Thursday, December 23, 2021

It Came to Pass...


It Came to Pass…

Luke 2:1-20

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

 

Yes, the text for this Christmas message is from the King James Bible! And it’s not just because this is the version Linus recites when answering Charlie Brown’s question about the meaning of Christmas, either. It probably IS showing my age, however, as I grew up hearing the Christmas Story from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke from the “King Jimmy.” And there is something “poetic” or even “Shakespearean” about how the “Old English” renders the narrative. I don’t really know what “sore afraid” means, but it carries the mail on how much these humble shepherds must have been jarred by the celestial visitor. And if angels look anything like some of the “heavenly beings” described in Revelation, they may have been “sore afraid” because that can happen when you run into trees retreating at a full sprint! 

 

Phrases like “Once upon a time,” “It came to pass,” or in the contemporary lexicon, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” are the magic words that let us know a story is coming, and it is going to be an epic one. “Once upon a time” tends to denote a fable, or a fairytale, while “It came to pass” signals a moment in history, and one that has come to mark time, itself. (The Star Wars “A long time ago” screen crawl is meant to lift the viewer out of their seats and invites them into a very different world for a couple hours of what writers of drama call “the willing suspension of disbelief,” on the part of the audience. We’ll get back to these well-known story intros in a moment.

 

First, let’s revisit the Christmas Story in Luke, itself. As we listen afresh to the beautiful words of the second chapter, is it any wonder that the birth of Jesus became such a powerful phenomenon in human society? It’s a perfect story! The census that brings Joseph and his pregnant “betrothed” to tiny Bethlehem, nestled on the West Bank of the great city of Jerusalem—the mythical “Zion” of the Jews. The inn is full, but the innkeeper takes pity on the couple and offers them space in the hollowed-out cave that sheltered the animals. While not the best of accommodations, it was at least private, unlike the crowded rooms in the Bethlehem Inn. Out in the fields, shepherds are visited by a bevy of angels bearing a wondrous message of the birth of a Savior in a stable in nearby Bethlehem. Of course they go, probably trailing their flock of sheep behind them, and they find Mary, Joseph, and the babe, sheltered among the animals belonging to the other travelers staying in the inn. 

 

Now, let’s look at a few of the pieces of real magic in the story. First, Luke tells us that Jesus is born in a manger, or a feeding trough for the animals—animals that were surrounding the newborn Jesus. I imagine that these animals knew who this little child was. From deep within their genetic history, they probably felt the “familiar” vibes of the loving creator who had formed their kind at the foundation of the world. While a tiny, fragile package as an infant, the beasts may well have recognized the Incarnate God of the Creation. They paid their homage first to the Christ Child, long before the Magi would arrive to do likewise. I can guess that when the sheep arrived with the shepherds, they, too knew the significance of this “little light” born into the world on that night. Some have suggested that these particular sheep were being raised on the West Bank near the Temple as sacrificial animals. If so, they may well have been clued in as to the efficacy of Jesus, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. A number of works of fanciful fiction have been written about the role of the animals on the night Jesus was born, but was it really just fiction? I don’t think it is a stretch to imagine that the animals were essential to the story, and rejoiced and praised God just as fervently as did the humans in the stable for what they had witnessed.

 

And speaking of witnesses, I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed in the Luke 2 narrative how the shepherds, after the angels’ visit, and after witnessing first-hand the Holy Family, “…made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” They were really the first Apostles! The “good tidings of great joy” they experienced became a story they shared everywhere they went. I would argue that these shepherds met the “standards” of apostleship: they had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, they were called of God (a personal angelic visit would qualify here), and they spread their witness “abroad” what they had heard and seen. Like the animals, the shepherds are essential to the affective quality of this narrative.


We love to sing the great hymns and songs of Christmas, don’t we? But have you noticed that the “heavenly host” did not sing? They praised God and SAID: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” a promise that we still embrace today like a child snuggles a precious blanket. One doesn’t have to have a set of musical pipes to speak forth God’s Word, be a witness, or even to properly offer praise to God. Every Christmas, as part of my personal ponderings, I revisit Longfellow’s famous poem, “Christmas Bells”:

 

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    And wild and sweet
    The words repeat 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
    A voice, a chime,
    A chant sublime 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
    And with the sound 
    The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
    "For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song 
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

T

hen pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
    The Wrong shall fail,
    The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

 

These words, like those of Luke 2, still bring me to tears, year after year. Luke, because of the beauty, simplicity, and profundity of the birth of Jesus Christ, and Longfellow, because the promise of the heavenly host has not yet been fulfilled. In fact, in our time, hate and wrong seem to have an edge. Truth has been relegated to the ash heap, and good will? Not so much. But both the heavenly host and Longfellow are pealing out loud and strong that the final chapter on God’s justice and God’s peace for humanity hasn’t been written yet. 

