the rules we follow determine the ones we don’t: changing the rules

 

FullSizeRenderScripture
Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee,
proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
(Psalm 25:1-10)

I am generally leery of prefaces to sermons, but I push some boundaries today—theologically, culturally, of appropriateness. I have chosen not just to speak of and for Jesus, but as Jesus … which seems really … stupid … presumptuous. And yet biblical. I want you to know I have only done so after much prayer, and with much fear and trembling.

Sermon
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee to the Jordan, we read,
unexpectedly—surprisingly, right?—we need to remember.
For Galilee was “regarded with contempt and suspicion
by most southern Jews …. Galilee was surrounded
by Hellenistic cities, populated heavily by Gentiles,
predominantly poor, and geopolitically cut off from Judah by Samaria”
(Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:
A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus
[Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988] 128).

He came out of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan—
which raises concerns and questions for some.
If we were reading through this gospel,
we would know Mark starts with John the Baptist,
and we would’ve just read about how his was a
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:5).
So people get all wound up tight
by the very idea of Jesus needing to repent—
of Jesus needing forgiveness of sins.

I might could trouble you here with a little non-traditional theology
about an understanding of Jesus as savior
not dependent on some sinless perfection
(which is a part of that whole
sacrificial substitutionary atonement thing anyway),
but I will just remind you that while we think of sin
in terms of personal morality (Did Jesus ever lie to his parents?
Disrespect them? Abuse their trust? Did he ever pluck grain on the sabbath?)—
while we think of sin predominantly in terms of personal morality,
the tradition of Jesus was well aware of the systemic nature of sin.
Jesus’ tradition knew anyone born into the culture
participates in its sin.
We hate that.
We want sin to be a personal choice,
but Jesus was baptized into a baptism of repentance and confession of sin—
into a radical counter-cultural orientation on God for direction.

Later in this gospel, Mark will also make a connection
(in Mark 10, if you’re interested)
between Jesus’ baptism and his suffering (Mark 10:38-40),
when he asks James and John
if they are able to be baptized with the baptism
and the verb tense is interesting here—
“the baptism I am being baptized with.”
We make of baptism an event of identity and inclusion.
For Jesus, it was the ongoing reality of rejection and embrace—
an ongoing repentance for and confession of what needs to change.

You notice John doesn’t know who Jesus is.
Later accounts will change that.
Matthew’s John not only recognizes Jesus, but questions
the appropriateness of him baptizing Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17),
and in John, John recognizes Jesus, names him Son of God
and doesn’t baptize him (John 1:29-34)!
Later accounts exchange his anonymity for renown—
the perception of ordinariness for extraordinariness.
The further from the person of Jesus we get,
the more necessary it seems to become
to defend him from his humanity.
Didn’t bother Mark a bit.

And notice in Mark’s account, it’s only Jesus
who sees the heaven opened (Isaiah 64:1),
and the Spirit descending like a dove.
It’s only Jesus who hears the voice of God.
There is no great public vindication of Jesus.
There is just the life Jesus lived in response
to having heard God’s voice himself.

So how does Mark know all this?

There is what in literature is called an omniscient narrator—
one who knows everything.
There’s a certain irony to having an omniscient narrator
when God is a character in the story you’re telling!
But to affirm that we’re getting more than just what Mark believes about Jesus,
presumably, we’re to assume Jesus relayed the story—
which actually doesn’t so much sound like Jesus,
who’s not generally retrospective in any of the gospels.
I think we’re supposed to notice this—wonder about it.
Is this the story Mark tells in response
to having heard God’s voice himself?

Several things of resonance of which to take note
and to wonder about:
there was a tradition in Judaism
to use the imagery of the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The Babylonian Talmud “refers to Genesis 1:2 in this way:
‘And the Sprit of God was brooding on the face of the waters like a dove …”
(Morna, D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991] 46). That works.
And speaking of a dove on the face of the waters,
the dove returned to Noah with an olive leaf (Genesis 8:11)—
a sign of hope of life renewed and restored. That works.
And according to Leviticus, a dove was the only bird fit for sacrifice (Leviticus 1:14).

The Greek word translated “voice” is often assumed
to represent the translation of a Hebrew phrase:
bat qôl—the daughter of a voice—
an echo of a voice from heaven.
This from the time when there were no prophets
and yet still an echo of God’s voice—
but “essentially inferior—
a substitute for the direct gift of God’s Spirit” (Hooker,  47).
How appropriate for the unremarkable, unexpected, surprising
revelation in, of and through this one from Galilee,
unimpressive enough not to be noticed by those looking for him.

The voice—the daughter of a voice—said,
“This is my Son, the beloved”—
exactly what God will say in the story of the transfiguration,
when Peter and James and John hear God’s voice too.
Scholars point out the word translated “beloved”
can also be translated “that of which there is only one”—
as the Septuagint describes Abraham and Sarah’s only son, Isaac
(Genesis 22:2)—
which again raises questions for the thoughtful reader,
given that Jesus is not being described as unique—
that, of course, neither was Isaac—
with Ishmael already born back in Genesis 16!—
that beloved need not be not limited in number—
that the injustice of favoritism is a problem the Old Testament
doesn’t shy away from naming.
Not to mention that in just a few stories,
Mark will have Jesus claim anyone who does the will of God
as mother and sister and brother (Mark 3:35).

Then the spirit drove (it’s a strong verb
that Matthew and Luke don’t use)
Jesus into the wilderness
where he was for 40 days,
tempted by Satan.
You want to do some more wondering?
The Greek verb can be translated “tempted” or “tested.”
Was he tempted all 40 days or just within those 40 days?
And unlike the way Matthew and Luke tell the story,
we don’t get specific temptations or tests.
We are told he was with the animals and angels attended him.
Again, we might ask how Mark knows all this, right?
Wonder about that.
Don’t just let it go.
Wondering’s good for you!

Is the reference to the animals a reenvisioning of Eden (Genesis 3),
or of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-9; 32:14-20; 65:25),
or of desolation and danger (Isaiah 13:21ff; Psalm 22:12-21)?
Is it imagery to describe enemies (Ezekiel 34:5, 8; Daniel 7:1-8),
or the habitat of demons (Deuteronomy 32:17; Isaiah 34:14)?

And surely we’re to think of the 40 years
the children of Israel spend wandering the wilderness
on their way to the promised land,
of the 40 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai with God,
that Elijah spent traveling to Horeb to meet God.
In Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar was driven into the wilderness
and became a kind of wild beast,
until he affirmed and praised God (Daniel 4:28-37).
We’re supposed to ruminate over all these.

So, was this a time of temptation by a hostile, demonic entity?
Or a time of physical and spiritual testing
full of danger, but not of hostile, evil intent?

And no conclusive victory is named.
Some assume that Satan’s demonic power was broken here.
Okay.
But maybe it’s more about knowing you can accept what’s hard in life—
what’s challenging and disturbing and tempting.
You can take the worst of life
and yet remain faithful and hopeful and committed.
That’s actually more helpful (and challenging) to me
than Jesus defeating some super-demon.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee.
Out of Galilee he came, and to Galilee he returned.
He did not retreat from society and stay in the wilderness;
he did not relocate to the center of that culture’s political and spiritual life in Jerusalem.

Again, we don’t know the timing here.
Was John arrested immediately on the heels of the 40 days?
There’s an undetermined time period between the two named events in time.

We’ve noticed this before in Mark—
this subtle reminder that we don’t get all the details
that the details we get are part of a bigger story—a longer journey.

So Jesus returns to the Galilee,
proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

It’s an interesting progression into good news, don’t you think?
40 days of testing in the wilderness,
John thrown in jail,
the reputation of Galilee—
the word of God from this unremarkable nobody.
Good news!

And notice the order here:
he returned to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, saying
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

The word “good news,” “gospel” forms an inclusio
a set of parentheses.
Take note of what they frame.
The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God has come near.
Repent and believe in the good news.

Notice it is not the good news of Jesus.
Jesus did not preach Jesus.
He preached the good news of God.
Here’s a fun affirmation:
when we preach Jesus, we do not preach as Jesus did.
Wonder about that!

And repent of what?
The systems?
The systemic evils of culture and politics?
Maybe.
Certainly relevant—appropriate.
Certainly a lot of rules it would be good to change.
But this week it occurs to me,
repent and believe in the good news
could also be a call to repent
because we believe in the bad news.
Repent and believe in the good news.
It’s certainly not that we don’t have reason to believe in bad news.
We’re fed a steady diet of it; there’s plenty of it.
But amidst it all—within the worst of it,
hear this: the kingdom of God is near.

And while the kingdom of God affirms a context
of hope and anticipation and promise and expectation—
while it is future oriented by virtue of the expectations of conclusive victory,
which, remember, we haven’t gotten in this story,
nonetheless if the kingdom is at hand—if it’s near,
then we have, as all have always had, we profess,
the option of living into the presence of God in the world—
the option of a different set of rules.

And when the kingdom of God is near,
you hear the the voice of God—
the daughter of the voice of God.
You hear Jesus.

Joy Behar would say I’m nuts!—
like Mike Pence, right? Me ’n’ Mike.
But I have heard Jesus this past week.
I wonder if the Vice President has,
saying:

“Would y’all please—
would y’all please take care of the children?
As in don’t let them get shot—
at school—
in their homes—
on the streets—
in their neighborhoods—
in their communities of faith.”
Can anyone imagine Jesus not saying that?

“And while you’re at it,” I hear him go on,
“would you not let them go to bed hungry?
Would you make sure they all get the education
they need and deserve—
make sure they all get good health care?
You know, no matter their zip code.
No matter the financial resources they have to draw on—or not.
No matter the color of their skin—
the language they speak—
where they’re from.

That’s apparently not, as it would seem to be,
incumbent upon you as a nation
purporting to guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is incumbent upon you, hear me clearly,
if you profess my good news that shall be for all people.

Doesn’t that all seems basic enough—
straightforward enough—doable?

I’m not saying it’s not complicated.
I’m not saying it will be easy.
It may well require more of you.
More risky conversations
with confrontation and compromise.
Less simultaneously generalizing and absolutizing.
A better sense of a bigger picture—
and of how to better foster wellness—
including more inclusion—
more efforts to reach out to the lonely—
more care for the least of these.
Maybe it will mean some businesses and individuals
won’t bank the millions and billions in profits they do—
continuing to justify the expression “obscene” profits,
because we’ll decide more money is needed for the common good.
Maybe communal responsibility
is an appropriate balance to personal freedoms.
Maybe meeting the needs of all is a better priority
than justifying all the wants of some.
Maybe your greatest freedom is choosing the restrictions
within which you will live.

Because children are more important
than whatever economic theory you espouse.
They’re more important than the stuff you have and the stuff you want.
They’re more important
than whatever political party to which you belong.
They’re more important than whatever religion you profess—
and if your religion doesn’t affirm their priority,
you need a new religion.

They should not live in fear—with hunger—
without health care—uncertain about their education.
It’s time to change the rules you live by.

Born into a culture, you participate in its sin.
You hate that.
You want sin to be a personal choice,
but even I was baptized into a baptism of repentance and confession of sin.

And just so you know,
I know,
y’all are a part of having failed
14 year old Alyssa Alhadeff,
14 year old Martin Duque Anguiano,
17 year old Nicholas Dworet,
14 year old Jaime Guttenberg,
15 year old Luke Hoyer,
14 year old Cara Loughran,
14 year old Gina Montalto,
17 year old Joaquin Oliver,
14 year old Alaina Petty,
18 year old Meadow Pollack,
17 year old Helena Ramsey,
14 year old Alex Schachter,
16 year old Carmen Schentrup,
15 year old Peter Wang,

You also failed
35 year old Scott Beigel,

37 year old Aaron Feis,

49 year old Christopher Hixon—
not children, but my children nonetheless—
who were faithful and committed to loving others—

each of whom was baptized this past week
in the tears of God—
embraced in the love of God—
assured of the dignity and value of their being—
assured that they were important enough
for their safety to have been a bigger priority in their society.
Each of whom was welcomed into the grace of God—
because what else would anyone who loves children do?

