Sunday, December 25, 2011

Never Alone

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

Among Us

We had a bit of a scare this weekend. One of Walt’s online buddies—who, like countless others during the holiday season, has been struggling with loneliness and despondence—messaged that he was giving up. He felt so isolated and unloved that he wrote, “They won’t find me for weeks after I do it, because no one calls or comes around.” Walt had only his friend’s screen name, first name, the town he lived in, and some sketchy information about his professional life to go on. But he also had two invaluable gifts: driving concern and years of journalism experience. He set out to find his friend, hoping he’d reach him in time. Late last night we heard from his town’s police department. They’d located him. He was alive and had come to grips with his depression. As much as all could be well, it was.

When the good news came, I was staring at Sunday’s Gospel (John 1.1-14), wondering what I could possibly say about this famous passage. This is John’s brilliantly mystical Incarnation account, unhindered by human involvement and incidentals. No Mary, Joseph, Baby, angels, shepherds, Magi, star, stable—nothing we can paint or put on a greeting card—just the Word, the eternal God, calling Light and Life into existence and then becoming Life to bring Light to our dark, dangerous, and deadly world. “They found him!” Walt told me with great relief, adding, “I’m wrung out. I’m going to bed.” He kissed me goodnight, we exchanged “Merry Christmases,” and when I returned to the text, two words from John 1.14 caught my eye: among us.

All That is God’s

The Good News of Christmas is we are not alone. We can never be alone. The Word, unceasingly present, unconditionally loving, and unhampered by our blindness, lives among us. With us. In us. The Word that called Light and Life into existence becomes Life to bring Light to our loneliness, depression, and hopelessness. “Like a father’s only son,” John says—meaning all that is God’s is Christ’s, and all that is Christ’s is ours—the Word that lives among us is “full of grace and truth.” When human graces like kindness, concern, and acceptance forget where we live, the Christ Who lives among, with, and in us presents us with uncompromised grace. When feelings of isolation and abandonment conjure lies to convince us we’re on our own, Christ’s everlasting truth breaks through our darkness.

We’ve worked the Nativity narratives from every angle. We’ve studied the prophets and rehearsed the fulfillment of their messages. We’ve sung the carols about the humble Infant, the shining star, the angel chorus, and the world-shaking implications of two young peasants’ courage to trust God’s promises. Now it’s time for us to contemplate the grace and truth that surround us: we’re never alone.

Emmanuel

“Call Him ‘Emmanuel,’” Isaiah says, “God with us.” Today we rejoice in the Word that became flesh to live among us, praying we won’t let this sacred season pass without renewing our faith that we are never alone.

May the Word bring Life and Light to us in vivid ways that fill us with grace and truth. Happiest of Christmases to you all. Love, Tim.

Postscript: “No One is Alone”

It’s not a carol, hymn, or Christian song of any kind. It’s not even about God. It’s from Into the Woods, a musical about giants and witches and magic beans. Yet, despite the lyrical anomalies, every time I hear Stephen Sondheim’s “No One is Alone,” I hear the Word speak assurance to me: "I became flesh for you. You're never alone."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hollow Days

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. (Matthew 23.25-26)

Red-and-Green Scare

In what’s become a “Daily Show” holiday tradition, Jon Stewart—the mock newscast’s corrosively irreverent, acutely perceptive anchor—has delighted in lampooning this year’s dispatches from the so-called “War on Christmas.” Stewart’s gripe, echoed by millions from every creed and persuasion, takes aim at far-right extremists who blindly equate Americanism with Christianity. Year after year, they scour the landscape for examples of jurists, officials, and merchandisers deleting “Christ” from “Christmas.” This just in: the Littleburg city council has banned the Nativity crèche from the firehouse lawn. This just in: a judge has enjoined Gopher Gulch Elementary from dramatizing Luke 2 at its year-end assembly. This just in: a new Big Store policy prohibits employees from wishing their customers a merry Christmas. This just in: Godless hoodlums who hate Jesus are trying to destroy everything He and America stand for!

This media-spun, 50s-style Red-and-Green Scare reached a new low several days ago, when Bill O’Reilly—FOX News’s über-“American” and self-professed “Christian” pundit—fired back in a commentary capped with this statement: “Jon Stewart is going to Hell.” O’Reilly’s freedom to disagree with, even to disparage, Stewart is a sacrosanct American right. Yet, as a Christian, surely he’s aware no Scripture authorizes him to sentence Stewart or anyone else to eternal damnation. Has he forgot—or does he not care—that the Babe he’s so consumed with enshrining will become the Rabbi Who preaches, “With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get”? (Matthew 7.2) Is he more concerned with winning arguments than compromising his witness and endangering his soul? Is not deigning to speak for God the height of what he decries—godlessness? There lies the hypocrisy of Red-and-Green Scare tactics. Leveraging condemnation to force Christ down non-believers’ throats is patently unchristian. It’s the antithesis of perfect love that, according to 1 John 4.18, “casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” In threatening Stewart with Hell, it is O’Reilly who should be afraid.

All Show, No Substance

Need it be said that Red-and-Green Scare perpetrators run afoul of cherished American principles like inclusiveness, religious diversity, and separation of Church and State? Americanism cannot—and must never—be equated with Christianity for reasons any seventh grader can understand. Saying we’re a “Christian” nation implies non-Christian citizens are un-American. That’s just ridiculous—especially since they’re not exempt from taxes, military service, regulatory compliance, and other civic duties. (Were that so, no doubt many advancing the far right’s “Christian” agenda would flock to alternative beliefs.) The Founders’ resistance to mixing faith and politics was born of a uniquely American desire to safeguard religious liberty. The Pilgrims settled our nation on conviction that freedom to live by one’s beliefs is immune to government mandate and interference. They were so committed to protecting privacy of faith that they outlawed any public religious expression whatsoever—to the point that decorating the exterior of one’s home for Christmas or saying “Merry Christmas” on the street resulted in stiff fines. If the Red-and-Green Scare muckrakers actually lived in the colonial days they mythologize as our nation’s halcyon Christian era, they’d be tossed in jail, never to be seen or heard again.

As an informed citizen, the “War on Christmas” charade strikes me as preposterously anti-American. As an informed believer, it appalls me. It exploits the Prince of Peace’s birth to excuse bloodthirsty partisan attacks. It perverts the season centered on Christianity’s holiest day into a run of hollow days that defile the Christ Child by refuting His message. It astounds me that Christmas’s uncalled-for defenders can say, “Peace on Earth, goodwill to all people” and “Go to Hell” in one breath. I tremble to think how many confuse their phony tantrums with Christ’s true ways. And before my anger rises up, my heart sinks in dismay that otherwise intelligent people have no clue their self-righteous façade exposes their corruption and bigotry. Their devout rhetoric can’t quell one’s sense they’re to our time what many Pharisees were to Jesus’s: all show and no substance.

A Humbug

In Matthew 23, Jesus gears up to describe the times preceding the Second Coming by pronouncing seven woes on leaders who poison the faith climate of His day. His list of complaints reads like a modern op-ed diatribe that pulls down the “Christian” extremist platform plank-by-plank. He charges them with: religious exclusion; breeding hatred; placing trust in riches; neglecting justice, mercy and faith; whitewashing rotten ideas; and revising history to enhance their image. Dead-center of His furious rampage against their recklessness, Jesus unleashes His fourth outrage: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.” (v25-26)

In one fell swoop Jesus crushes the presentation-is-everything myth that media mavens, spin doctors, politicians, and religious pretenders swear by. Just as pinning a flag to our lapels doesn’t make us patriots, defending public Nativity scenes and saying “Merry Christmas” don’t make us Christians. If our motives are impure, our faith is a figment of imagination. Our words ring as hollow as our souls. This isn’t one man’s opinion, a bone of left-right contention, or open for debate. It’s a matter of record, spoken 2000 years ago by the One we claim to serve. If we disagree, we might consider stepping away from the pulpit and off the air long enough to get on our knees and discuss the issue with Him.

Keeping “Christ” in “Christmas” means nothing if we don’t keep Christmas holy. Declaring, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” is futile if our reasons for saying so contradict the purpose of His birth. It’s silly of us to sing, “Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,” while creating disharmony, bullying people, and preaching favoritism. O’Reilly’s impudence was foolish—and disheartening—twice over. First, as a Jew, Stewart subscribes to a faith that doesn’t believe in Hell; it was a hollow threat. But second, O’Reilly took a hammer to his own piety and revealed the hollowness it masks. The “War on Christmas” is a humbug. It proves, once again, there’s nothing to the myth that presentation is everything.

We adore You, O Christ—Prince of Peace, Joy of our desiring, and Mediator between God and humanity. May we not pass this holiest of seasons without searching our hearts. Give us grace to purify ourselves through and through. Make us holy vessels for Your glory and honor. Amen.

The Red-and-Green Scare’s “War on Christmas” is a humbug that contradicts the purpose of Jesus’s birth and everything He represents.

Postscript: “Instruments”

The “War on Christmas” malarkey hastens us to renew the vow St. Francis of Assisi immortalized in his prayer. As Sarah McLachlan’s haunting rendition reminds us, we are instruments of God’s peace, love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy. We are called to bear Christmas’s vitally needed gifts to the world, not to stomp them to bits in a phony war to defend its public expression.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Swaddling

This will be a sign for you: you will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. (Luke 2.12)

Poetry

Advent’s journey of long, still, and sober nights is winding down. Three days from now, Earth will tilt on its axis—a prized event for those who’ve endured six months of waning daylight. North, south, east, and west, Advent pilgrims have Bethlehem in full view. We who are given to flights of imagination envision millions of faithful believers converging on a country road that snakes across broad meadowlands outlying the hilltop village known as “the City of David.” And right about here is when I (and I suspect many like me) really start to miss the King James Version’s Nativity accounts. Up to this point, newer, more accurate translations of the Advent texts are a godsend. Once we get to the birth, however, modern versions can’t compete with the KJV’s poetry.

Compare the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the angel’s instruction to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2.12) Now listen to the KJV: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” I would guess the KJV’s use of “swaddling” is the first time most of us encounter the term. Since it sounds comfy, we assume “swaddling clothes” are akin to a receiving blanket—a downy wrap for a newborn. And we may be shocked to learn they're not. The NSRV’s tone-deaf “bands of cloth” is spot-on. Swaddling clothes are fabric strips that bind ancient newborns’ movement. After birth, they’re bathed and salted (to preserve their soft skin), and tightly wrapped below the neck to protect them from insect bites and straighten their limbs. Swaddling is anything but comfy. It’s hot, confining, and makes for very unhappy babies. The Baby Jesus we imagine nestled in a warm blanket is not Whom the shepherds find. They see a cranky, immobilized Infant Who looks more like a mummy than a Holy Child. So much for poetry.

A World That Restrains Him

Swaddling continued into the 1600s, well after artists began depicting the Nativity in paint and stone. Even among works dated before it went out of vogue, however, very few portray a tightly wrapped Child. (Those that do present Jesus as blissfully content to be bound neck-to-foot.) Personally, I can’t recall swaddling in any Sunday school and storybook illustrations from my childhood. Nor do I remember a Bible teacher or minister explaining it—ever. Without asking, the reason seems apparent. A corseted, bawling, miserable Baby Jesus is counterintuitive to all He represents. This is the Child Who brings freedom, peace, and joy to the world. Why would an artist, teacher, or minister present Him any other way but free, peaceful, and happy?

Yet peeking into a flea-infested manger to spy a trussed-up, squirmy, fretful Christ Child somehow appeals to me. I’m strangely moved by thought of Jesus coming into a world that instantly restrains Him and causes His parents great anguish. What frustration Mary must feel, as she fights every urge to loose Him and hold the flesh of her flesh to her bosom. How Joseph must ache to take Jesus’s tiny hand in his calloused palm and feel the touch of God. The agony they must experience, as the Baby wails to break free. And in that moment, they epitomize a profound conflict that burdens all of us who carve a birthplace for Christ in our hearts.

