Epiphany 4 A: God Chose What Is Not to Destroy What Is

The readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany are…

Old Testament      Micah 6:1–8

Psalm                    Psalm 15

New Testament     1 Corinthians 1:18–31

Gospel                   Matthew 5:1–12

This is my last pandemic blog post.

Why my last? Because the people of the world are tired of the pandemic. Because I’m tired of my pandemic exercise of using each Sunday’s readings in the Revised Common Lectionary to reflect on the madness of the world.

And I found a good excuse to end this exercise because a very wise man, and a very serious committee, have declared that we are “turning a corner” from pandemic to endemic. This was the declaration of Dr. Ofer Levy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist of Harvard University Medical School, and part of an advisory committee which is now recommending to the Food and Drug Administration that we move toward single annual vaccinations against Covid-19. (Reported in the January 26, 2023 New York Times)

This then is my excuse to move from weekly reflections on the Sunday readings to more occasional blog posts, and ones that draw wisdom from many sources, especially life here on the farm, and hopefully from the godly wisdom of insignificant people. I might call it blue collar wisdom and spirituality.

Of course, I am inspired by that mischievous apostle, Paul, in the most provocative verses from our New Testament reading for this day. All through the Corinthian correspondence Paul has in mind the challenge to his ministry presented by some very, very important people. These critics of him and his gospel see themselves as more authentic missionaries than Paul himself. Paul has no official credentials, no charisma or charm, and no strength of personality that one would expect of a great leader.

Paul makes no defense of himself. Instead of doing what a certain ex-President does, and talk always about himself, Paul makes the case for the revolutionary thing that God does in this world, centered on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Paul doesn’t seek to persuade people to choose him as leader. He makes his case instead about God’s choice. His argument punches through with three expressions of that choice that God has already signed, sealed, and delivered:  God chose the world’s foolish  to shame the wise; God chose the world’s weak to shame the strong; and God chose the things that are not to abolish the things that are.

This morning, just before I awoke, I dreamed a very familiar dream of trying desperately to get my things together for a trip home. As usual I was frustrated because the more I tried to get dressed, and pack suitcases, the more ridiculous the chaos become all around me. And, in this morning’s dream, I also could not get my memory together. Why was I here and not there? What was I trying to say to others? What tasks was I leaving unfinished? Ad infinitum. So, finally, just before I woke up, I had this sinking feeling, and said to myself, “I’m losing my mind.”

You see, I have had dreams of struggling to get home for decades, and frustration dreams for years and years. But I attribute this new fear of “losing my mind” to the creeping realization that I’m getting very old. When I was a young father, I had a months-long bout of existential anxiety. I thought of black holes. I thought of my young son dead and gone. My family doctor helped me out with a medication—thank you Lord—but he also advised me against reading obituaries in the paper. But lately I can’t seem to stop scanning those obituaries looking for birth dates earlier than 1947. There are way too many.

My time is coming. I can feel it. I now sing “Head and shoulders, knees and toes,” thinking they’re all letting me down.

It’s that last choice God makes, and Paul writes about, that jumps out at me today: “God chose what is not, to abolish what is.” God chose what is nothing!

It’s what the senile must think: “I’m disappearing.” It’s what the lonely feel: “I’m forgotten.” It’s what the women in Iran and Afghanistan say about having no rights, and knowing the “international community” is silent. It’s what the Palestinians said just today: “We are being killed off, but the world doesn’t notice.” We are nothing.

But when the Apostle Paul had an experience of the risen Christ, he realized that God is in the business of choosing nothing to overturn what is. And the greatest “what is” is death itself—the ultimate erasure.

Back when all I could think of were black holes and vanishing children, I learned that there wasn’t a damned thing I myself could do about it. That black hole of dread and anxiety had the power to swallow me up. I had to admit it to myself, and to my God in prayer. God answered when the darkness was lifted as surprisingly as it fell on me. God chose my weakness and foolishness to put me to shame, in order to resurrect me in Christ.

Now I will endeavor to be reminded of this good news, when I am dreaming, and when I am fully awake. When I’m losing my mind, my health, or my life, I will reach out to this comfort: God has chosen what is nothing. God has chosen me. And that makes all the difference.

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Epiphany 3 A: The Light of Jesus for Today’s Darkness

The lessons for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany are

Old Testament      Isaiah 9:1–4

Psalm                    Psalm 27:1, 4–9

New Testament     1 Corinthians 1:10–18

Gospel                   Matthew 4:12–23

The first few chapters of Matthew have been overture. Now the action of the plot unfolds. Now it’s Light for the people in darkness.

This evangelist has used geography all along. God is already fulfilling old promises as the infant’s story begins to unfold. From as far away as the exotically foreign home of the magi of the East, the search is on for the promised King. They go to royal Jerusalem, but must travel to the insignificant Bethlehem of Judea to find this surprising Messiah. The Holy Family reverses, then retraces, the path of redemption between Egypt and Nazareth.

The geography continues as the plot unfolds as Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist is “handed over.” Jesus withdraws from the Jordan river banks, where he was anointed by his Father.  But he is not running away in fear. He is running to face humanity’s deepest misery in the place where it was perhaps felt most intensely. His new headquarters for his struggles with the demons is Capernaum, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

The years between 732 and 586 BCE were the time of absolute crisis that marked the death of Israel and the birth of Judaism. In 722 BCE the great northern kingdom of Israel would fall to Assyria’s war monster, Tiglath-Pileser III; and in 586 BCE the smaller southern kingdom of Judah would fall to Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonia. But ten years before it all started, and before Israel as a whole would fall, the old tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali would be crushed, and its leading citizens scattered. Here were the first fruits of disaster—the heart of darkness.

But in Isaiah 9:1-4, the prophet passed on a promise from God: this first territory of darkness would also be the first to see the light of God’s salvation.

But the fulfillment of the promise was postponed. Isaiah saw the refugees from the North flood into and “multiply” the population of Judea and Jerusalem. Archaeologists have recently found evidence that Jerusalem’s population doubled after Israel’s fall. And Isaiah was full of hope that because of the spirit of prophetic humility, faith, and hope, that these northerners brought with them, the people of Judah would wake up and embrace the Light.

But it didn’t happen that easily. Indeed it would be centuries of exile and depression and the hard graft of inventing a new religion that would go far beyond devotion to nation or king or Temple. But the Light would come in the form of a new kind of anointed King. Jesus would be that counter-intuitive King who defies human reasoning (1 Corinthians 1:1-18) born in the stable of a humble home, a fugitive in his infancy, anointed in the trickling waters of the Jordan.

