When my eldest was in first grade, I received an email from his teacher one after-noon. The email from his first-grade teacher informed me that my son–the ever obedient, rubric hitting, perfectionism of epic first born status—had dropped the f-bomb in class. The email didn’t entail many details, but that the teacher wanted me to know so that I could address it at home. I spent a couple of minutes pondering the email. I had a few thoughts, as any parent would. I messaged his dad and let him know what had happened. Since I was the stay-at-home parent, I knew it was my duty to handle this situation. When my husband asked me what I was going to do, I told him I had it handled.
When Quinn came home, we sat on the couch and he did what he did every afternoon after school: he told me about his day. I waited, hoping he would tell me of his own volition about his rather bold and colorful vocabulary word used earlier that day. Nothing. “Anything else happen today worth noting…making mention of…sharing…” I tried leading him to tell me. Still nothing. Silence. Then I looked at him, and said, “I got an email from your teacher today…” I didn’t even finish the sentence before my son was a mess on the couch, weeping and apologizing and explaining what had happened. I held the sobbing heap of little boy while he told me the story. When he was finished and a bit more collected, I told him that I loved him. Then I said to him, let’s have a treat; how about a root beer float…
What caused that particular response from me? This: knowing my son well enough, I knew he had already suffered his consequence. The consequence had already been given, all I had to do was do what I love: comfort him. I didn’t need to bring more “command” and “demand” to his life, he didn’t need a follow up consequence. It was clear to me, in the way he was acting about the situation, that his error was known and felt. To add more consequence would be me adding an extra layer of condemnation to the situation that already (clearly) had condemnation. Adding more condemnation is adding threat where threat is already felt, and this leads to death.
Russian author, Dostoevsky, beautifully articulates the result of heaping threat upon threat, and condemnation upon condemnation in his brilliant novel Crime and Punishment. A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by its owner to pull said buggy packed with a lot of people. So many people that the buggy can’t move, no matter how hard the horse pulls. In the story, the master of the horse commands the horse to move. But the horse can’t. Then the whips come out. Nothing. The horse can’t move even though it is desperately trying. Then, in what appears to be a fit of maniacal rage, the master starts beating the horse with pipe and stick demanding and commanding it to move. The horse, after many noble attempts to obey and move the buggy, collapses, dead, under the blows.
More harshness, more cruelty, more demand, more threat, more fear never, ever, produces the thing that is desired. Being increasingly harsh and cruel, threatening and demanding with others and with ourselves will never ever get us the very thing desired. Threatening someone into compliance will only result in temporary surface obedience with eventual and corresponding, resentment running very deep. Hating yourself will only result in self-destruction: you can’t shame yourself into confidence.
I’ve said it before: it’s hard being human; why do we make it harder for others and ourselves? Our lives are fragile and fleeting…doesn’t life offer enough suffering of its own? Do we have to add unnecessary and additional pain and torment? Here’s a powerful secret: Love–(love love) love that goes to the depths with us in our worst–will always generate the very thing desired because it creates comfort and freedom for the beloved. Love doesn’t seek to gain obedience from the beloved, but love can’t help generating more love.
This love-love is the “comfort” Paul speaks of in our passage. And here’s the foundational truth to why I responded to my son the way I did: I’ve been radically loved to such an extent that my life is a 180 degree turn from what it was when I was encountered by God in the event of faith. At my worst, I was loved…as is…by God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And over the years, as that love has worked its way into my very being, I’ve grown more and more into the woman I am in Christ—faults and all.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)
At the end of the day love wins because Jesus the Christ, back on Calvary’s mountain, died, descended into hell and liberated into comfort and freedom those trapped under the weight of condemnation and threat—a liberation that is true from age to age to age.
A few years back, on a cold winter afternoon, I received a phone call from my across-the-street neighbor.
