Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sermon Backlog

OK so Advent has been busy. Here (at last) are the rest of the Advent sermons. Merry Christmas to all!

Heirs of Hope
Sunday of Advent
by Daniel Harrell

As with most every Christmas, the angels’ song of “peace on earth” is being mocked again―this year with suicide bombs going off daily in Pakistan and Iraq and the United States announcing a troop escalation in Afghanistan. Ironically, President Obama accepted his Nobel Prize for Peace right after authorizing the military buildup. To the President’s credit, he did acknowledge the irony, remarking in his acceptance speech how, “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.” In other words, in the real world, when it comes to peace, war is sometimes required. Ironically again, New York Times commentator David Brooks labeled Obama’s speech as a classic example of Christian realism. And I thought, waging war for the sake of peace may be realistic from a foreign policy perspective, but since when is it Christian?

Turns out that Brooks was referring to the theology of the American Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is best known to members of AA; he’s the author of the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity/ To accept the things I cannot change;/ The courage to change the things that I can;/ And the wisdom to know the difference.” Niebuhr’s theology of Christian realism is characterized as the responsibility as to take steady, faithful steps forward in an inevitably flawed world. You could hear this theology in Obama’s speech. He described how “adhering to [the] law of love” (“doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”) “has always been the core struggle of human nature.” “We are fallible;” he said, “we make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil.” However, to live as fallen people in a fallen world is no reason to despair. “We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place."

Many trace Christian realism back to the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas set forth the principle of double effect, which basically states that when a decision has to be made where the act will have both a good and an evil effect, the moral decision must be made on the principle that the good effect outweighs the evil. It’s the main principle behind the theory of just war—to which Obama alluded. Yet Aquinas developed his own theology based upon his reading of Scripture, passages such as the one we read from Paul’s letter to Titus. Paul writes that followers of Jesus must submit themselves to rulers and authorities―even if the rulers and authorities are Roman tyrants. After all, this what Jesus did. His submission to Roman rule was the epitome of double effect. The evil of his unjust death was outweighed by the good of his atoning sacrifice for human sin. “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”

No doubt some of you are checking your calendars: Isn’t this the Sunday before Christmas? There’s a beautiful snow outside with lights all aglow. Where’s my manger? How about some shepherds? I came to hear some joy to the world! Why are we reading Titus? Interestingly, this text from Titus is actually assigned for Christmas by the Christian Lectionary—a schedule of readings for each Sunday of the year shared by churches the world over. Park Street doesn’t follow the Lectionary as a rule, but I do check it from time to time to see what’s being read in churches that do. And I was surprised to see the Titus text too. The reason it’s listed is verses 4-7. In Greek these verses comprise a single, poetic sentence leading many scholars to conclude that this is some sort of early Christian hymn or creed. Paul calls it a “trustworthy saying.” It is as tight a summary of the gospel as exists anywhere in the Bible—which is what makes it so appropriate for Christmas. Christmas is about nothing if it’s not about Jesus coming into the world to save sinners.

Titus was one of Paul’s converts who accompanied him to the island of Crete to spread this gospel. Paul left Titus to finish the work, which turned out to be no easy job. Word on the street was that “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons”—a designation that Paul cited and even agreed with in chapter 1. And yet,
to live as fallen people in a fallen world is no reason to despair. There was hope even for Cretans. Paul and Titus knew this firsthand. In verse 3, Paul writes that all Christians were Cretans once―stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But then came the come-to-Jesus moment; or more accurately, the Jesus-come-to-us moment. Paul writes, “…the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared and he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” He gave us a good bath in the Holy Spirit and we came clean as new people, reborn and renewed and made right with God. No longer rebels and enemies, we were adopted as children and put in the will. Paul calls us heirs in hope of eternal life. In the Bible, hope is never “I hope so” but always “I know so” because the hope we have is in Christ. We’re trust fund kids with guaranteed inheritances. As Paul put it in chapter 2, “we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Paul was absolutely convinced that Jesus was coming back soon. This conviction affected everything. For him, the present period between Christ’s first and second coming was just a turnaround period, the time it took for the future to fill up the present. Paul knew it was coming, but he hated the wait, if only because he was so excited about it happening. It’s like being a kid at Christmas,
eagerly sitting perched atop the steps overlooking the Christmas tree, unable to sleep. The good thing, at least from my parents perspective, was that my waiting usually inspired good behavior. True, I knew that my parents would come through with my presents anyway―I was their kid―but why risk it? In a similar fashion, Paul calls God’s children in Titus to be obediently wait, to be ready to do whatever is good, to be ready to do honest work, speak bad of nobody, avoid quarreling, be considerate, show courtesy and genuine humility. Paul is clear that while there is nothing you can do to earn your salvation, you must still do something to show you’re received it.