Matthew’s Gospel goes on to trace the Light through Jesus’ ministry. He will now go on to call followers to “fish for people.” He will proclaim good news and heal masses of people—among them the much-feared demoniacs and epileptics. He will declare to the world that happiness is not what we think it is. Jesus will say that ultimate blessing does not come to those who turn inwards, to protect, enrich or empower themselves, but to people who turn toward others. He will announce blessings for the peacemakers and those who love even their enemies. He will call his followers to pick up their crosses and be willing to even die in the service of others. Zeal for God is not expressed in fighting or killing others, but in serving and sacrificing for them.

The darkness we face today is the same old darkness that threatened to devour the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, and the crowds of people who came to hear the good news that Christ proclaimed. This demonic darkness calls itself Christian and patriotic, but it must be seen as the opposite of Christian because it denounces all the virtues that Jesus proclaimed and exemplified. While Jesus opened his arms to welcome those who were strange, foreign, and even threatening,  counterfeit Christianity says we should shut our doors to immigrants, arm ourselves against those who take to the streets to protest police brutality, and deny the right to happiness for those who identify themselves sexually different.

Darkness says to affirm others is to endorse their sin. The Light says to not affirm others is to surrender us all to the power of sin. Living forgiven frees us to forgive others.

Epiphany is the season of light. The days are lengthening. They will get warmer. The good news proclaimed this church year season alerts us to give thanks to God that Jesus Christ came to light our  way out of darkness and the shadow of death.

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Epiphany 2 A: Marching to a Different Drummer

The readings for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany are…

 Old Testament     Isaiah 49:1–7

Psalm                    Psalm 40:1–11

New Testament     1 Corinthians 1:1–9

Gospel                   John 1:29–42

Isaiah 49 sets the tone for this Sunday’s readings, describing Servant Israel as a hero who marches to a different drummer. The servant lives according to God’s just and compassionate order in a disordered world, and for the sake of redeeming that same world for God.

Guesses as to whom the prophet is writing about in the series of servant poems in Isaiah vary. Some say the Servant is Israel. Some say it is the ideal prophet. Some say it is the Persian King Cyrus. Some say it is Jesus. We can be safe in saying that there is some truth in all these possibilities.

In this text, verse 3 says unequivocally it is Israel, and yet, verse 5 says this servant’s mission is to bring back Jacob or Israel. We may then say that the servant here is a population within Israel who lives true to the nation’s calling to be the people of God. And the aim of living in this way is to be an example to others—to prick the conscience of others and move them to return to their true calling and authentic identity.

Key to the entire message of this text is the word translated as “cause” in verse 4, according to the NRSV. The servant is discouraged that it seems she or he has acted in vain, “…yet surely my cause is with the Lord…”

The Hebrew word for “cause” in this translation is mishpat. It is used 425 times in the Hebrew Bible, and is translated variously as decision, judgment, dispute, case, measure, justice, or law. But scholar Paul D. Hanson has described it as “The order of compassionate justice that God has created and upon which the wholeness of the universe depends.” (Hanson, P. D. (1995). Isaiah 40-66 (p. 129). Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.) It is certainly an important idea in this portion of Isaiah, as evidenced by Isaiah 42:4, which declares that the Servant “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established mishpat in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”

We could then say it is the demanding job description of a servant to live according to God’s order of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” while the world around is working within an order of “do unto others before they do unto you.”

When the Servant here complains about working in vain it is obvious that this Servant is not the Word made flesh, Jesus. This one, at least, is not a superhuman. In spite of discouragement this is someone like us, but one who lives by different rules, and marches to a far different drummer. This Servant lives counter-culturally, against the grain, within God’s order of compassionate justice, while those around do not.

This past week, after Kevin McCarthy was finally named as Speaker of the House, we have had a living example of how might makes right. Majority rules in Congress. Everything changes with the shift of a few chairs. All the priorities of the losers are swept away by the winners. We will stop protecting abortion rights and protect anti-abortion activists. We will stop investigating Trump and gear up for investigations of Biden. We will stop restoring funding to the IRS as they go after tax cheats, and start looking for ways of shrinking government altogether.

They say the golden rule is, “Those with the gold make the rules.” But it may be more accurate to say, “Those with the power…those who have wrangled the most votes…those who live according to the rule book of a fickle, self-serving, survival-of-the-fittest world, make the rules.”

In this way it seems Qoheleth was right when he wrote that “all is vanity—a chasing after wind.” It is the eternal pain of true Servants of God that to live for justice with compassion is like beating your head against a stone wall.

But true Servants do it anyway, knowing that, while their “cause” is with God, so is their “reward” (Isaiah 49:4). And God’s order is certain to win.

Meanwhile, as we wait for the ultimate “reward,” Servants do as the poet in Psalm 40 does, and celebrate those mini-triumphs along the road to social justice and perfect compassion. It is especially sweet and worth celebrating when a true Servant trusts God enough to resist the temptation to sell out by turning to the proud (Psalm 40:4).

Our Gospel reading from John lifts up Jesus as the highest ranking Servant of all. But even those of us who are easily discouraged, are called.

I for one would love to see more state officials in Illinois quit caving in to the proud  purveyors of fear who are attacking two vital changes to the laws of this state: one that ended cash bail and the other that outlawed the manufacture and sale of assault weapons in the state. Fear sells, and gets votes. And it has convinced a guy named Andy Sullivan that he is my sheriff in DeKalb County, Illinois. But he is not my sheriff when he tells people that only those who can afford cash bail deserve to be free as they await trial. And not when he tells people that we all need 50 caliber, semi-automatic weapons, and unlimited bullet capacity magazines, to defend our families.

Andy Sullivan is not a legitimate sheriff when he claims the right to decide which laws he will enforce. He is not my sheriff when he defends the right of gun dealers to sell, and others to own weapons of war, but will not defend my right, and the right of my neighbors, not to be mowed down by those same weapons.

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Baptism of the Lord A: God Shows No Partiality

The readings for the Baptism of the Lord are

Old Testament      Isaiah 42:1–9

Psalm                    Psalm 29

New Testament     Acts 10:34–43

Gospel                   Matthew 3:13–17

When the author of Luke and Acts thought of the most important implication of Jesus’ baptism, he thought of this event as the inauguration of Jesus as Lord of all, who brings in a new order of universal respect: God shows no partiality!

The gospel proclamation that this author ascribes to Peter, comes when the apostle has had a revelation. Peter’s religion said that people should stay divided. Sex and diet have always been the heart of religious boundary maintenance. But Peter sees a net full of profane animals, and the heavenly voice says, “Forget your religious scruples. Eat these things, because what God has made clean you must not call profane.”  Then comes Cornelius, a gentile, pagan, Roman centurion onto the scene. The lesson of the vision is so fresh and vivid, that Peter understands it’s not just about food, but about people. It’s about people’s religious boundaries giving way to God’s greater purpose of bringing us all together. In fact, God does not respect divisive religious boundaries. Cornelius may be of a different faith, but he fears God and has such a good reputation that even the Jews speak well of him.