Time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near at hand.
You are being baptized—not into the world as it isn’t,
but into who God is
and who God is always in the world.
Repent, and don’t believe the bad news.
Love, and fear not.
Believe the good news
of possibility—of hope—of change
in an unfolding reality that demands and expects
an ever growing commitment—
that demands and expects the continuing transformation
of both people and culture
that demands and expects an ongoing baptism
of repentance and confession of sin.

And if it’s all you’ve got—if it’s all you’ve got,
damn your thoughts and prayers.”

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when things become clear … for a moment

wisdom

Scripture
Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John,
and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no one on earth could bleach them.
And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses,
who were talking with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you,
one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’
He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
Then a cloud overshadowed them,
and from the cloud there came a voice,
‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’
Suddenly when they looked around,
they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain,
he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable,
gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits,
without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy (James 3:17).
This also comes from the Lord of hosts,
who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom
(Isaiah 28:29)—
the source of your life in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God,
and righteousness and sanctification and redemption
(1 Corinthians 1:30).
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
The beginning of wisdom is this:
Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight 
(Proverbs 4:6-7).
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).
Show by your good life that your works
are done with gentleness born of wisdom (James 3:13).

Sermon
Six days later,
so a/ in the incompleteness of time, right? six days;
and b/ later than what, you might well ask,
as the beginning of our story is again tied to the previous one—
which was the dramatic confession by Peter
of Jesus as Messiah in Caesarea Philippi.

And when Jesus subsequently began to teach the disciples,
you remember, about suffering and dying and rising again,
Peter rebuked him.
And he rebuked Peter back—
with that rather strong get-thee-behind-me-Satan rebuke,
before teaching the crowds and the disciples,
repeating, essentially, exactly what Peter dismissed:
to follow me means denial of self.
It means picking up your own cross.
It means you lose your life rather than hanging on at all cost (Mark 8:27-38).

Twice in that teaching section,
Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man—
which he’s done several times already in this gospel (Mark 2:10, 28; 8:31, 38).
It’s a term no one uses of him, he just uses it of himself.
On the one hand, it’s a Semitic idiom for an ordinary man
(David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation
[New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017] 66).
On the other hand, it’s a part of prophetic tradition.
“In the book of Ezekiel, God addresses the prophet
ninety-three times as ‘son of man’ ”
(Adela Yarbro Collins, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible
S-Z [Nashville: Abingdon, 2009] 342).
But then there’s also (on the third hand, if you will),
another dimension—an apocalyptic one.
And while Son of Man is an ordinary man,
it’s also the mysterious other worldly figure of power in Daniel’s vision.
In time, this “one like a son of man” came to have Messianic associations—
and was tied to Ezekiel’s strange vision of the chariot
and the one that seemed like a human form (Ezekiel 1:26).

There’s a certain irony, then,
that the very term used to name prophets as ordinary,
amidst what they see of the world and say and do in the world,
makes them a part of something extraordinary!

This teaching of Jesus, about discipleship, right before today’s text,
reads, basically, that followers of the Son of Man
will suffer as the Son of Man suffers,
and just so, followers of Jesus will be vindicated
as the Son of Man is vindicated.

Then, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John
and led them up a high mountain—
led them apart, by themselves.
That’s stressed; that’s repeated.
Jesus led them up the mountain away from others.

We separate ourselves—
distinguish ourselves from others,
to claim and fulfill
opportunities for significant growth and learning.

And mountains are, traditionally, a place of revelation—
a high up place to receive insight—
space elevated from day to day life.
Mountains are where epiphanies happen
(Exodus 19; 1 Kings 19:11-18; Isaiah 40:9; Ezekiel 40:2)—
a thin place.

And up on the mountain,
Jesus was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no one on earth could bleach them.

So several things going on now at the same time:
1/ epiphany, right? Revelation. Insight.
Everything we were just talking about.

But 2/ it should simultaneously be stressed, Jesus didn’t do this!
This is a passive construct.
This is about what they saw, not what he did!

But make no mistake we’re well into exalted
Daniel 7 kind of Son of Man imagery.

And there appeared to them
(them being the disciples, right?
We’re still talking about what they saw.)
Elijah with Moses,
who were talking with Jesus.

Now we have these two giants of their faith tradition—
these two, a part of so many of the foundational stories of the faith:
the leader of the enslaved out of bondage—
the one who went up the mountain to receive the word of God at Sinai,
and the prophet, who went up the mountain
to confront and defeat the priests of Baal.

Now it is interesting, if you stop to think about it—
I mean, you can get all caught up in their reputations—
in their magnificent stories of triumph and success,
but you can also go back to one time,
when those significant moments on mountains
came after they had failed!—
and more specifically,
after they “suffered at the hands of God’s people”
(Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark
[Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002] 102).
Moses went back up the mountain,
after the people rejected the word of God the first time,
and came down to the golden calf (Exodus 32).
And it was after his dramatic confrontation with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18)
that Elijah went up the mountain to escape the authorities hunting him
and heard God in the quiet (1 Kings 19).

So there are mountaintop stories of discouragement, not triumph,
and our story can be read commending consistency, not success.

I wonder if it’s the fullness of these characters more than their greatest hits
that led Jewish theologian Herbert Basser to describe them
as those who “best represent the human capacity to see God”
(quoted in Thurston, 102).
Not because they’re without doubt and despair,
but because they keep talking to God—listening to God
through their doubts and despair.

With all this stress on what the disciples saw,
as opposed to what Jesus did,
I’m really not trying to cast doubt on this story!
I so so wish Lynne were here today, to hear me say that!

But I too, see Moses in Jesus.
And Elijah.

And Mom and Dad.
My grandparents.
Some teachers.
Some preachers (not all!).
You.

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you,
one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

This fascinates me! Absolutely fascinates me.

Peter has just confessed Jesus as Messiah,
and now refers to him as “rabbi,” or “teacher,”
which is typically taken to mean he’s still confused—
still trying to figure out who Jesus is.

And the word our translation gives us as “dwelling,”
would more accurately be translated “booth” or “tabernacle”—
less a permanent structure than a temporary one—
reminiscent of the wilderness wandering,

and so, reminiscent as well, of the Festival of Booths—
the festival in and through which the faithful
remembered the Exodus, anticipating and celebrating its fulfillment.
This went along with some sense
that in the Messianic age, the people would again live in tents,
and God would again tabernacle amongst them.
So there’s this tension between being on the way and not having arrived,
and having arrived.

Peter is usually dismissed in this story
as someone completely missing the point—
his designation of Jesus as rabbi
as a stepping back from his confession of Jesus as messiah—
as one who thinks the messianic age has come,
when there is yet suffering and death ahead—
and as one who inappropriately puts Elijah and Moses on par with Jesus.

And, as our text reads,
we can actually completely dismiss Peter here
as a nervous babbler.
He’s one of those people who when afraid, starts talking—
without necessarily thinking.

But did you happen to notice that Elijah’s mentioned before Moses?—
which makes no sense in terms of chronology,
or in terms of historical and faith significance.
In fact, both Matthew and Luke “correct” this
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
[Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991] 216).
But what if it’s a hint?

What if, in truth, Peter gets it?—
that Messiah is teacher—
that Messiah doesn’t just effect our salvation,
but that we are to keep learning—
that we will always be figuring out who Jesus is—
that we live, most truly, in the tension between what’s been
and what is to be—
that it’s less a matter of who’s more important
than that we are on the way together with Jesus—
and with Elijah and Moses,
and the first will be last.

We are on the way with Jesus and Elijah and Moses …
and Peter and James and John …
and the rest of the twelve …
and the crowds …
and us.

Then a cloud overshadowed them,
and from the cloud there came a voice,
a Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones voice
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

The Son of Man is the Son of God, the Beloved.
Could Jesus possibly get any more vindication?
He’s got the vindication of the past—
of the faith tradition—the prophets and the law—
of Elijah and Moses,
and now of God.

But amidst all this vindication,
it is incumbent upon us to remember,
he is vindicated precisely in this weird journey to the cross—
in this way of suffering.

And when God says, “Listen to him!”
He hasn’t said anything.
He has not said a thing in this whole story!
The last thing he said were the teachings in the last story:
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Pick up your cross and follow me.

And suddenly, when they looked around,
they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

All that vindication,
and then poof! It’s all gone.

As they were coming down the mountain,
he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
(and I guess they were supposed to keep listening to him
as, one more time in this story,
Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man).

So now consider:
in the previous story, we have Jesus predicting his resurrection
and his coming in glory,
and here, his rising from the dead is looked ahead to—
at some time in the future
when vindication of Jesus and Jesus’ followers will happen.

And yet, in our story, in the transfiguration,
in Jesus shining like the sun,
the appearance of vindication is already present!

Enough so, that some scholars wonder
if this is actually a chronologically out of place resurrection story.

But it’s not what happens later.

When things become clear for a moment,
it’s that the whole of the story is now.
Suffering and death and resurrection are not sequential.
I mean that’s the way we tell the story—
have to tell the story.
We don’t just like linear, we’re kind of tied to it.
But it’s not that simple.
The victory and the suffering are not separated
into what you go through in order to win.
They are the winning.
Nothing that can be understood
and terrifying when glimpsed.

What? No vindication?
No victory?
No rubbing it in the faces of those who are finally revealed to be wrong?

We focus on winning.
That’s in part, a focus and a priority our culture instills in us.
But more than that,
deeper than that,
truer than that.
It’s part of who we are.

There’s a drive to singularity—
to stand out—
to be recognized—
to shine.

Any of you watching the Olympics?
Did you see the men’s short track speedskating final?
And to the great delight of the home crowd,
South Korean skater, Lim Hyojun, took gold—
which was great.
But did you see the favored Dutch skater,
the world champion in the event, Sjinkie Knegt,
who took silver,
and when the finality of the results sunk in,
straightened up, clapped,
and offered Hyojun a congratulatory pat on the shoulder?

That’s not who we are … most often.
That’s who we can be—
at our best.
But we daydream—
we fantasize—
we’re preoccupied
with the victory.

And it’s those images of success, triumph, vindication and glory,
that are all claimed by Scripture and faith,
but always in conjunction with community
and suffering
and service.

We keep coming back to that image in Philippians,
remember?—of the Jesus who humbled himself
and became obedient unto death,
and was therefore exalted.
And how we separate those images, sequentially,
when the truth seems to be more complex
than a linear story of ultimate triumph.
It’s not that Jesus humbled himself in order to be exalted.
It’s that somehow his humility is his exaltation.

Maybe you just find what you’re looking for.
Maybe I’m suspicious of triumph
and so I don’t see it—
won’t see it.
But a message of it-will-all-turn-out-in-the-end
doesn’t work for me—
experientially—
existentially.
As opposed to a message of how you live now—
what (or to whom) you choose to give your life to,
whether it costs you your life or not,
is the triumph—
when it’s love.

When you live for yourself—
when you live for money—
when you live for power,
it may, in fact, be that you get it.
But unlike love, it’s not what will give you moments of eternal joy.
There’s just not enough there—
not enough to it.
It is not of God.

I’d like to go off the rails here
and offer you something weird!
To do so, I’d like to add two verses to our pericope: Mark 9:1:
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you,
there are some standing here who will not taste death
until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

When Jesus says, “There are some standing here
who will not taste death
until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power,”
what does that mean?
Because all those who were standing there
are dead.

And then: Mark 9:10:
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

It’s like parentheses to our story, right?
And they might just frame the point of our story.
What if, for Jesus, death was not about being dead,
but about living dead?
Not zombie living dead,
but alive, and yet tasting death—
living with the taste in you mouth of ashes and despair,
as opposed to the life that truly is life (1 Timothy 6:19).

What if the way of God is at hand—
with power—
in glory—
ours for the choosing—
or committing,
now and into what is yet to be.
And we too can live without tasting death—
abundantly alive?

Daniel is the book people look to for the combining
of son of man as ordinary anyone
and as extraordinary other-worldly figure.
So let me leave you, finally,
at the end of our worship series on wisdom,
with another verse from Daniel:
Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky,
and those who lead many to righteousness,
like the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12:3).
Amen.