She wanted to give us some home-made rolls, fresh baked. Of course, I couldn’t resist. So, I put on shoes, grabbed my new born son, Jack, in my arms–wrapped in a blanket–and headed out. I didn’t even pause to consider our front porch stairs and the effects of the recent (that day) winter weather. As I stepped on to that first stair, I hit a patch of black ice. My feet went out from under me. I grabbed the railing to stop my fall, but to no avail, I still fell. I landed three stairs down. My heart raced. Was Jack OK?! I looked at him, still cradled in my arms; he let out a huge shriek. I then examined him from head to toe…not one scrape or bump or possible bruise did I find on his fairly small, 12 week old, newborn body. I did, as one does, praise the Lord.
Somehow, during the fall, my maternal instincts kicked in; somehow, I was able to contort and twist my body so that I was the one who absorbed the fall–between me elbow and me bum–and protected my baby. I didn’t think about it…it just happened. I have often wondered what I would do should I slip down the stairs carrying one of my babies…I have never been able to come up with a good “exit” plan. You don’t get training for such an event; you just hope it never happens. And, in that very real moment, love for my child poured forth un-summoned and I took the entire fall with my body.
I bore the pain in my body for my son when we fell. Love actively takes the other into its safe keeping because the well-being of the beloved is the well-being of the lover. Love bonds one to another in such a way that the beloved’s pain is the lover’s pain; the beloved’s joy, the lover’s joy. The lover grieves with the beloved, gets angry with the beloved, rejoices with the beloved. It is a full and embodied presence of the lover with the beloved, otherwise, it would be impossible for the lover to feel the grief, the anger, the joy of the beloved. As people encountered by God in the event of faith, we are deeply and intimately connected one to another, like a mother and her child. Your pain is my pain; your joy, my joy.
And so it is with Christ. Christ has loved us with a full-embodied, self-giving, love-gift. In this gift of love the love of God is given to us (to you, thus, to me), and the love of one for another. John’s Christ declares,
“‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. …You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,’” (John 15:12-14, 16-17).
The love of Christ for the world, drives him to take on flesh and to be born into the human predicament, the human problem. The Christ came into the world to identify in a real and embodied way the plight of humanity, the plight of the oppressed and marginalized, those stuck in situations dominated by the powers of sin and death. The pain of the beloved the lover feels; when Saul is persecuting the church, Jesus reveals himself to Saul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting…me?” Not: the followers of the way, or the young church….but me. In love the beloved is united to the lover and the lover feels to the core the pain and suffering, the joy and celebration of the beloved.
In your pain and in your suffering, you are not alone. In your joy and in your celebration, you are not alone. Not only are your family and friends here, and your teachers, but, more than that, almighty God of the cosmos is also present with you by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in you and among you, uniting you to the Christ by faith by God’s grace. To gaze upon the cross is to see God united in solidarity with you even in your suffering, with the suffering of all humanity, with the suffering of the world. To gaze upon the cross is to see love at work, love loving the beloved, in an embodied full way unto the depths of human experience: suffering unto death.
Beloveds, you are you are heard, you are seen, you are loved; you are the beloved.
There are longings in the heart we cannot define with words. We yearn for something or someone so much that our hands shake and our fingers ache to touch, feel, grasp and embrace, tightly. We cannot speak; caught in moments of deep longing, words do more violence than good we merely groan. We groan in the presence of love and desire, we groan under the weight of expectation and waiting, we groan under the pressure of demand and captivity.
When we feel we are stuck, we groan: another bill, *groan*, the car needs more repairs, *groan*, the house remains in disarray, *groan*, the fight happens…again, *groan*, the job steals more of your life, *groan*. Shame and regret, grief and sorrow, your nightly bedfellows…*groan*
Nationally and globally, more groaning: another bomb, another shooting, another threat, another fear, another contentious election just in time to divide families for the holidays. Many people in the world and in our country groan from hunger, cold, isolation, sickness, poorness, from racism, sexism, classism (etc.), from real captivity and physical oppression. *Groan*
Human existence is hard. So, we groan. When will this end? Some of us try to fight the feeling of doom through a positive attitude–faking it until we are making it. Some of us stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to hear the cries and groans of others (surely ours are loud enough). And some of us slip off into entertainment and extreme forms of destructive self-soothing (drugs, alcohol, food, money, sex, etc.). “The less I can see and hear, the less real the fear is,” goes the lie. “Ignorance is bliss!” proclaims desperation. Everything around us is burning down and we’re all, “To blessed to be stressed!” Human beings are remarkable creatures especially when we do not want to face the truth.