So, if God breaks down the barriers, so will Peter; and so will the church, when the church is at its best. Cornelius and his family will be baptized. In fact, Peter and the church have no real choice. They are impelled by God and God’s Spirit, to baptize. God has poured out the Spirit, and the church has no option but to respect it.

It is just before that spontaneous, instantaneous mass baptism, unencumbered by rules about catechesis, etc., that Peter gives this little speech about Jesus’ own baptism. And he prefaces the whole thing by saying this: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

Today we must restore this idea to its rightful place as the foremost truth of both Christian theology and ethics. God’s chief attribute is that God shows no partiality. Our morality has as its foundation that we think and live the same way.

This theology and morality is something we share with biblical Judaism. The Greek word the author of Luke-Acts puts in the mouth of Peter is a particularly biblical word, seldom found elsewhere in ancient literature. It is built up of a Greek word for taking, receiving, or grasping;  along with the word for the human face, the prosopon. In other words, God isn’t moved by the way a person looks.

The Old Testament is scattered with depictions of the rules of rank. One lowers the face to their “betters,” and lifts the face to demonstrate higher rank. Face is all about the timeless display of shame and honor. In this context, Deuteronomy ties the Jewish “sacrament” of circumcision with biblical equity. Israel bows to God alone to show that ethic to the world. As in Acts 10, the one important thing in life is to bow to and fear the LORD alone and then respect all people, especially the vulnerable among you. So, chapter 10 of Deuteronomy says this:

12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, 15 yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. 16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20 You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.

And this very Jewish theology and morality, the early church emphatically takes to heart; and it is repeated not only here in Acts, but in Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25. It is a theology and ethic urged on all the elders of the church by the early church father Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippians (Pol 6:1). These leaders should show compassion and mercy to all, but especially to the least advantaged.

Why is it so important to restore this principle to the top place in theology and ethics? Because discounting people is what rots society. When we ignore, disregard and discount anyone, it hurts us all. It is the virus that attacks all of our institutions. It destroys that which keeps us alive—the support each of us needs—because each of us is weak and limited and each of us needs the other to survive and thrive. There is not a single human on earth who has not relied on the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the differently abled, the refugee, the homosexual, the trans-gender person, the person of that other race or religion, or the sinner. As the sign said on the sheltered workshop I used to support many years ago, “God doesn’t make any garbage.” That means God never made anyone I don’t need.

God doesn’t show partiality. Neither should we. God doesn’t respect even our dearest, religiously justified boundaries. Neither should we.

And the Lord Jesus, anointed at his baptism, rules this best kind of world.

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New Year’s Day ABC: Our Eternal Now

The Readings for New Year’s Day are

Old Testament      Ecclesiastes 3:1–13

Psalm                     Psalm 8

New Testament     Revelation 21:1–6a

Gospel                   Matthew 25:31–46

There are so many things that the church could mark on this Sunday:  New Year, The Holy Name of Jesus—Mary, Mother of God. But, of course, in these pandemic years we are bound to think that anything new must be better than what we have had since late 2019, so we embrace thoughts of a new year.

It is the last two readings that catch my attention, and seem the most pertinent to this New Year’s Day, because they seem designed to convince us to not get distracted by new or old, but to live in the eternal now.

In Hebrew the phrase la olam is translated as “forever.” But academics today claim that to an ancient Israelite it may have simply meant a very long time. In Greek the phrase zoe aionios is translated as “eternal life.” Though this aion is translated as “forever,” the more basic meaning is “age,” or “epoch.” So, the Greek eis aion may be thought of as something like, “toward the new age.”

But the Bible converges on the idea that forever and eternal are neither simply a long duration of time, or a long way off. Future and present overlap. Eternity ultimately means the eternal now.

And both Revelation 21 and Matthew 25 speak of the ultimate ultimate—the judgment of the world and the coming of heaven to earth.

Jesus’ discourse on judgment exposes another of our dichotomies as false. The future judgment is going on now because those we erase by ascribing them no worth are actually of most worth. They are of most worth because they determine ours in the judgment. They are of the most worth because God has adopted them as God’s own. So they are the present embodiment of the Lord who judges us.

In the Gospel of John this becomes the absolutely present time of  “crisis.” See John 3:19 where the Greek word for “judgment” is “crisis.” It’s the same idea as in Matthew 25. The future judgment is in the eternal now because it happened when the Son of Man, who will come in glory, already has come as the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned strangers. How we treat them is our crisis. It seals our judgment.

So too, Revelation proclaims the eternal now by saying “the home of God is among mortals. He dwells with them as their God.” Present and future overlap throughout this reading. God’s Tabernacle or presence is already among humans, and God will tabernacle in their midst. This is an echo of the same idea as in John 1:14. The Word lives with people in John’s prologue, and God will dwell with them as their God here in Revelation’s new day. And both are forms of the  Greek word describing God’s tenting, tabernacling, or being graciously present with God’s people in the Jewish Temple. And when God says, in Revelation 21:5, that he is making all things new, it is typical of the apocalyptic prophets. The future is already unfolding now. The eternal is unfolding now. And God’s presence with us is both future and present in Christ.

The way we talk about the big and trying times in our lives betrays our instinct to put our own crisis and judgment—and eternity itself—as far as possible away from our everyday existence. The snow in Buffalo is generational. Each flood is a hundred year flood. We cry out that we never thought it would happen here or now. It’s all too surreal. It’s like a movie and not like real life. Plagues and wars and mass shootings are for another time, another place, another people. Not here and now, and not for me.

But the Bible says today is our crisis, our judgment, and our eternity. New heaven and new earth are unfolding as we live. That God dwells among us—our Emmanuel—means at least two things: God is embodied right now in the people in need all around us, and God is in us to empower our caring for these same people.

In college I was surrounded by future pastors. Our greatest collective malady was thinking that some day we would be ordained, and then we would begin ministry. This kind of experience of time caused us to miss the fact that we were surrounded then and there by people who needed us and our ministry.

New Year’s Day is a perfect time to disenthrall ourselves from thinking 2023 will be significantly different from 2022, or that it will be a return to a normalcy that will buffer us from our time of crisis.

Today is the Day. Old year or New Year—today is the eternal now.

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Christmas Day A: New Lenses for the Eyes of Our Spirits

The readings for Christmas Day are

Old Testament      Isaiah 52:7–10

Psalm                    Psalm 98

New Testament     Hebrews 1:1–4 (5–12)

Gospel                   John 1:1–14

This past year I have been living inside a parable of the Incarnation. Here now is that parable:

Once there was a pastor named John, who went for an eye exam. His ophthalmologist told him he had cataracts, and scheduled him for surgery.

Pastor John didn’t like the idea of eye surgery. He pictured himself strapped to a gurney with a surgeon poking needles in his eye. At first he thought his doctor should know what he is talking about, and that he was getting himself worked up over nothing. And, besides, his wife and many of his friends had had cataract surgery in the past, and it was a piece of cake. And they often said they wished they had the surgery much sooner than they did.

