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Monday, December 15, 2014

Joy Carriers (Psalm 126)

Sunday, December 14, 2014 – 3rd Sunday of Advent

          “May our Homes be filled with Dancing.  May our streets be filled with joy.”  Jesus has come, salvation is offered to all who repent and turn to him.  He promises to return and invite all who are his to inhabit the Eternal Kingdom of Heaven as children of God.  Yes, dancing and joy; yes, that sounds right. 
We heard it when Tim and Laura lit the candle and read Isaiah 61:  I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my whole being shall exult in my God.
Mary, the mother of Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.
The Apostle Paul writing to the Thessalonians: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 
Our songs, our scriptures, our reading, our ears – we are full of joy and we should be.  It is Jesus’ birthday.  We are reminded that we have been born again in Christ.  At Christmas we celebrate our birthday, our awakening to God, our receiving forgiveness, cleansing, and eternal life. 
Psalm 126 offers a beautiful expression of what we have in Christ.  We are who we are because he is who he is.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy.  May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  We were like those who dream.”  That last line calls to mind the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28).  You and I will dream.  We will see the Kingdom of God. 
The tension comes when we take our eyes off Christmas and the magic and wonder, the holiness and love, and we look around us. Reading Psalm 126 rubs against the hard edge when we step out of the warm soft light of worship into the biting winds of the world around us. 
We won’t let go joy.  We won’t.  We hold it, proclaim, live in it, and spread it because of Jesus.  However, we do this with eyes wide open.  We do this full of compassion which demands that we have empathy for people whose experience of life is different than our own.  That means we have to be joy carriers.  We have to carry joy to people who are having trouble seeing it right now. 
America has blown up in a 21st century version of racial strife.  Much of the vitriol is spilled all over Twitter and Facebook.  These media can be pathways where we share the Gospel.  I have participated in redemptive conversations on Facebook. 
However, there is no filter.  So, people can tweet, post, or email extremely insensitive thoughts.  Readers see a message and respond with aggressive words.  Insults are thrown back and forth and what started as a thoughtful even hopeful discourse is, in the end, a hate-stained verbal battle ground. 
Remember the Psalm – our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy.  We won’t let go of joy.  We will spread it.  This is the feel-good seasonal joy that can be reduced to a greeting card (not that I oppose Hallmark, I don’t).  No, we are here talking about the deep joy of Heaven.  That is what we in Christ are called to share. 
Michael Brown’s family is having trouble with laughter.  Their son is dead.   
Eric Garner’s wife is not raising shouts of joy.  Her husband, a black man, died when a white officer used an illegal choke hold to subdue him.  Conservative commentator Bill O’Reily condemned the actions that led to Garner’s death.
The one that gets me is Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old child in Cleveland, Ohio who was shot by police men because he had a BB gun.  My 12-year-old son runs through our neighborhood all the time playing with his friends playing with pretend guns and swords and having fake battles.  Boys love BB guns.  I don’t have to worry about my son being confronted by police – he’s white. 
But my younger son is black.  All my kids are adopted and the younger two are black.  My neighborhood is mostly white we a few Chinese and Koreans also there.  It is educated, middle class America.  Is my neighbor going to call the police because my black son is playing too aggressively?  When my white son plays that way, it is “boys will be boys.”  Why doesn’t my black son get the same space and grace?  If my neighbors call the police and they come and confront my black son for doing what all his white playmates have done all around him all his life, then what happens? 
He’s seven.  He was listening as we had NPR on recently.  He asked my wife “Is it going to be hard for me because I am black?”  She had to be honest and say, “Yes.  It might be.”
This is real.  A few years ago, someone in our neighborhood saw two black boys going door-to-door through neighborhood.  She emailed the neighborhood list serve asking if she should call the police.  They were football players from Chapel Hill high school selling calendars to raise money for the team.  Why didn’t she ask the same question a year before?  She didn’t ask because a year before, the players who went door-to-door were white. 
So just to be clear, parents of black boys have to teach their kids not to play with BB guns – you might get shot.  Parents of black boys have to teach their sons to be careful if you go through a neighborhood because your football team needs money – someone might call the police
Our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy.  We cannot let it.  We are of Christ.  We are in Christ.  We know what this season, why joy is the word for it.  Nor can we blithely proclaim joy as if everything is alright.  Everything is not alright.
Much of what I have said is toxic and divisive.  Some white people stand with their black brothers and sisters; other white people decry aspects of black culture they find unappealing.  Some people damn the police – all police.  Others rush to the defense of the police. 
