Sunday, December 18, 2016

Isaiah, Ahaz, and the End of the Beginning

A sermon for St. Luke's, Madison, preached December 18 on the 4th Sunday of Advent. The lessons appointed for the day are:
Well, we’ve made it to the end of the beginning. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. The next time you’re in church, it will probably be Christmas. With any luck, Advent has done its work of slowing us down and inviting us to the good work of true preparation. Not just ribbons and gifts but the soul and new life and responsiveness to God. 

Advent goes about this peculiar work each year through an unusual, if predictable, cast of characters. Of course there’s the holy family. Mary, Joseph, the baby she carries. There are the weird stories Jesus tells during Advent about people disappearing in fields, warnings that God is like a thief in the night, the fall of the temple, and all that precedes the end. You know, bedtime stuff for kids. There’s that sharply dressed, camel-hair-wearing young man (with the beautiful beard) named John, fixed on the banks of the Jordan River, eating bugs. And of course there are smaller cameo appearances by Elizabeth, Gabriel, etc. But before we skip to the cameos, there’s at least one more in the mix, among the principle actors, prone to being overlooked, so steady and regular we are likely to take him for granted. But alongside Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, John the Baptist, and the unknowability of the end of time, Advent rightly makes room for Isaiah.

The truth is, Isaiah is the source of some of the best Advent material. That shoot and stump picture from a couple of weeks ago? The branch and green leaf sprung up from the root? Isaiah. How about, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given?" Isaiah again. “And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And Handel says, “Thank you!” All of it, Isaiah. And not just the happy bits. The babe born on Christmas will of course grow up, and we’ll follow him. We’ll follow him all the way to the night before he dies, Maundy Thursday, and on that day Isaiah will be there to meet us again. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” From Isaiah 53. And on that day we’ll read the whole psalm.

Like a good iPhone app you take for granted, Isaiah has been running quietly in the background this whole Advent. In fact, today’s is one of the shorter readings from Isaiah, just a snippet. A curious day maybe to highlight the prophet, but today’s short reading from Isaiah gives us everything we will want to remember when we do get to the great and holy feast we are about to celebrate. But maybe that reading came just enough minutes ago that you need a refresher. It was the first reading. No worries. I’ve got your back.

In the first reading today, Isaiah shows up and offers Ahaz a pretty good deal. This is where a lot of folks check out. Who’s Ahaz? Why should I care? (Can I get an 'amen'?) Ahaz is the King of Judah. Do you remember how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt? And how some time later the people of Israel told God they wanted a king? And God wasn’t wild about the idea, but God eventually said yes? Well, it didn’t take long for the kingdom to split and soon there were two kingdoms of Israelites. Two kingdoms of people delivered by one God out of slavery in Egypt. Israel and Judah. Ahaz is the king of Judah. 

So Isaiah goes to Ahaz. And he tries to give Ahaz the kind of blank check with God that most of us would kill for. He says, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ask for a sign. Name it. Anything goes. And I don’t know about you, but I want that deal! Not sure about the new job? Want a sign that it’s really for you? Uncertain about a relationship, or the next stage of your life and the decisions before you and which paths will lead to flourishing? In the face of despair, do you long for some signal, a wink, to tell you that God hears your cries - the cries you won’t cry for anyone else - could you stand some assurance that it might, in the end, work out after all? This is the kind of promise Isaiah puts before Ahaz. As deep as Sheol or high as heaven, he says. But Ahaz refuses and in a way that might sound familiar. “I will not put the Lord God to the test,” he says. And this should sound familiar. Jesus uses these same words to answer the temptations of the devil in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. I will not put the Lord God to the test. This echo of Jesus makes Ahaz sound almost noble. But Isaiah is no Satan and Ahaz is not noble. But it takes a little background to see why. That’s right! You deserve the full story.

