Loved and Freed

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Psalm 147:1-3 Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! How pleasant it is to honor God with praise! The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; God gathers the exiles of Israel. God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Introduction

The red and blue lights in my review mirror solicited my hard sigh; the same lights were, at that moment, entertaining the boys, seven and six, and their entertainment was entertaining Liza who was just about one. I pulled off the road and into a parking lot to a chorus of “Mommy got pulled over! Mommy got pulled over!” Both boys swaying rhythmically to their own tune. I was not amused; but I wasn’t fully mad, either. It truly was a catchy little tune.

I waited for the police officer to come to my window, clutching my license and registration; I was ready to get this business over with because I had swim lessons to get to and was already late…which may have been the reason for the red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. As I waited, a moment of condemnation came upon me. I soothed myself by remembering I was justified by faith apart from works, so if I was guilty of breaking the law than I was guilty of breaking the law and that was it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When the police officer approached, he asked me if I knew why he was pulling me over. I said, “No.” He said, you were going 60 in a 40. I was shocked. “Really?! In this car?!” “Yes,” he answered. “Are you using VASCAR? Because I know VASCAR can give false readings.” “Yes, I was, and, no, it wasn’t a false reading.” Then he asked for my license and registration, which I eagerly handed to him. He thanked me and then went back to his car.

A while later, he came back and said, “Man, I hate to do this…You’ve been really cool; I hate to give you this ticket.” I smiled, and said, “It’s okay. Really. If I’m guilty, I’m guilty.” He paused and stepped back a little from my car. And then again, “Man! You are so cool about this. I hate giving you this ticket.” I looked at the clock: swim lessons drew nigh; I needed to get this ticket from him. Knowing I couldn’t just grab it, holler “Thanks!” and peel out of there… I did the only thing I knew to do, “Listen,” I started. “I’m a student of the law; well, actually I’m a student of God’s Law. I study theology. And I know that the law can only tell me when I’m breaking it and that I’m guilty when I do break it. I accept that. I am guilty of speeding and you are free to give me that ticket.” He stepped back again and didn’t say anything; I was nervous. Then he spoke, “You have just shown a brother in the Lord mercy. Do me a favor and plead ‘not guilty,’ and I’ll take care of it on my end.”

“Really?! But I’m guilty!” I replied. He laughed and asked me to trust him.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came we were kept—guarded as by the military—under the law, being hemmed in until the intended faith would be revealed. Just as the law has been our trainer [in life and morals] with respect to Christ, so that from faith we may be declared righteous. While faith has come, we are no longer under the trainer [in life and morals].

Galatians 3:23-25

Paul describes to the Galatians the situation they were in prior to Christ’s advent: under the law as if trapped by a warden. The word Paul used to describe “the law” is παιδαγωγός (paidagogos/“pedagogue”). The law, according to Paul, was a pedagogue until faith was revealed. The problem arises here: we think that παιδαγωγός means “teacher.” It can mean that for us, but not in Paul’s context. The word defined according to the context in which it was used can be rendered: the slave who oversaw forcing the boys to school, who watched over and monitored and trained the boys in life and morals. Clearly, “teacher” does not cover the breadth of the definition. So, it’s better to see this word rendered as “warden,” which keeps an eye to the military aspect of having been guarded and kept by the law until Christ came. For all intents and purposes, when those kept by the law stepped out of line, the law would step close and threaten, presenting itself as an address to get back in line for their own good—like the slave would do when bringing the boys to and from school.[1]

The law, according to Paul, loomed and threatened, always bringing with it the potential to convict in order to keep those under its charge in line. But the law isn’t evil or bad; it’s just the law. The first word given by God to God’s people to bring them unto life; the law is revealed to God’s people to give them life abundant. The law was intended to turn God’s people toward God, to reveal the human tendency to think we ourselves are God; the law was there to humble God’s people and bring them toward God.[2] The relationship was always about God and God’s people, and the law was only ever to assist that relationship but not be the definitive thing of the relationship. In other words, the law was created by God for humanity, to serve humanity; humanity was not created for the law, to serve the law.