God as commitment, christmas

immanuel

Scripture, i.
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
As we prepare ourselves for worship this morning,
you are invited into an imagined conversation:
“He said, ‘Love your enemies.’ ”
“Yeah, well, that’s incredibly idealistic—
less credibly realistic.”
“He said, ‘Forgive those who sin against you—’ ”
“That’s an aspiration, not an expectation—
“and he said to forgive our debtors.”
“Spiritually speaking.”
“He said, ‘Give your shirt, turn your cheek, walk the mile.’ ”
“Yeah, well, that’s all hypothetical—
and quite possibly hyperbole.”
“He said, ‘What you do and don’t do to the least of these,
you do and don’t do to me.’ ”

“Yeah, well ….”
“He said, ‘You cannot serve God and money,’
and ‘Go sell all you own and give it to the poor,’
and ‘Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God,’
and ‘Woe to the rich for you have received your consolation.’ ”

“Now he said that to particular people
who had problems with their money.”
“Everything he said, he said to particular people
and you don’t think the sacred part of sacred texts
has something to do with relevance transcending particular people?
He did, after all, say he’s the way the truth and the life.”

“Yes, but not the way, truly, to live your life.
It’s just what you believe about him that matters.”
Beware cheapening the significance of your own living
in excuses to minimize the affront Jesus is to culture
and the challenge he is to lifestyle.

As we prepare ourselves for worship,
we are invited not into an undermining of the extraordinary,
but into celebrating the very ordinary through which shines
the extraordinary the darkness cannot comprehend.

Sermon
In the movies of the Marvel Universe,
the end of one movie is the beginning of the next—
with a bigger set of problems than the ones just solved.
That’s true for many sequels.
You’ve noticed that, right?
You get to the end of a movie
and it’s all cathartic and resolved,
and everything that was hard has been faced and dealt with,
when you realize it was nothing compared to what’s coming.

And of course, yes, that’s marketing.
It’s the psychology of the sequel—
that has to be bigger than what preceded it.
But there’s also an element of truth to it.
Part of maturing—of growing—
is facing bigger challenges—harder—more consequential ones.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child—
was challenged by what challenges children,
but when I grew up ….
Would that more of our leaders
knew there are challenges bigger than winning and acquiring to grow into.

*********************************************************
Lectionary texts, abstracted from their larger whole,
sometimes have that same dynamic going on.
Our text this morning, begins with the section of Isaiah
that concluded our text on the third Sunday of Advent.
Scripture then, like Marvel, can show you
what you may at one point consider the end,
can, at a later time, turn out to be a beginning.
What is sometimes the culmination,
is sometimes the starting point.
Revelation can be genesis; genesis can be revelation.

I’m sure you remember the sermon
of the morning of that third Sunday of Advent,
but, just in case, I’ll remind you—
of how the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness,
with which we started today,
were all spun out of the way we live into the way of God—
proclaiming good news to the oppressed—
binding up the broken hearted.
Salvation follows the assertion that God loves justice,
such that any claim of salvation is inextricably tied to justice.
There are challenges beyond what’s personal to grow into.

So that Sunday, the emphasis was on a way of life
that led up to the affirmation of salvation.
This Sunday we start with an affirmation of salvation,
but it leads us where?
Back to living the life that is the incarnation of the way of God!—
not keeping silent about injustice—
not resting until the vindication that is the integrity of the people of God
shines like the dawn.

Separating salvation from the work of justice
has been and continues to be one of the great sins of the church
and the people of God.

*********************************************************

Jeff Nicoll and his folks packed up
the Christmas tree lot across the street from the church
the Friday night before Christmas Eve—
which was just as well,
as it rained much of Saturday, the day before Christmas Eve.
They did well this year—
didn’t have too many trees left to chop up at the end.
Jeff and Frankie were telling me about one year,
they had to chop up 350 trees at the end.
“Not a good year,” Jeff said ruefully.
Conversely, twice in 48 years, Frankie said, they have sold every tree.
Jeff grinned, and said, “And when it came down to that last tree—
the last time, we were hanging out and we were, maybe, a little …
inebriated,
and this woman stopped by,
and she was, maybe, a little ….
“Inebriated?” I asked. He nodded.
“And now think about that last tree left.
It was the tree everyone else had rejected.”
“It was a Charlie Brown Christmas tree!” I exclaimed.
They nodded. “Exactly,” Jeff said, “a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.”

*********************************************************

Our text this morning, falls, you probably remember,
within what’s called Third Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah—
words directed to those in the ruins of Jerusalem
rebuilding life and community after exile.

So thinking of the big Isaiah picture for just a minute,
First Isaiah warned of a coming judgment
within political and military defeat.
Y’all are not living in the way of God.
You didn’t accept that challenge,
and there are consequences.
Second Isaiah was written to those in Exile in Babylon—
so living in the conditions that had been threatened in First Isaiah—
longing for a return home.
Third Isaiah was then written
to those living in what had been their deepest hope while in Exile
(having returned home),
but whose hopes realized turned out to be a new beginning
with its own set of profound challenges—
and the fundamental question:
would they live into justice this time—
incarnate love, living in the way of God?
Would they accept the bigger challenges
of life together in the way of God?

*********************************************************

A Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Any of you not seen A Charlie Brown Christmas?
The TV special first aired on CBS, Thursday, December 9, 1965—
fifty-three years and basically one month ago!
It’s been on TV every year since then—
a beloved family Christmas tradition in many a household.

It was originally predicted to … fail—
written quickly, over the course of a few weeks,
with a jazz music accompaniment, no laugh track,
child actors, quoting Scripture.
Completed just ten days before its premiere,
remember again, to generally dismal expectations,
the director, Bill Melendez, actually said
he thought if it hadn’t been so close to the broadcast date,
it would have been cancelled!

How in keeping with the very character of Charlie Brown—
the perennial loser!
And the Charlie Brown Christmas tree was intentionally designed
to reflect that aspect of Charlie Brown himself.
So, a Charlie Brown Christmas tree is one
that does not conform to popular expectations of a Christmas tree.

But the very next day, Friday, December 10,
in The Washington Post’s review, Lawrence Laurent stated,
“Natural born loser Charlie Brown finally turned up a real winner last night!”
And the next year, Sunday, May 22, 1966, the special won an Emmy
for Outstanding Children’s Program, and Charles Schulz said,
“Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you!”

*********************************************************

Totally unrelated to not winning, Susie and I
celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary two Wednesdays ago.
I want to share with you some of what I’ve learned over the years—
carefully filtered—heavily edited!

Love is not about what anyone says
(be that in a marriage … or in a church).
And love is never about perfection.
Love’s always about what’s real.

Love changes.
Love grows.
Love includes disappointment—
regret,
but is not defined by them.

Love is long-term,
and while there is sometimes immediate gratification,
there is always an eye to sustainability.
Now is never at the expense of later.
And tomorrow is a part of every big decision today.

Love is incarnational.
It is always physical or embodied,
but it’s not material.
Though it is what makes us richest,
yet it cannot ever be bought.
Could God be love without creation and the incarnation?
I cannot fathom it.

It is the foundation
on which ordinary, everyday life is constructed,
even as it adorns ordinary everyday life,
making it extraordinary.

So it’s not as simple as it’s the journey, not the destination.
It’s that it’s the journey and the destination,
and it’s both that the destination gets better for the journey,
and that the journey is enriched by the destination.
The means are the ends,
but the ends keep getting better (and more anticipated) because of the means,
and the means are deeper and richer because of the ends.
There is an integrity to consistency
that is maturity and growth as love grows into the bigger challenges
of a love ever growing.

*********************************************************

Isaiah suggests that the garments of salvation—
the robes of righteousness
are the culmination of lives that reflect God and God’s will,
but they are also the beginning of faithfulness—
of the living of those who will not keep silent—
who will not rest
until the the way of God is vindicated
in the lives of those who don’t give up on it—
until those lives rest in the hand of God like a crown of beauty.

So, do you think, as communal life was reinstituted in Jerusalem—
rebuilt in the name of God, that what was good for a few—
for the strong—the powerful—
would have been good enough for God to celebrate?—
meeting the small challenges of individual success—
family success—
or the success of enough that those not included
could be overlooked or justified?
What a lousy story that would be.
So much not who God is—
compared to the possibility
that communal life could be organized around
providing for all—for the perennial losers—
ensuring that everyone was valued and cherished and cared for?

I read an interesting response a while back
to the decline of the church in Europe.
Instead of grieving this reality, the author, a Christian,
celebrated it, suggesting that with the safety nets European countries provide
(which the church was instrumental in establishing—
care for the poor—the elderly)—
that with the least of these provided for,
the church’s job was essentially done.
It worked itself out of a job.
I’m still not sure what I think about that,
but it’s a fascinating perspective to consider.
And more palatable to me, when simultaneously affirming,
that that’s not to say the story of God and God’s people is over—
that there’s just a new challenge—a greater one, right?
The church can/should/needs to grow beyond what we think it is now.

*********************************************************

Some more love lessons gleaned through the years:
love is never how it begins!
It’s always what’s next.
It’s fragile that way—
because it can be undermined—
betrayed—broken—
because it won’t necessarily stay what it is and was.
But it’s simultaneously tough for the same reason—
because it can always be redeemed.

Love is never what’s first.
That’s why God, who is love,
is eternal,
and both creation and Christmas,
as stories we associate with beginning—
are both really just what was next in the bigger story of God,
which is always the story of God-with-us—Immanuel.
So maybe while you might say, in the beginning, love
(I would say that too), we need to remember to also say,
it’s because there was love, that there was beginning.

Now it’s true, a baby may be loved from its beginning,
but there was a love it was born into.
A couple falls in love,
but that’s not the beginning.
That follows times shared and memories made—
laughter—excitement.

Love also has legitimate expectations of another.
Love is never me at the expense of you.
Neither is it ever you at the expense of me.
There is a reciprocity—a mutuality inherent to love,
which is a covenant,
that makes the very idea of an unconditional love hard to grasp.
And yet even with the highest of legitimate expectations,
I find myself holding to the idea
that parents’ love should be unconditional.
I cannot comprehend parents who reject their children.
I pray I will not ever face the terrible challenge
of circumstances that put such an affirmation to the test.
I particularly do not comprehend parents
who reject their children in the name of God.
To not love in the name of God is a betrayal of God.
For love begets love.

Love is always within a process.
That’s why God is eternal.
I am that I am that I will be that I was—
without beginning and without end.
Love comes from love, and if God is love, God can have no beginning,
and if love ends, it’s not love—even if it once was,
and so, it’s not God.

Love is appreciation of memories;
love is celebration of presence;
love is anticipation of more.

God is alpha and omega and revelation is genesis.

*********************************************************

It is absolutely fascinating to me—
especially as I have several times now,
held Marvel’s universe of superheroes up as not Jesus—
you know, Thor as the antithesis of God—
held Marvel up as pointing to the vindication of those who are strong,
and who use their strength in the service of what’s good …
or what’s good for most … or what they think will be good.

But in several of their movies,
and let me issue a spoiler alert—
but only for movies that if you were going to see them,
you probably already have!

The movie Captain America: Civil War,
(sometimes sermon research is a lot of fun!)—
the movie Captain America: Civil War,
deals explicitly with the fact
that there are those who suffer the consequences
of anyone doing what he or she thinks is right
and using violence to do so.
There is inevitably collateral damage.

Etymologically, our word collateral
goes back to the Latin, meaning “alongside.”
Collateral damage is damage alongside the greater mission, as it were.
But its primary meaning in our culture is “given as security.”
It’s something put up as promise of repayment.
Of course, it has come to mean more what we’re willing to pay
for our own sense of security,
but it’s always “them” who pay.
Have you noticed?

In the movie Dr. Strange,
cosmic power is defeated not by someone with more power—
someone stronger,
but by someone willing to lose over and over again
so that that cosmic power is trapped.
“You will never win.”
“No. But I can lose again and again and again and again—forever
(and to be clear—the losing is dying!),
and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but
“if I’m wiling to lose, then as the more powerful ‘winner,’ you’re my prisoner.”
in the end, power can’t beat commitment.

In the movie Thor: Ragnarok,
Asgard is defeated to protect Asgard—
the place falls to ensure the people—all the people—live.
What could only be perceived as defeat
turns out to be victory.