I read an impassioned appreciation shared by the daughter of a law enforcement officer.  I really could feel her heart as she thanked her dad and all officers for his service in protecting the public.  The work the police do is essential in keeping our society safe and ordered.  When you are listening to K-Love or another radio station and the public service announcement comes on calling for thanks and prayer for those in the armed forces, also say a prayer of thanks for police officers and fire fighters.  We need the people who do these tough jobs. 
My only question is this.  Could a black woman offer the same word of appreciation to the police?  Or would her experiences of police pulling her son over to ask why someone like him was driving such a nice car lead her to a different statement?  Does she feel forced to plead with the officials to give her son the same grace and guidance and protection they white boys?  That such a question even warrants asking shows the complexity and difficulty in our culture. 
We have to name it.  We have to insert ourselves into tension and carry the joy of Jesus into it.  As I said, I understand the appreciation for policemen and women I read this week.  That makes sense.  I think I understand that groups of people are fearful of the police.  That also makes sense. 
Many times in recent weeks, reading about Ferguson and Staten Island and grand juries, I have been at a loss for what to say. This morning, with the light of Christmas filling my heart and the even brighter light of Christ illuminating all of life, I know what we have to do.  We have to carry joy to people whose hearts are soaked with tears so that the Holy Spirit can give laughter to those who need it most.  How do we do this?  I have a few thoughts.
First, we listen.  I urge Christ followers to find people whose perspective is different than our own and hear what they have to say.  We listen without judgment and without condition.  Just see the whole picture from their perspective.  Feel their pain.  We listen to them and with them and we do so with compassion and understanding.  You don’t have to agree with everything they say.  Just stand with them and offer compassionate embrace.  It will be uncomfortable, and awkward.  Accept that and go there. 
Second, we pray.  We pray before we listen.  We pray as we listen.  And we pray as we watch.  You turn on the news, find out the grand jury is not going to indict and the rioting and looting starts.  Before we post on Facebook how evil rioting is, we turn our hearts to Heaven and think about with Jesus.  Imagine simply sitting – you and Jesus together – thinking together.  Why does someone see the death of a teenager as an occasion to rob stores?  Because that person, that looter, does not know the joy of Jesus.  He is so lost, his great joy this Christmas will be the TV he stole from a Ferguson store.  You and I want to rant and rave about how stupid looting (and it is).  Is Jesus joining us in our indignation? 
Or do we see this from Jesus’ view?  Yes, Jesus hates sin.  Jesus also weeps when a child dies.  Are we weeping with Him?  Yes, looting is a sign of how broken the world is.  When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, another broken place, he wept (Luke 19:41).  Into Jerusalem, into Ferguson, into Cleveland, are we flicking our tongues in disgust or weeping alongside Jesus?  When our hearts are where Jesus is then we are poised to have our tears turned into laughter.  Only when Jesus has done this in us are we ready to carry his joy to another.
Third, seek.  Seek out good stories amidst the not so good.  In Richmond California, the chief of police led the protest march against police abuses of power.  His message to the community was I see with you that something is broken and my intent is to be part of the solution.  It can be wearing to constantly hear stories of more deaths, angry rants, and divisive rhetoric.  It is tempting to turn it all off and stick to schmaltzy Christmas movies. We are in Christ.  We cannot just stick to safe, nice things.  Jesus does not do that.  We have to go where Jesus is.  The media magnifies tragedy because bad news sells.  The media buries positive stories.  But those positives are out there.  We seek the good as we pray for all and listen to those whose perspectives differ from ours.. 
A fourth thought I have is to hold on.  Hold on to joy.  We cannot carry it and share it if we drop it because our hearts are full of other things – anger, irritation, judgment.  Let’s drop those things and hold onto joy.
If we listen, we see the other, whoever the other is – black, Asian, police gay, immigrant – we see the other as human.  Joy comes when human hearts join with each other.  Our differences become beautiful variety and likenesses are signs that we are all made in the image of God and in Christ adopted as children of God. 
If we pray, we submit ourselves to Jesus. We let go of everything.  He sets the agenda.  We have already seen in the scriptures that God fills us with laughter and joy. 
If we seek the good, we are inclined toward the light and without realizing it the light of God shines through us.  We gravitate toward stories of hope and people are pulled along with us. 
If we hold onto joy, we release other thing, negative emotions, hateful words.  We are all of limited capacity.  We can only carry so much.  Let joy be what we carry.
I have not mentioned protest – Christians participating in peaceful demonstrations like ‘die-ins’ and other things like that.  I don’t feel I understand protest movements enough to give thoughtful comment.  But I think if we commit to listening, praying, seeking the good, and holding tightly to joy, we will be equipped to be people of the light of Jesus if participate in protests.  If we choose not to participate, we are at least ready to love those who do.  Jesus calls us to love.
When the Lord restores [our] fortunes, we will be those who dream.
Then our mouth will be filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said of us, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

