Love that’s beyond me

Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 19: 18-25; 2 Peter 1:2-15

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts…

On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them…

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Isaiah 19:18, 19-20, 24-25 NRSV

Egypt was a powerful foreign nation in the history of God’s people. Joseph ended up a slave there, and through his rise to prominence was able to save his family from famine by sheltering them within its borders. Years passed, kings changed, and the descendants of Joseph became slaves. The story of their slavery in Egypt, and their journey to freedom is well known, retold every Passover as the central narrative of the Jewish faith. Freedom from the bondage of Egypt formed the people of Israel: Egypt was the nation God rescued them from, not a people of God. The same was true of Assyria. They were the lands of God’s enemies, not God’s devoted followers. How could Egypt ever be God’s people, or Assyria God’s handiwork? How could any other nation be God’s when Israel is and always was God’s chosen?

It’s amazingly difficult to acknowledge that God might love those who have caused us pain. The people we hate are the people we fear, and it’s almost impossible to see in them God’s grace and mercy. And we suspect that if God loves them, maybe there won’t be enough love left for us. It’s much easier and much more comfortable to assume that God’s love ends where ours does. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t end with us because it doesn’t end at all. God’s love isn’t finite and it cannot be lessened no matter how many people and nations receive it.

I love how this passage ends with God blessing Egypt and Assyria. It means that God’s love cannot be limited by my limitations, and it just might mean that my love might not be limited by them either.

Thank you, God, for your love that embraces me and the ones I cannot love yet. Amen.

Up to something…

Readings: Psalm 126; Isaiah 40:1-11; Romans 8:22-25

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:22-25

Groaning is a good way to describe the state we find ourselves in today. We are groaning for a world in a profound state of dysfunction and disarray, groaning for the countless victims of abuse and discrimination and violence, groaning for the seeming inability to find any common ground upon which to build a commonwealth. And if we are honest, we groan also for our own shortcomings and failures – our failure to be what we want to be, what at times we believe we might be. The question for us is: Are these groans the throes of death or the labor of new birth, are they reason for despair or for hope?

In one of the more difficult periods of my life, when groaning seemed like a constant reality, I was sustained by the simple mantra: “God is up to something.” Through the grace of God these few words became a foundation of hope, a hope that, over time, became reality in surprising ways that I could not have planned for or even imagined. Ever since then I have begun to see that the words are not just about me, but have a universal meaning. That, I think, is what Paul is talking about in these few verses. All creation groans because these words do have a universal meaning. In the midst of the struggle, I could not see what God was up to. Just as we cannot see with clarity or certainty what God is about in all creation. We can guess perhaps. But most of all we can hope. We can hope, because there have been times, fleeting times perhaps, when we have caught glimpses of what God is up to. At one time a simple mantra provided such a glimpse for me. On a silent night long ago events in a stable provided such a glimpse for all of us. It is a hope we have for something we cannot see, but which we know will become reality. It is an Advent hope, a hope that can sustain us as we wait, perhaps even wait with patience.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Offered by Jeff Jones, writer, pastor, seeker of the Christ Child.

Strings

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-11;          Luke 3:1-6

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; 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. Malachi 3:1, 2b-3, NRSV

Giving or receiving a gift should be a joyful experience for the one who gives and the one who gets. When the gift is freely given and gratefully received, it is. But that’s not always the case, and some would say it isn’t often the case. Sometimes invisible but powerful things are attached to the present. That car the parents bought for their daughter comes with new tires and the expectation that she will stay local and live at home after high school. The heirloom ornaments are handed down with the understanding that the grandchildren won’t be allowed to touch them. Those visits to aging relatives aren’t free – compensation is expected when Grandpa’s will is read. These unspoken conditions turn a gift into an obligation. What should be an offering of love freely given and happily received becomes the means for manipulation.

The messenger of the Lord will be sent to change just this situation, bringing to light the strings attached to the things we give. Laying bare the expectations shines a light on our mixed motives, removing the facade of selflessness and generosity that disguise self-interest and manipulation. But it’s only when we see what’s behind the gift that we can choose to change how we give and how we receive. Then we have the privilege of giving freely to God and each other – to present offerings to the Lord in righteousness, as Malachi puts it.

I think God sends a messenger to teach us how to give freely because until we learn this, we will never understand how God gives to us – why God joined our human world for the sheer joy of giving us unlimited love. We aren’t expected to earn this love, and it isn’t limited to a particular time and place. It’s offered to all of God’s beloved – and that’s everyone. The gift of a child who grew to love us so much that even death couldn’t take him away. No strings attached.