But how do you do that as fallen people in a fallen world? Well, technically, we’re not fallen people anymore. We’ve been bathed and reborn. And yet one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith is that the very people who’ve been bathed and reborn still need a bath. Using another analogy, Paul described the Christian life as having to run a race he’d already won. The problem is that we run the race more like hamsters on a wheel of sin and forgiveness and sin and forgiveness. Rather than treating grace as motivation for obedience, we treat the Bible’s commands as unreachable ideals only good for making us feel guilty. But grace is not supposed to make you feel guilty. It’s supposed to inspire you and empower you to do better. W
hen Paul says “to do whatever is good, speak bad of nobody, avoid quarreling, be considerate, show courtesy and genuine humility,” he’s not being idealistic. You can actually do that that. It’s hard, but you can do it.

The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton once wrote: “It is not complicated to lead the spiritual life. But it is difficult. We are blind, and subject to a thousand illusions. We must expect making mistakes almost all the time. We must be content to fall repeatedly and to begin again to try to deny ourselves, for the love of God. It is when we are disappointed at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for the love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head first into the opposite error, seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another. If that is all our self-denial amounts to, our mistakes will never help us. The thing to do when you have made a mistake is not to give up doing what you were doing and start something altogether new, but to start over again with the thing you began badly and try, for the love of God, to do it well.”

This is Christian realism: living as bathed and reborn people in a fallen world, as unrealistic as that may seem. In a world of TMZ and Tiger Woods, snark and sickopaths; doing good and being courteous and humble sounds ridiculous―I men, have you met my family?―it sounds so ridiculous that it has to be gospel.

After all, there is nothing more ridiculous than an angel of the Lord showing up to an impoverished unwed teenage girl with news that God was going to get her pregnant and she’d give birth to the savior of the world. But still Mary rejoiced at the news, praising God for the great things he has done, even as she and her people were being beat down and bankrupted by Roman domination. In a song we have come to recognize as the Magnificat, Mary sings of the Lord’s salvation growing in her womb: “God has bared his arm and performed mighty deeds; He has scattered the proud, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” And as is typical of Biblical prophecy, Mary confuses her verb tenses. Instead of singing about a God who will lift up the lowly and will fill the hungry, a God who will bring down the mighty and will send the rich away empty, Mary sings as if all these things had happened already. Jesus isn’t even born yet and already she’s declaring victory. That’s because Biblical hope is hope in Christ. It’s like DVR-ing the Patriots game only to have somebody slip you the score in advance. Sure it spoils the suspense, but dang if you don’t feel more confident about the outcome when you finally do get around to watching that game. Mary is so confident that God’s going to win, she can sing as though He already has.