But Pastor John couldn’t shake those thoughts of needles in his eye; and he talked himself out of it. He saw brochures with little fuzzy pictures of before cataract surgery, and clean and crisp pictures from after. He heard that with cataracts all the headlights at night had evil spooky looking halos around them He thought, “My vision isn’t that bad.”

So, Pastor John called the doctor and said, “No surgery for me.”

But soon he did start seeing halos. When he went out to the barn at night he saw a great big halo around the barn light. And soon Pastor John started grumbling a lot because when he watched murder mysteries on TV, and the big turning-point-clues always came up on the suspect’s Smartphone; and for the life of hi,m Pastor John couldn’t read what it said. “Why do they do that? They surely can’t expect people to read those things!”

And he grumbled louder when he watched those mysteries set in Scotland and Wales, and he had to read subtitles to know what was going on, and no matter how much he squinted or crouched up closer to the set, he couldn’t read them. And he took to disliking the subtitle makers for torturing people by making the font so blasted small.

So, finally Pastor John went back to the eye doctor and scheduled his cataract surgery. But then came Covid, and surgeries had to be put on hold. And then he himself got Covid and had to postpone again. And then he got a bad cold and coughed for three weeks and had to postpone again. All the while he grumbled more and more about those darn Smartphone clues and blurry subtitles. “What kind of evil world are we living in where the leaves on the trees are just smudges, and where television tortures my eyes this way?”

Finally Pastor John had surgery on his left eye. They took out the old lens and put in a new one. And by the very next day, it was a miracle! He held up his hand over his old right eye, and the world, seen through that left one was bright and crisp. He held up his hand over the left, and the world through the right eye was much duller and blurred.

Pastor John had forgotten what the world looked like. Birds had feathers. The branches of the spruces and firs had tiny, individual needles on them – not just a smeary blobs of green. And, yes, one could actually read those Smartphone clues and subtitles on the TV screen. The TV producers weren’t messing with us. God in nature wasn’t messing with us. The world was okay.

The Gospel of John tells us this:

Jesus was born in this world to be the light of all people—the light that shines in our darkness.

Jesus is the Word.

God became flesh for us to see.

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Later in the Gospel Jesus tells us about the man born blind whom Jesus heals. Some people who think they have all the answers became angry because Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath day when there laws said no work was to be done, and so it confused them. Was Jesus from God, or was he a great sinner against God.

When Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” those same people who had all the answers complained, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

It’s funny how blindness and cataracts sneak up on us. Everything gets dimmer and more blurred. And it’s easy to forget what reality looks like. It’s easy to grumble and blame other people and God for how messed up the world is.

It’s easy for us to see things, but not really see them. We get uneasy about letting God into our lives to change the way we see things. Having to change the way we see things is frightening and painful. We think we see, but we don’t.

So, miracles happen and we miss them.

Nature is so magnificent that it sings God’s praises, but we don’t notice.

God’s love surrounds us, but we miss it.

We think, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

What cataract surgery does for our physical eyesight, Jesus, the Word made flesh, does for our spiritual sight. The Holy Spirit works through the Incarnation and creates the gift of faith through it, and gives us spiritual eyesight into the way the world really is. All nature looks different. The people we love look different. The people we hate too.

Father Richard Rohr, a man who is quite famous as a writer on spiritual things, says, “Our image of God creates us.” What he means is that if we see God as that angry rule enforcer, we start looking for broken rules, and people to punish. We become more and more bitter with a broken world. When our eyes are opened by the faith God gives us, we see God in Jesus. Then we see a God who gives and forgives—a God who lays down his life for all people. Our lives are created and recreated with the light and love of Christmas bursting out all over.

When Jesus was born among us, the Word became flesh. God took on flesh, and dwelt right here among us, full of grace and truth. We get new lenses for our eyes. So the eyes of our spiritual minds can now see what we had been missing for so long.

The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness—

on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2).   

Thanks be to God!

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Advent 4 A: Being A Righteous Man

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 7:10–16

Psalm                    Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19

New Testament     Romans 1:1–7

Gospel                   Matthew 1:18–25

Our Gospel lesson today is about that other parent of Jesus. We love Mary, but owe it to ourselves to study Matthew’s story. It has many lessons for us about our relationship to God, and about the meaning of our lives.

This is a Gospel lesson, all about a choice. What should Matthew do about Mary? What should he do about a calling from the Holy God?

And so it is also about our many and confounding choices—the kinds of things we write to advice columns about and take to psychologists and pastors. If you are at that point where you fret about what to do in your relationships, consider well our saint of the day: Joseph.

This is the famous choice Joseph has: what to do about his pregnant betrothed.

Keep in mind that marriage in Joseph’s day was a contract between families, and family was everything. Today we eat are meals at home, make our money at the office or the factory, answer for our misbehavior in the courtroom. But, for Mary and Joe it’s all in the family.

And in Joseph’s day a betrothal or engagement was a very public thing, and it was absolutely binding. It was all important and sacred to keep the promise of betrothal because family, and the joining of two families, depended on it.

And in those days, for women, virginity before marriage wasn’t a joke. It was everything. The bloodline determined blessing and inheritance. Mixing the blood or the sperm was an attack on all society.

So, the fact that Mary was found to be with child was proof of the kind of betrayal that the Law of Moses said could justify a death sentence because it had the potential to destroy everything for both Joseph and Mary.

So, our story centers on Joseph’s choice. Mary is with child after betrothal, but marriage and moving in with Joseph.

In this story of the CHOICE, there are two essential conditions on which the choice turns. The first is revealed to us in this phrase: “Mary’s husband, Joseph, BEING A RIGHTEOUS MAN…”

This sets us up. Joseph thought,  

Shall I do what is lawful, or what is good?

Shall I do what I am allowed to do to protect my world, our what I should do to protect Mary’s?

In other words, “I am a righteous man. So, what is the righteous thing to do?”

We are told that “being a righteous man” changed everything for Joseph. It made his choice for him. He would not expose Mary, but divorce her. He would break the betrothal quietly. The cat was out of the bag. The horse had left the barn. He couldn’t change all that. He couldn’t completely protect Mary. But he would not expose her to public disgrace.

The key for us, I believe, is in what this means, to be a righteous man. The word “righteousness” is scattered all around the Bible; and because it is biblical, we often assume it means something that is beyond the reach of us mere mortals. But when we think back on all the Bible says about righteousness, the sum of it all is this: “Be a decent person who does more good in the world than bad, and when you screw up, let God forgive and fix you.”

The Bible doesn’t call us as individuals to change the world. That’s the work of Christ, and of the body of Christ—the whole of the chosen people of God.

The commandments tell us what righteousness means for individuals. Mainly it’s avoiding the worst:

Don’t turn your back on the Holy God.

Don’t disrespect family.

Don’t steal or disrespect property.

Don’t make disrespect sexuality.

