Monday, December 28, 2015

Taking down the lights: 1st Sunday after Christmas

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Twelve years after the birth of Messiah, life goes on.  Pretty much like we go about our business after the gifts have been unwrapped, the holiday dishes have been put away for another year, and the extended family has gone back to their own lives, their own business.  The celebration is over, and the “event” has drawn to a close almost as if it never happened.  With the exception of some new memories, children and grandchildren and great-grands who have grown a foot taller, life pretty much returns to normal.

Except this is our own 21st century narrative.  In the 1st century at the dawn of the messianic age, there is nothing to be continued as usual.  Life cannot go on “as is” because while the rest of the world may be going about its own business, Messiah is coming of age.  If this were the same ol’ narrative, then it would be as though Messiah never came, a Promise had not been fulfilled, and the New Testament writers got it wrong.  Life will pretty much go on as before.

An interesting twist on the narrative of Jesus having been found in the Temple itself, we might consider that within the Temple grounds were many outer courtyards.  Within the main structure it would have been very unlikely Mary would have been allowed in.  So while the Temple is the central feature of Jerusalem not only as a physical structure but as the very heart of a people, we might miss an important component of this particular narrative without a closer look.

The original Greek, according to some, may not be specific in terms of Jesus being in His Father’s “house”, though it is so written in NRSV.  Rather it has been suggested that the Greek translation may be more accurate not as “house” but as “business” as it is written in NKJV.  This is to say Jesus would likely be about His Father’s “business” more than He would be found only in a structure which would be somewhat limiting to the narrative.

This is an important consideration for us because of the very nature of Messiah in the Incarnation – “immortal God in mortal flesh”.  While worship is certainly a central feature of Christianity and Judaism, a means of grace we dare not neglect, the “business” of The Father in the Incarnation is much more involved than a single “event”, certainly more enveloping than simply being present in a “structure”.

Luke’s narrative is unique among the canonical Gospels in that its introduction tells us the nature of the writing.  It was not intended to be nor written as “Scripture”.  It is a report written to an unknown “Theophilus”, and it is written as “an orderly account of events that have been fulfilled” (1:1). 

A narrative is being created; a narrative written to a particular individual (we think), yet also a narrative we are being invited into, a narrative that must become our own if we are to be “disciples”, students, Jesus-followers – much more than simply “Christian” which is fast becoming more of a political label than a statement of allegiance to Christ.  And the narrative must become our own, of course, if we are to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples.

This particular story is perplexing, to say the least.  The Holy Family went with many others to Jerusalem for the Passover and after the festival was completed, they all went home.  That is, except for Jesus, the 12-year-old boy.  Venturing about a day’s journey, Mary and Joseph finally realized Jesus was not in the crowd.  The narrative tells us they had only “assumed” Jesus was in the group.

Given the social reality we live in, we cannot begin to wrap our minds around this whole thing.  I strongly doubt any among this congregation would have even thought about leaving church, the mall, a restaurant, without making sure the little ones are accounted for!  This was a very different time, of course, and a culture that is entirely alien to our own.  It would not have been so unusual.

Jesus being left behind, however, is not the point of the narrative.  Rather, that which is to be “fulfilled” is beginning to take shape.  It is rather strange that Luke’s Gospel is the only one of the four that has any narrative about the boy Jesus, though there are other extrabiblical accounts with great detail about Jesus’ boyhood.  Yet this seems to be the one point Luke found necessary to include in his account to “Theophilus”. 

It is an account that speaks more directly to the fullness of the Incarnation rather than the somewhat limited “Christmas” narrative which is specific to the Birth of Messiah and “baby Jesus”.  That limited narrative only invites us to the stable, but then it allows us to go on about our business almost as if nothing happened.  We acknowledge a strange phenomenon especially for the shepherds, but it is still little more than an “event” with a limited time span and, consequently, limited meaning.

This is why it is so easy to “take down the lights”.  Physically it is a pain in the neck to put away all the lights and the decorations.  Some even vow “never again”!  Too much trouble, too much time that can be spent doing other things.  It’s fun for some to put the stuff up, but not so much fun putting it all away – because it signifies the “event” is over.  The “feel good” season is ended.  It’s done.  The “festival” is complete.  I wonder if this may have been on the minds of the many who were venturing back to Nazareth after the Passover.  The “event” was over, the thing was done, and it was time to go back to the daily grind.

