Readings: Psalm 122; Genesis 6:11-22; Matthew 24:1-22
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. [Psalm 122:1-2, 6-9, NRSV]
Jerusalem hasn’t been a city of peace for much of its history. Even now, it sees more than its share of violence – some of it religiously motivated. It is a sacred city to all the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Each of these faiths is a close relative of the others, but followers of those faiths have attacked one another in the name of the God they all share.
This psalm gets me to wondering: what would happen if everyone whose faith claimed Jerusalem wished each other well? What would the world be like if, for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, we sought the good for all of Abraham’s children?
Can we have enough trust in God to bless Jerusalem’s children of other faiths? Can we say to everyone, peace be within your walls?Human frailty may prevent us from offering such a radical blessing on our own behalf, but perhaps, just perhaps, for the sake of the house of the Lord our God, we might find the strength to attempt it.
11 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks.By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. Hebrews 11:1-7
Faith. It’s a strange word, really. More often than not it gets tossed around without much thought being given to its meaning. On any given day we might be urged to have faith in some product that will make us look younger, faith that our dreams will be realized or even faith that the nerdy techie will work wonders on our virus-ridden computer so that it will begin to function properly again. Even talking about faith in God is open to all sorts of possibilities. What does it really mean to have faith in God? Is it belief in a particular doctrine? Is it confidence that if you live the right kind of life you will go to heaven when you die? What is it about God that we are to have faith in?
One of my all-time favorite songs asks if we have faith in God above, implying that the Bible tells us so. It goes on, claiming that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost all caught the last train for the coast. Even though I like this song, I’m not big on its theology. A “God above” is to me a distant and aloof God. A God that would catch any train to get out of town is in my way of thinking a God that is willing to abandon us. And yet, there are times God does seem distant and aloof; there are times we feel abandoned by God.
Advent offers a different perspective and one I believe is a genuine source of faith. It’s not about distance and abandonment; it’s about presence and incarnation. It’s about a God who is here with us, at work in us and among us. A God whose one great desire is to redeem not just us, but all creation—to make it all good as it is intended to be. It’s about a God who is doing all that right now and every day of our lives, even when we feel God is distant and we have been abandoned. Advent is about incarnation. Incarnation is about an ever-present God, who actually became one of us. And this passage reminds us that all we need to be about is seeking this God—not finding, not obeying, not believing, not even feeling good about our relationship with this God, just seeking.
I pray this Advent will be a time of seeking for me and for you.
Offered by Jeff Jones, pastor, writer, traveler walking home to Bethlehem.
[Don McLean, Classics, American Pie (new version), Freeman, Burgess, and Butler, producers, 1992. Purchased from Amazon Video]
My usual focus: the journey to Bethlehem, following in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, and (eventually) Magi. But from a theological standpoint, Advent and Christmas aren’t about the distance I travel: it’s about God coming to this creation I call home and being born into this family of humanity. Emmanuel means God With Us – God coming to us as one of us, entering our homes and our lives so that we might make room for what is holy and life-giving.
Usually, images of candles accompany the writings for Advent. But this year, they will be houses – Jesus coming to live in yours and mine. For each week in Advent, a new one will be added – houses constructed of cardboard, wrapped in scripture, shaped and painted like the row houses found in Philadelphia’s older neighborhoods. These were created from cardboard boxes already used, and from the pages of an NRSV Bible falling apart from years of use. I hope they speak to you of faith and hope, and remind you that God dwells in your home just as surely as anywhere else.
Row Houses, Unfinished by Colin Fredrickson, 2017-2019
Daily devotionals begin November 29th, the prayerful offerings of so many of God’s beloved children.
I pass under this tree half a dozen times a week, on my way to the library, grocery store, or out for a daily walk. I’ve admired its leaves as I’ve walked toward it, and I’ve appreciated its shade in the summer. But I don’t know that I’ve looked up from beneath it. Until my son walked with me, showing me how to take pictures with my new smart phone. It was when Jared raised his camera to take this picture that I looked up and saw how blue the sky looked against the golden leaves. How could I have passed under these branches so many times, blind to their graceful stretching?
A bird’s-eye view can be amazing, and I love seeing things from above. But if this picture is any indication, a groundhog’s-eye view offers its own beauty.
The effect of one good-hearted person is incalculable.
Oscar Arias Sanchez
[Nobel Peace Prize winner, former president of Costa Rica who worked for peace and justice throughout South America]
It doesn’t take millions of dollars or an Ivy League education to change the world. Those things can be helpful, sure enough, but true change is accomplished because it is rooted in the compassionate heart of an individual or group. It’s not really that surprising, if I give it some thought.
The catch: the good-hearted person may never see the change he or she effected. Isn’t that a wonderful truth? The good done remains a mystery to the one who began the whole thing.
It brings to mind another saying: there’s no end to the good you can accomplish – as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit…
May I be thankful enough for what I have and who I am to be unconcerned with receiving credit for the good I might do…
It’s a line from Irving Berlin’s song, delivered in Holiday Inn by Bing Crosby. In the scene, he’s sitting down to a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner alone. A record cheerily plays Bing singing about all the things he’s thankful for while the live Bing sits alone, feeling sorry for himself. He talks back to his recorded self, listing life’s faults and shortcomings. Unlike the line in the song, there’s plenty more he’d like to ask for.