Don’t break your marriage vows.

Don’t kill people

Don’t lie about others or run them down to your advantage.

John the Baptist in Luke, when asked what the fruits of repentance are, he says, don’t rip people off. And if you have two coats and you see someone who is freezing to death because they have none, share from your surplus.

We are not far from righteousness when we casually say to each other, “Hey, shape up! Behave. Be a straight up guy.” That’s pretty much what the Bible has to say about being righteous.

It says a lot when Matthew tells us Joseph chose not to expose Mary to public disgrace. He just didn’t compromise his morals. He thought of someone else. His choice was not to do what he could get away with and what would make him look good. He chose not to make life worse for Mary.

Basically there are two things that get in our way of understanding righteousness:

Assuming the demands of righteousness are too high.

And assuming lowest common denominator standards for ourselves. 

As we said, we can assume that bible talk about righteousness is about things too lofty for humankind: being saints…changing the world all by ourselves…being impossibly perfect. That sort of thinking automatically discourages us.

But just as discouraging is the assumption of the very low standards that are fed by the belief that our instincts and emotions are things that happen to us—that we have no control over. So, in all our talk about how poverty causes crime, we can surrender to the belief that if we are poor we just won’t be able to help ourselves. We will steal. We will sell drugs. Or, since sexual arousal does happen to us, then broken vows and adultery must follow. We can’t help ourselves—it just happens to us. It’s getting to be a rare thing to see a movie or TV show that doesn’t assume it’s impossible to resist the urge to sleep around.

Such thinking, that we are captives of our basest instincts and emotions, discourages us from thinking we can rise above the low bar pollsters, and sociologists, and so-called scientists set when it comes to the challenges of our day. Can we think beyond our pocket books, our class, our nationality, our race, our political party or our religion and just simply choose not to expose others to disgrace with our choices?

So too, we are discouraged by these low standards, and we think being righteous like Joseph must be impossible for us.

This all brings us to this all important SECOND ESSENTIAL CONDITION in the Joseph story: God’s Promise to carry us beyond morality. God’s promise is part of God’s Holiness—God’s otherness.

You see, there is more to Matthew’s story, and to being righteous, than being nice.

Enter the Angel of the Lord, who says, “Don’t fear to take Mary as your wife. God’s doing a great thing, and you can be part of it.”

God has plans for Joseph and for all of us–plans that take us beyond being good and decent—plans to make us part of the healing of this world.

And so, once again, Joseph makes his choice. “I’m righteous. God made me capable of doing the right and the holy thing. That’s who I am. It’s my character. So I’ll hold my breath, put my doubts aside, and do what the angel calls me to do.” Such a choice is anything but safe. It was an ordeal for Abraham, much suffering for the prophets, and a death sentence for Jesus. But righteousness leads us there.

You see, the holiness of God takes us beyond goodness, reason, truth, and all we value, because it calls us to think bigger. It challenges us to say, “Though I am nice, I may be wrong. My dreams may be too small. I need to grow. And all things are possible with a holy God.” 

God keeps God’s promises by being God with us and for us, Emmanuel. Luther reminds us that God is with us in the Word of God preached and shared, in baptism water, in the Eucharistic body and blood, in the mutual consolation and conversation between brothers and sisters in Christ. But we all know God can be with us in all sorts of unexpected ways. Even in accidents and coincidence, in angel visits, and in dreams and visions—God is with us and for us. Never, ever underestimate God’s ability to be with us.

So, the angel tells Matthew and us, “If you stick with me, Jesus will come of it.” No, you won’t be super human. No, you won’t change the world all by yourself. But you will take your very humble little part in God’s great plan, and Jesus will come of it, to save us all from our sins.”

So the angel tells us today. Being righteous, make the right choices. Be decent to one another. And then surrender to the Holy God’s plans to bring salvation and healing in Christ to the world.

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Advent 3A:  Holy Way—Holy Home

The readings for the Third Sunday of Advent are

Old Testament      Isaiah 35:1–10

Psalm                    Psalm 146:5–10 or Luke 1:46b–55

New Testament     James 5:7–10

Gospel                   Matthew 11:2–11

Churches used to have big signs that said, “Jesus is the answer.” But people got wise and said, “But what’s the question.”

Nobody needs answers to somebody else’s questions.

When the prophet Isaiah went about making God’s holy announcement that we have in today’s Old Testament lesson, everybody got it immediately. They had just been on a nightmare of a journey into exile.

What kind of journey was it?

From Jerusalem straight to Babylon was impossible because it was murderous desert. So the exiles were driven along the fertile crescent, over 1,600 miles. At a forced march at the hands of the Babylonian guards, that still took you almost three months.

But, of course, at least half of them didn’t make it. The heat, the starvation diet, the beatings from the soldiers all took their toll.

Women were raped, the legs of the old buckled, and fathers and mothers had to be left by the side of the road to die—their bodies and bones to be roasted in the sun.

It was a grotesque parade of the ruins of a society:  The blind, deaf, lame, and speechless.

It was the long, winding—and grinding road to oblivion.

Through Isaiah, God spoke of the answer. Not an answer in any vague, abstract way. God was going to bring Israel home. God was going to bring the people on an express, parkway, road back home.

God’s answer is to reverse all of the misery. It would be a complete reversal of the road into exile.

Instead of the long, long, rocky road that detoured around by way of the fertile crescent, this would be an express lane of a super highway right through the desert.

But waters would gush through that desert and flowers would bloom.

No hungry lions will be ready to devour the stragglers.

But, listen carefully to Isaiah.

This road back will be called the Holy Way. The unclean will not travel it. It shall be for God’s people.

And the home you return to will be a Holy Home. It won’t be the same old Judah and Israel—it will be what God designed it to be in the first place.

So, God gives the orders:

Strengthen the weak hands

Make firm the feeble knees

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong! Do not fear”

This is a Holy Home where people live not just for themselves but for each other.

These are surely the orders God had given Israel from the time of Noah and Abraham to the time of the Kings. “Take care of one another, and especially the weak and vulnerable – the widow, the orphan, the immigrants and strangers.” And the more well off you are—the more powerful you are—and even if you are the king – you should have the heart of a good shepherd, caring for all, especially the lost.”

This is the Holy Home I’m sending you back to. This is the Holy Way I’m building for you!

So you see, God is Israel’s answer–a complete reversal. A complete return to a repaired Israel and Judah. God says,

“You keep sinning by forgetting to live my love, and spoiling the home I’ve made for you.”

I keep forgiving and rescuing you from your own self-inflicted oblivion.

And now you have really done it. You are a thousand desert miles away from the land, but also a ten thousand miles from the Holy Home I designed and built for you.

But I am going to make it as easy as I can for you to go back.

This is the answer Israel needs 500 years BC.

So, what’s our answer? How is Jesus our answer in the year 2022 AD?

