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.

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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.

Jesus and Tomatoes

Kate Campbell sings a song about Jesus and tomatoes that tells the story of an especially blessed tomato grower, who grew a tomato that bore, at least in the grower’s mind, a resemblance to our savior. The song starts out like this:

I bought a pack of seeds
Tennessee Bradleys
The best homegrown you’ll find
How it happened I don’t know
Must’ve been the Miracle-Gro
Oh I could not believe my eyes
In my tomato bed
A holy image blood red.

I was reminded of Kate’s song this week, as I had an encounter of a different sort with Jesus and tomatoes.

We had been visiting for a good while, and it was time for me leave. She was about to have a supper prepared by her grandson. My visit had, no doubt, delayed their meal. Before parting, we joined hands and offered thanks for a good visit and the meal that they were about to eat.

Hugs, handshakes, prayers, and good-byes completed, my mind was already in the truck headed for my next destination. She said something about tomatoes. I noticed them when I arrived. At least a third, maybe half, of her kitchen table was covered with homegrown tomatoes. She spoke again, “Will you take some tomatoes?”  I was moving toward the door and almost said “no” — or maybe I did say “no” —  but then I had my Jesus-and-tomatoes moment.  Jesus’ words from the tenth chapter of Luke were suddenly in my mind, “. . . eating and drinking what they provide . . . eat what is set before you.”  He was instructing His followers to receive hospitality.  As Jesus’ words to the seventy people that He was sending out into the world bounced around in my head, I suddenly felt compelled to stop and receive what was being offered to me.

We love to give to those who have need. I know that is true of most churches and other faith groups that see those needs of others as an opportunity to put the moral teachings of their faith into practice; but it seems especially true at Ball Camp.  In giving, we impact the life of the One we are giving to, and we encounter the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto me.” To give is to be blessed. Yet, to always give without ever receiving deprives someone of the joy of giving to us.  In giving to and receiving from others, we become participants in God’s redemptive activity in the world.

In a good year, tomatoes are abundant. Sometimes those who grow them have so many that they do not know what to do with all of them.  Our neighbors in Grainger County engage in tomato battles, using them as projectiles as part of their Tomato Festival celebration. Tomatoes are, after all, just tomatoes. Yet, when a few are taken and offered to another as a gift, they can become an occasion for blessing and grace.

Well Hidden

The Psalmist says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (119:11 TNIV)  In recent days, I have found much comfort in words of scripture that have come to mind.  Bible verses memorized long ago, as well as ones recently brought to my attention by friends, have strengthened and encouraged me as I live through some challenging days. Those words have kept me connected to God, mindful of God’s presence, and aware of God’s promise to always be with me.

How do words get hidden in the heart?  The most apparent answer is that they are memorized.  A verse written on an index card, continually read and reread, will eventually plant itself in the mind. Repeating the verse from memory enough times will secure it there.

Yet, the heart language of the Psalmist seems to indicate something more than mental activity. The words are not hidden in the mind, but in the heart. The heart, in the Psalmist’s anatomy of prayer, is located deeper in the interior of a person. Hidden words capable of keeping a person connected to God, and not separated from God, find their place by something more than speaking and repeating, writing and rewriting.

To sin against God is to be separated from God —  out of fellowship with God. The word that finally brings us into fellowship with God, and removes our separation from God, is the Word made flesh. It is not so much the word we hide in our hearts, but the Word we hide ourselves in, that connects us to God and keeps us connected to God.

Together the words of God that we hide in our hearts, and the Word of God in which we hide ourselves, move us beyond talking to God and thinking about God, to being with God.  The heart does not think about the function it performs. It does what it does without thinking. Breathing is not a decision we make; we just do it. Neither does the heart decide to pump blood through our bodies; it just does it.

