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Archive for December, 2012

Sad, Glad, Soft, Loud, Stubborn Songs!

Based on Luke 1:39-56

 What are your favorite songs? Everybody has some. Which are the songs that give you energy, bring a smile to your face, and pick you up? You listen to them on your iPod, or in your car or at home and you just feel better? U2’s Beautiful Day or Cee Lo’s Bright Lights, Bigger City lift me up. Or which songs move you in a different way? Which songs resonate with your feelings of sadness or doubt or fear? Which songs sit with you and cry, mourn, or question? The Beatles’ Yesterday does that for me. And then, which songs help you to express frustration or anger? The ones that give you permission to express the deepest, fullest anger in your soul? Zero by the Smashing Pumpkins in on my anger playlist.

What are your happy, energetic songs? Your sad ones? Your angry ones?

Songs are powerful. This time of year, we don’t have to remind ourselves of that, do we? I think there is no season more prone to nostalgia, memories, and emotions than this one. And songs are a big part of it, right? Some Christmas songs are just silly and fun.

Yes, we sing Jingle Bells [before the tire blows out], and Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman, and the Hanukkah Songoh wait—that’s…not…well, it’s one of MY favorite silly/fun songs for this time of year, anyway. Thanks, Adam. All kidding aside, there are also songs we listen to and sing that are not silly or just plain fun. Some songs can lift us up and other songs allow us to be honest about our sadness or our anger. One mistake that we make as U.S. Christians is that we more often than not go for the silly and superficial music this holiday season. Don’t get me wrong—I love to laugh and to be silly. And I do it a LOT. But honestly, we often avoid the deeper, more honest songs that speak to the realities of our world and our lives. The songs that challenge us; the songs that move us to action.

The songs of lament; the songs of justice.

All during Advent we have been walking through the story of Luke’s Gospel. So it is appropriate for us to talk about songs, because Luke contains a lot of songs. This shouldn’t be a surprise for us, because Luke likes to tell its story with the stories of the Ancient Israelites in mind. In other words, while we equate Luke with only the story of Jesus of Nazareth, Luke actually echoes the stories of characters like Moses, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, and David. All of them sang. Their songs told stories. So do the songs of Luke’s characters: Zechariah, Simeon, the angels, and of course, Mary.

A reminder about the Gospels and how they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Contrary to what we may remember, the birth of Jesus is barely mentioned in the Bible. Only 2 Gospels–Luke and Matthew–talk about this event, and in drastically different ways. Luke’s focus is on the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically the prophets like Isaiah and Micah. Luke is honed in on God’s justice and love lifting up the lowly—those whose voices are often silenced. So it’s no surprise, then, that we find Luke’s story mostly about women. Of course, in the time and culture of the 1st and 2nd Century, women certainly did not enjoy many freedoms. In fact, the Bible we have leaves out much of what women might have said or experienced. So it’s rare that we get such a closer view of women’s perspective like we do in Luke.

Like the Ancient Israelite’s story of Ruth and Naomi, in Luke we find two women who share a special friendship. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, as we know, were older and could not have children. Luke spends an entire chapter telling their story for a reason. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story parallels Mary and Joseph’s. You see, eventually, an angel visits Zechariah making a startling announcement that seems impossible; then, a mute Zechariah and a shocked Elizabeth deal with the reality of an unexpected pregnancy. This new kid, according to the angel with a name [Gabriel], will be like the prophet Elijah and bring the Israelites back to their homeland. Wow! But in spite of this amazing news, Elizabeth finds it necessary to remind everyone that up to this point, she’s been disgraced in her own community. Luke wants us to understand that Elizabeth was isolated. She felt worthless. But God via some Gabriel-angel told her something different.

Well, apparently this Gabriel was busy, because the angel made it over to Nazareth to visit Elizabeth’s relative, Miriam, who we call Mary. A similar announcement takes place. Mary is going to have a kid. Just one problem: she has a guy she likes who happens to be a descendent of King David [which is good], but they actually aren’t married. So getting pregnant maybe doesn’t sound so great at this point.

I love Luke’s rendering of the story. Mary is troubled at the news. Well, that’s an understatement!

