Stand Up, Raise Your Heads!

If you ever find yourself in a group of preachers, and you’re not sure want to talk about, you can always ask, “what are you preaching on this Sunday?” You see Sunday comes every week so a preacher either knows what she is preaching about or he is wondering why he hasn’t yet decided on a topic. I was in a meeting with the preachers this week. They answered the question by decidedly saying they were not preaching on Luke chapter 21 versus 25 and following. The basic reasoning for steering away from Luke’s gospel reading this morning went something like we’ve been living every day in an apocalypse for the last two or so years we don’t need more of that on Sunday morning. Especially on the first Sunday of advent.

I listened attentively to their reasoning, but I still felt that there were a couple of words in our text today and we needed to hear, words that would serve us well as we seek to navigate these troubling times. Preacher friends did make a good point. The times in which we live seem extraordinary on a historic level. Green dark text this morning is apocalyptic in nature. just a little apocalypse. Not a full blown book like Daniel or the Book of Revelation, but enough. enough to frighten us a little. Enough to make us wonder what will become of us.

I thought for a little while about putting current headlines on strips of paper, putting them all into a basket let you draw them out one at a time. In that way we could catalog the forces that would have us faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming up on the world and make clear to ourselves what it is that is shaking the powers of heaven. The disjointed, randomness of our justice system, the acres upon acres of rainforest it seemed to be disappearing at speed of light, workers who were considered radical and revolutionary simply because they desire a wage on which they can live, and now news of a new variant it may be worse and all the ones that have gone before. Signs of the time indeed.

no, these are the times in which we live. Whether we realize it or not they are text for this morning. Our lesson for the day. They provide the context through which and in which we hear God speaking.

Two phrases, both of them found in verse 28. Stand up and raise your head. Your redemption is drawing near

second phrase first, redemption is the question that does not get asked in our text this morning. Rather redemption is assumed to be the good thing that we are waiting for

. If so, what is it? What does it mean? It is big, large, cosmic. Bigger than most Christian thinkers have thought of it over the last 2000 years. For the most part Christian theologians have left the door open for a far too individualized, far too self centered faith. This is allowed for the Christ event to be understood as primarily a personal affair easily compartmentalized and kept separate from day to day duties at the office or easily augmented to allow for actions and attitudes that Christ himself would never sanction. At its best, this emphasis on Christian individualism as left too many with a faith that matters most when life on this earth has ended and the arrangements one has made for eternity finally become top priority. At its worst, this emphasis on Christian individualism leaves some with the notion that because they claim to be Christian that they can off down of acting on behalf of the common good by refusing to get vaccinated.

Yet, the redemption drawing near on for one of us, it is for all of us. But not just for us but for the whole of creation.

At the same time, this redemption is as small and as easily unnoticed it is large and cosmic. That visit to see a dying friend, Redemption drawing near. Making sure that things are in order at the church is the advent season begins, redemption drawing near. Checking to see if there’s food in the little food pantry out by the fellowship hall door, redemption join near. That act of kindness, that demonstration of mercy, that expression of love, redemption drawing near.

Stand up and raise your heads Is the other phrase that we need to hear in our text this morning. It is a good word for us for several reasons. Not the least of which is that it gives us something to do. How many times have you been with a friend who is experiencing some kind of challenge or trial. You wanted to help you wanted to do something, but there just didn’t seem to be much that you could do to help. You are already listening and praying, but that didn’t seem like enough. You wanted to do something more.

Jesus’ admonition to stand up and raise our heads gives us something to do. We’re not powerless. We’re not helpless. We have options. We have a choice.

The second truth that Jesus’ command to stand up and raise our heads communicates to us is that we are part of this thing that God is doing. This is not something that takes place in a sidebar. This is not something that’s going on on some other realm is away from us but we can’t touch or taste or experience. This is happening here and now and we are part of it.

This is so because God has made us God’s sons and daughters. We are children of God. We have a stake in the redemption of the whole of creation. We have a stake in our redemption. She’s not someone elses to do. This is ours, what’s the gift we receive and the legacy we leave.

Stand up and raise your heads, even though the world tells us to keep our heads down and ignore the injustice then others endure.

stand up and raise your heads, see a way where there is no way.

Stand up and raise your heads, offer mercy where the world offers only cruelty.

Stand up and raise your heads, give love when the world spews hate.

stand up and raise your heads, hold on the hope when all else seems to be drowning in despair.