So, we numb. Check out. Look the other way. Stop caring. But numbing only works for a moment and isn’t a long-term solution. Before too long we need more and more and more….and in this numbing we deny our humanity because part of being human is suffering in the realm of compassion and empathy: to hear the cries of others, to acknowledge our own.
Something kinda sad about/The way that things have come to be Desensitized to everything/What became of subtlety? How can this mean anything to me/If I really don’t feel anything at all? I’ll keep digging/Til I feel something It’s not enough/I need more Nothing seems to satisfy I said I don’t want it/I just need it To breathe, to feel, to know I’m alive
Jesus Presented at the Temple
Luke tells us that Jesus’s parents, in obedience with the Law, bring him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord–it was custom for parents to bring their first-born sons. In the Passover event, God claimed all the first-born sons of Israel—from then onward—as his own. The redeemer has to be redeemed not because he is sinful; he’s not. He has to be redeemed because he is a first-born son of Israel. For the meager price of the lives of two turtle doves, Jesus’s poor parents and the young Jesus participate in the divine rescue plan for the cosmos. Luke is clear to portray this small family has followed the law: Jesus is the son of God and the son of Humanity.
And there was in Jerusalem a man whose name (was Simeon) and he was a righteous and God-fearing man who was awaiting/expecting the consolation/comfort of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him. (Lk 2:25)
Luke tells us Simeon is righteous and God-fearing; and, he was awaiting and expecting the comfort of Israel. One could say that Simeon wasn’t merely hoping for or occasionally thinking about this one to come, but was actively looking, eagerly waiting, anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of the warning from God made to him in v.26. (Simeon was warned to keep an eager eye out for the one to come who is the Christ, and this anxious awaiting would be his duty until that day came.) That day has come. A humble couple shows up at the temple with their son; Simeon lays eyes and hands on the long yearned for Messiah. Luke establishes Simeon as the reliable witness to this first-born son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth: this one is the consolation of Israel, the light unto the nations, the salvation of the world.
In fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, Jesus will not be a comfort to all; there will be those who come into conflict with the Christ, the savior of the Lord. Just like the prophets of old who stood in the midst of Israel calling out the rampant injustices and oppression caused by the leaders and rulers of Israel, so will Jesus. There are those in Israel who will trip over his teaching and his actions like a stumbling block; there are those in the nations who will consider his words and life foolishness. In ushering in the consummation of God’s divine dominion of peace and justice, mercy and humility through waging a cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death, Jesus, the Lord’s Messiah—God of very God—will come face to face with those who oppose the will of God. Thoughts will be exposed, deeds and intentions revealed, no one will be spared. Not even Mary herself can step in between her baby boy and the fate of some yet unknown sapling.
Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2)
The sword of God goes forth, brandishing its strength and power in steel and edge, dividing the people of Israel and the Nations, some on the left and others on the right. And the dividing line drawn will be between those who cause the will of God to go forward and those who stand in opposition. In Luke’s narrative account of the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and raised, it’s best to side with God’s will and never against it, for the oppressed and marginalized and not against them. “The way of the love with which God has laid hold of our hearts, and led us into tribulation, is the way of a hope that cannot be disappointed and will not be disappointed.” God deals justly with those who oppose him and oppress his people.
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:3-4)
The light of God shines brightly, illuminating with penetrating rays the just and unjust alike, revealing who is who. This light Immerses the world in the brightness of the reign of God, exposing our sickness and desperate situations, moving the world into light out of darkness. While in the dark we cannot tell who is who, in the light our deeds are exposed. We see the ground under our feet revealed for what it is: a mire from which we cannot become unstuck by our own power.
Human existence is hard. So, we groan. But rather than numb that groan, let us be lifted by the vocal vibrations, and, like a woman in the throes of labor, let us groan and push new life into a world being overrun by hopelessness, canceling, and just plain quitting. Let us be the midwives of God, participating in the divine glory established on earth by the first born of God, Jesus Christ through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and coaxing and urging new life into the world like the Hebrew midwives did so many 1000s of years ago as they stood in defiance of the oppression and tyranny and genocide of Pharaoh.
We who are encountered by God in the event of faith have active and abundant hope. As Rev Kennedy preached a few weeks we are defiant lights in the darkness bringing hope into the world. To build on the image, we are also verbal and active swords soberly battling against the powers of sin and death with and in God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because, everything here and in the cosmos belongs to God due to the totality of what Christ did…for the entire world.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21)
“For now already God’s Spirit is at work in us,” writes Helmut Gollwitzer, “…and through him the love of God which fills our hearts, our wills, and our thoughts, and sets them in motion.” We are bound and united together with Christ through the proclamation of the gospel, and it is this word that renders us to dust and recreates us into newness and fullness of life, into the absurd messengers of hope–the name of Jesus Christ–and thrusts us into the world to follow the footsteps of our Lord as the children of God. To quote EbonyJanice Moore, “[The] Earth is in literal pain waiting for me to show up.”
Beloved, the earth is pain waiting for you to wake up and show up. So, Let us love as we have been radically loved.
 Tool “Stinkfist” Aenima 1997; I took the liberty to reorder the chorus after the 2nd verse.
 Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK 2010. 41, “Throughout his Gospel, Luke presents Jesus as obedient to the Law and to the observances of Jewish religion. The one significant and repeated exception is when such observances, or the Law itself, are used to subvert God’s main commandment of love, in which case Jesus refuses to allow the Law to be used in such a way.” But his family are in fact good and faithful Jews.
 Gonzalez 41-2, This particular law that is being obeyed here: “In this particular case, the requirement was that every firstborn male child be redeemed—bought back—from God. This was based on the story of the Passover, when the angel of the Lord brought death to all the firstborn among the Egyptians, but ‘passed over’ the houses of the children of Israel, whose doors were sealed with the blood of a lamb. As result, God claimed possession of every firstborn male in Israel…” (Num 3:13).
 Gonzalez 42, “Curiously, Luke tells us that the Redeemer has to be redeemed, has to be bought back. This is not because he has sinned, but simply because he is a firstborn, and all the firstborn in Israel belong to God.”
 Gonzalez 42, “The paschal lamb that was sacrificed is a type of Jesus. Jesus himself is the new Passover, for in him God shows mercy to us. According to Luke and the other Synoptic Gospels, the last meal of Jesus with his disciples before the crucifixion is a paschal meal. It is there that he instituted the Lords Supper or Eucharist Here, at the presentation in the temple, another Passover theme appears: Jesus the firstborn is to be redeemed by the sacrifice of two turtledoves, and he will then redeem all humankind by his own sacrifice.”
 Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Ed. Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 141; Douglas qtd in Green. “Here Luke portrays Mary as faithful to the law, and his family as not wealthy. ‘Following the birth of a son, the mother was impure for one week after which she was bathed as a means of purification. Following this, she remained at a secondary level of impurity for thirty-three days, during which time she could touch nothing holy. She then presented an offering—if she were poor, two turtledoves or two pigeons (Lev 12:8; cf. 12:6).’”
 Green 140-1, “Hence, these ‘normal’ occurrences are laden with narrative purpose, redirecting attention to the plan of God, revealing again that Mary and Joseph are willing supporters of God’s aim, and certifying that Jesus will operate from within God’s purpose.”
And there was a warning by God to him by the Holy Spirit that he will not see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.
 Green 144, “This may be why the focal point of the characterization of Simeon in this narrative is his believability, In multiple ways-a character reference (from the unimpeachable narrator) supporting his piety, his status as an agent of the Holy Spirit, his physical location in the Jerusalem temple, and his capacity to borrow heavily from Isaiah to express his praise to God—Simeon presented as a reliable witness.”
 Green 143-4, “In particular, Simeon’s prophetic utterances surface Luke’s emphasis on the universality of the effects of Jesus’ mission. Simeon also introduces in the clearest way thus far the motif of conflict that will pervade the Lukan narrative. Not all will take the side of God’s salvific purpose; some, in fact, will oppose Jesus, God’s salvific instrument.”