This being a Hollywood musical, everything works out splendidly for everyone involved, and the movie ends with amazing singing and dancing.
Most of us know life isn’t an Irving Berlin musical. We don’t get the girl (or boy, depending), our career plans go awry, and there’s rarely world class singing and dancing to celebrate at the end of each calendar year. Even for the people whose lives work out that way, everything gained doesn’t guarantee joy and fulfillment – no one and nothing can provide another’s happiness and contentment. There will be arguments and bad days.
Bing’s character may be wrong in the everyday sense: a laundry list of positives without the inevitable negatives is naive at best and misleading at worst. But he’s right in the much larger sense. When we know that our lives are held by God, that we are God’s beloved children, we don’t bet our joy and happiness on our current circumstances. We are enough because God delights in us. We may ask for more worldly goods, but there’s nothing more our spirits need to live holy lives. We can be happy, not because what we have is always enough, but because we are always enough. We are always loved. And so, with Bing, we can sing: how could anybody ask for more?
[Irving Berlin, Holiday Inn soundtrack, recorded in 1942, released by Sunbeam records, 1979 & 2004]
Alice Atkins planted hostas, foxglove, and lily-of-the-valley on the two-tiered banking that marks the edge of the back yard. In her last years (and the year between her death and our buying the house), Alice couldn’t tend to the beds; ivy and bittersweet covered everything. It took hours and a lot of hard work to clear the banking of the invasive plants a few weeks after we moved in – Fall of 2002. The work brought a beautiful gift in the Spring: all the plants that had been dormant came back, and myrtle grew to cover the thin, poor soil that could not sustain anything else.
Since that Spring, I have been the second caretaker of this garden, cutting back the choking ivy and thorny bittersweet to give what was lovingly planted a good place to grow. Each year, I say a prayer of thanks to God for the faithful return of perennials, and for Alice’s devotion to planting them and keeping them in the first place. When my time here is over, I hope someone else will become caretaker #3.
I didn’t appreciate the Bible’s garden metaphors until I started tending garden beds myself. Now, it’s a truth that resonates in my bones: when I tend to the life God has given to my care, a beautiful and holy life thrives. When I don’t, I get buried in thorns and choking vines instead. My inner life or my outer one – it applies equally.
Instead of thorns shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. [Isaiah 55:13-14, NRSV]
For you shall go out in joy, and return in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. [Isaiah 55, NRSV]
This morning, I’m sitting at Kiskadee Coffee, gazing out on the cars lining a rain soaked sidewalk. The wind is blowing the limbs and leaves of the two trees across the street. A jogger just zipped by Preferred Properties, headed toward Water Street; a local guy with a Red Sox cap brought a coffee to his friend just outside my window. With people going about their work day, it’s just an average Thursday morning in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Isn’t it?
As I read Isaiah’s words, I wonder how many of the people I can see left their homes with a sense of joy this morning. How many will return home in peace – or find peace when they enter their own doors? My mother used to say that children could handle pretty much any of the world’s challenges if their home was stable and loving. It didn’t have to be perfect, but it had to be a place where everyone felt welcomed and accepted as is.
Perhaps that’s what Isaiah is getting at: the fruition of God’s creation is a cosmic home where everyone belongs. To be at home in the world, no matter where in the world you are, is heavenly. You can leave every morning, finding joy in the day’s adventures; you can return every evening to a peace that refreshes the body, mind, and spirit. It doesn’t have to be perfect or easy – and it won’t be in this lifetime – to be holy.
On a day like today, rainy and windblown, I can almost hear the hills at my back singing for joy, and see in the movements of the still-leafed branches the trees applauding…
Sisyphus spends every day pushing a boulder up a steep incline only to have it fall back into its original position – a punishment for trying to cheat death through trickery. No matter the effort, the result is the same: eternal lack of progress. Sisyphus will never get his boulder up the incline, and all his work won’t change a single thing.
I wonder about my own work sometimes. Does anything I do change my life and the life of the world? All the labor I put into my garden beds doesn’t stop the weeds from moving in the minute I take a breather, and the perennials I cherish will return next year with or without my help. The words I write might have a negligible effect during my lifetime, but will fade into obscurity when I leave this mortal life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. No one will remember my name a hundred years from now.
But that’s not really the point, and it’s not really the truth that matters. Who I am as far as a recognizable name isn’t who I am: it’s just the outer edges. If that were all there was to me, life would be a tragedy. Not just mine, but every life. But that’s not the whole truth or the heart of the story.
I am, before anything else, a child of God. Through my life, God rejoices in creation. In my unique existence, I can see the wonderful creatures God has created; I can see in their beauty, loving acts, and never-to-be-repeated lives a glimpse of eternity. No life is lived in vain, even if I can’t see it or understand it. God’s purposes will be accomplished in surprising ways and on a scale I can’t begin to comprehend. But I can see it in my own, very limited way – and I participate in it through the work of my hands and the prayers of my heart. Nothing isn’t the final word or state – not for me, and not for you. God is.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV]