…and Jesus increased in … divine and human favor

Scripture: Luke 2:41-52

This story that Luke tells of tweenage Jesus hitting it off with the rabbis in the Temple is the only real childhood story we have of Jesus in the Bible.  We have a couple stories of Jesus as a baby, after he’s born.  Matthew tells us that after the wise men come and visit, Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt as refugees to escape the violence of King Herod.  Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple for dedication soon after he was born, and Simeon and Anna, two people who had been waiting all their lives for news of the Messiah, were there to greet him.  After that we have this story of Jesus at 12, and then all of a sudden he’s 30 and showing up to be baptized in the Jordan River and his ministry is off and running.

It’s natural for us to wonder what might have happened in those intervening 29 years, and Luke gives us this one little snapshot to get our imagination going.

If we look outside the Bible we find that other people were asking that question too, and coming up with some of their own answers.  The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is one of those gospels that didn’t make the cut, is especially good for stories like this, and if you’ve heard me talk about some of these before, it’s because I love them.  There’s one story when Jesus is five and he takes some clay and molds twelve sparrows.  But it’s the Sabbath when he does this, so someone in the neighborhood goes to get Joseph to tell him what his son is up to, making stuff on the Sabbath.  But when Joseph arrives Jesus claps his hands and makes the sparrows fly away so no one can prove anything.

In another story, Jesus is just happily playing outside, and he’s used his powers to form a stream of water into pools, and another neighborhood kid takes a stick and splashes the water out of one of these pools.  So Jesus gets angry and makes his friend wither and die.

You can kind of tell why these stories were left out of the actual Bible as canonized.  I really would like to think that the Christ child was born with a bit more natural compassion that.  But why I love all of those stories is that what they depict is a kid, clearly different, clearly special, clearly starting to figure out what it means to be both divine and human, even if he doesn’t know it yet.  Maybe we’d rather think that Jesus always knew, that he was a grown-up wise little man in a child’s body, but if we take the incarnation seriously, of course there would be a process of figuring out who he was, just like we all go through.  He grows, inside and outside, like we do.

As far as childhood Jesus stories go, we can probably feel a lot more comfortable with Luke’s version of things, but I still see this aspect of Jesus starting to figure out who he is and what it means.  In this story Jesus is twelve years old.  And because we know Jesus mostly as an adult, we can tell that in this story he is acting very Jesusy.  He’s hanging out in the Temple even after his parents leave.  He’s found his natural place with the rabbis.  He’s talking to them and debating scripture and asking them good questions and generally impressing everyone with his knowledge and his ideas.  And, he already acknowledges an intimate relationship with the God he calls Father.  Knowing Jesus as an adult, we can look back and nod knowingly.

But twelve year old Jesus probably doesn’t know all that yet.  He probably doesn’t quite know yet who he is.  He probably doesn’t know what he’s going to grow up to do, or all that it’s going to involve.  Maybe he knows there’s something different about him, but he doesn’t know all that.  What he knows, probably, at this point in his own story, is that he loves Scripture, that he wants to do the work of his Abba, and that the Temple is a place where he feels like he belongs when maybe he doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere else.  And maybe sometime years later, as a 32 year old in the midst of his ministry, Jesus had a moment where he looked back and thought of himself as a twelve-year-old getting into a heated scriptural debate with the priests, and thought, “Ah.”

Knowing yourself as an adult, or however old you are now, is there anything you can look back on from your childhood memories and see a glimpse of the adult, or older person, you were to become?

For example, my friend Lauren, who’s also a pastor, used to play church when she was little, instead of house or school like the normal kids.  She would gather her stuffed animals, sing hymns to them, read to them out of her little children’s story Bible, and deliver a message.   Looking back now, you could say, well, of course.

Or when my friend Patrick was growing up, he used to dress up in a coat and a Weather Channel hat, and videotape himself standing outside with a microphone giving a weather report.  I met Patrick in college.  He went on from there to get a graduate degree in broadcast meteorology, and now he works in Maryland programming a weather sphere to teach kids about earth science.  Neither of them knew they were going to grow up and do these things, and maybe they didn’t even remember that they did them until they grew up and it was relevant.

Do you have some moment or moments from your past that let you look back and see so clearly the person you didn’t even know you were growing up to be?  It doesn’t have to be career-related; it could be some aspect of your personality or an important hobby or another aspect of your life.

Discussion/Reflection Question #1:

Is there anything you did as a child that you can now look back on and recognize the person you would become?

 

We read this childhood story of Jesus during Christmas for a reason.  Christmas is about incarnation: the belief that God loved us enough to take on skin and bone and muscle and come live life with us.  And like I said, part of the incarnation is that Jesus grew like we grow.

God is with us, but not just in the form of a baby, and not just in the form of a grown itinerant rabbi.  God is also with us as a playful, boundary-testing  five year old, God is with us as a too-smart-for-his-own-good twelve year old, God is with us as a teenager struggling for independence, God is with us as a young adult beginning to make his way in the world.  Jesus grew like we grow.