It is sort of like the “event” of worship.  If we do not come with an open mind and an open heart with great expectations, if we come unprepared but for an agenda of our own making, if the Scripture nor the Spirit penetrate our hearts, we walk out when it is “over” as if nothing happened.  It was just a “thing” we sometimes do, but there was no encounter with the Holy.  There is no transformation of heart and soul.  We walk out as angry or as bitter or as ambivalent as when we walked in.

But just as the spirit of the Passover cannot be contained in a single “event”, neither can the Incarnation be so strictly limited.  If not for the actual Passover, the people of Israel would not be YHWH’s people; they would still belong to Pharaoh.  So in the Incarnation, if not for the “Light” which came into a very dark world, and if King Herod had had his own way, we would still be slaves to our past with no way out.  There would be no “business” to be about except for our own.  “Emmanuel” has changed all that – IF He is still “with us” and has not been “taken down and put away” as just another holiday decoration commemorating a single “event”.

It is written in Ecclesiastes, “Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the human heart is fully set to do evil.  Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before Him” (8:11-12).  Not “stood” as if only a single “event” – but “stand” as if He is always present.

Let us not become so involved in “Christmas” as a single “season” that we allow ourselves to “take down the lights” as if it is over.  Rather let us learn to embrace the fullness of the Incarnation and allow “Emmanuel” to stay.  For if it is truly “over”, we cannot say it ever was. 

Let us say, instead, Eternal Glory to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Something is stirring: 4th Sunday of Advent 2015

Micah 5:2-5a
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:13-20

"Each of us is an innkeeper who will decide if there is room for those who bring Good News.”  Neal A. Maxwell

One of the greatest joys of Advent for many is the excitement of the season leading up to Christmas.  Ironically, that very sentiment is one of the biggest disappointments of the season because Christmas Day itself is almost anti-climactic.  We’ve been building up to that glorious Day actually since long before Advent began. 

Too many will have spent money they didn’t really have for stuff they didn’t really need.  Yet in spite of spending in excess of $600 billion (with a B) in 2014 and likely as much in 2015, there will still be many disappointed children – and some adults – because all that was built up in their minds did not come to fruition. 

If we really think about it, it is just not possible to live up to all the commercial hype.  Consequently December 26 will be a day pretty much like all the others.  Nothing will have changed.  Of course we can always hope “others” may have received a blessing and maybe a life-changing epiphany, but the chances are the day after Christmas will be for them what it will be for us – just another Saturday.

The Letter to the Hebrews attests to essentially the same thing in our mortal lives.  In the beginning of chapter 10 it is written: “The Law is a shadow of the good things that are coming, not the real things themselves.”   Now it is important when reading any commentary about “The Law”, even in the epistles themselves, that we bear in mind what our Lord spoke about “The Law” itself: “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill; for assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Law till all is fulfilled”  (Matthew 5:17-18).

So since heaven and earth are still intact, nothing has changed even there.  Yet we are still in the “shadow of good things that are coming” because although Messiah has come to make propitiation for the past sins of all who repent, there is still something ahead of us.  As stated previously, it is the Day of The Lord.  The Day His people await and should always be preparing for, The Day evil dreads. 

This is The Day in which the Divine Order will be restored.  Wrongs will be made right.  The hungry will be filled.  The poor shall be rich, and the very fruits of evil will become what every toy, every electronic gizmo, every new dress, every new shirt received for Christmas will become: nothing.

Every Advent season is a new opportunity to draw closer to The Day of The Lord in a meaningful way, and every Advent season is eventually squandered away to the commercial trappings that produce limited joy for a very limited time – but never contentment.  This is so for this very reason: every gizmo, every toy, every new dress, every new shirt will break or tear or be ruined or become obsolete in some way.  All the hopes we put into these things will be as the Titanic against the iceberg: sunk.

All this holiday noise betrays something much greater.  The excitement of anticipation drowns out the silence which is necessary to the fulfillment of what is foreshadowed.  The reason Advent produces nothing new is because it is the same ol’ grind year after year – only louder and more obscene than the year before.