Healing the world is God’s work, which began with the coming of Jesus.  In the age of the church, we bear witness to Him.  In His perfect time, he will return to complete the work of the cross and resurrection.  This is God’s work.  We carry the message of God’s work to those who need it most and we do so with compassion.  Christmas highlights what God’s people are all year – joy carriers.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11 2nd Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent – December 7, 2014

          She hasn’t eaten in days.  Her son, 10, and daughter, 5 look at her with sunken, hungry eyes.  The Babylonian army has marched around Jerusalem for weeks.  Supplies have long run out. 
          Then, the assault begins.  It does not take long.  They break through the city walls.  There is no resistance.  The few soldiers who put up a defense are quickly impaled on Babylonian spears.  Families are dragged from their homes, kicked into the dust of the streets that flow with Israelite blood.  They are forced to watch as the Babylonians burn Solomon’s temple. 
          Then, the march.  Mile after mile, in chains, they walk to their new home, their new normal as slaves in Babylon.  She does not survive the journey.  Her son and daughter do. 
Now they live as people without rights on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Babylon.  The little boy and the little girl are now in their 70’s, the elder generation of Jews in this foreign place.  They must do what they can to keep memories of Israel alive.
          They have to tell the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Joseph and the amazing things he accomplished when he was in slavery in Egypt only lives on as they tell the stories.  They remember Moses and the Exodus through the Red Sea.  They tell of Joshua and settling the Promised Land.  They remember the victories of David and the golden age of King Solomon.  But now the brother and sister are old, tired, broken people – people who have spent their lives under heel in Babylon.  For decades they have listened to their Babylonian overlords mock their God. 
          Is it true?  Are the Gods of Babylon superior to Yahweh, the God of Moses, the God of David?  Is their God as dead as they feel?
          A rumor spreads.  A new young prophetic voice is rising in the Jewish quarter.  Young people are talking about what he has said and written.  At a make-shift gathering where one of the few available scrolls of the Torah is read on the Sabbath (thank goodness the Babylonians allow this), people are saying a Jewish prophet has something new to say. 
          This old man and old woman are too tired to hope.  Their dreams were shattered decades ago, a thousand miles way.  Everything they hoped for was violently ripped from them.  Still, they go.  Why not?  What else is there to do?
          It is the largest crowd of Jews they have ever seen and there is a buzz.  The young prophet is there and speaks.  The people who have lived in slavery for so long are overwhelmed by this prophet’s words. 
Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