Like Elizabeth’s kid-to-be, John, Mary’s son will also be a leader. Not just any leader—the next king to take over David’s empty throne. But Mary was less concerned with all that political jargon. Like Elizabeth, it was more about practicality. No, Mary wasn’t older like Elizabeth, but she did not know a man yet. That’s what the Greek text actually says. I’m not going to go into the tiresome debate about the word virgin, because I just don’t think it’s important in the story. What matters is that Mary and Joseph are not together in the way that would be acceptable in society. Remember, these are parallel stories. So Elizabeth was disgraced by her community for being old, female, and infertile. Mary would be disgraced also for being pregnant without a proper marriage commitment. Seems like they can’t win, right?

But again, that’s the point Luke is making. Yes, society points the finger and judges, but God doesn’t really care. This atypical story moves on as God chooses to lift up these two women. Check this out: after the angel leaves Nazareth, there’s no man in Mary’s story. No one–no Joseph! Instead, Mary goes by herself to visit Elizabeth in the Judean town where she and Zechariah lived. Now let’s assess this. Nazareth in Galilee was about 70 miles from Judea. But keep in mind that Samaria was in the way and we know how Israelites and Samaritans felt about each other. So most likely, Mary traveled around 100 miles.[1] What was going on her mind during that long trip? Probably she was afraid, nervous, upset, and unsure about the future. But she went with haste to see Elizabeth. For some reason, she felt that Elizabeth was the right person to tell.

Mary.ElizabethWhen she arrives at their home, Elizabeth welcomes her. Actually, she embraces her. No doubt this made Mary feel better. Elizabeth didn’t scold her or ask her, “Where’s the ring?” or shoot judgmental glances at her. Elizabeth welcomed her. The story is redefining what society has taught. It doesn’t matter if Mary is unwed and pregnant. What matters to God is that both Mary and Elizabeth will participate in the passing on of Good News. John will preach it at the Jordan River. Jesus will preach and live it in Jerusalem and Galilee. And you and I must remember that this storyteller Luke knows about who these two babies will become. He’s writing a flashback story. It’s all making sense now. Of course, the God who stands with the oppressed, the God who lifts up the lowly will give these two women powerful roles to play. If both John and Jesus preached freedom for those enslaved, justice for those pushed down, and a place for the left out, doesn’t Elizabeth’s and Mary’s story resonate?

Well, just in case we STILL don’t get it because we’ve had too much eggnog and are fixated on manger scenes, Mary on a donkey, and the little drummer boy—Luke brings it home. And of course, Luke brings it home with music. The once-mute Zechariah sings. His song is joyful, but mixed with frustrations and years of sadness.

Zechariah sings:

Blessed is God, but the wait has been long for us to be saved from those who hate us. We needed to be rescued from enemies. But God forgives sins and is tender in mercy, giving light to those who sit in darkness and even fear death. God gives peace.

And Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, is of a similar tone. It could have been a typical Hebrew poem of old. It looks a lot like Hannah’s song. Mary sings:

My whole being lifts up my God, but only because God has helped me in my lowliness. I may not have been blessed before, but from now on, I will be. There is mercy for me and great strength in God’s arm which scatters the proud and the powerful. God lifts up those who are down, like me. God gives hungry people things to eat. Those who are too rich are empty.

Mary and Zechariah’s songs, and eventually the angelic songs amid shepherds, of Luke’s gospel in chapter two, voice music of joy mixed with pain. Not all the joy of the songs is reality. People go hungry. The proud keep their thrones. The greedy get more. The lowly are oppressed. People often feel empty, even when they try to be faithful. Sometimes we don’t feel so blessed. And yes, THIS is what the songs of Luke’s story have to teach us. We so often paint the Jesus birth story in the most sanitized, friendly, and nostalgic way possible. But this will leave us empty. For the story is much, much bigger than how we’ve wrapped it up for ourselves. Hear the songs of this story. And now, hear your own.

We all sing—whether in public or in private. Sometimes we sing aloud and sometimes we sing in our minds or in our hearts and only we can hear. But we need to sing all kinds of songs, not just the easy ones. We need to sing songs of lament to express our grief and fear, honoring these emotions and then eventually stripping them of their power over us so we don’t stay in our grief and depression; so we don’t learn how to hate. And we need to sing songs of joyful praise and thanksgiving so we feel a connection to each other and to the land and the good creation around us. And we need to sing songs of courage and hope when all around us is fearful, violent, and bleak.