Baggage

Readings: Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 4:1-6; Luke 9:1-6

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

Luke 9:1-6, NRSV

Compared to most of the people in line to board an early morning flight to Pittsburgh, my son and I travelled light – just a small duffel and a backpack with the essentials for a two day stay. Everyone else had those things plus computers, rolling carry-ons, briefcases, and oversized purses/beach bags. Who knows what checked baggage each traveller dragged along. We were in our seats and settled in under a minute while others were still settling in well after takeoff. Most of them missed the sight of Boston falling away in the early morning light, with stars still visible on the horizon. The same was true when the plane landed: people were so busy collecting belongings and checking devices that they didn’t see the glorious sunrise that began the day. Carrying baggage may be necessary for travel, but it takes attention away from the unexpected magnificence each day can bring. 

 I am easily distracted by baggage, and when combined with my tendency to stick to a pre-arranged schedule it can bring on a blindness to whatever and whomever is around me. Trying to get all my ducks in a row might be industrious, but is that really the point of the journey? I think that’s why Jesus sent the disciples on their way carrying nothing – they had nothing to distract them and no way to avoid engaging with the people they were sent to serve. He isn’t asking them to be irresponsible, just insuring that they will be responsive.

As for the “shake the dust off your feet,” I think that’s less of a testimony against the inhospitality of others as it is sound advice for letting go of the past rather than dragging it along as a new piece of baggage…

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

[Photo by Jared Fredrickson]

Rescue

Readings: Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 3:13-18; Philippians 1:18b-26

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Luke 1:68, 72-73 NRSV

In the reading from Luke, Zechariah speaks of God’s mercy, His promise to rescue His people from their enemies and give them the ability to serve Him without fear.  Zechariah knew that his son John would be the prophet who would remind people of this covenant and prepare the way for the One who would guide their feet in the way of peace. 

Just as in Jesus’ time, our world is wrought with violence and divisiveness.  Do we believe God’s promise to rescue us from our enemies?  Who are the prophetic voices that can guide us on the path of peace, continuing to prepare the way of the Lord in 2018/2019? Could you or I be that voice?  Absolutely!!  I believe that God calls each of us to be like Paul in his Letter to the Philipians, encouraging each other, reminding each other that our hope lies in God’s trustworthy promises not in the false promises of this world. 

We hear so much about fake news but we need reminders that the only truth lies in the Good News of Jesus.  If we preach this Good News in the ordinariness of each day we will be able to reject cynicism and rejoice as Paul did.  Columba Marmion, a Benedictine monk, wrote: “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.“  May our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers experience that echo through us.  I’m counting on your voices to encourage me!

Offered by Ann Fowler, spiritual director, writer, seeker of the Christ Child.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Same Old, Same Old

Readings: Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 3:5-12; Philippians 1:12-18a

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterer, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O Children of Jacob, have not perished.

Malachi 3:5-6 NRSV

The message of the prophets doesn’t vary: stop mistreating my neighbors, especially those in need. Honor the God who created the whole universe (including you and me). Do these, and I will live a holy, blessed life – not necessarily an easy life, but a blessed and holy one.

To do more than half-listen to such words, I’ll have to start with God (that’s what fear the Lord means). When I recognize that God holds me fast, that I can’t possibly be lost to God even when I’ve managed to lose myself, I just might be able to see through illusion, be a steadfast friend, speak the truth, pay my fair share to those who earned it, help those in dire straits, and welcome strangers into the community. I might just have enough about me to see in others the holy face of Jesus.

God will always be God, no matter what mess I make of my life and the world. I will always have a home with God. And so will everyone else – the holy truth that can turn us and this whole world around. As it was, it shall ever be.

Same old, same old. Thank God!

May my life be yours, O God, and a blessing to everyone I meet. Amen.

Along came Jonah

Readings: Psalm 90; Isaiah 1:24-31; Luke 11:29-32

[One of the reasons we read the same Advent passages every three years is to give us a chance to give them more than a cursory glance – and to remember that what was true of human nature two thousand years ago is still true today. Jesus isn’t speaking only to his contemporaries; he is speaking to us, to our generation. So it is to us that the sign of Jonah is given.]

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.” Luke 11:29-30 NRSV

Nineveh was a whole city of the bad part of town: dodgy, dangerous, difficult to navigate for strangers and natives alike. Swindlers, crooks, and con artists were on every street corner, taking advantage of anyone who came their way. It was to this city that God sent Jonah, a prophet who wanted to be sent anywhere else. He preached “repent or die!” with a vengeance. To everyone’s surprise, repent they did. They turned away from the life that brought them only death and began a new life that honored God. If that wasn’t a miracle, what else could be?