          Can there be comfort?  The people of God have been swallowed by the sands of history, buried under the force of an enemy too powerful for God.  No, says the prophet.  What happened did not come about because Babylon was so strong.  Mighty Babylon; don’t buy it for a moment.  In dragging Israel off to exile in 586 BC, Babylon was simply a tool in the hands of the Almighty God, so says the prophet. 
          Exile did not happen because of Babylon’s strength but because of Israel’s sin.  Now the prophet says the penalty for that sin has been paid.  The Lord’s punishment has happened and now a new day begins.  The Lord Almighty allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed because Israel abandoned the conditions of her covenant with God.  God did not abandon them.  God does not do that.  God has always been and always will be faithful and sovereign. 
          To the Jews in Babylon, people stuck in their grief and their loss, Isaiah offers a new word from God. 
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

          The prophet gives three commands.  The first is “comfort.”  Heavenly beings are ordered by the most-high God to give solace to His people.  No second rate Babylonian deity has defeated Yahweh, Jehovah, the God of the Bible. 
Scripture gives glimpses of a heavenly realm that is full of creatures we cannot understand or imagine.  There is no organizational chart.  The one clearly stated truth is God is supreme.  The heavenly beings mentioned in Genesis, Job, Daniel, Revelation and other places are superior to us, but subject to God.  This includes whatever otherworldly beings there were that oversaw Babylon.  “Comfort” – the word we see in Isaiah 40:1 – is a verb in the imperative form.  The heavenly beings must obey God’s order to comfort his people. 
A second command is “prepare.” The prophet prepares the way of the Lord – the way God will lead His people back to the Promised Land.  King Cyrus who will lead Persia to overthrow Babylon is to prepare the Jews by freeing them, sending them home in a second Exodus.  Centuries later, a wild eyed prophet named John prepares the world for the coming of Jesus by preaching repentance and baptizing those who come to him. 
And we who read the Bible and worship the Lord and believe God is real and is all powerful and does love us – we are commanded to prepare the world for Jesus’ return.  We do this when we bear witness to His grace and the salvation we have in Jesus.  We help clear the path into the hearts of friends who will listen to our testimony.  The clutter that obstructs the way into the heart is removed and they are made ready to meet God.
Comfort.  Prepare.  The third command is “Cry out.”  Proclaim God’s word.  The prophet knows this is to Him directly.  But, what he asks, is He to cry out
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.

All people are grass.  The King of Babylon is grass just like the blind beggar who lives in the ally mud, day after day, hoping someone will spare a bit of bread.  All people are grass. Eric Garner, Darren Wilson, Michael Brown, Bill O’Reilly – all people are equal.  All wither and fade.  What am I to “cry out,” Isaiah asks.  All people are grass. The wealthy slumlord and the tenant trapped in poverty stand before God in the same condition.  Right now one has it easy and the other suffers, but that inequality will not last.  Inequality and injustice will not stand, not before the almighty God.  Suffering happens for a season, but God will put all things right.
The tears that suffering brings are real and should be shed.  Maybe some here today have dealt with serious hurt and loss.  Tears pour forth from shattered hearts.  God sees.  God knows pain is on the prowl and death is claiming victims in our country, in our world right now.  God hears our cries. 
Isaiah does not whimsically dismiss the pain of right now as if it were not real.  Isaiah knows suffering.  The Old Testament knows disillusionment, defeat, and death.  And most of the Jews of the 6th century BC were ready to give in as would people of any nation at any time.  But the prophet saw beyond the immediate dire circumstances.  The prophet was given God’s view.  The prophet knew and we can know that God is a deliverer. 
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.

