo}

I don’t know about you, but to me this scripture passage sounds rather grim.  We have threats, a city with a dark side, warnings of destruction, and oh yes, murder.  It might not be the best bedtime reading!

Luke has one more nugget of misfortune.  He ends the chapter with a dire prediction by Jesus.  He says they won’t see him “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  This is the line from Psalm 118 which the crowds cry out as Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem.  That verse chanted on the first Palm Sunday is part of our liturgy.  Luke is giving us a little preview of things to come.

Palm Sunday is a strange holiday.  It has so much praising, and if you didn’t know what would unfold in the coming days, it would be a time of genuine celebration.

Still, Jesus’ pronouncement is about more than Palm Sunday.  It’s about a more fundamental reality.  It goes back to the rejection of the Lord in general.  I trust I’m not overstating this, but there is a very real sense of not being able to see the Lord until and unless our lives say, “Blessed is the one.”

Regarding this scripture reading, as you see, this is one that is used during Lent.  I described it as grim.  Many folks think of Lent as grim.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister has a different take on it.  “Lent is the time for trimming the soul,” she says, “and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod…  Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord, we have the spiritual stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope…  Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”[2]

More than any one single theme, the Lenten journey is about repentance.  We all need to repent.  The need for repentance doesn’t mean we’re bad.  The word “repentance” in Greek (μετανοια, metanoia) means “a change of mind” or “a turning around.”  It’s a turning from death to life.

5 lk 13How does the image of the fox and the hen figure into that?  Earlier I said a fox guarding the hen house would be unfortunate—at least for the chickens!

Between the fox and the hen, the fox is clearly the strong one.  The hen is the weak one.  The hen is no match for the fox.  And yet, despite the determination (and the hunger) of the fox, the mother hen still defends her young as best she can.  The odds are seriously stacked against her.

The mother hen is the picture of weakness and sorrow.  It’s kind of like Jesus surveying Jerusalem.  He is helpless in the face of intransigence.

If he wanted to, Jesus could have chosen a different image to represent himself.  Instead of a mother hen, he could have been a dread warrior, wielding a battle axe—I dare you to defy me!  But that isn’t the way of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Lent calls us to lay down our arms, to be unguarded, vulnerable, to indeed, repent.  I’m not saying to forswear certain physical things during these forty days, but allowing ourselves to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, to lower our defenses—that really is a challenge.

Still, remember who our Lord is.  He reigns in weakness.  He is the lamb upon the throne.  (Sure, that’s the image we all have of a king: a helpless lamb on a throne!)  He upends our usual expectations.  He is the very picture of vulnerability.  He ignores the fox, be it Herod or anyone else.  He is the mother hen, willing to sacrifice himself (or herself?) to protect the baby chicks.

That is the challenge of Lent.  That is the reward of Lent.  If you haven’t already fully entered into the Lenten season, it isn’t too late.  Remember, it “is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C21lent2.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.


listening in the light

On the mountain of the Transfiguration, seeing Jesus in glory, along with Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to set up camp.  He wants to capture the moment; he wants to stay, take this instant and freeze it.  That is his proposal.  But as Luke tells us, he doesn’t know what in the world he’s talking about.

Then a voice sounds from on high, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (v. 35).  Peter is basically told to shut his trap.  Or as the delightful Mt. T would put it, “Quit your jibba jabba!”

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In Psalm 99, the poet encourages anything but jibba jabba.  The whole world is exhorted to “praise [the Lord’s] great and awesome name” (v. 3).  If Peter, James, and John are struck by elation (and alarm) by their encounter on the mountain, the psalmist does one better when he proclaims, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble!  He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!” (v. 1).

Peter would like to stop time; he wants to preserve the experience.

We do that as well, sometimes in trivial ways.  Some of us (and I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying this) like to photograph the contents of our dinner plate.  But who am I to talk?  No doubt, I take too many pictures of my dog.  (Still, if I’m able to catch him yawning—with the sound he makes—I’m going to try to get that on video!  That would be an experience to preserve.)

Maybe you can understand what I’m trying to say.  We often want to freeze life, to take a timeout, for good or ill.  Life is calling our name, and we’re not always sure how to answer.  The psalmist invites us to enter in, to allow the transfiguration light to guide us.  The disciples would do well to heed what the psalmist says.  They need to listen.  That goes for us, too.

As with much of Hebrew poetry, Psalm 99 is well constructed.  Stan Mast, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, says something about it.  “It deliberately uses the Hebrew number of perfection and completeness, the number 7, mentioning the Lord seven times and using 7 pronouns to refer to that Lord.”[1]  And in three places, it points out that the Lord is holy.  (Three is also a key number.)

