Solidarity to Love and Liberate

Psalm 29:10-11 God sits enthroned above the flood; God sits enthroned as Creator for evermore. God shall give strength to God’s people; God shall give God’s people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

Coming off of abundant spontaneous good will and festivity of the Thanksgiving-to-New Years season can be a letdown, a big one. So, in the gray of January we find ourselves seemingly dropped off at the curb in the wind and ice of winter. Lights are still up for now…but they will slowly come down over the next few weeks. Brightly lit trees will go the way of compost. The beautiful candles of our Jewish siblings celebrating their sacred festival of lights have long been blown out. Presents have ceased to come in; Christmas cards, too…even the late ones… *clears throat. School’s looming return draws nigh, work summons us return, and the “normal” grind resumes.

(In fact, we all know that depression and self-harm surges during this time after the holiday season. If you’re feeling that dip, that dark cloud, that existential sadness, please know you, beloved, are not alone; please reach out and ask for help. The cheer might have died down, but love for you has not died down in the least.)

So, in the midst of packing up the remnants of celebration we need something to divert our attention. Some good news. We need something that transcends our limitedness of time and place, something that is independent of our calendar, something that is outside of us, something that can call us to look out, away from ourselves, and wonder…We need something or someone who stands with us even when it feels like everything has just left us…

Matthew 3:13-17

But John was obstinately preventing him saying, “I, I have the need to be baptized by you, and you, you come to me?” And answering, Jesus said to him, “You permit this moment, for in this way it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then [John] permits him. And after being baptized, Jesus at once came up from the water and, behold, the heavens were being opened for him, and he saw the spirit of God descending as if it were a dove and coming upon him…[1]

Mt 3:14-16

Here, Matthew invites us to look upon Jesus’s baptism by John in the River Jordan. Matthew’s account focuses less on the scene surrounding the baptism, and more on the interaction between Jesus and God in this moment of solidarity with humankind.[2] Jesus traveled from Galilee to/toward (πρὸς) John who is waist deep in the Jordan baptizing people to wash them of their sin. In other words, Jesus doesn’t stumble upon John, his buddy, his relative, and think he’ll just pop into the Jordan real quick for a little visit and, heck, why not get baptized, too. This is an intentional journey, a divine intentional journey.

Thus why John is both surprised and resistant to Jesus showing up and getting baptized. Even though John opened up the idea of baptism to incorporate everyone (lay and leader alike),[3] he didn’t intend to open it up this much. This doesn’t make sense, Cuz, we both know you aren’t like the rest who come to me, you are the not-so-regular one! John’s resistance makes sense and is, from our perspective, theologically accurate: I, John, have the need to be baptized by you! John knows who Jesus is; but Jesus knows that his solidarity with humanity[4] necessitates participating in this moment, this event, this encounter with God in humility and dependence. This is why Jesus commands[5] John to allow it: it is necessary and right and good so to do.[6] For this righteousness that must be fulfilled is the very will of God—it is divine vindication of the oppressed, it is deliverance for the captives, it is salvation for the dying,[7] and it’s for God’s people.[8] The one who stands before John is the representative of the people.[9] Jesus is thoroughly of the people for the people; and this is part of the mission of divine love in the world born those many years ago in a meager cave among animals and shepherds.

But Matthew doesn’t stop with the solidarity of Jesus with humanity. There is one more move up his story-telling sleeve: Jesus is also the human in solidarity with God. As soon as Jesus came up from the water, the heavens tore open making way for the descent[10] of God’s spirit as if it were a dove. Once again, a dove is sent out over the waters to find a place to land, and it lands; this time, though, it lands not on some long unseen tree-branch rising from the departing waters, but on the long promised shoot from the stump of Jesse parting the waters.[11] And in this moment, God speaks, And behold a voice out of the heavens saying, “this is my beloved son, in him I am well-pleased.” Make no doubt about it, those who were merely bystanders partially wet, hanging out in the Jordan on that day, were ushered in as witnesses to Jesus’s divine sonship; everything that happens from this moment on, is as God’s mission[12] of love in the world.[13]