In the movie Guardians of the Galaxy 2,
Peter Quill, the Starlord, rejects the offer—
sacrifices the heritage—of divine power
for community and for friendship
and it is shown to be the deficiency of the celestial
who can’t comprehend that.

In days when too many churches—too many preachers—
too many politicians—
buy into a Marvel comic book theology of righteous violence,
Marvel inches closer and closer to divine truth.
In defensive fear, churches (and politicians) move from
divine inversions of expectation
toward that comic book faith in power,
while in storytelling, Marvel gets closer and closer
to what’s most real and authentic—
as storytelling is, fundamentally, about saying something profoundly true.
It’s what church is supposed to be and do,
but too often isn’t and doesn’t.

Marvel has discerned that focusing on who’s the biggest—
who’s the strongest, and assuming such a power will win in the end,
ends up not just being untrue,
but also being a very boring story—
which is the ultimate sin in storytelling!
And while that’s often the story of God told,
it’s not the story of Immanuel.

If you make it all about power, you see,
there’s always someone with more.
Or you end up positing a being of infinite power,
and then, who or what is there to oppose such power,
and how is that interesting—or true?
If you make it all about winning—about success,
what do you make of those who lose?
What do you make of a God who loses?
You deny them.

There is no moral value attached to power (or winning or success).
No one’s powerful—successful because they’re good
(as much as they might suggest this);
nor, if someone’s good, are they necessarily powerful or successful.
We as a country are not good because we’re powerful.
Nor are we powerful because we’re good—
because we’re right.

History is not written by winners who are good.
But history can neither deny nor forget
those willing to lose in order to remain good.

It can be so very hard.
Because when love confronts power,
power reacts in the only way it knows how.
It’s a very uncreative force.
It seals its own limitations in so doing,
while love transcends limitations in its integrity.

Both love and power are a sword that can take from you what you love most.
No rose colored filters here.
No fake news of cheap grace.
No rhetorical promise of prosperity and safety.

Is it better to lose everything and not give up love,
or give up love and keep what you just cheapened in compromise?

I have a theoretical answer I pray will never be put to the test—
an answer I hope I would live into.
But it’s so much more complicated than any absolute theoretical affirmation.
And it’s a question no one gets to answer for you.

*********************************************************

It’s precisely the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, you see,
that you either come to see as beautiful or cannot comprehend.

It is a people rebuilding a dream
they themselves let crumble—
a people returning from an exile
they brought upon themselves
(an exile from God, you understand, not to Babylon)—
a community coming to see, maybe as if for the very first time,
that their community is defined by every member,
and so, by the least impressive among them,
the least powerful—the least of these.
It is a love that grows deeper through the years, not easier.

And love is commitment,
not just to another, but to the story that love wins,
and so commitment always, to the other.
Love is the commitment to love now so love will be next,
and so to put on and keep on
Isaiah’s robe of righteousness—the garments of salvation,
that you can only know when you work for justice—
which is, as Cornel West reminds us, what love looks like in public.

And that is God among us—God with us,
not as the strong and powerful,
but as the one who loses to win—who dies to live
so that redemption cannnot be conceived as winning,
but only as transformation—which is love—
the end that is the means that is the end that grows richer and deeper
and more profoundly wonderful.
Never now at the expense of later;
never later at the expense of now.
Never us at the expense of them;
never them at the expense of us.

*********************************************************

These are our times.
The storytellers have more to say of God
than do too many of those who claim to speak for God.
It is time for the church to grow beyond what it’s been
and either work for what it’s supposed to have been working for
or cut bait and leave the fishing of people
to those who care about people and not abstractions.
We’ve lost sight of the winning
that only comes from not being a winner.

But there’s always a Christmas tree waiting to be loved into beauty.
There’s always a Charlie Brown, a loser, waiting still, to win.
And here on this first Sunday of 2018, there’s always what’s next.
May it be love.

Scripture, ii.
Luke 2:25-35
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;
this man was righteous and devout,
looking forward to the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus,
to do for him what was customary under the law,
Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; 
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed
at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary,
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be opposed
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—
and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

This is the Word of God, born to us and born in us.
Thanks be to God.

God in a box, advent iv.

immanuel

Scripture
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Now when the king was settled in his house,
and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
the king said to the prophet Nathan,
See now, I am living in a house of cedar,
but the ark of God stays in a tent.’
Nathan said to the king,
‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan:
Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord:
Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
I have not lived in a house
since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day,
but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel,
did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel,
whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying,
‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’
Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture,
from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;
and I have been with you wherever you went,
and have cut off all your enemies from before you;
and I will make for you a great name,
like the name of the great ones of the earth.
And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them,
so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more;
and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel;
and I will give you rest from all your enemies.
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me;
your throne shall be established for ever.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
As we prepare ourselves for worship this morning,
you are invited into an imagined, long-ago conversation:
“I was overshadowed by the Most High.”
“That is what it feels like, right?—
like God touched you—blessed you—
answered your prayers —
and at the same time, created a whole new set of them!”
“For unto us a child is born,
a son is given.”

“Yes. And he is a beautiful boy.”
“And he shall be called wonderful.”
“Oh, yes … most of the time.”
“Counselor.”
“Well, you may very well need one.
No stigma.
We don’t talk about it much, but I’ve been seeing one.
She’s been very helpful.”
“Mighty God.”
“Okay, so maybe this is inappropriate,
but you will pray like never before,’
but you’ll also be more aware than ever
that God’s might doesn’t always do much for new parents—
or for the circumstances of children.”
“The Prince of Peace.”
“Yeah. Not sure what you mean by that.
The prince of peace has left the building?
That’s maybe a bit strong.
Because amidst the chaos,
there will be moments of overwhelming peace
like nothing you’ve ever experienced before—
peace that makes you feel like everything’s fallen into the right place.
But at other times … maybe, I hate to tell you, most of the time,
peace will be the last thing you think you’re experiencing!
As we prepare ourselves for worship,
we are invited not into an undermining of the extraordinary,
but into celebrating the very ordinary through which shines
the extraordinary the darkness cannot comprehend.

Sermon
Okay, so admittedly, it’s somewhat of an odd Christmas text,
this Old Testament story of the housing issue
between the king, the prophet and God—
especially on the fourth Sunday of Advent
when it falls on Christmas Eve!

The context of which to be aware
is that the king is David—
not just chosen, anointed, and beloved of God,
but chosen, anointed, and beloved of God.
Not just the greatest king of Israel,
though the greatest king of Israel,
but also (and especially at this point in the story),
just the second king of Israel—
coming to the throne after a war—a civil war—
with Saul (the first king of Israel)—
trying to consolidate his power—
seeking to legitimize his rule.

And we read how David occupied the stronghold,
and named it the city of David and built the city ….
“And David became greater and greater,
for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.
King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees,
and carpenters and masons who built David a house”
(2 Samuel 5:9-11).

Now a whole lot about this story depends on understanding
that one Hebrew word, depending on its context,
can be translated “dwelling,” “house,” “palace,” “temple,”
“household,” “tribal group,” “nation” or “dynasty”
(Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001] 448).
So King Hiram of Tyre sent both the craftsmen and the materials
to build a palace, right? Not a house.
Because obviously, you correlate the structure
to the position and status of the one living there.
So if it’s royalty—if it’s for the king,
it must be a palace.

And David needed a palace.
Nor was it necessarily just a matter of vain ego.
A palace was perceived in the culture,
and by the surrounding nations,
as an indication of prestige and as a vindication of power.
To reign effectively, a king needed to conform
to local and cultural expectations of kings.

So when the king was settled in his … palace,
and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
the king said to the prophet Nathan—

and two things strike me as interesting here—
1/ that both men are identified by their function—their title—
their role—the king and the prophet.
So one predominantly political
(the king), though beloved of God,
one predominantly faithful
(the prophet), though confidant to the king,
right?
And 2/ notice that while the prophet is named right off the bat—
the prophet Nathan,
the king is referred to as just the king—
three times(!) by our narrator.

This is, by the way, the first time we meet Nathan in Scripture,
but like we know more about the king
because of the larger story in which this one takes its place,
we know more about the prophet too.
And so we know it’s Nathan who will later, tell the dramatic story
that exemplifies Shakespeare’s tactic—
“the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”
(Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act II, Scene ii. and 2 Samuel 12).
We bring more knowledge to the story than the story offers us.
We know the politician is a man of faith.
We know the prophet engages in politics.
We bring the whole to the part.

As his trusted confidant, the king confides in the prophet—
the politician engages the man of faith in an exchange about God:
“See now, I am living in a palace of cedar,
but the ark of God stays in a tent.”
And though it’s not explicitly stated,
the implicit assertion is, “I need to build God a temple.”
Same Hebrew word, of course, as was translated “palace,”
but translated here, contextually, for God, as “temple.”
Because obviously, you correlate the structure
to the position and status of the one living there,
and if it’s royalty, it’s a palace,
and if a divinity, a temple.

This expressed desire to build God a temple,
on the surface might sound respectful—pious,
but it could also have represented more political maneuvering.
Building a temple would have cemented his own status.
It would have permanently located God in the city of David—
grounding his kingdom in the divine presence and the divine power.
And it’s not necessarily one at the expense of the other
(religious respect or politics). Life’s too complicated for that!
It’s eminently fair to suggest that David here
expresses both an appropriate piety and a self-serving savvy.

Before we move on,
I want to go back to the word translated “tent”—
which is actually not the standard word for “tent.”
It’s a Hebrew word that literally meant “curtain.”
We read in Exodus 26:1 and 36:8,
that the tabernacle was made of curtains
(A.A. Anderson, 2 Samuel
[Dallas: Word, 1989] 117)—
not so much the insubstantial, ephemeral, gossamer veils
of which we might think
(the tabernacle curtains, we read, were made of goatskin!).
Even so, a temple of cedar would have certainly been more substantial—
the tabernacle, designed of course,
for a God and a people on the move.

Now we know, from the bigger story,
that Nathan is, in truth, someone who will confront the king—
stand up to the king,
but here at his introduction in our sacred texts,
he gets it all wrong!
It’s not necessarily that he’s a sycophant,
though it can certainly come across that way—
with his initial reaction to the king,
“Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
That’s a dangerous license any king would love to hear!
(And through the ages, it’s one too many so-called religious leaders,
have offered authoritarian leaders all to willing to take it.)
But God—God calls him on it—
right away.
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan,
“Absolutely not!”
And the first thing the prophet has to do,
is retract the license he gave the politician.

There follows an extended divine soliloquy,
in which God refers to the king,
heretofore identified three times as the king,
as “my servant, David!”
Thus says the Lord:
Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
I have not lived in a house
since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day,
but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel,
did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel,
whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying,
‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

At the crux of the matter is the issue of divine freedom,
and as strategic and as necessary as a temple might be for David,
it ain’t gonna happen!
Now, of course it does … happen … eventually.
We know the story—the bigger story,
and Solomon will build the temple.
So scholars break it down—our text—
into a literary progression—a literary development,
in which they identify an initial anti-temple emphasis,
and then a transition to a later pro-temple affirmation—
even an exilic post-temple destruction comment.
To be perfectly honest, I take it all to represent the unfolding in history
of the justification for religion doing what God never wanted.

Remember the curtains of which the tabernacle was made?
The tabernacle represented Immanuel—
the freedom of God to be wherever the people were—
the freedom of God not to be limited to one place—
or one people, for that matter.

The curtains represented the “on-the-moveness”
of God and the people of God.
I’d also like to point out that we identify curtains with a threshold.
I can’t say for sure that was true back then,
but I love the idea of God’s presence with us as a threshold—
not so much a window or a door or wardrobe into another place,
but as the threshold into another way of being—
wherever we are—whatever our circumstances.

But there is an inevitability
to this conversation Scripture records—this story.
There’s an inevitability to the progression
from God’s freedom to God’s fixedness within a tradition—
from tabernacle to temple.
There is an inevitability to God in a box,
and there has to be—
when it comes to the eternal within the constraints of the mortal—
the infinite manifest within the finite.
There has to be a box—
that conforms to our limitations—
with which we can be comfortable—
that we can understand.
There has to be a box
by virtue of which the infinite—the eternal God
is limited—is confined.