 

Santa Claus is real, and so is the Grinch, and so is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and so is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Let me tell you why: each is a witness to what that Christ Child is all about. Each is either a transformer of lives, or tells a story of redemption and transformation. You know the stories of each—think about it! Santa Claus brings joy to children—all children—and is an enduring symbol of hope, especially for the poor and down-trodden. The Grinch is a story of a stone heart becoming flesh once more—the Grinch who stole Christmas brings it back bigger and better than ever, and like Ebenezer Scrooge (after which he is modeled), he keeps Christmas in his heart forever. Rudolph is a story of a marginalized bloke with a disability that yields ridicule, and yet he becomes the hero of Christmas. And Christmas Vacation? A farse that collects all of its hilarious barbs first into a “crown of thorns,” but then morphs into an epiphany of redemption and good will. 

 

The birth story of Jesus has become the greatest launching point for redemptive and hopeful stories in the history of humankind. That’s why the celebration it spawned is so universal, even apart from its theological roots. The Christmas Story is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” It is the “Word made flesh.” It is “God in Christ, reconciling the world to Godself,” not following dogmas, doctrines, or ecclesiastical rules, but welcoming all…ALL!  It has broken WAY out of the churchy box well-meaning Christians have tried to keep it in. And it’s still evolving, from year to year. And when Longfellow’s “hate is strong and mocks the song,” the lights of Christmas get brighter, the children get even more wide-eyed, and even some who are nasty, mean bastards through much of the year become Santa Claus, offering acts of kindness and generosity (they, too, are in the process of being redeemed!). 

 

Back to those story-starters. “Once upon a time” may be the beginning of a fairytale, but the story of God’s intervention as the Incarnate Christ is bigger than any fairytale or fable ever written! “Once upon a time” Jesus broke into our world in a manger in Bethlehem, and the world has never been the same, and is still changing! A period was put at the end of the sentence to humanity’s enmity with God, and the new sentence speaks of God’s embrace, and God’s lavishly bestowing God’s grace upon humankind, “grace upon grace!” 

 

As the promise of the heavenly host of “Peace on Earth, Good-will toward [all people]” continues to unfold, and as His-Story continues to help the “right prevail,” the distance and fantasy signaled by George Lucas’s “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is drawing closer to reality right here on Planet Earth. In Jesus Christ, God is painting a redeeming act that knows no cosmic limits. Where there are people out there, past, present, or future, and regardless of what galaxy in which they may reside, God loves them and will embrace them!

 

Indeed, “It came to pass.” Maybe we should say “It (He) came to be passed along,” like the excited witness of the shepherds, who added their encounter with the Lamb of God to their flock, and wanted to tell the whole world about it. Jesus came to save me. Jesus came to save you. Jesus came to save every corner of the creation, here and across the cosmos. Jesus will save even those most seduced by evil and “wrong,” and will help “right prevail” in each and every life. Jesus saved. Jesus saves. Jesus continues to save. And Jesus saves because Jesus came to save,  Period—a joy for ALL people, not just the ones who have deduced, published, and preached a theological meaning to the event. Indeed, “It came to pass!”

 

This Christmas, may you get a giddy joy out of the neighborhoods full of colorful lights and blow-up Santas! May you take time to really watch the wonder in the faces of children, or watch the violence with which they tear the wrapping off of their presents! May the beautiful hymns and corny songs of Christmas bring a tear to your eye! May the bit ‘o Grinch in each of us fade just a bit more this season, and may our generosity “kick it up a notch.” And when you light your candle in church and sing “Silent Night,” may the Story stroke your heartstrings one more time, and may you glorify God in the Highest.

 

And may we all someday…SOMEDAY…someday soon, “Live happily ever after!”

 

Amen.

  

 

 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

O Little Town...

 


“O Little Town…”

 

Micah 5:2-5a
5:2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

5:3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.

5:4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

5:5 and he shall be the one of peace.