But the other side of that is, not only did Jesus grow like we grow—we should be growing like Jesus grew.   The last line of today’s scripture sums up the rest of Jesus’ life, from age twelve to age 30.  “And Jesus increased in years and in wisdom, and in divine and human favor.”  We don’t get to hear anything more specific than that, but we can trust that he continued to grow much as any fully human person did.  He met new people, he learned new things, he discerned through prayer and experience what his life was supposed to be about.

The years kind of take care of themselves.  And human favor can be admittedly fickle.  I don’t think growing in divine favor and growing in human favor necessarily go hand-in-hand, although it’s nice for Jesus that they did, up until the point where they didn’t and he went and got himself crucified.

But the story tells us Jesus also grew in divine favor, which is a little strange, perhaps, for someone who is himself divine.  But what I take this to mean is he was going through these years figuring out what his divine purpose in life was, and how to be obedient to the will of his Abba, and how to stay connected to his Abba, maybe integrating those divine and human aspects of his identity—Jesus went off by himself and prayed a lot, after all.  And maybe he was figuring out how to best express complete divine love in the limited context of a broken human reality.

Jesus had to grow like we grow, and we have to grow like he grew.

What I want you to discuss or spend some time reflecting on now is how, in your life, recently or not-so-recently, you’ve grown in divine and human favor, or especially in divine favor.

Discussion/Reflection Question #2:

What experience in your past do you now look back on as a time of personal or spiritual growth?

 

I want to remind you that this idea of growing in divine favor is key to Methodism.  We call it sanctification.  John Wesley looked at salvation not as a one-time event, but as a process that continues throughout our whole lives as we grow and look more and more like the lost image of God we were originally created to be.

John Wesley once had a conversation on just this subject with someone wonderfully named Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf.  Zinzendorf believed that once you became a Christian, that was the end of the journey.  Boom, sanctified.  Accepting Christ alone is what made you holy, and you were never going to be more or less holy than that.  But that didn’t make sense to Wesley. He said, “This then would mean that a father in Christ is not a whit more holy than a newborn babe?….The true believer grows daily in his love of God, doesn’t he?”

For Wesley, and for us as Methodists, our spiritual life reflects our physical life.  When we are baptized, or when we repent of our sin, we are born again and made new.  But that is only the beginning of the journey.  We get to be a spiritual five-year-old, and a spiritual teenager, and a spiritual young adult, as we receive God’s grace and figure it out and mature in our faith.  We don’t become perfectly loving, perfectly faithful people in an instant.  But with God’s help over the course of our lives, we can certainly become more so.

It’s almost a new year and the new year is always a good time to think about how we need to grow and change, so my last question for you this morning is this:

Discussion/Reflection Question #3:

What are one or more ways you want to grow in the new year that would be pleasing to God?

Advertisements

Christmas for Unlikely People

The holiday season stresses me out sometimes, but I do love it.  I love walking in Georgetown when the streets are decorated, and I love putting up the tree while Love Actually is on TV in the background, and I love planning worship for this time of year, and I love baking cookies.  I have the radio in my car tuned to one of those 24-7 Christmas music stations, and even though that means that since Thanksgiving I’ve heard approximately 96 versions each of all five Christmas songs ever written, I keep it on that station, because it feels festive, and I like feeling festive.  Most of these things have little or nothing to do with Jesus, except for the worship of course, but they make it easy to believe that Christmas is coming.

Earlier this week, though, I went to visit someone I know at the county jail.  That had more to do with Jesus, but it wasn’t very festive.  When you to visit someone in jail, you usually have to wait for a while to get called, and you’re not allowed to have anything with you like a book or a phone, which is kind of annoying.  Unless you’re one to strike up a conversation with strangers, which I’m generally not, there’s not much else to do but sit and think and/or observe the people around you.  That day, like most days, we were a diverse group of people.  Some sat quietly and didn’t make eye contact; others chatted and played with their babies. One man grumbled about having to visit his “stupid son” in there.  Others were probably visiting grown children as well, or spouses, or mothers or fathers, or maybe a friend.

I don’t claim to know their stories, but I did wonder as I sat whether for many of the people with me in that room, life didn’t turn out quite the way it was supposed to.  Because there they were, on Christmas Eve Eve Eve, not shopping for last minute gifts or getting the house or apartment ready for guests, or even at work, but there in the lobby of the county detention center, waiting to pay a 20 minute visit to a son or husband or mother or loved one who had perhaps hurt or disappointed them, but who is theirs, nonetheless.

I wondered if it felt like Christmas this year for them.

I wondered, also, about the people we were visiting—for whom, also, life probably has not turned out quite the way one might have hoped.  What will their Christmas be like this year?  Just another day in jail, a little sadder for what they might be missing?  And I wondered what Christmas might mean for them.