Stand up and raise your heads, see redemption drawing near you children of God. Step toward it, reach for it embrace it, let it embrace you.

listen to the voices everyone else ignores. notice the lives of others, especially those whose lives are different from yours. Nurture, in your heart and in your head and your soul an openness to how and to when you will take your part in drawing this redemption nearer to God’s creation. It begins with standing up and raising your hands.

In each of our lives, there is plenty about which to be concerned. To be stressed, to be weighed down can mean all of our attention and energy is focused on the situation that is weighing us down. These kinds of things have a way of consuming us our creativity our imagination, our strength both physical and mental and spiritual. Our lives begin to orbit around the axis of whatever challenge it is we’re facing. We can see or think of little else. This phrase, stand up and raise your head, Gives us a chance to see the ways, big and small, then I’ll redemption is drawing near. It gives us a chance to see the ways, big and small, that we can join in.

Advent 1934, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached these words:  “But we are only making excuses with that kind of talk. If we really wanted to, if it were not an evasion, we would finally begin to pray that this Advent would make a stop in our hearts. Let us make no mistake about it. Redemption is drawing near. Only the question is: Will we let it come to us as well or will we resist it? Will we let ourselves be pulled into this movement coming down from heaven to earth or will we refuse to have anything to do with it?”

At that first Christmas, God was with us, Immanuel, a baby lying in a manger. As vulnerable and as helpless as any human being could be. What an absurd way for God to come into the world much less to redeem the world. Yet, Jesus was born.

The redemption that is drawing near likely will not look like we think it ought to look. When we stand up and raise our heads, do not be surprised if there is no knight in shining armor riding to our rescue. Remember, God, in Christ, chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; what is weak in the world to shame the strong; what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.

Stand up, raise your heads, your redemption is drawing near if you have eyes to see and ears to hear. 

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Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Friday Night Lights

You meet interesting people at high school football games. When the game is delayed for two hours because of thunder and lightening you can really get to know them.  At least, that was my experience last Friday night at South-Doyle High School.

The rain had stopped, but the lightening would not go away. The game could not resume until thirty minutes after the last lightening strike. He was standing just outside the door to the home team’s locker room when I noticed him. Since lightening was still in the area, what better way to pass the time than talking football? So, the conversation began.

We talked about games that we had played in ourselves that involved bad weather. I recalled a game that I had played in rain that was just a degree or two away from turning to sleet. He told me about the time that he played in a game that started in the rain and finished in the snow. Between the rain and the snow, there was sleet, and frozen jerseys.  In Michigan, where he played high school football, such weather was evidently not that uncommon.

Having spent my high school years in the temperate climate of East Tennessee, I did not have a weather story to top that one.  Therefore, the conversation progressed to family and work, as conversations do.  When he learned that I was a pastor he began to give me the religious history of his life. It was fascinating, and he was very religious. However, since we were the same age, it could only last for so long (since I am not that old).

Finally, the announcer’s voice came over the public address system saying that the game was going to resume. We began putting some closure to our time together. We were both glad that we had met and talked. It had been a pleasant way to pass the time.

I thought we were done, but then something changed in his eyes. Later, I would realize that at this moment we were just getting started. We had crossed the threshold into that place were he felt comfortable asking me the one question that he carried with him every moment of every day.

Earlier he had told me that he had seven daughters. Now he told me about his one son that he did not mention when we were talking about family.  He had not talked to his son in three years.  It was three years ago that he learned that his son was gay.

Now his son is forbidden to contact anyone in the family. He is so repulsed by who his son is that he does not want to speak to him. He cannot stand to look at him. In his mind, there was no way he could do anything less, given what the Bible says and what the church teaches about homosexuality.

His question for me was whether or not he was right in cutting off all contact with his son. We talked for a while, but in the end I told him that he was the only father that his son had, and that his son needed him now more than ever.  I could not tell if this man wanted a relationship with his son or not. Was he looking for permission to love his son, or justification for hating him?

There was a game to watch and so our conversation really did conclude this time. As I drifted back toward the field, I felt a deep sense of grief for this man and his lack of a relationship with his son. Something he thought would always be there was not.  Would this man’s relationship with his son be different if he had responded to him with love instead of hate, compassion instead repulsion, mercy instead of banishment?

On another level, I grieved for him because of the years he had spent in church.  What did he learn there? Did he learn that it is O.K. to talk about love, sing about love, receive the love of Christ, and then withhold it from people that do not conform to his standard of what is loveable?  Why didn’t someone tell him that sharing the love of Christ is just that — sharing the love of Christ? There are no disclaimers, no qualifiers and no escape clauses, just love. No, it is not always easy; but it is what Jesus calls us to do, because it is what he has done for us. While we were that which we would not love, he loved us and died for us. Without love, Christianity is something other than God intended for it to be.

