Devotional – Psalm 126.3

Devotional:

Psalm 126.3

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Weekly Devotional Image

I was in the midst of wrapping up my sermon yesterday when my 19-month-old son decided to clasp his hands together over and over and shout “Amen!” as loud as he could for everyone to hear. While some thought it was precious and perhaps even faithful for him to do so, he only really knows that we say “amen” at the end of things. Which is to say, he was trying to get me to stop preaching!

I couldn’t help but laugh when I finally got to my “amen” at the end of the sermon as I looked over and saw a huge grin across his face as he was standing straight up in the pew next to his mother. And in that fleeting moment, I realized how remarkably blessed I am.

In the ordinary moment of doing what I do every week, I took in the scene in a way that I had not done so before.

Does that ever happen to you? Do you experience moments where you contemplate how wonderful your life really is, but you realize it’s outside the frame of reference for what should be considered a blissful moment? Sure, when we graduate from school, or say “I will” to our spouse at the altar, or welcome a child into the world, we should count ourselves blessed. But those strange mysterious moments of ordinary divine gratitude are helpful reminders in between the big life events.

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In just a few days, scores of people will be gathering with family members from far and near to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There will be moments where individuals look at the scene before them (children tearing open gifts, a full family at the dinner table, wood crackling in the fireplace) and think the great things God has done for them.

But why do we only think those thoughts at special times during the year?

I had a very typical moment from the pulpit yesterday, but it struck a profound chord within me. I am blessed each and every day in ways that I don’t deserve. I encounter people and experiences for which I should be extremely grateful. And to be honest, I don’t thank God nearly enough for all that God has done for me.

It is my hope and prayer that during the remaining days of Advent, each of us can look for those wonderful ordinary moments that remind us of all the great things God has done for us.

We can keep singing about how this is the most wonderful time of year, but with God every single day is a tremendous blessing, a blessing for which we should rejoice.

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The Appearance Of Perfection

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Anita Ford about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [Year B] (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28). Anita is (as she puts it) a bonafide lectionary nerdling and serves at her local church as the lay leader. Additionally, Anita is a big fan of the Strangely Warmed podcast and has contributed to Voices in the Wilderness from Pupit Fiction in the past. Our conversation covers a range of topics including how jubilee is not a time on the calendar, the beauty of purple paraments, currents events matching up with the lectionary texts, Barth bombs, the Wizard of Oz, and ugly Christmas trees. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Appearance Of Perfection

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Breaking The Silence

Isaiah 40.1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arms rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question recently: “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” It’s a great question because it accomplishes three things: It’s gets a conversation going even among people who don’t know each other very well, it sheds light on what kind of hopes and expectations people place on this season, and it helps me learn which hymns you all know how to sing on Sunday mornings!

The answers have been marvelous; I’ve heard memories of standing with long lost family members with the words of O Holy Night passing between them. I’ve been told about the power of Handel’s Messiah and it’s ability to make even the tightest lip quiver with joy. I’ve even learned about bizarre traditions like family competitions to make up new words to Joy to the World on the spot without any practice.

There is some really good Christmas music out there. Perhaps we think it’s so good because we only listen to it for a season every year and therefore are not overwhelmed by it. But nevertheless, there is at least one song that drives me crazy this time of year, one song that I will immediately shut off the radio if I hear the opening chords, one song that has no place in the Christmas lexicon: Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, when I was younger I loved the song. There’s something about Dean Martin’s voice that just makes the song sound like melted butter, and the scene in Elf when Will Ferrell starts singing it in the shower makes me laugh no matter what. But as I’ve aged, the more I’ve realized how problematic the song really is.

When you pull back the veneer of incredible voices and dynamite harmonies, the song is nothing more than a man forcing a woman to stay the night against her own will. It is, in verse and chorus format, sexual misconduct.

Check it out: I really can’t stay, I’ve got to go away. This evening has been, so very nice. My mother will start to worry, my father will be pacing the floor, so really I’d better scurry, but maybe just a half a drink more… The neighbors might think, say what’s in this drink?

All the while the male voice is doing everything in his power to convince and force her to stay.

The cultural acceptance of a song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is precisely why we are hearing, every week, about more people (and in particular men) being accused of this kind of behavior.