Later, on the way home, I stopped at Whole Foods to pick something up for dinner.  You can imagine it was a very different scene than the one I had left, full of tired and stressed shoppers facing the pressure of pulling off a nice meal for any number of relatives and making sure all the presents are bought and wrapped and nicely positioned under the tree for when the kids wake up, all these people charged with the task of making Christmas magical for other people, and I wondered what Christmas might mean for them this year, too, and if it felt like it was Christmas for them, or just for everyone else.

Two thousand some years ago some shepherds were spending the night in a field.  They were not particularly special people, and it was not a particularly special night, and like all the other people I wondered about this week, I don’t know how they felt: they may have been peaceful, or bored, or tired, or frustrated with that one sheep that kept trying to get away.  And all of a sudden the sky around them is full of light, and there is an angel standing in front of them, and all of a sudden this night is anything but ordinary.

The angel tells them not to be afraid and then he tells them that he is bringing them good news of great joy: their savior, the Messiah, is born, and they’ll know it’s him when they see a baby lying in a feeding trough.

The shepherds might have heard of this kind of announcement before: it was the kind of announcement that would have been made for the birth of an emperor’s son, the heir to a kingdom.  Caesar Augustus’s birthday—you remember him, the one who called the census—was also celebrated as marking “the beginning of the good news through him for the world.”

The shepherds were the first to hear this good news on that holy night, and they were very unlikely candidates.  This was the kind of good news that should have been delivered to important, powerful people: people who had a reason to believe that Christmas was for them.

But Caesar Augustus wouldn’t have been caught dead in a feeding trough, either, even as a baby.  There was already something unexpected about this announcement: this unlikely good news for unlikely people.

From that first Christmas until now, Christmas is especially for all the people who have no reason to believe Christmas is for them.

For the inmate in the county jail; for the spouse who comes to visit; for the person with no place to go or no one to spend the holiday with; for the stressed-out host feeling the pressure of everyone’s expectations; for the businessperson stuck in an office working late while everyone celebrates around her; for the refugee, for the grieving, for the struggling, for the unbelieving: Christmas is good news for unlikely people.

It’s the good news that tells us that there is something more, even in the midst of everything that might seem to tell us otherwise; there is hope in all this, because in the middle of our unspectacular, frustrating, and sometimes disappointing lives, God shows up in unlikely ways.  God has not left us alone; God does want to save us from everything else that isn’t quite enough.  God cares especially for the unlikely, which, in one way or another, all of us probably are.

In time the news will also come to kings, and wise stargazers from abroad.  And in time, as that baby grows, it will come to tax collectors and fishermen and lawyers and all the crowds who gather around him. This news is, as the angels said, “for all people,” rich and powerful, poor and lowly, near and far.

But it starts with some shepherds, who probably would have never believed that Christmas would be for them.

And it starts with any of us who aren’t expecting good news.

“I bring good news to you,” the angel says, “good news of great joy for all people—but also, to you.”

Images of Advent: A Refiner’s Fire

Scripture: Malachi 3:1-5

Think of fire and the image that may come to mind is one of curling up on a sofa with a loved one, wrapped in a soft blanket, watching the snow fall outside as the glow from the fireplace warms your feet.  Or maybe you’re outside, sitting on a slightly damp log around a campfire, singing songs or telling stories with friends while the marshmallow you are holding gets just slightly golden brown.  Fire can be warm, cozy, inviting.

Or think of fire and you may think of fires in the news, fires in which people lose their homes and everything in them due to an electrical malfunction or a kitchen accident or a misplaced cigarette.  You may see lights flashing and hear sirens blaring as firefighters fight to tame towering red-orange flames.  Or you may think of a place like California where forest fires routinely rip through in the dry season, which seems to get longer and longer, burning miles and miles of nature and threatening everything around it.  Fire can be dangerous and destructive.

Fire, in the Bible, burns bushes and commissions apostles: it is a revelation of the presence of God and the Holy Spirit.  It goes before the people of Israel as a pillar, guiding them out of Egypt to safety.  Fire is how offerings are sacrifices to God at the Temple.  Fire may represent God’s wrath, as in fire and brimstone raining down on Sodom and Gomorrah.  Or it may depict a prophetic passion: as a Jeremiah says, “Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones” (20:9).

Or, in a traditional Advent text such as this one, fire can be a tool for removing impurities from precious metals.  It is destructive, but not indiscriminately so; it’s hardly warm and inviting, but neither does it burn with rage; it is slow, controlled, intentional, used for building up even as it breaks down.  Fire can also refine.

While other prophets such as Isaiah write from the perspective of exile, by the time of Malachi, the exile is over.  The Israelites captured and scattered across the Babylonian empire are allowed to return home, and the Temple which lay in ruins in Jerusalem has been rebuilt, God has been faithful, and on the surface, all is right with the world.  Of course, it is never quite as easy as that.