Looking on the Heart

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I Samuel 16:7

The Lord had sent Samuel to meet the new king that the Lord had already chosen. The going wisdom would have suggested that the new king would be someone that looked like Saul — big and strong of stature. Yet, that was not the case. Samuel, like all of us mortals, was impressed with the outward appearance while the Lord was looking deeper.

I was in a restaurant recently that had menus with pictures in them. As I was glancing through the menu a sandwich caught my eye.  It was different. Different enough that I decided to order it. When my order arrived and I tasted the sandwich that had looked so appetizing in the menu, my first thought was, “What was I thinking.” It looked good in the menu, but on the plate, it was not what I thought it was going to be.

Aesop’s ancient story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing still illustrates well the length to which appearances can deceive as well as the tragic consequences of such deception.

A Wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs.  But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep.  The Lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the Wolf was wearing, began to follow the Wolf in the Sheep’s clothing; so, leading the Lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep, and enjoying hearty meals.

When I heard the news that our nation was involved in another military action in still another nation, I could almost hear my mother’s voice, “The Bible says that there will be wars and rumors of wars.”  If the Bible says there will be wars and rumors of wars, who are we to think, act or speak otherwise?  I have heard people cite scripture in that way all my life as if citing a word or phrase from scripture removes the need to read the rest of what Jesus said about war, violence and human interaction.  Like the wolf in Aesop’s story, a word of scripture is slipped over a situation and deception follows.  Never mind what Jesus said about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and acting with love and compassion toward others.  To be certain, there will be wars and rumors of wars so long as human beings fail to love as Christ taught us to love.  Jesus acknowledges this reality, he does not endorse it.

Hearing Jesus statement, “For you always have the poor with you,” cited in response to the plight of the less fortunate is not unusual. But in that statement Jesus is not predicting the future or dictating it, he is acknowledging the logical outcome of a society that values self interest over common good.  The words of Jesus, inappropriately cloaked over the day-to-day challenges of living in poverty, deceive us, as surely as the sheepskin covering the wolf, into thinking that men and women living in poverty somehow is part of  God’s design for creation. What did Jesus mean when he spoke these words?  I do not know, but perhaps he spoke of them in a resigned way while thinking, “You will always have the poor with you as long you extend tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals and corporations among you and then seek to balance your budget and reduce your deficit by cutting the programs and services that provide safety nets and opportunity to the neediest among you.”

Appearances can be, and often are, deceiving. While some might say there is lack of money to help the poor and the needy, others would say that the poor and needy are just not high enough on the list of priorities.  After all, we find the money to bail out banks and automotive companies, to fight wars and to offer tax advantages to those who don’t really need them, yet for the hungry, the homeless, the elderly and the working poor what few dollars we allocate to assist them must be cut in order to make ends meet.

Nevertheless, the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Seeing God in our Weakness

In spite of what you may have heard this week, we have not started an ark-building ministry at Ball Camp Baptist Church, though there were times on Monday when I wondered if some sort of watercraft might be necessary to get around, considering how much water was falling from the sky.  Who knew that so much rain could fall in such a short amount of time?  Fortunately, our facility stayed dry on the inside.  This is no small gift when we remember some of the problems we have dealt with in recent years.

Some of our neighbors were without electricity during Monday’s storm.  I had one friend in Chattanooga who was without power for 19 hours.  She was excited to have power again after going without it.  “We don’t realize what we take for granted!”  Electricity is one of the many aspects of 21st Century living that we have grown accustomed to experiencing without thinking about it.  We take for granted conveniences that caused eyes to pop and minds to swirl when they where first introduced.  Those conveniences have given us more control over lives, more time to do what we want to do, as well as what we need to, and in some cases to do those things better.  When they are taken away from us we are limited and vulnerable, no longer able to do and control the aspects of our living that we could with them.

Those moments that startle us and reveal to us our vulnerabilities do not come to us only when the electricity is not working.  We get reminders of the ways that life is beyond our control all the time.  As our children cross developmental milestones, we learn new ways where we are not in control.  When the company we work for closes its doors for the last time, we get reminded of our vulnerability.  Unexpected news from the doctor does the same thing to us.  We don’t like being vulnerable or out of control.  We seem programmed to respond to such situations by trying to minimize the ways that we are vulnerable.  We work to get some kind of control over whatever it is — our children, our career, or our health — that has disturbed our sense of being in charge of our lives.  We do our best to quickly move on and move beyond the situation and the uncomfortable feelings that came with it.

