Archive for December, 2010

Two (or more) men and a baby

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1
December 19, 2010
Steve Hammond

I had a really good friend in high school whose father died when we were in college. Through an innocent comment made by one of the people at the funeral she learned that the person she thought was her father actually wasn’t. Not her biological father, anyway.

It turned out that her mother got pregnant while her husband was away in Korea. But my friend had never known that because when her mom’s husband came home they worked things out and he raised my friend as his own daughter.

As we talked about all of this, she said it never occurred to her when she was growing up that the man she thought was her father really wasn’t. He had never done or said anything that she could remember that would have given her any clue that he wasn’t her real father.

He was what they used to call a stand up guy. Like Joseph, in today’s story, he could have put away his wife and her child, and never looked back. But he didn’t. Mary was not the only amazing role model Jesus had in his family.

I don’t want to overly romanticize the relationship between Mary and Joseph. Marriage was a much different thing in the Middle East when Jesus was born than it is now, or in our part of the world, anyway. People didn’t fall in love and get married. Marriage was simply a business arrangement between two families. Nevertheless, Joseph must have had some affection for Mary, or maybe actually have been in love with her for him to respond the way he did when he discovered Mary was pregnant, and he was not the father.

The story says his initial response was to try to find a way to deal with this quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. Actually, he had every right not to only publically denounce and shame her, but even demand that the law be followed and she be stoned to death.

As one commentator somewhat wryly said, “Those who struggle with the Virgin Birth need to remember that it was more a problem for Joseph than for them.” But, fortunately for Mary, Joseph was a dreamer. A literal dreamer. He had this dream where an angel came to him and said Mary’s not cooking the books and that its okay for him to take her as his wife.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said to Joseph, which is also what the angel said to Mary when we read her story in Luke’s gospel. What’s the opposite of fear? Trust? Hope? Confidence? What about love? What’s it say in 1 John 4? Perfect love casts our fear.

I don’t think Joseph was afraid of what people would say when they found out Mary was pregnant. I think the reason he wanted to put her away, even if it was as compassionately as he could do it, was not because of what the neighbors would say, but because he wanted to do the right thing.

Joseph seems to be a pious man and, most likely, his understanding of the law of God was that it would have been wrong for him to take Mary as his wife. She had defiled herself, she was an unclean woman and marrying her would have made him unclean. The righteous thing to do, the thing to keep himself clean in God’s eyes, would have been to walk away from her. That is what he probably believed would have most pleased God, been the right thing to do.

So Joseph had this dream and had to go out on a bit of a limb, start understanding God in a new way. What if God is not someone we fear but who wants us love us and be loved by us? We talk about God’s love all the time, but that was not the kind of talk that a person like Joseph would have ever thought of, much less heard. God was to be obeyed, not loved. Nor did God expect love from us, but obedience. Obedience was the way to righteousness.

Jesus, though, changed our whole way of thinking about God, beginning with Joseph. Joseph was willing to risk his own claim to personal righteousness by staying with Mary and her baby and believing that he had a part to play in this thing God was doing. And once Joseph made that commitment he stuck with it, even though it put his own life in danger when Herod sent out his special operation forces to kill the baby Jesus. Joseph had to leave his home and live as an illegal alien in Egypt for the sake of this baby who was not even his own child.

When your relationship with God is based on love, rather than fear, you are able to risk all kinds of things, change your life in really significant ways. That’s why the Apostle Paul talks about righteousness not being based on what we do out of fear of violating God’s laws, but on our faith that God really does love us.

In this story, Jesus gets two names. Joseph claims the baby as his own when he names him Jesus in the naming ceremony. But the writer of Matthew’s gospel says another really good name for Jesus is Emmanuel. He’s thinking about that story where one of Joseph’s ancestors, King Ahaz is really scared about the Syrians and willing to make all kinds of deals with them.

Isaiah the prophet begs Ahaz to not cave in to the Syrian demands because they aren’t going to be around very long. The Assyrians are about to come along and clean their plates. But Ahaz is afraid. When Isaiah says just ask God for a sign, Ahaz refuses because he believes it would be wrong or unrighteous to ask for a sign. So Isaiah says God will give you a sign anyway. You are not only going to survive, but a young woman who is now a virgin, will conceive and by time that child reaches puberty, Syria is going to be a long fallen empire. That young woman was most likely a young bride that either Isaiah or Ahaz was about to marry. But the point was that the child would be a sign of God’s faithfulness and presence. The only way to survive was not surrendering to Syria, surrendering to fear. They would all survive the Syrian onslaught if they just trusted God. The child would be called Emmanuel, God with us.

So the writer of Matthew’s Gospel says no wonder we think of Jesus as Emmanuel. What better sign that God is with us than him? We don’t have to be afraid, our fears don’t have to rule our lives because God is with us. God really does love us.

Love is not some wonderful feeling, but action. Love is not the fuzzy feelings about a baby in a manger, but a man who takes that child on as his own, and protects him, even when he doesn’t have to. All kinds of people have been fathers and mothers to vulnerable children and many, like Joseph and my friend’s father, have willingly paid the price for doing so. It happened to me. Nobody made my grandmother take me in when I was three years old. I could have ended up in one of those places for children who aren’t safe in their homes.