For centuries now the Church, in its wisdom, has said that this Third Sunday of Advent has a special message. And since I was a kid, this special quality has stuck with me.

We have four candles in the Advent wreath – but the third has always been special. The others used to be purple, and now they can be blue—but in the olden days the the third was a standout pink.

It’s classic Latin name in the Church’s calendar is “Gaudete” for Rejoice.

The old Introit for the day was always taken from the end of Philippians where Paul gets all excited and writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice!”

Think of the timing. Since the last several weeks of the old church year we have been talking about death, the last judgment, and in Advent, our yearning for Christ’s coming: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

This all matches the mood of these darkest days of the year. Daylight is fading. It’s dark by 4:30. Darker and darker.

And then comes PINK – and then comes REJOICE!

Dark Days!!! Rejoice because Jesus is the answer.

Yes, Jesus is the answer—the one true thing, brightest and best, that we could ever hope for! 

But what is Jesus the answer to? I think Jesus is the antidote to our selfish society!

It has always been a temptation for us to think this daily life itself  is the problem, and so heaven must be the answer.  We think that highway that God is building for us is straight out of this world and into paradise. The fertile, well irrigated fields, the blossoms, the clouds that we can sit on an play our harps. It’s all not here, but someplace else.

Is that our answer? Is it getting away from this life and the people we have to put up with?

One of the things my wife, Connie, and I have been doing for the past couple of decades has been hosting herding dog clinics at the farm. We have had as our teachers the very best dog trainers in the world. One clinic I couldn’t help but notice, as I walked around among the 15 or so people milling about, that they were mostly talking about those “OTHER PEOPLE” out there who don’t know what we know and who don’t know all the tips from this great teacher we are learning with. They let their dogs get away with such bad habits. They are snobbish and rude.” As usual I got a bit sarcastic, and I started just saying, “Aren’t people awful?”  And we all got laughing about it.

If we are honest, don’t we have to admit God’s Holy Home for us can’t be just being rid of all these awful people and all the troublesome things they cause?

Is Jesus the answer because he is going to come back someday and take us away from all these earthly troubles and take us all to heaven?

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in heaven. But the heaven the Bible talks about comes down here to us in Jesus’ life. God comes down here in Jesus. The heaven the Bible talks about is this world cleansed of the selfishness in our hearts that spoils this home God has made for us.

So, God says to us in Isaiah, “Help one another!”

3Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your saving God.

And so, all lessons of this Gaudete or REJOICE SUNDAY say we rejoice because God is doing very THIS WORLDLY THINGS to redeem this world from our selfishness and so heal us all:

Sight for the blind

Hearing for the deaf

The lame leaping like deer

The speechless singing for joy.

Food for the hungry

Prisoners going free

The beaten down lifting their heads

Strangers welcomed

Orphans and widows held up and cared for

Lepers cleansed

The dead raised

And, Jesus tells us that the greatest thing of all is that poor people—the lowest of the low, have the news of God’s love shared with them.  

Robert D. Putnam wrote a book called The Upswing,” in which he described a long winding road back from exile for America. The late 19th century “Gilded Age” saw big shots like Vanderbilt and Rockefeller get filthy rich, but the masses of Americans living in misery because it was an age that celebrated glitz and greed. But from the early 20th century to the early 1960s our society as a whole got healthier. Wealth was distributed. Great building projects and a progressive taxation system benefitted all. Children were fed, the old were cared for, the GIs returning from war were cared for. The lame walked, the blind saw, the deaf were able to speak and even sing out.

But, Putnam points out that since the 1960’s both the liberals and conservatives in our society started going back to singing the praise of selfishness and lifting individual rights way over our duty to one another.

For liberals it was “do you own thing.”

For conservatives it was “force the shoeless to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps…all for their own good, of course.”

And the sad thing is that we have been on this down-swing – away from building community and towards radical, self-destructive individualism, ever since.

What is this selfish world we have made for ourselves other than our exile?

When doing our own thing and being ourselves and fulfilling our needs is all we have, what are we? We have cut ourselves off from those others we need.

When the marketplace lays out all the rules, what happens to the golden rule?

All of the gross divisions, the stalemated congress, the loss of trust in elections and the Supreme Court, frustrate us.

All the sacrifice of the future to nearterm profit has eaten away the beauty and bounty of Creation.

IT ALL IS OUR EXILE – We too are ten thousand miles from the Holy Home God created for us!!

Putnam’s final point was, “We built the road back once; so surely we can do it again. For decades we built things for the common good, and not just to enrich a few – things like Social Security and Medicare and the Interstate Highway system – we can do it again.

But the answer Jesus brings us goes way beyond Interstate highways and government institutions and laws. They aren’t enough. Jesus leads us back to a Holy Home where selflessness is in each home and each heart. Every Day!

Jesus is the answer, and part of that answer to the problem of death is heaven. But heaven is just part of eternal life. Eternal life starts right here, with each other.

The prophets call us on a Holy Way that starts here and leads us to the Holy Home with God in the center and us all connected in love to each other.

The Lord God called us to a Holy Home not of selfishness, or glitz, or greed.

God called us to sharing, caring and thinking of community, not just disconnected individuals.

God did not call us to fix blame, but to forgive as we have been forgiven.

God calls us to a road back home to a Holy Land, and a Holy Life along the Holy Way.

We can help America once again be a leader of big projects for big purposes that help us all.

And we can all be people of healing, selflessness, and caring for community in personal ways this Advent and always.

Jesus is our answer, and so we rejoice this Gaudete!

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Advent 2 A: Christ is Here! Christ Shall Come Again!

The lessons for the Second Sunday of Advent are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 11:1–10

Psalm                    Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19

New Testament     Romans 15:4–13

Gospel                   Matthew 3:1–12

I’m willing to bet that when the prophet Isaiah pronounced this famous oracle of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-10), two overpowering emotions gripped his audience.

First was fear. Things were bad in Judah, and they were about to get worse. Scholars aren’t sure if it was from the original Isaiah, at a time of terror from the Assyrians, or from a disciple of Isaiah, decades later, under the Babylonian terror. But either way it was a time of burning cities, impalement of resisting soldiers, rape of women, mass enslavement and exile.

Both were times of great fear. Those who listened thought, “We counted on the Lord. He had promised to protect us with a king of David’s line—but now David’s family tree has been chopped down to the stump. Nothing is left to hope for.”

But the second emotion would have been shock at the boldness of the repetition of a single, stirring word, shouted out with such certainty:  “S H A L L.  A little word, but Isaiah hammers it home:

A shoot SHALL come out from that pitiful stump of Jesse.

A branch SHALL  grow from his roots

Don’t hang your heads! Don’t fear the worst! Don’t even hope against hope. EXPECT IT!  God’s checks don’t bounce, so take God’s  promises to the bank!

God will send a leader, and the Spirit of the Lord SHALL rest on him.