But a problem developed. Rather than being a word beckoning God’s people to God, it became like a god. And in walked fear, terror, shame, and condemnation. As the law was allowed to take over God’s thrown, it was forced into a position that it was not meant to be in. In response, the people became performative to avoid threat and punishment.[3] Thus, the law became a prison and a warden of the people; from this prison there was no escape because there is absolutely no way to satisfy the demands articulated by the law[4] to such a degree that the law stops demanding. And if it never stops demanding, to where to do you run for comfort? Where is forgiveness? And mercy?[5]

Conclusion

Deliverance from this predicament was and is necessary. Humanity cannot extricate itself from such a plight. And here the law served God’s deliverance of the people through the coming of Christ.[6] Paul explains well: the law was a warden until faith came.[7] God sent God’s only son to be born of Mary and to dwell among the dirty, poor, sick, sinners, ostracized, marginalized, and threatened people…anyone and everyone condemned by the law.

From the moment Jesus was born the law was stripped of its warden like status.[8] A woman who had given birth, was forbidden from touching anything holy, forbidden from going into the sanctuary (being in God’s presence). But then, Mary.  After Jesus’ birth, Mary was unclean. The thing that would have segregated her from her community, the thing that determined that she was unclean was the law. Yet, Mary had given birth and was subsequently holding and nursing Jesus 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 God was with her, physically, in her presence and she in God’s. From the moment of Jesus’s birth, Jesus began to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment.

And so, it is to be found dumb now, just like it was found dumb when the police officer pulled me over. The law in that moment could not condemn or threaten me; it was just the law, just a word to which I could acknowledge my guilt. Same, too, for you who are in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. The law cannot determine who you are or whose you are; the law cannot strip you of your beloved status, no matter what you do or do not do. Everything that we do here on Sunday morning, and how we conduct our lives should be fueled by the very real presence of God’s love in our life and not because we are scared God will flee us or cast us out if we don’t do this or that right. When the church becomes a museum of ritual and traditionalisms, trapped in a static performance of doing just to do, exhibitions to make us feel pious and holy, I fear that church is now no longer worshipping God, but the law. When the church becomes a place serving the law, a place of judgment, of fear, of threat, it has stepped away from its love, Jesus the Christ who silenced the law the moment he came into the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in the lap of his unclean mother, Mary.

You are the beloved; laugh as the beloved, rejoice as the beloved, and live as the beloved: loved and free.


[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 1-4 Luther’s Works Vol 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis, MO: Concordia 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drives us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. It does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be … humbled….”

[2] Luther Galatians 335. “Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that the be humbled by the Law, in order that this beat, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[3] Luther Galatians 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment.”

[4] Luther Galatians 337. “For then a man is confined in a prison from which he cannot escape; and he does not see how he can be delivered form these bonds, that is, set free from these terrors.”

[5] Luther Galatians 337. “That is, the Law is also a spiritual prison and a true hell; for when it discloses sin and threatens death and the eternal wrath of God, man can neither run away nor find any comfort.”

[6] J. Louis Martyn Galatians The Anchor Bible Gen Ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 363. “…the Law was compelled to serve God’s intention simply by holding all human beings in a bondage that precluded every route of deliverance except that of Christ.”

[7] Luther Galatians 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[8] Martyn Galatians 362. “faith was invasively revealed. Paul’s use of the passive verb “was revealed” shows his intention to speak here of God’s eschatological act, and thus his concern to refer to the faith that is God’s deed in Christ (so also the faith” in w 25 and 26). From 2:16, 3:22-25, and 4:4-6, we see that Paul is referring interchangeably to the coming of Christ, to the coming of Christ’s Spirit, and to the coming both of Christ’s faith and of the faith kindled by Christ’s faith. It is that multifaceted advent that has brought to a close the parenthetical era of the Law, thus radically changing the world in which human beings live.”

On That Night

Christmas Eve Sermon

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. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before God when God comes, when God comes to judge the earth. God will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

The Heavens Were Silent

Mary was a very pregnant woman 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. Anyone passing by on the road and receiving her as she and Joseph roamed looking for lodging, would’ve seen just a pregnant woman. How many other pregnant women were seen that night? How many other babies would be born that night? How many children born before this one? There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. 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. It’s not that they didn’t love her, I’m sure they did. But that night, there just wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in the air of a Bethlehem night.

When the contractions started, the whole entire host of heaven hushed. Not a word was spoken, 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—as well as Mary and Joseph—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 true leader of Israel, the humble judge, and the embodiment of divine love for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as his mother brought him forth out of darkness into light so that he would be the light going into the darkness. This was the longed for, hoped for, yearned for child prayed for by many voices of ages gone by, the voices that cried out from bodies stuck in marginalization, trapped in violence, held down by oppression, and threatened by death. Could Mary feel their ancient cries? Could she feel those bowls upon bowls of prayers poured out on her like glory flowing from on high, covering her body and encouraging her spirit as she endured each contraction for minutes and hours?