So let’s look a little more closely at Zechariah.  On the surface it appears Zechariah was being punished for his unbelief.  In the NRSV Gabriel does say, “Because you did not believe my words …” (vs 20a)  But what if Gabriel could see in Zechariah’s world something so out of order, something perhaps so chaotic, that in order for Zechariah to fully appreciate “the shadow of what is to come”, a little silence might be more in order as a gift than as the punishment it appears to be.

Luke’s Gospel presents Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth as “righteous before The Lord, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of The Lord” (vs 6).  It would be hard, then, to suppose Zechariah had this coming to him as punitive.  This would make The Lord seem somewhat arbitrary and vindictive to so strike a “righteous and blameless” man, a priest devoted to his duties.

Zechariah’s “offense” is not unlike Mary’s own question.  Zechariah said, “How will I know?”, and Mary said, “How can this be?”  Given that Mary was doing little more than tending Joseph’s home and Zechariah was busy with his priestly duties that surely involved a lot of praying, it would seem Mary would have more time to contemplate what was to come whereas Zechariah could get a little too caught up in “busy” work.  Important work, to be sure, but busy.

We know we are sometimes a little too busy for our own good.  Prayer has become for the collective Church optional or downright inconvenient – or at the very least, incidental to all else that is going on especially during this time of year.  Considering that Advent is much more than a mere “countdown” to Christmas but is intended to prepare our hearts and minds and souls for the RETURN of our Lord, prayer should be foremost.

Sometimes even our important church work is overshadowed or even overwhelmed by the busy-ness of what we choose to do when it may be more important for us to slow down, “be still”, and more fully appreciate what the Scripture and the Spirit are telling us.  If we are “busy”, however, it is very likely we will miss something altogether much more important than what we would choose to engage in – important though it may seem.  For the Church cannot be the Body of Christ in the world if Christ Himself becomes incidental to what we choose to do first what pleases us.

There are countless reasons why the adage, “Silence is golden”, should be intentionally embraced – especially in prayer.  How can we possibly know what The Lord has to say to us – to His Church – if we do all the talking?  How can we know that what we are busy doing will be pleasing to The Lord if we never give The Lord a chance to tell us what to do?  That whatever we may choose to do feels right or seems right does not make it right in the eyes of The Lord. 

Zechariah “had it coming”, of course, but not in the way you and I may think.  What he “had coming” came to him as a remarkable present, an extraordinary gift to a man who was “righteous and blameless” before The Lord.  It is the very gift you and I would do well to anticipate, expect, and even pray for. 

The work we would choose to do in the Name of The Lord will always be important, of course, but it can never be more important than what The Lord may have to say.  Something is indeed “stirring”.  And if we do not learn to slow down, sit down, and quiet down, it is very likely it will pass right by us.  Let the people of the Church say, “Amen”.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Politics of Fear

“I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear.  Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!”  Luke 12:4-5

Political science, in a nutshell, is the study of public policy by which it is determined who gets what, how much, when, and by whom.  In public policy, then, it is the government that decides who gets what, how much they get, when they get it, and who (which agency) will give it.  Ideally it would be that such policies seek the well-being of the whole society without favor, without passion, and without prejudice.

This is text book political science.  The reality is altogether different.  More and more are becoming more acutely aware that public policy is entirely manipulated by those who can buy favor in Congress or state legislatures or, as has become the case lately, by those who can strike fear in the hearts of members of Congress, state legislatures, city councils, and lately, boards of trustees at certain universities.  And the fear is not about personal safety; it is entirely about political fortunes and professional futures.

For the longest time I was “represented” (yes, I use the term loosely) by Democratic legislators.  My letters of concern to them regarding public policy were eventually answered, but the replies seemed to make clear to me that I need not bother to write since my direct questions were never answered nor my concerns addressed.  Now that I have Republican representatives, I cannot say I feel any better “represented”.  My direct questions are still not answered (do they just not know?), and my concerns are poo-poo’d away as having no real bearing on anything important.  I have no money.  My family name is not socially or politically significant, and I am not part of a larger organization, a PAC, or a lobby group with the power to get a legislator’s serious attention. 

