Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Season for Promises

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12


'Tis the season for prophecy. For the truth of God, spoken into the mess and beauty of human life to change us, challenge us, strengthen and inspire us.

Advent is a time for steeping ourselves in prophecy – in the promises and vision and challenge of God – because thats how we learn what were supposed to be expectantly waiting for at the coming of God into the world. The Advent season is for immersing ourselves in Gods promises so that we truly look forward to those promises being fulfilled, both in God made flesh at Christmas and in the final coming of the reign of God.

Thats why I love the hymns we sing at this time of year: so many of them are the promises of God – the words of the prophets – set to music that gets those hopes and expectations rhythmically into my body and mind. Others might read and re-read and pray the words of the prophets found in our Advent Sunday readings and daily devotionals, or experience prophecy in art or actions like the outpouring of giving.

However you do it, this is the season for immersion in the promises, and it’s easy to love the healed and holy world presented to us by Isaiah this morning: that famous image of the wolf dwelling with the lamb – the peaceable kingdom” where all the predators and the domestic animals live safely together and snakes no longer bite. Its a promise of freedom from the fear of death and danger, freedom from the need to protect ourselves against a violent, unpredictable, hungry world that will snatch away what we love and depend on.
Sign me up!

And thats only half the vision. The promise starts with the healing of our political, social reality: the promise of a nation, a world, ruled by Gods perspective, not a human one. Governed by wisdom and holy strength, equity and generous justice, instead of cronyism, competition and selfishness. 
What a relief that would be!

And the wicked will be destroyed. Thats a promise that you and I will be able to interact with anyone without the dangers of being abused, robbed, cheated, abandoned, or maliciously embarrassed.
Its also a warning against doing any of that ourselves, of course – but its easier to be honest and generous when you dont have to defend yourself against threats from others!

God doesnt just promise to create a safe natural world, or a safe human world. It has to be both, because we cant separate ourselves from our environment, or the environment from us. (We try, but we truly cant!)

Its a promise I want to long for, but that I actually discount a lot in my daily life, and I bet Im not the only one who doesn’t live all the time like the promises of God are right here and now.

You see, like many of you, I have a lifetime of training in how to live in a world that is dangerous and untrustworthy. Im better equipped to fiercely protect my credit card number and seek out safe” neighborhoods than to openly trust strangers or even neighbors. Youre probably better equipped to practice skepticism about all political statements or protect your children than to camp out in the lion enclosure at the zoo or believe our next election will bring holy unity and prosperity.

Almost all our everyday decisions – from automatic ones about seatbelts and lights to life decisions about marriage, family, careers, and homes are shaped consciously or invisibly by the un-peaceable kingdom: the messy, often evil, violent everyday world that betrays us with loss, disease, disasters, and selfishness so routinely that we automatically protect ourselves. So that we shape ourselves to live with dangerous wolves and unreliable rulers, which makes us misfits in Gods world of gentle vegetarian lions and righteous, trustworthy governance.

And that is what John challenges us to change.
Its how he challenged the people who came out to meet him in the Jordan wilderness:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!
Change. Change your heart and mind and soul and self so that you can live in the peaceable kingdom, so that you conform to the world of Gods healing, instead of cooperating with and defending ourselves from the sometimes malicious, sometimes indifferent, generally untrustworthy world were used to.

Repent!
John isnt telling us to feel guilty. Hes telling us to actively, positively, turn away from all the ways we compromise with an untrustworthy, unhealthy environment.

Those compromises vary from person to person. Buying a home security system, or planning work and activities around the needs of a resume, college or professional, are ways some of us defend against the hungry world when the completeness of Gods care doesnt seem practical and real. Others may compromise with the common evil of the world by neglecting to vote, or not paying attention to injustices that dont touch me personally. Some of us walk with our keys between our fingers at night, keep our hands in plain sight, or routinely hide our true selves – making these painful compromises of our freedom and trust because thats how we get along with a dangerous world.

Many of those things do keep us safer in the un-peacable world, but they also shape our hearts and minds to discount Gods promises, to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of actively expecting the peaceable, righteous, world of God here and now.