Born to Be Free

Conventional wisdom says restricting Jesus’s movement in our lives is best for Him. If we truly love Him, we won’t expose Him to our diseases. His reach must be severely limited and His touch denied. For His health and safety, His cries to be loosed must be ignored. A freely moving Christ is an irresponsibly handled One, we’re told. This Sacred Child’s misfortune is being born into a world of clear and present dangers none so pure as He could possibly withstand. Sharp bites of infectious hatred and violence that barely faze us will destroy Him. Pressures that tie us in knots will bend and break His tender limbs. Swaddle Jesus, we’re told. Wrap Him up tightly to shield Him from evils and ugliness that plague our world. Be afraid for Him—and fear what people will think if you give Him free access in your life. Imagine their discomfort when they see the Christ born inside you held close to your bosom. Think of their alarm when touching the hand of God matters more to you than bowing to custom. Worry more about what will be said of you behind your back than the Christ Child’s cries to be loosed in your heart.

Perhaps painters and sculptors, teachers and ministers don’t present a swaddled Jesus because they’ve freed the Christ born in them. Perhaps they’ve come to grips with a truth that conventional wisdom doesn’t account for: the tiny Babe is indestructible. He’s the Eternal Word made flesh, God Incarnate, the Creator disguised as creation. We need neither be afraid for Him nor fear what people will think and say. The Baby born to free us is born to be free in us. Come to the stable. Look in the manger. But don’t stop there. Lift the Child from the hay. Unravel His restraints and let them fall away. Permit Him to move as He pleases. Permit yourself to hold Him close. Feel God’s touch. Discover the freedom from fear, peace of mind, and joy of living that Christ brings. Set Jesus free.

Most Holy and Indestructible Child, we confess bowing to conventional wisdom that urges us to restrict Your movement. We repent of our foolish fears and conformity. Be free in us. Move as You will. And free us to let You remain free, to hold You close and feel Your touch always. Amen.

See the Newborn trussed in swaddling and set Him free. (Georges de la Tour: Adoration of the Shepherds; c. 1644)

Postscript: “Move in Me”

Take this little song with you to the manger. Sing it quietly, as a prayer to the Infant. Set Him free, and find the freedom, peace, and joy He brings.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Disclosure

Now to God Who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles. (Romans 16.25-26)

Mechanics and Meaning

Though I find dogs endearing and admire the mutual loyalty that binds them and their masters, there’s no getting around it. I’m a cat lover through and through. And if I’m not careful, I can easily turn into the worst kind of cat lover—the insufferable kind that bores people blind with tedious testimonials of how clever and unique his felines are. But, as much as I resist saying so, our two are remarkably clever and unique. While Cody and Max get along splendidly, their interests couldn’t be less alike. Mechanics fascinate Cody. We catch him watching us use gizmos, and once he’s sure he’s got the process down, he’ll practice until he masters it. He turns on faucets, flips off light switches, awakens computers, and retrieves pages from the printer. Max doesn’t care how things work. He’s intrigued with what they’re for. He connects their function to the world around him. When suitcases come out, he knows we’re going away. When the microwave whirs, he knows we’re about to eat. When darkness begins to fade, he scurries to a window and doesn’t budge until the sun finds its place in the sky.

So much about Max and Cody reminds me of our responses to God’s promises. Sometimes we’re like Cody. A promise sets off an obsession with how it will work. We devote exorbitant time and energy to questions we can't possibly answer. Then, sometimes we’re like Max. Curiosity about what the promise is for—what it means—overtakes us and we won’t rest until we connect its function to the world around us. Neither is necessarily bad, except when God isn’t forthcoming about the promise’s mechanics and/or meaning. In those cases, our only choice is to let it play out, because obsessing about it is the way of madness.

Advent’s Big Lesson

What is Advent, if not a refresher course in the inscrutable mechanics and indecipherable meaning of God’s promises? It plunges us into the murky depths of Second Coming parables and prophecies, and challenges us to compare our befuddlement to the bewilderment surrounding Christ’s birth. Advent makes no pretense that we’ll solve either mystery. But when we do the hard work it assigns us, actively engaging its material—instead of trudging through the semester to get to the holiday—we come out with increased certainty that God’s great promises always include an intricately detailed strategy to back them up. And with that, we gain a richer understanding that the difference between our relationship with God and those we forge with one another rests in their opposing ideas of mutual trust.

We gauge confidence in human relationships by how we openly confide in each other. With God, comfort with not knowing indicates the extent of our faith that God knows everything about us and what’s best for us. For no reason besides pure love for us, God spares us the heartache—and headache—of wrestling with what we can’t possibly absorb by telling us only what we need to know. We never offend or anger God by asking for more information. Before we ask, though, we should prepare not to be offended or angry when God refuses. God loves us too much to burden us with more than we can digest. In return, God trusts us to wait patiently on God’s promises, knowing they’ll be honored in ways that ultimately make their mechanics and meaning transparent.

That’s the Big Lesson of Advent, isn’t it? While we’re perched in a tumultuous present, peering at impenetrable promises of future peace and deliverance, Advent teaches us to refresh our recall of how God’s promises come to fruition. The immense complexity of God’s covenant with Israel cripples the mind. It spans thousands of years, involves countless people and dozens of nations, accounts for each step in human progress, and acquires no end of finely nuanced implications that affect every aspect of our existence. Even though the Bible records its epic proportions in painstaking detail, synthesizing its mechanics and meaning would exceed our capabilities were it not for how they’re revealed.

The promise arrives wreathed in simplicity and haloed with wonder. It’s revealed through a maiden so far removed from the nexus of political, social, and religious power that the Child she bears irrevocably redefines power’s meaning and importance for all time. Every mortal expectation is subverted by something so impossible it never crossed the brightest minds. Sacrosanct prejudices are abolished, inequitable judgments overturned, and manmade traditions dismantled. And all of this transpires not by deafening pronouncements in vast arenas, but by the barely audible cry of an illegitimate Baby born in the seedy obscurity of a borrowed stable. The promise Israel struggled for generations to grasp becomes transparently evident in ways they never imagined.

What Thwarts Our Faith

As Paul ends his epistle to the Romans—by far his most thorough explanation of why patient trust in God’s promises serves our best interests—he encapsulates Advent’s Big Lesson. He prays God will strengthen the Romans “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith.” (Romans 16.25-26) It’s likely this passage (Sunday’s New Testament reading) may feel the squeeze of the other texts: Luke’s rendering of The Annunciation and Mary’s song, and 2 Samuel’s account of another great promise, when God ordains David to build a magnificent temple. Yet the majesty foreshadowed in the more auspicious readings radiates its fullness in Paul’s three verses.