His delight SHALL be in the fear of the Lord.

He SHALL be just and merciful. He won’t be moved by those with power and clout, but he SHALL be righteous with the poor, and equitable with the meek.

He SHALL speak with such truth and power that the earth will be moved and the wicked melt away.

The Day is coming when this righteous leader SHALL stand as a beacon and gather his people; and together they SHALL live and speak such truth and love that the whole world will be changed.


And then the earth itself—all nature SHALL be transformed into a peaceable kingdom. The wolf SHALL live with the lamb. The Leopard with the kid. The calf and lion. And a little child SHALL lead them.

If you are like me you can’t help being skeptical with Isaiah’s oracle. While you listen, those doubts and fears muddle your thoughts.

Covid, RSV, and flu are knocking at the door; not to mention Monkeypox and bird flu.

We might have dismissed talk of climate change, but barges and boats stuck in the mud of the Mississippi, Colorado, and Rhine rivers, and the fires and floods and famines all over the world have convinced us.

And we thought that that other horseman of the apocalypse, war, was a thing for exotic, faraway places like Yemen and Syria, but now it’s in Ukraine, helping to jack up our prices for gasoline and bread.

So how can we get past the sheer and utter pessimism? How can we possibly see any good coming out of this awful year we have been living through?

It’s the shock of the SHALL!! 

Isaiah is saying, “It doesn’t matter what you feel. I doesn’t matter what the natural response is. It doesn’t matter what’s the rational thing to think—or what EVERYBODY is thinking. God is shocking you into seeing what God sees—the Truth of what’s happening right now, and what will happen in the future.

Then we can say together, “I believe, help my unbelief, O God!”

And Advent is the time, par excellence, when God gives us that shock. You see, it’s not really that WE light candles in the dark during Advent. God lights them for us.

And, finally, around the four Advent candles, God lights that fifth one–the big one—the Christ candle. Because it is when Jesus Christ shows us what God is like, and what we humans are supposed to be like, that we begin to see the rock hard Truth of everything. Then we know we do have so much that is yet broken and unfulfilled in this world, but there are signs all around that Christ is changing everything so that we can keep on keeping on.

God recently lit one candle for me. There was a moment recently when my wife and I once again said to each other, “If this election doesn’t go the way we want, we are going to move to Scotland.”  Of course, we had talked that way several times before, and so it had become more and more a big joke than a genuine sentiment. However it was a way we had to express our foreboding. What is happening to our world?

Then, the very next day, I was browsing YouTube, and happened on what was perhaps the last episode of the Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour program. It was their last because they had woven into their singing and comedy a whole lot of criticism of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam war and racism, and the sponsors couldn’t back them anymore.  But in this last show they ran a rapid fire video montage by Chuck Braverman: a retrospective of that horrible year, 1968. Here are just a few things that were highlighted:

In the Tet Offensive the North Vietnamese shattered American troops.

There were massive riots in American streets, and worldwide, over the war.

There were more riots over racism sparked by things like two black sanitary workers being crushed to death by a broken garbage truck in Memphis.

That was followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King

Later, Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was struck down.

Then more riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Okay, 1968 was a year maybe ever worse than 2022. But God lit this candle by making me wonder if 1968 was proof  that life is irredeemable, so Jesus isn’t the Redeemer.  

I was in college and becoming a young man in 1968, so I had to refresh my memory. Were there good things too? Were there green shoots of leaves growing from the stump of the tree of Jesse?  

My mind went back to those days in my life. I was at Concordia Senior College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Any signs of Jesus’  handiwork?

Fort Wayne was small, but the most prominent in Northeast Indiana. And our college had the best meeting place, so we hosted most of the presidential candidates. So I got to see that people cared about politics and cared about their communities; so they filled the bleachers to listen and think.

And the women’s movement! Half the human race under rated, underpaid, under-utilized for millennia—started to organize and make a big splash. Back at the all male Senior College we had a day of theological reflection with a bunch of visiting woman scholars. At one point I thought I was saying something to agree with them, but one woman turned and said I made her want to throw up. It hurt, but it helped wake me up. And a lot of men have been waking up since. So, 1968 was a big year as the woman’s movement did take shape and grow. Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to be elected to congress, winning the first of seven terms. And Yale University decided, after almost 300 years, to admit its first female undergraduates. Yes that didn’t happen until 1968!

And after the debacle of the Tet Offensive Americans woke up, pressured their leaders, and they turned the corner to resolving that endless war. Walter Cronkite stopped just reading what the Pentegon sent him, went to the front himself, and said to Americans “Vietnam is mired in stalemate.” Meanwhile, thousands of men burned their draft cards, returning soldiers told of the tragedies, Lyndon Johnson bowed to the criticisms and vowed not to run again. And the Paris Peace talks began.

And, before he went, Johnson managed a couple of outstanding things. Johnson negotiated and signed the the Fair Housing Act, barring housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. And he signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which to this day is the biggest things to reduce and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the world. 

The Lord helped some very courageous people made stands in 1968—stands that have made our planet a better place. They made good trouble that has helped our nation, like 15,000 Latino high school students in Los Angeles, who walked out of classes to demand more equitable education.  And like Czechoslovakian leaders who dared to disobey directives by their  Soviet Union overlords and abolish censorship of the press. It triggered a Prague spring, then a Soviet backlash…but today the Czech Republic is healthy democracy. More good news in 1968 was the first Special Olympics held at Soldier Field. And to cap things off,  during the Christmas holidays of 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon and return safely to Earth, taking that breathtaking “Earthrise” photograph along the way.

So, what about 2022? Has it all been about pestilence, war, climate change, and poisonous political divisions? God, in Christ, nudged me, and I looked back a bit more carefully and found this evidence that Christ is indeed changing everything:

In January we had over a million people a day falling ill to Covid, but today that number is down to less than 57,000. Christ has worked miracles through hard working, compassionate, and smart people. These people identified the cause of Covid in days after it surfaced. They sequenced it’s genome in weeks, and administered the vaccines within a year. And then the Covax program administered billions of Covid vaccines throughout the developing world. All of these miracles are happening all around us: Jesus worked through thousands of people who cared.

This year, for the first time ever, a woman was actually cured of HIV AIDS.

Congress passed the “No Surprises Act”  that makes it illegal for people to get billed from doctors they didn’t choose and who won’t accept their insurance.

Maya Angelou became the first black woman to be pictured on a U. S. quarter.

A century ago there were countless lynchings of black men in the south, but this year the vigilante killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia were sentenced to life in prison.

Not long ago there were only 10,000 humpback whales in the world, but awareness and hard work has made it so that in 2022 there were eight times as many.

The war in Ukraine goes on, but the US and NATO and the UN keep united pressure and support and the Ukranians show amazing resolve under pressure.

The world is repenting of its past treatment of natives like the North American Indians, and investigations have started and the Pope apologized, 523 acres of California redwood foresta have been returned to them, and one of their own is now US Secretary of the Interior.

