Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Matthew 1:18-25
by Daniel Harrell

By some estimates, the average person spends about six years of his lifetime dreaming—which for me means six years spent magically hovering over a pond in Scotland while trying to get my skin buttoned before my mother calls me to walk her wombat—or something weird like that. Had I lived in ancient times, dreams would have been considered as originating from somewhere supernatural. Dreams were taken so seriously at times they were admissible as evidence in court. Nightmares were thought to be work of evil spirits or even signs of demon possession. Few dreams were ever lightly dismissed. It’s no wonder, then, that God employed dreams with such effectiveness in the Christmas story. It was a dream that diverted the magi away from revealing Jesus’ whereabouts to Herod, a dream that got Joseph, Mary and Jesus out of town before Herod went off on his infanticidal spree, a dream that announced the all-clear sign once Herod died, and of course a dream that persuaded Joseph to marry Mary even though by all external accounts it was an outrageously bad idea.

You know the story well. We rehearse it every Christmas. Virgin teenaged girl. Betrothed to a local tradesman. Nice guy possibly just pushing 20 himself. An arranged betrothal which in that culture carried the weight of matrimony. All that was left was the physical consummation and moving Mary’s things into Joseph’s house. Thus for Mary to be “found” with child while presumably still a virgin was a scandal of the highest order. Mary’s parents were disgraced and Joseph humiliated. Granted, Matthew is quick to inform that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but certainly those who heard Mary plead that case would have only been further outraged. Imagine, her trying to pass off her promiscuity on God!

It’s not that miraculous conceptions weren’t part of Biblical lore. Most famously there was the aged and infertile Sarah giving birth to Isaac. Then came the sterile Mrs. Manoah bearing Samson, the barren Hannah delivering Samuel and of course Mary’s own infertile cousin Elizabeth carrying John the Baptist. But in each of these instances a husband was still in the mix. Nobody in the Bible had gotten pregnant out of thin air. What were the neighbors supposed to think? What else was there for Joseph to do but file the papers? Matthew informs us that Joseph was a righteous man which meant that Joseph obeyed the law and the law said you dump a woman who cheats on you.

Actually, the law said you stone a woman who cheats on you. By all rights Joseph should have been reaching for rocks. But Joseph’s righteousness consisted of his interpreting the law in the most gentle way possible. Clearly he loved Mary and had no desire to disgrace her any more than she had already disgraced herself. He would divorce her quietly with no charges filed in order to save everybody any further embarrassment. Frankly, the whole thing was a miserable mess. And though Joseph didn’t know it yet, it was all God’s fault.

Though we know the story, it can still be hard to hear. Why this and not a greeting card approach? Why not a well lit suburban cradle, cuddly nursery room animals, an incandescent baby Jesus and proud, smiling parents? We traditionally light advent candles representing joy, love, hope and peace; not anxiety, shame, disgrace and scandal. If the point of a virgin birth was for the Son of God to have no original sin, why start by making everything look so sinful? And why be so secret about it? Why not a blaze of public, visible Holy Spirit glory and then a pregnant Mary? That way her neighbors could have thrown her a baby shower with swaddling clothes from Baby Gap. Somebody could have made sure there was room at the Bethlehem Hilton so that Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a manger. Or better yet, why not just skip the whole birth process entirely? Spare Joseph the painful embarrassment and Mary the painful labor. It’s not like Jesus did anything for his first thirty years anyway. Why not just miraculously pop down in person on Good Friday and do what needed doing then?

Christian theology has offered a myriad of explanations for the full-blown incarnation. The logic of substitutionary atonement demands that Jesus live an fully obedient life—adolescence included—in order to substitute his lifelong obedience for our lifetimes of disobedience. Furthermore, the doctrine of Christ’s dual nature begs for combined human and divine parentage. Jesus had to be fully man and fully God; free from sin’s predisposition but at the same time free to sin in order that he might be tempted in every way as we are, important when you’re looking for sympathy from God. As to Christ’s scandalous mode of entering the world, it disabused any escalating expectations of God’s Messiah showing up as some sort of celebrity Superhero. God’s redemption of humanity needed to be an unpretentious operation. Fans don’t let their heroes die.

Granted, the only explanation Matthew offers is that “the Scripture was fulfilled.” Not that the Scripture he cited really had anything to do with Jesus’ birth. It comes from Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Matthew’s citation has caused centuries of scholarly consternation since the word translated young woman in Isaiah generically applies to any unmarried or soon-to-be-married girl. Given the context of Isaiah 7, it’s highly unlikely that the prophet was talking about the virgin Mary giving birth since the birth he talked about apparently occurred in Isaiah’s own lifetime. Israel’s King Ahaz was in dire straits and needed divine help. Eager to help, God presses Ahaz to ask for a sign. But Ahaz, feigning modesty, demurs. He wanted to do things his own way. So God gave him another sign, though it hardly looked like a sign from God. “A young woman will have a baby and name it Emmanuel.” Big deal. Women have babies everyday. Which may have been the point: God being with Ahaz meant that God was going to let nature takes its course. Assyria was strong enough to take down Israel any day of the week. So God lets them do it.

Why does Matthew quote this Scripture? If you read on in Isaiah, you realize that chapter 7 is just the beginning of a whole string of events about a child and the name Immanuel. In chapter 8, the name Immanuel gets attached to the entire people of God who were coming under Assyrian attack. “Since this people rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloh,” Isaiah foretold, “the Lord is about to bring against them mighty floodwaters of Assyria which overflow all its channels, run over all its banks and sweep into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, O Immanuel!” Check it out: God not only lets Assyria take down Israel but apparently was willing to go down with them.

But then you turn to Isaiah 9 where Emmanuel resurfaces as a child of redemption. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. …For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and the government shall be upon his shoulders and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his dominion and peace there will be no end.” The ordinary child born in Isaiah 7 as a sign of failure gives way to the extraordinary child prophesied in chapter 9 as a sign of salvation. Matthew had Isaiah’s whole pattern in mind when he spoke of Christ fulfilling it. Failure is the way to victory. Disgrace is the way to grace. Bad news comes before good news. Ordinary gives way to extraordinary. Humiliation is the way to heaven.

