Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Perfect Gift

Small-Ridged-Broadsword-1-Luke 2:25-35
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 any danger of the latter, my wife’s family practices the helpful tradition of detailing their wish lists with the exact specification and locations of each present each person wants for Christmas. It makes for a very stress-free holiday on both the giving and receiving ends. There are no surprises and therefore no disappointments. To my side of the family, however, such safe practicality takes away the intrigue of gift-giving. You see, my family tradition places high value on insight and thoughtfulness. It’s one thing to get somebody the perfect gift because they told you exactly what to get. It’squite another to know someone so well that you can figure it all by 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 truly care about them enough to pick up on the little things. That’s is why I give cash.

However some years I do try to pay attention. One year in particular, some months before Christmas, Dawn and I attended a family funeral and took turns viewing the open casket. It was chock full of mementoes that would accompany our dearly departed into glory: a favorite tie, a baseball cap, a military medal. Afterwards, reflecting upon her own mortality, my wife Dawn—who is Scottish on both sides of her family and an avid fan of Tolkien and Norse mythology—mentioned, off-handedly, how when it came her time to go, she’d like to be buried holding a sword. Immediately I thought: Jingle bells! What a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to my beloved how well I understand her! How attuned I am to her needs! How well I know what she really wants! How I pick up on the little things. I raced online and Googled broadswords and lo and behold, eBay was stocked to the hilt. I found the perfect Christmas present.

Granted, it was a little hard to wrap and disguise under the tree, but 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. She was in for such a surprise! She eagerly unwrapped it—unsheathed it I should say—and oh 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?” And 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,” she said. “I guess it is good to get those funeral arrangements out of the way early. What 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 with just a little worry on her face. 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 that third gift of myrrh on the first Christmas. Gold and frankincense made sense. Both were gifts fit for a king—gold was a symbol of royalty and incense the aroma of power. Myrrh, on the other hand, was mostly used to anoint dead bodies. In a day before funeral homes, preservatives and caskets, myrrh kept corpses from stinking. Why kind of present was this to bring to a baby? What would you do if as a mother someone showed up bearing embalming fluid? Why not just give Mary a sword too?

Actually, that gift would arrive a few days later, in the gospel passage we read tonight. Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple to be presented to the Lord as the Torah commanded of all first born sons. The gospel describes how “the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses.” According to Jewish law, a woman became ceremonially unclean on the birth of a child. On the eighth day, sons were circumcised, after which a mother had to wait another 33 days before she could enter the Temple and return to worship (66 days if the child was a girl). While modern sensibilities tend to be affronted by such gender restrictions, it might be helpful to know that being unclean meant you weren’t allowed to cook or do any housework either. When the time for purification was over, the mother came back to the Temple and offered a sacrifice, either a lamb or, if she was poor as in Mary’s case, two doves or two young pigeons. The point here is to show that Jesus was raised in conformity to the law and that his parents obeyed the Lord. As told by an angel, they named him Jesus, which means “God saves.” 

Overhearing all of this was a righteous and devout man named Simeon, whom the Holy Spirit guided to the Temple, and who upon seeing Jesus, recognized the baby to be the Savior he’d been waiting for his whole life. He grabbed the baby into his arms and let loose a joyous Christmas carol of praise to the Lord. “Now I can die in peace,” he happily sighed. “I have seen my salvation, which you have prepared for all people. Light to reveal God to all nations! The glory of your people Israel!” Talk about proud parents. I imagine Mary and Joseph beamed with delight as they heard Simeon sing. How many times do strangers look at your infant baby and call him the light of the world? 

If you’ve been a regular here at Colonial Church of late, you know that light has been our theme since September. And it’s a big theme at Christmas. Candles and lights glow everywhere during the darkest days of the year, intended to instill hope and promise of brighter light to come. In the Bible, prophets promised how people walking in darkness would see a great light. In the Isaiah passage we read, and which Simeon echoed, light is the calling card of God’s promised Savior: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Simeon knew this about Jesus. Jesus knew this about himself. “I am the light of the world” he would boldly declare, though it was an audacious assertion for anybody to make, especially in first century Israel. For first century Jews, light was the realm reserved for God alone. “Let there be light,” announced at creation, which was practically the same as God saying “let there be me.” To call yourself light was to call yourself God. No wonder Jesus offended so many.

Simeon knew this would happen. He told Mary and Joseph how Jesus would bring joy to many, but he would also cause many to fall. Though a sign sent from God, he would be opposed. Jesus knew this too. “Light came to the world,” he said, speaking of himself, “but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Light cuts like a double edged sword. It shines as a sure sign of God’s salvation, but it’s sharp brightness also exposes our weaknesses and our need for salvation. It can be pretty painful.
That light can cut like a sword comes as no surprise to Star Wars fans in the room tonight. I remember wishing for a light saber one Christmas when I was in college. What I got instead was an actual saber. Unlike the one I gave Dawn, mine was for the fencing team. Phys Ed was required at my University, and not being especially athletic, I decided to take a stab at fencing. I did fairly good. I quickly picked up the footwork, learned to parry and riposte and lunge. Since the class turned out to be mostly filled with fantasy-fiction lovers, sci-fi geeks, Shakespeare aficionados and math majors, I ended up winning our class tournament. I cut down all my opponents just like a Skywalker. The teacher, who was also the fencing team coach, suggested I try out for the university squad, which I did.