We need to sing like this in order to live like this.

Mary and Zechariah don’t just sing, they start to live out what they sing. They name their hopes, fears, sadness, and promises. Mary’s song is sung in the past tense. According to her, these promises have already been fulfilled [even though they hadn’t]. So she’s stepping out into the world with more than hope. She is living and breathing this song. She’s agreeing to be a willing participant in the giving and telling of God’s mercy and love to all people. And her song becomes her story.

So sing, friends. Sing all the songs of your whole being. Don’t ignore them or suppress them. Sing.

Sometimes your songs of defiant love and acceptance will overwhelm the hateful words and actions in our world. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of honest doubt will completely heal someone who never felt she had permission to question God. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of thankfulness will remind another how special it is to just have food, and health, and people who love you, and not things. So sing.

And sometimes your songs will blend with many other songs, raising a voice of courage and unity to work for justice, peace, and acceptance for all So…sing!

And as you sing, step into this mercy and love of God that doesn’t push you down or call you names or leave you on the street or exclude you or applaud violence or offer simplistic answers or belittle your pain or ignore your challenges or judge your faults.

Step into that song; live it. Amen.


[1] Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Little Stories within the Big One

Based on Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 1:68-79

The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?
And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn’t that make life a story?[1]

LifeofPiBookThe words of the character Pi in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. I am moved by this novel and the movie’s ability to push us to ask important questions about life, story, and their connections to each other. During this time of Advent, we often make the mistake of believing that the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is all too familiar, and therefore, not a story that can challenge, move, and change us. And yet, in spite of the commercial animal of Christmas, here we are as people of faith, reading these stories and hoping that they will help us understand our own stories. How we understand the world greatly affects how we live in it. How we read sacred stories greatly affects how we apply them to our lives. So once again, I invite and challenge you to journey through these stories with me, but to take special care as to not infer what we think we know about them. Let’s open our minds and hearts to hearing them again, seeking new understandings.

Malachi is a book of the Bible that we don’t really read much, but there are definitely recognizable parts in it. Many people in Western Europe and in this country only recognize Malachi because of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah of 1741.

But before the hallelujah chorus gets stuck in your head [too late], you should know that the text for Messiah was put together by a wealthy English landowner named Charles Jennens. He took bits and pieces of scripture from both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, at times editing the text to fit the libretto he compiled in three parts. Jennens used the King James Version of the Bible and sought to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, focusing on the Divine mystery of God’s presence in humanity.[2]

handelMessiah, through song, tells a story that directly connects prophetic books like Malachi to the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Certainly, if you grew up with Messiah, then you most likely see Malachi through this lens. But I told you that we were going to attempt to hear the stories as they are—not inferring or even reading into them, as much as possible. So let’s give Malachi its due. First of all, Malachi is not the name of a prophet. This book was written by an anonymous author or group of authors. Malachi is Hebrew for messenger of God.[3] This prophetic book has a unique tone to it—much different than the familiar prophetic voices of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Malachi announces a messenger who will bring purification. Israel needs to be cleaned, but from what? According to Malachi, the religious leaders [the priests] had desecrated the temple with inappropriate sacrifices. There were false prophets and selfish leaders who looked out for themselves but not for the poor, or for the forgotten, or the marginalized. They had broken their covenant promises with God.

In essence, Malachi calls out so-called “religious” people who worshiped falsely because they did not act justly. They were supposed to do good in the world; their lives preached a message contrary to that. Their worship was adoration of material things, comfort, and the plans of people. This did not please Yahweh, according to Malachi.

I have to say, though most think that Malachi was written in the time period of 515-445 B.C.E.[4] when the Jerusalem temple was rebuilt, I think the message is for us today, too. We most certainly have plenty of religious temples all around, but what are we preaching and what are we doing? Especially in a season of consumerism and shopping, what are we worshiping? Are we keeping our promises? There are people without adequate food and shelter; there are injustices done to those without the “proper” paperwork; there is discrimination and bullying against people from other countries, those who speak languages other than English, those with little money, and those who practice a different faith. Malachi is a call to repentance, to turning around. Humanity’s intentions and humanity’s actions contradict the Holy One’s expectations.