People who have raised stepchildren as their own. Those who have taken in foster kids, and those who have adopted kids. Those who have provided a place of safety for kids who are in trouble. They are the sons and daughters of Joseph. They show us something about how God loves us. Nobody made God take us in.

We don’t have to be afraid. This is how much God loves us. God comes to be with us. And it’s that love that casts out our fear and enables us to have the faith to risk all kinds of things that God may be calling us to.

Joseph was a stand up guy. And like his wife, is a model of faith for all of us. They were as much a part of the Christmas story as Jesus. When we get to be more like Joseph, letting love rather than fear control us, we become a part of the story too.

What are we waiting for?

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

Matthew 11:2-15, Luke 1:47-55
Isaiah 35:1-10
December 12, 2010
Steve Hammond

Last week Mary talked about John the Baptist and the witness he bore to Jesus. Today it’s Jesus who is bearing witness to John and John, it appears, wasn’t quite so sure about Jesus anymore. That may have something to do with the fact that it is John who is in jail, not Jesus.

That’s why John sent some of his folk to Jesus to ask if Jesus were really the one or if John should be looking somewhere else. “Sure am,” Jesus said. “Just look around. Just like Isaiah said. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!”

The problem was that John was expecting something else, chief among them not be chucked in jail. But he was also waiting for the Roman troops occupying Israel to get pushed into the sea and Israel elevated to its rightful place as the new and everlasting imperial power. But that wasn’t happening, and John was beginning to wonder if it ever was.

It turns out it wasn’t ever going to happen, because Jesus had something much different in mind than doing things the way Rome did them. If John only had eyes to see he would have noticed. If he had only been listening to what Jesus was actually saying instead of what he expected to hear, he would have realized he wasn’t mistaken about Jesus being the one, he was just mistaken about what it meant for Jesus to be the one. John was, indeed, preparing the way for Jesus. But he couldn’t see where that path was going, because he was confused about the destination.

His mom’s cousin, Mary the mother of Jesus, understood. She knew that God had something in mind different than Rome’s lust for power, or the greed and selfishness that controls so many lives and so many nations and institutions. “God has brought the powerful down and lifted up the powerless. The hungry are getting their fill while the rich folk are standing out in the cold, someplace they sure have never been before, and wondering why they don’t own the table anymore.”

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, got it. John didn’t. Nevertheless, that did not diminish John in the eyes of Jesus. Jesus says that no one in history surpassed John. That’s the regard Jesus had for John. But, a new history was about to be made. That’s why Jesus said that as great as John was, the lowest of the low would be greater than John in this new way that was unfolding with Jesus.

This story reminds me that I’m not sure that we have got this Advent and Christmas thing figured out. I think we are confused about who we are waiting for. We keep talking about preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus. We are waiting, we are getting ready for his birth. But he’s already come. He was born a long time ago. I don’t think we are waiting for Jesus. Instead, he is waiting for us. When are we going to wake up and see what he is doing? When are we going to have eyes to see and ears to hear, to come to grips with this new reality that has come into our world with the coming of Jesus? “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.” Doesn’t that sound like much better news than we are going to beat Rome at its own game?

There are all kinds of ways we are blind, deaf, lame, and unclean; physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially. And we’ve gotten so used to it, that like John, we aren’t expecting it to change. So all we are looking for is to do it better than Rome. We will use our violence for good purposes. Our prejudices about race, gender, sexual orientation, nation, and income won’t be from bad motives, but to maintain what God wants for this world. We don’t know how to let go of that death. But Jesus told us we can come alive in him, and we can open ourselves to something that not even John the Baptist, the greatest person who had ever lived up until Jesus’ time, did not know how to open himself to.

John was a desert dweller. When you think about a desert, what images come to mind? We can romanticize the desert and think of it as this starkly beautiful place, which it is. And we also think about the desert as a special place where the most spiritual of us go to really deepen our relationship with God. That’s what Jesus did, what the desert mothers and fathers did. But what if you lived in the desert or were surrounded by it like the people who heard Jesus were? What images of the desert does that bring to mind? Dry. Barren. Lifeless. Dangerous. Just ask those folk who are trying to get through the desert to come and find work in the United States just how beautiful the desert is. Can you imagine what a stream in the desert looks like to them? For the hot sands to be cooled by natural fountains? For there to be water in that thirsty land? Can you imagine the joy of water and food and safety in the desert?

Of course, the desert serves as a metaphor for life in this world, which is often starkly beautiful, but also barren, dangerous, and lifeless. It is a dry and thirsty land we, and so many others, too often find ourselves in. The message to those in the desert, like we read in Isaiah 35 is not that God is coming, but that God is here. That’s where the joy is, not that God is coming, but that God has already shown up. We don’t have to keep waiting for the Christmas miracle to work its magic, we just have to do something with it like energize weak hands and strengthen wobbly knees.