Every city has its dark corners, as does every human heart. Flashy special effects that claim to be miracles but are really just entertainment can’t make much of an impression in these dark places. A true miracle is required: someone who loves this world so much that a prophet arrives, the living sign of God’s love and concern.

Just such a person came into the world, and is present in ours even today. Miraculous.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Who Am I, O Lord God?

Readings: Psalm 90; 2 Samuel 7:18-29; Revelation 22:12-16

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come.”

2 Samuel, 7:18-19a NRSV

David wasn’t raised to be king of anything. For reasons beyond his ken, he was chosen by God to rule – and he was honest and humble enough to know it wasn’t out of his own strength. Well on his way to being the greatest king of Israel, he sits himself down before God and asks the question that reveals his true nature: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”

Without God, David can do nothing. His house isn’t great because he is great: his house is great because God holds him and his family. David knows he lives before the Lord and because of the Lord. Who David is, his life and his being, cannot be understood in isolation; he is God created and God related, and he is wise enough to know it.

The same is true of you and of me. We cannot answer the “who am I” apart from God because we are just as God created and God related as David. For reasons beyond our ken, we are chosen by God to live our particular lives. And who knows what those lives may offer to this world? If shepherds and carpenters end up as God’s royal messengers and children, who’s to say we won’t end up being the same?

Time is Relative

Readings: Psalm 90; Numbers 17:1-11; 2 Peter 3:1-8

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world,

From everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”

For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past,

Or like a watch in the night.

You sweep them away; they are like a dream,

Like grass that is renewed in the morning;

In the morning, it flourishes and is renewed;

In the evening it fades and withers.

Psalm 90:1-6, NRSV

Young children don’t have much use for clocks or calendars. For them, time is how long it takes to get from breakfast to play time, or to walk from the front door to the playground. Time is how it is experienced.

From elementary school on, we are very aware of clocks. Time becomes the distance between the 12 and the 12. Seasons aren’t measured by the activities that we do in them as much as they are noted by where they fall on the calendar. But there’s something unreal about the clock-and-calendar concept of time that gets us to appointments on time: it’s not how time works in the largest sense. Post-Einstein, time is relative to the physical universe – much closer in reality to how children experience it. Perspective matters; where you are in the universe (or how fast you might be traveling) affects time. That simplistic version of time we left behind with diapers and naps turns out to be the simple truth of reality at its most profound.

Psalm time is God’s time: Real, related to how, where, and when we experience it. The decade that seems endless for a twenty-something and a passing fancy for a ninety-something, is just a blink of an eye for God.

I think this psalm is meant to remind us that our time is limited. There are a few precious days in even the longest life, and none of them are repeatable. This would be a bleak reality if it weren’t for the first line: God is our home, our dwelling place. We only last for a short period of time, but we return to the love that created us. We go home. And if we are wise, we realize we never really left in the first place…

Gracious God, grant us the wisdom to fill our days with love and our lives with your holy presence. Amen.

On Our Knees

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all… I Thessalonians 3:12

As we begin our new Advent adventure,  there is much strife in the land just as there was amongst the young church in Thessalonika, the capital city of Macedonia (today’s Salonica). In this letter, the earliest extant Christian literature, Paul responds to a crisis in the local church concerning behavior in response to the expectation of the return of Jesus-an eschatological crisis.

Today we struggle with the expectations we have for our governance. The political scene is awash in strife with warring factions, 24/7 news cablecasts, name-calling—not much love showing through. Max Lucado writes in The Applause of Heaven:
“A small cathedral outside Bethlehem marks the supposed birthplace of Jesus.  Behind a high altar in the church is a cave, a little cavern lit by silver lamps.
You can enter the main edifice and admire the ancient church. You can also enter the quiet cave…there is one stipulation, however. You have to stoop.
The door is so low you can’t go in standing up.
The same is true of the Christ. You can see the world standing tall, but to witness the Savior, you have to get on your knees.
So at the birth of Jesus…
while the theologians were sleeping
and the elite were dreaming
and the successful were snoring,
the meek were kneeling.
They were kneeling before the One only the meek will see. They were kneeling in front of Jesus.”
May this first day of the new Church year find us on our knees in expectation of the coming of Messiah, and may the above blessing from the apostle Paul be ours as well.
Offered by Bill Albritton, writer, teacher, seeker of the Christ Child. 
[Lucado, Max; The Applause of Heaven (Thomas Nelson, publisher,1990) ISBN#0849937523]