We have no doubt God’s promises are true. Obsessive curiosity about how they work and what they mean is what thwarts our faith. It sets us up for needless frustration and impatience. As Advent’s Big Lesson nears it close, it refreshes our memory and reminds us that full and transparent disclosure will arrive the moment God makes good on God’s promise. Without fail, we will be stunned by the extent of God’s plan and meanings it unfolds. Until then, we’re wise to trust God to perform as promised and honor God’s trust in us by waiting until the promise comes to pass. God keeps secrets in order to keep promises.

Giver and Keeper of great promises, we pray Your strength to trust Your love and wisdom in honoring Your vows to us. Increase our capacity to wait. May confidence in Your full and transparent disclosure well up within us as we defer to Your timing, plan, and purpose. Amen.

The makings and meanings of God’s promises exceed our understanding. All we need to know is when God makes good on a promise, everything about it is transparently clear.

Postscript: “All Things Are Working for Me”

What happens when we take Advent’s Big Lesson and scale it down to a personal size? At some point, our trust in God’s promises shrink in the face of looming despair and defeat. No singer/songwriter I know is more gifted than Fred Hammond at translating divine principles like trust and patience into candid responses. This song, which moves me no end, makes no mention of Christ’s birth or what it reveals. Yet few, if any, Advent hymns and Christmas carols express the struggle to wait for delivery of God’s promises—which is what Advent and Christmas are all about.


ALL THINGS ARE WORKING


Falling apart and tearing at the seams

Tribulation lends a hand and squeezes your hopes and dreams

You say you retreat, you say you just can't win

Before you let your circumstance tell you how the story ends


God's Word says you can stand

He'll cover you with His grace

Everything you need is in your hand

So lift up your head and say


All things are working for me

Even things I can't see

Your ways are so beyond me

But You said that You would

Let it be for my good

So I'll rest and just believe


I know you say you've got it bad right now

Let me say I know that feeling well

To make good plans for life

And then you watch them take a downward spin

Let me encourage you while I encourage me

See the raging rain and wind

But He'll speak peace and it will end


All things are working for me...


Many days and night I cried because I felt let down

I won't always receive good

But a praise in my heart will remain

So with tears in your eyes

Know sometimes it might get rough

But say, Lord I love you more and that's enough to know...


All things are working for me...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Magicians and Kings

Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the Child Who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage.” (Matthew 2.1-2)

Wizards

It’s rarely mentioned that the Christ Child’s most illustrious visitors are revered practitioners of occult arts. Bible translators take pains to divorce the star-brought Easterners from their profession, calling them “wise men,” or loosely transliterating Matthew’s word (magoi) as “Magi.” We associate them with storybook images of lavishly robed men presenting treasure to Baby Jesus. But in Matthew’s day, the Magi are legendary disciples of Zoroaster, the Persian seer credited with inventing astrology and composing two epic poems that depict humanity’s struggle to discern truth and lies. The Magi’s quest for truth and reputation for reading the skies lend credence to Matthew’s assertion a star brings them to Jesus's crib. What goes unnoted in his Gospel, however, is first-century readers’ assumption their gifts to divine astral augurs also equip them to alter fates foretold in the stars. In short, they’re wizards at rewriting history.

The Magi’s appearance in Matthew raises eyebrows, since he shapes his Gospel for notoriously xenophobic Jewish readers, whose sacred texts explicitly warn against consulting with astrologers and sorcerers. Thus, it’s likely that Matthew’s intended readership reacts very differently to the Magi than we do. What we find enchanting—the star, fancy costumes, gold, and exotic spices—is worrisome to them. Foreign magicians have no place in their Messiah narrative. Sure, the prophets tell of Gentile kings bowing before Israel’s King with offerings of gold and incense. But Matthew sends in kings’ men—well-paid staff astrologers who answer their king’s beck and call, even accompanying him in battle, where they monitor heavenly signs and wield magical powers that turn the tide in his favor.

Agency

At risk of alienating literal-minded readers, Matthew bends Jewish prophecy in hopes that more insightful ones will perceive the Nativity’s magnitude. The Magi’s presence in Bethlehem confirms Jesus’s birth as a Messianic event that signals the end of religious labels and exclusion—in other words, a New Order aligned with God’s intention that Jesus be the Savior of the world. While Luke stresses the universal significance of Jesus’s birth by setting it in a barn and delegating His worship to country bumpkins, Matthew ignores all of that to sock his readers with a staggering blow. The Magi are everything they loathe and fear—strangers, pagans, and sorcerers! They’re filthier than the filthiest stable. Yet they alone display courage to seek Christ. Which brings us to Matthew’s most radical point.

The Magi’s purported ability to change history invests Matthew’s scenario with a revolutionary concept: human agency. Prior to this, Israel’s hope for a Deliverer reflects the same passive position it takes in relationship to God. It watches and waits. God speaks and works. But the Magi see a star and, ascertaining its importance, they move without delay. Of the Nativity’s players, only they act without angelic directive. In a sense, they intrude on the story by making it their business to find Jesus. That’s not to say their involvement isn’t by divine providence, however. After inadvertently endangering Jesus’s life when they ask King Herod where they can find the King of the Jews, they do precisely what they’re known for: circumvent history. A dream alerts them that Herod plans to murder Jesus, and to ensure His safety, they defy the King’s request that they inform him where the Child is. They bypass Jerusalem, returning home another way. Matthew’s omission of any instructions in the dream makes clear they leave like they came—of their own volition. Acting solely on their agency, they bring something altogether new and dangerous to the Messianic equation. Matthew tells his readers salvation is a joint venture with God requiring our courage and active commitment.

Contrast

Ironically, it appears Matthew is rewriting history to include the Magi and Herod in his account. Historians find no evidence of the infant massacre that he claims directly resulted from the magicians’ disregard for the king’s wishes. Since the brutality of Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by slaughtering every male baby in Bethlehem couldn’t escape notice, no existing record of it calls Matthew’s veracity into question. Yet supposing his Magi subplot is bald fiction, his integrity remains intact, because he leads us to contrast magicians with kings. Magicians act without asking. Kings ask before they act. Kings just so happen to make history. Magicians change history so what’s just happens. Magicians seek truth. Kings spread deceit. Matthew asks which we will emulate. Will we actively pursue the opportunity to seek and worship Christ? Or will we passively sit by, expecting to benefit from others who do?