It’s the pattern throughout Scripture. Emmanuel, God with us causes concern before comfort and joy. “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years,” Moses said, “he did it to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart… He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna… to teach you that people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” “You save the humble O Lord,” Samuel spoke, “… but your eyes are on the proud to humiliate them.” “The tax collector stood at a distance and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you,” Jesus said, “this despised tax collector went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

It’s been said that true faith takes you as low as you can go so that God can raise you up. Except that when Joseph found Mary to be pregnant, he had not yet gone as low as he would go. That happened later that night as Joseph slept on his decision to divorce his unfaithful wife. That night the Lord used an angel and a dream to wake him up. “Joseph son of David, fear not (angels always say that). Take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son whom you will name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” Because Joseph was a righteous man, he obeyed God. But because only Joseph dreamed the dream, his obedience ironically cost him his reputation as a man of obedience. Talk about a nightmare. True faith took Joseph as low as he could go.

Yet what’s so remarkable about the Christmas story is that God himself went down as low as He could go too. Just like Isaiah foretold and we read last Sunday: “despised and rejected, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.” “Jesus made himself nothing,” Paul wrote, “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient to death—on a cross as a guilty criminal.” Despised and rejected. God with us means that God takes on the very sin that separates us from him to the very places we sink ourselves. True faith takes you as low as you can go, but truth is, you were going to go there anyway. Perhaps a better way to say it is that God lets you go as low as you can go so that he can meet you there. After all, when you’re as low as you can go, you have no where else to go—but up.

This is the pattern of Christmas. Disgrace is the way to grace. Bad news comes before good news. Humiliation is the way to heaven. For Jesus too. Paul describes Jesus in Romans as one born according to the flesh, situated in the line of King David, a notable designation since by then David’s line was defunct, run into the ground by the likes of King Ahaz. Yet according to the pattern, Paul goes on to describe Jesus as the one raised by the Spirit out of failure and death to be crowned with power and glory. And not only him, but as Paul adds, “you also.” God lets you go as low as you can go so that can meet you there, be with you there, and raise you up from there with Jesus to where “God with us” is always a dream come true.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Holy Highway

Isaiah 35:1-10
by Daniel Harrell

We’ve spent this Advent in historic Advent fashion, looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming instead looking back at his first. With only 13 shopping days left until Christmas, you may wonder whether we’re ever going to get on to the reason for the season. I’m glad to report that there’s a way to do both. Star-Tribune columnist Jon Tevlin ran a piece this week about a apocalypse-minded jeweler in Superior, Wisconsin who is holding a “Second Coming Sale” with all jewelry 50% off. “With fire about to rain down on the earth and salvation at hand, now is not the time to deprive yourself of a little bling. Life may indeed be brutally short, but diamonds are forever.” Explaining the sale in a local commercial, the Wisconsin jeweler says, “The Bible predicts the day of the Lord, followed by the return of Jesus Christ to Jerusalem. As I read the daily news and look around the world, I believe we're really close to that day. Nevertheless, if you want jewelry here and now, I have diamonds and gemstones, gold, silver, watches and clocks, and I’m selling everything at 50 percent off.”

What I want to know is if Jesus is coming back so soon, why not just give the jewelry away? I’m guessing that the jeweler will stick with 50% off, just in case.

Smart move—especially since not even Jesus knew when he’d be back. However he did know what his coming back would look like. Jesus described it as “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory”—glory having nothing to do with bling. This description and its accompanying apocalyptic imagery draws from the prophet Daniel and Isaiah too. It’s likely related in part to Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, as well as to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 AD (which is how Jesus could also say in Mark’s gospel, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”) At the same time, Jesus’ ascension was more about the Son of Man leaving in clouds with power and great glory. Still, as his disciples stood and gaped at Jesus’ exit into the sky, angels told them that, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way as you saw him go.” It’s significant that Jesus ascended with his redeemed humanity still intact. As on Christmas Day, God comes in human flesh on Judgment Day too: in a manger as we are, in clouds of glory as we shall be.

Still, not a lot of churches do Second Coming Pageants during Advent. Given all the associated doom and destruction, I’m sure the concern is with not scaring the kids. This is why the Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove, Alabama, which does put on a Second Coming Pageant, schedules it for Halloween night.

On the other hand, Christmas pageants are plentiful and chances are good if you grew up in church that at some point you donned a bathrobe and draped your head in a towel to take part in the annual nativity scene. At my childhood church, the holy family, shepherds and angels surrounded a makeshift stable while the choir sang Away in a Manger—followed by a visit from Santa. I always thought it weird for Santa to visit the manger scene since Jesus, being God, probably had (or could get) everything he wanted. Even weirder was how the star of the show, the baby Jesus, was annually played by a baby doll. Why make such a big deal about Christ the Savior being born in human flesh only to have him show up in plastic?

Thankfully here at Colonial Church you don’t have to worry about that. This Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus will be played by none other than the newly baptized Andrew Jonathan Hobbs. I take for granted a live baby Jesus has been the practice for some years now. At my childhood church, bothered by the word made plastic, we installed a live baby Jesus played by Mary’s 3-month-old baby brother, Trevor. That year, as if on cue, as the choir sang no crying he makes, baby Jesus, the sharp hay stabbing holes in his backside, let loose a full blooded scream. The embarrassed Mary (who’d had enough of Trevor’s wailing at home), instinctively wheeled around and shouted at Trevor to shut up—which of course didn’t go over well since you’re not supposed to yell at Jesus. Our church went back to baby dolls the next year. I actually preferred the screaming Jesus better. If Jesus could get upset then I could too without worrying whether Santa would still bring me what I wanted for Christmas.

That’s the good news about Jesus’ second coming: you’re guaranteed to get everything you could ever want. Isaiah 35 describes it as so good that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”

Of course that the desert would ever come close to singing is momentous in and of itself. As you might remember from our study of John the Baptist, the desert stood for Israel’s barren, wintry wasteland of unbelief. It was in the desert that the chosen people lost faith in God, despite their dramatic rescue by God’s grace from the brutal oppression of Egypt. But now, in Isaiah’s Advent preview, God’s grace blossoms anew. The desert bursts into springtime blooms of joy and song. Water surges onto the dustscape transforming wastelands into wetlands. Those whose lives had collapsed and who sat head in hands; fearful, anxious, guilty, despairing—now their loads are lifted, their fears expunged, their despair overtaken by hope. Isaiah proclaims sight for the blind and sound to deaf ears. The lame will not merely walk; they will leap and the mute will sing. What makes the difference? The Messiah makes the difference. He comes to his people—with a vengeance! Lasting joy and peace are fruits of righteousness; but the roots of righteousness are justice and retribution for sin. “Here is your God,” Isaiah portends, “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Only when God has judged the enemies of his people can salvation in all its fullness be theirs.