Alone I am no threat to their political well-being.  I lack the power to strike fear into the heart of any legislator.  I cannot even seem to command simple respect, judging from so many condescending replies.  Yet apparently (judging by the robo-calls, spam e-mails, and circulars in the US mail) I have the awesome “power” to change the world … if I will but send them money to “continue the fight”. 

In other words, I do have some “power”.  Such “power”, however, seems only useful in the hands of another.  That is, I have only the “power” granted to me by these legislators and candidates.  Evidently I am in great need of someone else to “fight” for me since I am obviously incapable of defending or representing – or even thinking for - myself in the political realm.  If not for these self-appointed “messiahs”, I would have so much to fear that I could not possibly function as a citizen or lead a normal life in peace and safety.  If these are not elected or re-elected, I may as well hide in a cave or leave the country since all will be lost.

So there it is.  Politics is the system by which “it is determined who gets what, how much, when, and by whom”.  It is not public money or services being appropriated by public policy, however; it is fear.  These candidates and legislators and their minions need me to be afraid of something in order for them to be effective as legislators, public *choke* servants, president … savior. 

The election season, as those too often before this one, is already in full swing, but it seems to be more acute this time around that I feel I am being made to believe myself to be ignorant … or have my head buried in the sand (or up my you-know-what) … or blind to certain truths … or … or … It is not enough that I can simply disagree with a concept.  I must – I MUST – demonize those with whom I disagree, or I’m not a “real” American.  And if I am unwilling to demonize, then I must be demonized.

I guess there is some measure of fear within me, however.  Only recently did I read a study and timeline on events leading up to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany and the specific events and public policies leading up to the marginalization of European Jews and ultimately leading to that human tragedy we dare never to forget: the Holocaust.  Rank-and-file Germans were told whom they should be afraid of and who can rescue them.

So are we.  Without exception each candidate – from both sides – is playing on our fears.  The Democrats need us to be afraid of the Republicans, and the Republicans need us to be afraid of the Democrats.  They need us to be afraid of something or someone.  Their own political futures depend on stoking fear rather than inspiring confidence.  In order for them to be needed, we must be afraid of something from which only they can protect us.  They, along with the current president, are tearing at the very fabric of what makes this nation truly great – our unity.

What is most troublesome are the many Christians from both political sides playing directly into those fears and, consequently, betraying the very One they claim can truly “save”.  Christians are passing on incomplete or downright false information in efforts to demonize a political opponent or give more credit than credit is due their preferred candidate.  Portraits of their favorites are being passed around social media reminiscent of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s portrait all over revolutionary Iran.

Frankly, the biggest threat I see is the idolatry rampant in this country.  One cannot believe Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz will “save” this country while also claiming Christ Jesus as the Savior of the world and Savior of one’s own soul. 

What are we really afraid of?  Whatever fears we may be subject to must be given their proper place because we do need to be aware of our surroundings.  Even Jesus was afraid when facing the certainty of His tortuous death, but He faced that fear with the greater certainty of the Resurrection and the fullness of Life offered from the One who can truly “save”.  He did not believe for one second that “Caesar” could ultimately save Him or Israel, but He knew hatred would end His physical life in a very painful way.

We can be politically informed, and we can make responsible political choices.  We must be careful, however, of how high we would lift any politician and how much credit we might be willing to bestow on one who will one day “return to the dust from whence they came” just as surely as you and I will.  And in a matter of two, maybe three generations they, like we, will be long forgotten.

These candidates and legislators have only the power we grant to them, and it seems clear to me they cannot handle such awesome power.  I dare say no human being can live up to the impossible standards we establish for and expect from political candidates.

We must be careful whom we declare to be worthy of “savior” status.  In the end, that may be the only “savior” we will ultimately know.  And he, or she, will soon be “dust” just like the ones of us who expected redemption from them.  Be afraid of that.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Just thinking and praying

Another shooting for reasons not yet known

"See, The Lord's hand is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear.  Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.  For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness."  Isaiah 59:1-3 NRSV

For the life of me, I cannot wrap my mind around yet another shooting and heart so inclined to murder.  