 

 

Micah’s prophecy that the “one who is to rule Israel” would be born in Bethlehem is not too surprising. Since King David was born in Bethlehem, this wasn’t exactly a “Kreskin” moment. From one “great ruler” to another (the anticipated messiah), Bethlehem was a highly predictable launching point. Still, Bethlehem was a small, sleepy town on the West Bank of the great city of Jerusalem, and one not accustomed to such honors. The Micah text wants to make sure the reader doesn’t think he is talking about Bethlehem in the territory of Zebulon, so by adding the locator “of Ephratha, this was avoided. Bethlehem was a lesser suburb. Sheep were grazing on its slopes, hence the shepherds to whom the angels appeared, announcing the birth of Jesus. In that day, Bethlehem was sort of a backwater town. Remember that Mary and Joseph went there, according to the Bible, so Joseph could register for the census; they were certainly not sightseeing. And while they wound up in the horse cave, this would not have been much less spartan than Bethlehem’s inn, and more private, to boot. Jesus’ birth narrative reads much more like Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and family in the bowery in Camden Town than that of the royal family. When you think of it in that way, is it any wonder that so many wonderful, yet “non-biblical” Christmas stories have grown up around it? The story itself reads like something out of Dickens, or even one of those sappy Hallmark movies. But it is a story we tell (or read) every year, year after year, and like “A Christmas Carol,” it never grows old. In fact, I can say that for me, and probably for most of us, it grows sweeter and sweeter each year. This year—my first in retirement—I’m looking forward to “returning to my first love” with the Christmas story, as I can just revisit what it meant to listen to it, get lost in the wonder of it, and believe it in my heart, afresh and anew! I'm not in a panic about what I should preach about it in a Christmas Eve sermon.

 

Not to draw any parallels with Jesus, but I, too, was born in a small town—Oil City, Pennsylvania. We know of Bethlehem, because the Savior of the world was born there. Historically, those who know Oil City, do so because, basically, the oil industry was born there. It would not be a stretch to say that the energy industry was born in Oil City, as oil and its later distillation into gasoline, launched what grew into the wider energy industry, not just here, but throughout the world. For three years in the 1870s, Oil City was the home of the world Oil Exchange, which was the largest financial exchange market next to the New York Stock Exchange. It's hard to believe that my little home town was once a major financial center of the world, but even harder to believe is the story of nearby Pithole.

 

Pithole was an oil boom town that sprung up in 1865, after Colonel Edwin Drake successfully drilled for oil near Titusville, PA. Pithole grew to over 20,000 residents. At its peak, Pithole had at least 54 hotels, 3 churches, the third largest post office in Pennsylvania, a newspaper, a theater, a railroad, the world's first pipeline, as well as a “red light” district that rivelled that of the infamous Dodge City. In three years it had shrunk up to a fraction of its size and influence, as the oil boom waned, and in a little over ten years, it ceased to exist. A trip to “historic” Pithole today finds a visitor’s center, grown over land, and scattered metal fragments of what used to be drilling rigs and oil derricks. Most people have never heard of Pithole, and think you are kidding if you tell them about it. 

 

Oil City has had a little better luck, given that its story has been “marketed” by the town’s remnants over the years, leading to at least some recognition and notoriety. Unfortunately, it, too has declined markedly, in terms of its industry and population. When I was growing up there, Oil City had somewhere just South of 20,000 residents, had 47 major industries, and was a thriving, “All-American” third class city. Even in my lifetime, it was the national headquarters of both Pennzoil and Quaker State. However, as the oil industry moved to Texas, so did these companies. Oil City once had a large Pennzoil refinery, as well as a glass manufacturing plant that made most of the bottles for the Evenflo and R.T. French companies. These, along with many companies that grew up around the oil industry, are all gone, and Oil City’s population today is less than 9,000 people. Many of the majestic old homes that housed both barons and their wannabes are in disrepair or are already gone. Since I have family still living there, I make regular trips back to Oil City, and it saddens me to see that most of the things that made my early memories are gone now—pizza shops, five and dime stores, soda fountains, and downtown department stores. In a way, it seems like the little town I grew up in has been disrespected by the country it helped to forge. 