The full story is that Israel’s armies are coming after Judah. Israel has allied with Aram, no relation to the other two, who is also coming after Judah. Two against one. They are coming after Judah because Judah refused to partner with them to protect themselves from the mighty Assyrians. Judah hears they’re coming and is terrified; the kingdom of Judah prepares for the worst. God speaks to Ahaz, the king, through Isaiah and says, “Listen up, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands.” Through Isaiah, God promises that the evil threat won’t come to pass. But then Isaiah warns Ahaz, listen up, “If you don’t stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all.” And that’s when Isaiah, reading the body language of Ahaz - sensing that he’s not really buying it - says, “I know you’re finding trust hard right now. Please trust. Ask God for a sign to make it easier for you to trust! War might seem better, but your God will protect you. Wait on the Lord. Seek God, stand with God, and God will stand with you.” So when Ahaz finally gets around to saying, “I will not put the Lord to the test,” he may sound pious, but what he is really saying is, “No, thanks. I have put my trust somewhere else, thank you very much.” And of course it won’t be the last time a person hides behind piety in order to not trust God. That “somewhere” else Ahaz is trusting? It’s Assyria, who will in the very near future drive both Israel and Judah into exile. Before too long, historically speaking, the holy city of Jerusalem will fall.

But here’s the crazy thing. When Ahaz refuses God’s blank check offer through Isaiah, God doesn’t take back the offer. Instead, God writes out the check; God gives the sign: the young woman will be with child and bear a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel. This will be the sign. The promise still stands. The lands of Judah’s enemies will be deserted. But there is also judgment of Judah’s refusal to trust the promise. Judah’s own land will be deserted, too.

If it all sounds a little too BC for you, consider that we might not be so different from Judah’s king, Ahaz. We may not call ourselves besieged by enemies, though we may, if we’re honest, sometimes well feel like that; but we almost certainly do find ourselves, like all people, entangled in conflicts - maybe like Judah, even with family, people who were supposed to be close to us - and sometimes we’re conflicted within ourselves and the relationships feel suddenly serious, like they might take everything away from us. A flash of panic as a mix of outside circumstances, perceived betrayals, threats, and broken promises (sometimes our own) conspire to undo us. And there it is, in that flash, the very real prospect of losing it all. Have you been there? And it can seem like there’s no future, no way out, and so you enlist any and all available powers. Grab the big stick! Go for the kill. Make exceptions to your principles and the practices of your faith. Violence? No, not normally, but you know, under these circumstances…Just this one-

To which Isaiah says, ‘no!’ Trust God even in the furnace of your fears. Or where else is trust really trust? "Stop, God’s People," he says, "and count to ten." Return to the principles, those faithful practices, shaped by the story of God and your trust in God’s promise, the practices that, when you felt threatened, you’d rationalized away and traded for expediency. Put down the swords. Look up to the hills. Return to the Lord. Trust in God. Unclinch your fists, says Isaiah. Trust in God. Remember Moses and Egypt and God’s bringing you out. Trust in God. Sing the old hymns. Trust in God. Lift up your hearts. Trust in God. Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Trust in God. Give of your wealth. Trust in God. Dream new dreams. Trust in God. Love your enemies. Trust in God. Proclaim the new kingdom. Trust in God. Take this bread. Trust in God. Make room from the stranger. Trust in God. Stand with the poor and the prisoner. Trust in God. Drink the cup of forgiveness ’til it’s empty. Trust in God. And guess what, it won’t go empty. Trust in God. 

It takes some thinking through, to trust in God. Because every “yes” to trust in God means at least one “no” to the shortcut you and I were going to take without him. So take the time to think it through. Because here’s the crazy thing: when Ahaz refuses God’s blank check offer through Isaiah, God doesn’t take back the offer. Instead, God writes out the check; God gives the sign: the young woman will be with child and bear a son, and she shall name him Emmanuel. 

As we approach the coming Christmas feast, see the babe for what he is: the sign that God can be trusted and that, trusting God, it is not just the babe, but us, too, who are born to new life on that day.



With gratitude for Michael J. Chan's helpful commentary on the context of the lesson from Isaiah.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Why Do We Lock Our Doors?" (and other questions I wish they'd ask their mom)

My wife likes to remind me that she gets the kids' hardest questions. Whether this is a function of the amount of time the three of them spend together or her being (sometimes to her chagrin) our youngest child's safe place in this world is tough to say, but there's no denying that the questions about death, sex, politics, and war mostly fall to her. The kids are probably better for it; Rebekah is sensitive and kind in a way that escapes all describing.