Conclusion

Just like on Christmas, we are invited again to come and see. This time our location is not a cave, but in the water; it is not among animals and shepherds but a host of other “regular” people ushered into the event. And we witness what was long hoped for all those years ago: God in solidarity with humanity, humanity in solidarity with God. We are beckoned to come and see and witness this great moment pointing to what will come when Jesus will (once again) stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, the captives and those sentenced to death.[14]

Remember, on Christmas Eve, I said:

“That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.”[15]

In this moment, told to us by a voice located in ages past, we are reminded love didn’t just show up once; it kept showing up. God’s relentless mission of divine love in the world didn’t end when the curtains closed on Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds and animals. It kept going, it kept growing, and now it stands in the River Jordan baptized by John to demonstrate that God’s righteousness is made full not only through incarnation but through deep, deep solidarity with humanity, and it won’t stop not even in the face of death.

As soon as Jesus leaves the Jordan the divine mission of hope, of peace, of joy, and of love is on the move and nothing will ever be the same again.

Come and see the one baptized as you are, Beloved. Come and see a new story on the move. Come and see a better way to live.[16] Come and see divine love do the only thing it knows to do: love and liberate the captives, to love and stand with you and never ever forsake you.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 118. “But for Matthew the importance of the event is not in the baptism itself, but in the revelation which follows it, which culminates in the declaration that Jesus is God’s unique Son, a theological position which has been assumed in 2:15 but is now brought into the open.”

[3] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “In extending this practice to everyone, John is in effect declaring that everyone stands in need of conversion, signaling their repentance and turning to God. Even the religious leaders stood in need of baptism.”

[4] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 50. “One way we might understand Jesus presenting himself for baptism is as a sign of his solidarity with sinners. In this context, ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ is to be with God’s people, stand in their place, share in their penitence, live their life, die their death.”

[5] ἂφες aorist active imperative 2nd person singular (verb). Jesus is telling John to let it happen.

[6] France, Matthew, 119. “The substance of Jesus’ reply is clear enough: John is to overcome his scruples and carry out the baptism requested. Whatever may be their ultimate relationship, this is the right course ‘for now,’ and Jesus will be, now as throughout the gospel, perfectly obedient to the will of God. But the explanation given does not spell out why this is ‘the right way for us to fulfill all that is required of us.’”

[7] Case-Winters Matthew, 50. “We might also inquire into the meaning of ‘righteousness.’ In the Hebrew Scriptures the term (tsedaqah) is not so much about sinless perfection as it is about right relationship and the fulfilling of covenant obligations. It is about the establishment of God’s will that justice should prevail everywhere. God’s righteousness is connected with ‘vindication,’ ‘deliverance,’ and ‘salvation’ (tsedaqah is alternately translated by these terms). God’s righteousness is seen in God’s special regard for those who are powerless or oppressed and stand in need of justice.”

[8] France, Matthew, 119. “The usage of dikaiosyně (which I have translated ‘what is required’) elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel indicates a basic meaning of the conduct which God expects of his people.”

[9] France, Matthew, 120. “The most obvious way in which Jesus’ baptism prepares for his mission is by indicating his solidarity with John’s call to repentance in view of the arrival of God’s kingship. By first identifying with John’s proclamation Jesus lays the foundation for his own mission to take on where John has left off. Further, as Jesus is baptized along with others at the Jordan, he is identified with all those who by accepting John’s baptism have declared their desire for a new beginning with God.”

[10] France, Matthew, 121. “Isa 63:19 (EVV 64:1) asks God to tear (LXX anoigō, as here) the heavens and come down to redeem his people. The opening of heaven is the prelude to the divine communication which follows and especially to the visible descent of the Spirit.”

[11] France, Matthew, 122.

[12] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “Just as God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus’ conception (Matt. 1:18) and now in his baptism (3:16), so the Spirit will lead him throughout his ministry. The first stop is the wilderness into which Jesus is ‘led up by the Spirit.’”

[13] France, Matthew, 124. “[God] is declaring in richly allusive words that this man who has just been baptized by John is his own Son in whom he delights. From this point on Matthew’s readers have no excuse for failing to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry, however long it may take the actors in the story to reach the same Christological conclusion (14:33; 16:16; 26:63-64). It will be this crucial revelation of who Jesus is which will immediately form the basis of the initial testing which Jesus is called to undergo in 4:1-11: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ (4:3, 6). And there, as in the account of the baptism, Jesus’ sonship will be revealed in his obedience to his Father’s will.”