Structure in poetry can be important.  It imposes a certain discipline, even in limericks.

2 ps 99A few days ago, Banu and I were at Wegmans.  They had the tasting stations set up around the store.  The one at the deli had something called chicken epicurean sausage.  I was struck by the word “epicurean.”  It dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Very roughly speaking, he taught that happiness is the greatest good in life.  He focused on simple pleasures.  Today, we think of an epicure as someone who likes the fine things, especially fine food and drink.  I told Banu it reminded me of an old limerick:

“An epicure dining at Crewe, / found quite a large mouse in his stew. / Said the waiter, ‘Don’t shout, / or wave it about, / or the rest will be wanting one too!’”

Admittedly, that’s not the best example of showing the discipline of structure!  Still, structure can mean being careful to transmit the message, and it helps in recalling it if there’s good rhyme and rhythm.  After all, it’s easier to remember something if you listen to the music!

Psalm 99 is broken into three sections, each of which has something to contribute to the whole.

Verses 1 to 3 praise the Lord for reigning worldwide—being king of the world!  Verses 4 and 5 praise the Lord for justice.  Verses 6 to 9 praise the Lord for entering into relationship.  Moses the lawgiver, and Aaron and Samuel, perhaps prototypes of priest and prophet, are highlighted.  Of course, the starting point throughout is the focus on Israel: in Zion, in Jacob, in the pillar of cloud—with each of them expressing a different stage in its history.

I won’t go into great detail, but I do find verses 4 and 5 especially interesting.  After the first section urges all nations to praise the Lord, we now get a sense of who this Lord is.  “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (v. 4).

What does justice mean here?  What is justice for this Lord?  The God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, is an ethical God.  By that, I mean this God cares about ethics; this God cares about how we behave.  This God is not like other gods, the blood drinking gods who lash out in blind fury if they don’t get their sacrifices.  As long as they are appeased, they don’t care what their worshippers do.  (Sometimes we treat our Lord the same way.  If we pay our dues, what we do doesn’t mean quite so much!)

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Reinforcing that idea is verse 5: “Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.  Holy is he!”  We are called to worship a holy God.  Verse 9 agrees: “Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.”  We are called to worship twice in Psalm 99.  We are called to listen to these words.

Stan Mast comments, “Unlike the gods of the nations who cannot hear or speak, God both hears the cries of his people and speaks in words they could hear.”  God speaks through visions and dreams and written words and through his servants, the prophets, and of course, through Jesus the Messiah.  God speaks through the still, small voice of prayer—the sound of silence.  We are called to listen, like those early disciples.

Listening is easier said than done.  Listening is hard work.  Prayer and meditation are hard work.

There’s a concept originating from Buddhism, but I think it applies to everyone.  It’s called “the monkey mind.”  It refers to a sense of restlessness, thoughts bouncing from one thing to the other, constant chattering.  It’s called “monkey mind” because it’s like monkeys swinging from one branch to another.  One thought leads to another and another and another.

4 ps 99Whenever we enter silence, it is inevitable that thoughts will surface.  “I need to do that today.”  “What’s that dog barking at?”  “I wish I could get that stupid song out of my head.”  Thoughts will come and go, but the trick is to not hold on to them.  Let them pass through.  I believe that, at least in some way, it’s expressed by St. Paul’s comment on “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Ph 4:7).  We can hear the voice of transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

I will not claim to be an expert practitioner of what I’m saying.  As I said, it takes work—and patience.

As I said a moment ago, the psalmist calls us to worship.  We are celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (“Eucharist” comes from the Greek word which means “to give thanks” [ευχαριστεω, eucharisteō].  It appears all throughout the New Testament.)

Today being Transfiguration, it provides the theme.  Part of the service is the Great Thanksgiving.  It’s the prayer reciting the story of salvation, the history of salvation.  Here’s part of the prayer:

“You are holy, O God of majesty, / and blessed is Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. / On a lonely mountain / his human body was transfigured by your divine splendor. / In his face, we have glimpsed your glory. / In his life, we see your love.”

Here’s a question: how does listening tie together worship and the justice the psalmist is talking about?  Does worship lead us to seek justice outside these walls?

Our friend Stan says, “This emphasis on justice and righteousness is something many North American Christians don’t appreciate as much as we should.  We praise God for his grace and mercy and love, not his righteousness and justice and judgment.”  He does say “many” Christians focus on God’s mercy and not God’s righteousness and judgment.  In reality, all of those things go together.  You can’t have one without the rest.