Despite Isaiah’s beautiful poetry of salvation, that it comes with vengeance sounds a terribly discordant note. For some, divine wrath stirs up unnecessary fear, as well as unwarranted shame and guilt. For others, God’s wrath represents just another example of religion’s vindictive and poisonous capacity for validating human violence. Critics at both extremes attribute to God’s anger an evil which in effect cancels out his goodness. Admittedly, as Old Testament scholar Abraham Heschel reminds us, anger is something that does come dangerously close to evil. Yet it would be wrong to identify anger as evil. Anger can be evil by association, but anger is never evil in essence. It may be reprehensible when associated with malice, but it remains morally necessary as resistance to malice. Heschel asks, “Could it ever be cruel that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, or when widows and orphans are oppressed?”

Any view of God’s wrath that seeks to parallel the psychology of human passion rather than to root itself in the theology of divine pathos is bound to misunderstand it. Unlike human anger, the Scriptures never consider God’s anger as unaccountable, unpredictable or irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a voluntary, purposeful and explosive force occasioned by the misconduct of his people, fueled by his concern for right and wrong, provoked by his pity for the abused and mistreated. God’s anger that consumes and afflicts never does so without moral justification.

Nevertheless, for many, moral justification is no excuse. That God would get angry at all is offensive. Yet to have a God who never gets mad for fear of offending must sooner or later be construed as the God who never gets mad at the offender no matter how vile their offense. To divest God of his anger is ultimately to render him so benign as to be indifferent, so slow to anger that he is always too late to save—a Santa Claus God instead of the God of Scripture; a Jesus who suffered the little children to come unto him, but not the Christ who said their abusers would be better off drowned with a millstone tied to their necks.

Isaiah declares that justice will be done and evil done with, paving a highway in the desert where not even fools can get lost. The highway runs straight back to God, a “way of holiness” on which the redeemed and the ransomed freely travel. Redeemed and ransomed are those people purchased by God—like felons set free on eternal bail. God put up not cash for their crimes, but his own self on a cross. The redeemed are made righteous not because they’ve behaved well (they haven’t); but because God has a thing for sinners. Redemption is a move of pure mercy. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…” God’s redemption of people redeems the earth too. “The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Just in time for the holidays, Isaiah’s buoyant vision of a blooming wasteland has been captured afresh in all of its CGI and 3D glory by the latest installment of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. If you’ve only managed to read the books, then you still know how Lewis picks up on Isaiah’s prophecy as he describes the loosening of the icy white witch’s evil grip on creation. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lewis wrote, “The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered the drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travelers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travelers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path. ‘This is no thaw,’ said the Dwarf [to the witch]… ‘This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”

For those unfamiliar with either the books or the movies, Aslan is a lion, the Christ figure whose own pure mercy in dying and coming back from the dead begets new life and a new world. However, inasmuch as this is Christmas, Lewis’ allegory of Christ initially coming as a lion can misrepresent. As New Yorker film critic Adam Gopnik observed, “a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reemerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory.”

That would be the Christmas story. And it would be the Advent story too. Turn to Revelation 5, and a mighty of angel of God announces the grand entrance of the Lion of Judah and the Root of David as the only one worthy to break open the seal to the Book of Life. The “Root of David” language comes from Isaiah where God’s anointed is portrayed in warrior-king like fashion; one about whom we read last Sunday who “will give justice to the poor and decide with equity for the meek. One who will smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips slay the wicked.” As for the Lion of Judah, that image derives from Jacob’s blessing to Judah, his lionized son, from whom “the scepter shall not depart, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendents until tribute comes to whom it belongs; and with it the obedience of all peoples.”

Normally such vivid imagery draws to mind a magnificent scene, soaring expectations of a ferocious and foreboding Savior, righteous and victorious. Yet what we see in Revelation is not that sort of picture at all. What we see is not a ferocious Aslan, King of the Beasts, but a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been slaughtered. Of course, Isaiah had predicted this too. The victorious root and heir of David was forecast as one to be “oppressed and afflicted, led like a lamb to the slaughter.” But didn’t that only apply to his treatment on earth? What’s the Root of David doing showing up all bloodied in heaven? But then again, when the risen Jesus showed up to his disciples on Easter, he did tell them to look at his hands and his feet. Despite his triumph over the grave, Jesus still wore his scars.

This has always been the irony of the gospel: The Great High Priest is the sacrifice. The Good Shepherd is the slaughtered sheep. The Lion is the Lamb. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. And though the triumphant Lamb stands tall, he still wears the telltale scars of his slaughter. Crucifixion is not some passing, one-and-done occurrence in the saga of salvation. Crucifixion indelibly stamps its mark on the eternal identity of God. The Root of David rides out to wage war, but the Lamb of God suffers all the casualties.

Jesus arrived at Christmas with neither a plastic smile nor a majestic roar. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” Isaiah wrote, “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.” “Being in very nature God,” the apostle Paul later added, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The defeat of the cross is the Victory of God and the Way to Life—the Holy Way. It is the Way of Jesus for all who by faith are redeemed into his likeness. It’s all you could ever want.

C.S. Lewis wrote how “most people, when they really look into their own hearts, know that they want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel no learning can really satisfy. …There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.” And yet, the reality in which our longing fades need not be the reality of disappointment and despair. In Christ, our longing gives way to the reality of fulfillment. Isaiah promises. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Peace at the Zoo

Isaiah 11:1-10

by Daniel Harrell

Isaiah 11, the Lectionary assignment for this Second Advent Sunday is classically Christmas—so much so that portions of it frequently appear printed on Christmas cards. Especially verse 6: “The wolf shall live with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them.” There’s peace on earth on earth and goodwill among the animals at least, and children are in charge, as if that were something new. That Isaiah seems to speak of a specific child—namely the baby Jesus—is what makes Isaiah 11 suitable for Christmas cards. Never mind that Isaiah really isn’t necessarily referring to the baby Jesus here. It could be any child. The prophecy reiterates what we read last Sunday: this is a preview of new creation where predation ends and the little children have come unto the Lord since to them does belong the Kingdom of God.