[14] W. Travis McMaken Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis, MN: 2013. 227 “…Jesus’ submission to baptism by John was not only expression of solidarity with sinful humanity. It was also a substitutionary event wherein Jesus acted in the place of sinful humanity… In submitting to John’s baptism of repentance in view of impending eschatological judgment, Jesus Christ not only acted with but also as sinful humanity, displacing that humanity and enacting the repentance required of it. He was baptized in our place. But Jesus’ baptism was not merely the first step on a road that would lead to a substitutionary work on the cross’ rather, it was itself a substitutionary act that with his work on the cross constitutes Jesus Christ’s saving history….In a way, Jesus’ baptism by John and the following descent of Spirit is a prolepsis of the whole saving history of Jesus Christ—and perhaps especially of his death resurrection and sending of the Spirit—that stands at the beginning of his actively messianic ministry.”

[15] https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/24/love-changed-everything/

[16] Ref. to Helmut Gollwitzer’s sermon “Reason at Last, of Another Kind” from The Way to Life: Sermons in a time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.

Love Changed Everything

[1]Psalm 96: 11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein.

A New Hope

Mary was very pregnant that night. She probably looked as she felt…exhausted. As far along as she was, everything ached. I imagine her deep and profound desire to lie down and rest. There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. She was just another pregnant person. How many other pregnant people were seen that night? How many other babies were born that night? How many children born before this one? No one in Bethlehem felt the urgency to make sure she was well cared for; no one had the time or the space to make room for her. That night, there wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in crisp air of a Bethlehem night. Is this all there is for me and my baby? Exhausted eyes survey the meager estate. Nascent maternal guilt blossoms in hope’s absence, mom whispers her first I’m sorry to her enwombed beloved. I wish I could give you more

When the contractions started, Mary gave herself over to them; she had no choice, she was now in service to life. As she labored on earth, the host of heaven was still. The entirety of the divine residence of angels and archangels watched with bated breath as this woman did a regular thing: bear her first child, a son… But what the host of heaven knew was this: this regular body and this regular act of birth were bringing for this not-so-regular child…the son of God, the prince of peace, the one of ancient of days, the humble judge, the embodiment of divine love, and a new story for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as Mary brought him forth out of darkness into light so he would be the light going into the darkness, the word piercing the silence, the divine reply to ages of human longing stuck in sorrow, pain, suffering, and captivity, those who cried out through clenched teeth and broken hearts: is there something more? Is there something better than this!? Those too exhausted to hope.

God chose this body and this regularity of being born to enter the world and identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could’ve shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved from the beginning of life unto the end. It is this divine child born of Mary, this one who is God of very God, who will stand in solidarity with humanity and change the trajectory of everything with a new Word.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it, hope.

A New Peace

Mary wasn’t alone that night, walking steadily into that event, one step at a time. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was going about his regular life before God intervened and shuffled everything. Now he was moving along with Mary, the one who was to bear the son of God into the world and he…trusted? Somehow, this was all the work of God, yet he questioned everything. But, even still, he walked with Mary. He walked with this mother of this child that was not his. Will God actually show up, like the Angel promised? Anxiety simmering pushing out peace.

The many closed doors to decent lodging didn’t help things. He was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[2]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. He breathed. But not for long. When the contractions started, Joseph knew he must do one thing: find a midwife. (So goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[3])

Then something altogether new and different happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Joseph was momentarily disentangled from everything, suspended in time and space as the cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a completely different direction.

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course.”[4]

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops. Time is slowed down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm like a thief. Rather, God takes our realm into God’s self, disrupts us, gives us new ground to stand on; God’s people are ruptured from death’s grip and ushered into the life of God’s reign, into something new, given a different story, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace.

A New Joy

That dark night was no different than the other nights. Here they were, once again, tending and guarding their flocks of sheep, chatting here and there to stay awake.[5] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[6] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[7] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[8] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[9] Spirits were low that dark night; joy was nowhere to be found.