5 ps 99However, it’s definitely not “all” Christians who take that approach.  There are many who think of God’s judgment as someone wielding a sword preparing for execution, rather than someone making sure all is put right—all is restored to proper balance.

I’m sure none of you have ever encountered this: the one with a scowling disposition, harshly critical, the finger-wagging party pooper.

Still, the point is made.  We who live in warm houses, who have plenty of food to eat, who live in safety, too often can’t relate to those around the world and those here at home who do not have such things.

Listening to the voice from on high, listening to the voice within—that still, small voice of the Spirit—we are called to move into the light leading us into action.  We listen in the light; we listen to the one who is called the Beloved, the Chosen.  We are guided by the light shining in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-c/?type=the_lectionary_psalms


to know me is to love me

How many of you have ever played “truth or dare”?  (That might serve as a question for “truth”!)

Let’s first start with “dare.”  Depending on who you’re playing with, it might require setting some guidelines, such as not daring someone to do something illegal—well, at least not too illegal.  In addition, if members of the opposite sex are present, that also might require some guidelines!

Now, for “truth.”  When we played, anything was fair game.  Anything.  Someone might begin with “truth,” but after being forced to answer the question, from then on, the selection would be “dare.”  That might seem a little less risky.  You know, we don’t want to give out too much information.  Sometimes there’s a fear of exposure.  We don’t want a light shined on just anything!

There are other examples of not wanting to be known too well.

Sometimes it might involve a child, who upon discovering the door to the garage locked, decides to take a piece of wood and jam it into the lock, hoping the substitute key would do the trick.  It might involve the sister of the child being blamed for the misdeed and suffering the sanction of being spanked.  It might involve the guilty child finally coming clean well after the fact and suffering no retribution, since by that time it’s but a distant memory.  By then, it’s okay to be known too well.

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Beth LaNeel Turner

Of course, that doesn’t sum it all up, but there is the basic thought of being known to an uncomfortable level.

In Beth Tanner’s The Psalms for Today, she states, “A psalm is a whole thought, even if it is lengthy.”[1]  So if we go along with that, Psalm 139 would be no different.

In fact, we can see that whole thought in a nutshell right in verse 1.  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”  Period.  Another version says, “Lord, you have examined me and you know me” (Revised English Bible).  The Hebrew word (חׇקַר, chaqar) for “search” can also mean “investigate” or “explore.”  The psalmist is saying, “Lord, you’ve done a pretty thorough job in taking inventory of me.  I think it’s safe to say: you know me, warts and all!”  The rest of the psalm is taken up with unpacking, or laying out, that verse.

There isn’t any one way to divide up the poem, but I’ll lay it out in unequal sections.

The first eighteen verses look at being known by the Lord in different ways.  The next four verses take a decidedly different turn.  We are treated to a startling searching and knowing of a vile nature (to say the very least).  The final two verses serve to encapsulate all that has gone before.  The psalmist finally makes a request of God, a plea of protection.

I won’t go through these in exhaustive detail; I’ll deal with them in a selective fashion.  And of course, I don’t have the final word on this!

Verses 2 to 4 deal with thoughts and words.  The poet says to God, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”  Even before speaking, “before a word is on my tongue,” Lord, you already know what I’m going to say! (vv. 2, 4).  There’s no point in playing the game, “Guess what number I’m thinking of.”

Verses 5 to 10 show the utter futility in trying to hide from the Lord: even if the psalmist “[takes] the wings of the morning and [settles] at the farthest limits of the sea” (v. 9).  If you remember the story of Jonah, the disobedient prophet, he was told to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.  However, since Nineveh was an enemy of Israel, he wanted God to destroy them.  So he booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, at the other end of the Mediterranean, basically, the end of the world.  But God found him anyway.

2 ps 139

Please understand, we don’t have to see the poet being upset that the Lord’s knowledge is everywhere!

Then we come to verses 11 and 12.  Not even the darkness provides cover.  I imagine we can see this in different ways.  The psalmist could either be grateful or grieved that “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [the Lord]” (v. 12).  We’re not sure about our writer’s intent; we need some light shed on the matter.  When we deny knowledge to someone, we indeed keep them in the dark.

Something these verses speak to is the matter of secrecy.  Secrets are tricky little boogers.  On the one hand, it’s definitely necessary to keep plenty of things secret.  Giving out too much information (like we saw earlier) can do tons of damage.  In addition, it can just be an annoyance.

On the other hand, secrets can be harmful, even deadly.  Secrets have a way of infiltrating themselves into systems: systems of family, of congregations, of the workplace, whatever.  There can be a dark secret, never exposed to the light, which can take up residence and thrive.  It can even pass from one generation to the next and continue down the line.

