Saturday, December 15, 2012

Do Not Fear

Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in Your midst. (Zephaniah 4.16-17)

Enflamed with Defiance

Last Friday I was on the phone with a San Diego colleague who'd been awakened in the wee hours by an earthquake. “It went on quite a while,” he said, “long enough to look out and see the water sloshing around in my pool.” I told him I lived in L.A. when the Whittier earthquake struck and knew how unsettling it is. “Then there’s the eerie period waiting for the aftershocks,” I observed, adding that I was so unnerved that, for the first time since relocating to the West Coast, I seriously considered moving back home. “In the Midwest, we have the advantage of knowing a tornado or blizzard is headed our way,” I said. “We have time to brace ourselves. Earthquakes don’t give you that.”

As we concluded our business, I kidded, “Here’s hoping nothing else rocks your world today!” To which he replied, “We’ll be fine.” No sooner had I hung up than Walt rushed into the study and turned on the television. There it was: 27 dead in elementary school shooting. The ground shook so hard I gripped the arms of my chair. The prior evening, at our church's annual holiday remembrance service, I recited the roll of nearly 150 young Chicagoans killed by firearms in 2012. We sang songs of solace and hope, heard Advent poems about light’s power to conquer darkness, and prayed God’s strength in our endeavors to vanquish gun violence in our city. And now this—the latest in an increasingly frequent series of moments when it feels as though there’s nowhere to hide from an onslaught of mad violence we can’t foresee or contain. A brutal flood of emotions poured through me, threatening to take all of Advent’s optimism with it. I felt stranded in a midnight world of menacing evil.

This weekend, as we gather in our communities of faith, we must adamantly reclaim Advent’s promises of peace and salvation. We must attend closely to the prophets’ assurances that God hasn’t left us. Our worship—the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, and every word we speak—must be enflamed with defiance. We will not surrender hope. God is with us. Christ is coming to us. Darkness will not stand.

Out of the Ancient Mist

Sunday’s Old Testament reading (Zephaniah 3.14-20) steps out of the ancient mist to grab us by the collar, confronting issues that could be ripped from today’s headlines. The prophet addresses a nation gripped with religious and social malaise. He takes prophetic office during the reign of Josiah, Judah’s great reformer. Previous kings were lax in honoring God’s demands for faithfulness and justice. As a result, the nation founders on the hollow shoulders of idolatry and conspicuous consumption. Unlike other prophets, who seek to restore the faith of God’s people after long nights of foreign opposition, Zephaniah speaks to a country rotting from within. The gaps between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, are wider than ever. Violence, injustice, poverty, and despair have reached intolerable levels. Only those who profit from Judah’s indifference feel safe. An even slimmer minority realizes their nation has lost its way. The vast majority has grown woefully apathetic, presuming things have got so bad they can't be fixed. “Not so!” Zephaniah cries. With true reformist zeal, he proclaims the advent of better times—“the day of the Lord,” he calls it—when God’s righteousness and faithful presence will once again prevail. Does any of this sound familiar?

After he scorns the corruption of Judah’s officials and indicts the majority’s lethargy, Zechariah speaks to the relative few profoundly distressed with their nation’s descent into chaos and violence. Listen to the confidence—the unshakable defiance—with which he assures them their faith will be vindicated:

The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; God will rejoice over you with gladness, God will renew you in God’s love; God will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.

Then, speaking in God’s own voice, Zephaniah declares:

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

God’s Song

Tragedies like the one we’ve just seen in Newtown, Connecticut evoke natural reflexes we struggle to absorb: first the horror, next the grief, soon followed by reproach and recriminations for not having prevented them, the vast majority of us ultimately believing the lie such horrors are unpreventable. We are momentarily quaked out of our national slumber and wring weak hands, as if nothing can be done to brake our perilous slide into chaos, violence, and fear.

But the Word of God reaches us this weekend in the defiant voice of a reformer from long ago, urging us not to surrender hope. Do not fear, it says. Do not let your hands grow weak. God is in your midst. The day of the Lord draws near. God will renew us in love and exult over us in loud singing. In the crushing darkness of our anguish, confusion, and despair, we listen for the faraway strains of God’s song beckoning us to the light of God’s day. The darkness that presently engulfs us will not stand.