Of course Jesus did come as a little child to lead us, he is the shoot that springs from Jesse’s stump. He is the branch who grows to bear fruit of the spirit. With wisdom and might he executes justice. And then we read, “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Not something you’d print on a Christmas card. Though it would make a great Advent card. The kind of card you might send to the rude woman who shoved you out of the way fighting for Black Friday bargains at Target. If only I could get her address. If you were here last Sunday, you know that Advent, meaning coming or arrival initially shows up in church liturgy not as a Christmas ramp-up, but as a Judgment Day wake-up. By setting its sights on Jesus second coming instead of his first, Advent reminds the church of Christ’s coming to right the wrongs of injustice and restore the downtrodden. Advent counters the rampant despair and cynicism common to life in an unjust world, while at the same time fighting against the complacency and disobedience endemic to backsliding believers for whom Jesus has delayed too long. “Keep awake,” Jesus warned in the gospels, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. If the owner of a house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

While in college I served as the chaplain of my fraternity house, mostly because that was the job the religious guy always got pegged with. Ours wasn’t a Christian fraternity, but like many that originated in the South, it did have its Christian roots. Ironically, I endured a good deal of ridicule for my actually being a Christian. The other brothers felt that I cramped their hell-raising lifestyles, especially once I announced I was heading off to seminary after graduation. Nevertheless, the house chaplain was fairly powerful in that he got to determine who among the new pledges made it to the final initiation. Suddenly instead of being on the receiving end of ridicule, I was in the position to dish it out. So I did. I made those pledges miserable ordering them to do all sorts of silly and embarrassing tasks just because I could. Absolute power proved absolutely corrupting. Naturally the other brothers loved it. Maybe I wasn’t such a party-pooping Jesus freak after all.

Eventually, however, the pledges had enough. One night as I sleeping soundly in my dorm room bed, there came a gentle knock at my door. I groggily, and as it happened regrettably, said, “come in,” and before I could open my eyes completely, the light flashed bright as in burst 12 angry pledges who picked me up, tied me up and hauled me into the woods where they cast me into the outer darkness where there was no weeping and gnashing of teeth, but there were plenty of chiggers and ticks. I totally deserved it. It was my own little judgment day that came unexpectedly, just like Jesus said, like a thief in the night.

To read of Judgment Day just in the gospels is to read of deception, wars, famine, earthquakes, persecution, betrayal, hatred, and wickedness, the blackening of the sun, moon and stars and the mysterious “abomination of desolation” followed by the terrifying parenthetical note: “let the reader understand.” No kidding. Please “let the reader understand!” But Jesus doesn’t clarify. He says only that when you see it, run. And pray you’re not pregnant and that it’s not winter. All sorts of false prophets will herald false messiahs with all sorts of false promises in order to sidetrack you. So “watch out,” Jesus says, “I have told you everything ahead of time.”

No you haven’t. You’ve only scared me to death. Author Annie Dillard once wondered if her Sunday School teachers knew what they were doing when they bade her to consume great chunks of the Bible and commit them to memory. She thinks that if they had read it, they would have hid it. She’s probably right. I remember first reading these scary Jesus words and deciding I was definitely doomed.

It’s easy to get the idea that Jesus is coming back to jerk a knot in your life. But the Bible is more about Jesus coming back to undo the knots you’ve already made in your life. His intent is not to catch you doing wrong but to keep you doing right. Advent is not an expectation of terror, but the glad expectation of salvation and joy. The entire Bible bends toward God’s final victory over sin and evil—including our own. But it’s a victory already won through the death and resurrection of Jesus. For those who are in Christ, new creation starts now. Judgment Day is mostly a mop up operation.

In the book of Revelation this mop up operation features a fiery Jesus galloping in on a stormy white stallion, making war on evil with a broadsword protruding out of his mouth. We read “he strike down the rebellious nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.” You hear the traces of Isaiah. The triumphant Jesus is the fruitful branch sprouted from Jesse’s stump. Jesse was the father of the iconic King David, the one in whose image the longed-for Messiah would come. That the stump is the stump of Jesse, however, suggests that the Messiah to come would not be a King David clone. He would be kingly and victorious alright, but his crown would have thorns and his victory a cross. Jesse’s family tree had been reduced to a stump due to the repeated failure of King David’s descendants—another reason why a brand new branch from Jesse was needed. This new branch bears fruit of the spirit: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” “Fear” refers to that healthy respect for God’s authority that elicits obedience and loyalty.

Full of the Spirit, Jesus judges not by what he sees (that is, by mere appearances); nor by what he hears (that is, by mere hearsay). Jesus judges with righteousness and integrity as belts around his waist. The meek and the poor are vindicated while the wicked get served their just desserts. Justice extends to the well-being of all creation. Swords get beaten into plowshares and lions become vegetarians. Predator and prey, leopards and kids, infants and adders are reconciled so securely that a child can lead and they will follow. They will follow along with the nations about whom we read from Isaiah 2 who say “Come, let us climb the mountain of the LORD, that he may teach us his ways, that we may walk on his paths.” “No one will either harm (do what is wrong) or destroy (mar what is good) on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord, “for the earth will be full of a living knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”

Friend and author Danielle Shroyer describes her son’s kindergarten Christmas program: A host of five- and six-year-olds, fidgeting on risers and fumbling with their little Christmas collars, big smiles on their faces and unashamed voices booming forth, singing, “You be the lion strong and wild, I’ll be the lamb, meek and mild; we’ll live together happily, ‘cause that’s how it ought to be.” And yet, she writes, “As I watched that throng of kindergartners singing, something immensely powerful washed over me; it was like a monsoon of hope and sadness, all these children so certain the world ought to be this way, and me so certain of all the ways it isn’t. It moved me to tears, really; a jumbled mix of bittersweet tears—Advent tears—for that long pause between what is and what should be, what is and what we Jesus-followers believe will be.

