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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Isaiah 4:2-6 God's City of Peace

Me in Jerusalem, 2015. Photo: Guy Davis

Observation: After prophesying that God will cleanse the city of Jerusalem from idolatry, Isaiah says God will call the remaining people holy, and set a cloud above them by day and a pillar of fire by night to protect against any attack. This recalls the cloud and pillar of protection God set between the Israelites and the Egyptian army as they were preparing to escape across the Red Sea.

Application: As I read about protection for Jerusalem, I can't help noticing that Jerusalem has been much in the news recently, since our president broke with longstanding tradition to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There has been increased violence in the West Bank, and Palestinian representatives have made statements calling into question the United States' ability to be a neutral broker of peace talks after this move. Representatives of the major historic churches in Jerusalem, including Lutheran bishop Munib Younan, even sent a letter to the white house imploring the United States to continue recognizing Jerusalem's international status, reading in part, 

"Christmas is upon us soon. It is a feast of peace. The angels have sung in our sky: Glory to God in the highest, and peace on the earth to people of good will. In this coming Christmas, we plea for Jerusalem not to be deprived of peace, we ask you Mr. President to help us listen to the song of the angels. As the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, we invite you to walk with us in hope as we build a just, inclusive peace for all the people of this unique and holy city."

I don't want this devotional reflection to sound like a partisan political post. I really don't. If you happen to feel differently from me and these Christian leaders about this issue, please know that I seek dialogue and mutual conversation with you, not to divide or condemn. I pray for our leaders often, just as I pray for our country and for God's world. 

Having seen the beauty of Jerusalem--the ancient sites, the places where Jesus walked, taught, prophesied, suffered, died and was raised to life again--I pray for the peace of that city in a special way. I do pray that the cloud and pillar of protection God promises in Isaiah will one day stand guard for the Holy city. But in the mean time, Jerusalem--in Hebrew, city of peace--is only as Holy and as peaceful as humankind makes it. So in this Advent season, this season of longing, I long for the cloud and pillar of protection to materialize in our own hearts: through our willingness to hear one another's concerns, and look out for one another's welfare, when we agree but especially when we disagree. 

Prayer: God, for the peace of Jerusalem, I pray. For our president and for other decision makers, I pray. For the cloud of protection, for peace and wisdom in our hearts through your Holy Spirit, I pray. May your Holy City be made holy by our walking in Christ's way. May the city of Shalom be made more peaceful by acts of kindness and understanding. May your peace prevail on earth, beginning with people of good will, and spreading to all humankind.   Amen. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Micah 5:2-5a, From Ancient Days

Observation: Although Micah's original historical context is the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th Century BC, for two thousand years Christians have closely read Micah's words and connected them to the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Christians proclaim the same Christ who took on flesh in Jesus has actually existed since before time, "from ancient days."

Application: Happy Saint Nicholas Day. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey) in the fourth century AD and took part in the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, where a lot of what we consider "orthodox" Christian beliefs were settled. Nicholas famously got so angry at Arius, an Egyptian theologian who claimed that Christ came to exist only after God the Father and was God's creation, that he smacked him. Not a flattering story necessarily, but almost certainly true, and a reminder of what Nicholas believed was at stake.

There are a lot of traditions surrounding Nicholas: his charitable giving, the miracles he performed for sailors in distress, and of course the hundred or so later layers of mythology and hype which connect him to our modern-day "Santa Claus." In some parts of the world, his saint day is still celebrated by giving candy coins to kids who leave out their shoes, recalling a story in which he secretly gave dowry money to a family of daughters who were too poor to be married. In many circles, Nicholas is remembered as an example of Christian generosity and giving, reminding us it's "more blessed to give than to receive."

In all honesty, I thought about just picking a text other than this appointed one from Micah--maybe one about giving or sharing--and in my mind I could almost hear Nicholas saying "do it and so help me, I'll clock you."

You see, if there's any sense I get from the historical Nicholas of Myra, what he devoted his life to above all else was not understanding how we humans can be generous to each other in our little way, but rather the infinite depths of God's generosity to us--that Christ who existed from eternity, who has never not been, was willing to empty himself and become a human being, vulnerable, limited, tied to a certain place and time, to offer God's love to us in his life, death and resurrection. I think the real "St. Nick" would be very much on board with yielding "his" day to talk about that Christ--the one "from ancient days"--who gave his whole self for us.

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for the witness of your servant Nicholas, who pointed to your everlasting glory, and the amazing gift you gave to us in that little town of Bethlehem. Amen.     