I did get *the* hardest question, though. Maybe the most theological, too. I mean, Bek still wins on accumulated points but, as a stand alone question, I'd put this one next to any of the others. The kids and I were backing out of the driveway on the way to school one day, flirting with timeliness in our customary way, when one of the kids off-handedly asked, "Dad, why do we lock our doors?"

"Which doors?" I asked, playing stupid.

"All of them. Cars. House. And not just us. Why does everyone lock their doors?"

I honestly don't remember what I said. I bet it was awesome, age-appropriate, and "just right."

I do remember my fist thought as their questions flashed through my mind:
To keep people out. Duh. Because people struggle - we struggle - to trust one another. So we habituate mistrust.

We rightly recognize these habits as unfortunate, if not unnatural. These words from Jean Vanier, though, reveal both those habits' full cost and the wonderful truth that it need not be so, for he opens up the possibility that trust is not just earned; it can be given and made known in one another:
To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them. (1)
Of course, naming the beauty of things and people will also require habits. New habits. How does such re-habituation begin?

(1) In From Brokenness to Community (1992).

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Story of the Stump (& the God of the God-forsaken)

A sermon for 2 Advent and the baptism of Paige Carrie Neils. These are the readings appointed for the day:
This is the story of a stump. Before we get to the story, we should clarify that stumps are not just tiny trees. Stumps are dead trees. That is, stumps are trees that have no hope of standing tall or branching out or becoming homes for birds. This is not to disparage stumps, which are fine for other things, like sitting on and fishing from. Stumps are lovely things for high school sweethearts to engrave with their initials, cupid’s arrow sketched between them. (Awwww.) Beyond this, though, stumps don’t hope for more. What can be is only what already is. Stumps are the ultimate realists.

And there might be a kind of admirable, zen-like contentment in the practical resignation of stumps, except that most stumps didn’t get there by themselves. Stumps don’t stump themselves. Most stumps are made into stumps by outside forces, like lightening, forest fires, and lumberjacks. To be a stump is to have had your dreams to stand tall and branch out and become homes for birds cut short from the outside. There is grief to being a stump. And probably other emotions, too. Self-pity, maybe, if you let it. Resentment, possibly, also, along the way. Justified anger. To be a stump is to be at the end of reasonable hope not because you are jaded or cynical, but because even good stumps don’t grow tall. Don’t branch out. Don’t become homes for birds. Stumps grieve not because they don’t have faith but because what they had faith in appears to have failed them.

But sometimes even hopeless stumps are unexpectedly found by hope. A stump with a shoot and a green leaf on top. A branch coming out of the root, a sharer of the same life as the once proud tree. This is the story of one such stump. 

The stump’s name was Israel. And the shoot’s name was Emmanuel, “God with us.” 

The stump was a kingdom of people whose identity had been forged through God’s deliverance of the people, out of slavery in Egypt. It was in that escape that Israel first discovered the new possibilities of God. As Egypt’s armies closed in from the one side and the waters of the sea blocked the people from the other side, Moses raised his staff, God parted the waters, and the people walked across on dry land. Where there had been no way, God made a way. The people walked across on dry land.
That young sapling, safely delivered from Egypt, wandered through the wilderness and eventually entered the land of promise. It took some time to get there and, by the time it did, Israel was a strong, mature tree. Strong and mature enough to want some independence, as both parent and child can appreciate. (My seven year old daughter is already practicing her eye rolls, but she tells us it’s just practice.) So God granted Israel’s request for a monarch, and the kingdom was official. But only a few generations later one kingdom had become two kingdoms and some generations after that, one of the kingdoms was conquered by outside armies, erased from the unforgiving map of history. Some generations after that, the Babylonians sent Israel into exile, took Israel’s promised land, and desecrated the holy places that had served to reconnect the people of Israel to the story of their deliverance and the God of new possibilities. After the exile, the new possibility - the promised land - to which Israel had once thought God was delivering them was no more. Israel was undone, cut down, overrun with grief. Israel was a stump of a once proud tree. And you’ll remember that stumps grieve not because they don’t have faith but because what they had faith in appears to have let them down. Most all of us have been there, I think. It is an agonizing place to be.