Whether or not Matthew’s account is factual, placing people who don’t belong at Jesus’s crib makes it true. He eliminates any visitors other than the Magi simply to dramatize God’s infinite love and acceptance for those who come to Christ of their own volition. That’s the crux of Matthew’s story: faith is a willing act, not a command performance. “We observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage,” the Magi confess. (Matthew 2.2) The Gospel goes on to say, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” (v3) The very ones who should rejoice to hear their Messiah is born are terrified—and with good cause. They’re awaiting a ruler who divides and conquers, not one who wins the adoration of strangers, pagans, and wizards.

Belonging

On the strength of a new star, the Magi foresee a New Order that unites the world in harmony and peace. That’s a dangerous prospect for kings, nations, and people who leverage exclusion, labeling, and the hatred they spawn to nullify the legitimacy of anyone they choose. On the strength of a new star—and the fiber to act on what they see—the Magi take back the right to choose. They voluntarily leave palaces where they’re respected and venture into a lowly place where they clearly don’t belong. Their courage illuminates our understanding that not belonging is why they belong.

As we enter Advent’s final days, may we shed any remnants of kingly traits—all hesitance and fear—to embrace the Magi's mindset. May we fix our eyes on the star we’ve seen and exercise our right to discover where it leads. May we ask dangerous questions and take bold risks that alter history. And when our quest ends with paying homage to the Newborn King, may our awareness that many think we don’t belong there secure our conviction we’re exactly where we belong.

Blessed Redeemer, our Deliverer, we’ve seen Your star and willingly followed it without reservation. Equip us with courage to finish this journey. Bring us safely to Your sacred birthplace, where not belonging is why we belong. Amen.

While it would seem Jesus’s birthplace is nowhere for sorcerers, the Magi prove the opposite by actively seeking and worshipping Him. (James Tissot: The Journey of the Magi; 1894)

Postscript: “We Three Kings”

The famous carol gets it wrong; the Magi aren’t kings (and Matthew doesn't limit them to three). Yet it also gets this right: “King forever, ceasing never over us all to reign…”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All We Ask of Christmas

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD. (Psalm 27.4)

The Search

If we deconstruct The Nativity into two categories, one “Divine” and the other “Human,” dominant themes for each become apparent. The divine side is preoccupied with manifestation. God’s exquisite design is manifestly transmitted through supernatural media: angels everywhere, an astral phenomenon in the easterly sky, the unborn infant leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, and her impromptu prophecy to Mary. There’s no mistaking that Something Big is underway—the Biggest Something there ever was or ever will be, the Big Something everyone’s waiting for. So God removes any possibility for doubt. It’s manifestly obvious to all who receive the good news: This Is It.

The manifestations are writ large in headlines, with quick summaries attached. Mary’s told how she’ll conceive God’s Son, and that’s pretty much it. The rest is hers to figure out. The same goes for Joseph. His angelic dream instructs him to stand by Mary, yet offers no tactics to deal with the situation’s many intricacies. The Magi see the Eastern Star and realize what it signifies. But it’s not much more than a road sign hung in the sky; there’s no address attached. Angels declare Christ’s birth to shepherds, hasten them to Bethlehem, and inform them what to look for. Yet they don’t provide precise directions to the stable. So virtually every human in the Christmas story responds to these manifestations by looking for answers and guidance. Their column header is “The Search.” And for those who undertake it, the months, weeks, and hours leading up to the final manifestation are full of “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.”

It’s tempting to question why God chooses to make good on the promise of a Savior in ancient times. Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait until we get the whole mass communication thing down, so this good news can spread virally? I think God’s got more than breaking news in mind. The ancients’ limitations immunize them from a curse we can’t seem shake. They’re not nearly as flippant about things that can’t be naturally or logically explained. Narrow understanding broadens their vision. Thin facts amplify their aptitude for thin places, where reason’s failure makes blind trust the only option. For them, “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” are unabashed confessions. Not knowing and feeling unsure don’t threaten them. Do they wish they’d been given more thorough directions? Probably. But since so much of their lives proceeds without explanation, they avoid the modern pitfall of procrastinating until every detail is explicitly defined and every possibility considered. (We theorize. They theologize.)

Seeing Christ

To illustrate the magnitude of differences between their era and ours, let’s run a few likely scenarios if God delayed Christ’s birth for our time. If we were Mary’s parents and knew her to be a truthful child, we’d still question why the angel told her to name the Child “Jesus,” but left no further instructions. If we were Joseph’s friends, we’d urge him to hold out for more information before moving too hastily. If we were the Magi’s colleagues, we’d laugh at the idea of trusting a star’s trajectory to guide them to Christ’s birthplace. If we were shepherds who missed the angelic concert, we’d tell the others they were crazy to go on a wild chase and risk getting fired. Those would be our gut reactions.

With more thought, we’d blow their stories to pieces. Hang on, Mary: Isaiah says the Messiah will be called “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.” Hang on, Joseph: The Law says a man whose fiancée gets pregnant should put her to death. Hang on, Magi: The star rises in the East; Palestine is west. Hang on, shepherds: Israel’s Savior will come as a King, not a poor Infant in a manger. Maybe some register these objections. Yet with so few facts littering the searchers’ lives, these arguments carry less weight for them than they would for us.

Strange and inexplicable events inspire ancient minds to suspect divine activity. While their manifestations offer no advice, the searchers are all given the Child’s true identity. Mary’s told He’s God’s Son. Joseph learns He’ll be the Savior. The Magi’s star signifies He’s Israel’s King. The shepherds hear He’s Christ the Lord. That’s all they need to set off on their search, because all they want is to look on the Redeemer’s face. Just knowing Who He is drives their belief they will see Him. And they believe seeing Him will enable them to see everything differently.

Asking to See

Sight causes modern minds to believe. Ancient thought insists belief leads to sight. Psalm 27 begins with David declaring belief: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid… Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though wars rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” (v1,3) Then, in verse 4, we find him asking to see: “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD.” Since David knows Whom he’s looking for, he knows exactly what he longs to see—the beauty of the LORD.

Surely by this stage in our Advent pilgrimage we have no doubt Whom we’re seeking—God’s Son, our Savior, Israel’s King, Christ the Lord, our Light and our Salvation. We’re long past fearing “I don’t know” and feeling threatened by “I’m not sure.” Argument’s armies and warring opinions can’t shake our belief we’ll arrive at the manger. Since that’s all we need to know, all we ask of Christmas is one thing: to behold the beauty of the Lord. Let those who assert that the Nativity is a myth live with their doubts. We’re not seeking literalism; we’re searching for Light. Let those who quibble with implausibility feed their addiction; we crave impossibility. We believe we will see Christ’s beauty, and that will forever change how we see. Isaiah 40.5 promises, “The glory of the LORD will be revealed.” We hazard our way to Bethlehem, driven by certainty we’ll find the impossible beauty awaiting us there. To behold it—that’s all we ask.

Impossibly Beautiful Child, conceive anew in us profound belief that leads us to sight. May these final days of Advent be fueled with determination to behold You. Draw all of us to the manger, eager to be astonished and changed. Amen.

One thought drives us to Bethlehem: to behold the beauty of the Lord.

Postscript: “Come Darkness, Come Light”

This reprises a video I made for an Advent post last year. Yet I think it speaks to the desire to see that drives our journey. I trust you’ll enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

a place where change looks possible

Preface

Our church has taken “building a place” as this year’s Advent theme, and we’re doing just that. Each week a large set piece is added to the sanctuary—a pair of workhorses, wide doors, hayloft, and (soon to come) a manger—to suggest the construction of a stable and reinforce the idea of preparing a place for Christ to be born anew in us. An evocative musical number and cleverly insightful sketch set the stage for each sermon, whose title builds off “a place where”—printed in lower-case, subtly muting the racket affixed to Christmas so our contemplations are in scale with Bethlehem’s humility. It’s been a profoundly moving journey. And though there’s more to come, it well may have peaked with last Sunday’s message, “a place where change looks possible.” When our pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, finished, few eyes were dry and very few doubts remained that any of us will ever see Advent and Christmas the same way again. I was so stirred, my thoughts turned to all of you. With Joy’s permission, I’m sharing it here, in its entirety, conceding its power on the page can’t compare with her inspired delivery. Nonetheless, the sermon—which synthesizes Isaiah 61 and John 1.6-9, 19-28—has much to tell us and gives us much to think about. I trust you’ll take time to read it, and make time to sit with it, wrestle with it, and be blessed by it. If its impact here is half of what we experienced, my prayers in passing it along will be answered.

Weekly stable construction in the Lake View Presbyterian sanctuary: doors (L) and hayloft awaiting the hay delivery (R).

Prayer for illumination

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. Ransom us, O God, as we sit captive to many things. Ransom us that we might be free to encounter your liberating Word this day, right now. Amen.

Being Changed

A double dose of most things would seem excessive, would call for restraint, might even be dangerous. But a double dose of John the Baptist in the wilderness delivered by our lectionary is clearly here to make a point about Advent. Last week from Mark, this week from the Gospel of John, we hear the story of John the Baptist, precursor to Jesus. Part of why it is hard to hear is because we think we should be getting on with things by now. Isn’t it time for carols and the Baby, the soft side of the story? No, not yet.

Thomas Merton wrote, ”The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” Most of us would be undone by that, Many days I am undone by it. I suspect we’re all feeling off guard a bit by the notion that somehow we’re actually being transformed into Christ during Advent. That’s probably not what we signed up for. We want to see Christ. We’re glad for the story of angels and shepherds and Magi. We’re impressed with Mary’s courage, and Joseph’s commitment, and even God’s ingenuity with the delivery method for this important message. Still, we usually picture keeping our own human autonomy as we hear the story repeated for yet another year. We watch it unfold at a distance.

Merton would suggest that something a bit more lasting is happening, that in Advent we are actually being changed into something recognized as Christ. That is beyond the pale for most of us, and it’s easier to just hunker down and wait for the Christmas carols to finally come out. (And for those of you who are counting, they will come out next week.)

The One True Light

John came to testify to the one true light. That light would be Jesus, would be Christ, would be the Messiah. Even when everyone else around him seems confused, he seems to be comfortable with the job. The author of the gospel of John gives John the Baptist a little attitude and the conversation between John and the priests is almost funny. John sidesteps the questions with clever answers. He keeps them guessing about who he is and what his function will be.

John’s was the last of the Gospels to be written down, to the community that probably most needed to hear about testifying. But John the Baptist makes a bit of a mockery of their questioning: Who are you? Well, I’m not the Messiah. What then? Are you Elijah? I am not. Are you the Prophet? No. You’d think that he’d been coached by a good attorney, who warned, “Just answer the questions!” Then comes the breaking question: Well, then, who are you? I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; make straight the way of the Lord. Well, if you are just a voice, they reason, why all the baptizing? It’s a trick question. He may be quoting Isaiah, but he isn’t authorized to perform this priestly function. But John the Baptist turns it around again: I’m just baptizing with water. The one who is coming after me? I’m not worthy to tie the thong of his sandal. No mention of fire, like last week. No mention of Holy Spirit. Just an allusion to the stature of the One Who will come after John.

John the Voice is out here doing his own thing, based on his belief that his singular job is to pave the way for God’s own Son to appear on the earthly scene. Did he know what that would be like? Well, partly. But he didn’t know everything, because if you remember, he ended up with his head on a plate. Surely if he would have known, he would have been more careful, don’t you think? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he was just faithful.

Big Ideas

Isaiah’s ideas are big ones. They become Jesus’ big ideas, too, when he starts his adult ministry—this idea about good news (which means “gospel”) to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. Prisoners in Isaiah’s day were either political prisoners or people in debt. No prison space was taken up by hardened criminals; criminals were taken care of another way, if you catch my drift. People in debt in prison might have family members that could pay “on time” to get them out. It was one of a number of rackets. And in a time when the oppressed were never out of debt, you know who it was in prison waiting for the good news that Isaiah, then Jesus promised.