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Revelation 18:1-3, Fallen is Babylon the Great

Observation: Although there's a lot of really confusing imagery in the Book of Revelation, one consistent image remains throughout, and that is "Babylon." Babylon was the name of the Empire that in the 6th century BC sacked Jerusalem and sent its people into exile. By the time when Revelation was written (late 1st century AD) it is a stock image of an unjust Empire. While John of Patmos could not overtly call out the unfair economic and military practices of the Roman Empire, it's pretty clear that "Babylon" definitely applies to Rome. But more generally, it applies to the excesses and injustices to which any human government is prone. John's Revelation makes clear that in the end, all unjust Empires will fall. 

Application: What a clash. I'm sitting here in the light of my family Christmas tree,  listening to the Vienna Boys' choir, yet feeling ill at ease. I'm concerned for the poor in this country. I'm concerned for the sick, especially those without affordable health care. I'm concerned about graduate students. I'm concerned about public school teachers. I'm concerned about nonprofit organizations that benefit from people's voluntary generosity. 

And if you think I'm only talking about the recent tax bill, some form of which it appears will eventually make it into law, that's not the half of it. It's definitely not the way I would have chosen to do things, had I been a legislator. But when it comes down to it, I don't think one particular law will completely turn the tide of our country's ability or will to care for the most vulnerable in our society.

I believe we as a society have Babylon in our hearts: the Empire that reigns when we look out for ourselves rather than those with less power than we have. This Empire is not identified by one political party or the other. It can't be voted in our out in any election. It's not a red or a blue problem. It's a human problem. Callousness and indifference to human suffering are not endemic to one half of the population: in some form or another, that figure lingers closer to one hundred percent. That is the Babylon that falls when Christ comes to dwell with us. Whether or not we realize it, it is we ourselves who we are praying to be dethroned when we pray that Emmanuel comes. 

If we want to stop taking part in the kingdom of Babylon--if we want a society that is based on compassion, where the widow and orphan are cared for, and all God's children have enough--that can happen today, no matter who is in power. It's not about a particular method of caring for the poor. It's about deciding as people of faith that whatever our human institutions choose to do or not do, our values lie with the poor. We don't get to ignore their plight: it's simply a question of how we choose to respond. 

Prayer: God, Emmanuel, may Babylon fall and may you be our king--first and foremost in my heart, and in the hearts of all who call you Savior. Reign in us, and call us out of Babylon. Amen. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

John 1:35-42 Andrew, Apostle

Observation: This text from the beginning of John's Gospel is appointed for the commemoration of Andrew the apostle, which is today. There are a lot of interesting traditions about Andrew, including that he went on to share the Gospel along the Black Sea as far as Kiev, and that he was martyred by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross (ouch!). He is the patron saint of about a dozen countries (including Scotland). But in the Gospels, he is best known for being Simon Peter's brother. Andrew is a disciple of John the Baptist who listens to John's declaration that Jesus is  the Lamb of God, and begins following Jesus around. After spending the day with Jesus, Andrew approaches Simon and they go to meet Jesus together. Andrew introduces Jesus to his closest disciple, and Simon Peter to his Savior. 

Application: I don't think I've ever been much of an early adopter. In seventh grade, when a friend of mine introduced me to the Dave Matthews Band, I didn't think much of them (this was toward the beginning of their career, and as the saying goes, "before they were cool"). They later grew on me...and I'm still a fan of their earlier stuff...but that's another story. 

Being an early adopter involves risk. It involves being perceived as a bit quirky, and being the one who won't shut up about this person or idea or band or trend that may end up being a flash in the pan. Sometimes you'll back the wrong horse. But as we learn from Andrew's story, sometimes early adopters are the ones who will introduce us to a whole new way of knowing God. They can be the first to be tuned in when God is doing a new thing. I am thankful (and I imagine Simon Peter is too) that Andrew was an early adopter. 

Prayer: God, thank you for the witness of Andrew the Apostle, and for all those bold servants of yours who won't shut up about their cool new ideas. May we see your light reflected in their boldness. Amen. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

John 5:19-40 Judgement and Life

Observation: Jesus is in the middle of an argument with the religious authorities after healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Jesus turns the conversation to his connection with his Father. While they follow the letter of the law, Jesus does what he sees his Father doing. Jesus says his Father has given judgment into his own hands. As the Father gives life, Jesus can also give life. A line that jumped out for me was "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they who testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life."

Application: For too long, Christians have made an idol out of the Bible.