Still, darkness is not always bad.  Madeleine L’Engle wrote about this in her book The Irrational Season.  “When we deny our wholeness, when we repress part of ourselves, when we are afraid of our own darkness, then the dark turns against us, turns on us, becomes evil.  Just as the intellect when it is not informed by the heart becomes vicious, so the intuition, the subconscious, when it is forcibly held below the surface, becomes wild, and until we look at it and call it by name, our own name, it can devour us.”[2]

3 ps 139I’m reminded of Jesus in Mark 5 when he encountered a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus asked for a name, and the reply was, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (v. 9).  Jesus rendered them powerless and the man was delivered from them.  They were no longer able to devour him.

Whatever dwells in the dark needs to be named.  It needs to be brought to light.  It needs to be “searched”; it needs to be “known.”  But it also needs to be searched and known by God.  If we’re doing this by ourselves, we can do a lot of damage!

Moving on, I said I wouldn’t go into great detail, so I’ll say about verses 13 to 16 that the psalmist is fascinated and celebrates being “wonderfully made” (v. 14).  Being known by the Lord to the very core of one’s being is an occasion for praise.  Verses 17 and 18 speak of the impossibility of fully grasping the mind of God.

And so, we come to verses 19 to 22, and all I can say is, “Here we go!”  The psalmist does an imitation of my dog when he shows his teeth.  At such times, he is not in a charitable mood.  It’s time for growling, much like the language we hear our friend using.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me” (v. 19).  What on earth has happened to this psalm?  We’ve gone from acknowledging and celebrating the all-knowing and ever-present God to a call for vengeance to be exacted.

Eric Peels, Old Testament professor in the Netherlands, talks about it.  “Among the offensive passages from the Old Testament with prayers for the downfall of the adversaries [these verses are] unique.  Nowhere else is the hatred against enemies expressed so directly and wholeheartedly…  If Psalm 139 had ended with…verse 18 it would have been one of the most beautiful songs in the Book of Psalms.”[3]

(And just in case you were wondering, the lectionary reading does indeed end at verse 18!)

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So what do we make of it?  What do we make of the abrupt transition to “I hate them with perfect hatred”? (v. 22).  In Hebrew, it’s literally “with complete hatred I hate them.”  Our friend Eric continues, “By hating God’s enemies the poet relates to God’s own hatred of the wicked and his curse on them.  By completely taking a stand for God the poet chooses a world of blessing and goodness, of truth and justice.”[4]

God’s enemies are my enemies.  True enough, but this isn’t about any actual feelings of fury, either on God’s or the psalmist’s part.  It’s about choosing a life of integrity or iniquity.

Having said that, there’s the danger of reversing the order into “my enemies are God’s enemies.”  (But that never happens, does it?)

So now we come to the end of the psalm.  Verses 23 and 24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  We’re back to “search me” and “know me,” but now it’s a request; it’s a plea.  As said before, our writer is taking all we’ve heard and putting it before the Lord.

Spare me from wickedness and all the madness that comes with it.  Something like, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The psalmist is truly at peace with being known well by God.  It is life itself.  No matter what secrets the psalmist has, no matter what enemies, confidence in the love of God is boldly affirmed and cherished.

That’s true for us.  No matter what secrets we have, no matter what enemies we have, we have confidence in the love of God.  That love has especially been revealed through our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The all-knowing and ever-present God is love.  Without a doubt, we can say “to know God is to love God.”  That love is imparted to us, and so each of us can say “to know me is to love me.”

Wouldn’t that work well with either truth or dare?

 

[1] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 213.

[3] Eric Peels, “‘I Hate Them with Perfect Hatred’ (Psalm 139:21-22),” Tyndale Bulletin 59:1 (2008): 35-36.

[4] Peels, 47.


a green spirit

“With so many things being said about who God is…  God of love, God of faith, God of the poor, God of the second chance, etc., I wonder…

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A document from 1991, thus, the Congressman and Senators from Tennessee at the time

“Is God green?  (That is, does he manifest ecological concern?)”

Those are part of my notes for a sermon I preached in September 1991, right before I went to Philadelphia to attend seminary.  I decorated the page with my signature drawing: a long-haired duck wearing a headband and a necklace with a Celtic cross.  (I was inspired by the comic book character Howard the Duck, who was trapped on Earth from another dimension.)

At the time, I was a member of an Assemblies of God congregation.  I didn’t hear questions like, “Is God green?” asked very often back then.  Actually, I wonder how many times that was asked in Presbyterian churches!  (Understand, I’m not thinking about the literal question, “Is God green”?!)