 

Bethlehem is kind of the Pithole or the Oil City of the biblical world. As Christians, we believe the Son of God was born into the world there. We venerate the rich Christmas Story recorded in the second chapter of Luke. We sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with teary eyes as we return to the side of the Nativity. We preserve this precious memory in paintings, movies, and countless miniature creche scenes, and of course, in song. But what of the “real” Bethlehem? The birthplace of the Christ is basically a town in exile. It is still there on the West Bank of Jerusalem, but the political state of Israel controls, disrespects, and persecutes what is now a Palestinian city. Political Israel continues to usurp land and resources from the Palestinian people, squeezing them into smaller and smaller parcels in total violation of the agreements made after World War II, when the State of Israel was created out of Palestinian lands. Evangelical Christians and the U.S. government, believing they are supporting the Israel of the Bible, stand with political Israel in this, taking sides with them against the Palestinian people, and both believing and promoting the lie that the Palestinians are all terrorists. Many Americans and most Christians refuse to believe the facts about what political Israel is doing to the Palestinian people, and when factions of the Palestinians strike out at Israel after they bulldoze yet another of their housing complexes, cut off their water, or deny them access to Jerusalem, where most of the jobs are, the Palestinians are always portrayed as the “bad guys.” Doctors without Borders and other benevolent organizations like them tell us of the violent bombing attacks political Israel launches in retaliation for a rocket-propelled grenade falling in Israeli territory. These bombing raids are carried out against civilian targets like schools, hospitals, and residential neighborhoods—places where Palestinian citizens have been compressed into as their land is seized. There are many deaths, and even the news media, jaded by the false, political narratives fed them by Israel and its “blind” allies like the United States, refrain from reporting them.

 

Bethlehem is disrespected and rendered dangerous by political Israel’s continuous persecution, rationalized by them because it is in Palestinian territory. Little towns like Oil City and Pithole are what they are today because history has passed them by, sadly. But Bethlehem continues to be a town under siege today. The town where Jesus Christ was born, the “little town” we remember each year as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, is suffering at the hands of political Israel, as supported by people who call themselves Christians. 

 

In this Advent season, may part of our resolve be that we, as the church, and as Christ-followers, would engage in protests and boycotts against political Israel for their treatment of the Palestinian people, and say a prayer for Bethlehem, even as we pray for the peace of Jerusalem. After all, as a Galilean, Jesus was a Palestinian, himself. May we stand with the Palestinian people, many of whom are practicing Christians, in working for just resolutions to their conflict with political Israel. And may we help other Christian siblings come to realize that political Israel of our time is not the biblical Israel they believe they are called to support. When political Israel starts to act like the people of God, rather than as a God unto themselves, then they may regain the support of their "adoptive" family, the Christian people.

 

As a small town boy, myself, I will stand with the people of Palestine and Bethlehem. And I will think of them every time I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”! Amen. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Snakes on a Plane...

 


 

Luke 3:7-18
3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

We are often in such a hurry to get to John the Baptist’s public introduction and baptism of Jesus that we ignore John’s jarring message of repentance and righteousness! Of course, John did not have the gracious diction of a silver-tongued orator. He begins his message to the gathered crowd in today’s text with “You brood of vipers!” Not exactly a crowd-pleaser. STORY: Many years ago, when I was a young lay staff person in my home church, our pastor invited a “guest evangelist” to grace our pulpit for a week of special meetings. He had read books by the geriatric British writer/”revivalist,” the Rev. Leonard Ravenhill, and had invited the enigmatic Ravenhill over “across the pond.” Ravenhill was to begin his week of “revival” by preaching the main Sunday morning service, which was also broadcast live over the local radio station. Unfortunately, our pastor got called away that Sunday to tend to a dying parent, so our lay leader joyously introduced the Rev. Ravenhill, unaware of what would come next. The curmudgeonly old evangelist walked intently to the pulpit, slowly and silently glared around at the congregation (the radio audience must have wondered what was happening), and then spoke: “Most of you are just playing GAMES with God. Why don’t you go home!” A nervous laughter tittered through the crowd (like it probably did when John the Baptist called his crowd a “brood of vipers”), thinking the old boy was joking. His sermon that day, and the six that followed over the next few days proved he wasn’t. And he sure got our attention

 

An insane movie named “Snakes on a Plane” caught the attention of the viewing public back in 2006 because most of us panic around snakes, and the idea of being “trapped” on an airliner with a bunch venomous reptiles on the loose just makes us shudder--even thinking about it as I write this! Similarly, our selfishness and sinfulness disrupts God’s better plan for humanity and the human community. WE are the “brood of vipers,” in this movie. John the Baptist has a message for us that still applies—living “rightly” or “righteously” still has its place, even on this side of the Cross! There are many in our American society who have “enough,” but will rail against those who have little chance of ever getting to “enough,” blaming them for their plight, and going so far as accusing THEM for limiting the wealth of privileged, middle-class white people! I think John would say to them, “OH, your brood of vipers!”