And I got picked. I made the team and worked out with the scholarship fencers, one of whom I defeated in a training bout. Clearly I had this thing all figured out. At the rate I was going, I could feel a future Olympic gold medal tickling my neck. Noting my progress, and no doubt my progressing cockiness, the coach called me aside one day and told me to take off my padded fencing jacket. Unlike the foil and the epee, a saber is a cutting weapon. You score by slicing your opponent with your blade anywhere above the waist. The padded jacket protected you from being injured, so I wasn’t sure why the coach wanted me to take mine off. It was a drill, he said, an exercise in discipline designed to improve my defense. A few seconds and several nasty whelps later, it proved to be an exercise in humiliation, exposing my weakness and drilling into my head how a few lucky strikes did not a gold medal forge. It was very painful. Both to my body and to my pride. The truth does hurt.

In the Isaiah passage we read, truth is likened to a sword. In describing the Savior to come, Isaiah says, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth”—meaning his words—“like a sharp sword.” Simeon knew this about Jesus. “The child is ... a sign from God that will be opposed, his words will cut to their hearts “and reveal their secret thoughts.” Jesus understood this about himself. “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he warned, despite the Christmas angels’ greeting. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus would be the light saber of the world, speaking truth, exposing human pride, causing conflict and creating division. “Light came to the world,” he said, “but people loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil.” The truth does hurt.

It hurt Mary and it hurt Jesus too. Simeon turned to Mary and told her, “a sword will pierce your own soul.” Mary and Jesus would both suffer profound anguish: Mary at the loss of her son. Jesus at the sacrifice of his life. Simeon foreshadows the cross, a violent sword which in ancient Roman culture served to keep a petulant public in line. The Empire designed it as a brutal reprisal against any rebellion. Crosses were very common, a clear warning against those who might threaten the government’s power. Nothing good that could be affirmed about crosses; they were designed to extinguish life in a most horrifying fashion. The cross represents the culmination of human history gone wrong—an instrument of torture standing for all the other dead ends of history, from spears to bombs, from gas chambers to semi-automatic assault rifles. If “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in Jesus birth, they would shatter at Jesus’ unjust death. Hung on a cross, an innocent victim, Jesus suffered the full weight of human rebellion―not against Rome―but against God. Jesus fell on our sword for our sins.

Afterwards, as if there weren’t enough indignity, no suitable place could be found to bury him, just as there had been no suitable place for Jesus to be born. As with the spare manger, a sympathetic Pharisee from Arimathea offered up a spare burial tomb. Another sympathetic Pharisee rounded up some myrrh. The Magi had seen it coming. Simeon saw it too. A sword of execution and shame pierced Jesus. A sword of deep sorrow pierced Mary’s heart. What mother should ever endure the death of her child? It’s a question we’ve asked too often in recent days. In the wake of the senseless slaughter of innocents, we sadly affirm Jesus’ judgment: “people loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil.” 

A pastor in Newtown, Connecticut, his church decked out for the holidays, stood before a full and grieving congregation, and solemnly asked “how can we rejoice in the face of such suffering?” It was a rhetorical question. Everyone already knew the answer. It was why they brought their sorrows to church instead of taking them somewhere else: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

This is the startling paradox we defiantly celebrate at Christmas: The sorrow and suffering endemic to our world and to the Christian story finds miraculous redemption. Light shines in darkness. Born into scandal, unjustly crucified dead and buried in disgrace, Jesus rises from the dead. He rises and redeems an ancient apparatus of heartless torture into the ultimate symbol of hope. The dark visage of the cross becomes the light of salvation. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart becomes the blade of triumph and glory, girded on the thigh of our risen king who achieves his victory by way of defeat. No longer wielded as a weapon of destruction, his sword serves “the cause of truth and righteousness,” just as the Psalmist sang. 

“I came to earth with a sword,” Jesus said. A painful sword that pierced us too. It’s sharpness exposes our sin and our need for salvation. Christ’s death is our death. The truth hurts. But as Jesus also said, the truth sets us free. His resurrection is our new birth. The full weight of our rebellion meets the full weight of God’s grace. As we sing tonight: “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them―to give us―second birth.” A new birth, a new beginning, a new chance, a new life, a new start―starting now: It’s all anybody could ever want for Christmas. And with Jesus, all you could ever want is what you always get.

Who Is a God Like You?

Micah 7:14-20
by Daniel Harrell

If ever you’ve read the prophet Micah, assigned to the Advent season, you’ve probably read the part in chapter 5 about Bethlehem being the least of the clans of Judah, “yet from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Matthew’s gospel cites this prophecy in its version of the Nativity. You also may have read the verse from chapter 6 where Micah sums up the requirements of the godly life as “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” It’s a noble calling. Micah’s original audience mostly perverted justice, scorned mercy and walked pretentiously pertaining to God. That’s why Micah showed up. You never see prophets around when people are behaving themselves. Micah arrived with all the terror of the holy ghosts of Christmas to ancient Israel’s Ebenezer Scrooge, doing all he could to scare God’s chosen people into being worthy of calling.