Then the angle showed up, out of nowhere. The shepherds were rightly terrified. Here they were, in the dark of night, doing their job, minding their own business and then: FLASH! They were enveloped in the heavenly glory of the Lord. In seconds they went from no ones to some ones, illuminated by a great light, and being addressed by one from the host of heaven…who were they to warrant such attention?[10]

And the Angel said to them,

“Do not be terrified! For behold, I herald good tidings to you of great delight for all people! A savior is brought forth for you today in the city of David who is Christ the Lord! And this will be the sign for you, you will find a newborn child having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger!”[11]

Before the shepherds found their voices, they were greeted by an army of the host of heaven who joined the angel and praised God, saying: Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace with humanity of good pleasure! And then, like it began, it was over.

The shepherds were summoned by God to come into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek were beckoned to come and see how good God is, how much God was for them, how much God loved them. When they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph, and the divine newborn child was, as the Angel said, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Here, these unclean shepherds stood in the direct presence of God without having to change, become pure, clean, or right. There was no shame, no condemnation, no guilt, no offerings had to be made, no rituals performed; they just came, looked, and touched the very small and vulnerable foot of God. And here the audacity of joy on a dark night bubbled forth in the space given to them to rejoice.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy.

Conclusion

All that had been was now coming undone; the savior, the son of God, was born, surrounded by wood, straw, dirt, animals, an exhausted woman of color, a humbled man, and dirty shepherds. On that night God showed up and Love claimed Love’s land and did the only thing Love knows to do: seek those who are cast off and call those who thought they were too far off to hear, too unloved to be desired, too nothing to be something…It’s here where we enter the story. As we listen in and look on, we step into that menagerie of humans and animals gazing upon the newborn child. We become a part of those also loved and summoned to witness this divine event of love in the world and to encounter God on this night. Tonight, we are invited to experience the divine disruption of a new word, a new story pointing to something better, giving us hope. Tonight, we are disentangled from what was by this new story and liberated into the realm of peace. Tonight, we are given time and space to have joy and to dare to rejoice. Tonight—by this new story, by this new word—we are found on Love’s land wrapped up in the lap of Love.

That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] *This sermon is an edited version of the Christmas Eve sermon from 12/24/2021. Found here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/12/24/on-that-night/

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 17:3-18:1

[3] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[4] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[5] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). 34

[6] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[7] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 33

[10] Gonzalez Luke 34

[11] Translation mine

Love, Even Now

Psalm 80:16-18 Let your hand be upon the person of your right hand, the son of humanity you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Introduction

I know last week I mentioned that rejoicing and having joy feels decadent in the midst of our context, however, I misspoke. Maybe love feels decadent, needing to ask: can I risk this? Can I risk love? The past few years make a person feel a little iffy about love. In an environment illuminating the transitoriness of life and people, why love? How do I keep loving when things and people are yanked out of my grasp? Can I throw bands of love into a void without anything to cleave? How do I love others in a world forcing me to compete rendering the other person either as my meal ticket or in my way? Love takes energy I don’t have; I’m crawling over the threshold at night. I have barely enough left for myself, don’t make me risk what little that is. I’m laid bare, I’m exhausted, I’m at my wit’s end … Love? Actually love so I can just be hurt again…again? I just can’t.

Most days maybe it feels safer and easier to cast off love than to embrace it. Maybe if I talk about love and loving others I’ll get that dopamine rush I crave as if I’ve done something loving or have loved someone. Maybe if I close my eyes and plug up my ears long enough, I can drown out the cries of the unloved. Maybe if I keep pressing my inner garbage down far and long enough, I won’t realize I need love. Love like fire can be suffocated, and a heavy spirit will do such.

The heartbeat of love weakens.

Isaiah 7:10-16

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Isaiah 7:13-14

God,[1] through Isaiah, asks Ahaz to request a sign, a big one, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (7:11b). It’s an interesting request. A sign not only preceded a divine event but was also a means by which prophetic utterances were validated or invalidated.[2] I would jump at the opportunity. But Ahaz? No. He declines, refusing to “put God to the test” (7:12b). At this point nothing seems wrong. Ahaz shouldn’t put God to the test, right? Alas, Ahaz’s response demands a quick reply of divine admonishment.