So the trick is not to get attached to the box,
instead of what does and must transcend the box—
any box—all boxes.

It’s like names for God.
They’re only good for as long as they offer an insight—
a glimpse—
into truth.
And then they need to be released,
so another name can offer another insight—
another glimpse.
That’s why there are so many names for God in Scripture.
To hang on to any one name—
any particular insight—
any particular glimpse,
comes at the idolatrous price of stopping the flow of insights and glimpses.

We were originally, in our tradition,
baptized in living water—
running water—rivers and streams.
We were baptized, in other words, in a current,
where what is is always being washed downstream into what was.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like for a church
to have as part of its information—
on its website—its stationary—its bulletins,
something like:
In the great stories we tell—in which we participate,
we’re only right to the extent we acknowledge we’re wrong,
and yet we’re only wrong to keep us always oriented to what’s right.

Irish theologian Peter Rollins, in his book How (Not) to Speak of God
for any of you interested, Brian McLaren said
at the time of its publishing (2006) that it “is one of the two or three
most rewarding books of theology I have read in ten years ….”
Rollins wrote, “What is important about revelation
is not that we seek to interpret it in the same way
but rather that we all love it and are transformed by it”
(Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God
[Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2008] 17)—
washed away, as it were, through the threshold God
always into God’s way of being within the particulars of time and place.

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture,
from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;
and I have been with you wherever you went,
and have cut off all your enemies from before you;
and I will make for you a great name,
like the name of the great ones of the earth.

Within rejection of the temple,
God makes it absolutely clear,
there is absolutely no rejection of David—
which underscores, doesn’t it? the persistent need to negotiate
the risky balance of religious faith and political ideology
(Bruce C. Birch, The First and Second Books of Samuel
in The New Interpreter’s Bible [Nashville: Abingdon, 1998] 1258).
David is king, plays the political games, and is yet beloved of God—
by no means perfect, but oriented to God—
shaped by the will and priorities of God.
Nathan is prophet and yet engages the politics of his day—
creatively confronting injustice against the least powerful in the name of God.
So if someone interprets God and faith as outside politics—
outside the concerns of politics
and the expectations we should have of politicians,
it’s not Immanuel being interpreted.

And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them,
so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more;
and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel;
and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Within the kind of divine promise with which I really don’t know what to do—
you know, God as puller of strings—manipulator of history,
what I find so very significant in this divine promise,
is that within the tradition of Israel—within the context of covenant language—
of mutual responsibility—reciprocal expectations,
God’s promise is not based on David or his house living up to
any moral or faith expectations.
This is the unconditional promise of God.
It’s the crazy affirmation
that within consequences of sin and corruption—
within all that it means for us to turn away from God (Birch, 1258),
God is with us always—Immanuel.

It’s an even more important affirmation,
given that we know that Nathan, who’s wrong here,
will be astoundingly and effectively faithful later,
and that David, will fail miserably,
but never fall out of the love and presence of God.

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

And there’s that Hebrew word again.
And what does it mean here—now?
First it was David, talking about his palace;
then it was David talking about God’s temple.
Now it’s God talking about—what?
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me;
your throne shall be established for ever.
God’s talking about the Davidic dynasty now—
“dynasty,” you remember, another possible translation.
This story expands to become about so much more
than just legitimizing David’s rule.
God will establish the line of David—
out of which will come, we know,
the bigger story of the Messiah—
out of which will come, we know,
the bigger story of Jesus,
the Word made flesh—God incarnate—
in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
who long awaited,
born in Bethlehem—in the stable of an inn—
was immediately—
placed in a box.

There is a certain inevitability about a box!

But obviously, you do not correlate the structure
to the position and status of the one within it.
And part of what’s true
is that God likes messing with the assumptions we make
based on what we feel is appropriate.
God likes messing with assumptions we make
based on on such things as power and prestige and status.
God likes messing with assumptions we make
based on cultural expectations and values.
It’s inherent to who God is
the God who rejects our temples—
but then fills our boxes—
because we need them,
but only and always to transcend them.

And there are always angels singing
around the boxes in which we place God.
“Good news of great joy!
The power of the Most High overshadows you.
Fear not, what you don’t understand.
Fear not the one bigger than your names and stories.
For God is ever born to you,
and you will wrap God in what you can understand
and place God in one of your boxes—
a box God will always transcend.
Nothing is impossible with God.
Trust.
Trust the one who has always proven trustworthy—
present to you.

Hidden in the innocuous—
buried in what’s sweet—
embedded in what’s normal—
tucked away in the common—
swaddled in the normal everyday—
snuck into the systems and power structures—
smuggled into the status quo,
the unwrapped presence.

What could be less threatening—
less worthy of notice—
so small—
so vulnerable?
But for those raised on the history and stories of the faith—
on the words of prophets and poets—
on the premise that God is with us—
on the priority of justice—
nursed on the Magnificat, the beatitudes, the ten words …

well, on the front of your bulletin,
have you cracked the Christmas code?
It says “Merry Christmas!”, of course!
But flip your bulletin over.
Did you notice what’s on the back?
Because “Merry Christmas!” is code
for “Jesus Revolution”.

Shhhhhh!
Of course, there’s no real need to be quiet.
It’s probably fine to go ahead and shout it from the rooftops.
I mean, who would suspect?
Right under everyone’s nose
in beautiful nativity scenes—
in “Merry Christmas!” spelled out in lawn ornaments,
or said in passing—
in Christmas Eve services with candles and communions—
all having to do, bottom line, with a revolution—
the ever-revolving of what is into God’s truth—
confronting and confounding expectations—
expanding the story so far beyond what you thought it was—
the story that is the promise from which we live—
in which we live—
into which we live—
the promise of Immanuel.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent,
it’s all actually really rather straightforward.

Scripture
Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus
that all the world should be registered.
This was the first registration and was taken
while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
All went to their own towns to be registered.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea,
to the city of David called Bethlehem,
because he was descended from the house and family of David.
He went to be registered with Mary,
to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.

This is the Word of God, born to us and born in us.
Thanks be to God.

God with us, advent iii.

immanuel

Scripture, i.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
As we prepare ourselves for worship this morning,
you are invited into an imagined, long-ago conversation:
“The people who walked in darkness—.”
“Oh, you’re learning about walking in darkness, huh?
There’s going to be a lot of that walking in the darkness for a while—
late at night—in the wee small hours of the morning.”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
“You mean you had your eyes opened, as it were—
like you were blind, but now you see—
and see the whole world like you never have before—
in a different light, as it were?
Everything’s more important—more intense—
more meaningful—more significant—more relevant—more focused.”
“Our son is the way, the truth, and the life.”
“He is the way, truly, life’s now going to be.”
“And the wolf will lie down with the lamb.”
“Yes! The stuffed animal collection on the bed,
and the favorites among them.
With us it was Flopsy and Mr. T—the bunny and the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Never before did so much we might have dismissed as unimportant
matter so much to us.”
“And a little child shall lead them.”
“Oh, yes; oh, yes.”
As we prepare ourselves for worship,
we are invited not into an undermining of the extraordinary,
but into celebrating the very ordinary through which shines
the extraordinary the darkness cannot comprehend.

Sermon
Over the past two weeks of Advent—
of waiting and anticipating,
we have repeatedly affirmed
the truth of Immanuel—God-with-us—
not just as a reality looked ahead to (God will be)
or looked back on (God was).
No, we have affirmed a presence and specific experience
that we can point to when we name God—
and name God with us (this is God).

As part of this affirmation,
we have questioned the ideas
that we could affirm the eternal God
as once experienced in some ways,
but no longer—
or as a promise that we will experience God, one day,
but not yet.

In fact,
if all someone has of God are stories and promises
of what God has done and/or will do,
but no experience in which to name what God is doing,
then it is not Immanuel of whom such a person speaks.

So, often, praying with someone in the hospital,
I will give thanks for the loves we know,
who embrace us in prayer and hope in times of stress, pain and disease—
and then I’ll name God in and through those loves—
in that hammock (to use the language and imagery
with which Christy has blessed us—
out of her experience in the hospital—not her study of theology.
And I’m really not knocking the study of theology!
It’s just that it too often gets rooted in abstractions and dogma
instead of the wide diversity of human experience—
which must be named antithetical to Immanuel—
not that God abstraction and dogma aren’t appropriate
in considering God, but rooted in experience—
not just ours, but also ours.)

So reading our sacred texts,
we have looked for ways to understand them
not as miraculous events we would never expect to actually see
and hear—experience for ourselves—
not as testimony requiring a proviso:
once God was present in history with power,
but no more, or not yet;
once God spoke, but no more, or not yet.
We rather look to understand Scripture
as witness to miraculous events that we too have heard,
that we have seen with our eyes,
that we have looked at and touched with our hands
(1 John 1:1).
It’s almost a science based theology;
at its core, there’s nothing abstract and spiritualized about Immanuel!

So, for example, you may remember two weeks ago,
we weren’t so much talking about God
tearing open the literal celestial heavens
and shaking the literal geographic earth
as we were talking about God
consistently turning our world upside down.
And last week, we weren’t so much talking about God
leveling literal mountains and raising literal valleys
in the landscape of the Middle East,
as we were talking about God
consistently refiguring our own inner landscapes.

Now of course, naming the presence of God within our experience,
it’s not just any experience within which we name God.
No, we affirm the presence of God manifest
in experience offering insight into what we understand
to be God’s truth and God’s vision—
based on what we’ve learned from our sacred texts and faith tradition.

In terms of specific lives lived,
it’s back to that idea of an implicit theology.
The way we live—the details of our lives—
and particularly our interactions with others—
and perhaps most particularly our interactions with those in the margins,
reveal the God in whom we believe.
Because there is a consistency between our life and our God—
our true God.

So you’ll notice in and through the first four verses of the 61st chapter of Isaiah,
the seamless interweaving of God’s will and the work of God’s people.
The faithful work of God’s people is the will of God unfolding.

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me—
sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn ….”

There is a coherence or a consistency
between God’s spirit and a faithful living
focused on care of the most vulnerable—
such that the actions of the faithful
are not just indicative of what the people of God do,
but of who God is.
“What you do for the least of these, you do for me”
(Matthew 25:40, 45).

“And they will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.”
This in contrast to the oak of the first chapter of Isaiah,
full of judgment and warnings—
the oak whose leaf withers (Isaiah 1:30).

But now, they shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.”

Who’s the they?
It sounds like it should be the ones doing the will of God, doesn’t it?
But it’s not.
That one was singular (the spirit of God is upon me—has anointed me).
No, the only plural antecedent is the oppressed—
the captives—the ones who mourn—
the ones with a faint spirit.
Not the ones you would tend to consider oaks—
displaying the glory of God.
Not really those you would trust or expect to repair the ruins.

So, we might also now need to consider the context of our text.
Because we’re now in what’s called Third Isaiah.
First Isaiah, you remember, words of prophetic truth
from Jerusalem before the exile.
Second Isaiah, prophetic words
in Babylon during the Exile,
and Third Isaiah, words for the people
after the Exile—back in Jerusalem—
or the ruins of Jerusalem, right?—
“when Jews who had returned from Exile
went about the critical and difficult task
of reshaping the community of faith
after its long, exilic jeopardy” (Walter Brueggemann,
Isaiah 40-66 [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 3).

So in light of that, how you do you hear this?—
this anointing to ministry and to this particular ministry?
Because at first glance,
you might think this is directed to the exiles
(oppressed, broken-hearted, held captive, mourning),
and scholars don’t seem to disagree.
One of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, writes,
“Yahweh hates the injustice that Judaism has too long suffered
at the hand of the nations” (Brueggemann, 217).
Another scholar, Paul Hanson, of Harvard Divinity School, writes,
“Those who had been humiliated by being deprived of temple and home
and forced to serve foreign masters were to be served
by the very ones who had subjugated them”
(Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 in Interpretation
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012] 225).