In the midst of this grief, this exile, Isaiah prophesies the twig and green leaf. I bet people laughed, if they weren’t too insulted, if they weren't just to angry. But Isaiah was insistent: where there was no way, God was making a way, the branch from the root, a new thing, a sharer in the same life of once proud tree. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

And so in Matthew’s gospel we find John the Baptist today, standing all scraggly and very John-like on the muddy banks of the same river Israel had crossed all those years before to enter the land of promise, announcing the nearness of God and the reign of the One who will baptize the people again with the Spirit of the surprising shoot that came from the left-for-dead stump. 

And the first thing I want you to see is that it’s the twig from the stump that sings the glory of God. Not the rose from the rose bush in the yard of the obnoxious neighborhood master gardner - big deal! - but God’s glory is in new life no one saw coming. The encouragement here is that God will find God’s people no matter the depth or the distance God has to go to find them. You don’t have to masquerade in a fake respectability, say you’re doing fine, to be found by this God. You don’t have to have it mostly together and just need a little extra God-boost. Painting things rosier than they really are actually does a disservice to the One whose glory is made known in the redemption of the left-for-dead places. Let there be no sugar-coating of pain. But let the psalmists’ honest prayers be your own, when you need them. And at other times, hear them from the lips of others. Our God is the God of the God-forsaken. This God calls us to risk foolishly vulnerable, fall on your face, trust in the One who comes like new life at the death of a dream. 

That’s the witness of that first Easter morning. Jesus, pierced. Dead on the cross. Descended to the depths. The deepest depths. Beyond all hope. Now, even before the sunrise names the new day, he’s alive. Risen from the tomb. Mary, at the tomb, beside herself in grief, stumbling among rocks, watering the garden with tears, because his death was almost like dying herself. It was the death of her love and her hope. Until he stands before her, that beautiful, bright green leaf. Until she mistakes him for the gardener and he is, in a way, and also the blossom that gives life to all the rest. Until he speaks her name. And now the shoot from the stump is healing the wounds of the first tree in that first garden, Eden. The hopeless have been found by hope, and the very hopelessness of the hopeless now names the breadth and depth, the wideness, of the ocean deep love of God.

From now on and forever, naming the honest hardness of life and spotting God at work in the world are not mutually exclusive activities for the people of God. From now on and forever, proclaiming God’s forgiveness and justice can be coexisting priorities. From now on and forever, we can stand with the ones on the margins, the ones fearful that the promise can’t reach them, won’t reach them, and wait with them, work with them, for the God who died as one of them. From now on and forever you can point to the stump and still proclaim the triumph of the tree. Standing tall, branching out, becoming homes for birds.

It’s into all of this that we are about to baptize Paige Carrie Neils. The depths of the water and the surprising new life. The wandering and the promise. Paige will be baptized, like all of us are baptized, into the death and resurrection of Jesus. And just like stumps with unexpected branches, no less than Martin Luther wrote that infant baptisms are the best kind of baptisms because they make the most room for God to make God’s glory known. For surely when we are weakest, we can make no boasts of ourselves, but it is clearer to us for our weakness that the faithfulness belongs to God. So in strength and in weakness we keep our eyes open for the stirring of God, and we speak what we see when we see it. We testify to the goodness of God. This is not an elective course for people of the living God. We speak what we see, we give thanks. We name and we celebrate the way God has made, even when it seemed there was no way.

So, like dear Paige, with dear Paige, we will follow the Way. We will make our home near this table, as holy friends. In rhythms of faith, Word and Sacrament, we will grow in God, in God’s time, standing tall. Branching out. Opening ourselves, to God, friends, and strangers, for whom we pray this community might also be home, just as we have found and made our homes in Christ together. We will, with God’s help. And we thank God he does.


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