 Green 145, …God’s mighty work exalts some, humbles others (1:52-53; cf. Isa 40:3). The vocabulary is absent, but the well-known image of God as the stone that causes God’s own people to stumble is echoed in Simeon’s words (cf. Isa 8:14-15; 28:13, 16).
 Green 145, Consolation as restoration of Is. Under reign of God used here specifically “Undoubtedly, then, this usage rests on the Isaianic context that is otherwise resoundingly echoed in Simeon’s Song. This anticipation is theocentric, emphasizing God’s intervention to deliver Israel from its enemies and so to usher in the epoch of peace under the peaceful, just dominion of God.”
 Green 146, “The ‘consolation of Israel’ of which Isaiah spoke was promised by God and related to his own, personal intervention in world affairs. For Simeon, who speaks for God, the coming of the ‘consolation of Israel’ is construed as the appearance of the Lord’s Messiah. It is still God’s aim reaching its consummation, but that purpose is being realized in the coming of God’s Son, the ‘Lord’s Messiah.’”
 Green 149, “Simeon emphasizes the identification of Jesus himself as this point of crisis, the one destined within God’s own purpose to reveal the secret thoughts of those who oppose the divine aim (cf. Luke 12:1-2).”
 Green 149, “The image of the sword, then, relates to Jesus’ mission of segregating those within Israel who embrace God’s salvific will from those who do not. In fulfilling this divine role, he will be opposed, just as God’s aim is opposed; indeed, the opposition will be such that it will reach as far as the experience of Mary.”
 Green 148, “Through God’s agent of salvation, people do not merely see evidence of the advent of God’s dominion, they are engulfed in it; they are, as it were, led from the dominion of darkness into the light.”
 Jürgen Moltmann “Claremont Lecture” qtd in Stephen D. Morrison Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English. Columbus, OH: Beloved Publishing, 2018. 213. “The key promise for the development of my eschatology is to be found in Isaiah’s vision: ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’ (6:3)”
 Moltmann qtd in Morrison, 222. “The confession of Hope has completely slipped through the church’s fingers…There can be no question of God’s giving up anything or anyone in the whole world, either today or in eternity…The end has to be: Behold, everything is God’s Jesus comes as the one who has borne the sins of the world.”
 W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017. 157. “The church exists as an earthly-historical community insofar as it is gathered together by this message, that is to say, insofar as this message penetrates through people’s privilege and produces new forms of life. These new forms of life are a necessary consequence of hearing the gospel message.”
Helmut Gollwitzer “Hope for the Hopeless” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edingburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. 103. Jesus Christ is a name of hope “And now with this hope, whither are we going? Not directly to heaven, but back into our earthly life, and that means into tribulation, into hopes that can be disappointed, into battles into which he sends us as his disciples, into the unpeaceful world as peacemakers, in to solidarity with the hungry and the enslaved and the prisoners.”
Christmas is over and now we are thrust into the day to day of regular life. Entering the second week of school, it can feel as if we never had Christmas break. Everything picks up where it seems to have left off. Even for me. Even though I’ve an entirely new grade of students sitting at my desks, it’s as if they were always there. Humans are quite remarkable that way: resilient. New becomes normal quickly.
But yet, the events of Christmas did happen. The baby was born. As someone who has had a baby (or a few), I know for a fact that life does *not* just go back to normal within in a day or two. It changes. Forever. And in light of Christmas, the life of the world changes. And yet we seem to skip right over it like we’re in some cosmic competitive game of religious hopscotch.
Our liturgical calendar doesn’t help us either. Liturgically, we moved from the epiphany—the affirmation of Jesus as God incarnate, the long-awaited Christ—to the baptism of Jesus–the affirmation of the affirmation, if you will. So, it would seem we’ve all just moved on from Christmas and are thrust headlong into the descent to Good Friday.