Malachi, whose name simply means “my messenger,” has a number of complaints about how things are going in the rebuilt Jerusalem, and largely about what is happening in the Temple.  He complains that people aren’t offering their best offerings to God.  Instead they are bringing livestock that is sick or weak, the runts of the litter, as if God wants our leftovers.  The priests themselves are hardly any better, according to Malachi, though he doesn’t say exactly why: somehow they have “corrupted the covenant of Levi,” their ancestor.  As with most of the Hebrew prophets, there is a social justice aspect to the problem as well as a ritual aspect.  Both are integral parts of what it means to be holy.  God has no use for our offerings and our piety when we aren’t acting justly.

We heard it in the text: “I will be swift to bear witness,” God says through Malachi, “against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me.”

With some of the things in that list we may imagine that God is speaking directly to us, today.

It must have been tempting to look back to the glory days of the first Temple, when naturally people brought only the finest fatted calf to sacrifice to God, and the priests were good, and people cared about each other, but of course, those days didn’t really exist either.  The “glory days” rarely do.  In fact, the pre-exile prophets also used this image of refining fire and a similar list of complaints to warn of the ruin that was sure to come if society didn’t get its act together.

Still, in Malachi’s society, like in every society, there were some things that needed fixing.

Today is the final Sunday of Advent, and as we make way for the coming of Christ, there are still some things (for us, today) that need fixing.

Malachi’s list only scratches the surface.  Some of these things are easy to see by just watching the news.  Terrorists control cities in the Middle East and desperate families fleeing from the violence are turned away at borders.   A new mass shooting happens almost every day in America.  Black men continue to die at the hands of police.  Muslims are being harassed and spat on and threatened just for being Muslim (and God help us if any of us are represented by the worst people of our faith.)  I imagine God might have some things to say about all of these things.

But then the list goes on in less obvious ways, too: line after line of all the ways we’ve failed to love our neighbors, put ourselves above others, been greedy, been untruthful, judged someone, given God less than our best offerings, acted self-righteous when we, too, need fixing.

Look, most of us are probably trying our best.  We are created in the image of God and loved deeply and by God’s grace we also do good in this world: and yet, still, all is not right with the world and all is not right with us.  We need fixing, and that’s what Jesus comes to do. “Fix me, Jesus,” as the gospel song goes.  We need purifying.  We need some refining.

It’s also where Malachi’s image of fire comes in.

I’ve never really gotten up close and personal with metallurgy—maybe the closest I’ve gotten is visiting the blacksmith in Colonial Williamsburg—so I did not actually know much until this week about how all this metal refining stuff worked beyond a vague idea.

But I did do some reading and what I read is that a precious metal like silver is rarely found in nature alone.  It’s found as part of an ore with other metals: copper, zinc, or especially lead.  To be able to use the silver, it has to be separated from the lead.

First the ore is put into a furnace and heated to hundreds of degrees.  Silver has a higher melting point than lead, and this allows them to be separated from each other: the silver remains solid, and the slag falls away.   Maybe there is something about justifying grace in there: the grace that frees us from the power of sin when we say yes to Jesus, but not from its remnants.  Because the resulting silver still isn’t pure.  So into the furnace the silver goes again.  It’s heated in such a way that the impurities rise to the surface, forming a layer called dross.  The dross is blown off and sometimes collected for coating pottery.  And still, the silver isn’t completely pure, and into the furnace it goes again.

“The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,” reads Psalm 25, “silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.”  This is a process that might have to happen over and over, as the metal is purified a little bit more each time.

Rarely, also, do any of us become pure and holy all at once.  It takes a lot of getting things wrong and sometimes a lot of pain before we begin, by God’s grace, little by little, to get things right.

In Lauren Winner’s recent book Wearing God, she explores this image of God as fire in a similar way: “In our current era,” she writes, “a chemist can tell what elements are present in a solution by the color flame it produces: sodium produces a yellow flame, potassium a lilac flame, lithium a lovely crimson, and barium an apple green.  So the God who is fire could sift and sort through my properties; my true elements, the things I keep hidden even from myself, could be revealed.  Do I want this for myself?  Do I want to know the truth of what I comprise?”[1]

I suppose if God wanted to fix things and make our hearts and our actions pure like good silver, God could just wave a magic wand and make it so.  But that’s not what God does.  The process is harder than that.  It’s like passing through fire.  It’s painful, and it demands that the impurities that are a part of us be removed.  It would be tempting to read Malachi and the other prophets who use this image as saying that God will root out the people who are impure, leaving the holy and righteous ones behind—and you certainly can read them like that.  On the other hand, maybe that’s not so tempting.  In any case, I don’t think that’s how it works.  As one of my college professors used to say back when it was 2003 and everyone was talking about the Axis of Evil, “The Axis of Evil runs straight through the human heart.”

The truth is that we are alloys—always a mix of good and bad, strength and weakness, grace and temptation, love and fear.

One piece I read about this text was called “The Terror of Advent.”  “Advent should scare the breath out of us!” it said.  “It should scare us witless.  It should turn our legs to pudding, our knees a-shaking and our blood to ice water.” … “Advent is a time to feel the terror of the Lord, and let our confidence be punctured.”[2]

Because when Malachi announces God’s coming day of judgment, it’s against us.