Though saved by grace, Israel presumed grace to be permission to do as they pleased. The Lord had picked them and loved them just the way they are. But divine love has never been about preserving the status quo. The Lord may indeed love you just as you are, but he has no intention of letting you stay that way. “Therefore hear this,” Micah howled, “you who despise justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build God’s kingdom with bloodshed, and Jerusalem, her city of peace, with violence; whose judges judge for a bribe, massaging their verdicts to serve political interests and agendas; whose politicians deprive the poor and fawn instead over the rich and the powerful; whose preachers preach for a price, shaping their sermons to fit the religious consumer; all the while posturing and playing righteous while having the audacity to say, ‘Everything will turn out fine. Is not the LORD among us? Is God not on the side of his faithful and upright people?’” That would be a nice Christmas sermon. But instead Micah cries out, “The faithful have disappeared from the land. There is no one left who is upright; everyone lies in wait for blood, and each hunts down the other.”

Micah can be pretty grim. But it’s been a grim week. Sandy Hook has cast a dark pall over our holiday hustle. We’ve watched footage of parents and families and neighbors flocking to one funeral after the other, after packing out church services and vigils. For many, to witness such tragedy and sorrow evinces the absence of God. To keep faith in the Lord in the face of such horror seems ridiculous. But for those who actually suffered the tragedy and sorrow, the Lord could not have been more present, their faith in him more critical. This is why the Newtown churches were so full. Where else do you turn when confronted with such unspeakable loss? Sorrow and suffering are woven into the Christian story—our Savior saves by being born into scandal, rejected by his own family and people, and then being hung to die on a cross. God’s presence is always most palpable amidst tragedy and loss.
To suffer loss is to have your soul pierced. But once pierced, you’re opened up to a transformation that would have been otherwise unlikely. Resurrection only comes after crosses. In Micah, the suffering occurred as a brutal attack from a marauding Assyrian army. The terrified populace fled to the safety of Jerusalem’s walls and barricaded themselves inside as their enemy laid siege and choked off supplies. Starvation set in and all hope was lost, yet the people’s hope surprisingly surged: “Though we have fallen we will rise,” they collectively asserted, “though we sit in darkness, the LORD will be our light. He will bring us out into the light; we will see his righteousness.”
Their hope was based that promise from God back in chapter 5: a mighty and majestic shepherd would emerge from Bethlehem to save his flock. Our passage this morning is Micah’s prayer for God to keep his word. It’s a prayer laced boldly with imperatives: “Shepherd your people with your staff! Let them safely graze as in days of old. As in the days when you came out of Egypt, show us some marvelous things!”

Bibles disagree as to whether Micah or the Lord is the one doing the talking here. Some have the Lord saying “As in the days when you came out of Egypt, I will do marvelous things!” Either way, Micah is confident. “The nations, our enemies, will be shamed and deprived of their power,” he struts, “they will shut their mouths and lick dust like a snake”—a blatant reference to Satan’s own defeat. Not only does God crush earthly adversaries, He crushes the devil himself and grinds evil underfoot. “They all come trembling out of their dark lairs like worms,” Micah says with a swagger, “they all come out in dread of God.” Every shaky knee bows and every disdainful tongue confesses who’s Lord of all.

God saves his people from the sinister forces that tormented them from the outside. They suffered cruelty at the hands of others’ doing. But they also suffered consequences of their own doing. That the Assyrians ran freely over Israel was due in part to their own sinful rebellion. Micah’s prophecies had announced judgment upon Israel for social evils, corrupt leadership, and idolatry. Yet in the end, God still saves them. He can’t stop loving them. Micah is amazed and exclaims, “Who is a God like you?” (This is what Micah’s name means.) “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgressions? You don’t stay mad forever? You delight in mercy? You will again have compassion on us? As with Satan, you tread our sins underfoot! As with Pharaoh’s army in Egypt, you all our iniquities into deep water. You will be true to Jacob, you will show unswerving loyalty to Abraham, just like you promised to our ancestors long ago.”

God’s people are completely surrounded and on the verge of certain defeat, and Micah’s declaring victory. This is usually how Biblical hope operates. Author GK Chesterton wrote, ““As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude. It is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all Christian virtues, hope is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”

700 years after Micah, a virgin girl likewise hoped amidst hopelessness and gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. He would be the promised Shepherd to rule over God’s flock, who would crush the power of Satan and sin underfoot. As the hope and fears of all the years kicked and squirmed in Mary’s womb, her “soul magnified the Lord,” in language redounding with Micah’s own prophetic confidence. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary famously sang, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Notice how Mary gets her verb tenses confused. Instead of singing about a God who will lift up the lowly, who will fill the hungry, who will bring down the powerful and who 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.