When you think about it, it’s a ridiculous question.  Does God care about the environment?  From start to finish, the scriptures testify to it.  In Genesis 1, from a creation in which every part is called “good,” to Revelation 22, the final revelation of a holy city in which nothing accursed will be found, a city in perfect harmony with all that is.

Last week was Ascension Sunday.  We remember the Lord Jesus Christ, “who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ep 4:10).  The ascension means that Christ is everywhere, filling all of creation.  (Ascension is one of my favorite days in the year!)

We sing God’s glory throughout the Psalms.  We praise God in creation in hymns, like “Let All Things Now Living.”  Here’s something from verse 2:

“By law God enforces.  The stars in their courses, / The sun in its orbit obediently shine; / The hills and the mountains, The rivers and fountains, / The depths of the ocean proclaim God divine.”

And of course, there is the incarnation, the coming into flesh which is the meaning of Christmas.  God enters into humanity enfleshed in the body of Jesus.  We can also see a kind of incarnation at work roughly 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe came into existence, when God’s “good” creation got its start.

There are endless ways to imagine God’s care and love of creation.

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The most distant galaxies ever observed revealed by the Hubble Ultra Deep Field

Unfortunately, we often fail in our call to be stewards of creation.  In my notes on that sermon, I lamented, “Human sin has affected the creation.”  That’s putting it mildly!  We seem to go out of our way to trash creation.  We pollute and pound and pummel the earth.  We poison land and sea and air and everything within them.  We do unimaginable violence to God’s creatures with whom we share this world.

Dystopian nightmares, resulting from our destruction—are they really so far away?  We must be insane.

We see in our text in Romans 8 how creation groans.  There clearly are other meanings besides our contribution to that.  The primary meaning speaks of liberation from death and decay, the promise of resurrection spreading to all things.  Still, we have more than our share in being the architects of that suffering.

I still remember, to my great shame, the poor little slug that had the misfortune of moving into my sight on a hot summer day.  Magnifying glass in hand, I tortured my little friend with the heat of the sun focused on its slimy body, knowing it couldn’t escape that tiny yellow dot bringing it incredible agony.  I could claim as mitigating circumstances that I was just a kid, but I still knew it was wrong.  Unfortunately, that’s not the only time I’ve played a role in making creation groan.  There’s my confession of sin.

(My confession of sin notwithstanding, I did promote a green message with my lunchbox which had on it the logo of the ecology flag!)

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However, as I just said, our misdeeds are not front and center of our scripture passage.  The apostle Paul speaks of the present suffering as giving way to something wonderful.  The groaning of creation is not simply suffering, but a groaning of labor pains.  Something is about to be born.  Something is slowly at work, beginning to take shape.

Why should this be a text for Pentecost?  What does it say about the Holy Spirit?

The gospel text in John presents the Spirit as coming to us to serve as our Advocate, our Helper.  The Spirit “will guide [us] into all the truth” (16:13).  The Spirit will speak words from the Father.

And of course, on the day of Pentecost itself, the Spirit descends like a mighty wind, filled with fury and flame.  The disciples are “filled with the Holy Spirit and [begin] to speak in other languages,” other tongues (Ac 2:4).  The Spirit prompts bold words of praise about the glories of God.

I remember hearing someone say the Holy Spirit is the silent member of the Trinity.  Those who have worshipped with Pentecostals or Charismatics would find that difficult to believe!

Having said that, the apostle Paul does indeed portray the Spirit as a silent power within creation, as a silent power within us.  He says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (v. 26).  Words no longer do the job.  They lack intensity; they lack passion.

My sermon title speaks of “a green Spirit.”  Why green?  One answer is pretty obvious, since I’ve been talking about creation, the environment, our interaction with it.  The Spirit inhabits creation, going all the way back to when the Spirit was moving over the face of those primeval waters.

4 ro 8Green also speaks of growth.  This is intertwined with the movement from the slumber of winter to the rejuvenation of spring.  In our part of the world, things have been getting greener and greener.  (Along with the increasing pollen, which plays its role!)

An idea shot through our passage is that of hope, which the Holy Spirit produces.  Creation has been “subjected to futility,” it’s been held back, unable to achieve its true glory.  That might be true, but it’s been done in the hope, as said earlier, of being “set free from its bondage to decay” (vv. 20-21).

The late Lutheran pastor and professor Sheldon Tostengard commented on hope (or perhaps the lack thereof?).[1]  “Society’s hope for the future is by no means guaranteed these days…  [T]his age can truly be called an age of hopelessness…”  There’s a cheerful assessment!