We are slowly learning new ways to promote renewable energy and ways to reverse some of our worst injuries to the planet God entrusted to us.

And this year, can you believe it, Congress passed, and President Biden signed, the most significant gun safety law in 30 years.

Yes, there are good things happening. Yes, there are signs that Christ is changing everything.

And how will Christ be changing things in 2023? How will new growth sprout from the branch of the stump?

God promised, and it SHALL happen. But what SHALL happen in 2023 that will amaze us, transform nature itself, and shake up the political world we live in?

Remember, most of the good stuff won’t appear in the papers, where if it bleeds it leads. It sure isn’t going to trend on Facebook or Twitter, because there are too many trolls out there who love to divide s by blaming everybody else.

But it SHALL happen when Jesus rules, even now, in people’s hearts; in both little and big ways.

And, John the Baptist warns us today, it SHALL happen in all kinds of people, even the non Christians. He warns, “Don’t presume to say you are children of Abraham.” And he means today, “Don’t presume to say you are a Christian. And don’t presume to think you have all the answers and see the world as it is. You need to repent. You need to open yourself to God’s surprising Truth.

So too all these good and great things that happened in the dark days of 1968 or in 2022 were done by Christ, even though they were often accomplished by people who did not wear the Christian label. They were done by people of all faiths, and by people who denounced faith, but nevertheless were moved by Christ to care. And even we good Lutheran Christians even missed much of the Good News happening right before our noses.

However, we may not have to wear the Christian credentials, but we do need Christ who opens us to the Truth–who shows us who God is and who we are supposed to be.

When you and I worship, we gather around the cross, and the font—the source of it all. You can’t care for others, in small or great ways, unless you can forget about yourself. And you can’t forget yourself until you know that you live in a world where forgiveness and love rule. And that rule is from the God who forgives, and who gives, even of himself, on the cross.

Christians are the ones gathered by God to learn to be ambassadors for Christ, calling all the other people to the source. We gather to once again let God light the our candles in the  darkness around us. We gather so God can use us to point others to the font of God’s grace in Christ. Or to put it in the words of John the Baptist, when Jesus touches our hearts and we don’t simply presume to call ourselves Christians, or children of Abraham, we bear the fruit of repentance.

It’s not in any doubt. It SHALL happen. God’s prophetic checks don’t bounce.

This Advent we, together, will light candles in the darkness. We will understand that Christ is God’s Messiah, and is already changing everything. Yes, there is still darkness and brokenness. But we, and all the people Christ is inspiring with God’s love…we shall bear fruits of repentance, and so God will draw this planet towards the Peaceable Kingdom.

Yes. It SHALL happen.

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Advent 1 A: Holy Dissatisfaction

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 2:1–5

Psalm                    Psalm 122

New Testament     Romans 13:11–14

Gospel                   Matthew 24:36–44

In his 1843 book, Fear and Trembling, the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, criticized those who seemed to be equating faith with ascent to the fashionable “system” of truths, and with living comfortably in the present “age.” The “system” that had captured the imagination of so many Europeans was the philosophy of G. F. W. Hegel, and the notion that European Christian civilization was what God was aiming at all along; and therefore, the “present age,” was the one every Christian was to intellectually grasp and settle into. The Enlightenment had taught humanity that with a rational, scientific approach to life, it could reach the heights that Eternity had laid out for it.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, warned that thinking about the entirety of human society had caused us to forget the supreme importance of the individual. He warned that too much optimism with “the age” of enlightenment caused people to think they could advance beyond faith itself. He warned that faith wasn’t knowing the truth, but living it by constantly being dissatisfied with self and systems, and submitting to God. Faith was passionate struggle with, and suffering through the constant trials of life that happen because our ideas of truth continually come up short of Truth.

Advent is the season of the year when we are all called upon to be dissatisfied with “the age” we are living in, and the “system” of truth that guides it. And this first Sunday is all about the true nature of the time we are living in. This time is not so much an “age” as a day—a sharp moment in time. An age is a time to be satisfied. A day is a time to be striving with passionate energy and the passion that is suffering itself.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of “days to come.” At his time of history the prophets didn’t yet envision an end of history, but they were inspired to simply assert that the Lord had things under control, and sometime in future things would be different. And I think the heart of Isaiah’s message was that the all too human rhythm, determined by fighting violence with more violence, was doomed to failure and extinction. Instead, in days to come, the Lord would arbitrate. The Temple and Jerusalem, where Isaiah and the people of Judah experienced this most righteous of judges, would call the Judeans, and other exhausted people of the world to  “reason together” or talk things out (Isaiah 1.18) with God, until they would renounce their own doomed “reason” and see the wisdom of beating their swords into plowshares.

Isaiah tell us never to get comfortable with the spirit of your age. Never surrender to “the way things are,” but live towards the coming Day.

By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Jews and former pagans who made up the Church of Rome, he knew that speculation about timetables was a soporific to true faith. “Keep awake” he says. Don’t get caught up in thinking faith is having the answers to the questions, “When will the Day come? When will the Lord return? How do we decode current events?” Wake up to the way God has freed you from the “age” of conflict and for the New Age of cooperation. God, in Christ, has forgiven your sins so that you can think of others and put on the compassionate clothing of Christ.

Jesus, in Matthew 24, stresses also this Advent truth that the Day or the Moment, or the “right time,” we live in is neither short nor long. Its culmination will come as a surprise, but as a surprise that is absolutely critical to our individual existence. And faith is that ordeal that we go through that makes us ready for any surprise.

 And I like Psalm 122 for the season of Advent, and for understanding what faith is all about. The Bible calls this “A Song of Ascents,” no doubt because it was chanted as the pilgrims went up in elevation from their homes to the great ridge on which sat Jerusalem and the Temple mount. They prayed in anticipation that going up would give them peace personally; and that it would bless their relatives and friends with the same peace.

History has shown that we must not read this psalm too literally. The Temple has been destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. Much blood has been spilled there by Romans and Jews, Crusaders and Muslims, the British, and terrorists of many, many persuasions. It is being spilled yet today. And, just so, any vision that the United States of America is the new Jerusalem, is a tragically tainted vision.

But it is the singing and the ascent of Psalm 122 that I hear the Lord calling us all to. Faith is being, worshipfully, on the ascent. Faith is Holy Dissatisfaction with this age. Faith is hunger and thirst for God’s rule. Faith is living in an extended moment between the old and the new. Faith is fortifying ourselves by God’s constant grace in this moment, so that we will not fall exhausted by the greed and vengeance of this age, but gladly let God be our Judge now. Faith is being ready to help those around us lay down their burdens of false faith in this age. Faith is expecting ordeal, struggle and suffering, because until that Day is finally here, the values of this age must not become our values. Faith is not getting comfortable with this age, but reaching out with joy for the Next.

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