Of course the victory Mary declares hardly looked like a victory. Her own life went from triumphant singing to scandalous hand-wringing. Her husband Joseph considered divorcing her since everybody knew the baby wasn’t his (and nobody was going to believe God did it). Caesar’s coerced relocation induced Mary to give birth in a feed trough. And as for the Son of God himself, rather than toppling tyrants, Jesus gets toppled himself. Instead of lifting up the humble, Jesus gets humiliated himself. But that’s what the gospel looks like. Even in heaven.
Turn to the last pages of the New Testament and you’d expect to find a risen Jesus all ferocious and victorious in heaven, an Aslan the Lion figure, especially since he gets announced that way. Yet when Jesus shows up what you see is not a ferocious King of the Beasts but a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been butchered. It doesn’t seem to be much of a victory. But that’s what the gospel looks like. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. The Successor to King David’s rides out to wage war, but the Lamb of God suffers all the casualties.

Sure, I wish that I lived in a world where 30,000 more troops were not being sent to a war-ravaged country where evil men seem convinced that driving a car loaded with explosives into a crowded mosque is the best way to make a point―not to mention flying planes into skyscrapers. I wish I lived in a world where
the richest 10% of the population own more than 85% of the world’s household wealth. I wish I lived in a world where the richest get richer by selling snake oil securities and reaping outrageous bonuses only to have hard-working tax-payers have to bail them out. I wish I lived in a world where breathable air and drinkable water didn’t take a back seat to industrialization and economic power. I wish I lived in a world where so much of that power wasn’t corrupt and abused. But that’s not the real world―at least not yet. However, it is a world I can hope for because my hope is in Christ. And as long as I can hope I can wait. And if I can wait, I can live like a hopeful person.

President Obama offered a glimpse of what this looks like. “Somewhere today, in the here and now, in the world as it is, a soldier sees he’s outgunned, but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school―because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child's dreams.” It reminded me another letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Death is at work so that resurrection can work.

Christ came at Christmas in humility and weakness, only to die as victim and enemy on account of the human sins he bore.
A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. The Successor to King David’s rides out to wage war, but the Lamb of God suffers all the casualties. However death is at work so that resurrection can work. Salvation comes not by political uprising but by Jesus rising up from the dead and bringing with him a new heaven and a whole new earth. Jesus takes our blame and wins our race―and all that’s left for us is to run the race we’ve already won. As long as our hope is in Christ we can wait. And if we can wait, we can live like a hopeful people. We can run.


Sunday of Advent
by Daniel Harrell

It’s one thing to get all you ever wanted for Christmas. It’s quite another thing to get what you never wanted. To guard against the latter, my wife’s family has this helpful tradition of making gift lists with the exact specifications and locations of acceptable presents. It makes for a very stress-free Christmas on both the giving and receiving ends. However, such practicality deletes the unpredictability that was always a part of Christmas in my house. Our family placed a high value on insightfulness and understanding. It’s one thing to get someone the perfect gift because they told you exactly what to get, quite another to know someone so well that you can figure it out for yourself. It is more risky, I know. It requires that you actually pay attention to the people in your family. That you understand their needs. That you know what makes them happy. That you really care about them enough to pick up on the little things. Which is why I just give cash. I’ve blown it too many times.

I had to laugh at the latest MasterCard commercial with Colts’ quarterback Peyton Manning and actress Alyson Hannigan. My patriotic dislike of the Colts notwithstanding, the commercial reminded me so much of me. Take a look.

Nevertheless, some Christmases I get in the Christmas spirit for the gift-giving challenge. A few years back, just before Christmas, my grandfather, rest his soul, died after a battle with Alzheimer’s. The family gathered at the funeral home to honor his life and bid him safe passage to glory, taking turns to view the open casket containing a body that never looks like the person―which perhaps is how it should be. Afterwards, reflecting upon our own mortality, my wife Dawn­―who is an avid fan of both Tolkien and Norse mythology―mentioned off-handedly how when it comes her time to go, she’d like to be buried holding a sword. And I thought: Jingle bells! What a perfect chance to show Dawn how well I pay attention and understand her! How well I know what she really wants! How well I pick up on the little things. So I jumped online and Googled broadswords and lo and behold, eBay was stocked to the hilt. I found the perfect present.