Anyway, these big ideas sound lofty, they sound like something we want, and they are just poetic enough to capture our imagination. But most of the time, before we get too carried away with the prophetic call, our rational mind kicks in gear and says, “Really, can this happen?” Well, probably not in our lifetime. How do we have faith like John the Baptist had, when we run short of patience with the waiting, when our rational minds have seen one too many oil deals, one too many businesses collapse, one too many bailouts, one too many scams, one too many abused children, one too many corrupt politicians.

This week alone is enough to make us skeptical, isn’t it? More young people come forward in the Penn State mess, and another of our governors [Rod Blagojevich] is going to jail, and the judge says he ripped at the moral fabric of our society… That’s flowery language for we just don’t trust anyone much anymore.

Reason Needs Faith

Two different authors have helped me think about this this week. First is Theodoret, one of the Early Church leaders from the third century. He wrote about being able to perceive God’s light in this way:

To see visible objects we need the eyes of the body.

To understand intelligible truths we need the eyes of the mind.

To have the vision of divine things we cannot do without faith.

What the eye is for the body, faith is for reason.

To be more precise; the eye needs the light which puts it in contact with visible things; reason needs faith to show it divine things.

Reason would have us abandon the big ideas of our prophets for the most expedient, cost effective alternative. And most of the time that path does not bring about justice. Reason needs faith to show it divine things. That’s an interesting definition for faith… the ability to see divine things. And in John the Baptist’s case, it wasn’t just to see divine things, but to talk about them, interpret them, testify to them, and put his life on the line for them.

Open to the Divine

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote these provocative words about faith this week. She says:

Faith and hope can cancel each other out this time of year. Faith is radical trust in what God is doing, even when the divine mode of operation is far from clear… Hope, on the other hand, can easily assume the dimensions of individual and corporate wants. I hope for a white Christmas, a less contentious church, a closer relationship with Jesus, a God Who makes sense. While there is nothing wrong with any of these hopes, they still carry considerable cargo, suggesting that I know not only what my community and I need from God, but also how God might best come to us. The only hope that belongs on this Messiah table is the bare hope of God’s arrival, sweeping all clutter away.

For those of us who think we see pretty clearly what needs to happen to set everything straight in the world, this is sobering news. I think she is suggesting that faith means hanging on even when our idea of things is not coming to pass. Faith means hanging on beyond the time when reasonable people would have given up and gone home. Faith means the ability to see the sacred in the most profane places we can imagine. Faith means being open to the divine incoming in places we do not expect.

For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine could pop in on us at a board meeting in a big business… where we least expect God to be doing business. For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine might pop up in the most tangled up, corrupt political systems we could imagine… where we least expect God to be wheeling and dealing. For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine might pop up in our most contentious family dynamics, the ones that have us bluer than blue this season… a place where we have never had a divine experience before.

Truth be told, God showed up in first-century Bethlehem in a place where no one would have expected anything remotely divine to happen… and just look what happened.

John the Baptist’s faith—this ability to see divine things that were not even present yet—told him that change was coming, and it was possible that God would do a new thing. God would sweep away all the clutter, and make all things new. God would cause “righteousness and praise to spring up,” as Isaiah said.

Push

So what does this mean for you and me, ordinary players in this big drama of Advent? None of us will have the lead roles. The spotlight won’t shine on us individually. There are no lines for us to memorize, no costumes to gather, no anxiety about opening night. But we still have a part to play.

Most of us know well the role of being reasonable. But as Theodoret reminds us, reason needs faith to show it divine things. So maybe our job, our part this Advent is to take that to heart… to let our faith chip away at our own personal reasonableness… and let in the light of something new.

Jackie’s song [“Come to the Manger”] said, “In our darkest of hours wherever we are, the shadows are parted by the light from this star.” In the places where our own lives seem the most undone… can we push our faith to reveal something divine there… even just a little something? Alternatively, in the places where our own sureties about what is right and wrong, good and bad, black and white push us to be disgruntled and cynical most of the time… can we push our faith to reveal something divine there… even just a little something?

What worries me is that our reasonable natures might just make us miss something hugely divine, because we, like those of old, are looking for a king who will lead us into battle (and battle can be defined many, many ways), and God is choosing to work behind the scenes in a stable in Bethlehem.

Watching for It

All we have to go on are these old ancient words, and 2000 years of history of faithful people who have heard them and been led to believe. Evidence of the divine? It is around us. But we have to be watching for it.

It might not be obvious. It might be in the gentle hands of a nurse who is hooking us up to the IV right before we are wheeled in for surgery. It might be in the hug of a teacher who is paying attention to the child who is all of a sudden withdrawn. It might be in the beautiful chortles of a baby who has found her voice for the very first time. It might be in the wise counsel of a senior citizen who has experienced the world and then some. It might be in the patient parent, who has set aside many of their own needs for the years of parenting in order that a new, young life might be launched in a healthy way. It might be… well, as sure as I start to identify places, those won’t be the places you experience the divine or even I experience them again.

Harder than Lent

So, open is the key. Wherever our reasonableness has gotten a bit out of control, maybe there is the place to crack things open a bit. I’m not even sure how that sounds to you, or me for that matter. I like the idea of being open, but my heart is afraid. If I let myself be open to the divine, there could be a lot of other stuff that comes in with it, and that is very scary. Maybe we only like the idea of a sacred experience. What if we were to actually run into one?

Some people think Lent is the hard season, but I say no. This [Advent] is such hard work. In Lent we know exactly what’s getting ready to happen. We are headed to the cross, and there’s no going back, and afterwards the resurrection is going to be good news. But in Advent? We are headed to a manger, and a boy will be born into a world not all that unlike ours, full of danger, and heartache… Full of sorrow and missed opportunity… Full of people whose needs far exceed our ability to meet or give or serve.

The possibility of failing Advent is looming right before us. We could get right up to the door of the manger and freeze: Really. Do I want to go in and risk this? Do I want to look this child in the face and sign my name on the dotted line? Will I ever be able to make good on this promise? To be the ones who will harbor a Baby somewhere inside ourselves and let ourselves be changed? Do I really want to do this? What if I fail? What if I try and fail? What if I can’t muster the courage? What if I embarrass myself? What if I have to talk to people I don’t know? What if I have to help out kids or seniors? Or what if I have to listen to someone else’s pain? It’s so much harder than Lent.