Except that the victory Mary declared would look a lot more like failure. Mary’s triumphant singing gave way to scandalous hand-wringing as her husband Joseph considered breaking off their engagement. Everybody knew her baby wasn’t his (and nobody was going to believe God did it). Mary ends up giving birth in a feed trough not because there was no room at the Holiday Inn.. Ancient Middle Eastern hospitality would have never permitted turning away a pregnant relative (Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown). But neither would Joseph’s kin be disgraced by this scandal. They had a reputation to protect. You can squeeze into our house, they allowed, but go sleep with the other animals. You’d think the worse was over once Jesus was born, but then they take him to be circumcised only to have their rabbi warn that their son will end up causing the failure of many in Israel. How’s that for a christening? Your child will invite opposition and rejection by many. Oh, and Mary, a sword will pierce your soul too. And yet Mary still blessed the Lord.

GK Chesterton was right. Christian hope is unreasonable. Two days after the Sandy Hook tragedy, CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed the parents of Grace McDonnell, one of the victims. Unbelievably composed, they insisted that hate would not be poison their thoughts going forward. They would hope for new life out of their immense loss. They would live by Grace, they said, remembering their daughter’s kindness and peace and beauty and allow that to pave their way forward. They would forgive.

Their determination reminded me of  the last time a tragedy like last Friday’s  struck an elementary school in America. Five little girls in a Pennsylvania Amish schoolhouse. As violent and horrific an act as that was, the truly unbelievable part, you may recall, was the act of compassionate forgiveness and reconciliation that followed. A pastor of the gunman’s family described being in the family’s home when there came this knock on the door. It was an Amish neighbor visiting on behalf of their community. He put his arms around the gunman’s father, and said “We will forgive you.” A goodly number of Amish showed up at the gunman’s funeral. The grandfather of one of the girls was quoted as insisting, “We must not think evil of this man.” A father of one victim said to the press: “We don’t know or understand why this happened but we do believe God allowed it. The rest of us, our lives will go on. We will try to work together to support and help the families directly involved… including the man responsible for this tragedy.’’ At the behest of Amish leaders, a fund was set up for the killer’s widow and three children. The West Nickel Mines School were the tragedy occurred was torn down and replaced by a new one-room schoolhouse called the New Hope School.

Such hope is unreasonable. Unimaginable. It is impossible! How can any parent suffer such loss and then show such mercy? From what little I know of the Amish, I understand that their strength comes from being a community devoted to Christ and to the practical implications of the gospel in everyday life: doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with their God. “How can you call me Lord,” Jesus asked, “and not do the things that I say?” Granted, Jesus never mentioned horses and buggies; but he was crystal clear about forgiving your enemies and praying for your persecutors, even though it kills you to do it. Jesus said that following him meant dying to yourself and taking up a cross everyday. From what little I know, the Amish admonish one another toward the daily practice of self-denial and obedience in the little things. They habitually hone their souls so that when the tragedies strike, as they inevitably do, their faith and obedience will not waver. I have to think that by practicing lesser mercies everyday—whether its helping a neighbor raise a barn or forgiving somebody their rude remark or slight—by practicing lesser mercies everyday you can’t help but become a merciful person: The kind of person for whom the only thing unimaginable is withholding mercy. This is why Jesus talks about taking up a cross daily. If you wait until some momentous crisis to take it up, your cross will be too heavy to lift.

Christian hope is unreasonable. It requires believing in spite of the evidence—and then waiting and watching the evidence change. Hope lets us glimpse reality as God sees it. You know what you’re getting for Christmas because you’ve already been given a peek. Christian hope is not generic wishful thinking, but a specific vision of the future presented throughout Scripture as certainty rather than possibility. It’s a future Micah confidently paints where the mountain of the Lord, the heavenly Zion, dominates the landscape. All nations stream to it, learn from it, live by it. 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. Worship is no longer performing on Sundays only to live as you like the rest of the week. Faith infuses every aspect of life. Mercy abounds. Obedience is joy. The Lord himself settles all disputes. Swords are hammered into shovels and semi automatic assault rifles pounded into garden tools because nobody shoots anybody anymore. There is no more war, no more violence, no more starvation, thirst, disease or fear; only genuine peace on earth and goodwill among all people, just like the angels sang.

This confident picture is grounded in the God who created the heavens and the earth and called forth light with his lips. The same God who birthed a nation out of a nursing home candidate named Abraham whose body was good as dead. That God miraculously delivered that same nation out of their Egyptian slavery by leading them through parted waters, and them rescued them over and over again, though they were surrounded by trouble on every side. Our confidence is grounded in a that God who showed up in person at Christmas in scandal, who stuck around to suffer and who fell to an unjust death, only to then rise from that injustice and be crowned King and Lord and Light of all. In Christ our Lord we confidently hope, despite the worst the world can dish out on us and despite the worst we dish onto ourselves. In Jesus Christ our Lord we confidently hope and therefore can speak of a beautiful future using the past tense. So go ahead and open your present. Because of Jesus, you already know what it is.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Flickering Wick

photoIsaiah 42:1-9
by Daniel Harrell

The seasonal darkness of Advent makes light an annually welcome topic, so it’s good we’ve been shining forth these past months looking light in the Bible. It inspired a member to send this photo he took from last Sunday, which he entitled “Colonial Church in Soft Light.” It’s a beautiful take. Of course for us non-photographers who drove to church last Sunday, we remember “Colonial Church in Dense Fog,” for some, even more difficult to maneuver through than the snow this morning. Most of us embrace this morning’s snow since it means a dreamy white Christmas, yet there remain others for whom the bluish fog better matches their mood. In what has become an annual tradition, churches around the country, including several here in the Twin Cities, sponsor “Blue Christmas” services (with no connection to Elvis) for people whose holidays feel neither merry nor bright. Candles are still lit and ornaments hung in these services, but rather than decking the halls, the candles are lit for remembrance and the ornaments hung are inscribed with names of those who suffer this season through hardships of personal loss, grief and despondency. Christmas merriment piles on the sadness for so many during December that having a place to hang your sorrows helps.