Still, he draws solace from St. Paul.  “While our hope is patient, as patient as that of the seafarer who knows that in the morning the lights of home will appear on the horizon, our hope is by no means resigned.  Hope is infectious, a strange and deep optimism which takes all groaning and travail absolutely seriously, and yet rejoices.  Let it be said of us Christians in these times that we are known by our hope.”

What does Paul mean when he says, “we do not know how to pray as we ought”?

Again, looking at this as a scripture for Pentecost, one writer says, “Our calling is to join the Spirit in caring for the creation and praying for faithfulness in a world that both serves and threatens creation with technology.”[2]  We need help in using our technology in creative, and not destructive, ways.

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We need help in not drowning in plastic!  It can take up to 50 years for a styrofoam cup to decompose in a landfill.  Plastic bottles can take up to 450 or 1000 years to biodegrade.  And plastic bags!  Besides the problems on land, when they get to water, they are a hazard to creatures who think they’re food.

I love the Fiji Water commercial which has a little girl doing a voiceover proclaiming, “Fiji Water is a gift from nature to us, to repay our gift of leaving it completely alone.”  Meanwhile, we’re hearing Pacific Islanders singing a song of praise and joy.[3]

As I say, we need the Spirit’s help, the one who leads us into all the truth.  We’re told, “The ranks of those who respond to the Spirit’s sighs are never overcrowded, but because it is God the Holy Spirit who silently, ceaselessly works, there is hope.”[4]

We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Holy Spirit does.  And “the Spirit intercedes for [us] according to the will of God” (v. 27).

May we be filled with a green Spirit.  May we be filled with a spirit that calls us to love and care for creation.  May we be filled with a spirit that grows within us and urges us to grow.  May we be filled with a spirit that inspires us with hope and enables us to spread that hope into the world, into our planet, into time and space itself.  May we be filled with a spirit that knows our infirmities and leads us to pray and to be.

May we be filled with a spirit plunging us into the love of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Sheldon Tostengard, “Light in August: Romans 8:18-39,” Word and World 7:3 (1987): 318.

[2] F. Dean Lueking, The Christian Century, 114:15 (7 May 1997): 447

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeF134YMoS0

[4] F. Dean Lueking, 447.


anarchy to order

“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jg 21:25).  That’s how the book of Judges ends.  That book covers a time period of about a century and a half—from the life of Joshua to the life of Samuel.  The judges were regional authorities.  Today we might call them local chieftains.  The book of Judges was written after the monarchy was in place.  So maybe there’s some bias; maybe the judges are pictured a tad unfairly.

“All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  There was no king.  They were running wild!

Having said that, it is hard to dispute there was some spiritual anarchy.  That was the world in which Samuel was born.  Here’s one minor example.  I won’t go into detail, but the sons of Eli the priest engaged in graphic womanizing and ripping people off when they came to offer sacrifice.  In Eli’s defense, he did plead with them to stop being so wicked.  But that’s just one symptom of the “anarchy.”

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In 1 Samuel we have a story appearing often in the Bible.  There’s a woman advancing in years who still hasn’t borne a child.  It’s always pictured as the woman who can’t conceive.  We never hear about the man who is unable to father a child!  I wonder why that is.  Maybe in ancient times they weren’t aware such a thing is possible.  Then again…  But I’ll leave that for another day!

In any event, here, the woman is Hannah.  Long story short, she prays to the Lord; she becomes pregnant, and she follows up on her promise to dedicate young Samuel to God.  Afterward, she sings of song of praise which serves as the model for the Virgin Mary’s prayer in Luke 1.  That’s how we arrive at Eli’s taking Samuel under his wing.

Look at how chapter 3 begins.  “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.  The word of the Lord was rare[1] in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).  There were few, if any, prophets bringing fresh words from the Lord.  Almost no one had any vision.  It was a drought of creativity.

That’s not the same thing as saying God did not want to reveal new things to the people.  When people are resistant—when we are resistant—there’s no place for the seed to germinate within us.  That is, it’s the figurative seed which bursts from the earth and becomes the plant that grows and flourishes.  It’s the new life signaling an end to the drought.

2 1 smSpeaking of loss of vision, here’s verse 2.  “At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room.”

Okay, I know the main point of the sentence is a physical condition.  Eli is now an old man, and he no longer has an eagle eye!  We could say he’s blind as a bat.  Still, coming right after that business of visions being few and far between, I think we can see more than a little bit of humor involved.  There’s probably more than a little bit of sarcastic humor involved, with a loss of vision also meaning a spiritual condition.