Here’s the hard thing about Isaiah 11 despite all of its poetic beauty and hope: a little child did come to lead us but we have yet to make it to God’s holy mountain. Cows graze in feed lots waiting to be processed into cheap hamburger beef. The lamb gets shorn to make clothes that will last less than a few seasons. Lions and leopards fill endangered species lists, hunted for their hides and due to the loss of their habitats. Children don’t come anywhere near a snake’s lair because they don’t play outside much anymore. The smog can get so thick you can’t even see mountains. And as for righteousness and justice? On Friday I sat alongside a number of Twin Cities leaders whose various non-profits remain overwhelmed by relentless needs only exacerbated by Christmas: veterans who can’t get health benefits, homeless families that can’t find work, victims of torture who can’t find solace, job assistance programs that helplessly watch state budget deficits deepen and partisan politics harden, all the while fueling an unjust disparity between rich and poor.

Shroyer writes, “We are so drunk on the process of hurting and destroying one another that we can no longer see past the ends of our military-might-political-fight-I-am-always-right noses. Death tolls rise, wars rage on, hunger and sickness strike day after day. We have lost sight of the mountain altogether. The little child has come to lead us, did we simply not follow?”

This is an Advent question. A Second Coming question asked by Jesus himself. In one of those haunting apocalyptic gospel passages, Jesus describes coming back in glory surrounded by angels with the nations gathered before him. He takes his seat as judge then separates people one from another, like a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. He issues his final decree—the last word—the rod of his mouth with which he strikes the earth in Isaiah; the double-edged sword that protrudes from his mouth in Revelation. One edge is reward for the righteous, “Come my blessed and take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and in prison and you cared for me.” But the other edge is “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was in need and you did nothing.” The response of both sides is identical: shock. They never realized. “When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty, sick or imprisoned? When did we see you?” Jesus, pronouncing his solidarity with the powerless, replies: “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did the same to me.” As the book of Hebrews explains, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Still, Advent is not an expectation of terror, despite the terrifying language. Isaiah writes that the fear of the Lord is to be our delight. Advent gets our attention in order to get us to take our grace seriously. Advent underscores two humbling realities: our sin is real—and in Christ, our sin is gone. New creation has already started. This is our delight. Judgment Day is a mop up operation. But until the last day, as new creations in Christ, we have to help with the mopping. To take grace seriously is to give grace to others.

As new creations in Christ, we live our lives as if the last day is today. On that day “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” Isaiah makes clear that Jesus the branch not only bears the fruit of the Spirit, but is the Spirit himself. “I am the root and the branch of David,” Jesus says in Revelation, “the bright morning star” that shines as a signal to all nations. The green light. A little child come to lead us. A Savior come to save us. A Spirit that fills us with a serious taste of grace. As we come to the communion table, let us taste that grace anew, let us follow the child and make it to the mountain.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Mountaintop Experience

Isaiah 2:1-5

by Daniel Harrell

It is odd that one of the most hopeful seasons on the Christian calendar begins in the midst of the darkest days of the year. There are reasons for this. Christmas itself was a relatively late addition to the Christian calendar. It was not celebrated until the 3rd century AD; not until the expanding church began to domesticate competing pagan rituals by assimilating them into its religious life. Just as the contemporary American church regularly incorporates popular music into worship or secular business and marketing strategies into its operations and evangelism; so the early church turned elements of ancient winter solstice Saturnalia into Christmas garland, mistletoe and holly wreaths. This pillaging of paganism explains why many Protestant Christians wouldn’t touch Christmas until the late 18th century. Massachusetts technically outlawed it until 1859.

There was some uncertainty among the church staff a couple of weeks back about how and who would deck the Meetinghouse with boughs of greenery for Advent. A bit overwhelmed given the amount of work required, I suggested that if we really wanted to be Pilgrims about it, we could dispense with Christmas decorations altogether. I was informed that to do that would probably mean getting dispensed with myself.

Still, Protestants do continue to bewail the residues of heathen revelry embedded in Christmas, not to mention the commercialism that demeans its true meaning. We could just move Christmas to the spring and thereby dissociate it from retailers’ year-end profit reports. According to most scholars, Jesus was probably born in March anyway. Moving Christmas to the spring would cut down on some of the commercialism and alleviate a lot of the darkness. However, you’d have the problem in some years of Jesus being born one Sunday only to then rise from the dead the next Sunday on Easter. Some years Jesus could conceivably even die and rise before being born. That could get very confusing. Either way, I don’t think you’d want to move Advent to the spring. Although these four weeks on the church calendar have come to serve as a ramp-up to the Nativity; originally, Advent was intended to remind the church of Jesus’ second coming. Advent emerged as a 6th century wake-up call to bleary-eyed believers who had grown too complacent in their spiritual lives due to Jesus’ delay. Dusted off and assigned to Advent were those Scriptures labeled apocalyptic—passages from books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, Isaiah and even the gospels themselves. The customary doom and darkness of apocalypse work much better when its already dark outside.

Setting aside 2 Corinthians for the season, I’m stepping into the Lectionary for Advent and focusing on its Old Testament readings, this morning from Isaiah 2. Lectionary readings tie Scripture to the seasons of the church year and incorporate epistle and gospel readings alongside the Old Testament, all of which relate in some way to each other. For the first Sunday in Advent this year, Isaiah’s mention of the days to come are literally the last days, a term understood in the New Testament to denote final judgment and the final return of Christ (advent means arrival). In the gospel reading from Matthew 24, Jesus compares the last days to the days of Noah where people indifferent toward God lived as they pleased “until the flood came and swept them all away.” “So too,” Jesus warns, “will be the coming of the Son of Man. Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Comparing Christ’s return to Noah’s flood does give Advent its doomsday hue. Still, as Old Testament professor Walter Brugemann reminds, while the “rush of God’s rule is impending, and Christians are on the alert, ours is not the Orange Alert of fear; it is, rather, glad expectation.” For the Jews of Jesus’ day, suffering under brutal Roman oppression, apocalyptic promises of God raining down fire on evil this time would have been the source of great hope and strength by which to endure. These promises were reiterations of Old Testament assurances, heard there for the first time by the Israelites of Isaiah’s day who suffered under the thumb of Assyria. Advent hope therefore is not the nostalgia of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but the coming righteous fire of God that both consumes and purifies for the sake of new creation.