While this was hard to wrap and disguise under the tree, I managed to pull it off. Christmas morning came and Dawn tried to guess what it was. She thought maybe an extension for the vacuum cleaner. Or an ironing board. Something sexy like that. Boy was she in for a surprise! She eagerly unwrapped it―unsheathed it―and I saw that look in her eyes. I could tell she was thrilled. She hardly knew what to say. “A sword. You bought me a sword. Why did you buy me a sword?” I said, “remember how you mentioned that when you died you wanted to be buried holding a sword? Now you have one!” “Well, thank you, dear. How sweet. It’s good to get those funeral arrangements out of the way early. It’s a shame Santa couldn’t get a casket down the chimney too.” “Oh, don’t be silly,” I said. We don’t―have―a―chimney. Wait a minute. Was she being sarcastic? Nah. She loved it. I could tell. She couldn’t sleep for nights afterwards. She’d just lie there in bed with her eyes wide open clutching that sword in her hand, staring at me in shock. I could tell she was excited. She was so excited that she could hardly eat. She refused to put a single morsel of anything I cooked in her mouth for the next several weeks. She wouldn’t ride with me in the car either. Though come to think of it, that was a little weird.

I wonder how Mary felt when the magi rolled out their third gift of myrrh. On the one hand, myrrh was a luxury aromatic spice fit for a priest. It was used to anoint a Jewish high priest for service. That certainly fit. The Magi had come to worship the newborn king, but Jesus was the newborn priest too. To be priest is to intercede and make sacrifices to God for the sake of his people. But on the other hand, myrrh was also used to anoint dead bodies. In a day before funeral homes, preservatives and caskets, myrrh kept corpses from stinking. Was this any present to give to a baby? What would you do as a mother if someone showed up to your baby shower bearing embalming fluid? Why not just give Mary a sword too?

Actually, that would come a few weeks later. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to be presented to God as the Torah commanded of every firstborn male. While there, an aged priest named Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit enough to recognize Jesus as the Savior he’d been waiting for, let loose praising God. He blessed Mary too―only his blessing was about as welcome as that box of myrrh. Simeon said to Mary, “a sword will pierce your soul too.” “Too” because Mary, along with Jesus, was due to suffer deep anguish: Mary at the loss of her son. Jesus at the loss of his life. After his dreaful death, there was no suitable place for Jesus to be buried, just as there had been no place for him to be born. A sympathetic Pharisee named Joseph offered up a spare burial tomb, and another Pharisee named Nicodemus offered the myrrh. The Magi were right after all.

Simeon was right too. A sword no doubt pierced Mary’s heart. What mother can ever endure the death of her child? As for Jesus, the sword he suffered was the cross on which he was killed. Like a sword, the cross was an instrument of death. Author Andy Crouch reminds that there were crosses long before there was the cross. The Romans designed it in world in which rebellion against the empire’s peace needed to be brutally and publically punished. But what began in the minds of some as a grim necessity, was perverted in Jesus’ case into an instrument of senseless violence against the innocent. Jesus was “literally impaled on the worst that the world could do—an instrument of torture that stood for all the other dead ends of history, from spears to bombs, from gas chambers to water boards. There is nothing good that can be affirmed about the cross; it was designed to extinguish life in most horrifying fashion. The cross represents the culmination of human history gone wrong. If “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in Jesus birth, they were shattered at Jesus’ death. On the cross, Jesus suffered the full weight of human rebellion―not against Rome―but against God. And yet, as Andy puts it, “The strangest and most wonderful paradox of the biblical story is that its most consequential moment is not an action but a passion—not a doing but a suffering.” Jesus is priest, but he is also the sacrifice.