Blogging blue about Christmas myself this week, I wrote how ironic that yuletide expectations of peace and joy dominate given that the Christmas story itself is such a downer--what with all of its scandal, exile, homelessness, rejection, oppression, not to mention raging infanticide. Sure, the angels pronounce “peace of earth,” but that’s been such a long time coming that it really only works on greeting cards, for anybody who still uses the mail. To read the Christmas story straight up is to paint any Christmas service unavoidably blue. Attending a Blue Christmas Service several years back, I got so depressed that I had to run right to the mall afterwards so to reconnect with the real reason for the season.

The Christmas story’s depressing downside feeds off ancient Israel’s sad history. Chosen as God’s own and then dramatically rescued from an oppressive enslavement to Pharaoh’s Egypt--led out of captivity by a pillar of fire, on dry land as waters parted around them, their enemies drowned, their mouths fed with bread from heaven, all their prayers answered and a bright future secured--these people somehow preferred to abide in a fog of unfaithfulness, rejecting God’s grace and thus obstructing their travel plans for the next forty years.

The Old Testament reads like a broken record—for those of you who still remember records. Love and its rejection leading to sin and its repercussions, followed by grace and comfort, and then comfort and a complacency, skipping back into sin once more. We see this no more vividly than with the prophet Isaiah. Comfortably ensconced in their Promised Land, it was just too hard to stay faithful. Warned by the prophet to trust in the Lord, Israel demurred, deciding instead to cozy up to mighty Babylon with all of its enticing power and wealth. They being chosen with being entitled; they deserved whatever they could get. Israel got greedy and tried to assert its own wish list, and the Lord let them have it, giving them over to their Babylonian Santas, who proved in the end to be nothing but Grinches with intolerably hot coal for their stockings. 

Babylon crushed Jerusalem, trashed Israel’s Temple and enslaved the people anew. That Babylon succeeded in smashing the House of the Lord, it was assumed that they had defeated God himself. But the Lord had already left that building; allowing Babylon to serve Israel its just desserts with a cruel ferocity. The Lord had allowed it--sin has its repercussions--but the ferocity with which Babylon acted was a blatant abuse of their power. Therefore the Lord, whose justice ultimately aims at restoration rather than destruction, sends Isaiah with tidings of comfort and joy.  The Servant of the Lord was coming to town, to rebuild their city and their Temple and bring forth his justice against tyranny. Unleashing the Persian King Cyrus, his army thundered in from the east and routed the Babylonians as if on cue. King Cyrus ordered the rebuilding of the Temple and the city and brought Israel back from their exile. It was a mighty move of grace, and arrived with the expectation that God’s people, their candles relit, would finally shine as a light for redemption, visible evidence of God’s love for all people. They had never been chosen solely for their own sake. Like the church, the idea was for Israel to be the light of the world, serving and caring and wooing all nations into the Lord’s everlasting radiance.

That was the idea, but comfort and joy led to complacency again, skipping back into sin and its repercussions once more. The Romans rolled in as did Israel’s fog, inducing the Lord to abandon the Temple project for good and show up in person instead. But rather than ride in as a King or fly in like Superman to save the planet, God showed up as a humbly and scandalously born baby in a manger, a working class Messiah with just a few tricks up his sleeve, unjustly treated then summarily executed, effectively turning the tables on every expectation of what salvation would look like. Jesus proved exactly the sort of Servant of the Lord Isaiah foretold.

King Cyrus had been but a shadow. To read this morning’s passage is to read one of four famous servant songs from Isaiah, the most familiar being the one hear sung every Christmas in Handel’s Messiah: “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, he was wounded for our iniquities and the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him.” Though a depressing way for a Redeemer to redeem, the gospel writers never had any trouble applying it to Jesus who died for human sin on the cross. 

“I have put my spirit upon him,” says the Lord in Isaiah, never more evident than in Jesus who forgave his accusers and killers even as he hung to die. “He will bring out justice,” says the Lord in Isaiah, which Jesus did by being raised from the dead, vindicating the righteousness of his cause. As a risen King, Jesus powerfully rules but without power’s abuses. He incites no rioting in the streets, insinuates no threat of chemical weapons, compels no political grandstanding nor portends any fiscal cliffs.