Isaiah 2 previews new creation. It is likely an ancient hymn since it is sung almost verbatim in Micah 4. Like any good Christmas music, it’s is a song you’d want to hear over and over again. “In the last days,” says the Lord, code words also understood to mean the first days of heaven, the mountain of the LORD’S house, the heavenly Zion, rises up above all other heights to dominate the landscape as the apex of righteousness. The kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. All nations stream uphill to it, so magnetic is God’s righteousness. Eager to learn and eager to live by it, they say, “Come, let us climb the mountain of the LORD, that he may teach us his ways, that we may walk on his paths.” God’s righteous law emanates from the new Jerusalem: politics are no longer the love of power but the love of service. Economics are motivated by generosity and equity rather than by profit and prejudice. Justice governs with integrity and honesty; there is no corruption or duplicity.

The Lord himself settles the disputes of all people and all nations. In turn they hammer their swords into shovels and their spears into rakes and hoes. It’s a return to the garden. Nothing causes anyone fear. Life is lived in amity and prosperity—a prosperity not defined by excess and accumulation, but by access and sufficiency. There is no more siphoning away sustenance in order to wage war. Nations do not take up swords to fight or shields to defend, nor do they train for war anymore because war is needless. History no longer repeats itself. There is truly and finally peace on earth and goodwill among all people.

One of the reasons Isaiah’s peaceable dream is so beautiful is because it is so totally out of line with our experience of the world, yet so fully in line with what we want the world to be. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness induce the emphatic resolve of verse 5: “O house of Jacob come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Jacob’s resolve gives way to reality by the time we get to chapter 9 and another familiar Advent passage: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus identifies the source of that light in John’s gospel. “I am the light of the world,” he says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” To walk in the light of the Lord is to live Isaiah’s dream come true. According to 2 Corinthians, the marvel of new creation is that for those who are in Christ, the old is gone and the new is come already. For the church, Advent expectations of peace on earth are to be experienced here and now. It’s what Jesus meant by being ready: walk in the light that already shines. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said, “for you shall be called children of God.” “Peacemakers who sow seeds of peace now,” wrote St. James, “reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Lamentably, seeds of peace fall on rocky soil. Swords and spears remain swords and spears. Even now, the United States and South Korea engage in naval exercises to counter North Korea’s recent provocations, including the deadly artillery attack last week on an island populated by South Koreans in the Yellow Sea. A South Korean marine commander vowed to “put our feelings of rage and animosity in our bones and take our revenge on North Korea.” Who knows what North Korea is thinking. Clearly memories of carnage and misery from the last Korean War fail as deterrents against more carnage and misery. Why can’t people “sow seeds of peace” or “study war no more?” You’d think that the carnage and misery just the past ten years in places like Rwanda, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Israel, Angola, Bosnia, Guatemala, Columbia, Liberia, Kashmir, Algeria, Burundi, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bali, Turkey, Washington and New York alone—would have taught humanity a lesson by now. But peace is hard lesson to learn. Maybe it’s a lesson nobody wants to learn.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Christ Hedges asserts in his still-popular book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning that war is, in fact, a powerful addiction. It is a drug “peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. …Even with its destruction and carnage, war can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning and a reason for living and dying.”

Sometimes war is necessary. There are times when force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral. Even God himself declares war at times—though that’s another sermon. War occurs as both theological and political necessity at times—even for the sake of peace. But war too often perpetuates beyond necessity, fueled by personal compulsions that are addicted to it—accounting for the persistent failures in peace negotiations and the fragility of peace agreements. This is true internationally and interpersonally. We fail to make peace in the lesser wars fought in our families, our churches, our communities and our companies.

Hedges writes of a woman named Lilly whose father was killed during the Bosnian War. Described as beautiful and young, Lilly’s own endurance of the war had exacted a severe toll. Her cheeks were hollow, her hair dry and brittle. Her teeth decayed and some broken into jagged bits. Lilly lived in fear and hunger, emaciated, targeted by Serbian gunners on the heights above as she operated resistance below. While not wanting those days back, she readily admitted those days were actually the fullest of her life. Peace exposed the void that the rush of war had filled. Lilly and her friends now felt alone, no longer bound by that common sense of struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure what life was all about or what it meant. “Many of us,” Hedges writes, “restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives. We want more out of life. And war, at least, gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness.”

A few years after 9/11, Dawn and I visited the World Trade Center site where the reminders of that horrendous day remained vivid. While there were vivid signs of revitalization, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of absence; the engulfing hole in the middle of that vast and dense city. A couple of blocks away is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where an extensive memorial commemorated the ways in which this small little congregation became the sanctuary for rescue workers whose diligence in the aftermath was legendary. Table after table displayed mementos of camaraderie and unity, replete with video stories of the impact this unity had on individual lives. There was a palpable sadness for the horrific loss of life—but also for the loss of community that transpired once the dust settled, once the rescue work was done; once the anger and fury lessened.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church returned to its routine worship and programs, but the sense was that it’s not the same; that ironically, as Christians, the essence of our faith, the simple praise of God and regular acts of charity toward our neighbors, they’re just not enough.

All that humans experience as meaningful aspects of war—community, shared purpose, dedication, loyalty—these are all to some extent counterfeit. They do not endure because they do not tap into their authentic source. It was Augustine who so persuasively argued how the power of evil is derivative power; evil sucks its power off the goodness it parasitically perverts. People prolong international as well as interpersonal conflict; we nurse hatred and bear grudges because of the energy and passion they evoke—an energy and passion we like because of its eerie, twisted resemblance to the energy and passion of love. Evil perverts love into the junk food of vengeance with which we feed our hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Chris Hedges concludes that the only antidote to the intoxication of war is the sobriety of genuine love. “Love,” he writes, “has both the power to resist in our nature what we know we must resist and to affirm what we know we must affirm.” Unfortunately, his conclusion comes off pat, like the admonition to “sow seeds of peace.” It sounds nice but it’s just not realistic. However, could it be that the reason such Biblical admonitions as “love your enemy” and “plant seeds of peace” come off as unrealistic is not because they are unrealistic but because we choose not to practice them as such? The problem is not that love and peacemaking can’t work. The problem is that too often we have no interest in letting them work. We pay lip service to their ideals, but when it comes right down to it, we like the way that hatred, envy, anger and conflict keep us so jazzed.