“Who can endure the day of his coming?” Malachi asks.  That’s the Christmas spirit.

But the day of his coming, the coming of God’s messenger, doesn’t come with fire raining down on us in vengeance.  It comes with fire to remove what’s bad and keep what’s good, leaving behind something better and stronger.

I wonder if you can think of a time when you faced judgment for something you did wrong.  It doesn’t have to be a major sin with major implications, like a betrayal that ended a relationship, or losing your job for fraud, although I guess it could be.  I can think of a time not long ago when I posted something on Facebook that was meant to be for the eyes of a couple friends, and was not terribly kind about something someone else I knew had recently posed.  Only I accidentally posted it publicly, and I remember that sinking feeling in the pit of stomach as I realized what I had done and scrambled to delete it.  Yes, pastors do stuff like that, too.  To this day I do not know if that other person saw it.

It was not a good feeling.  Judgment rarely is.

But it did make me think about how my words and my social media presence corresponded with the kind of person I actually wanted to be, and though I’m sure I will have occasion to pass through that particular furnace again, I was also slightly better for it.  There was judgment there, but there was also grace.

Perhaps this Malachi passage is a traditional Advent reading because it reminds us of John the Baptist, another messenger of God.  He’s the one who paves the way for the coming of Jesus by announcing to the crowds at the Jordan River that “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; the winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3).

It’s kind of nice to have a John the Baptist character around Christmas because that frees up Jesus to be the little baby, meek and mild, who only bears a message of love.  Love is the Advent candle we’ll light today, in fact.

But that baby meek and mild also grows up to be a man who is not so.  He welcomes the children and eats with sinners, but he also raises his eyebrows at the trick questions people ask, and he condemns hypocrites, and he turns tables.  Jesus is the very personification of divine love, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  His message is of mercy, but also of judgment.

He grows up to be a man who says, “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.”

Maybe it is this refining kind of fire that he is talking about.

Again, even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, love and mercy and judgment all go together.  Even Malachi opens his book with words of love: “’I have loved you,’ says the Lord.”   None of us is quite the person God created us to be, which is to say none of us loves perfectly.  We love some, but that love is alloyed with pride, and greed, and lust, and fear.

It is God’s merciful judgment that sanctifies us—calling us out, forgiving us, making us better.  Passing us through the fire, over and over, even if recognizing the truth about ourselves is painful and hard.  Removing our impurities and making us pure, a little bit more each time.

There is one more thing I learned this week about the process of refining silver, and I share it with the caveat that I don’t know if it is true.  But some of the commentaries on this passage said that the way the way the refiner knows the process is done and the silver is pure is when he can see his image clearly reflected in it.

When everything we do is done out of love, that imago Dei, God’s image, will be clearly reflected in us.

This is the work that Jesus comes to do and it the work of a lifetime.  But it’s Advent and it’s a good time to start.

What needs to be refined in you in order to reflect that imago Dei—the image of perfect love?

Think of fire, and maybe you think of holiness.  Think of fire, and maybe you think of the work God has to do on all of our hearts, over and over again, until Jesus comes again.

[1] Lauren F. Winner, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, p. 217

[2] “The Terror of Advent,” Homiletics, November/December 2015, p. 42

Images of Advent: A Highway in the Desert

Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-10

Not all who wander are lost, the saying goes.  But some are.

Roberta Bondi, who was a professor at my seminary before she retired, wrote a book about the night she found herself lost on the bank of Georgia’s Flint River.  It started out as a simple canoe trip with a couple of friends, supposedly just an hour or two on the water, and since she had already had a long week her friends promised she could just sit in the middle while they paddled.

So on this beautiful fall day the three of them drove out to the river, had some lunch nearby, picked up some pretzels and a few gallons of water to take with them, dropped off one car at the place where they would finish, and drove up the river a bit to put in and begin the journey.

It was hard to find the launch spot in the thick of all the threes and brambles lining the river, and looking back that seemed like the first bad omen, but the three friends got their canoe into the water and started out floating easily down the river.  Soon, though, they came across a dead tree blocking their path, and had to portage around it.  And then there was another, then another.  They kept expecting the river to clear up a little ahead, but it never did.  What was supposed to be an easy two-hour trip turned into seven hours of “walking, dragging, lifting, and carry” their canoe over and around these deadfalls.  Soon, night began to fall.  Roberta nearly collapsed from exhaustion, and her friend Jeff twisted his knee badly as he walked ahead of the group to check things out.  There was no way to keep going in the canoe, and they abandoned it, instead snaking their way along the bank.  The temperature fell, the darkness was almost complete, and they ate their last pretzels and gulped their last few drops of water, not knowing where they were, but still a long way from where they were supposed to be.

Clearly, since she wrote a book about it later, this was not the last night of Roberta Bondi’s life.  But at the time she wondered if it might be.[1]

Sometimes we may wander because we love the journey, but sometimes we wander because we are lost.