 

Both John’s “brood of vipers” greeting, and his message of judgment got their attention. After his warnings to the crowd, some wiseacre shouted out, “What then should we do?” Seeing that he had already told them to “flee the wrath to come,” (which, incidentally, became John Wesley’s rallying cry, too), he went on to describe several practical, ethical and compassionate things they could do in order to “live out” the righteous life Torah required. And these stern warnings of John’s colored his introduction of Jesus, for he initially describes Jesus as the “great judge” that will separate the wheat from the chaff. I love how the author of the Gospel “recovers,” with verse 18: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. Every time I read this text, my mind asks, “WHAT good news?”

 

Ravenhill was right—many in the congregation before him were just “playing games with God,” but I would suggest that their “games” were less intended to deceive or “fool” God, themselves, or others, and more the result of just not understanding what it means to live the righteous life. In some cases, where they did have a “clue” of how, there was the issue of desire. Some of the “game playing” we do happens when we refuse to give up a grudge, or feel we have a “right” to judge someone else for their bad behavior. The “good news” of John’s message was that God was sending a savior, and that God had “signaled” through the message of John and the other prophets that God desired to forgive and redeem all people. While Rev. Ravenhill’s messages were hard to listen to, as he was out of the old “hellfire and brimstone” tradition, he never finished one without offering Christ to his listeners. Trouble was, that old tradition scares off the audience before they hear the good news! The adage, that one “catches more flies with honey than with vinegar” certainly applies here, only we “flies” want to be “caught” by God. Few people shy away from grace when they fully understand that it is being extended to them as a gift, and that it can wipe away the sin and harm of sin, rendering them right with God. Many reject it when they DON’T understand it, often believing there is a “catch,” or that they must become somehow “acceptable” to God before the grace is applied (probably a side effect of our “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” ethos—the same ethos that is used to sour or even deny helpful programs for the poor and disenfranchised among us). Others don’t want to so quickly and greatly alter their lifestyle or change their behavior, and therefore reject God’s grace, or at least postpone the acceptance of same while they “sow their wild oats.” Fact is, God takes us as we are. Early in my ministry I used to say that the Gospel is a “come as you are” party, only with the caveat that God’s Spirit will lead us toward a life of positive, moral change AFTER we have been forgiven.

 

John was right about his “brood of vipers” remark.  His crowd was made up of Jews who believed they were the “elect” of God (“We have Abraham as our ancestor…”) just because they were sons and daughters of Israel, and because they nodded to the law. They came to hear John because word was out that a prophet was in the land. Understand that it had probably been over 400 years since Israel had heard the voice of a prophet. Prophets were like Rev. Leonard Ravenhill—a great reputation, but when you finally heard them, you kind of got beat up by their message. It wasn’t meant to be a comfort, but it was meant to strongly urge you to get your act together. Their message was often fearful, indicting, and carried word of what was to happen to you if you didn’t heed it. This was the method of old-time “revival” preachers like Ravenhill. They hit you right between the eyes, as did the words of the prophets of old. The revivalists and the prophets spoke of God’s redeeming, “cleansing” power, or in the case of John, the “refining” fire that would burn the chaff off of our “game-playing” lives. In both cases, however, the good news was that God was out to cleanse and purify God’s people so the love and grace of God would have a place to land in the human soul. I am reminded of how Jesus talked of “chasing out the demons,” but then “cleaning the house” so they could not return. Likewise, once the “demons” that haunt us are exorcised, the house is cleaned by God’s redeeming grace so God’s sanctifying or “teaching” grace has a home. It is this grace that John Wesley taught would teach us the ways of Christ and Christian discipleship. It would “perfect” our lives so that we could “live rightly,” which is what the word righteous actually means. 

 

John addresses sanctification in his message to the “brood of vipers,” telling them that the ethical, moral life, as well as the generous life of giving and servanthood, are the result of getting close to Jesus Christ, who served as an example of both. 

