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Monday, December 7, 2015

At Home in the Story (Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 1:67-77)

As Christians with an evangelical bent, we feel called to scripture.  The Bible is special, unlike any other writing.  With tools of analysis we read critically, probing, questioning, and framing.  As we do this, we hold our sense that the Bible is God’s holy word and will stand up to our scrutinizing. 
            The Bible stories speak in the real world historical situations from which them come, but the stories also reveals the Bible as transcendent, speaking beyond the historical circumstances of the original writing. 
            With this in mind, how do we Christian, Easter people live in the Old Testament?  How do we find a home there?
For instance, how can we live in Jeremiah’s prophecy? We don’t understand exile.  We don’t know what it is like to see our nation fall into slavery. 
Moses led the ancient Israelites out of slavery, performed wonders from God along the way, and led them to the land Promised by God.  David led the nation into the city of peace, Jerusalem.  That city became Zion, the city of God. 
However, God’s people worshiped statues and idols.  God’s people dishonored the poor.  So God handed them over to foreign powers: Philistines, then Assyrians, and finally, Babylon. 
To the Babylonians, Jerusalem was not the city of God.   It was the capital of a backwater colony that was easily overrun. God’s chosen people, became slaves.
How do we feel the story?  Exile is not our experience.  Where is our connection?  How do we find a home in this story?  We have been told this is the word of God and in Jesus we are included among the people of God.  Through his prophet, God said, “I will fulfill the promise I made.  … I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up from David.”  What does that mean?  Did Jeremiah know that in the next part of the story there would be a virgin birth in a stable?  Did he see the cross coming?  Or the resurrection?  No.
How do we find the home we know is in the Old Testament but seems distant?  I suggest we pay attention to what the prophet tells us about this God who is our God.  Jeremiah says God promises that something better is on the horizon. 
God’s people had been utterly defeated by a large, powerful empire, the Babylonians.  In that situation of abject humiliation, God reassures His people that He sees them.  God is in control even in the horror of exile, and God will bring a new day through a future descendant of David.  When the Promised One comes, the people will experience the new thing God is inevitably going to do.  Jeremiah does not know what God will do.  But he knows God is going to do something. 
Insight into God’s character connects us to Jeremiah.  God is a God of promise.  God is present.  God is a God who acts.  We can relate to the words, but, what does it allmean?  What exactly has been promised?  What is it, specifically, that God does?
In Luke’s gospel we meet the elderly priest Zechariah. His wife has already gone through menopause.  They have no children.  Then an angel tells Zechariah they are to have a son. 
No one around them says this is it!  This is that Righteous Branch, that descendant of David that Jeremiah described!  No one says that.  Zechariah doubts the angel’s message, and who can blame him?  But the angel silences him. For 9 months, the priest cannot speak. 
Finally the miracle baby comes and Zechariah’s speech is restored and so too is his spiritual insight.  He remembers that God made a promise and that God was and is active in the life of his people.  A miracle pregnancy and a 9 month imposition of silence were effective reminders.  When Zechariah opened his mouth, he had a lot to say. 
Someone asked, what will become of the miracle son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the baby named John?
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior[a] for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
    and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 
75 in holiness and righteousness
    before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.

Interestingly, the priest Zechariah answers a question about his own son, with a prophecy about someone else – Jesus.  What of your son, Zechariah?  He answers that God is about to change the world through ‘Yeshua,’ Jesus, the one named ‘salvation.’ 
Finally, after 8 stanzas of praising God’s action in the coming one, only then does he speak not about but to his own son, John.  “You, my child, will be the prophet of the most high who will give knowledge of salvation and forgiveness to God’s people.”
Zechariah knows things Jeremiah did not know.  We know things he did not know.  We know much that the disciples did not know.  Before we read about the cross, we know the story ends in resurrection.  We know Jesus will go to be with the Father and will send His Holy Spirit.  We have the completed Bible.
Because of this are we more at home in the entire story, Jeremiah and Luke included?  The crucifixion and resurrection happened almost 2000 years ago.  The Second Coming, when Jesus makes things right in the world as he brings our final rescue from sin and death is in some uncertain future time that will come long after our earthly lives have ended.  Yes, God is present in the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit is elusive.  Yes, God is at work in His church.  But the church is so full imperfect people that the messes we create make it hard to see God when we are together. 
We asked Jeremiah is what do you mean?  How can we be at home in your words?  Now, we ask Luke and Zechariah, what does it matter?  Between the resurrection, 2000 years ago, and the Second Coming, 2000 or so years from now, what good is the story today? What is my part in it and why would is it good news with all that’s happening in the world right now?