But the significance of the dates is that
that’s all been accomplished.
They are oppressed no more—captive no more—
broken hearted mourning no more.
So to have this ministry—this assurance—this promise
directed to those formerly in exile,
kind of feels like the politician
taking credit for accomplishing
what has already come to pass.
Very politician like. Very un-God like.
And very much not what we’ve been affirming—
which is not looking to what’s been accomplished,
or to what remains to be accomplished,
but looking at what is being accomplished.

These are, by the way, it should be noted, the verses Jesus claimed
that defined for him his ministry.
So what was true, let’s say 520 BCE,
is also true in let’s say 30 CE
(at which point it was definitely not directed to exiles).

Then just to make sure we know why we’re doing what God sent us to do,
we’re reminded of who God is,
as in verses eight through eleven,
God makes it absolutely clear.
“This is who I am, and so,
this is also who those living into God’s vision would be—
at any time.
For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”

Because of who God is,
we are anointed to minister to those suffering
from what God hates.
And God will faithfully give them their recompense.

And who’s still the them?
It’s still the ones mourning, right?—
those who have known injustice—
who have been robbed and wronged.

“And I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples.”

Okay, so if this isn’t to those in exile,
it has to the oppressed in Jerusalem, doesn’t it?—
those broken hearted in Zion—
mourning in the very city of God.
God’s everlasting covenant is to the vulnerable—
to those in the margins—
to the left out and run over and mocked and excluded.
We sang “with the poor and mean and lowly,
lived on earth our savior holy” (Cecil Frances, Humphries Alexander,
“Once in Royal David’s City,” Hymns for Little Children, 1848).
As we’ve been seeing “lowly” and “holy” cannot be separated.
They are integral to each other.
There can be no turning away from this essential truth.

In which case, think with me here, who’s committing the injustice?
Who’s doing the robbing and the heart breaking?
And the message is clear—
the message is uncomfortably clear.
This is not about what others do to us (or have done to us),
but about what we do to each other.
This is not a warning about some external threat for which others are to blame,
but about an internal threat for which we are responsible.

It’s not that you can’t read gratitude into this passage—
gratitude and God’s will and work in the return from Babylon,
but you can’t leave it at that.
That’s too easy.
And you miss the challenge—
that as much as God calls us from despair,
God also calls us from compromise.
And you just don’t get to return from oppression to oppress,
or worse, to think having been oppressed gives you license to oppress.
You don’t get released from prison to imprison.
You don’t receive justice to impose injustice.
A broken heart doesn’t give you the right to break hearts.

You put all that together,
and can you really read it other than
God calls us to help those our culture breaks?
God calls us to help those our faith tradition breaks?
God anoints us to support the women left out—
not accorded respect, not given their dignity.
Women’s lives matter.
God anoints us to encourage people of color.
Black lives matter; brown lives matter.
God anoints us to encourage the gays and lesbians,
the bisexual and transgendered,
the questioning and intersexed—
the ones that don’t neatly fit our categories
and are thus mocked and rejected
and who mourn—who are left outside our doors
broken hearted.

If you take it one step further,
I see no way not to affirm that God hates—
God despises so much of who we are as a culture and a country,
huddling with all those left out—
casting an angry eye on any self-righteous claims of faithfulness.
We’ve studied this, and as we have seen,
our justice system is anything but—
weighted as it is toward the rich
and against the poor—
weighted against people of color,
with precisely those in positions of power and privilege
maintaining the greatest sense of entitlement.

Our economic system makes a bottom line of profit
which the prophets have always decried.
Prophets remind us that profits as too high a priority
justify the exploitation of people.

It is amazing to me—
and more than a little disturbing,
how thoroughly we manage to make God
about what God says little to nothing about,
while ignoring who God explicitly is amongst us.
I love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing.

“All who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”

And it is not—it cannot be—the prosperous.
It is not—it cannot be—the secure
that we look to, to see the blessing of God.
It’s not those assuming they can rely on justice.
It’s not those who feel safe and secure.
It’s not those materially blessed—that’s the phrase we use (ha!).
It’s not those physically “blessed,”
and those who try and tell you otherwise
are probably relying on you for their own prosperity
and have little to do with the will and work and truth of God.

It’s easy to take responsibility for someone’s spiritual salvation
if you separate it from their physical existence—
if you don’t have to worry about justice for those you want to “save.”
So you can “save” those native americans ….
You can “save” those slaves ….
You can “save” the lost in other countries …,
and coincidentally, I’m sure, reap economic benefits
by never bringing justice into the equation.

It is with this stunning affirmation of God’s blessing
precisely on the last ones we would consider blessed,
we shift back to first person singular:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God.”
There’s something about redefining blessing—
making it not just about success and vindication and accomplishment—
there’s something about redefining
how we think about being blessed by God,
and so redefining how we think about our culture
(and thus live in it),
that leads to rejoicing and exultation.

And then, we are clothed in garments of salvation.
Then we put on our robes of righteousness—
bedecked/adorned/bejeweled as for a festive occasion—
a marriage—a commitment to another and to love.
But again this is assuming, is it not?—
it is assuming that I have done as I was anointed to do.
It is assuming I love justice
and work for those who do not receive it.
It is assuming I hate robbery and wrongdoing
and work for those who suffer it.
This salvation—this righteousness—is evidence based.
This is no assurance of spiritual salvation.
This is the work of justice in our land.
There’s a reason the Advent gospel lections
always include John the Baptist preaching repentance,
and there’s a reason our tradition has shunted John’s preaching
toward personal morality and away from systemic justice.

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.”

And like the acorn that grows into the mighty oak,
the fetus loved from its conception—
born into the story—
raised on the stories—
and the prayers and the songs—
living into the will and work of God,
will grow in wisdom and favor with God.

So don’t worry about Christmas, my friends,
except to ask yourself if you’re living it.
And then, actually whether you’re living it or not,
it’s not Christmas you need to be worrying about!
For the question to ask
is never the easy question of what are they doing (or not doing),
but the infinitely more difficult question
what are we doing (and not doing)
to comfort those who mourn—
to mend broken hearts—
to address the systemic issues
that keep people oppressed—
that keep breaking the hearts of those we keep trying to comfort.

Here’s the thing:
God is with us as God-with-us
not to save some spiritual part of us,
but to remind us there is no spiritual part of us
a part from us—and that’s the big us.
There is no spiritual part apart from the way we live,
and to honor Immanuel is to work for justice—
not to speak piously but to work righteously,
that it would not be our words made flesh in our living,
but God’s word.

For hidden in the innocuous—
buried in what’s sweet—
embedded in what’s normal—
tucked away in the common—
swaddled in the normal everyday—

holiday traditions and traditional ways of reading Scripture—
in what we might think is an easy pill to swallow—
self-serving, not self-challenging—
let alone self-undoing!—

snuck into the systems and power structures—
smuggled into the status quo,
the unwrapped presence.
What could be less threatening—
less worthy of notice?
So small—
so vulnerable.

But as the story is turned into lawn ornaments
and the expectation of hearing some particular set of words
(you know, like “Merry Christmas!” or even “Jesus is my Lord and Savior”),
be careful.
Because what happens when God turns those lawn ornaments back
into the code they most truly are?
What happens when the words the faithful say became the words they live?
Because those lawn ornaments are code.
And those words (Merry Christmas) a cipher for revolution—
a revolving of what is into what God has always dreamed—
and still dreams.
So if you’re not living resistance to the way things are,
it really doesn’t matter what you say.
On this third Sunday of Advent,
it’s all actually really rather straightforward!

Scripture, ii.
Luke 4:16-21
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up,
he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.
He stood up to read,
and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
And he rolled up the scroll,
gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
Then he began to say to them,
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

This is the Word of God, born to us and born in us.
Thanks be to God.

God in a song, advent ii.

immanuel

Scripture, i.
Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
As we prepare ourselves for worship this morning,
you are invited into an imagined, long-ago conversation:
“How’s Mary?”
“Singing songs about how everything’s going to change.”
“Truth. Every parent will tell you. A baby changes everything.”
“I don’t think that’s what she means when she sings.”
“Well, you’ll both come to discover just how true it is.”
“No—I mean, she’s singing
about how everything’s going to be turned upside down.”

“Yep.”
“No, I mean totally inverted.”
“Yep.
This your first?”
“He’s the first and the last.”
“That’s what we said after our first.
Now we have three.”
“Beginning and end.”
“Oh, yes. So much begins now.
And so much ends. You’re wise to recognize that.”
As we prepare ourselves for worship,
we are invited not into an undermining of the extraordinary,
but into celebrating the very ordinary through which shines
the extraordinary the darkness cannot comprehend.

Sermon
If you remember past Isaiah sermons (and why wouldn’t you?!),
you may well remember that Isaiah is divided
into three distinct traditions—associated with three different time periods—
often named First, Second and Third Isaiah—
or First, Deutero and Trito Isaiah
(with corresponding chapters 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66).
It can be a useful, helpful division—as long as
we always take care not to undermine the book as a whole.

First Isaiah was written, historically speaking, in Jerusalem
through much of the second half of the eighth century BCE—
with Judah consistently facing the threat of Assyria.
Isaiah’s words are full of warning and judgment
in face of an imminent political and military threat.
And Isaiah seems to interpret this threat as God’s work—
using language and imagery that lends itself
to a theological understanding of God manipulating history and politics—
working directly through world affairs to punish unfaithfulness.
Not exactly my understanding of God or of history,
but we’re going to leave that there for the time being—
not having the time or inclination to tackle the theology of Isaiah.

Then, into the pages of Isaiah, there comes, as Walter Brueggemann puts it,
a pause—located between chapters 39 and 40—
a long pause—comprising some 160 years of history—
160 years in which Assyria, the great threat of the past fell,
and Babylon rose as the next great power—
160 years in which there was initial celebration in Judah
at Nineveh’s fall, then, the gradually dawning realization
that there was an even greater threat—
that they faced ruin and destruction, defeat and exile.

Our text follows hard on the 160 year pause,
remembering “the massive destruction of the entire Jerusalem establishment—
city, dynasty, temple—and the complete infrastructure
of that social and theological entity.
What remains after the Babylonian incursion of 598
and the Babylonian devastation of 587
is a city in ruins, plus a scattering of Jews deported here and there.
Among those deportees is the most influential concentration
of displaced Jews in Babylon,
Jews who sat ‘by the rivers of Babylon … and wept’ (Psalm 137:1)”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 8).

So it is traditionally accepted that the context for Deutero-Isaiah
is those who feel exiled from their own history and heritage—
who don’t feel like they have a home—
who feel defeated by what is—
who question their identity—their faith—their God—
those with little to no hope—grieving what’s been lost—
feeling like the songs of Zion
have been coopted for entertainment and politics.
But even given that, and even though it’s a plural imperative—
which you might not get from our English translations
(comfort, y’all comfort my people),
these initial words of Isaiah 40, as they are traditionally understood,
are not directed to the exiled—to the people of God.
This is a passage about them, but not directed to them.
A trickle down gospel is presupposed here
in a direct address to the divine council—
a hierarchical court of sorts, which shows up throughout Hebrew Scripture
(Exodus 1, 1 Kings 22, the beginning of the book of Job,
Psalm 82; Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 10, Daniel 7, Zechariah 3).
And God speaks to this council, saying,
“Comfort, O comfort y’all my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”
And Handel put it all to beautiful melody and music.

Subsequently a voice cries out in response to God—
which is how the flowchart of court structured authority works.
The word is delivered from on high—
heard and repeated by those below—
trickling down to the least of these at the bottom.
And this second voice says,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.”
And John the Baptist appropriated the language
(Mark 1; Matthew 3; Luke 3; John 1),
and Handel put it all to beautiful melody and music.
“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

But now let’s think about all this for a minute.
Because if God says speak comfort
and couches comfort in terms of accounting
(“your debt is forgiven”),
what does it mean that the one who hears God’s word—
who in the ordered way of things obediently repeats—
simply passing along what’s been decreed?
What does it mean when such a one says nothing of this accounting comfort,
but speaks instead of homecoming as comfort?
Within any kind of flowchart of authority,
it’s not the job of those beneath
to add to—to change—what they receive from on high.