Perhaps some of us hear this prophetic book as merely background noise for Handel’s Messiah, as merely another reference to the coming of Jesus Christ. But let’s stay with Malachi’s story. In this story, Yahweh is the refining fire—the One who will restore Israel to its blessed relationship with its God, but also the one who judges humanity for injustices. Malachi’s story is a prophetic voice that speaks a message not about prediction or foretelling, but a message of truth-telling.

Are we caring for people, or does our religion prevent us from doing so? In other words, yes, Malachi is concerned with how people worship God, but this worship is worthless unless it leads to merciful and just action on the streets. That wasn’t happening way back in the day. And…I think we have the same problem now. What does religious practice lead to? After worship, do we just go back to shopping, buying, stressing out, ignoring the world’s problems, and neglecting to help our neighbors?

Pi, in his story and journey of faith, observes this disconnect. As a boy, he notices this about many religious people:

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging…walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.”

 LifeOfPi

But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

 Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.”[5] 

From Malachi’s prophetic voice and story to Luke’s Gospel. Something to keep in mind here. We’re reading the Bible as a great big story. Malachi was a chapter in that story. Luke’s Gospel does not follow Malachi in the story, though it does in this version of the Bible. Let’s do this. Take the Bible and read Malachi’s ending, and then, like in many great stories, imagine that there is a fast-forward moment. Malachi ends and there are centuries that pass—ages. Generations of people come and go. Jerusalem becomes Greek in language and culture. Then the Romans bring the Latin language and their empire. People play taxes to Caesar. Jerusalem is occupied by Roman military. And now we’re into Luke’s story. We’re about to hear about another prophetic voice. We may think it is Jesus, but we would be wrong.

Luke’s story invites us to sit awhile with Zechariah and Elizabeth.

heqiElizThe Visitation, He Qi

These two characters are shared by the sacred stories of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those of the Baha’i faith. Zechariah worked in the temple, serving a priestly role. Elizabeth, due to the restrictions and taboos of her time, lived under a cloud of sorrow and longing. She and Zechariah could not have children. Being infertile was considered a shameful condition in this era. Many considered childbearing as a blessing of God and infertility as a curse. So Luke tells us a story of grief. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed to be part of the community. They hungered for connection. Even so, they remained faithful to their God, in spite of the many around them who whispered and gossiped. We’re tempted to skip over this story, but we cannot. We must stay a moment in this place of doubt, silence, and waiting. How do we expect to truly journey to Bethlehem unless we sit with Zechariah and Elizabeth? Advent is about waiting. It is about hearing the lesser-known stories and not going for the overplayed, mainstream, dominant stories. For how will we get the bigger message of God unless we hear the smaller stories?

Notice that Zechariah and Elizabeth, both advanced in age, were resigned to the fact that they would not have a child. But then, one day, while serving in the temple, Zechariah is visited by an angel and promised a son. This news is so unbelievable to him that he is literally speechless—unable to talk. What follows is a muted celebration [pun intended] of a child who will be called John. Of course, this John [often called the Baptist], in his story, will be another prophetic voice, preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, echoing Malachi: repent—turn around!  But well before Zechariah’s song of praise over John’s birth, there was great sorrow and doubt. Where was God? Did God forget about Zechariah and Elizabeth? Of course, the common mistake we make with this story is to say “whew” when Elizabeth gets pregnant and forget about the rest of the story. A happy ending that leads us to Jesus, right?

But throughout the Bible’s great-big story, we find numerous female characters in their struggle to have a child. We cannot overlook the feelings of isolation, sadness, and the terrible rejection of the community. Monica A. Coleman, Professor of Constructive Theology and African-American Religions at Claremont School of Theology, provides this insight:

 In real life, God’s “fix” [of barrenness leading to pregnancy] is not always a boy-prophet. Sometimes it’s adoption. Sometimes it’s a birthed child. Sometimes it’s nieces and nephews. Sometimes it’s finding peace with childlessness.