That theme continues in verse 3.  “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.”

Again, the surface language is talking about an actual lamp which has used up almost all of its oil.  But I like that: the lamp of God had not yet gone out.  There’s still a flicker; there is still hope.  There are still those who welcome the word of the Lord; there are still those who yearn for vision.

By the way, we hear about the Ark of God, or the Ark of the Covenant.  It was said to contain holy objects, including the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments.  Oh, and just as importantly, it was the star attraction in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which highlighted the face-melting of Nazis when they gazed into it.

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I’ll summarize the crazy story starting in verse 4.  It’s the story of a boy who keeps waking up in the night because he keeps hearing a voice.  And each time, he goes into Eli’s bedroom, who keeps telling him, “I didn’t say anything.  Now go back to bed, young man.  Goodness gracious, can’t a guy get some shut-eye?”

Finally, Eli realizes Samuel is hearing the Lord.  He tells him to listen, and what he hears isn’t very pleasant.  It’s all over for Eli and his worthless sons.  Their wickedness has come back to haunt them.  Eli demands the boy lay it out for him.  “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him.  Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him’” (v. 18).  Even in bitter failure Eli shows himself to be a man of deep faith.

We can see this as a baton being passed.  The sun is setting on Eli, but it is rising on Samuel.  This is more than a function of age.  It’s more than Eli being old and Samuel being young.  There are plenty of folks who’ve been on this planet for over 80 or 90 years and are still vibrant inside.  And there are some young ones who are already turning to dust inside.

This is about maturity.  This is about understanding gentleness is strength; wisdom begins with acknowledged ignorance; the first will be last, and the last will be first.  (Okay, I stole that from someone!)

This is a new word from the Lord; it is a new thing.  Young Samuel is infused with vision from God.

There’s an often-misunderstood verse from the book of Proverbs.  It comes from the King James Version, which despite much of its beauty, is after all, written in English from four hundred years ago.  It is said, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (28:19).  That’s been taken to mean many things, such as the vision leaders lay out for those being led.  It’s the vision we ourselves have.

Modern translations show the meaning of the Hebrew.  “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).  So it really means “where there is no prophecy, no revelation, no vision from God.”  And what’s the result?  The people cast off restraint.  They are unruly.

[Rev. Steve Plank, former stated clerk of the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse, gave this translation during the August 2017 presbytery meeting: “Where there is no word from the Lord, empty chaos results.”]

As those final words from the book of Judges go, “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.”  What does this spiritual anarchy look like?

Again, it doesn’t mean people are running wild, with blood flowing in the streets.  It’s not the plot of a horror story, like that ridiculous movie The Purge, the premise of which says once a year, all crime is legal for a period of twelve hours.  No, it’s nothing so over-the-top as that!

One way I think we can see what this anarchy looks like is the sense of rootlessness.  It’s the sense of becoming untethered, unmoored.  It’s the sense of drifting, of having no firm grasp—nothing solid to hold on to.  All the people did what was right in their own eyes.

That also happens in the church.  There can be a sense of losing our bearing, not knowing which way to go.  At a lesser level, we can see anarchy in congregational meetings, in which it becomes a matter of crowd control.  That’s why our Book of Order specifically lists the topics to be discussed at such meetings.  It brings anarchy to order!

Back to the original point.  A lack of a genuine word from the Lord, a lack of vision, of revelation, affects our society at large.

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Many consider Martin Luther King, Jr., as having been a prophet.  Whether or not you would use that term, (I trust I’m safe in saying) he did speak a new word, a needed word, rooted in vision and revelation from God.  Like the prophets of old, his message comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.  It was, and remains, a word for both society and the church.

King ministered during a time of great transition in America—tumultuous transition.  I’ve spoken about transition on numerous occasions.  Transition is a big part of the job of interim pastor, if not the defining characteristic.  Transition is always charged with anxiety, in greater or lesser measure.  And it becomes all the more necessary to hear that rare and precious word and to receive the vision.

So how do lack of the word and lack of vision result in a drought of creativity, at least creativity that is worthy of the name?

Could it be we are cut off from the source of creation?  We can’t allow the creative Spirit of God to inspire us?  We are unable to imagine new things?

Perish the thought!  We need not look for the grand and glorious.  It begins with one.  Jesus was one, and the word spread.  With the young boy Samuel, a fresh wind of the Spirit blew into what was decaying.  There was a rejuvenation.  Anarchy was brought to order.

That is our challenge and our privilege—that we bring our own anarchy and present it to the one who takes what is crumbling and orders it into something wondrous and beautiful and yielding life eternal.