Living as we do in the age of the church, we know the ultimate fulfillment of their words.  Isaiah knew God would gather his lambs in his arms.  We know how God did it.  We know Jesus. 
The birth of Jesus reminds us that God sees the inequalities and injustices that show how broken the world is.  God sees and has done something about it.  In Jesus, God empathizes with us and takes upon himself the worst of us and nails it to a cross.  Our sins, our pain, our grief, our loss – it has been crucified with Christ.  In Him, we are no longer slaves to sin.  We are new creations.  While we linger in the fallen world, we serve as today’s pointers.
We aren’t prophets.  From time to time, prophetic words must be spoken.  But we are not prophets like Isaiah.  We are witnesses.  In this age, the people of God, all who are in Christ, bear witness to what God has done, to the truth of His kingdom, and to the salvation we have in Jesus.
Withering grass and fading flowers reminded Isaiah that in the end, all are equal before God – equally small, equally sinful, equally lost.  The greatest athlete, the president of the United States, the handicapped homeless child, you, and me – we all fade.  But, Isaiah tells us that God gathers in his shepherd arms.  God holds us, feeds us, and lifts us up to where God is. 
Jesus uses different metaphors, a table, and a cross.  At that cross, we are all dead.  He invites we who are dead to the table – all of us.  The famous physician has a seat right next to the unemployed alcoholic.  The imperfect, the defective, the broken – we sit together in a community of love. 
We serve each other bread – his body broken, our sins covered.  We serve each other wine – his blood shed, eternal life given to us. 
As we walk in the promises of Isaiah, acknowledging that pain is real but has been defeated by the power of Christ, we walk to the table.  We walk arm-in-arm in a family of love – the love of God.  We dare to believe that God is real, can be trusted, and will make the world right.  We dare to live in that belief.  And then we go out and testify to life, life in Christ.  In this age – the age of the church – we walk as those who are in the light and we spend our lives bearing witness, telling of the God who gathers us in His shepherd arms and gives us comfort.


Monday, December 1, 2014

God' Word at the End (2 Peter 3:8-10)

God’s Word at the End

Jesus said, “31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  32 But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; [f] for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:31-33).  No one knows!  When it comes to the end of everything, Jesus asserts when cannot be known.
Scientists don’t necessarily agree.  National Geographic author Andrew Fazekas reports on a study that is based on science that projects the sun will grow hotter before burning out.[i]  The increasing temperature will burn out life on earth about 2.8 billion years from now.  And, the expanding sun may get so big it eventually engulfs our planet.
Can you imagine heat that obliterates an entire planet?  It is too big for me to be able to grasp the whole idea.  The author of 2 Peter did not have such conceptualizing difficulty.  Consider 2 Peter 3:10: But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
I have previously read the projections from scientists that Fazekas cited and I have no reason to doubt them.  Based on the readings, perhaps the astrophycists are thoroughly correct.  What surprised me was how similar their description of the earth melting after the sun matures to “red giant” stage is to the way the Biblical author depicted the day of the Lord.  It is as if 20th century physics caught up to what Christians in the earlier first century already knew. 
Of course I am being a bit playful here, but the point is God is in control.  Second Peter 3:8 says “with the Lord is like a thousand years.”  Some readers try to a make a code out of that and predict things.  So if we read in the Bible that something is going to happen in 3 days, that really means it will happen in 3000 years.  I think this may not be the best way to read 2 Peter 3:8.  I believe that verse is an indicator that God is not subject to time.  God’s purposes happen at God’s initiative and time has no bearing. 
We are subject to time.  We cannot transcend time or space.  God can and does.  God is unaffected by the possibility that the sun will heat up and expand and burn off our descendants a few million years from now.  Perhaps that is the way scientific observation accounts for what God has been planning all along.
Second Peter 3 is one of the prescribed readings for the second week of Advent (December 7, 2014).  These words about the end are joined to Mark 1.  There we see John the Baptist “preparing a way” for the Lord (1:3).  He was the set-up man.  Jesus is the Savior.  Because Jesus lived under God’s authority and is God in the flesh, the resurrected one, our hope suffers no setbacks by the realities of science.  In fact, when we are in Christ, our hope brings hope the entire world, in fact, to the universe.  God created this universe with all the natural phenomena in it.  God made it “good” and it will continue to exist under God’s watchful eye. 
In Advent, we remember that God is sovereign.  Through Jesus, the all-powerful God invites us into relationship.  We can celebrate the wonders of the universe and at the same time rejoice in our standing before God.