Each week of Advent this year, we are singing verses from the hymn “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.”  Jesus is anticipated, born to set people free and release us from sin, and Jesus gives rest.  It’s there in the words.  We sing it.  Jesus is the hope of all the earth and the joy of every longing heart.  And every heart is a longing heart. 
Yet, this sense of distance persists.  We read the Bible and read it some more, we go through worship every year, and somehow it feels beautiful for the season, but just that.  How can this story go from being just another feature of December something more?  I know God is in the story and is inviting me in, but there are times I feel more lost the more I read and more distant, the more familiar it becomes.

This week, I went to UNC hospital several days in a row visiting various HillSong folks.  One day when I pulled in to the parking deck, I had a parking strategy in mind.  I knew which entrance I needed and I was visualizing where I thought I’d find a good spot for my car.  As I was doing this, I was surprised to find a spot on the first level.  I never get spots there.  But here it was.  So I left the car there and went in.
I was in there a long time.  When I came out, I had a sinking feeling.  I could not remember where I parked.  I the parking strategy that filled my mind when I had first arrived hours earlier.  The memory of where I actually left the car, on the first level where I never park, was gone.    
So I walked all through level two, and did not find my car.  I thought it was there, but I tried level three.  I walked every row; no car.  Doubt crept in.  I didn’t park on level four, did I?  That’s under construction.  I would have remembered that.  So, hurriedly glanced down a few rows of level one, but I knew my car wasn’t there.
So I kept searching.  I knew what I was seeking was in this parking garage. My feet ached from walking.  Relief was in that building.  The home we need is in the Bible –words of hope, peace, and love and truth.  All we need to thrive in the face of the struggles of our day has been revealed in God’s word, both Testaments.
After an hour of wandering through UNC hospital’s parking deck, I called my wife.  She drove over with Henry and Merone.  As they came through the entry gate on level one, Henry said, “I see Daddy’s car.”  Candy called me and said, “Tell me exactly where you are and just stay right there.”  I got in the van and Merone said, “Dad, why couldn’t find your car?”

Sometimes even in church, even in the pages of the Bible, it can be hard to find our home.  Everything need and long for is before us, but there is background noise and we are so vulnerable to sin, we miss seeing God even though God is right here. 

It helps me to remember that the Bible is the ongoing story of God.  Jeremiah, lives in one part.  The days of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are part of that story.  God interacts with human beings in each part. 
As we saw from Jeremiah, God is the promise-giver.  The priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, shows that God is the promise-keeper.  Jesus on the cross and at the empty tomb brings the best news; the promise is a promise of eternal life.  We can count on it.
We can also count on God involving himself in our daily lives.  God’s story is not paused between the end of book of Revelation and the Second Coming.  God’s story is going on right now.  We are actors in it.  The stuff of our lives matters to God. 
I was focused on this idea that I am in God’s story throughout that silly hour when I wandered around the parking deck.  I thought, “I don’t know when I’ll find my car, but God is doing something and that fills me with hope.  And I need to be responsive to God in my life.”
Recently in a project I am organizing, I have asked God to bring additional people.  Numerous times, I just asked for people.  And God has done it! But then, I looked at the people God brought I said, “Not them, God.  I meant other people.”  God said to me, “You never needed people for this because you had me.  I didn’t give you these specific people because you needed them.  I gave you these specific people because your heart won’t be right until you see the beauty in these individuals that I see.” 
This happened because these individuals along with me are in God’s story.  You are too. 

At the Lord’s Supper table, Jesus keeps us in the story.  “Do this,” he said, “eat this bread and drink this cup in remembrance of me.”  Communion centers us.  We live stories than God’s.  We can find our home in other places.  The discipline of communion brings us back to God.
We come to the table at Jesus’ invitation.  He invites all who have received forgiveness and come into life in His name.  Of course receiving forgiveness implies we need forgiveness.  We come as admitted sinners, owning our brokenness.
At this table, we remember who we were, but also who we are.  We eat the body of Christ.  We, the forgiven ones, are filled with Him.  We drink the cup and are filled with eternal life because Jesus shed his blood.  Jesus, who died and rose, left his Holy Spirit to live in us and among us.  At the table, we encounter God and He revives us as He shows us our place in His story.  We can face the things of life, the good and the bad because God is here and we are His.  In Him, we find our home. 

AMEN

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