Behavior we learn about in an all too beloved Christmas song.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Who are we supposed to be comforting this time of year? Those who sit in the warmth of a church sanctuary on a cold December morning? Those whose trees are almost hidden behind mounds of presents? Those who have a full family around the table for dinner every night?

A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The Lord declares that a reckoning is coming; all will be made new. The mighty shall be brought low and the weak shall be made strong. Only then, only with the reversal and evening of all things, shall the glory of the Lord be revealed.

During Advent we are forced to recognize that God is in the business of toppling things over, particularly the things we’ve grown all too comfortable with.

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Over the last few months there has been a continuous revealing of sexual harassment from some of the most powerful people in our country. Whether substantiated or not, we haven’t gone a few days without another name bubbling to the service. Roy Moore with young girls many years ago, Al Franken both before and after he became a senator, Matt Lauer installed a button to lock his door to trap women in his office, Harvey Weinstein repeatedly used his power to assault and manipulate young actresses. Even our president has not escaped the scores of women coming forward to name the terrible things that have been done to them. And I don’t think the naming is going to stop any time soon.

But to make matters even worse, many of these men have had these habits for a very long time and nothing was ever done about it. The abused women were made to feel powerless and threatened if they ever revealed what happened, others in power knew about the behaviors and made light of them, and many of us have grown all too comfortable with a world where women are made to feel inferior.

Even the United Methodist Church is not immune to the degradation of women. In the Virginia Annual Conference, clergywomen who have the same education and worked the same number of years make, on average, $12,180.94 less than their clergymen counterparts. (UMC GCSRW)

I could go on and on with examples of how sexism and disruptive power dynamics have done terrible things to and against women. A song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is only scratching the surface but it goes to show how deeply entrenched these practices and behaviors really are.

The word from Isaiah, from God, comes as the people are suffering under an oppression that seems inescapable. God declares that a new thing is happening to and for a people who feel no hope. Babylon, like too many men today, rules with an iron fist, the power feels inescapable, and that precisely when God describes the coming change, the evening of all things, and we’re part of it.

I’m ashamed to admit that as more and more names have come out, the Kevin Spaceys and Charlie Roses and Louis C.K.s, I’ve been surprised how pervasive this is. My surprise is embarrassing because I see the world through my own lens (white male) and therefore have ignored or been blind to what actually happens. When I talked with my wife, and my sisters, female friends and church folk, they have not been surprised. Their lack of surprise is due to the fact that for every famous and powerful man that asserts his will or degrades a woman, there is an equal (if not higher) number of men in the workplace or in the community who do the same.

We live in a world where women are made to feel less than men.

And God is doing something about it.

During the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel existed in a state of misery: they were stripped of their institutional structures that shaped their lives, their temple was destroyed, and they were compelled to worship the Babylonian god Marduk. And God, like God had done before, has a new vision for God’s people, a way through the wilderness, a wilderness reshaped by the Grace of God.

Today, we are captured and captivated by a culture that tells us all is well when we know that all is hell. If the world had it’s way, we would be prevented from entering and contemplating these difficult things, but we come to a place like this precisely to hear a counter to the culture.

Women in the world exist under the threat of male chauvinism, physical and emotional abuse, and a patriarchal frame of reference that would make Jesus turn even more tables.

It is good and right for us to receive this word from Isaiah during the season of Advent, while word of female suffering comes forth every day. It is good and right because the story of Advent is one about believing what a woman says about what has happened to her, namely Mary. Advent is the season in which we relearn how God identifies God’s self with those on the margins, and not with the powerful. Advent is the time where we look for the ways God is turning the world upside-down and we give thanks.

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When we hear these words from scripture, about comforting the people of God, they are meant for those who have been forced to the margins of life by the powers and principalities. They are words of hope to those with no hope that a new thing is beginning.

And for those of us who feel too comfortable in life, too comfortable with this season, too comfortable with the status quo, those of us who might not be able to witness the suffering of others because of our towers of privilege, there is something for us to hear as well.

We should hear this word and tremble.