What kind of Christmas present is this? You come expecting birth but all you get is death? The great American poet TS Eliot, in his poem Journey of the Magi, asked, “were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

And yet in another strange and wonderful paradox of the biblical story, this death―our death―is also our birth. The Nicodemus who brought the myrrh for Jesus’ burial is the same Nicodemus whom Jesus told that he needed to be born again. This made no sense to Nicodemus, of course, how can someone already born enter his mother’s womb a second time? Jesus answered that the Spirit gives birth to spirit, by which he meant God makes it possible. God turns death into new birth through the cross. The full weight of human rebellion―our rebellion―suffered by Jesus, dies and gets buried with Jesus. And then he rises from the dead three days later, bringing with him the full weight of God’s redemption, the full weight of God’s grace and forgiveness―for us. It is this redemption, this grace, that makes spiritual rebirth possible. As we will sing tonight, “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them―give us―second birth.” A new birth, a new beginning, a new life, a new start―starting now: It’s all you could ever want for Christmas. And with Jesus, all you could ever want is what you always get.

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Micah 5)
Second Sunday of Advent

by Daniel Harrell

Tonight’s installment from Micah features one of the most familiar passages in all of the Old Testament. We hear it read every Advent in Matthew’s Christmas story. You know it well: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the east visit Herod—Rome’s Judean puppet ruler. They’d seen a star which according to their astrological calculations indicated the birth of the legitimate king of the Jews. They wanted to know his location so that they could go and pay homage. The maniacal King Herod, insanely jealous for keeping Rome’s hand up his back, was deeply disturbed. He feigned due interest in the newborn king, but assassination was on his mind. Checking with his religious advisors—the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law—Herod confirmed what Micah had indeed foretold. The Christ would be born in the little town of Bethlehem, the least of the clans of Judah. Or as Matthew put it, “by no means least,” since Matthew knew how his gospel was going to turn out.

An angel gives the Magi a heads up. They bypass Herod on their way home. Heavenly heralds of peace on earth and goodwill among people notwithstanding, the hoodwinked Herod furiously goes off on his infanticidal rampage. Often overlooked due to the gruesomeness of Matthew’s account is how the ones who actually worshipped the King of the Jews were the Gentile Magi. The church marks this irony with the holy day of Epiphany. However, the Magi’s adoration of Christ was not a complete surprise. Micah predicted that back in chapter 4. He foresaw how “many nations will come and say, ‘Let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’” Granted, the manger wasn’t much of a mountain yet, but the idea is the same: God had come in Christ to draw all nations to himself.

In Micah 4, “peace on earth and goodwill among all people” was also foreshadowed. The mountain of the Lord, the holy Zion, rises up above all other heights as the apex of righteousness. All nations stream to it, learn from it, live by it. God’s truth emanates from a new Jerusalem and pervades all life: politics are no longer the love of power but the love of service. Economics are motivated by generosity and equity rather than by bottom lines. Justice governs with integrity and honesty. The Lord himself settles the disputes of all nations. In turn they hammer their swords into shovels and their spears into rakes and hoes. Everyone tends their own garden plot. Everyone sits under their own shade tree. Nothing causes anyone any fear. Life is lived in amity and in prosperity—a prosperity not defined by excess but by access. Everyone has enough. And because everyone has enough, nations do not take up swords to fight or shields to defend; they do not train for war anymore. History no longer repeats itself. Shalom takes hold.

Micah’s vision of this peaceable future generated intense longing in Israel for the advent of God’s salvation. However this longing grew longer with each passing century—by the time of Jesus’ birth it’d been seven centuries since Micah’s prophesy. Given such long longing, you’d have thought the Jewish religious leaders, upon hearing the Magi’s report and knowing their Bibles as they did, would have been especially anxious to learn the identity of their salvation. But sadly, as is too often the case, knowing your Bible is one thing, believing it enough to actually do what it says is something else.

This certainly applied to Israel’s history. So far in Micah, their spiritual condition was not healthy. Micah indicted God’s chosen people for blatantly despising their chosen-ness. They treated God’s free gift of grace as a free pass to do as they pleased. They deliberately confused God’s favor with favoritism, cloaking their disobedience in a religious fa├žade. They contorted their theology in order to justify their deceitful behavior. In the name of God, his people exploited the poor, extorted the land, made treaties with tyrants, corrupted justice and selfishly lined their own pockets. In turn, the Lord, not one for having His name so taken in vain, particularly by those who should know better, doomed his elect to inescapable ruin.