According to Isaiah, Ahaz’s inability to do what God asked indicates a much larger problem. The way Ahaz responds to God in disobedience is the thermometer by which the rest of God’s people are judged.[3] Even if individual disobedience is allowed for, there is still the issue of individual disobedience to God being indicative of the atmosphere of the society in which the individual is found, right? It’s not like Ahaz operates in a vacuum; it’s not like Ahaz isn’t influential, right? So, Isaiah declares God’s exasperation and weariness toward God’s people. So, seems nooooone of you are content exhausting each other, you must also exhaust me?!

Isaiah continues, here’s the sign God will do what God promised: a young woman of child-bearing age[4] will be with child and she will name him Immanuel. Where Ahaz could’ve requested a very clear sign, God will deliver God’s sign: something small, unsuspecting, and vulnerable. Ahaz could have asked for a chariot to descend from the clouds; a sign that was big, clear, and powerful. Now? Nah, fam, your sign, Ahaz, is a baby born to a woman; oh, and his name will be Immanuel. *winks*

The name, Immanuel—meaning “God-with-us” (hinting at trust in God) [5]—was rather original, but the other parts of that sign are rather unoriginal. God’s sign will be nestled in the lap of a ritually unclean woman who just gave birth. Here, in this precarious unseemliness, God’s blessing[6] and promise[7]of deliverance is held. Will you dare to see it, break your own rules to lay hold of it?

Prophets are caught up in the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s people. Here, Isaiah is so caught up in the blast from heaven[8] that he is wearied as God is wearied over Israel’s saccharine homage and the self-centered ceremonies. [9] Isaiah’s heart breaks for God’s people, just as God’s heart breaks. Isaiah becomes consumed with the “injured love” of God, it takes over his whole being. He, like God, is exhausted with the people’s disobedience and desertion of God’s love and law of love.[10] In this, Isaiah feels God’s sorrow because the hearts of God’s people have wondered far off; they do the rituals but there’s no love.[11]

Yet, Isaiah feels God’s patient and eager love for Israel. Isaiah feels the pain of his people, longs for them to be healed and mended, to come back to God the source of love and life. He wishes for them to stop leaning on their own understanding and ability to haphazardly get from one day to another, often getting lost between.[12] Isaiah loves God’s people because the firm ground where Isaiah stands is in God, in light, in life, in love. Isaiah isn’t dependent on himself to muster up love, rather it is given to him by God who is love, it comes with the deed to the land he stands on in God. To be with and in God, to be caught in the divine pathos is to be caught up in the divine love and the prophet, at that point, cannot do anything else but love God’s people.

The heartbeat of love revives.

Conclusion

Remember,

  1. Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”
  2. “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”
  3. “Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy…”

This space we’re given where we have joy because of being at peace, because our hope is in God, is the space of love. The holy ground on which we stand is love’s land and herein does love exist with and in us. Thus, we can love, even now. Remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Love exists because God is and God is within us.

Anyone born of God is born of love; anyone found in God is found in love; anyone inspired by the substance of God is inspired by love. In other words, while love is risky and something I don’t want to do because I’ve lost enough already, yet because I follow God, love is the only thing I can do. To follow God is to follow the way of life and love, good luck not loving. Hope exists; therefore peace exists; therefore joy exists; therefore love exists. Isaiah reminds us, Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel… God with us!

Love exists because it’s the unstoppable animating force of divine substance which is love. Love exists because it has neither an end nor a beginning. Love exists because my feet are on the solid ground of God. Love exists because there’s another way, a way that love will find, a way bringing life and liberty to everyone. Love exists because possibility has yet to cease to be. Love exists because we are together and, somehow, we keep making it day after day, walking with each other and not away from each other. Love exists because in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have joy, and if we have all of that, we our found nestled in the lap of love.

The heartbeat of love quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything appeared turned in, when no room was found for love and life, God made a way becoming knowable in the midst of dirt, hay, and animals, in the lap of an unclean woman, being the humble sign of divine promise, Immanuel…God with us!”


[1] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 65. “One would expect the subject of this oracle to be Isaiah, especially from the larger context (cf. vv. 11 and 13), but the reference directly to Yahweh as the subject functions to emphasize the divine authority of the offer that follows. It is not merely a suggestion from the prophet, but an invitation from God himself to request a sign.”