The people of God, the people of Israel, wandered because they were lost.  After years spent captive in the land of Egypt, after the plagues that came upon the land to force Pharaoh’s hand in liberating them, after a stunning and triumphant escape through the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army and chariots in hot pursuit, after crossing safely to the other side, the people of God found themselves in the wilderness.  From there, the promised land wasn’t so far away.  But it took a long time to get there.  The wilderness can be hard to find our way out of.

It wasn’t just literally that God’s people were lost.  As they wandered they complained because sometimes it seemed like it had been easier to be slaves in Egypt than to suffer the uncertainty of the wilderness.  They learned to trust, off and on, as God fed them with manna from heaven and water that magically appeared from the rocks.  Then they complained again about the monotony of it all.  They fought with each other and brought their disputes to Moses.  They received God’s commandments and found them hard to follow.  They got tired of waiting and created new gods to worship.

The wilderness is a place, but it’s also a spiritual state.  And the wilderness can be hard to find our way out of.

Some hundreds of years later, God’s people found themselves in the wilderness again.  This time it wasn’t the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula, but the wilderness of a land called Babylon.  One they had been slaves in Egypt, now they were exiles from a fallen kingdom scattered across the Babylonian empire.  Once again it seemed like God was far away.  Once again it seemed like God’s people were left to their own devices, with no road map for what to do or where to go or how to get home.

We might say that Advent is a time of wandering.  At least, it’s a time to acknowledge that we are lost.

Again, wandering isn’t just being physically lost in a place.  Wandering can take a lot of forms.  It might mean not knowing what comes next in life and a feeling of spinning our wheels trying to get there.  It might feel like being trapped in a state or situation that we don’t want to be in, unable to find our way out.  It may feel like looking around us and taking in the brokenness of this world and knowing we’re part of it and not knowing how to fix it.  It may be as simple as that feeling, so familiar to God’s people, that God is far away, that feeling of needing something we don’t yet have.  Waiting can feel like wandering sometimes.

Advent is a good time in our church year to look around us and say, yeah, I really don’t know where I am or where I’m going, and the only way I’m ever going to figure it out is for God to come down here and show me.

It’s a good time to say, God, I don’t think I can get anywhere on my own, and I don’t think we can get anywhere on our own, and it’s a good time to say, God, we need you.

But Advent is not a hopeless wandering.

Week three of Advent is the week of joy, symbolized by that pink candle in the Advent wreath.  Joy, despite all this talk of captivity and exile and wandering in the wilderness.  And this week’s text gives us a beautiful image of joy.  In this text in Isaiah we find ourselves back in the wilderness.  It is written during the end of the Babylonian exile, but the author writes of a physical wilderness.  Only this time, the wilderness begins to look a little different than those legendary forty years in the desert.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” the prophet writes.  “The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”

Can you see this happening as Isaiah describes it—the dry, barren desert bursting into bloom?

“Waters shall break forth in the wilderness,” he continues, “and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”

It is a beautiful image of hope and joy as the land itself rejoices.  A land that was once a place of wandering, where God felt far away, becomes a place of abundance and provision, where God’s presence is felt all around.

But the image from this Advent text that really captures me is the one that comes next.

“A highway shall be there,” Isaiah writes, “and it shall be called the Holy Way….It shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray….And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.”

In the wilderness, the place of wandering, God makes a way home.

For Isaiah, this is the promised end of the exile.  The captives will once again make their way home from the far reaches of the Babylonian empire, rejoicing as they come closer to God’s city.  But there is also a more cosmic feel to the poetry that gives us the sense that while it might be about one specific and long-awaited event in Israel’s history, it’s about more than that, too.  It’s about God fulfilling promises, a world marked by shalom—peace, well-being, wholeness, maybe even the redemption and renewal of creation itself.  All of creation, coming home to what it was created to be.  Things we wait for at Advent.

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,” writes Isaiah, “and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

Later, in the time of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist would send word through his disciples from prison to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come?”  We thought he knew, but you can’t blame a guy for trying to make sure.  Jesus says in response, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:2-5)  These are signs that God is near—that God is doing some really big things.

While Isaiah may not have been writing specifically about Jesus, for us as Christians, it is Jesus through whom his prophecies fully come true.

It’s the birth of the baby Jesus at Christmas that ushers in that renewal, redemption, that world of shalom that Isaiah envisions, and it’s his coming again, for which we still wait, that will see that vision come to fruition.

It is Jesus, God on earth, who comes to wander with us for a time and show us the way home.

This text is not the only time Isaiah gives us the image of a road cutting through the wilderness.  In chapter 40 we read: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Those words are echoed by John the Baptist as he tells the crowds gathering for baptism at the Jordan River to repent, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus to begin among them.

In those verses, the road is God’s to travel on.  Our job is to prepare the way, but God is the one who comes to us.  This is a good image of Advent.  The theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote a letter to a friend from the prison where he was being held for conspiracy against Hitler.  “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent,” he wrote to a friend. “One waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”[2]  In Advent, we acknowledge that we can’t find our way to God, redemption, purpose, wholeness, shalom, on our own, and we wait and hope for God to do what we can’t.