Which is why the apostle Paul wrote that the peace of God must guard our hearts, and not only from the dangers outside. The peace of God is a peace-keeping force, and like modern day peace-keeping forces, it operates deep within country. The evils that threaten our borders threaten the heart of your own soul too. The peace of God guards your heart but it also changes your heart. Peacemakers shall be called children of God because that’s who they already are.

Granted, to actually walk as a child of the light; to actually follow Jesus, invariably makes you part of a marginalized minority, written off by the world, shut out from the halls of power, considered naïve by those who insist we have to be realistic. Nevertheless, this afflicted and marginalized minority—what Isaiah will describe as a faithful remnant—is identified throughout Scripture not as leftovers from the past, but as harbingers of the future; not as castaways but as co-heirs with Christ, the foretaste of heaven on earth, the prefigurement of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom to which all nations delightedly stream.

If the church is to be this God-shaped remnant, it will find itself an increasingly marginalized minority that opts for peace on earth and good will among people as more than greeting card platitudes. Why would we choose to walk in this way? If our reasons are shaped by Scripture, we are not motivated by the utter horror of war, nor by the desire to save our own skins and the skins of our children, not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, nor by the naïve hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing peace are shaped by Scripture, we choose peace out of simple obedience to the God who willed that his own son should give himself up to human humility and human death on the cross for the sake of peace. We make this choice in hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. This is the dream toward which Scripture bends. It will happen, Jesus promised, “at an unexpected hour;” unexpected because no one expects war will ever end. Therefore we must be ready, which means we must be faithful and tangibly serve as signposts of peace beginning with our own enemies, prefiguring Isaiah’s peaceable reign of God where war is no more and every person has enough; and because every person has enough, war is no more.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Couple More Thoughts on Giving: IMHO

A few folks from church have asked about the math when it comes to giving. While Christians are somewhat all over the map, here's where I tend to come down on things: While Christian obedience to Torah runs through a Jesus grid, the tithe of 10% remains a good guideline ("All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the LORD’S; they are holy to the LORD." Lev 27:30). That said, I'd also argue that the tithe applies after taxes and after debts, inasmuch as the money you owe to Caesar and to Visa is not your money to give. Furthermore, I'd also assert that tithing is unto the Lord, not specifically unto the church, such that your tithe can include both what you give as a member of your church community as well as what you give to other good works. One member told me she'd never heard of a minister who ever said don't give all of your tithe to the church! Finance committees aren't crazy about it either. But the fact is that if Christians simply tithed, we'd all be all set with plenty to spare. Your thoughts?

Blessed, Broken, Given

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

by Daniel Harrell

My parents’ small town Southern minister told a tale about a well-known, wealthy good ol’ boy calling up the church office one day and hollering to the church secretary: “Is the head hog at the trough?” The secretary, familiar with Southern colloquialisms, politely responded, “Sir, we refer to our pastor as reverend, not head hog.” “Sorry ‘bout that missy,” the rich man replied, “I was just calling about making a big fat contribution to the building fund.” “Well, you’re in luck,” the secretary said as she caught the pastor’s arrival out of the corner of her eye, “here comes the old pig now.”

We laugh at this due to our familiarity with money’s power to adversely transform and twist human demeanor. The Bible declares the love of money to be the root of all evil. However the good news is that giving away money can be the root of all kinds of blessing. Which may be why the Bible says it is more blessed to give than to receive. But receiving can be a blessing too when you’re somebody who needs help. It was wonderful to watch last Sunday as so many took from the offering plate. If you’re visiting today you may be thinking, taking from the offering plate? Is this a great church or what! And it is. Following the service last Sunday—having laid it on thick from 2 Corinthians 8—I hated the idea of folks heading home with cash in their pockets. So we left an offering plate at the back for everybody to unload their wallets with the caveat that those who had no cash—due to financial hardship of any kind—they were to take what they needed in order to make ends meet. Since those in need were hesitant, and maybe a little embarrassed, to take, it was great to see others pillage the plate on their behalf. Paul put it this way in chapter 8: “It is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need. Right now those who have plenty can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.”

Fair balance stretched beyond the bounds of our own congregation. Money was used to buy a car battery for a survivor of torture from Uganda who is part of a quilters group here. Money was shared with several homeless friends. Another knew of a neighbor whose unemployment payments had run out. She took money and matched it with a gift of her own. Several who missed last Sunday dropped off money during the week. And on and on it went. And on and on it goes. Today is our official Stewardship Sunday. I appreciate those who told me that last Sunday’s sermon was the best sermon on stewardship that you ever heard. I guess we’ll know how good it really was shortly. I’m hesitant to preach about giving again for fear I might mess it up this time. Perhaps the Lord was worried too given the weather. But the apostle Paul did write two chapters on giving in 2 Corinthians—so I guess I should at least try.

This is the more familiar passage of the two inasmuch as it’s where we find the welcome verse 7: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Nevertheless, given the Corinthians’ reluctance, Paul applies plenty of compulsion. You’ll remember that the Jerusalem church was in dire financial straits and the Corinthians were doing nothing to help. So Paul puts the squeeze on. But how can the Corinthians be cheerful givers if Paul has to twist their arms to make them do it? As I mentioned last week, Paul’s pressure to give merely pushed the Corinthians to be true to the new creations they already were in Christ. The same with us. Obligation and obedience push us to do what our Christian new selves would do if our selfish old selves didn’t stand in the way. More than applying pressure, Paul applied a test to see if the Corinthians really were new creatures in Christ. Their generosity would prove their obedience to the gospel and their openness to grace. All giving starts with God, verse 10, “who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food and who will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

Still, Paul knows the human heart when it comes to money—even the redeemed human heart. Therefore his encouragement comes laced with caution. Keeping with the harvest metaphor, Paul cites an old proverb, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” You reap what you sow. It’s a saying that stretches back to the Hebrew Bible. Jesus employed it too. The Biblical correlation is one between giving and judgment—and that’s just if we stick to Jesus’ parables. For instance there’s the parable about the three stewards whose master gave each enormous sums of money—or talents—to put to work. The two stewards who did so were amply rewarded, but the third who buried his one talent in the ground out of fear was cast into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then there’s the parable about a rich man who refused to share his wealth with a beggar named Lazarus. Upon their deaths, Lazarus lounges in heaven while the rich man languishes in hell’s fiery furnace. The rich man pleaded for mercy: “Can’t Lazarus just dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, I am in agony in this fire.” But the answer came back “no can do.” “Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in torment.”