We have the Reformation to thank for the idea of "sola scriptura," that scripture alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and teach. At its heart, this is a good idea, because it keeps us from being led astray by the whims and attitudes of  human leaders. It is good to have a high view of scripture as God's inspired word.

But it's important to remember that scripture gains its authority from Christ, not the other way around.  Too often we treat the Bible like a comprehensive rule book, as with the memorable but terribly misguided acronym, "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth." That's not what the Bible is at all. The Bible is not just a list of do's and don'ts. It's a witness to God's loving action in the world. Luther called it "the cradle in which the Christ child is found." I've said this hundreds of times, but it bears repeating: We don't worship Jesus because he's the star of the Bible. We read and cherish the Bible because we already have a life-giving relationship with Jesus. Scripture is a great place to find him, but it isn't the only one. 

Like the religious authorities of Jesus' day, we sometimes search the scriptures as though they are the only place where life can be found. And when we do that, we may find ourselves blind to other places out in the world where Jesus is at work, giving life. If we can't see him outside those pages, the true message of scripture isn't getting to us to begin with.

Prayer: Jesus, help us to find you not only in the text of the Bible, but in the text of our neighbor, our community, our world. Let us find you and trust in you there as well. Amen.  

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Esther 8:3-6 Pulling some strings

Observation: Esther pleads with her husband, the Persian king Ahasuerus, not to allow the plans of Haman, a court official, to go forward. If Haman has his way, the Jews in the land would all be killed.

Application: One of my favorite quotes from Esther is when Mordecai, a Jewish leader, says to queen Esther, "Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this." Had Esther, who is also Jewish, not been queen during this time, Haman's plans would have come to pass. Only because Esther uses her power and position to save lives, does Ahasuerus change his orders.

Most of us have some realm in our lives where we have some "pull," some influence.  The question is how we use it. Whether through our jobs, our family connections, our friendships, our standing in the community, hopefully everyone reading this has at least someone they can talk to who will listen to their concerns and maybe help make a change. If not, we at least have prayer, which is a direct line to God, open to all.

As I look at the various places in which I have some "pull," or at least where I'll get a fair hearing, I hope I can follow Esther's example and see my position as a gift from God, for the benefit of others in more vulnerable positions than I.

Prayer: God, help me use whatever position or influence you've given me the way Esther did: to lift up the defenseless. Amen. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

1Thessalonians 5:12-18 Infectious Holiness

Observation: As Paul closes his letter to the Thessalonians, he gives them lots of final advice for their life together. Three very short exhortations stick with me today: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances."

Application: I've been making a real effort recently to live into that word, "give thanks in all circumstances," and I've been inviting others to join me. In August, Advent's church council and I kept journals giving thanks to God for a few things every day. We invited the whole congregation to do the same in September. When October came, we actually included "Three Minutes of Thanksgiving" as part of our Sunday worship, and invited one member to share their thanksgivings and facilitate others' sharing thanksgivings too. Ironically, with Thanksgiving Day only two days away, my daily practice of giving thanks has dropped off. Guess it's not too late to pick it up again. 

But "pray without ceasing" is another thing again. It's hard to interpret what exactly that means. Of course you can't literally have your eyes closed and hands folded (or extended out, as I tend to do) all the time. There's a classic of Russian Orthodox spirituality called The Way of a Pilgrim, in which a Russian peasant learns the "Jesus Prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me") and repeats it to himself enough times where it becomes a running loop in his head, even as he goes about his life. I first learned about this book from J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, and it made an impression on me. The Jesus Prayer has been part of my prayer life on and off for at least ten years. 

There are definitely habits we can cultivate to help us strive for what Paul has in mind here, but not all of them will work equally well for all people, all the time. More than any one way of executing it, I think the vision he seems to have in mind is one to hang onto. 

Have you ever watched a movie, and the imagery of a particular scene stuck with you for a long time afterward? Or had a song in your head for days or even weeks at a time? Paul's vision for our joy, thankfulness and prayer is that it be similarly infectious. That whatever our practices of prayer and worship, that they stick with us through the day, and maybe even spread into the "regular" times in our lives where they're not "supposed" to be. That instead of trying to avoid negative thoughts and behaviors, our thankful, joyful and prayerful thoughts would infect more and more of our minds, setting them aside for God. If we need a mantra, we can do a lot worse than "Thank you Lord".

Prayer: Lord, kickstart my life of prayer and thanksgiving again this morning. Set aside more and more of my thoughts as holy, that my life can be a reflection of your reign here on earth. Amen.