Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Christmas 2 A - Jeremiah 31:7-14

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Jeremiah’s “great company” returning from captivity in the north includes the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, hardly the kind of folks generally included in a great company. But that is the way of the Lord that is often missed, even by God’s own people. The One whose ways are not our ways and thoughts not our thoughts has an affinity for those cast aside, those who receive no recognition or awards, who are wholly dependent on hoping in the Lord. So God will rescue the remnant from those too strong for them, turning mourning into joy, sorrow into gladness; comfort of the Lord for a people long oppressed. The young and old will make merry, the priests will get fat and the people will be satisfied. But more that, in the remnant returned the Lord who scattered Israel, because they refused to walk straight paths, is also restored for God suffered the separation as much as those who languished in exile. It takes two to tango even if God takes the lead. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas 1 A - Matthew 2:13-23

Matthew 2:13-23
The nativity according to Matthew has none of the “we wish you a merry Christmas” charm of Luke’s version. Joseph is visited by the angel even though the Virgin Mary still does all the labor. There are no shepherds, angel choirs or a no-room-in-the-inn manger Silent Night “cattle are lowing the baby awakes.” Matthew did give us the star and the magi but the story of the princes coming to visit the peasant just sets up Bethlehem for Rachel’s inconsolable weeping. By that I mean without the Magi’s visit Herod would have been ignorant of the baby born to be King of the Jews and the Bethlehem babies of the future King would have been spared the consequence of his premature enthronement. Of course in the world that Jesus comes to serve and save the slaughter of a few innocents in a small village hardly registers on the atrocity scale. The chorus of loud lamentation began when Eve found Abel’s bloodied body and has continued unabated to this day. There is no “good news” in this story and no amount of exegetical gymnastics will get us there. Rachel cannot be consoled. But the good news that comes later in the Gospel is that the baby Jesus grown to be a man will not escape the fate of his counterparts born in Bethlehem. He dies for them and for Rachel and for the soldiers who following orders did the deed and I would suggest even for the psychopath Herod. Jesus dies because the world God imagined in the beginning became so familiar with atrocity it could only be saved by something it could not ultimately destroy. So God in Jesus as the innocent victim met hatred and violence face to face and for a day or two let it do what Herod hoped to accomplish but on the third day broke the chains of death so that Rachel’s weeping might become a song of exaltation. (Psalm 118) The good news is that Jesus escapes King Herod as a baby in Bethlehem so he can die as a man in Jerusalem which means you and I and everyone else can live to serve a different sort of King.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas 1 A - Hebrews 2:10-18

Hebrews 2:10-18
During the summer of 1975 I was the wrangler at Camp Lone Star, LaGrange, Texas. Before the summer was over I had wrecked the rear end of my ‘68’ Chevelle racing a ‘69’ Mustang down a dirt road, chipped a bone in my elbow coming off a green broke colt (suddenly and involuntarily), broke my hand in another horse related incident and was bitten by a Coral snake. (I tried to pick it up because no one told me “red and black venom lack; red and yellow kill a fellow.) Strange as it may seem I still consider it the best summer of my life; maybe because I was a kid from Chicago playing cowboy in Texas and at 19 one does not live in slavery to the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:15) On the other hand (the one not broken) psychologist Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” (Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction in 1974) would make the case that my reckless behavior during the summer of 1975 was a denial of the very real fear finite beings feel whether they acknowledge it or not. The church has been the place where the fearful faithful gather to be confident that death is but the gateway to eternal life and as long as one has a reserved seat by virtue of a personal relationship with Jesus there is no need to be afraid. But we miss the truth of the incarnation when we cast Jesus’ life and death and resurrection as a religious Ponzi scheme where only those who buy into the system are given a get out of (eternal) jail free card. If God in Jesus becomes like us in every way then God must also identify with those who are less than faithful and live out their fear of death in ways that are destructive to themselves and ultimately others. That is not to say bad behavior is excused. But having lived our life and died our death surely God must understand we were set up from birth into a closed system to live in denial of the thing we fear most because we cannot avoid it or in the end escape it. The hope of the scripture that proclaims a merciful God is that God became as we are so that we might become as God is. (St. Augustine) To that point the church is set free from the fear of death when the faithful fearful are as willing to enter into the suffering of others as Jesus was and like Jesus are not ashamed to call all members of the human family sisters and brothers. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas 1 A - Psalm 148