God chose this body, this moment, this regularity of being born, to enter the world and the cosmos in physical form to identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could have shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in such precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved, to stand in unity with the 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 everything.

That night, as Mary labored, heaven was silent.

The World was Still

Yet, it wasn’t just Mary who was walking steadily into that night, into that event, one step at a time while moving toward Bethlehem. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was moving along in 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. Trusted that all of this was the work of God. So, he walked. With Mary. With this mother of this child that was not his. Still, he walked with God, humbly, trusting, believing that somehow God would show up.

The many closed doors to decent lodging were discouraging. It wasn’t personal; it was just unfortunate. However, he was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[1]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came to him, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. When the contractions started, Joseph knew of one thing to do, rush to find a midwife, or so goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[2]

And then something happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Everything seemed to slow down, and the world seemed to stop as if time ceased to exist and all that existed was merely matter in stasis. The cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God’s self was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a 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.”[3]

Protoevangelium of James

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not just keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops, stops in its tracks. Time is slowed all the way down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm, God takes our realm into God’s self. The moment Jesus was born into the world marked the beginning of something new and different, a different reign, a different rule, a different leadership, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, the world stopped.

The Barriers Were Destroyed

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.[4] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[5] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[6] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[7] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[8] Spirits were low that dark night.

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?[9]

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!”[10]

Luke 2

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 had been summoned by God to come into this moment, into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek and meager 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. And 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.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers between clean and unclean were destroyed.

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. That night God called to God’s self all those who thought they were too far off to hear the call, too far gone to be seen, to 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 called to witness this divine event in the world and to encounter God on this night. We are summoned to experience the divine heavenly hush break into the most magnificent chorus of the cosmos. We are provoked to feel God taking the cosmos into God’s self and sending it on the trajectory of love. We are asked to see the rubble of the barriers that once tried to steal from us our belovedness.

That night, while Mary labored, heaven was silent. That night, while Joseph searched for a midwife, the world stopped. That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers were destroyed. Because—on that night—God showed up and changed everything forever.


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

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[3] 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)

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

[5] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[6] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[7] Gonzalez Luke 33

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 34

[10] Translation mine

Who Can Stand?

Sermon on Malachi 3:1-4

The Song of Zechariah Luke 1:78-79 In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Introduction

Judgment. We love to hate it, and we love to do it. When we are judged or when we judge other people, we are experiencing a moment where either we are being evaluated by someone else or we are doing the evaluating. In being judged and judging, we are failing to measure up or someone else is. In positioning oneself as judge or being caught in that eye of judgment creates an imbalance of power: someone in the equation is holding more of the power. It makes sense why Christians are exhorted—by Jesus!—not to judge other people by the externals, because there’s more to a person than what meets our eye. This is why we don’t like being judged because, hey, maybe I’m just having a bad day, don’t judge! Like being an exhausted parent with two toddlers and a screaming infant in a store and expressing frustration; I’m not a bad mom, don’t look at me like that because I was snappy with them…and no, I’m not going to miss this phase…stop.

We judge others (and others judge us) to self-validate, and this desire for self-validation exposes that our judgmentalism is less about the other person and more about us: we are found lacking when we find lack in others. And the way we judge others reveals our hypocrisy. Our judgment of others, our eagerness to remove the speck from their eye while ignoring the log in our own, is the action that exposes the fundamental problem of a hardened heart caught in a desperate fight to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good. And we will do whatever it takes to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good, so we thrust ourselves on that hamster wheel of performance and find anything to self-validate even if it is by the failures of others… at least I’m not like her…

But I am; I am very much her. I’ve been in the shoes of so many people I’ve judged in my feeble attempts to make myself feel better about myself. I’ve been that “bad” driver, that “bad” mom, that “bad” teacher, that biased and stuck thinker, that arrogant and pedantic scholar…the one who was too angry to forgive, to hurt to admit it, too comfortable to fight for peace and justice… And if we can feel safe here and are willing to be honest, I bet I’m not alone. We all have similar confessions.

I know, it’s not Lent. And yet, I know I’m heading down a lent-like train of thought but stay with me. What if part of this stark realization is part of the good news of Advent? What if coming to terms with who and what I am in all my robust humany glory, makes the expectation of Advent more spectacular?