However their fall was not their finale. God’s justice and fury against sin is not finally about getting even, but about finally getting His people back to himself. As Micah makes clear, the trajectory of God’s justice bends toward peace; it bends toward reconciliation and redemption. Sin may be relentless, but it’s not nearly as relentless as grace. God’s long-suffering love that inspired Micah’s vision of shalom would likewise inspire his people toward the firm resolve of which we read in chapter 4, verse 5: “Other people may choose to live as they please, chasing after bogus idols and lies; but as for us, we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever.”

Of course, experience teaches that to actually “walk in the name of the Lord” can be a rocky road. Genuine faith in Jesus confines you to the sidelines of society; you’re marginalized in the halls of power, irrelevant in the halls of academia, unpopular at parties and ironically treated as trouble at Christmas. “Sure, Christ the Savior is born but do you have to get all religious about it?” Micah foresaw this too. He refers to the genuinely faithful as a remnant, language that can bring to mind leftover carpet―doormats on which people wipe their dirty feet. Remnant life is
an alternative life grounded in public faithfulness to Jesus. It refuses to concede or accommodate to the corrosive values of prevailing culture; values related to wealth, power, luxury, achievement, self-indulgence or excessiveness. Remnants are real live communities comprised of people who believe their Bibles and actually obey them: keeping promises, genuinely loving their enemies, saying their prayers, making peace, speaking truth and heeding it. They’re communities where the poor and sinner are welcomed, where burdens are borne with mercy, where morals get practiced, where having enough is not having it all, and where righteousness is worth suffering for. They are communities of the cross.

Remnant life can be hard. Micah compared it to a woman in labor. However, in doing so he infuses hardship with purpose. No mother cradling her child, even after the most excruciating labor, would ever say that her suffering was not worth it. The Israelites’ labor under the thumbs of the Assyrians evoke from Micah a call to “marshal the troops” in chapter 5 and verse 1—an overly optimistic order given the circumstances. With the use of Hebrew homonyms, the sentence can also be translated “gash yourself in grief” which probably coincides better with Israel’s predicament. We read that the Assyrians will “strike the ruler of Israel on the cheek.” This was no mere slap in the face. Israel stood defenseless. Their boundaries would be breached. God’s remnant would be rendered a relic. Hardship would have no purpose unless the Lord intervened.

Which He did, of course. Verse 2: Salvation will come, but from a most unexpected place. A place so small that it didn’t even make most ancient maps. A place from which would rise a shepherd-like-savior reminiscent of illustrious King David, also born in Bethlehem. Though “least among the clans of Judah,” verse 4, out of that leastness would emerge “a greatness stretching to the ends of the earth.” A ruler to shepherd his flock “in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.” He would secure Micah’s dream of everlasting peace. For God’s remnant under siege, this was good news. But again, as is characteristic of remnant life, it was good news with hard news wedged in between. Verse 3: “Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.”

Delayed birth meant elongated suffering—but not under the current oppressors. The Assyrian siege would abate. In accordance with verse 3, Israel would be abandoned and eventually shipped off to Babylon, the ancient nucleus of abomination and evil. God’s marginalized remnant would be marginalized even further, plunged deep into exile as sheep among wolves. Their land would be ransacked and the house of God, the Jerusalem Temple, destroyed. Yet hardship had its purposes. “You will go to Babylon,” Micah forebode in chapter 4, “and there you will be redeemed.”