Indeed, he “will not cry aloud or lift up his voice to make it heard in the streets,” says the Lord in Isaiah. He’ll not run ads on television or spam any inbox. Instead, he will speak by his life, and show his power through mercy and compassion to the least and the lost. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” “He will open the eyes of the blind and rescue from prison those confined to the darkness.” And he’ll do all of this without growing faint or discouraged. “Thus says the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and life to those who walk in it: ‘I am the LORD; I have called my servant in righteousness; I will take him by the hand and keep him; I will give him as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” Jesus shouldered the covenant obligations Israel forsook, and bravely took up his calling. “I am the light of the world,” he declared, and went on to burn brightly for the glory of God. 

Matthew, in his gospel, has no problem linking Isaiah 42 to Jesus. He cites our verses verbatim after Jesus healed a poor man with a deformed hand on the Sabbath. Religious rules prohibited any healing on the Sabbath because healing was a lot of work and only God was allowed to work on the Sabbath. Which was precisely the point: if God is the one who heals and God is the only one who works on the Sabbath, and Jesus does both, then you do the math. He’s Isaiah’s guy. The self-righteous, rule-keeping Pharisees, still playing that broken record, could never accept a Savior who didn’t look like them. So they started looking for a way to destroy him. Jesus got the hint and got out of town, and took the crowds with him, hurting people eager for anybody to help them, even if he didn’t look like much of a Savior. Jesus goes on to heal them, with the caveat that they keep it quiet, in fulfillment “what had been spoken through Isaiah the prophet” according to Matthew. The servant of the Lord would show his power through mercy and compassion to the least and the lost without any fanfare, publicity, expectation of appreciation or press conferences. His left hand wouldn’t know what his right hand was doing.

God’s grace brought comfort but then comfort brought complacency again, and before long it wasn’t enough for people to have their hurts healed. If Jesus really was the Servant Messiah, then bringing out justice meant bringing down the Romans, just like King Cyrus had brought down Babylon. When King Jesus made clear that military might was not his method, the crowds turned disappointed and then turned on him. People want their Saviors to be superheroes. It’s what we want and think we need despite reading Isaiah every Advent.

Catholic writer Max Lindeman calls it the “Advent Trap.” He fell into it one Christmas after getting mugged. Left alone on the street bereft of his stuff—his wallet, his cellphone and credit cards—he knew he had to get in touch with his bank right away, or the crooks were going to hit the nearest convenience store ATM and max out his overdraft. Max got mugged the week after losing his job as an airline baggage-handler. A disgruntled white-collar guy, he’d taken this job “in a quest for blue-collar authenticity,” but ended up driving his belt-loader into the fuselage of an 319 Airbus. Twice. His car had quit on him too, of course. His computer’s hard drive had crashed. And he’d broken up with a girlfriend. It was a dismal holiday season.

Unfortunately his local parish didn’t sponsor a Blue Christmas Service (I think this is mostly a Lutheran and Calvinist thing), but his parish was still doing Advent. Max’s ex-girlfriend was seriously devout and now, stripped of all his worldly possessions, he figured he might as well check out her church (hoping, perhaps, to bump into her again too). It was, he learned when he got there, the second Sunday of Advent and the gospel reading included those verses where Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a slow-flowering mustard seed. Jesus was born as a baby and had to grow up. He promised to bring the Kingdom of God, but then he died. He rose from the dead to get things started, but then he left again, assuring everybody he’s be back later to fix everything for good. In the meantime, the Holy Spirit would serve as a placeholder so that everybody could see that Jesus was still at work in the world even if he was long way from being finished. Even for the Lord, these things take time. For Max, patience and waiting were the sermon takeaways, perfectly appropriate for Advent. He wrote, “I’ve always preferred the term ‘late bloomer’ to ‘complete failure,’ so it was a source of great comfort to note I shared this status with the Son of God.”

Advent’s promise of new light and eventual bloom got Max through the New Year, during which time a number of strange and wonderful miracles occurred. He convinced the hiring manager of a security firm that his feet constituted “reliable transportation.” He’d barely broken into that job when he got offered him a much comfier bank job. He won $50 from a Lottery ticket, all of which he took as a sign of God’s favor, evidence of his chosenness and of being on the right track to his own personal promised land.

But then the new job turned demanding and stressful. A new car brought new car troubles. He made some bad investments. He lost another cell phone. His enthusiasm at finding God gave way to disappointment once his prayers weren’t answered like he thought they should be. He’d fallen into the Advent Trap—that false sense of having turned a corner, of having taken an irrevocable step upward. “Seen without the proper perspective,” Max wrote, “Advent can look like a big, fat bait-and-switch. Think about it: it’s the beginning of winter. It’s cold. Night falls earlier every day. Then a few candles and a splash of violet appear around the altar, signaling that it’ll all be over soon. Except it isn’t. After four weeks of anticipation, Christmas comes and goes, leaving you to face the January chills and the February blahs. And then, if things weren’t grim enough, Lent starts.”
Jews of the first century, those who, if they’d looked, would have seen the star above the manger. They would have been able to relate. To date, they’d waited six centuries for their Savior. And when He finally arrived, he was in a state unfit to do much of anything but drive the local tyrant into his infanticidal panic. And then, 30 years later, when His hour finally came, did the Messiah take down the corrupt government walls or lead anyone to a new Promised Land? No. He just died his painful, degraded death and — resurrection notwithstanding — left His followers to the swords of their persecutors. Such disappointment. We all want their Saviors to be superheroes, or at least Santa Clauses. Jesus was neither. Sigh. Welcome to Colonial’s Blue Christmas service. I'm sure the malls will be open after church.