 If women wrote the Bible, it might mention how messy the enterprise of not having children really is. It might mention the girl children the women loved. It might talk about how the men were in the temple, while the bleeding women gathered somewhere else. If women wrote the Bible, we would have more than these solitary scenes where a woman pours out her heart to God, and God fixes it by “opening her womb.”

 If this woman wrote the Bible, I’d write about barren women … and the women who support them. Those stories would be my love letter to them.[6]

This is the story Luke asks us to hear. All of us who struggle with doubt, isolation, unfulfilled hopes—these stories matter. And they matter to God. Our seemingly small stories are part of a great-big one. Even in our pain, God is present. So when Zachariah is able to open his mouth and speak again, he spouts out a poem, thanking God for faithfulness. It reads like a Psalm. His poem remembers what God has done in the past and how God’s fulfillment of promises does not usually occur on our time—God acts in unexpected ways and the path to blessing is often paved with discomfort and doubt. I am especially moved by the last part of Zechariah’s poem:

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The tender mercy of God brings about the coming of dawn, bringing light into our darkest moments, guiding us into the way of peace. Luke’s story uses the word peace more than the other three Gospels combined. This word peace is prophetic. It does not mean the absence of conflict. Peace is not serenity, calmness, or lack of trouble. Peace originates from the Hebrew noun shalom, which means a state of wholeness. Living shalom does not mean that we don’t doubt; living shalom doesn’t wipe away our problems; living peace is more than just a happy ending. Like always, we ought to hear the voice of the story. Luke’s characters, Zechariah and Elizabeth, carry a story, even in their names. Zechariah means Yahweh remembers and Elizabeth means Elisheva, my God has promised.[7] So this story tells us that God has promised to remember us. Even when we don’t believe in anything, much less God; even when life is pain and we’re isolated from community; when we’re burned out and hopeless; when we’re lost; when it seems that our story doesn’t matter.

God promises to remember us.

And if we hear that story loud and clear, during this season and every day of our lives, we will hear Malachi, too. For God is with all people in their pain—regardless of their faith or lack thereof; no matter where they live or where they are from; God is with those who suffer, who are pushed down and forgotten; God loves the stranger, the bullied, and the left out. The story pushes us to different levels of thinking and doing. The serene scene of a manger, cute animals, shepherds, and magi in a barn is transformed into something much, much bigger. If we seek wholeness-shalom-peace for ourselves, we should offer it to others. If we hope that God will remember us in our pain and suffering, we ought to sit, stand, and wait with others in theirs. In all of our smaller stories, the big story can be told.

God remembers you.
Now remember the hurting people all around you.

Don’t ignore their stories.

May we all be guided in the path of Wholeness. Amen.

 


[1] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[2] Handel’s Messiah, Rex Levang and Arthur Hoehn, December 1999, Minnesota Public Radio, http://music.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/9912_messiah/#part1

[3] Malachi, Jewish Encyclopedia.

[4] John C. Holbert, Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, TX

[5] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[6] The Barren Woman Bible, Monica A. Coleman.

Hope?

Luke 21:25-36:  The Fantasy of Hope

The first Sunday of Advent is known as the first day of a new church year. Christian Churches [Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox] around the world start with the stories of the prophets and the gospels in late November/early December and then walk through the stories together, leading up to Holy Week and the celebration of resurrection in the spring. Parts of the world differ on the calendar, but the basic sequence of the story remains the same. This year we start with Luke’s gospel. Now each gospel is unique of course, in terms of how it was written and pieced together, and how it tells the story. Mark’s gospel was written first; then Luke and Matthew; then John. Matthew copies Mark a lot and only adds a few unique stories; Luke copies Mark about 50 percent of the time and often changes Mark’s telling of the story to a more literary, flowing style. Luke also contains unique stories that the other gospels do not have at all.

Luke tells the story in a “moving forward” kind of way. So Luke starts from Jesus’ birth and humble beginnings in Nazareth of Galilee and then moves to Jesus’ teachings and those who followed him; then to Acts and the birth of the church [also written by the same authors of Luke and meant to be Luke part 2]. Luke’s story begins in Bethlehem and ends in the heart of the Roman Empire. Three characters appear throughout Luke: Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Other books of the Bible do not mention Mary much. But in Luke Mary is the link between the birth of Jesus’ ministry and the birth of the church.