There’s also the parable I mentioned several weeks back about a farmer who hit the jackpot of a bumper crop but wasn’t sure what to do with all of the surplus. With no place to store it and no thought of sharing it, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so he could hoard his riches, kick back and enjoy life. It is the American way. We like our barns big and our houses big and our portfolios big too. We like vacation homes and motorized toys. We’re foodies and fashionistas and crave the coolest technological gizmos and games. A Washington State University sociologist once calculated that the earliest humans consumed approximately 2500 calories a day, most of it in food; comparable to the daily energy intake of a 350-pound dolphin. A modern human being uses 31,000 calories a day, most of it in fossil fuel to manufacture and maintain all of the stuff he needs—comparable to the intake of a 1.7-ton pilot whale. The average American? Each day you and me? We each suck in as much as a 40-ton sperm whale.

God appears to the farmer and thunders, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. Now what will you do with all this stuff you have stockpiled and consumed for yourself?” It’s a rhetorical question. Camels can’t squeeze through the eyes of needles. Neither can whales. U-Hauls aren’t attached to hearses. Jesus warned, “This is how it will be with people who store up everything for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

This being the case, I guess I could say “give or you’re doomed.” And according to Jesus at least, I’d be right. God loves a cheerful giver, but clearly he’ll take a fearful one if he has to. Generosity is that important. Why? Because it reflects the character of God. Grace is a chief fruit of the Spirit. It is prime evidence of new creation. We give because God gives to us. “God provides you with every blessing in abundance,” Paul writes in verse 8, “so that by always having enough of everything, you may share it abundantly… and reap a harvest of righteousness.” This is the righteousness of grace: God provides enough of everything to go around so that nobody needs anything. As it is written in Psalm 112, and cited in verse 9, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” At first glance you assume the “he” to be God, but in fact the giver is human. When it to comes to giving God and the giver are one. To cheerfully give is the work of the Lord.

It’s helpful to peek again at Psalm 112 (follow along if you’d like). It provides some of the backfill for Paul’s passion. The Psalm does begin with fear—though not in a way we’d expect. We read, “Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.” Because obedience gets such a bad rap in our culture, to greatly delight in anybody’s commandments can be a reach. And yet in Psalm 112, obedience pays off big for those who heed the Lord: “Wealth and riches are in their houses.” Yet far from the claims of the prosperity gospel—which insists you get rich for yourself—Biblical richness is always infused with righteousness; it is rich toward others. Psalm 112 describes the prosperous as “gracious and merciful,” they “conduct their affairs with justice,” are “not afraid of evil tidings,” and “deal generously and distribute freely to the poor.” It is this wealth of righteousness that brings the happiness the Psalmist celebrates—as we experienced last Sunday. Many of you approached me with tears of joy at the beautiful expression of our generosity. When’s the last time anybody cried over the offering plate? (I mean in a good way?) It was a beautiful thing. Grace does that. And then there’s the added benefit of the last verse of Psalm 112, so typical of the psalms: righteousness and grace really tick off the wicked: “The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away. Their desires come to nothing.”

So if any of this is making you mad… I’m just sayin’.

God loves a cheerful giver. And he loves a fearful one too—though I think that Biblical link between fear and giving is more about the fear of not giving. Fear is why the third steward said he buried his talent in the ground. Richard Foster in his devotional classic, Celebration of Discipline, writes how, “we cling to our possessions rather than sharing them because we are anxious about tomorrow.” We’re afraid that things won’t work out; that we won’t have enough and that God is not good enough to make up the difference and that he doesn’t really care. We’re afraid of loss, despite the fact that in the ironic economy of God loss is the only way to gain. Selfishness plays to our fears. It whispers sweet nothings, tempting you to store up your treasures on earth. Let go and let God and you’ll end up dependent and destitute. You’ll probably experience disgrace and defeat like those Christians of old. Life could get hard. You might suffer. You might have to really trust the God of the actual Bible, you know, the old Bible we used to read before we learned to read it like a self-help book filled with formulas and bullet points on how to be successful, happy, healthy and well-off.

Throughout the gospels Jesus links giving and fear as a means of disabusing us of our selfishness. In the parable of the talents, the third steward’s fear is a mask for his laziness. But again, the point is not to scare us into generosity. In both the parable of the talents and the parable of the ungenerous farmer in their respective gospels, Jesus follows up not just by railing against selfishness and pronouncing doom on our laziness (though he does that too). He follows up by assuaging our anxiety. “Do not worry about your life,” he says, “about what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than fashion. Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re more valuable to God than they are. Why are you afraid? Why do you worry? Can all your worries add even a single hour to your life? A single half hour? Don’t you know that your heavenly Father will take care of you too, O ye of little faith? So do not worry, God knows what you need. Seek after God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and you will find you have everything you need and more.”

In place of worry and control and consumption and anxiety, Jesus issues a call to faith; a call to believe that God indeed has things under control, a call to believe that God cares, even if that care doesn’t always look like you want it to.

Granted, faith can be scary. It can even feel a lot like worry. Worry and faith both focus on what you can’t see. However worry and faith focus in different directions. Worry aims inward, feeding off your fear of the future and closing you in so tight that you can hardly breathe. But faith points outward, feeding off the guarantees of God that open you up to hope and a future where needles are threaded with camels (and penitent whales for that matter); where no moth nor rust nor thief can touch your true treasure; a future where worry no longer happens. Such a future is new creation itself, a future Paul declares as begun even now. And thus when he writes “you will be enriched in every way” in verse 11, you could just as well read it as your having been enriched already. And for what purpose? “that you may be generous on every occasion which will produce thanksgiving to God.” “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”