Psalm 148
This is an “all God’s creatures got a place in the choir” praise the Lord psalm, though I’d rather not be included in the choir when sea monsters get to exalting the name of the Lord. But then Psalm 148 doesn't discriminate. Young and old, women and men, fire and frost, creeping things and flying birds, wild animals and domestic livestock, kings of the earth and peasants (you get the idea) are all commanded to exalt the name of the Lord who created sun and moon, stars and heavens, etc. etc. etc. But one wonders why the whole world should join the chorus if the horn raised up is only for the people who are close to the Lord. Is everyone else supposed to praise Israel’s God from a distance? This is the part of “Praise the Lord” that the psalmist didn’t see coming. Simeon saw it when Joseph and Mary brought the horn “raised up” to the temple on the eighth day for the rite of purification. “Let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation… a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Apparently God does not discriminate either but in preparing for something beyond the psalmist’s imagination intended the horn raised up for Israel to be raised up for those outside Israel as well. It meant the end of things Israel thought essential to praising God; circumcision and keeping kosher to name but two. So what might that mean for us who also believe God has raised up a horn, formerly for Israel, but now claimed exclusively by we who are close to God by virtue of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? If God determined the law of circumcision and keeping kosher unnecessary for a right relationship what else might be on the table? Well if the psalmist couldn't see it coming neither will we. That’s the nature of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts who cannot be contained by the universe but is born in a stable. Maybe that’s why the psalm commands everything that is to praise the Lord. Surprise! Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas 1 A - Isaiah 63:7-9

Isaiah 63:7-9
The amazing thing is that this less than noteworthy nation on the world’s stage, even during its forty year golden age, in what is hardly a garden spot on the planet, recounted God’s favor for them in times of captivity and national calamity and unfulfilled promises. The ransomed of the Lord may have returned to Zion with singing but the everlasting joy was only one verse and a chorus. Things are not going so well. The hard work of restoring national identity in a conquered land and rebuilding a city and temple in ruins all in the context of a less than warm welcome by those who had been left behind by the Babylonians is hardly a list of the Lord’s gracious deeds and praiseworthy acts. But then Isaiah doesn’t think in terms of rewards but rather the riches of a relationship with the Savior who is present with them in all their distress. Not a messenger. Not an angel. The presence of God saved them and lifted them up and carried them home. That is why the most gracious act of God is remaining present with children who, truth to be told, have a habit of dealing falsely with God, no matter what Isaiah says. God’s love and pity redeems them because these people, of all the people on the planet, are God’s own people. In the same way God continues to be present with us, in a restored relationship through the Christ, despite our less than honest ways. In light of that we too can recount the gracious deeds of God in times of personal captivity and calamity and the “not yet” nature of future promises unfulfilled. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent 4 A - Romans 1:1-7

Romans 1:1-7
The letter to the Romans begins with a seven verse sentence all of which serves as preface to “grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It could be that Paul, like this blogger, likes run on sentences because periods just waste time. Or it could be that grace to you and peace is easier said than done and needs a seven verse sentence to remind the Romans that while they are not nearly as conflicted as the Corinthians there are some hard feelings between Jewish and Gentile Christians residing in Rome. The promise beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures about the Son descended from David (think Jew) is also declared the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness for the obedience of faith among the Gentiles, so that both Jew and Gentile might be called “God’s beloved in Rome.” I think there a lot of things the church can get wrong and still claim the cross of Christ but living together in grace and peace as God’s beloved is not one of them. The inclusion of Gentiles into what was a Jewish religion goes beyond any of the denominational divisions that define the church today and we would do well to note that those outside the church see our inability to live together in grace and peace as proof the Gospel is not worth the paper it’s printed on. “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” or so said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Does that mean the divisions that define us are not essential and we should all join hands and sing Kum by Yah? Well, why not? Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Or in other words, Kum by Yah. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Advent 4 A - Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Psalm 80 is a lament for the Northern Kingdom of Israel that in 722 BCE was conquered by the Assyrians. It started as a family feud between Judah and Israel but after Israel allied with Aram and threatened Jerusalem King Ahaz of Judah sold his soul to Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria and Israel was history. Of course the psalmist thinks God had something to do with it but the truth is this story is repeated throughout the history of the human race. The pride of kings inevitably leads to the bread of tears for common folk. It’s the poets and the prophets who give voice to the people’s pain pleading “Restore us, O God” and promising “then we will never turn back from you.” Sad to say Israel never does come back and Judah will eventually meet the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. Not a very happy psalm but then laments are meant to name the pain and not shy away from the reality of suffering albeit from the perspective of faith that holds onto the hope that the God who is angry with the people’s prayers will hear their plea none-the-less and regard their plight with pity. That is how not so happy songs can still be hopeful for laments give voice to faith in the face of sorrow and suffering, so that when scorned and derided by circumstances beyond our control, fed on a diet tears, we pray none-the-less “Restore us, O God!” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Advent 4 A - Isaiah 7:10-17