This is all very important to know as we read the stories together. Often in the United States, we have a story in our heads about Jesus’ birth that looks a lot different from the actual stories of scripture. A lot of that, of course, is due to religious traditions created in Rome as the Christian movement became an established religion. So we must always be aware of our sources of the stories we tell about Jesus.

Of course, my hope is that during this Advent season we can hear the story of scripture as clear as possible. I hope that you will be open to being surprised, moved, and perhaps even shocked by the story of Christ’s birth as you seek to hear it anew. Yes, the scriptural stories and their realities will challenge your typical beliefs and traditions about Christmas and this story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, and a manger. But if you open your minds and hearts to the story itself, I do think that you will be blessed, challenged, and moved to connect it to your own story. Since reading the Life of Pi and seeing the movie, I’ve been moved to really examine how the stories of our lives  make us who we are. And I am also thinking quite  a bit about how we sadly convince ourselves that our telling of a particular story is somehow superior to another’s telling of it.

This is so true as it pertains to what we call the “Christmas” story.
My Advent hope rests in our connecting the stories of scriptures  to our own stories in an authentic way.

Jeremiah 1Jeremiah, Michelangelo, 1516

Jeremiah’s story will lead off. Now you may wonder what the heck a Hebrew prophetic book, Jeremiah, written well before Luke’s NT Gospel, has to do with Advent and Christmas. Well, good question. So let’s explore Jeremiah, whose name means the weeping prophet. The context was a really difficult moment in Israel’s history. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the line of David’s kingdom was broken; the temple of Solomon was burned to the ground. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon three times, starting around 598 B.C.E.[1] Jeremiah, the prophet, spends most of his book talking about how God is not too happy with the people of Judah [Israel], more specifically its political leaders, because they have not kept their end of the covenant promise they made with God through Moses. They did not take care of the poor; they did not love God as they said they would. Of course, the leaders of Israel didn’t like Jeremiah’s message. After all, they had built much comfort, status, and power for themselves. They had great influence. So Jeremiah calls them out, and even though the prophet is obviously no fan of political leaders, in the face of very little hope for Israel, Jeremiah decides to promote a new vision of a leader.

This new leader didn’t look like the others. Radically inclusive and strangely ordinary, the righteous branch that will spring up restores a new kind of way for Israel, a world in which all people are given an abundant life. He calls upon imagery of trees and branches like in Genesis—ways to describe God’s good creation and human beings’ participation in it.
stump_jesse21

The branch is reflective of the God-qualities of justice and mercy; it springs forth. But Jeremiah doesn’t see this as real yet. He only hopes for it. It is only fantasy. The reality is that the righteous branch did not spring up from among the people of Israel. Instead, Cyrus the Great, a Persian king, took over Babylon and Israel in about 538 B.C.E.[2] Cyrus actually embraced other religious traditions and therefore allowed the Israelites to return home, rebuild the temple, and practice their religion. For many of the Jewish faith, Cyrus is referred to as an anointed one, or a messiah.

Notice I haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. Why? Because Jeremiah has nothing to do with Jesus. It was not until many, many centuries later that the Christian church in Rome interpreted the hope of Jeremiah to be a reference to Jesus of Nazareth and the rebuilding of the line of King David and the salvation of the world. Certainly, over the centuries, the Israelites [who many in modern day identify as the Jewish people] and Christians have interpreted prophecies like Jeremiah’s in different ways. But as we connect Jeremiah to Luke, I want us to hear the story’s message above all.

Jeremiah’s story is not about Jesus. Luke’s story is. But despite that difference, both stories point us to the same theme:

redemption follows deterioration;
restoration follows chaos;
justice and mercy follow oppression;
and hope is the key.