And yet better than that, this is the word of the Lord: “who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and life to those who walk in it. He will open the eyes of the blind and release prisoners from their dungeons of darkness. New things I will bring and light I will shine.” But this too is the word of the Lord, light shines out of darkness and resurrection requires dying. Promised Lands lie on the other side of deserts and grace forgives sin. winter and summer, springtime and harvest, good jobs and bad, sickness and health, brokenness and redemption, life and death and new life, blue Christmas and white: the Advent Candle burns as our pillar of fire, shining the presence of God even as we wait for the Lord. To some this may just look like fog, but to those who hope in the Lord, it is a soft light that pulls us ever forward, ever leading us on.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Permanent Sunset

Luke 21:25-36 
by Daniel Harrell

Among the things I’ve yet to grow accustomed to since moving north so many seasons ago are the death-dark days of late autumn. Whatever leisurely evenings of lingering dusk I enjoyed as recently as October steeply plunge into the savage descents of night by early December. There’s a vague anxiety that comes with being forced inside at 4:30 during what used to be the afternoon. It feels strange, like time is running out and I’m losing my grip on something. You’d think I would have built up some immunity to this over the years, but I haven’t. That we dangle over a fiscal cliff with only 23 shopping days until Christmas doesn’t help. It’s enough to make everybody feel uneasy.

Granted, such uneasiness isn’t entirely inappropriate for this season of the new church year. Advent, meaning coming or arrival, falls in late autumn as a shadowy foretoken of  Christmas. During Advent, churches that operate on liturgical cycles dust off unapologetically rude scriptures mostly ignored for the rest of the year. The genial account of Bethlehem’s manger is reserved for later. Advent commences with passages labeled as apocalyptic—mystical revelations regarding the end of time. They rudely thrust us toward a future advent, a Second Coming of Christ due to arrive without any humble pretense--the Lord gallops in on clouds of glory instead, trumpets blaring and an army of angels in his wake, with truth as his sword and vengeance on his mind. Apocalyptic doom reminds us that all is not yet right with the world, and sounds ever more ominous when its already dark outside.

If Apocalypse was purely the purview of prophets and the wacky book of Revelation, it might be easier to ignore. But this morning’s words come from Jesus himself in what is known as his “Olivet Discourse.” They show up in Mark and Matthew too. We actually looked at Mark’s version back during Lent. There as here, the sun and moon go dark, wars rage with earthquakes, famine and plagues, there’s persecution and destruction, and then finally the Son of Man soaring through the air, those angels in tow. Mark and Matthew have him gathering the elect from the four winds. While in Thessalonians, Paul has all of us meeting Jesus in the air. It’s strange stuff. And  frankly a little embarrassing to talk about in public. The oddness of such orthodox tenets  probably explains why so many church folk prefer to stress Christianity’s more reasonable aspects: living an ethical life, making beautiful music and art, doing justice and serving the poor, building healthy marriages and raising good kids. The trouble is that you don’t really need Jesus to do any of those things. As theologian Philip Clayton put it: "once our beliefs become merely metaphorical or poetic—or worse, when one finds oneself using language one no longer believes but vaguely feels that one ought to believe–-one begins to wonder about the reason for the church’s existence."

It’s Jesus’ fault. He taught and did so many wise and wonderful things; why go and get crazy with talk about flying back to earth like some Superman with truth and justice for all who have faith? As in Mark, Luke starts with Jesus condemning a religious system that succeeded in hoodwinking a destitute widow into giving her last two pennies to the Temple treasury. He let loose a scathing indictment against the leaders of this system, fuming about their “prancing around in long robes to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, vying for the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Jesus censured the entire Temple travesty, labeling it bankrupt and doomed to destruction. Folks naturally objected to his strident reproof, pointing out the breathtaking magnificence of the Temple which the people’s offerings had gone to construct and maintain. But Jesus shot back, “the day will come when not one stone will be left upon another; it will all will be thrown down!”

Apocalyptic talk of wars, earthquakes and famine was small change compared to the loss of Jerusalem’s Temple. For Jews of Jesus’ day, to lose their Temple truly marked the end of the world. The Temple was the religious, political and cultural nexus of Judaism; the very locus of the good Lord’s presence on earth. As such, it was thought to be impervious. The Temple was were God lived. Except that the Lord had long left the building on account of his people’s infidelity. Within forty years, Rome would ransack Jerusalem and reduce the Temple to rubble. According to the ancient historian Josephus, a Roman siege prior to the rampage caused frantic citywide starvation—people ate their babies to survive. Factional fighting among God’s own people resulted in more casualties than the Romans inflicted once they invaded. The scene was utterly chaotic. No wonder Jesus told his followers to run for their lives: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written.” After centuries of abusing the Temple and taking God’s grace for granted, their judgment day had finally come.