Christmas is about incarnation, about God pitching a tent and living with us, about God showing up. But are we going to show up? That’s the question of advent. Are we going to be incarnational, taking the very presence of God to the desert? God has such a profound love for us, such a profound respect for us that God was willing to show up, willing to come to us simply because we need God to be with us. We need grace and God offers it. When you turn on the news, though, you see how little respect our politicians have for each other, and how that lack of respect for each other has spread throughout our culture. Remember those signs at the Tea Party rallies and the terrible name calling you hear on talk radio, including the Christian stations. You see that lack of respect in the documents that have been made public by Wikileaks. We have gotten used to it. In a world where there is so little respect for others, much less love, can we get incarnational and be the presence of God?

To much of what passes for Christianity is about despair rather than joy. The desert is just going to get dryer until God plucks some of us out it. It sounds too much to me that we are still waiting for Jesus to come than realizing he has already been here and changed everything, including us. We spend all this time talking about how great God is, but not enough on how good God is. It’s no wonder there is so much anger toward the church. It’s that goodness we must incarnate. That’s the joy we bring.

What are we expecting to hear? What are we expecting to see? If it is what Jesus is showing us, if it is what Jesus is telling us it is probably different than we were expecting. If it’s not a message of joy then we aren’t listening. Because Advent is about the God who has already shown up, and fills the desert with springs and fountains.

Are we the ones or should they be expecting somebody else? Do we bring tidings of great joy or haven’t we shown up yet? All this time we thought John was helping us get ready for Jesus. But it turns out that Jesus is preparing the way for us, thinking that we can be great in the Realm of God, greater than even John.

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Jesus’ mama knew that God was with her, and had something for her to do to make God real in this world. The waiting was over. It was time for her to show up. And now is our time. The deaf, the blind, the lame. They are waiting. Like Jesus, they are waiting for us.

Embodied Presence

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

Matthew 3:1-12
December 5, 2010
Mary Hammond

While a student at Oberlin College, David Weasley, then David Reese, designed a host of miniature publicity signs for the church which he plastered around the campus. One sign countered the well-known college motto pitched to prospective students and their parents which goes like this: “Think one person can change the world? So do we!” David’s flier disagreed, saying: “Think one person can change the world? Neither do we! That’s why we do it together!”

I’ve always appreciated David’s poignant critique of this popular college slogan. He underscores a truth that our individualistic culture often downplays. A litany we use at the Rededication to the Dream Service on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday picks up on David’s insight. It reminds us that defeating segregation laws was no one-man-show. This effort required the bold actions of countless others–Rosa Parks, the seamstress; E.D. Nixon, a railroad porter; JoAnn Robinson, President of the Montgomery Women’s Political Council, among others. Thousands organized, marched, prayed, made phone calls, passed out fliers, and boycotted businesses.

Towering figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Aung San Suu Kyi, whom we look to as catalysts and visionaries are not solitary, self-made people. As David Weasley often says, “Each of us stands on the shoulders of giants.” Whose shoulders do you stand on? Who are the forerunners of grace, the midwives of transformation, in your life? [Congregational reflection]

John the Baptizer was such a one in Jesus’ day. The cousin of Jesus by birth, he was marked and called by God to be part of a world-changing drama that began in the heart of God long before an old woman named Elizabeth and a young woman named Mary learned that they were pregnant.

In the fullness of time, these two infants, John and Jesus, grew to manhood. John spent long years in the wilderness among the Qumran community, living in simplicity and austerity, nurturing a fierce devotion to God. This community practiced an early form of baptism as a purification or cleansing from sin, an emphasis John carried into his public ministry.

“Prepare the way of the Lord! Make a straight path for him!” John cries out to those who come to be baptized. ‘You can’t just wash your skin—that’s not enough! God is looking for lives that are green and blossoming! And don’t hold me up as someone special. I’m just the stagehand in a much larger drama. The One coming after me will blow like a hurricane through your life, transforming you from the inside out!’

Such was the intensity of John’s proclamation.

As the religious elites come out to the river to be baptized with the crowds of common folk, John takes them to task for relying on their ancestry as a free pass to God. It is hard for 21st century Protestants who regularly hop denominations to really grasp the significance of family lineage and national history to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day.

John blows any reliance on either of these out of the water. To him, only one thing matters. It is not a family pedigree, a religious upbringing, or even a sense of remorse for one’s sins! Not enough!

What matters to John is a changed life. What are you doing with your remorse? What are you doing with your regrets? What are you doing with your heart, your life? Is it bending toward the Reign of God? Is it broken by the pain of the world? Is it looking to shed the deadwood that drags it down and holds it back? When God looks at you and me and the crowds waiting to be baptized by John at the Jordan River, does God see shoots of green pushing out of the hard earth of our souls? John offers a vision and ushers an invitation, not just to enter the chilly waters of the Jordan River and rise up washed from sin, but to join the God Movement and make that focus both reality and home.

Ken Sehested, the first Executive Director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, states that “Advent always begins with desperate hope in dangerous circumstances.” Last week we lit the candle of hope. Today we light the candle of peace. John the Baptizer calls us to a restless peace that is both profoundly present with the Holy One and profoundly present with the world Jesus came to redeem, loving and bleeding at the same time. May we come to know that restless peace within our heart of hearts. Amen.