If we pause in the midst of our crisis, or take some time after it passes to reflect upon it, we might be surprised at what we see mingled in the reflection of our own vulnerability and weakness.  Is there anything more vulnerable than a newborn baby?   Who needs more help than a little baby needing to be bathed, fed and loved?  Yet, because of God’s great need to be in loving relationship with us, God became not just human, but the most vulnerable of humans needing to be fed, bathed and loved.   Henri Nouwen describes God coming to us this way:  “Who can be afraid of a little child that needs to be fed, to be cared for, to be taught, to be guided?  We usually talk about God as the all-powerful, almighty God on whom we depend completely.  But God wanted to become the all-powerless, all-vulnerable God who completely depends on us.  How can we be afraid of a God who wants to be ‘God-with-us’ and needs us to become ‘Us-with-God’?”

The mystery and wonder of God is that God wants to be loved by us as much as God loves us.  On the good days, we may take for granted the goodness of God’s provision in our lives.  On the days when we feel like we are not in control of our lives, we can recall that God has taken away the distance that once separated us from God, not with God’s great strength, but with God’s willingness to become a child laying in a manger.

An Evening Prayer

Almighty God, you who are eager to find and to hold each one us,

we call out to you as the darkness of night begins to surround us.

May the light you so freely give remain within us and before us

even in the deepest depths of the coming night.

 

You who reach for us and bend toward us as we grope around

the dim edges of life sustain us and keep us.

Hold us this night and every night ‘til the morning comes

and we find ourselves bathed in your glorious light forevermore.

What Was Jesus Thinking?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? For a long time, these words from Micah 6:8 have been a summary for me of what it means to be in relationship with God.  The Bible is a big book.  Understanding it requires time and study.  People have been reading it for many years so there is a vast history of interpretation to take into consideration, as well as the beliefs and practices that it has inspired in various groups of believers through the centuries.  While I have in no way exhausted the sources of information that would shed light on ways of relating to God,  I have grown increasingly comfortable with Micah’s words as a summation of the teachings of scripture.  Even though these same words often make me uncomfortable when I fail to act justly, love kindness, and my walk with the Lord is less than humble, they nonetheless point towards the life to which God invites us.

To read these words as prelude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to be reminded that his life and ministry was nurtured and fed by the Hebrew prophets.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. (Isaiah 58:10-11)

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

When he worshipped he would have found himself, with every other child of Abraham, singing from the Psalms.  I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)

Thus was his heart filled and his thought shaped when he went up the mountain that day and having sat down he began to speak, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .

Invited to Life

I am having a real love/hate relationship with all of the snow we have been getting this winter.  I hate that it has caused us to miss a Sunday morning of worship, and that it has interfered with our scheduled activities on two Wednesday evenings.  On the love side, even though I want all of the children to get all of the education that they can, I do not begrudge them their days out of school due to snow.  Is there anything better than a snow day?  Yet, even lovelier than a day off from school, is the way that snow covers the landscape. Blanketing the ground, clinging to the limbs of trees, and balancing on wires, it creates art in such a way that no matter where you are, you are standing in the middle of a picture.

The beauty of snow-covered landscapes almost always reminds me of God’s creative activity in the world.  Standing outside in the night, as the snow is falling and covering everything that it touches, is an awe-inducing experience.  The glory of God’s creation cannot be contained as it beautifies the darkness.

At the same time, I am mindful that what I am experiencing as beautiful is creating an altogether different experience for some. They are cold without warm shelter to shield them from the night.  The snow does not prompt them to think of God’s presence.  Left alone in the cold, at best they ponder the absence of God — at worst, they rail against a cruel deity that would allow it to snow on people who have no protection from the harsh night.

It is easy to get stuck in the snow, especially for those of us who do not get much practice driving in such conditions.  As believers, it is also easy for us to get stuck in the creation, or least in the questions of creation.  How did we get here?  Does the Genesis account of creation say all that there is to say about the origin of life?  Can Christians be faithful in their relationships to God without ignoring what science would teach us about the human experience?  These questions would be much more important than they are if creating us was the last thing that God did for us.

However, God did not just create us and leave us.  God created us and came to us.  In coming to us in Christ, God invites us to live the life God intended for us.  In Christ, we see that life modeled.  The early church recognized Jesus in the words of Isaiah, “…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”   In a time and place marked by its share of suffering and wrongdoing, Jesus lived with a gentleness that would not break an already bruised reed nor extinguish a weakly burning flame; yet with his life, he brought light to the nations, sight to the blind, and justice to the oppressed.  He invites us to such a life. God did not create us just so that we could wile away our days admiring the artistry of God’s handiwork. God made us, redeemed us, and invited us to live lives that shine light, open eyes, and do justice.  God invites us to live in such a way that those who find themselves without shelter on a cold winter’s night will know that they are not alone and that they have not been created only to be abandoned by God.  They will know because they will see the love of God being shared by the people of God.