This Word helps to establish the distinction between those who rejoice at the word of God’s arrival and those who see God’s rule as a threat to their own power and position. Advent shines a light on the truth of our lives in a way that most of us would rather avoid. The prophet shouts to us through the sands of time and beckons us to imagine where we have fallen short, to wait for God to judge our iniquity, and to respond to God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

This is the God we worship. Or, as Isaiah puts it, “Here is your God!” The One who makes all things new, who brings down the mighty, who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, who makes a way where there is no way. Here is your God who provides a voice to the voiceless, who empowers the powerless, and breaks the silence.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, as we step closer and closer to the manger in Bethlehem, as we wait for the next Advent of God’s Son, the Word grabs hold of our souls and begs us to consider: “Are we aligning ourselves with those on the margins? Are we listening to the people that Jesus listened to? Are we participating in the great reversal of all things?”

God is making a way where there is no way, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

Here is our God! Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 85.9

Devotional:

Psalm 85.9

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Weekly Devotional Image

I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.

We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.

After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

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Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.

Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.

Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Scott Jones about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [Year B] (Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8). Jason is the Executive Pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, VA and Scott is the host of the Give and Take Podcast. The conversation covers a range of topics including manscaping, Isaiah as Socialist, resuscitation vs. resurrection, how God isn’t white, the need to revisit our sin, and the beauty of the already but not yet. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

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Scott Jones

Advent Begins In The Dark

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. These is no one who calls on your name, or attempters to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent begins in the dark. And, of course, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around this strange beginning, not only to a season, but also to a new year in the life of the church. After all, our sanctuary has changed. Gone are the white sheets of Christ the King Sunday, tucked away are the green banners from Ordinary Time. Today is a new day in the life of the church and in each of our lives. Today is a day of purple and blue, of royalty and repentance; today we begin in the dark.

For many churches in many places, Advent is filled with joy and hope. Pastors sprinkle their sermons with tidings of good cheer, and wishes of merry Christmases. The sentiment of the season is one of smiles, laughter, and bright light.

            But Isaiah speaks a different word.

From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.

Although the life and time of Isaiah differs from ours in tremendous ways, there are similarities. We know, like Isaiah, that our reliance on a massive political accumulation of power, rather than a pursuit of love and divine justice, has brought us everlasting turmoil. We know, like Isaiah, that our culture has less to do with the peace of God and more to do with individual hopes and ambitions. We know, like Isaiah, the temptation to throw everything into violent forms of power while ignoring the people tasked with doing such.

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From the dark place of reflection, we read Isaiah’s words about God tearing open the heavens and shaking the foundations of the earth, but when we try to imagine it in our minds we don’t think of the new heaven and the new earth of revelation. Instead, we have visions of devastating destruction like floods, earthquakes, and perhaps even nuclear war.

During Advent we might want our God to look and act more like the chubby man who slides down the chimney with gifts, but Isaiah presents us with an image of God as angry and silent.

And that is the tension of this season. The words from the prophet are even harder to swallow for those of us who have already put up the tree, who have hung all the lights, who have turned our radio stations to the never-ending array of Christmas tunes. But Advent has always held the tension of God’s judgment with God’s promise.

            We have all become like one who is unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We have sinned, and God has moved away from us.

Last week, in our Sunday School class, we wrestled with the always difficult subject of forgiveness. We talked about actions that feel unforgiveable and how difficult it is for us to wrap our heads around the fact that God’s love is for all people, no matter what. And in the midst of the discussion, someone from our church mentioned that beyond individual forgiveness, it might be even harder to forgive entire groups of people for terrible atrocities. He probed us to think about Germany and Japan, to ponder the devastation waded against nation by nation. How can we forgive those kinds of things?

Perhaps, the only way to get to a place of offering forgiveness, the only way to take steps out of the darkness that marks the beginning of Advent, is recognizing our wrongs as well.

A couple weeks ago I heard a story on the radio that has haunted me ever since. As a teenager in 1955, Paul Zimmer was assigned by the military to serve at Camp Desert Rock, Nevada. He was there to witness the testing of atomic bombs. He thought it might be a cool assignment, or at the very least, it would produce stories that might be a good way to pick up girls in the future. He spent a lot of time smoking cigarettes and chumming it up with the other young men, but every couple days he and the others would be convoyed in the middle of the night and marched into the desert.

There they would find long thin trenches dug into the earth like scars from a giant. They wore steel helmets, with little else, and they would wait.