But there’s still Christmas work to be done. This is exactly what happens as Jesus is baptized. As Jesus is baptized and he is affirmed in his divine sonship and belovedness, he leaves the Jordan and will proceed with his ministry. For Jesus, there is Christmas work to be done—it isn’t strictly about getting to the cross as fast as possible. That event will happen and in its own time. But first, there’s healing, feeding, finding, and releasing that needs to be done. African American pastor, author, civil-rights activist, and theologian, Howard Thurman, writes,
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
However, I want to highlight something that isn’t in the text: I want to add a pause for a moment before we all head out of the Jordan and out of Christmas. Before we do anything, we have to find our footing in Christmas. Before we can even begin to appreciate and understand Easter, we have to locate ourselves in the event of faith in the encounter with God in the season of Christmas. To become substantial actors and doers of the work of Christmas, we must find ourselves encountered by God in Christ born a baby in a manager; we must be encountered in a way that undoes the very fabric of our preconceived notions of the world and of ourselves. Because it is in this encounter where we are brought to the end of the selves we think we are in a world we think we know and ushered into the selves we are but didn’t know in a world we hadn’t seen but see clearly now. We must first lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. We are of no earthly good unless we come to terms with who and what we are; we can’t pull someone else up if we don’t have our own good footing in our known strength and ability.
And in order to do this, we need a moment. We need a pause. And there’s no better week than this week—a week dedicated to your wellness. Take these next few days to just be, to just exist; to feel the sensations of the miracle of breathing, the exhilaration of physical existence, and the weight of emotional life. Take time to look and see, listen and hear, touch and feel; take time to notice the beauty of your friends and of your own wonderful and absolutely amazing creation.
Slow everything down. Live. Take that deep and much needed inhale and release a slow exhale. Be present. Receive and give. Rest. Press into being. Lean. Be aware of your mind and body. Be embodied. And remember you are loved. Beloved.
Have you ever been trapped? I have. I’ve been trapped by my big brother. As kids, he’d chase me through the house, yelling, “Pick your exits!” Meaning: make the choices you need to make to get outside. However, I’d panic and make just one irrational choice, and end up hiding deep in a closet or locked behind the bathroom door. Waiting…waiting for help or for the menace to leave.
I’ve felt trapped when as a young adult struggle against a destructive lifestyle that was running me into the ground. I was powerless against these forces that were controlling my days and night. No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from self-destructive behaviors. I was trapped and I need help, something or someone to intervene.
Have you felt trapped? Unable to break free? Liberty just so close but so far away?
I’ve felt trapped now, not always knowing what to do or how to move forward. Sometimes we put on a façade that things are all put together, but they aren’t always put together. False confidence, soothing and charming grins, and white lies pave our fool’s gold paved roads. Bills demand, cars break, foundations crack, family strains, and there seems to be no way through.
And I’ve not mentioned the world yet; feeling trapped and being trapped are realities in our world. Our world seems to groan and sigh under the weight of oppression and injustice, sicknesses and despairing unto death. The world and her inhabitants are weary to the point of death. As I’ve asked many times before: is hope lost?