 

It’s interesting that the Lukan text talks of John’s “exhortations” to the crowd, as this relates to my personal story about Rev. Ravenhill. His style of harsh preaching wherein he “called out” the sins of his listeners, was actually known as “exhortation,” and the preacher was labeled an “exhorter.” There aren’t many of these left in our time, thanks to the “catching flies” adage cited earlier. People who come to hear preaching today are looking for the answer to the question they posed to John: “Teacher, what should we do?” The preacher who makes the message of the Gospel relevant to the needs of her congregation, offering “practical” lessons about how to live it out, from day to day, is the preacher who will be listened to. The preacher who uses fear as his attention-getting technique will either “turn off” his audience, or will attract those who respond only to such fear. The Christian life that is lived out of fear and IN fear, is not a very effective one. This paralyzing or debilitating kind of fear is NOT what the Bible is referring to when it talks of “fearing God.” That expression has to do with taking God seriously, and respecting the Divine, not something that makes one cower.

 

And speaking of fear, let’s get back to the “Snakes on a Plane” reference. This movie put two things together that strike fear in our hearts, at least most of us. People are typically a bit anxious when flying on an airliner. If not because of the fact they are speeding along at almost 700 miles an hour in what some have described as a “sealed tube of death,” then because of the stress of getting through TSA security and being “humbled” by removing shoes and belts, and being X-rayed and “wanded,” if not patted down before even boarding the aircraft! And fliers ARE sealed into that tube, and trapped at 34,000 feet. Now, introduce a bunch of poisonous snakes slithering around the cabin. Might there be a bit of fear and panic going on? And would there be anyone on that plane who wouldn’t pray for a “savior”? I didn’t see the film at the theater, but eventually caught it on television. My “theology as film” mindset brought me to the conclusion that this scenario is not a bad metaphor where John’s message was going. While his listeners thought they were doing OK, John exhorted them, accusing them of BEING the “snakes” in the eyes of God, because of their false righteousness. Not until they let God “kill the snakes” could they find the true saving grace of God. In our time, the “snakes” haunting us are our inordinate fears of judgment, and what we believe could be the eternal penalties for our wrong behaviors and skunky attitudes. Either way, the snakes must go if we are ever to feel safe on our “flight” through life. Thanks be to God that Jesus “chases the snakes away” like St. Patrick banished them from Ireland, only in Jesus’ case, it’s no legend, it’s the Gospel truth! What I like about the “Snakes on a Plane” fear is that I can’t imagine anyone being happy with that scenario, and neither should any of us grow “comfortable” with our personal demons, either. For our spiritual health and wholeness, the snakes and the demons must go. Then, by yielding our lives to the redeeming, sanctifying grace of God, a new course for our lives may be charted. And this is what we call discipleship! Happy landings, Dear Ones! Amen.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Hope and Fear: Two Ways to Spell Love


 Hope and Fear: Two Ways to Spell Love

 

Malachi 3:1-4
3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;

3:3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.

3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

 

The Advent preacher is initially faced with three challenges: 1. Seminary teaches us to avoid heisting prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible to apply to Jesus; and 2. Advent, in the tradition of the church, is focused on the second coming of Jesus, something we little understand, and rarely agree upon just what that looks like! However, the folks sitting in our pews have none of these reservations. They can “see” Jesus in all of these Old Testament prophecies about a “new hope” for God’s people, or most certainly when the texts speak of a messiah-like figure; AND some have “read the books” (Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye, et. al.) and can often speak in much detail of exactly what will happen when the “rapture” occurs, and may even have theories about a date and time. And 3. A majority of our people just see Advent as a countdown to Christmas, still rooted firmly in the anticipation we remember from childhood. So, is the role of the preacher to dispute these popular ideas? Probably not, but we are compelled to “speak our truth” and be prepared for pregnant questions resulting from the arising cognitive dissonance, both of which are welcome opportunities for the engaged pastor. Honestly, if I have “fallen prey” to any of these popular distortions, it is the latter, as I’ve never gotten over my love of Advent as the “countdown” and Christmas as the “blastoff.” If you likewise choose to err, go with this one, and “sneak in” some of your seminary teachings about proper etiquette with OT prophecy and the “second coming.”

 

With this extended introduction out of the way, let’s look at the Malachi text. Clearly it is a prophetic word of God’s promised “messenger,” and a word we hear echoed in the Gospels. Commentator Anne Stewart says of it:

 

The prophet Malachi raises a disturbing question for all who proclaim God’s arrival with joyful expectation. Are you ready? Do you know what it means? Who can endure it? In the prophetic tradition, the day of the Lord anticipates God’s victorious kingship and a period of righteous judgment. Consequently, the prophets describe the day of the Lord with dramatic language that is both uplifting and fearsome. Depending on the context, it is the promise of deliverance or the threat of judgment. In fact, it is usually both elements at once. In either case, it is the might of God’s power that comforts and disturbs.