We can - we must - pray for the victims and their families, but I think maybe it is time for some serious introspection in our prayers.  Many wonder where The Lord is in such tragedies, but perhaps it is time for the Church to be serious about the business for which we have been called forth and stop pretending we should be living in some kind of spiritual Candy Land.  Maybe it is The Lord asking where His people are.

The Covenant of The Lord has had a stipulation from the beginning: in order to expect Divine protection from the evil in the world, the people of The Lord are expected to abide by the Holy and Divine Law.  This biblical reality has been watered down for so long that we simply expect The Lord to protect us from the evil that surrounds us because we show up for church once in a while, and can say and spell "Jesus".  We are essentially clueless as to the very real demands of the Gospel because we have convinced ourselves we don’t have to do anything to earn The Lord’s love, yet we expect the promises to materialize to a people largely (and willfully) ignorant of what is written for us to know.  Worse, perhaps, is the expectation that others should abide by the Divine Law; that same Law we insist does not really apply to us Christians.

It is fair (and probably of profound importance) to ask ourselves: Why should The Lord protect us?  Because He loves us?  Because we have put more emphasis on "correcting" the Bible so as to be sensitive to political demands that we stop calling The Lord anything other that simply "God" so as to avoid offending anyone other than the Holy One Himself?  Because we have been so focused on inclusivity that we fail to remember there are covenant conditions, not least of which is obedience for those already claiming to be of the Covenant?  And that obedience borne of an abiding faith that trusts fully that The Lord will indeed look after His people?  Or are these expectations too high?

But who are His people?  The Jews?  The Catholics?  The Protestants?  The Muslims?  Who are HIS PEOPLE who are "called by My Name" (2 Chronicles 7:14)?

The Lord's own Chosen were in trouble because they had lost (or surrendered) their faith.  They forgot (or it just became inconvenient or unpopular) to do the right and faithful thing.  They were judged with "blood on their hands".  That is, they had learned to exploit each other for personal gain rather than to support and defend the well-being of the community by defending those unable to defend themselves.  They slandered those they didn't like, and they spoke whatever was necessary to get ahead.  “Each did what was pleasing in his own sight” (Judges 17:6).

And The Lord, the God whose Name is "love", turned His back.  He had "hidden His face" from His own people, and their prayers nor cries for mercy were to be heard “for their hearts are far from Me”.  So how is it that we have read this reality of Israel and Judah (The Lord’s Chosen people divided against themselves), and we have managed to convince ourselves this cannot happen to us?  We who claim to "believe" but do not fully trust nor live as though we do really “believe”?  We who casually and carelessly toss the Holy Name about but only for personal gain or some faceless feel-good notion of having “witnessed” on social media without actually engaging others?  We who gleefully pass along unsubstantiated rumors?  We who in our own self-righteousness eagerly curse those who stand politically opposed to us?  We who will spend thousands for ourselves this Holy Day season in the name of Jesus but will toss only spare change at the many ministries counting on the season of good will to fill their coffers to last the whole year since we don't feel such good will in JulyWe who will gladly curse those who do not “believe” as we think they should believe?

We are, I believe, under judgment because while we may be quick to call for prayer after the fact, we do not seriously consider faithful living before the fact.  Has The Lord "hidden His face" from us?  Does The Lord choose not to "hear" us?  Let us ask ourselves: why should He?

“If My people who are called by My Name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their lands” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

The Lord demands loyalty, faith AND faithfulness, and unwavering allegiance to His Covenant.  Until the Church (those who call themselves by My Name) gets past this notion of “cheap grace” that promises much but asks little, we may well see much worse than we’ve already seen.

I know many will dismiss this observation because it is not a “happy” message; but maybe if we will stop seeking that which tickles the ears and senses and start seeking that which feeds the soul, we will find before us a God mighty in word and power … and mercy.  And we will find this only as a people united, not a bunch of persons each seeking his or her own.

And it starts with earnest repentance.  Not a mere “apology” with cheap words - but a determination to live fully into the Covenant of The Lord - not strictly because we wish to avoid the Judgment but because we desire to live the fullest life possible in Him and on His Terms.  This is The Lord’s promise, and it is made more fully possible in the Living Word made Flesh; Christ Jesus who came to show us what faithful living actually looks like.

Lord, have mercy!