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Is 35:3-4)
Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in words of hope; hope in darkness. In the chapter preceding the one read, God promises to execute judgment on the nations. Thus, God demonstrates his great power over the nations and his promise that a cosmic battle will ensue to defend his own. Those who come against the beloved, will have to contend with God himself and his retribution.i God does not play nice with those who use their power for evil, get drunk on authority and greed, oppress and willingly participate in the oppression of those who can’t help themselves. Mark Isaiah’s words: Zion will come to Israel; justice will flow; salvation will be Israel’s by the retributive power of God.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there. (Is 35:8-9)
Hemmed in on all sides, Israel can’t defend itself from the oppression of the surrounding nations and enemies. The oppressive nations and enemies will be parted like the waters of the red sea at the boarder of Egypt; God will usher Israel out of enslavement and captivity into Zion, life, and salvation. As if lead by the hand through that verdant garden nearly forgotten, God will walk Israel through a deadly desert on his road, protected on every side.ii
Israel will not travel on just any road, but on the “Holy Way,” the golden road paved by God himself.iii And this road is for Israel and Israel alone; for those called and sought for by God, those freed and liberated by God, those whom God defends and rescues. It is these who are the clean and pure who are in God’s company.iv Isaiah prophesies, “Behold, God’s on the move; ‘He will come.’ All will be well; keep your hope, small nation.”v
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!vi
This movement, this divine arriving, this promise all will be well is the crux of Advent. We wait, along with Israel, for the great “Holy Way” of God to be made before us, for God to place our feet upon its firm foundation. With Israel, strengthening our hands and our feeble knees, fortifying fearful hearts we wait for our God. And in a way no one expected, he shows up. He shows up in tangible redeeming love.vii
It’s in the arrival of a vulnerable baby, the one born of Mary, who will be the way, the truth, and the light through the deadly desert into Zion and Salvation. It will be upon his back our burdens will be laid as we walk unburdened out of our cages and our captivity into liberty and freedom. It will be by his hand we are led into God’s presence, where the unclean become clean, the slave become free, and the lowly are lifted. The birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the one pined for under the weight of sin and error is the advent of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death running rampant in the world. It’s in Christ, born in a manger, where those trapped reach out and grab not cold, restraining metal (bars and chain-link), but the warm, liberating, loving hand of God, and who are brought into great joy and gladness, into rest and peace, into life our of every present death.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!viii
iBrevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255. About chapters 34 and 35, “The relation is that of a reverse correspondence and together they summarize the two major parts of the Isaianic corpus: God’s power over the nations, and the exaltation of Zion for the salvation of Israel. The crucial decision to make regards the peculiar function of these chapters in their present position. Chapter 34 picks up from chapters 13-23 the call to the nations to bear witness to God’s sovereign power and to his imminent cosmological retribution. The geographical sweep is far broader than in chapters 28-33. Already the rod of punishment has been transferred from Assyria to Babylon (13:15), and the proud boasting of Assyria before its destruction (chapters 36—37) is paralleled by the taunt against the king of Babylon (chapter 14).
iiJSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc ZviBrettler (Oxford: OUP 2004). 852. “This ch [35[ is the converse of the previous one: In ch 34, a land inhabited by Judah’s enemies becomes a desert; in ch 35, the desert is transformed so that Judean exiles in Babylonia can pass through it with ease on their journey to Zion. Normally, travelers from Babylonia to the land of Israel would move northwest along the Euphrates, then southwest through Syria, avoiding the route that went directly west through the impassable desert. But this prophecy insists that the exiles will be able to go directly and quickly through the desert, because the Lord will provide water and safety for them there. This passage borrows extensibly from Jeremiah’s prediction of the exiles’ return in Jer. 31.7-9. It amplifies that prediction, while changing its historical referent from another (Israelite) exiles in Assyria to southern (Judean) exiles in Babylonia. It also deliberately recalls the vocabulary of Isaiah 32.1-6.”
iii Childs 256. “The same typological tendency to transcend the specificity of earlier texts and to extend the prophecy in a more radically eschatological mows cam to in chapter 35. The same imagery of Second Isaiah recurs–the eyes of the blind opened, the transformation of the wilderness, the highway for the returnees–yet the images have increasingly taken on a metaphorical tone. The highway is not just a means of improving the route home, but now is portrayed as a holy path reserved for the pure of heart.
iv JBS 856 “No on unclean: Since God would personally accompany the exiles (v. 4), they would have to be in a state of ritual purity.”
vChilds 257. “…chapter 35 immediately launches into an elaborate portrayal of the salvation of Israel. The imagery is not only closely related to that of chapters 40ff.—the desert blossoming, the joyful singing, the seeing of Yahweh’s glory—but the vocabulary of v. 4 offers a parallel to 40:9-10: ‘Behold, your God! He will come.’”
viOh Holy Night
vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”
Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame
Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me
Ouch I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe…Sia “Breathe Me”
This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.
The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.
But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”
The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.
The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed? College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.
This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.
During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.
*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.
I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.
In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”
You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.
In the midst of a book that is primarily  comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel,  why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?
Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.
Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.
The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).
This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.
That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.
And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.
The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.
Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.
1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study BibleTanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc ZviBrettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004.
2 Walther Eichrodt,Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451)
3“The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible).
*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.