Thats why all Judea” were confessing their sins with John at the Jordan: the compromises to not get in trouble with the Roman government, to protect your sheep a little more than your neighbors, to get what you can from the boss, the marriage, the market before somebody else cheats…
They were naming the distrusts and self-protections they – we – have to let go of in order to freely long for Gods promises with all our hearts, and to be able to fully live in the holy world of God when those promises are fulfilled around us.

John is calling us to pro-actively change our habits of defensive self-interest, or cautious fear and anxiety, into habits of courageous trust.
But letting go of all those mostly unconscious defenses and self-interest is incredibly nerve-racking. It’s a profound and counter cultural change.
Like the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John, we may be tempted to fall back on these things tha have kept us safe and strong in the un-peaceable world.

It’s difficult. But theres another promise so many of us have already received that makes it possible.

Do you remember how we pray at each baptism for
an inquiring and discerning heart, the
courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.

And did you know that the roots of that prayer go right back to the words of Isaiah we heard today? That the gifts you and I are given by the Spirit in baptism are, at root, the wisdom and understanding, the holy strength and trust, the full experience of the reality of God that are what enable Isaiahs envisioned ruler, the shoot of Jesses tree, to see with Gods eyes, hear with Gods ears, and lead a whole world of righteousness, of free, secure and trusting relationship with God; generous, selfless justice and equity. And defeat the wicked with a breath.

The kingdom may not have fully come yet, but God already gives us everything we need to live the life of the healed world.

So join me this Advent in steeping yourself in the promises, the prophets, the truth of Gods righteous and holy world spoken into the noise and anxious danger of our human world.

Sing those promises with me. Or read them and pray them. Use Advent devotionals, or Christmas carols and movies, or the songs of secular artists who sing a vision of a healed world. Act those promises into your life with the practices on the Wayof Love Advent calendar and the lighting of candles in the darkness. Look for the gifts of the spirit already given in your life: for holy strength and courage, wisdom and the experience of awe and the vibrant presence of God, especially when you dont think you have them.

Steep yourself in prophecy and promise until that longing to fully experience the promises of God without limit leads your heart and soul into Johns invitation of repentance, into the courage and trust and change that makes us whole.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Reliable

Luke 21:5-19


Do you know one of those people who seem to find it reassuring when things go badly?
 “See, it’s raining on the company picnic. I knew May would be too wet!”
“Oh, the projector isn’t working for the main presenter? I’m almost glad to have something to fix. This conference was going too smoothly to be real!”

Or maybe you’ve felt that way yourself sometimes – that it’s a relief to have your low expectations met. Or that it’s better to know the worst than to wonder. 

Today’s gospel, then, is for you. For all of us who sometimes find reassurance in disaster, even – well, especially – if you don’t enjoy the disaster at all.

Jesus is telling his disciples – and any of the crowd in the Temple who want to listen in – that the beautiful stonework of the house of God is going to be completely destroyed. Not only that, but the holy city will be at war, the “good guys’ are going to be arrested and put on trial, and terrorism, famine, and natural disasters will wash over them all.

It’s deeply distressing and disturbing. And it’s also meant to be reassuring; to be comforting and encouraging in two ways.

First, there’s Jesus’ promise to those disciples listening to him right there in the threatened Temple: In the midst of all that is awful, not a hair of your head will perish. You will be protected, you will speak God’s word, and you will “gain your souls” – an ambiguous phrase, but one that I believe means that we will become spiritually whole. Jesus promises protection and spiritual fulfillment when there’s disaster all around.
A promise that’s meant to give the disciples, give us, that confidence in the work of God that can counteract the natural fear, worry, and unrelenting stress of seeing everything else reliable destroyed and leave us confident and brave.

And this story is also meant to prove that Jesus’ word is reliable; that what he says to his disciples, to us, is both true and trustworthy.

By the time Luke is writing his gospel, you see, everything Jesus predicts for his disciples here has already happened. In the year 70 – a decade or two before Luke’s gospel narrative was probably completed, the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple was demolished by fire and occupying forces. By the time the Temple fell, Israel had experienced plenty of riots and uprisings, civil war and international war. 

The Christians who first read Luke’s account of Jesus already knew the stories of the arrests and trials that many of Jesus’ disciples and early church leaders had faced, the stories of inspired testimonies before governors and kings, and the stories of earthquakes, famine, and plagues experienced by many of the early Christian communities.