God is with us. Christ is coming to us. The crushing darkness of our anguish, confusion, and despair will not stand.

Friday, December 14, 2012

What Shall We Call the Child?

For a Child has to been born for us, a Son given to us; authority rests upon His shoulders; and He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9.6)

Settling on a name is prime component of our excitement over a new baby’s arrival. The first question we usually ask on hearing a child is on the way is, “What will you call it?” The details about the chosen name’s origins and the decision to call a child by that name contribute to one of the first stories about her/him. Naming sets the course for who they’ll become, because we tend to grow into our names. Over time, we start to look, sound, and act like them. Even before people meet us, hearing what we’re called invites them to picture us a certain way.

The prophets were keenly attuned a name’s power to shape how one is seen. So were the gospel writers. That's why the prophecies and Christmas narratives make a point of declaring the Promised One’s name. In Matthew, He’s called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.” In Luke, the angel instructs Mary to name Him “Jesus”—a derivative of “Joshua” (or “Yahweh saves”), so named for the great Old Testament warrior who led Israel into the Promised Land. In the Old Testament, the most famous naming of the Christ is found in Isaiah: “He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In all of these cases, the naming of Christ is the vital first chapter in God’s redemptive story. But more than that, the prophets and gospel writers understood that giving God Incarnate the right name would shape how we see the God Who understands us and dwells among us.

As we ponder the Infant’s imminent arrival, we should wonder, “What shall we call the Child?” And that question requires us to consider Who we need—and want—Christ to be for us. There is no limit to the role Christ can and will play in our lives. Most certainly, if we call Christ “Immanuel,” the presence of God will be known to us. As “Jesus,” Christ will reveal God’s longing to save. Calling Christ “Wonderful Counselor” opens our eyes to divine wisdom and guidance. As our “Mighty God,” we place our trust in Christ’s power. As our “Everlasting Father,” Christ becomes the perfect Parent—the One Who loves us and remains faithful to us always. If we name Christ “Prince of Peace,” we honor Christ’s Lordship in our lives, finding order in our chaos and comfort in our distress.

So what shall we call the Babe of Bethlehem? “Everything”—our All in All, the Alpha and Omega, First and Last, our Anchor and our Hope—might be the best name of all. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Led Away

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)

Like all great stories, the Nativity saga gives us just enough information to set our imaginations aflame. Wherever we enter it, we find questions the gospel writers leave unanswered, opening windows for us to see ourselves in the characters they portray. Matthew’s tale of the Magi almost seems purposefully short on specifics about these men. We know they’re “wise,” they come from easterly pagan lands, and apparently they’re well heeled, possibly even renowned, because they have no problem getting an audience with King Herod. Beyond that, their background is vague at best. We’re told they journey from the East, led by a rising star, in search of the newborn King. But what compels them to seek Him out is open to speculation. They want to pay homage to Him, yet the nature of their adoration isn’t clear. Are they believers? Or are they diplomats? Could it be they’re the kinds of people who are always ahead of the curve—who sense a major shift is underway and go out of their way to be the first to show up?

In her sermon “Home By Another Way”, Barbara Brown Taylor imagines the Magi in this fashion:

They were all glad for a reason to get out of town—because that was clearly where the star was calling them, out—away from everything they knew how to manage and survive, out from under the reputations they had built for themselves, the high expectations, the disappointing returns. And so they set out, one by one, each believing that he was the only one with a star in his eye until they all ran into one another on the road to Jerusalem.

No one can say if her intuitions are more correct than anyone else’s. Yet the sensibilities she assigns to these mystery men seem right, as they reflect those we have during Advent. As the Bethlehem star comes into sharper focus, we can feel ourselves being led away. Gladly, we sense everything we predictably rely on—our knowledge and reputations, our ambitions as well as our shortcomings—falling behind us. All we bring to the manger are a compelling need to find Christ and gifts we offer. We start from different places. We’re moved by different ideas, desires, and beliefs. We’re clad in diversity. Yet somehow we run into one another along the way. At first, we are little more than traveling companions, beneficiaries of serendipitous timing. But when we arrive at Bethlehem, we become family, bound together for all time as we behold the splendor of the Word Made Flesh, Who has come to live in us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

No Strings

If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you. (Deuteronomy 24.12-13)

While we exult in Advent’s time of expectation, for many it is a season of dark dread. Even as we read this, countless people are suffocating with anxiety because they have no means of celebrating the Feast of the Nativity or placing gifts under the tree—if they have a tree at all. We rally around these folks and do everything we can to lift their burden. Yet in our giving we should be wary that it comes with no strings attached—without pity, without prejudice, without any expectation of reward or praise, and most of all, without any sense we are somehow superior (or “more blessed”) than those in need.