And then maybe we might wonder,
just how comforting is accounting anyway?
Oh, it can be—very comforting—if you’re in debt,
and that debt is forgiven.
We actually pray for such an assurance regularly as part of our liturgy:
“Forgive us our debts, even as we forgive our debtors.”
There is indubitably a comfort to columns of numbers
adding up to black not red,
but to people in exile, God says “Okay, we’re square now”?
To a defeated, humiliated, homesick people God says,
“You know in fact I made you pay twice what you owed me,
but hey! We’re even now. Don’t you feel great?”

And not only am I not sure how comforting
accounting would be to exiles who lost everything,
seriously, what do we make of a scorekeeping God
who doesn’t seem to be paying attention to the score?—
who isn’t a careful accountant?
“Wait a minute! We paid twice what we owe?
We’re in exile here because you weren’t paying attention?
What? Did you just lose track?”
Or … are we supposed to wonder,
if God is maybe not one who keeps score in such a way?

Because, frankly, I would think it was much more comforting
to speak of a way made straight through the wilderness—
a way made straight home—from Babylon to Jerusalem.

But for those who lived and died in Babylon—
who raised their families in Babylon,
where was the comfort in talk?
Maybe there was more comfort
not just in talk about a way made straight
through the geography of the Middle East,
but made straight through the geography of fear—
straight through the valleys of defeat and darkness—
straight through the wilderness of a loss of identity—
a way straight back to the ideals and principles
around which we defined ourselves.
Yes—oh, yes, the ideals called into question by present day reality,
but reaffirmed nonetheless, truth amidst lies,
compassion amidst degradation and cruelty,
wisdom amidst ignorance and selfishness—immediate gratification.
Reaffirmed nonetheless, a society based on respect for widows and orphans,
the dignity of the alien amongst us,
mutual responsibility for the least of these.
Reaffirmed nonetheless, a society based on being a good neighbor—
a good steward of creation.
And the highway runs straight through the doubts—
runs straight through other priorities—
runs straight through that paralysis of feeling like there’s nothing we can do.

Now you’ll note, some of this is future tense—
the way made straight,
the mountains and valleys rearranged—
the results are all going to happen.
But the work—the work is present tense: prepare the way—
make straight the way.
As if it’s our work, not our results
that represent the vindication of the kingdom—
not the fulfillment, you understand—the vindication—
in the integrity of the faithful.

But you know, I know some of you do,
there are no verb tenses in biblical Hebrew.
Context determines tense.
So what if it’s all present tense
and wrong (as it was last week),
to think physically—geographically of actual mountains being leveled—
actual valleys being raised—an actual road being constructed?
If it is that interior landscape again reshaped,
then what happens is not projected into some future.
It’s either happening now, or it’s not.

And since we’ve started questioning things,
maybe—maybe, that plural imperative
is addressed not to a divine court—
some vestige of the religious imagery of the surrounding cultures,
but to the people of Israel—the people of God—
entirely in keeping with a people responsible to God and each other—
entirely in keeping with a covenant identity.
We are to be the subjects who do for each other,
not just those done unto.
This is not indirect address as part of that trickle down gospel
from God through some divine council with power who will comfort the people,
but direct address to the people—
leading not to the expectation of otherworldly, spiritual comfort from beyond,
but the very real and present, tactile comfort of those around us—those with us.

And so then, what if—what if, instead of, as is traditional,
thinking our passage starts off with God’s voice,
we suggest that the voice we presume to be God’s, isn’t?
I mean, it’s not unheard of for God to speak of self
in the third person—a “royal we” kind of thing:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” says God.
But the phrasing leaves open the possibility
that someone else is quoting what they understood God to say:
someone not just subordinately obedient,
but responding to what they received—
amplifying what they heard and understood
in the way of the faithful—the way of the people of God.
“ ‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ I heard your God say.
and having heard, I respond. I repeat. I amplify.”

What if we affirm instead of God’s voice
and then a human voice in response—the prophet—the preacher,
multiple human voices seeking to speak comfort in different ways,
the community of faith—all in response to God?
And this voice speaking of accounting is then but the first.
And then it’s the second voice speaking of making straight the path.

And then we hear yet another voice—the third—
speaking up in response to
even another voice saying, ‘Cry out!’

We have a multiplicity of voices—a multiplicity of unidentified voices!
And maybe it’s less important to identify which one is God,
and how many other distinct voices there might be,
than to affirm the ongoing conversation
that comprises the community of God and the people of God.

And I said (in response—so this is that third voice),
‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Sounds like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, doesn’t it?
A more—what? realistic voice?
One that feels smaller—more aware of mortal limitations.
And there is a wisdom to this perspective.
It’s also the fulfillment of the warnings and judgment of First Isaiah, isn’t it?
The people are the grass God blew on, and we are withering—fading.
And there’s also maybe an echo of that stark juxtaposition
between the power of God and us mortals—
a reiteration of that chorus from the book of Job.

In this reading, instead of God’s voice and then human responses,
we have multiple human voices seeking to speak for God—
employing different images—implying different emphases.
We have three voices … three! three perspectives
(like Job’s three friends—and if there’s a parallel to be made there,
we should remember all three perspectives
carry their own particular limitations in the face
of the depth and truth of God and in face of the depth and truth of life).

I’m sure we could come up with designations for the three:
the institutionalist, the idealist, the realist—
or, the preacher, the prophet, the teacher—
any of which—all of which have their limitations.
And if three does mean the perfect number, we’re left affirming
that the revelation of God in the faith tradition of a people
is best understood as a conversation—a multiplicity of voices—
none of them saying the same thing!

And considering again, my own experience of God—
again, because we talk in our tradition
about a personal relationship with God,
this feels right.
Because God doesn’t speak to me in some voice distinct from other voices.
God speaks to me through people—in stories—
through reflection on texts and circumstances—
some of which are clearer than others—seem truer—
some of which are harder to grasp—some of which seem wrong,
and I piece it together prayerfully in conversation with you,
believing in the Spirit working with us
in that ongoing conversation
comprising the community of God and God’s people.

And then we have another voice—
a fourth one.
In a passage we considered this past Wednesday night,
Richard Rohr in his book, Preparing for Christmas:
Daily Meditations for Advent,
suggests we think of the kingdom of God as the always bigger picture
(Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas:
Daily Meditations for Advent [Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008] 11).
That’s the fourth voice (the one after three).
It’s the eighth day (the one after seven).
It’s when we think it’s all been said—
when we think we’ve seen it all,
that we’re reminded, there’s more.
It’s bigger than we can possibly know.
And this fourth voice acknowledges how small we are—
how limited is our perspective.
The grass does indeed wither, truly the flower does fade;
but—but, my friends, the word of our God will stand for ever.
That’s the big picture.
And for us to hear the word of God
and respond—more faithfully than obediently—
for us to hear and not just repeat, but amplify—incarnate,
makes us a part of that bigger picture.

So get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings—
that’s the Hebrew word for gospel, by the way—good news.
Lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings—herald of gospel,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
because it’s not where you are,
it’s who you are,
and who you are, are ones who, wherever you are,
affirm, ’Here is your God!’ —
an affirmation resounding in the present tense—
“Here is your God!”—even here even now—
Immanuel!

That’s the comfort (comfort y’all comfort my people)
more than some accounting—
more even than victory or homecoming—
within our circumstances—whatever they are,
we hear from our own community of faith—our sisters and brothers,
who know our situation from within—
and affirm—assure—celebrate—proclaim, “God is here!

So you see, there is in this season of Advent,
a certain inappropriateness
to singing “Come, Oh Come Immanuel.”
For if Immanuel is Immanuel—God with us,
then God doesn’t—God can’t come, for God is here.
And if we sing “Come, Oh Come,” it’s not God-with-us we really affirm.
It’s like the invocation, right?
We’re not invoking God’s presence. God is here.
We’re invoking our own selves to what’s real—to who’s here.
So when we sing, “Come, Oh Come,” it’s our own selves
we want to come to the God who is here.
Unless, of course, we add nuance to the song I’m not sure is there,
and think within the truth of God with us,
we’re always being called into the bigger picture—
the bigger grace—the bigger love.
We get enough to know we want more,
and that there’s both more to want
and more to know.
Come God who is with us come even more.

Our text concludes with one last image—
one again separating present tense affirmations
from future tense ones:
“See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
(That’s all present tense—which is worth noting—emphasizing—
God’s reward is now!)
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
And that’s future tense—
unless as suggested, it’s all happening now—
even as we await the always getting bigger picture.

Last week, we suggested God tearing open the heavens
was an image more in keeping with Marvel’s Thor
than with the God born to us in Jesus.
So in this concluding image of God as shepherd,
do you remember the shepherd boy king David,
who, we read in 1 Samuel, whenever a lion or a bear came
and took a lamb from the flock, went after it and struck it down
rescuing the lamb from its mouth, and if it turned against him,
he would catch it by the jaw, strike it down and kill it.
David killed multiple lions and bears by hand, we read—
catching them by the jaw, we read (that’s where the teeth are!)
(1 Samuel 17:34-36)
very Thor like—
Iron Mannish.
And that’s what’s impressive to the Sauls of our world—
the ability and willingness to kick—to kick the enemy
(and often, when it comes to the mighty Avengers, each other!),
But it’s interesting—
the might of God’s arm—a strong, powerful martial image—
is put to use carrying lambs—
leading mother sheep, loving the lambs.
a quiet image—peaceful—pastoral.

We like a linear progression,
Scripture circles round and round in its meandering.
We like one voice—an authoritative voice,
Scripture gives us a conversation.
We want a conclusive word,
and Scripture gives us a caring image.
We want one image,
Scripture gives us multiple ones.
We want clarity,
Scripture gives us complexity and even contradiction.
We may want our debts forgiven,
but Scripture gives us love.
We want the promise that things will be worked out
more than the opportunity Scripture gives us
to be a part of the working out.

And yet always always, God is here.
The way is straight before us—
the ways of the world turning upside down and inside out
as if mountains are laid low and valleys raised up.
God is with us. God leads us and holds us,
and nothing is ever the same again.
On this second Sunday of Advent,
it’s all actually really rather straightforward!

Scripture, ii.
Luke 1:46-55
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
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 for ever.’

This is the Word of God, born to us and born in us.
Thanks be to God.

God in a prayer, advent i.

immanuel

Scripture, i.
Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

This is the Word of God.
Thanks be to God.

Responsive Call to Worship
As we prepare ourselves for worship this morning,
you are invited into an imagined, long-ago conversation:
“So, Joe. Congratulations on the new addition to your family!”
“Oh. Uh, thank you. It’s been … amazing.”
“I know. I remember.”
“An angel of God announced the fact that we were going to have a baby!”
“I can still picture exactly where we were
when my wife first told me we were pregnant!”
“No, I mean an angel.”
“I told her, ‘I think you’re glowing.’ ”
“This seemed more special—unique.”
“Every dad feels that way, my man. And is supposed to.”
“Everyone has said, ‘This one’s going to be very special.’ ”
“And that’s exactly what everyone should say.
I think he’s going to be very special too.”
“The answer to all our hopes and prayers.”
“Exactly. I mean that’s exactly how we should feel at every birth.”
“Good tidings of great joy—
“Oh yes.”
“—that shall be for all people.”
“You know ever since Abraham,
that idea of everyone being blessed through one person ….
I like it.
And what’s that saying,
Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.
May your child, my friend, grow up to save the world.”
As we prepare ourselves for worship,
we are invited not into an undermining of the extraordinary,
but into celebrating the very ordinary through which shines
the extraordinary the darkness cannot comprehend.

Sermon
I had a pastoral care professor in seminary
who, very interestingly and very consistently asked us
about what he called “implicit theology”—
the theology that underlies—that is assumed—taken for granted—
often unnoticed—sometimes unknown—
sometimes even at odds with a professed theology.
He would ask us to consider
the implicit theology of a service of worship, for example,
or the components of a service of worship—
the implicit theology of a hymn—a sermon—
so as to be able to see that some were about authority, not love—
about a transaction, not forgiveness—
a religious idea, not a religious experience.

But this professor would also ask
about the implicit theology of a conversation—
a relationship—a way of interacting.
What does this common day-to-day part of life
presume about your understanding of God?
So if you’re focused on yourself—boastful, arrogant—
if you hate being contradicted—
if you reject the other—blame the other—
are all about your will—your way—
are all about imposing that on others,
what kind of God is implied?
And what are we to do, if that is not consistent
with who we understand the God
revealed in Scripture and in Jesus to be?