Immanuel

Whose birth are we celebrating at Christmas time?  I suppose it can get confusing in the midst of all the hustle and bustle that has become the Christmas season.  The idea that there is an event, and a person behind it — behind all the holiday trappings —  might even come as a surprise to some people.  Honestly, the layers of tradition, custom and practice that have come to be associated with the celebration of Christmas all too easily distort its meaning and distract us from its significance.  In fact, those traditions, customs and practices have taken on a meaning and significance all their own.  Without them, it would not be Christmas for some.

But what if what you need is God?  The parties are grand and the meals with family and friends are treasures. Giving is a joy and receiving a gift from someone who took the time to think of you is heartwarming.  We ought never to miss an opportunity to celebrate and to share joy with one another.  But what if what you really need is God?  What if, like King Ahaz of Judah, your enemies have allied themselves together and are plotting your destruction?  We read in the seventh chapter of Isaiah that the Lord instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign, any sort of sign. The Lord put no limits on what Ahaz could ask, but Ahaz was too afraid, too filled with despair to ask; and he hid behind a false sort of piety refusing to ask for a sign because he did not want to test the Lord.  The prophet Isaiah does not let him shirk his responsibility so easily. If Ahaz is unable to ask for a sign, God will give him one anyway.   “. . . Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

In the midst of these troublesome times, it is a woman giving birth to a child that will be God’s sign.  A woman will do what the king, for whatever reason, could not do.  She who had as much, if not more, to fear from the possibility of war and the horror that it brings to the most vulnerable, will act with courage and faith. When all evidence is to the contrary, she will name her child “God is with us.”  Her bold proclamation will echo the words of the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (Psalm 46:1-3).  The King cannot bring himself to trust in God, but this woman will.  She will do for him and for her people what he cannot; she will believe in God.

For Christians, there have been few explanations better than the courage and faith of this Jewish woman to explain the meaning of Christmas and the nature of God.  In this story, we see God taking on flesh and dwelling among us.  We see God coming to us and saving us.  Like Ahaz, we at times find ourselves in dire situations.  To our eyes, there seems to be no prospect for a positive outcome. Our fears paralyze our faith and the idea of turning to the Lord for help appears pointless.  Or we have cried out to the Lord for so long without seeing any change in our dilemma that to do so any longer feels like it would be fruitless. These sorts of situations are ripe for Christmas.  When our courage is waning and our faith is wavering, God gives us a sign and names him Immanuel, God is with us.

Yet, we miss it.  Perhaps our situation is not dire enough.  Our enemies are not drawn up around us on every side.  Our circumstances are not such that we have needed to frequently cry out to the Lord.  We embrace the hustle and the bustle even if it is not all together to our liking.  The traditions, customs and practices that have grown up with around the Christmas season satisfy our need for Christmas, or so we tell ourselves.   Still, we need a sign, perhaps more so than if we were in trouble.  Is there any greater trouble than to not know that we need God?  Though we have constructed our lives to look content, satisfied, and peaceful, our need to know God, to know that we are not alone, to know that God is with us, is no less than that of the long ago Jewish mother who named her child Immanuel.

Uncircumcision

Ephesians 2

You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

“Uncircumcision”

You might as well have said. . .

. . .unchristian,

. . .unamerican,

. . .unwhite,

. . .unheterosexual,

. . .unmale,

. . .uninvited,

. . .unneeded,

. . .unwanted,

. . .unloved,

. . .unaccepted.

 

But now in Christ Jesus—

But now, nothing!

There is no peace

Old walls have been rebuilt

and new ones constructed.

The stone is rolled away

hostility has been resurrected.

One war, two wars

can we start a third?

One in place of two?

Try each one looking out for number one.

No longer Strangers and Aliens?

Of course not, we who were once pilgrims

have made aliens illegal and strangers unwelcome.

 

Don’t forget,

by nature we are children of wrath.

Heaven help you if you are not like everyone else.

Following the desires of our flesh,

we can twist a God rich in mercy into little more than a tribal totem capable of immeasurable pain and suffering.

To be certain, this is our own doing.

Have we ever been this far off?

Yet, we boast unaware of the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.

 

Oh God,

be our peace,

bring us near,

build us together,

dwell in us.