And now I’ll use his words: “I never became fearful until I heard the countdown over the loud speaker. And I only became terrified when I saw the flash. It was bright enough, that even with my eyes closed, I could still see the bones in my hands over my eyes. The shockwave crashed over the trenches and we were then told to open our eyes and watch. We saw the mushroom cloud, with strange purples and blues billowing into the sky above.”

“I saw 8 atomic blasts in total, each of different sizes and deployments. Sometimes the shockwave was so powerful that the walls of the trench would cave in and we struggled to climb out of the grave dug into the earth. And, again and again, we were given the all clear and marched forward into the blast area to wear witness. Bearing witness seemed to be the entire reason we were there.”

“One bomb was three times the size of the one we dropped on Hiroshima, and when we walked forward the air was filled with the stench of ozone, small bushes and trees had evaporated into thin air, and small animals were scattered on the edge of the blast radius whimpering in pain. We walked forward and we passed crumpled vehicles and turrets, mannequins with melted faces, and mangled test animals. No one ever asked us to write a report, nor did anyone ever ask what we saw, because (it turns out) they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men responded to an atomic blast.”

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Over the years I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last living people in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs. And now, in my late years, when I think about my experience, I feel it is my responsibility to witness to the sights and the sounds that still ring in my head even today. I feel it is my duty to remember the reckless absurdity of it all, the being buried alive, the walking past death and decay, and the waking up to do it all over again.

We live in a world still shrinking under the threat of nuclear war. Tweets and temptations to push the button ring out across the globe. And while we want our Advent season to be nice and pretty and light, there is a real risk to maintaining the lives that we have grown so comfortable with.

Zimmer ended his story by saying this: “We keep threatening to release these bombs, and I suspect that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, but I have not.”

(For more on Zimmer’s story: Secret Information)

Advent jolts us out of Ordinary time, where we’ve gone all over the map (so to speak). Isaiah speaks to us on this day with invasive news that it’s time to repent, and to think about fresh possibilities. That’s a tough thing to swallow these days, particularly when we are more moved by feeling good than by being good.

Right? I mean how many of us will fill that empty space under the tree with presents in hopes that those gifts will fill the holes we feel in our souls? How many of us are so consumed by a desire to judge that we forget the need to reflect? How many of us are actually stuck in the darkness of Advent without any of the light of Christ?

If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to hear about nuclear explosions at this, the most wonderful time of the year. We want something pretty and something happy. But I think Paul Zimmer’s witness is as prophetic as Isaiah’s. The hope of Christmas has not looked away from the darkness but straight into it. That, after all, is the message of the incarnation. God comes to us in flesh, in the brokenness of the world, to redeem the world.

But we’re not there yet.

As Christians, though we move through the liturgical calendar every year, we are stuck in Advent. We live in the darkness of Advent, between the first arrival of God’s Son in Bethlehem and the final arrival of God’s Son in the New Heaven and the New Earth. We’re stuck in the tension between the ways things are and the way they ought to be, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

But there is hope in this strange Advent time and it comes from an unexpected place. If we put our trust in princes, or politicians, or even plutonium, we will be disappointed. We cannot receive lasting comfort from this broken world of ours where it feels like the end is always a buttonbush away. Our hope and comfort must come from another place, a place beyond our ability to grasp and comprehend, a place of ultimate divine humiliation and divine exultation, a place that is both beginning and end, a place that isn’t even a place: God.

Hope in God is a strange, vexing, and transformative thing. Hope in God is what comes with a broken heart willing to be mended. Hope in God comes when we are able to look in the mirror, and say from the depth of our being, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am a sinner.” Hope in God comes when we realize that God is always the light in the darkness, but without the darkness we cannot see the light.

The good news we anticipate on Christmas will come, it will be brighter than any atomic blast and it will fundamentally change everything about the world. God will come again and tear open the heavens. God will reorient the world in such a way that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s justice will rain down like waters. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. God will destroy evil forever.

As Christians, yes, we sit in the shadow of the cross and in the darkness of Advent. But we also know the end of the story, we know that greater things are still to come. We know that only God can shake the foundations of the earth. We know that hope in God is unlike anything else in existence. We know all of this because we know that the promise in Mary’s womb comes to fruition in the empty tomb. Amen.

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