[2] Childs, Isaiah, 65. “Within the prophetic corpus, as distinct from the Priestly source of the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen. 9:12). a sign is a special event, either ordinary or miraculous, that serves as a pledge by which to confirm the prophetic word. The sign precedes in time the impending threat or promise, and prefigures the fulfillment by the affinity in content between the sign and its execution.”

[3] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 16. “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some crime measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.”

[4] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The noun is derived, not from the root ‘to be concealed’ as suggested already by Jerome, but from a homonym, meaning ‘to be full of vigor,’ ‘to have reached the age of puberty.’ Thus the noun refers to a female sexually ripe for marriage. The emphasis does not fall on virginity as such and, in this respect, differs from the Hebrew be’túlāh.”

[5] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The mother gives the child the name Immanuel, God-with-us. The name does not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, but the close parallels {rom the Psalter (46:8, 12) make clear that it is an expression of trust in the presence of God integral to Israel’s piety.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The meaning is the same in v. 15. The sign of Immanuel is also the pledge of blessing. Within the same short period of time the blessings anticipated in the name will be visible tor the faithful who believe in the messianic rule of God. The language of curds and honey testifies to the selfsame new eschatological reality as that of the great joy of the harvest in 9:3(2), or of the earth ‘full of the knowledge of the LORD as water covers the sea’ (11:9).”

[7] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The sign of Immanuel (‘God-with-us’) must serve, not just as a pledge of judgment (v. 17), but also as a promise of the future, the sign of which the name anticipates by its content. It has long been recognized that the image of ‘curds and honey’ has a dual meaning. It can be a symbol of desolation, when no food is left in a devastated arable land except the wild produce of the wilderness. However, it can also be a symbol of abundance, such as a land ‘flowing with curds and honey.’”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 16. “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “In different words addressed to the king, the prophet conveys his impression of the mood of God: As happened in the time of Noah and as is happening again, God’s patience and longsuffering are exhausted. He is tired of man. He hates man’s homage, his festivals, his celebrations. Man has become a burden and a sorrow for God.”

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “But the sympathy for God’s injured love overwhelms his whole being. What he feels about the size of God’s sorrow and the enormous scandal of man’s desertion of God is expressed in the two lines quoted above which introduce God’s lamentation. “Hear, then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (7:13.)

[11] Heschel, Prophets, 207-208. “God not only asks for justice; He demands of man ‘to regard the deeds of the Lord, to see the work of His hands’ (Isa. 5:12; cf. 22:11), ‘to walk in His paths’ (Isa. 2:3), ‘If you will not believe, you will not abide’ (Isa. 7:11)…It is not only action that God demands, it is not only disobedience to the law that the prophet decries …The fault is in the hearts, not alone in the deeds.”

[12] Heschel, Prophets, 86. “Isaiah, who flings bitter invectives against his contemporaries, identifies himself with his people (1:9) which are to be ‘my people’ (3:12; cf. 8:10; 7:14). His castigation is an outcry of compassion. He sees his people all bruised and bleeding, with no one to dress their wounds.”

Joy, Even Now

Psalm 146:4-6 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in their God; who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps God’s promise for ever; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.

Introduction

Every so often I look up words I know well because I know them too well; maybe I’ve lost the nuance of the word. Did you know “joy” and “happy” are not the same thing? Did you know “joy” participates in “happiness”? Joy carries the idea of “delight” and “well-being”, it’s got heft, substance, something that sticks to the bones like a really hearty stew in the middle of winter. Joy participates in exuberant exhibition of emotion and subtle contentedness of bliss. In its verbal form (to joy, joying, joyed) it takes on an extra measure of itself, “to experience great pleasure or delight: REJOICE”[1]

When was the last time you rejoiced? When was the last time I rejoiced?

If there’s a way to unjoice or dejoice or be ajoice, that’s me. I cannot recall the last time I had “joy”. I’ve had excitement. I’ve had pleasant surprises making me temporarily happy. I’ve laughed, chuckled, smiled at times. I’ve even been “content”, but that’s a slippery slope because one can be content in dire circumstances through “normalization” and “desensitization” (akin to surrender, giving up, numbing out). But “rejoice”? Have joy? IN THIS *wave arms about* ECONOMY?