Once rescued from Babylon, the people did return to their promised land, albeit under Persian management. They reconstructed a Temple, albeit not nearly as glorious as the original. Yet Micah’s peaceable dream went unfulfilled. And then Israel got stepped on again, this time under the heavy boot of Rome. By the time of Jesus’ birth, Micah’s Bethlehem prophecy took on a mythical character; a promise too good to ever come true. Maybe the
Jewish leaders’ reluctance to accompany the Magi to Bethlehem signaled the resignation they felt about God. It’s like that busy friend or parent who “promises they’ll be there for you next time,” but then next time comes―and goes―so many times that you just stop hoping anymore.

Yet even for those who did keep hope, when “she who is in labor” finally gave birth, the birth of Jesus must have been a disappointment. Despite angelic announcements and all kinds of miraculous trailers for the kingdom of God, in the end this savior born in the city of David got strung up like any common criminal. Were Micah’s prophetic promises nothing but promises? Promises of swords getting beat into plowshares while 30,000 more men and women get shipped off to Afghanistan? Promises of tending gardens while 2.8 billion people subsist on less than $2 a day? Promises of dwelling secure as bombs explode worldwide and guns go off in our own city every day? Promises of peace as people are devastated by relational crises, financial stress, layoffs, illness and plain bad choices? Nothing but promises? Nothing but words?

A few Christmases back I mentioned the story a couple who had longed for a long time to become parents. Their friends prayed and waited with them month after month, year after year. When they finally did get pregnant with a due date near Christmas, it was deemed miraculous, akin to Mary and Elizabeth—though with much lower expectations of the newborn boy, of course.

But then my phone rang. There was a problem, an emergency, and I was needed at the hospital right away. Fresh out of seminary, I rifled through my notes for instructions on what to do. My training had not included emergency visits to the NICU. I grabbed my Bible. Prayed the whole way over. Arrived amidst utter distress. The mother had delivered but her baby was wired to every sort of tube and machine. The incubating lights blared against his translucent skin. His little heart beat rapidly. Heroic nurses and doctors were doing all they could. I stood alongside not knowing what to say. But they needed to hear something. So I looked at the Bible in my hand and decided to read aloud. I read Romans 8: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” I read John 16: “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” I read James 5: “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.”

Nothing but words. Even as I read them I wondered: Here is this dear couple on the edge of an abyss of sorrow. If their son dies, how does this possibly work together for good? What kind of peace accompanies such loss? How would Jesus overcome that? Could their dying baby really be made well if we prayed with faith? Just how much faith was required?

The doctors approached looking grim. Their baby was not going to make it. He simply wasn’t responding and all of his vital signs were failing. They could keep trying, but it would be futile. The parents needed to make the final decision though. The doctors wouldn’t disconnect life support without their consent. The parents looked at me. I looked at my Bible. I read John 11: “‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ Jesus said, ‘
Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” I hadn’t intended Jesus’ question to be a question for them, but they took it as that and asked if I would baptize their son. It was my first baptism. Afterwards they unplugged him so they could hold him as he died.

My first baptism led to my first funeral. I asked the parents what they wanted me to say. They requested I read the words again. So
I read Romans 8: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” And I looked around and saw a roomful of mournful friends and family, a remnant community of people bearing each others’ burdens with mercy. And I saw that the NICU nurses and doctors had come too. They said they needed to be there for themselves. I read John 16: “These things I have spoken so that in Me you may have peace.” And there was peace to be had in Jesus. Otherwise this couple would never have made it through their sadness as they did, would have never gone on to adopt four children, two with special needs.

I read James 5: “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up,” and remembered aloud how in the Bible, the words “save” and “raise” refer mostly to resurrection. And then I read from John 11: “I am the resurrection and the life, w
hoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he liveAnd this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day.”

“In the last days,” said the Lord through Micah―words understood by New Testament authors to mean the first days of heaven―
the mountain of the Lord will rise up above all other heights as the apex of righteousness. Many nations will say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. And you O Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are least among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will rule. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace. For the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The dwelling of God will be with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, the old order of things has passed away; behold all things are become new.”

Nothing but words. But with God—by whom the earth was created with words and in whom the earth is being redeemed by his word made flesh——with God words are everything.