I wonder if the Psalmist had such a thought in mind when he designated the heart as the hiding place for God’s word.  Was he thinking of situations and circumstances that would be so taxing that the mind would be too stressed to provide comfort, consolation and strength?   The mind gets busy at times like that, searching for solutions, solving problems, and mapping out alternatives. Trying to figure out why something happened can at times be such a frustratingly large question that the mind has little energy for anything more. Yet, the heart continues to beat, bringing oxygen and supplying blood; so words hidden there do not depend on our ability to recall them. They come to us like our next breath, and they sustain us without our even being aware of the life they give to us.

In those moments, we are freed from the illusion that we are in control of our lives, and that our connection with God is the result of our mental effort, intellectual activity, or even thoughtful reflection. Rather, we find ourselves sustained by a merciful God, and there we truly find rest.

Waiting to Cry

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14-17)

These words were written to a struggling group of people. They were a small group relatively speaking.  Their size does not diminish their faith. Neither does it gain them any standing with their neighbors. They are different from everyone else. They are not like the Jews. Rome has learned to deal with the Jews. These Christians are different. They are pushed to the fringes of society and deprive at times of making a living. They are like persons of Hispanic descent living in Arizona. But rather than producing a document to show they are legal residents, they are invited to worship the emperor Domitian. When they refuse –their lives are in peril.

John writes to them to not provide an escape, but to give them hope. John writing from exile on the isle of Patmos understands as well as anyone that following Christ does provide for way around the harsh, brutal hatred unleashed by the powerful on those who are different from them.  John writes to give courage and encouragement to Christians who are living through a time of great tribulation.

No more hunger and no more thirst are words of amazing comfort to a group of people who have been enduring a place in society where their capacity to provide for themselves and their families is limited by those had the power to gainfully employee them. What do you do to provide food, clothing, and shelter? You get a job. You earn your keep. What if no one will give you a job because you are a follower of Christ?  You go hungry. You watch your family go hungry. It is a terrible kind of suffering.

John says, they will hunger no more, and thirst no more.

You can be certain that if there is work, it is the work that no one else is willing to do. It is the work done in the worse conditions. Under blazing Sun and Scorching heat. But if that is the only work that you can get, you take it gladly.

John says, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat

In the midst of such living—stress, strain, fear, worry—doubts and uncertainty must have arisen from time to time. The tension between keeping the faith and surviving may at times have become unbearable. What to do? Would not life be easier if we just looked, acted, spoke, worshipped like everyone else? What to do?

John says the Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd. The lamb of God who died for you, will be your Shepherd. In your uncertainty, let the lamb be your shepherd. In your doubt, let he lamb be your shepherd. He is the one that will show you the way through this time of tribulation. He is the one who will show you the way to God.  He will guide you to the water of life. Water is life. Then and now, we cannot live without.

John’s vision touches his readers in places where they have very real hurts and constant anxieties. He creates an image for them of a time where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching sun. He writes of a shepherd who was a lamb who will lead them to the water of life.

And then he adds and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. What must that look to a people in the middle of live a trying life? To people with so many reason to shed tears? To a mother struggling to care for her children? To a father seeking to provide for and protect his family? To men, women, boys, girls, families seeking to faithful to what they know of God while they suffer intense persecution?

What does it look like to you? The idea of the God who took on flesh, dwelt among us and died for us reaching down to wipe away your tears, what does that look like to you? What tears would God be wiping away? How did they get there?

Perhaps more than any other aspect of this scene, this notion of tears being wiped away grabs us. Because we have tears, we cry, we weep. Maybe not today, maybe not right now but we have done so and we will again.  John knows that about the people that he is writing to just as we know it about each other. We do not escape from our trials or our tribulations. For that, John gives us an image of our tears being wiped away by God.

No more tears. In a world that so often has so many reasons to cry, to sob, to weep, how outlandish is it to speak of time when God will wipe those tears away once and for all. In a world crowded with people just waiting to cry is possible that there will come a time when no more tears will be shed?