We are culturally predisposed to divide and separate the well off from the less fortunate, the haves from the have-nots. Of this supposition, Dorothy Day wrote:

The poor, it seems, have no right to beauty, to order. Poverty must be squalor, filth, ugliness, to be deemed poverty. But this is destitution, and it was usually from such destitution that our family had “come up in the world.”

It should humble us to realize our families have been where those we help presently are. A journey back through our histories land us at a point where we too faced poverty and its stigmas. Yet someone saw to our needs because making our families strong strengthened the community at large.

In the Hebrew Bible, provision for the poor is consistently framed in the context of community. It is for the common good that those having much are expected to give to those having little. In Deuteronomy, we see one method of how this works. When poor people need help, it is offered in the guise of a loan to protect the recipient from being disparaged as a freeloader. The “lender” takes the “borrower’s” cloak as collateral, presumably to be held until the “debt” is paid. Before the day ends, however, the cloak is returned to ensure the needy person can sleep comfortably through the cold night. The leverage to demand payment is removed so the poor person’s anxieties are quelled and he/she doesn’t lose respect. This is the same principle that Jesus cites when saying, “If someone asks for your coat, offer your shirt as well.”

As we go about our seasonal giving to those in need, let us take care to honor their dignity as valuable members of our communities. It’s not about feeling good about what we do to help out. It’s not about feeling sorry for those who need our help. It’s about easing their anxieties and keeping them warm and safe during a time when circumstance threatens their capacity to care for their own.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Too Much Stuff

But who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. (Malachi 3.2)

My partner and I have lived in the same apartment for 18 years, which has turned it into a veritable archive of our time together. Our closets, shelves, and drawers are crammed with memories and artifacts. Many are meaningful. Some have lost their meaning; we can’t recall why we thought it necessary to hang on to them. And a few are hanging on to us. They remind us of unsettling conflicts and events that found us at our worst. There’s the note dashed off in anger, the vacation photo taken on an afternoon that went sour, the article of clothing that will forever be associated with an unkind remark from a friend or relative. We’re always surprised to find these things. The discomfort affixed to them is long gone. Yet stumbling on them still manages to churn up unpleasant emotions that open old wounds. That’s the trouble with too much stuff. Things you assumed you’d thrown out have a way of hiding in the piles. We don’t need them. We don’t want them. We don’t like them. But they’re there.

In our house, we’re most apt to find relics of conflict when cleaning up for visitors who will be with us for an extended stay. Making room for them gives us the impetus to purge our cupboards of a lot of useless nonsense, particularly things that resurrect dead ideas and deadly emotions. We actually look forward to hosting houseguests because our excitement about their arrival compels us to clear away reminders of old conflicts and unwelcome turmoil.

Advent works the same way. This is the time to sort through our stuff and toss out anything that may crowd out the Prince of Peace. Unhealthy memories and attitudes that hang on to us have to go. The peace of Christ is a costly one. It comes at the expense of long-held grudges and animosities and clinging to an unhealthy past as our means to justify nagging prejudices and behaviors. The prophet compares the coming Christ to a refiner’s fire that burns up our trash and fullers’ soap that bleaches out stubborn stains. Purged and purified, we will welcome the Babe we herald in carols of peace on earth, good will to all.

Charles P. St-Onge, a Lutheran pastor in Houston, writes

Immanuel will bring lasting, true peace. Not just an end to physical war, although that is what we usually think of when we think of peace. No, this is a deeper peace. A peace between us and God.

Two weeks from today, the Prince of Peace will arrive to make His home in us. It’s time to start cleaning house.