In other words, everything Jesus describes in this conversation in the Temple before his death had happened – and was known to have happened - by the community of disciples reading Luke’s story.

The story we hear Luke tell today is not just a story of Jesus promising protection and fulfillment when we are face to face with disaster.
It’s also a story that proves Jesus’ promises reliable: true, and trustworthy, proven by experience.

The good news that Luke wants us to know is that God’s Word is reliable. Jesus is trustworthy.
He’s right about the disasters we’ve seen and experienced, so he’s also right, reliable and true, about the promises we haven’t yet seen for ourselves, about the nearness of the kingdom of God that hasn’t quite come in the readers’ lifetimes – Luke’s first readers, or you and me.

This is important. It’s an essential matter of our faith. It’s critical for Luke’s audience, for you and me, to know that all of Jesus’ words of promise and resurrection are reliable; that on the eve of his own arrest and death the future is, in fact, assured by God beyond our doubt, fear, or failure.

It matters to anyone facing disaster – fire, flood or earthquake; the loss of a home, a precious job or activity, a loved one – that God’s care for us in danger and loss is absolutely dependable.
It matters to any of us losing trust in our world – in the safety of food, the reliability of the seasons, the stability and honesty of government, the security of our retirement or children – that God is trust-worthy beyond doubt.
It matters to our souls to believe, to know, that we will experience God’s faithfulness; that our own lives will prove God’s dependability not just in disaster but in the weariness and excitements of the everyday.

It matters to anyone following Jesus that Jesus is reliable, trustworthy, true. Or why are we even here?

It can be harder to know that God’s trustworthiness is meant for you and me, personally and together, when the disasters that roll over us – strokes or school shootings; home floods or work failures – aren’t the things predicted and promised protection by Jesus. Or when the bad news that floods our days from the internet or the TV – political upheaval or unearned prejudice or unreasonable weather – seems to have a lot more to do with human failures, our own or others, than with God’s plan for salvation.

But Jesus and Luke both want us to know not only that God is reliable for protection and spiritual growth in all that, but that Jesus can be relied on to make us witnesses of God’s truth in spite of anything that’s happening around us; in spite of our own doubts or ignorance, fears or failures.
And that speaking the reliable truth of God in the midst of a very unreliable world is in fact our purpose – yours and mine, confused and inexpert as we may be, just like those earliest disciples of Jesus.

When I am working with children to prepare prayers for our worship, I often ask questions about “who is in charge?” in order to prompt ideas about who needs to be prayed for in our country, or our community. Usually the children quickly name the president (or the police, or teachers, or parents, depending on the age of the group!). But this week, as my friends in the Preschool were helping me write the prayers for today, every time I asked the question “who is in charge?” – about our nation, our school, or any other group, including your families – one or two or three children answered “God.”
God is in charge.

On a day when every TV I passed was tuned to impeachment hearings; when I was struggling with exhaustion and migraine, in a week of worry about ill and injured friends and parishioners – when none of the everyday disasters were world-ending but nothing felt very godly – the word of God came loud and clear from our Trinity Preschoolers:
God is in charge.

And that reminder itself was proof in my own life that God is reliable. Trustworthy and true.
Not only to be present and protect and encourage, but to make us witnesses of that presence and power and love, to speak reliable truth even when we don’t know what we’re saying.

God is in charge.
And not only is God reliable; not only is Jesus trustworthy and true,
but Jesus makes us reliable, too.
God makes perfect teachers out of four and five year olds whose only business is to learn.
Jesus puts truth that you and I need to hear into the mouths of long ago disciples;
and Jesus puts truth that others need to hear into your mouth and mine.

As we put our trust in Jesus, God makes us trustworthy to stand with each other, with any of God’s people, in the face of national and natural disaster, or personal calamity or daily defaults.
God makes us reliable witnesses of what God is up to in the world in the midst of disasters and disappointments large and small (and the joys of daily life). Jesus makes us truer than we ourselves could ever be.
And by that steadfastness – by relying on the faithfulness of God in ourselves, in our community, and in Jesus – we gain our souls.