A Dangerous Prospect

This birth requires something of us. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we are not building a stable that you get to look at. We are building a stable that we are inside. These are doors that open to the outside. And if it hasn’t hit you yet, this is a dangerous prospect.

We don’t get to be moved by the beautiful Christmas carols if we aren’t ready to take on the consequences of the birth, the care of a Baby. Unless we are willing to let all the clutter of our lives be blown away, then the trip to the manger has every possibility of being the most devastating thing we have ever done.

Peek over the edge of the manger and look, but don’t make eye contact—because one look and you will be changed. Everything that your reasonable mind will tell you can’t be will all of a sudden look possible. Everything that your reasonable mind would like to quantify and explain away will fall away and in its place will come big Bible ideas like glory, and justice, and righteousness and peace.

And if we have made eye contact with the baby, if we have opened ourselves to the divine, we will discover that reason isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Reason needs faith in order to show it divine things.

May reason scatter, so that divine things might come to us all. Amen.

Peek over the edge of the manger and look, but don’t make eye contact—because one look and you will be changed.

Postscript: “Come to the Manger”

This is the song that Jackie Jasperson, our church’s music director, exquisitely rendered prior to Joy’s sermon.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Open Casting

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. (Isaiah 61.11)

Whose Story Is It?

Every human holds a standing invitation to enter God’s story. God wants us there, actively participating in the epic drama of reconciliation. The divine casting call is wide open, and there’s room for actors of every gender, ethnicity, orientation, class, background, ability, etc. There are no auditions to find the most perfect player for a particular role, no competition with others, no anxious interims waiting to hear if we’ve been chosen. Talent, training, and prior experience—religious or otherwise—have no bearing on whether or not we get the job. God carves out unique spaces in the redemption narrative that only we can fill. We aren’t typecast. We’re created for purpose—born for the part.

We see this over and over in Scripture. In Jeremiah 1.5, God informs the writer, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” David reaches a similar conclusion in Psalm 139.15-16: “My frame was not hidden from You, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” During the Last Supper, as Jesus finalizes His instructions to the disciples, He preempts any potential jockeying for star positions by reminding them, “You did not choose Me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in My name.” (John 14.16-17) Our role comes by divine appointment. When we say, “Yes,” to God, it’s ours.

Availability, not acceptability or adequacy, is the decisive factor. Since some remain unavailable to God’s purpose, the redemption saga evolves organically—with or without us. Awareness of that, combined with recognition that God invites all of us to assume roles we’re born to play, fosters an interesting offstage dynamic. By removing all barriers to our participation, God hands the issue of inclusion to us. We alone choose whether we take part in God’s story. Self-appointed casting directors who insist we’re unfit for roles we’ve been given are running a show that neither affects us nor interests God. We erase doubts about our acceptance and adequacy with two easy questions. Whose story is it? It’s God’s. Who decides if we’re part of it? We do.

At the Very Least, Most

Jesus debunks the myth of exclusion in Mark 10.45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The original Greek employs a word for “many” that emphasizes vast quantities—at very least, most—and implies those unavailable to God constitute the minority. And we get a snapshot of the overwhelming majority in Isaiah 61 (which figures prominently in Sunday’s Advent readings). The prophet writes, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to release the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” (v1-2) It’s not a homogenized, well-adjusted crowd, but a startling convocation of survivors, refugees, outcasts, and criminals. Isaiah’s good news is directed to Jews returning from Babylonian exile. He declares God’s intention to restore their land and generate new growth. He says, “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.” (v11) How Jesus uses the passage in reference to inclusion, however, makes it really fascinating.

Jesus is invited to preach at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4.16-30) He opens Isaiah 61 to explain His role in the redemption story—essentially repeating Mark 10.45: “I came to serve and save the masses.” This doesn’t sit well with Jesus’s childhood friends and neighbors, whose very existence rests on belief that conforming to a religious norm entitles them to rare privileges as God’s “elect.” They maintain insider status by shutting people out. They resist foreign oppression by oppressing strangers. They remedy heartbreak and abuse by hurting anyone unlike them. They assuage grief by causing it. Their notions of justice breed injustice. Now the greatest Teacher and Prophet their town ever produced looks them in the eye and says, “I’m anointed to gather everyone you’ve turned away.” Like many practitioners of Christian exclusion might do today, they answer Jesus’s call for inclusion and compassion by rejecting and attacking Him. They don’t just run Him out of town. They contrive to throw Him into a ravine. Jesus leaves them to their drama and walks away. He chooses not to participate, because it’s fruitless. Their story has no restorative power. It doesn’t nurture righteousness and praise.

The Choice We Make

Advent pushes us to discover why Jesus came by recalling how He came. Christ’s role in redemption commences as a needy, homeless Child. Other than two astutely brave parents, a handful of shepherds, and an entourage of curious pagans, no one is available to welcome Him. No one else takes the part he/she is born to play. They’re chasing other stories, doing other things, and while they’re obeying rules, courting favor, and being counted by a regime that counts them out, the greatest story ever told begins without them. They pass by and say, “No, thanks.” As a result, they never find out that the Babe they ignore comes to make Himself available to them—to welcome, heal, and free them of every sorrow and weakness hindering their availability to Him.

Christ’s sole purpose for entering our story is to invite us to enter God’s story. God doesn’t need us. God wants us. Our availability brings about restoration. It generates growth. Allowing other stories to affect or interest us bars our participation in the greatest story of all time. God has removed every barrier to roles we’re born to play. We’re part of the masses Christ comes to serve and save. Inclusion rests in our hands. How we handle it is our choice. And the choice we make determines if righteousness and praise spring up around us.

Homeless, Needy, Holy Child, we repent for all the times we’ve been unavailable to You. Forgive how easily we’re distracted by stories that neither affect us nor interest You. Refire our fervor to participate in Your story, to assume the roles we’re born to play. Make us catalysts of righteousness and praise. Amen.

God carves out unique roles for each of us and calls us to play the parts we’re created to play.

Postscript: “Somewhere”

I’m not a huge fan, but I must admit there are times when Barbra Streisand’s gifts border on prophetic. The power she invests in this classic song speaks to a day when we resist trivial distractions and take the roles we’re created to play.