Isaiah 7:10-17
Ahaz is weary of prophets getting in the way of politics and so even the offer of a sign as high as the heavens and as deep as Sheol can’t get him to swallow his pride and ask the God of Israel for help. God wearied by Ahaz’s feigned piety offers a sign anyway, a sign that Matthew will apply to Jesus though Isaiah was most likely speaking of Hezekiah, neither of which are named Immanuel, by the way, but then that is the way of prophecies. They point to a truth larger than the literal one and the same word that finds fulfillment in Hezekiah and in Jesus finds fulfillment in our everyday. Immanuel, God with us is the point of the promise. God with us when we go our own way, choosing the evil and refusing the good. God with us when we feed ourselves with false promises and illusory hopes. God with us for the day when we tire of wearying God and turn again to the promise as high as the heavens and as deep as Sheol. God with us when we recognize that the hope of God with us is that we would choose to be with God. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent 3 A - Matthew 11:2-11

Matthew 11:2-11
John is confused by what Jesus is doing, or more accurately, by what Jesus is not doing. One can imagine the questions that led to “Are you the one who is to come…?” Where is the baptizing with fire and the Holy Spirit? Why is the threshing floor still occupied by Pharisee & Sadducee chaff? And the most perplexing question might have been, “Why am I in prison if you are the Messiah? I’m your cousin, for God’s sake! ” But Jesus came to be what John had proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.” And John was right, it was more powerful and with or without untying sandals, no one was worthy of it. It was not to be “kingdom come” by smiting enemies within and without, wresting the temple from the dirty hands of the High Priest and kicking Roman butt from Jerusalem to Britannica. It shouldn't surprise us that John asked the question. In some ways the early church suffering at the hands of those from within and without asked the same question. It also shouldn't surprise us that the vision of Jesus’ return was imaged as violent and vengeful. Maybe this time the Messiah will get it right. This time we want a superman not a suffering servant. Listen, John the Baptist had plenty of scriptures to support the Messiah he was looking for and truth to be told that was the Messiah he wanted. When Jesus says “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” he is telling John and us, for that matter, that he will come in whatever way he wants to come and our images will have conform to his. Granted that may mean he’s coming back angry and ready to put a hurt on the world that would make John the Baptist shake like a reed in the wind. But my guess is that Jesus is still outside our box, scriptural or not, and that the Messiah who the first time around pointed to the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the dead raised and the poor hearing good news as proof of the pudding might surprise us the second time round as well. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent 3 A - James 5:7-10

James 5:7-10
We've been patiently waiting for almost two thousand years. Of course every now and then people find a way to profit from predictions of gloom and doom but then the point of patience is left behind. There is nothing you can do to hasten the day, or delay it for that matter, but you can make the wait weary for yourself and others by grumbling, judging, or connecting coincidences and claiming to know the time and place the Lord himself said is none of your business. No. We are called to wait as those who James calls “Beloved” three times in four verses which means we wait with a lover’s longing. And not only for ourselves but for the sake of those the Lord loves, which I’m guessing includes those we don’t. After all, the Judge who stands at the door is the same One who spoke “Father, forgive them” upon those whose fear and envy and self righteousness nailed him to the mercy seat in the first place. That’s a judge worth the wait. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent 3 A - Isaiah 1:39-55

This is the song of Zion, the song sung at the Christ’s conception, the song Jesus would sing with his life, the song that would condemn him to death. “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” is how the high priest Caiaphas justified the murder of the One who raised Lazarus from the dead. Power does not care for protest songs and will take any measure to silence them. But Mary’s song will not be silenced. The humble are lifted up. The rulers are brought down. The hungry are fed with good things. The rich are sent empty away. Sung by a peasant girl impregnated by the Holy Spirit come upon her she risks her life to carry the light of the world to term. Sooner or later some busy body in Nazareth will notice that Mary is “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” and no one will be around to confess the virgin birth as an alibi. And yet she sings. She rejoices in God’s favor. She sings of the Savior mindful of her humble state who has blessed her for every generation. She sings rejoicing for her people because the Mighty One has remembered to be merciful. She sings the life within her before Bethlehem, before Golgotha, because Mary believes already that in the conception of the Christ the future forever promise has come true. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent 3 A - Isaiah 35:1-10

Isaiah 35
Isaiah 35 was written to the children of Israel in exile, weeping by the river of Babylon, tormented by their captors who demanded they sing happy songs of Zion. It is a vision of a better day, a promise for those worn down by adversity, weakened by suffering, feeble and fearful of heart, without help, without hope. In the vision cast by the waters of Babylon a new song of Zion is composed where the wilderness rejoices in the glory of the Lord revealed and a way is made through the burning sand and the haunt of jackals so that even those who don’t have a lick of sense will not get lost on the holy highway. Of course a good portion of those whose hands were strengthened and knees steadied by the hope of the promise died by the river where they wept. But for their children born in Babylon the promise did come true and they returned to Zion singing the songs their parents taught them, which would have been forgotten forever if their captors tormenting them had not demanded they sing them. As it was for them, so it is for us; a promise for unsteady hands and knees that give way, hope for all held captive to doubt and fear, trial and trouble, a promise that inspires holy imagination where sorrow flees from the promise of everlasting joy. So sing the songs of Zion, songs of hope and happiness, joy and peace, even if you are weeping by the waters of your own Babylon, for the children are listening and learning. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent 2 A - Matthew 3:1-12

Matthew 3:1-12
It appears to me the Pharisees and Sadducees should at least get points for trying. Instead John verbally attacks them for being all repentance and no fruit. (All hat and no cattle) But to what end? To their credit the Pharisees and Sadducees, teachers of the law and keepers of the temple, come out together overcoming their natural animosity towards each other. And they give up their respective positions of power to be subject to the poor people’s prophet even if it’s just a weekend excursion for them. The diet of locusts and honey and camel’s hair clothes with leather belt identify John as one who has forsaken the world for the wilderness which is always the place of preparation for Israel. So when the city slickers come slumming he calls them on it. Who warned you to flee? Confession by itself is not worth the words used to say “I’m sorry” unless it is accompanied by a change of heart and hand. That is John’s point. You can’t come out to do a wilderness weekend of weeping and wailing and then go back to the city of business as usual. To bear fruit worthy of repentance is to live into the conclusion of confession which is the amendment of the sinful life. The One who is coming after will do something more than John and though he will burn the same Pharisees and Sadducees with words like blind guides and brood of vipers and white washed tombs he will gather them in with “Father, forgive them…” And so it is for us. Our confession needs a word of judgment before welcoming words of absolution so that we will not be satisfied with an “I’m sorry” that does not in some measure lead to “I can do better.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Advent 2 A - Romans 15:4-13

Romans 15:4-13
The instruction and encouragement of the scriptures were meant to reveal the God of hope so that inspired by the living word we might abound in what the God of hope is all about… which is hope, of course; but what kind of hope? If the incarnation of God in the Christ is any indication of what the God of hope is all about then there is nothing God will not do, nowhere God will not go, to be reconciled to us so that reconciled to God we would be reconciled to each other. Or in other words, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another…” And again, “whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) For this reason Christ became the servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth and at the same time became the mercy and hope of the Gentiles so that with one voice Jew and Gentile would glorify God. Or as Paul will write to the law bound Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female...” (Galatians 3:28) So if in Christ God has erased the dividing lines of race, status, and gender might it be a safe bet that God’s brightest and best hope is that we would do the same? Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent 2 A - Psalm 72

Psalm 72
Psalm 72 concludes the prayers of David, son of Jesse and is a prayer for his son Solomon. In many ways David, the man after God’s own heart (who broke God’s heart time and again) is a tragic figure. Guilty of adultery and murder and intrigue the sword never left his house and while he was not “cast away from God’s presence” he experienced the penalty of his sin in heartbreaking loss, no more so than in the rebellion and subsequent murder of his son Absalom. “O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!” His cry of grief for Absalom stands in stark contrast to his prayer for Solomon. Born out of the disappointments and difficulties of his reign David prays that Solomon would be a better king than he was. Make my son a just and righteous king who remembers the poor and delivers the needy from the oppressor, whose rule like rain on mown grass will bring peace and prosperity to your people. “Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by, and feed them on your dreams the one they picked, the one you’ll know by” (CSNY) David dreamed of a dwelling place for God in the midst of the city named Peace, a temple he was not permitted to build. But the son for whom he prayed would make the dream come true. David’s prayer that Solomon would do better than he is the prayer of every parent learning from the whole of life, wishing, hoping, praying their child will make fewer mistakes and know all the joy and then some and only half of the pain and that well taught lessons and dreams picked will help the prayer come true. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Advent 2 A - Isaiah 11:1-10

Isaiah 11:1-10
It is one of my favorite visions of the future and I marvel at the mind of the prophet who brought it to life by putting it to pen. The One who delights in the Lord will pair wolves with lambs, leopards with goats, calves with lions, bears with cows, infants with adders. It’s a recipe for carnage, but in the imagination of the prophet the predator lies down with the prey for a nap and not for lunch. The accepted order of the natural world is radically transformed by the One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord finds a resting place so that hurting and destroying will have no place on the holy mountain because hurting and destroying have no place in the Lord. In some small way I lived the hope of Isaiah’s vision when our Belgium sheep dog Gretchen did her best to kill our lamb Leah. Both were named. Both were loved. If I could have imagined and created a world where that would never happen I would have. But then I’d like to say hurting and destroying have no place in me but that would not be true. In a world where the innocent are preyed upon by the wicked I know that at some level my desire for justice satisfies a need for retribution and that even a self-proclaimed pacifist has a tipping point. But that knowledge does not diminish the desire for the peaceable kingdom. Rather it heightens it. The One upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests will create a world, a new reality, to do what we can never do. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.