If it’s been a while since you last rejoiced or had joy, you’re not alone. It feels decadent to have joy. The heaviness I’ve carried about for the past (nearly) three years has rendered me unable to be seized by something as beautiful as joy let alone something causing me to rejoice! Joy in the midst of violence? Joy in the midst of death? Joy in the midst of chaos and strife? Joy in the midst of sickness? Rejoice?! WHY. What about the gloom and doom of our socio-political world gives me the reason let alone the time and the space to have joy, to rejoice? I’m fine with drab and meh; I know drab and meh.

The heartbeat of joy weakens.

Isaiah 35:1-10

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.
God will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
God will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Is. 35:3-7

It’s like Isaiah knows the turmoil of our inner worlds. Of us he doesn’t speak, though; we’re invited into this moment through words caught by ancient scrolls. Israel is his concern, the poor, the weak, the hindered, the oppressed, the widowed and orphaned, the exhausted, the threatened. Prophetic words as fruit of the prophet encountered, embraced, and captured by the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s beloved. The prophet embodies the love of God for God’s people, and the prophet’s words reflect that love, signal to it, make it audible, manifest it. They ebb and flow between sour and sweet, but all the words are dedicated as a love note from The Lover to the Beloved. Sour notes fit a melody when sweet ones speak in reply; the musical communique penetrates ears and hearts of those to whom the tune was written, eager to resuscitate feeble lungs and rejuvenate unsteady legs.[2] Isaiah’s words here in chapter 35 are filled with the promises of God; it’s in God Israel’s exhorted to anchor their hope as the conduit of divine peace.[3]

Israel can only handle so much darkness and distance; the human spirit is resilient to a point. To keep throwing one’s anchor into the void of nothingness begins to break even the heartiest of souls. When God is perceived as far, distant, gone, negligent, Israel grows faint circling around the vortex of death, exhausted by the hopelessness and peacelessness of being trapped under the kingdom and rule of humanity. But then, Isaiah. Isaiah comes calling out the decrepit kingdom of humanity and declaring the reign of God. The speaking of God’s promises unentangles Israel from their chaos (unpeace) and becomes the story interrupting their captivity which is the foundation of their hope. The prophet declares not an old thing, but a new one.[4] Words cut through the oppressive gloom, pierce brutal silence, and rupture Israel’s melancholic lethargy. It’s in these words from prophet to people, “God becomes near and clear,” and the agony of a hopeless and peaceless existence dissipates.[5] Shema, O Israel, hear the footfalls of your God drawing near, look and behold[6] your God, the God of love and life, the substance of your hope, the source of your peace, the space for your joy.

And the ransomed of God shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Is 35:10

The heartbeat of joy revives.

Conclusion

Remember, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[7] Also remember, “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”[8] If hope exists because there’s another story and another way to be in the world, and by this peace exists, then we can also say that by the same means does joy exist. Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy, even now. But, remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Joy exists because God is and God is within us.

There’s an audacity in Isaiah’s prophetic words daring to proclaim joy and rejoicing. Just like with divine love and life, joy sourced in the story of God is revolutionary. It’s not naïve, it’s not blind. Joy, like prophetic declaration, cuts through the darkness and gloom, not with some saccharine happiness, but with boldness arriving with something other, something new, something alive. Isaiah reminds us: we’re not dead yet. Dead bodies do not rejoice; living ones do. Hope exists, and therefore peace exists, and in this space joy and rejoicing exist. Stepping into that space daring to laugh, see beauty, and have delight in yourself, in others, in creation, and in God becomes a form of revolutionary resistance against the death and doom lurking about the kingdom of humanity—like a rainbow parting the stormy sky. Isaiah’s announcement is a summons to a party, a big one: Come, O Israel! Because of hope, come and sing! Because of peace, leap and dance! Your Beloved is near! Come and Rejoice! I dare you!

Joy exists because the story of God disrupts us long enough to give us space to see things as they are, to gather us together, and to sing. Joy exists because there’s a struggle against struggle that is divine and beautiful, the very essence of love and life and fruit of hope and peace. Joy exists because we don’t need to bury our heads in the sand, remaining ignorant to the suffering in the world, oblivious to our own suffering; rather, we can have the audacity and boldness to look it square in the eye and go beyond it. Joy exists because, to quote Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz, “The struggle for survival…is not only a struggle not to die, not only a struggle to live but only barely. It is a struggle to live fully.”[9] Joy exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have the space for joy.