But this picture from Isaiah 35 is a little bit different.  It is not a highway for God, but for God’s people.  “Not even fools shall go astray,” Isaiah writes.  The road home is straight, wide, clearly marked, easy to follow.  There will be no dangers to fear such as one might ordinarily encounter in the wilderness.

Two roads: one for God, one for God’s people.  But maybe they are the same road.

Maybe, in the midst of our wandering, in the midst of our brokenness and restlessness, maybe, in the midst of our aimlessness, maybe, in the midst of our wilderness, God breaks through, and God shows up, to any of us who are prepared to see, and maybe also to those of us who aren’t.

But that’s also not the end of the story, and maybe what God does then is to take our hand and say, “This way.”

This way: to redemption, to renewal, to peace, to purpose, to love, and abundant life.

The road is ours to walk, as God goes with us.

Back to that night that Roberta Bondi spent with her friends on the Flint River.  At one point during that long night, as the three slowly limped and stumbled their way along the bank, the trees cleared just enough and the clouds parted just enough that they could see a star.

It wasn’t exactly the desert bursting into bloom, and it would still be a while before dawn would begin to break and get them where they needed to be.  But to Roberta it was a reminder, however small, that God was with them in their wandering.  For one moment, that barren wilderness didn’t seem so God-forsaken.

I can think of a lot of ways this Advent that we, God’s people, are in the wilderness: lost, wandering, stuck, exiled, looking for something more.  But if you look up from your own wilderness this Advent, maybe you’ll see it, in bits and pieces around you, a desert beginning to bloom.  Maybe you can hear the first strains of a joyful song.  Up ahead, a road travels into the distance.  And it is flat, and straight, and wide, and safe, and it leads out of exile, home.

God’s people don’t have to wander anymore.

[1] Roberta C. Bondi, Night on the Flint River: An Accidental Journey in Knowing God

[2] http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/christmas-in-a-cold-prison

Images of Advent: A Shoot from the Stump of Jesse

By Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-5

Life often consists of a series of ups and downs; of celebrations and heartbreaks, breakthroughs and disasters, joys and sorrows, births and deaths. Even nations go through moments when everything seems wonderful and prosperous, everyone living decently and happy – celebrating engagements or marriages, welcoming a newborn, buying houses and starting businesses. But coupled with these are moments of laments – reliving the pain of a breakup or divorce, miscarriage or losing a child, failing to graduate or losing an investment, being fired and struggling to find another job.

What happened in San Bernardino, California this week has left us fearful, angry, and perhaps hopeless! 14 people died and 27 injured. A young couple, with a newborn baby, went into a disability services building and sprayed bullets into the bodies of the husband’s co-workers who were having a holiday party. This has been a dark week for America. A few weeks ago, it was a dark period for France. It’s been years of dark periods for Syria, and decades of darkness for Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, and the Middle East – Israel and Palestine.

This is what the Israelites were facing when Isaiah began to publicly prophesy – King Uzziah had just died. His ministry covered the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, Kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1). After coming out of slavery from Egypt, Israel established itself as one of the powerful and prosperous monarchies. Under David and Solomon they experienced unprecedented economic and political growth, and strategic military alliances. For several generations, the rulers consolidated their power by making higher demands and gaining more control over resources. They began abusing their power over land (gentrification), labor (minimum wages), and seeking religious legitimation (religious-right endorsements) and continued infringing on people’s rights (Horsley, 2009, p. 65). Much like what we are seeing in America today.

As is usually the case, bands of prophets began to warn the leadership and advocate for the rights of the oppressed. They reminded them of God’s Covenant, but it fell on deaf ears. Then things began to take place that seemed to confirm the prophet’s’ pronouncements. Israel’s Monarchies (Israel and Judah) came under attack and suffered devastation by foreign imperial armies of Assyria and Babylon. The prophet’s’ (church’s) message was to deliver God’s condemnation of the rulers and their officers for violating the covenant by exploiting the poor.

Israel was back in bondage. It was in this dark period that Isaiah prophesied hope. But, a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse; a twig shall sprout from the stock. The Spirit shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the Lord. He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Lord: he shall not judge by what his sees, nor decide by what he hears. Thus he shall judge the poor with equity and decide with justice for the lowly of the land. This scripture is loaded with qualities or virtues that are required of righteous leadership. It reminds us of the promised messiah in the New Testament.

Jesse was King David’s Father. The imagery that Isaiah uses is representative of the cutting down of the Davidic dynasty. The anointed generation of Kings was no more. Yahweh’s earthly representatives where no more. As you may be familiar, the ideology of this period was that Kings were appointed by God. And, what happened to the Kings was indicative of the people’s relationship with Yahweh. Catastrophes were often seen as God’s judgment.