Malachi 3:1-4

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 3:1-2b

The message of Malachi is as follows: God knows those who fear him and those who do not, and He desires his people to repent and turn to Him and Torah (3:7). Malachi, in prophetic tones, asks the people to consider themselves, to take a deep look at who they are in their daily life and as worshippers of God—are they helping or hindering the relationship between God and God’s people? [1] The warning that Malachi ends with in his short prophetic disputation[2] is a word of judgment: utter destruction hangs in the balance if the people do not realign with God and with neighbor. For all intents and purposes, Malachi cries out: Pay attention! He pleads with his audience, Take heed; this is serious! Judgment comes! And this minor prophet closes with a question: on whom will judgment fall?

The God of Israel is the God who heard the cries of Israel from the bowls of suffering in Egypt and is the same God who then came and rescued Israel from that captivity and ushered them into freedom. If this is the same God of whom both the major and minor prophets speak of and speak for, then we can be certain this is the same God who will also deal with people who abuse God’s people, who hinder them from God, who steal their livelihood, who judge them as inferior, failures, maybe even inhuman. In being unloving toward their neighbor, they do not love God and “profane the covenant.”[3] God will come, and God may be angry when God does.

But here’s the complex thing about God, the God worshipped in Judah and Israel is not bound to our mythic conceptions of the small and petty angry god who never stops being angry.[4] Our strict either/or interpretation of emotionality is exceptionally problematic. Emotional states are not ontological definitions. Even here in Malachi, as he leaves his people with a question about the coming judgment of God, God’s love is eternal; God’s anger isn’t.[5] God’s anger is momentary and happens, but it doesn’t abide forever; God’s love does.[6] It abides, because love is an ontological definition: divine love—the love that has been since the very beginning of the cosmos—isn’t a fleeting emotion or feeling but a permanent presence, an eternal reality forever moving into infinity, always in pursuit of the beloved. It’s this love that exposes the beloved not unto death for death’s sake but unto life.

Conclusion

Malachi closes his proclamation and disputation with the twin questions “On whom will judgment fall?” and “Who can stand?” And when our eyes meet with these words, our heart races and things get warm under the collar, looking around—with panic and fear—we are speechless. We fear the answer. We fear this divine judgment, this divine anger, will fall on us and crush us. We know who we are deep down; we know we are guilty: guilty of infractions, disobedience, not-love, of desperately trying to make our selves better than others, of unfaithfulness, ignoring, pretending, and judging.

But, what if in this profound and visceral exposure is our life? What if in our bold grasp of what is and who we are we find actual life? This isn’t to say you are rotten or horrible or an object made for destruction; none of that. Rather, it’s to turn that inner judge on oneself in the light of truth, and it’s in this light of truth where we find life.

God’s judgment does come, and it will fall on us, and under it we will not be able to stand. God will come to earth, born to an unwed woman of color. And this baby whom this woman will nurse, we will curse; the one whom Mary will birth, we will sentence to death. In that wrong judgment of an innocent other, we will be encountered by the right judgment of God. We will be exposed, fully. Face to face with God, we will be illuminated—from head to toe, from the core of our being to edge of our skin—by the essence of divine presence: Love.

Don’t get me wrong: you do not escape the rendering unto death of divine judgment; in being fully exposed in the light of love made known to us in the Word of Christ—the proclamation of God’s love in the world—you will collapse under the weight of what you see. But, in that collapse you fall into God, and that means falling farther into the source of love and life. It’s this love and life you receive back because God does not leave the beloved in the depth of the abyss of death but calls her out and onto the solid ground of life.

Where we expect destruction and death (death unto death), there is new creation and new life (death unto life). We expect that in God’s coming judgment we will be destroyed by wrath, but we are met with the consuming love of God who renders the beloved new by bringing her through death into new life in God, fueled by the Spirit of God.

Divine Love comes, born vulnerable and placed in a manger wrapped in meager swaddling rags. This one, Jesus the Christ, the son of Mary, will bear the burden of the full weight of God’s Love. It’s this babe who will bear the burden of bringing God’s love to everyone even if it means going outside the city limits. It’s this child of parents fleeing oppression who will bear the burden of standing in love and solidarity with human beings suffering in pain and sorrow, in toil and strain, stuck in captivity even if it means his life for theirs.

Beloved, in the expectation of Advent, Love comes… on whom will it fall? Who can stand?


[1] Ehud Ben Zvi “Malachi” The Jewish Study Bible JPS (Oxford: OUP, 2004). 1268. “The readers of the book of Malachi are asked to look at some pitfalls in everyday life and in the cult at the Temple, and particular at how they affect the relationship between the Lord and Israel, resulting in a lack of prosperity. Issues concerning proper offerings, marriage practices, and tithes are especially prominent in the book.”