Jesus employed stock apocalyptic language for emphasis: “the sun, the moon, and the stars” all go dark. Throughout Scripture, the loss of light marks the end of the world--a astronomical reality due to happen either way a few billion years out. Jesus isn’t making a cosmological pronouncement here--though he does say that “heaven and earth will pass away.” Note too that our pew Bible puts “the Son of Man coming in clouds” in quotes. Jesus cites Daniel 7, a pinnacle vision of Old Testament prophecy. Every Jew knew what Jesus meant. Daniel saw “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. ... He was given authority, glory and sovereign power.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus refers to himself as “son of man,” which some was Jesus’ way of saying he was just a normal “human being.” But as we know from Christmas, he was the son of no man. And as know in Daniel, he was no normal human being either. Jesus had been given the divine right to judge the world.

He also earns this right. The stick and stone Temple gave way to a flesh and blood embodiment of God’s presence: Jesus himself. Like the Temple, Jesus was destroyed because of the people’s sin. But unlike the Temple, Jesus was raised from the dead and vindicated as Son of God and Savior, triumphant over sin and rebellion, over injustice and evil; and now victoriously sits enthroned at the Father’s side. The Daniel 7 imagery of his riding in on clouds has all the trappings of a victory parade: Daniel sees “every nation and peoples of every language worshipping the Son of Man.” “Every knee bows and tongue confesses that Christ is Lord.” “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” Jesus uses Daniel to frame his own resurrection and ascension, which is how he’s able to say “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” In Luke Volume 2 (known as the Book of Acts) the disciples indeed witnessed Jesus airborne—just as some of them would see the Temple decimated too.

If this was all there is to it, we could consign the Olivet Discourse to ancient history as already fulfilled. The problem is that as the disciples stood and gawked at Jesus ascending to heaven in the book of Acts, two angels appeared and promised that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go.” And thus the Apostles’ Creed asserts Christ “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” And the Communion Table “proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” again. It won’t necessarily be a happy day for everybody. Jesus declares, “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world." The Son of Man returns with light to be sure, but as Danielle preached last Sunday, light shining in darkness has a way of exposing our bad behavior for the sin that it is.

“Look at the fig tree,” Jesus said. “Look at any plant for that matter.” Had Jesus lived in Minnesota he might have said “look at the corn crop.” “As soon as it sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” Except that in Minnesota, it wasn’t long after the corn crop sprouted leaves that tiny worms started eating away at its roots. Ironically, this corn had been genetically modified to resist worms. I read last week that by using genetically modified seeds, farmers had been able to minimize pesticide use while greatly increasing their yields and their profits to the tune of some $10 billion dollars last year alone.

The problem was that the financial success led to a third of the state being planted with just two genetically modified species of corn and soybeans --setting the table for an evolutionary disaster. You see, the worms adapted. They evolved into sinisterly resistant mega worms. Now stronger, more toxic chemicals than before must be sprayed which scientists fear pose an even greater risk to the environment and human health. Biotech companies promise to unleash a whole new arsenal of genetically modified seeds to combat the mega worms, which will eventually accelerate the costly chemical warfare even further. Talk about apocalyptic. Fortunately, a biochemical company spokesperson assured a concerned public by saying, “we believe we can manage this.” In other words, run for your life.

It turns out there is another solution--but you can’t be greedy for profit to do it. This past summer, as one farmer hired a helicopter to douse insecticide on his worm-infested corn, his neighbor’s field, just across the driveway, stood tall in the wind. The difference: The previous year, his neighbor planted less lucrative alfalfa. It’s a lesson as old as farming itself. You have to rotate your crops.

“Look at the corn fields,” Jesus could have said. “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Throughout the gospels, whenever the Kingdom draws near, it brings with it an invitation to change your bad behavior. But we push back, even if it means feeling guilty for doing what we do. As exhausting as guilt can be, it’s still a price you’re willing to pay for not having to change. And since you’re already feeling bad, you might as well just keep on doing the crap you’re doing. At least that way you can say you’re consistent. “Your day is coming,” Jesus warns, “it will come upon all who live on the face of the earth.” We believe we can manage this; we modify with seeds of self-justification and douse ourselves with pesticides of denial. But sin is a wily worm. It always adapts. “Be on your guard,” Jesus warns, “lest your hearts be consumed with the excesses and cares of this life and that day close down upon you suddenly like a trap.”

There is another solution as old as farming itself: rotate your crops. Turn from your sinful ways. Repent and trust the Lord. “Look at the cornfields,” Jesus could have said, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Over and over in Scripture, redemption blooms in distressed soil, resurrection comes after crosses, and light outshines darkness. “So be alert at all times,” Jesus says, “stay faithful.” “Pray constantly,” he says, and we will find the strength to endure. Lead us not into trial. Deliver us from the evil one. Give us legs with which to stand and be counted before the Son of Man. “As often as we eat the bread and drink the cup of Christ," a foretaste of Christ's return, "we proclaim his death until he comes.” Jesus may plow a costly, demanding and obligatory field; but it produces a bountiful yield of life and hope and love stretching into eternity. Let us rotate our hearts and enjoy it.