I am leaning on the fence next to the track waiting for my son’s event.  I am not alone, other spectators are behind me in the stands, some have found a place along the fence, others are moving from one place to another. There is much activity and excitement. The day is absolutely gorgeous.

In the midst of all that activity, I notice that someone is standing beside me. He speaks, “I am not supposed to be here.” “No?” “I am not supposed to be within three hundred yards of this place.”   I want to say “Hey, sorry man, but I am off the clock.” “I am not here working, I am here watching.” I don’t say that. I don’t say that because there is something in his voice when he speaks. He is not just speaking, he is exhaling words. He is speaking because he cannot keep from speaking. He is hurting. I can tell by the sound of his voice. He is about to cry.

So, I listen. They are separated. His wife made allegations. There is a restraining order. She could not make it to the track meet. His daughter called him and asked him to come. That is why he is here, even though he is not supposed to be here, not supposed to be within three hundred yards of her.  He does not cry out loud, but I can see the tears in eyes.

That is the world in which we live. There are all kinds of people out there just waiting to cry. So when John talks about God wiping away our tears we perk up. We know tears. We know the pain, the hurt, the disappointment from which they spring.  A time and place when God will wipe them away once and for all no more tears seems rather delightful, rather joyous. A time and a place that we would like to get to. The resurrection makes such a time and such place a real hope.

A Prostate Prayer

Not so many years ago I turned forty.  The whole thing was more or less anticlimactic. There were not many noticeable changes in my life, at least not many that I noticed.  One change that I did reluctantly make was to find a doctor so that I could have one to see for regular checkups and such.

I made this change reluctantly for two reasons.  First, I hate needles.  I always have. While I was well aware of advances in medical technology, I suspected that on some occasions needles would still be used.  I was right; they are.

My second reason for being reluctant was the pattern that I had observed among the members of the churches that I served — that being that once people start going to the doctor they always seem to need to go back to the doctor, or to go to another doctor and then go back to the first doctor, so that it seems that there is always a visit to the doctor looming in their future.  Turns out I was right again.

I have several friends, and more acquaintances, that have completed degrees in ministry and theology.  Discussing theology with them is something that I enjoy. My newest and best friend is Dr. Chris Ramsey.  His degree is not in theology.  His degree is in urology.  He is a great guy, though our conversations are not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as those that I have with other friends.  Yet he has pastoral sense about him.  I felt his gentleness and his concern when he told me that my prostate is cancerous.  He is thoughtful as well.  Yesterday he promised to see me regularly until he retires.  You see what I mean?  That was exactly why I was reluctant to go the doctor in the first place.  Once you start, they always find a reason for you to come back for another visit.

So now I am thankful.  I am thankful that there is something that can be done.  In fact, I have options.  I have to make a choice about which treatment I want.  How different that is from being in a situation where there are no options, no treatment, nothing that can be done.

I am thankful for all the people I have known who have faced disease, sickness and surgery and live to tell the tale.  I am especially grateful for those men that I know who have had prostate cancer and continue to live life to its fullest.  There have been many occasions in my life when I sought to give comfort to those who were facing medical challenges.  Little did I realize that they were teaching me and preparing me to face my own challenges.

I am thankful for Patti, Josh and Will for who they are to me and what they mean to me. While my condition is a long way from being life threatening, nonetheless it does give me pause to consider those people who are most important to me.  In a similar way, I think of others in my family who mean much to me.  Likewise, I am blessed with dear friends who freely share their love with me and lift prayers for me.

I am also thankful for church people.  Even before I told you about my condition, I was already drawing strength from you.  You are a gift.  You bring the presence of Christ to whomever you meet, even me.  Thank you.

I am also a little scared.  I still do not like needles, nor am I sure how I feel about a robot being turned loose inside of me.  If I knew more, I would most likely be more afraid.  But I do know that God is with me and that God will never leave me nor forsake me.  Thank you again for your thoughts and prayers.

Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”