If you have any familiarity with trees, you may know that just cutting the tree trunk does not mean the tree is completely dead. As long as the roots are still in the ground, there is hope for the tree. I remember being at the farm with my parents, when we had to clear out bushes and trees. They would always insist that the job was not done until we dug out the roots. But as youngsters, we always wanted to act clever. Pulling out roots was a hustle. So, sometimes we would cut the trunk close to the ground and cover it with soil. But, that cleverness would only last for a couple of weeks and the foolishness would be revealed. Shoots would spring out from everywhere and we would be made to go back and uproot them.

The shoot from the stump of Jesse (David’s father) represents the remnant. The roots of God’s undying covenant. Though Israel was going through a dark moment, the prophet Isaiah had a word of hope. That, despite the experience of devastation, peace would be restored. That, a messiah would come and restore the fortunes of God’s people.

The term “Messiah” in the Old Testament was used to refer to righteous leaders. Often, it was translated as the “Anointed One” or “Shepherd.” It was not restricted to Israelite kings. In fact, we read in Isaiah 45 of King Cyrus being called God’s anointed one, even though Cyrus did not believe in Yahweh. But, because of his righteous and justice-oriented leadership, he was called God’s servant. Maybe there is something to learn from this: are we righteous because we go to Church and believe in God? Or are we righteous because God reaches down to us and makes us righteous? Consequently, we see that God’s grace is available to all. God offers righteousness to us as a gift, but also demands of us to cooperate in our actions.  To act justly, seek counsel, and to know and reverence God.

In the New Testament, John 14 gives us a similar account of a dark period. Jesus the “messiah” – the “anointed one” the “good shepherd” was about to be captured, tortured and then publicly executed. The tree (the true vine) was going to be cut. What would remain of the branches? Yet, Jesus tells his disciples, “do not let your hearts be troubled.” This is an almost ridiculous demand from Jesus. How could they not be troubled? A crisis was looming. Dark days were approaching.

Jesus, however, isn’t just making a ridiculous demand. He is giving them hope. He is telling them not to focus on the crisis, but to believe on God’s promise. However, focusing on God’s promise is hard for us to do when we are in the middle of a crisis. We want to see something tangible to be assured. Typical as in Philip’s response, “Lord show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (v. 8). Jesus expects us to just believe his assuring Word.

“I am not leaving you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live” (vs. 18-19). The tree (cross) will be cut down and the world will no longer spectate, because they will think it’s over. But, you will see me. Not from the tree, but among you. Death will not hold me any longer.

As a church (God’s people in the world) we are being challenged to engage our faith with what is happening in our community. We are the remnant, the seed of hope in a chaotic world. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We must embody the character and qualities expected of one worthy of leadership. The scripture we read in Isaiah stipulates three groups of necessary virtues:

  1. Wisdom and Understanding. This entails critical intellectual qualities of those tasked with the responsibility to lead others. As people of God, we have the responsibility to inform ourselves of what is happening in our communities, neighborhood, the nation, and around the world. As John Wesley once declared “the world is my parish.” We too must look beyond the four walls of our church buildings.
  2. Counsel and Courage. We are called to practically apply our wisdom, be decisive in our judgment, and have the moral energy to carry it out. It is one thing to know what ought to be done; it is another thing to do it. Often we as the Christian church have been reactive rather than proactive in combating injustices or other real issues such gun violence, racism, religious hatred, or inequality. If an issue does not directly affect us, we are satisfied with just praying about it. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Once asserted, “I can’t make myself believe that God wants me to hate. I am tired of violence. And I am not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth….” To win by extending genuine love rather than responding with hatred or vengeance.
  3. Knowledge and Reverence of God. We need to reclaim the fear of the Lord in our leadership and daily living. We cannot claim to be God’s people in the world and then live and act like everybody else. He or she who leads others, must themselves be ruled by the knowledge of God and be willing to be constrained to live according to God’s moral and spiritual demands. These demands come from two basic principles – Righteousness and Justice.

Both of these principles spring from the two greatest commandments – Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.

I don’t know what kind of dark period you may be going through in your life at this moment. It may look impossible and overwhelming. You may have lost your sense of security, or your sense of significance. Maybe you lost a job, a home, your loved one. Maybe it’s a law suit. Or maybe you feel like you are racing against time. Perhaps you have been diagnosed with cancer or a terminal illness. You feel like your dreams are shuttered. Your tree of hope has been cut.

I came to remind you that the roots are still intact. There is still hope. Just because there is chaos and darkness, it does not mean that God is not present. The Holy Spirit never leaves us orphaned. The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our helper in times of trouble. It’s not over until God says it’s over. You shall live and not die. A way shall be made where there seems to be no way. Someday. Somehow.

In this period of Advent, let us reflect on the fact that God has not forgotten about his promises toward us. No matter how dark the period we are in may be, a shoot of peace and hope shall come forth in due season. A shoot of God’s salvation is on the way. Do not let your heart be troubled. Only believe.

Amen.

 

References

Horsley, R. A. (2009). Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.