As most of you know, I usually like a sermon to unfold—
for us to discover together what Scripture has to reveal.
But this morning as we consider this prayer from Isaiah,
I’m going to tell you here at the beginning
exactly where we’re going today.
Because every explicit prayer is an implicit theology,
and what we assume about God is, in truth,
more powerful than what we say about God,
and our expectations of God actually determine what we see—
what we can see—of God.

And so I want you to consider the possibility,
carefully, prayerfully,
that everything about God in this prayer from Isaiah
is completely wrong—
except for one line.

I invite you this morning,
on this first Sunday of Advent,
to consider that an important part
of not just the beauty and richness of Scripture,
but also the very sacredness of it, is rooted in the fact
that it gives us ways of thinking and talking about God
to thoughtfully reject as well as to accept—
both ideas to embrace
and ideas that deface who God is.

Many of you will know the story—
the terrible story of the general Jephthah and his daughter.
It’s among the stories collected in the book of Judges.
On the verge of facing the Ammonites, the general made a promise to God,
“If you give me victory,” he prayed,
“whoever comes out of the house when I get home will be yours”
(and think about the implicit theology here—
that a God who manipulates events in history
could in turn then be manipulated).
And it was, of course, his only child—his daughter,
who came running out to welcome him home.
And it was his understanding of honor—
his understanding of faithfulness and of God—
of what it means to be God’s,
that ensured that he did in fact sacrifice her (Judges 11).
That story has nothing to say about the truth of God
(other than in rejection)—
though as with much Scripture,
you cannot just dismiss the story completely.
Because it offers illuminating insight into the often stark truth
of human ways of responding to God—
and of how religion can teach us the exact wrong things
to say and believe and do.

Scripture intentionally, inspired as it is,
gives us ways of thinking about God
that even stand in contradiction to each other
and doesn’t just encourage us, but requires us
to cultivate the discipline of discerning
not just what is true and what is false,
but what is more true—
what is most true—
always with the humility
that knows our certainty is less important than God’s mystery.

And yes, of course there is an arrogance
to presuming we know how to speak of consistency and inconsistency
when it comes to God—
who must remain in our affirmations
so far beyond what we can imagine and name.
But even so, we must—we must
always question any understanding of God—
God’s will—God’s work—that is not an expression of love.
We must question what is said to be of God
that is not preferentially aware and caring of the poor—
of those who suffer injustice, rejection, oppression, prejudice.
Black lives matter, right? Poor lives matter.
To deny that is to deny God and undermine Scripture.

So when we read Isaiah’s prayer,
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil,”
while we affirm the beautiful language and the sentiment—
“O that you would make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”—
while we understand the hierarchical imagery
that locates God high up above from whence God comes down to us—
while we understand wanting the public vindication of our faith—
while it’s all so very understandable—
a common feature of many many daydreams—
of much faith teaching, for that matter,
consider it’s how Marvel’s Thor would make an impressive entrance—
or Superman—the heroes we create in our image
who come to us from on high—from the heavens,
but are built, as all superhero superpowers are,
around our fears and our insecurities.
But going back to the Isaiah prayer, here’s the question:
how often has that happened for you?
How often have you experienced God in this way?

“When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.”
I mean, it’s classic, biblical theophany imagery and language
(Exodus 19; Deuteronomy 4-5; Judges 5:4-5; Psalm 18:7; Habakkuk 3:6),
but I have never ever experienced this.
Nor do I ever expect to.
And I have come to believe
that the fact that I never have
has something to do with who God is.
In fact, the fact that God is made manifest
in ways other than Thor is—
that what’s appropriate to the world of comic books and fantasy
is not true to who God is—how God is,
makes God all the more believable to me—
the fact that God is not as I would design a God—
the fact that the public vindication of our faith
rests in the integrity of our own adherence to ideals and faith claims
we have as people of God,
not in God’s public and dramatic justification of them.

And while Sinai is, of course,
the classic example of biblical theophany,
in the chronology of the story as it was put together,
before God shook the mountains
and the divine presence was manifest in lightning and thunder,
God walked with Adam and Eve at the time of the evening breeze
(Genesis 3).
Before the language and imagery of power,
there was the language and imagery of vulnerability and intimacy.

“From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.”
A very tactile God is assumed here—
a God heard and seen.
It’s interesting though:
first, the terms in which the God we’ve heard and seen
has been described—
the thunder and lightning that I have not heard and not seen.
Second, God’s described as the one
who works for those who wait,
and yet if you’ve seen God, what are you waiting for?
Third, and finally, this is just flat out wrong.
We see gods all the time:
the gods of convenience and ease—
of money or wealth and stuff—
the gods of entertainment and appetites.
The one option we do not have as human beings is to be godless.

It’s where that implicit theology comes in.
If you pay attention—if you think,
it says much about who your god is.
What’s the implicit theology of your favorite TV shows?
The movies you most like to watch?
What kind of God to they assume?
A God of righteous violence?
A God of power realized in day to day life?
What does it mean if what you enjoy
stands in contrast to what you say you believe?
And how does what we see so much of—enjoy so much,
not shape who we are and how we live?

And so isn’t it true, that too much, like our TV shows and movies,
instead of proactively seeking justice,
we reactively wreak vengeance?
Think about it.
Not just now. Think it about it this week.
Is it just that it’s easier to destroy than to create?
That’s certainly part of it,
but it’s also the weight of responsibility inherent to taking initiative
instead of just whining about or exploiting what is.
Maybe that’s part of the fundamental difference between us and God—
who risks creation—
who risks redemption.
God risks being born into our lives
being present to us and with us.
God risks the responsibility of initiative
while we retreat into “I had to do it.”
“She made me do it.”
“It’s his fault.”
“It’s because of them.”

What’s the implicit theology of your family?
Of your relationship with loved ones?
What does the way you actually live your life
tell others about your God?
Because everyday our lives testify
to the power of the most high overshadowing us—
or not.
Testify to God born to us—
to the work of peace and justice—
the priority of love—
the experience of joy—
or not.
God is present and known in and through the people of God,
or God is perceived as absent.
Oh, I affirm God beyond us,
but that’s not what I, nor anyone else sees.

“You God, though, meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.”
So I am struck
that we remember (you meet those who remember you)
and we await (you work for those who wait for you).
We live in a present from which we remember God—
we tell God stories,
and from which we await God—anticipate God.

What if we were to cultivate the habit of naming God
not as abstraction, but as truth?
Not as memory or hope, but as as present experience?

Our girls do not lean into math.
They’re both fairly good at it, but don’t think they are—
don’t enjoy it—never have.
So in the course of everyday,
we name math.
“How much farther is it?”
“90 miles.”
“How long will that take us?”
“Well, we’re driving 60 miles an hour,
so it will take us an hour and a half,
and that, by the way, is math.”

So it’s looking at experiences of love—of grace—
the priority of justice lived out—peace—
surprising inclusivity, radical hospitality,
that we say to each other—that we say to our youth and children,
“And that, by the way, is God.”
It is a young boy carefully processing a candle down the aisle,
while his younger sister delightedly waves at a friend.
It’s two who love each other
walking up the aisle to take up the offering holding hands.
It’s eleven youth and five adults on their way back from Kentucky.
That, by the way, is all God.
Because what we say about God—assume about God—
should be based on our own experience of God
(with whom we have a personal relationship, right?),
and too often it’s not.
It’s about what someone else said about God—
typically some German man!

Not that’s it’s just about naming God—
or even experiencing God.
It’s rather and most, about the fact that if we’ve experienced God,
then we are changed.
The way we live life is changed.
And God meets us
in response to lives lived
even as lives are changed because we’ve met God.

“But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.”
Notice the order.
It’s not we sinned, and you were angry, is it?
It’s you were angry and we sinned.
Then it’s made even more explicit:
because you hid yourself, we transgressed.

Alright, remember that implicit theology stuff?
Here we’ve got God responding to us—
God’s initiative determined by ours.
That’s a dangerously anthropocentric theology,
and it makes transgressions God’s fault.
“We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”
In such an arbitrary focus on the power and authority of God,
it doesn’t even matter anymore that we do good.
God is hidden—hides from us,
and nothing we do matters.
People believe that.
That ends up justifying evil in the name of God.

We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
Actually that’s truth. The reality of life as we live it.
And all about consequence. Our iniquities take us away.
God doesn’t punish us.
(Remember I said this prayer was wrong about God,
not about us.
Prayer often reveals more about the one praying
than the one prayed to.)

“There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
There’s that inverting again.
Not God inverting us,
us inverting God,
and again, the whining, “It’s not our fault!”

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.”
And yet in this present,
from what we remember,
and within what we anticipate,
God is with us—Immanuel.
And yet there is divine initiative,
although, again, I don’t feel just like inanimate clay—
like an object worked upon by a divine subject.

“Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.”

“What does it mean for God to consider who God’s people are?
Because we would say, would we not?—
it has nothing to do with the faith you’re born to.
Nothing to do even with the faith you profess,
and everything to do with the faith you live—
the implicit theology that drives life, as it were.

It has to do with circumcised hearts (Deuteronomy 10:12-17),
not all who say Lord, Lord … (Matthew 7:21).
It has to do with the fact
that if you can’t point to the work of righteousness—
of justice in humility (Micah 6:8),
then how can you claim to be one of God’s people?

So.
Amidst much in this prayer that’s true about us,
what’s true about God?
I suggested there was one possibility.
“When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect—”
when God catches us by surprise.
We are almost constitutionally unable
to expect the kind of inverted truth of God—
unable to cognitively hold the idea of God
and the truth of God together.

I showed my Dad the Responsive Calls to Worship
I wrote for our Advent/Christmas worship.
He looked up and said, “I’m not sure what to say!
We want and need the ordinary to be extraordinary.
You’ve taken the extraordinary and made it ordinary,
and I just don’t know what to do with that.”

I’m wondering, you see, if once the divine extraordinary
is separated from the ordinary, it undermines itself.
It’s like in Philippians—
Jesus empties and humbles himself, is obedient to death,
therefore God raised him up.
And once he’s raised up, we’re happy for him to be up there—
forgetting that he is, in truth, still down there.

So, let me be clear,
am I saying there’s nothing extraordinary about the birth of Jesus?
No.
I am saying the stories we tell
to underscore the extraordinary aren’t always needed
and may indeed sometimes be counterproductive.
I am saying that what we daydream as extraordinary
is too ordinary (the daydreams of power),
while another kind of ordinary is extraordinary
(the experience of love).
I’m saying God is present with us
in a very tactile way.
I’m saying we are to name our experiences of love and grace—
of justice and peace—God—
not as the fullness of God,
but as part of the truth of God.

So what do we do with the language of theophany in Isaiah’s prayer—
the language of experience we haven’t had?
Because while it seems to work in Congress and presidential campaigns,
it’s very dangerous in marketing
to make assertions you can’t or don’t back up—
to speak of the experience of God in ways we don’t experience—
to somehow assert that how the eternal God was made manifest
is not how the eternal God is made manifest.

So are you saying it didn’t happen?—
the theophany at Sinai?
Oh no! It absolutely happened.
The presence of God does cause the ground to shift beneath your feet,
or it pulls the rug out from underneath you.
To hear the word of God
is to hear it reverberate through your life.
It is to be thunderstruck after the experience of light
that starkly illuminates reality
in a flash of what’s most true.
It is to have the word of God carved on your heart—
shaping your expectations—your way of living—
your implicit theology,
not by one whose presence makes the mountains quake,
but one whose presence rearranges your inner geography—
a much more profound transformation.

I’m saying the heavens are torn open,
and what is revealed is what we did not expect—
that God is not of the heavens,
but present to us and with us and in and through us
in every act of love and grace and justice
kindness and mercy and beauty.
I’m saying don’t expect Thor when it’s Jesus who’s coming,
and don’t act like Thor if it’s Jesus you profess.
On this first Sunday of Advent,
it’s really rather straightforward!

Scripture, ii.
Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

This is the Word of God, born to us and born in us.
Thanks be to God.