You see, Luke’s gospel, like Jeremiah’s prophecy, tells us a story about the current state of the world and what is to come. Luke 21 is sourced from Mark’s gospel [chapter 13] and is sometimes called the “little apocalypse.” Apocalyptic literature involves story-telling in difficult times. Notice this business of signs in the sun, moon, and stars; nations in anguish and confused as the ocean roars; people fainting out of fear and anxiety, concerned about what will happen next. Like Jeremiah, Luke’s gospel is about Israel. After the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Greek ruler Alexander the Great conquered Israel in 300 B.C.E. Then, years later in the 1st and 2nd century C.E. another conquering empire, this time Rome—took over Jerusalem, destroying the temple once again in 70 C.E.[3] So we’re back to that again. Luke parallels Jeremiah’s story. Things look bleak. Help is needed. Redemption seems far away.

But there is still hope in the middle of despair.

Instead of the weeping prophet, we have the grown-up Jesus–not the baby in the manger we associate with this time of year. In fact, the baby Jesus is mentioned only six times in all of the Bible! Instead, the teachings, ministry, and life of Jesus are the most significant parts of the story. Keep in mind that the apostles and the the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. This idea of Christmas was not mentioned in history until the Roman Church established it as a tradition in about 336 C.E.[4] This shouldn’t surprise us, because the stories of the New Testament clearly tell us their purpose: to tell the Good News of the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings, ministry, and death. Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus the grown-up version—not the baby. Keeping this in mind will only enrich the stories.

figtree2For Jesus then tells a parable about a fig tree–an allegorical story with a point. Like Jeremiah, Jesus uses the natural world. Trees are usually metaphors for humans. The fig tree sprouts leaves and tells us that summer is near. Likewise, when we see all this chaos and uncertainty around us, God is near. Hope lives in despair. Sprouting leaves and blooming plants remind us that new life is still possible when life around us says the opposite. The Greek word for near in this case is engizo, a word that literally means coming nearness.[5] Redemption, then, is coming near. What a perfect message for Advent—a time when we recognize that the apocalypse is not some future, world-ending event someone predicts, but apocalypse is actually right now. Things are difficult now. Hope is hard to come by. At times, we can feel like the world is crashing down and the foundations of our lives are rotting beneath our feet. But redemption is coming near… FigBranch

Jesus says: watch at all times. Don’t watch for calamity or destruction or something else to stress out about. Don’t throw your hands up in the air and scream: “We’re all going to die! AAAAAAHHH!” Instead, watch for signs of redemption. Watch for God. And: pray that you might have strength. And don’t just pray; stand up. God will even help you stand up. For the low are lifted high; the last are made first. The apocalypse is in fact not bad news, but good news. All the worry and fear of life is shared by everyone. And it is in recognizing all this chaos that we notice the redemption that is coming nearer and nearer.

Friends, I, like you, often wonder about hope. Is it a fantasy? I look around and I see pain and prejudice and apathy and separation. Look, it may be Christmastime, but we cannot escape reality. We should never ignore the people suffering all over the world. We cannot gloss over injustice. Instead of looking for quick fixes or easy answers that help us forget, we should stand up. That’s right! As Jesus said, our prayers and our faith practices should stand us up.

We should all stand up stubbornly out of hope—believing that in a world seemingly beyond repair, there are still green sprouts appearing in this church and others who say to our lesbian, gay and transgender brothers and sisters—you are welcome, loved, and accepted here. You are part of our community.

There are buds blooming where people show that color and culture and language matter less than character; if we don’t hope and pray for these things, we won’t do these things!

There are branches budding and bearing fruit in the middle of our chaos and destruction. And you and I—we have this fruit to bear. But it’s not false hope. It’s not ignoring the problems. It’s seeing the world for what it is and seeing ourselves for who we are. And then it’s standing up to do what is just and merciful and kind. It’s you and I springing forth with new life and lifting up others who have fallen down.

I close with an excerpt from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis:

mlk

“…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars..”[6]

Hope is only fantasy until we make it real. Redemption is coming near. Look for it. And bear redemption’s fruit for others. Amen.


[1] Amy Erickson, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Iliff School of Theology.

[2] Jona Lendering (2012). “Messiah – Roots of the concept: From Josiah to Cyrus”. livius.org.

[3] Jewish Encyclopedia. Temple of Solomon.

[4] Biblical Archeology, Christmas origins, www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp

[5] Gospel Commentary, Karl Jacobson, Asst. Professor of Religion, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr.I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee.

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