 

I like her assertion that hope and fear belong together. Those in trouble hope for a rescue, as did ancient Israel on many occasions. However, along with the rescue will come a change of lifestyle, which we may have come accustomed to in our distress, AND some answer to our rescuers as to how we fell into the mess in the first place. Hope and fear can certainly both be drivers. In a perfect world, hope would motivate us to grow, improve, and be ready for the promised hope, which is to come, as well as to work toward the goals the object of our hope has laid down for us. In that same world, fear would not paralyze, but become the “guide rails” along the journey, and like those guide rails, would be something we would never go head to head with unless we seriously “run off the road.” However, as Israel often discovered—and I would submit the church has frequently, too--HOPE can paralyze, as we wait for “something else” to come along, and stop working to dig ourselves out.  FEAR may become our primary motivator, leading us to a life of bouncing off the guide rails, as we use them as a harsh GPS. Malachi’s author uses words like “covenant,” “refiner’s fire,” “soap,” “purifier,” “gold and silver,” and “pleasing offerings” to put hope and fear in their proper place and prepare Israel—and us—to receive God’s messenger and God’s message.

 

Between the ideas of hope and fear, we encounter another valiant word: respect. When I think of what the word hope describes, I must also consider the things I respect, which make hope a possibility. In matters of human endeavor, I must respect the people in whom I hope,  to partner in bringing that for which is hoped for, about. I must respect the human efforts, gifts, and sacrifices that are typically necessary to bring to reality that which is hoped for. If we do not respect these people, these gifts, and these efforts, then hope will never become  reality for us, or for the human community. We must respect each other. The “laborers” must respect the ones investing hope in their labors, and those who hold out hope must respect those making the effort, even when they have doubts that that which is hoped for will become a reality. And, even if the efforts fail, respect must be paid to those who put their hearts into the project or problem, because it the right thing to do, and shows compassion for one another. Those who hope, and who provide encouragement along the way earn respect, too. Throughout history, those who have provided support to important human endeavors are often just important to the work as those who are actually “hands on.” Respect is the fuel of hope, hard work, problem solving, and higher aspirations. 

 

Without respect, fear is nothing but a debilitating emotion. When fear compels us to respect the “giants” we face, we have a shot at hitting them square in the forehead and felling them, even when they eclipse our size. And yet, we must also develop a self-affirming respect for who we are, as we face our fears. If fear fosters only doubt in ourselves and our efforts, it has won. But if we hold a healthy respect in our abilities, our past successes—and even in our failures from which we have learned important lessons—and in our own spirit of dedication to the task, we can fell giants, overcome the insurmountable, and navigate the darkest seas life may put in our paths. 

 

For the believer, our faith in the Divine breeds this respect—respect in our ability to hope, respect in our ability to act, and respect for ourselves. When we respect God, pray to God, and yield to God, God uses our fear to foster hope, and hope to build faith, and our faith to feed our path forward.  As the apostle says in Romans 5:

 

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

 

Here, Paul summarizes how fear, hope, and even respect are the key ingredients in love. God’s love is not an emotion, it is an act, it is a fruit, and a fruit which breeds other fruits such as compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. 

 

The prophetic text from Malachi was intended to both comfort and disturb Israel, as Anne Stewart states. As Christians the call of Jesus Christ to us as Christ’s followers is also both a comfort AND a disturbing challenge—hope AND fear. We take up the challenge out of respect for Jesus, and out of the respectful belief that, propelled by the Spirit of Jesus, we can succeed in whatever God calls us to do. The paradoxical elements of comfort and disturbance are present in just about every prophecy Israel heard or read in the Hebrew Bible. They are both present in the teachings of Jesus, and certainly in the letters of Paul. Our faith leads us to respect the fear, but more than this, to respect God, ourselves, and our calling, and NOT to fear those times when, temporarily, circumstances disturb more than comfort us. Most of believe life would be easier if we could just be lovingly led along, rather than need the occasional kick in the butt to move forward, but this is not the way of discipleship. And it is not the way of the active love of God that visits upon us.

 

And it certainly was not the way of the Son of God whose visit among us we are preparing to celebrate again in this most loving of seasons. Amen.

 

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...