The heartbeat of joy quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything looked lost and drab, when gloom and doom seemed to be the only words whispered on the wind, another word broke through, heralding good news in the middle of the night to those far off, And the ransomed of God shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”


[1] Miriam Webster’s Online Dictionary.

[2] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind. …Indeed, every prediction of disaster is in itself an exhortation to repentance. The prophet is sent not only to upbraid, but also to ‘strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees’ (Isa. 35:3).” 12.

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 12. “Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

[4] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 258. “Moreover, salvation is not merely deliverance from Babylonian captivity, but rather sharing in God’s new creation (65:17ff.). Isaiah 35:10 picks up this same theme, ‘sorrow and sighing will disappear,’ which is finally elaborated in its fullest form in chapter 65.”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “Agony is the final test. When all hopes are dashed and all conceit is shattered, man begins to miss what he has long spurned. In darkness, God becomes near and clear.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “God is invisible, distant, dwelling in darkness (1 Kings 8:12). His thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways in history are shrouded and perplexing. Prophecy is a moment of unshrouding, an opening of the eyes, a lifting of the curtain. Such moments are rare in history.”

[7] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

[8] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 2 12.4.22”; “Peace, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/04/peace-even-now/

[9] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. p. 131.

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Is 40:3-5)

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2

Jesus Laughed and So Can You

Sancta Colloquia Episode 204 ft. Becky Castle Miller

In this episode I have the pleasure of talking with a new twitter friend, Becky Castle Miller (@bcastlemiller). How often do you get to ask the question, “So, do you think Jesus laughed?” Not often. There’s not much out there addressing Jesus and his emotional life. Too often we are presented with an emotionally vapid Christ, one who is self-controlled and placid. This then communicates emotions are bad to the reader of the bible and the listener of the preached word. Becky is clear to explain that it’s not only our implicit messages received from preacher and teacher, there are some areas of Christianity that actually teach that emotions are bad and that they will lead one away from Christ. Becky offers a needed correction in our dialogue: emotions will bring you closer to Christ and deeper into heartfelt obedience. It becomes clear from what Becky is teaching that the more in-tune we are to our emotional existence and feeling life, the more we have control over those emotions and feelings, and the more we are able to pause and experience those feelings and ask: why am I feeling this? This empowers the person, according to Becky, to not react out of those emotions but to understand and respond with them. One thing that Becky taught me that I found fascinating is the distinction between the Cognitive and Non-Cognitive approaches to feelings and emotions. Becky explains that the non-cognitive approach leads to shutting emotions down, denying they exist, seeing them as uncontrollable forces (thus bad). But the cognitive approach recognizes that emotions are always true and reveal exactly what you are thinking, thus there’s a deep connection to the cognitive interpretation of an event. Now, that does not mean that the way the brain is conceiving of the event is truly the way things are…sometimes our emotions reveal to us that we are seeing something in a certain way but we don’t have all the facts so we have to pause and make sure that what we are seeing is what we are seeing. Our emotions and feelings are the barometer to what is going on in our mind. But, Becky makes it really clear:  we aren’t doing this cognitive self-work to end up with no emotions.  She explains: emotional health does not mean not having emotions. It’s not about being placid. It’s about being in touch with your emotions, being used to them, interrogating them. We are paying more attention and we are asking why? We are free to be wildly angry, ecstatic, and emotionally healthy. Emotions aren’t bad. Jesus had them and so can you. 

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods https://www.screamingpods.com/

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (@seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (@ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (@SanctaColloquia).

Recommended Reading:
Matthew Elliott: Faithful Feelings (more academic) Feel (more popular)
Marc Alan Schelske: The Wisdom of Your Heart
Stephen Voorwinde: Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels
Lisa Feldman Barrett: How Emotions are Made
Pete Scazzero: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
Bessel van der Kolk: The Body Keeps the Score

The Love of the Lover

John 15:12-17 (Homily)

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.