 

[1] יׇקׇר (yaqar), also means “precious”


God, are you with us?

Make a joyful noise.  I often say that to people who claim they can’t sing.  In the Psalms, we’re told several times to make a joyful noise.  Here’s a good example: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (98:4).  I like to sing, and I’m definitely on the side of making that joyful noise.

1 xmas eveSinging is a big part of today’s Old Testament and gospel readings.  We might say it carries the tune in a measured call and response.  But before we sing the praises of our scriptural poets, allow me to refrain, promising we will return to their melodic message.

“Melodic” is not a bad way to describe Isaiah 52.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (v. 7).  We need to look at the background to see what kind of message this is.

This part of the book is talking about the exiles who were sent to Babylon.  They are now returning, in what’s been called “the second exodus.”  And just in case it’s not clear, the word “exile” does not mean going on vacation.  You do not consult a travel agent when forced relocation is in store.  These people have known more than their share of violence and war.

But the tide has turned.  There has been a reversal of fortunes.  The prophet proclaims, “Listen!  Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (v. 8).  Their Lord is leading the way; their Lord is the vanguard.  And they need the Lord to go before them.  They need the strength and courage of the Lord, because they’re coming home to a real mess.  When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, they went hog wild.  They tore up the place, and worst of all, they destroyed the temple.  The folks who later moved into the city have no interest in rebuilding it.

Even so, anticipation and joy begin to appear.  “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (v. 9).

Episcopal priest David Grant Smith says, “Even the ruins themselves are singing about this new day being heralded by their return!”[1]  Even destruction and chaos are transformed by God into something wonderful and beautiful—into a work of art.

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Dirk Lange speaks of death being overcome by song.  “This joy [and] singing arises out of great anxiety—a battle has been engaged, death is confronted.”[2]  And looking to this time of year, he adds, “as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children [ordered by Herod].  It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.”

We can see the Babylonian exile as a time of God leaving the people, so to speak.  The exiles would say God is not “with us” or “for us.”  God is not Immanuel.  God is far away.  Now, everything has changed.  Immanuel, “God with us,” “God for us,” has arrived.  That’s what the joyful ruckus in Luke 2 is all about.

Having said that, those shepherds probably wouldn’t use the word “joyful” when the angel appears.  “Scared out of their minds” might be a better description.  So it’s no doubt for the best when after announcing the arrival of the Messiah, the angel and celestial companions get things going.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”—or “those of good will” (v. 14).

After our sheep-keeping colleagues have been properly reassured, they take off for Bethlehem to see what the angels were so excited about.  Upon seeing the holy family, with the promised one lying in a trough for barnyard animals, they are overcome with awe.  And then they leave, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).

Still, I wonder, what’s the deal with all this singing?

Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most noted theologians, weighed in on this.  And he was no nonsense!

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“The church which does not sing is not the church.” (Karl Barth)

“The Christian church sings.  It is not a choral society.  Its singing is not a concert.  But from inner, material necessity it sings.  Singing is the highest form of human expression.”[3]  The Christian church sings.  And that applies to all kinds of singing.

As the old hymn goes: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation / I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation: / Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; / It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?”

But Barth isn’t through, yet.  “What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church.  And where...it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation.”

How can we keep from singing?

Last week’s sermon was based on the epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians, which begins, “Rejoice always” (5:16).  I invited the singing with me of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  I don’t think he was referring to the time of year when we’re sleepwalking through the stores, or maybe fighting our way through the stores.  (I’m not sure how often it gets to the point of people literally throwing punches or whacking each other on the head with televisions.)

No, it’s the time of year in which, more than ever, we ask, “God, are you with us?”  Are you for us?  Have you brought Immanuel?

Christmas is indeed a time of elation, but as we saw with Stephen and the Holy Innocents, the twelve days of Christmas also have had built into them agony.

Our friend David asks, “What devastation in our own lives is God inviting to sing?”  Remember the ruins of Jerusalem.  How on earth can we plumb the depths of our sorrow and shame and bring that to God, so that something wonderful can emerge and even be celebrated?

“What aspects of ourselves have been long in exile and are now being brought back home where we belong?”  What aspects of ourselves have been banished by others to a far country?  What aspects of ourselves have we rejected and said, “I never want to see you again”?

If God is able to take human form as the babe of Bethlehem, how much easier is it for God to reclaim what we have lost?  Be it from ruins or renewal, we can ask, “God, are you with us?”  And we hear the reply, “Make a joyful noise!”

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[1] processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/christmas-eve-christmas-day-2017

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1530

[3] www.rca.org/resources/theology-and-place-music-worship