[2] Zvi “Malachi” 1269, “The use of a disputation format … allows the readers some limited form of self-identification with the actions of the evildoers, and as such serves as a call for them to examine themselves and repent.”

[3] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 170. “In the words of a later prophet [after Jeremiah], ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “The ancient conception that the gods are spiteful seems to linger on in the mind of modern man, and inevitably the words of the Hebrew Bible are seen in the image of this conception. In gods who are spiteful, anger is a habit or a disposition. The prophets never speak of an angry God as if anger were His disposition. Even those who dwell more on His anger than on His mercy explicitly or implicitly accentuate the contrast”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “Again and again we are told that God’s love or kindness (hesed) goes on forever…we are never told that His anger goes on forever.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 290. “Anger is always described as a moment, something that happens rather than something that abides. The feeling expressed by the rabbis that even divine anger must not last beyond a minute seems to be implied in the words of the prophets…”

Revolution of the Light

Sermon on John 1:1-5

Psalm 147:5: Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp.

Introduction

I’ve never met someone who meets opportunity for exposure with open and eager embrace. Exposure can harm our body. Even the small forms of exposure provide enough discomfort to warrant avoidance. Anyone here like it when that wool blanket and down comforter are yanked back suddenly exposing your warm skin to chilly air? What about that cruel adjustment moment when eyes accustomed to dark are exposed to brightness? What about that little trip while you’re walking exposing the reality that you’re not as graceful as you thought you were? All I have to say is, “Hospital Dressing Gown,” and you all know what I’m talking about.

Exposure hurts and ushers in self-death when it reveals bigger problems. That thing keeping you stuck or that thing haunting your peace rears its head again and exposes your lack of control. Maybe it’s the fights that won’t go away; maybe it’s the threat of failure; maybe it’s the persistent sickness; maybe it’s the lie that was found out…these are exposures soliciting a death to self: I need help.

Exposure hurts. But exposure and its pain and death aren’t antithetical to life but the basis of it.

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was in the company with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in the company with God. Everything was made through him, and not one thing having existed was made separately (from) him. In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.

Jn 1:1-5, translation mine

The first part of the reading should sound familiar. Genesis 1:1 starts off identically (εν αρχη). The allusion in John 1 to the start of the Hebrew Scriptures is intentional. The Word is to be equated with God and the creative speaking power of God. The Word was God. The word spoken in Genesis 1:1 is the word piercing the silence of the cosmos, disrupting the darkness by tearing from it the light. The point is not creationism, but that God’s word and God’s deed are one and the same thing: God speaks and it happens; not a word falls to the ground void of substance of completed action.[1] For John, this word spoken at the beginning of creation is the Word that has come into the world in the baby born to Mary (Jn 1:14)—and not only to Israel, but to the whole world.[2]

With one hand John grabs the tip of the Hebrew scriptures and pulls them into view. With the other hand he drags the Greek philosophical tradition into view—signified by the word λογος. John uses the birth of Christ Jesus as the focal point to articulate the light that was called forth in Genesis 1 will expose the world and humanity unto life, unto glory and truth. For John the world is not its own Lord or “Law” but is created and sustained by the very Word of God; [3] it is not chaotic matter (the Greeks) but creation out of nothing. [4] In 5 words (εν αρχη ην ο λογος), John indicts humanity and its thought structures and assumptions. And we—those who listen in from here—also are indicted and confronted with John’s statements about the Word who was with God and is God. We are asked to reexamine everything we thought we knew, the terms and concepts we have grown (all too) familiar with and think we’ve defined rightly.[5] Here we’ve been exposed by the confrontation of the divine answer that is the Word made flesh and is the light of life of humanity.

John writes, “In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.” The distinction between light and dark is one we move over quickly. We’re used to the idea that light happens at the flick of switch. In swift motion, the dark room is now illumined. It wasn’t, but now it is. But is it a simple change? The articulation of light into a room means that darkness must be converted. Darkness doesn’t run to other side of the room. What was dark is not anymore; it is light. It must cease being dark and become light.

When the light shines in the dark, the darkness in the path of the light is changed and transformed into not dark. Zooming in on the event you might see that which is light and not light, that which is darkness and not darkness. You might see particles in process of transition of giving themselves over to the light. There’d be a point where time would cease to matter as everything grinds to a halt as the activity of darkness changing into light gives over to the stillness of dark and light and not dark and not light—like a ball thrown into the air comes to a full stop before descent, there would be a cessation of darkness before there is lightness. There is a point in the conversion of darkness into lightness where it seems action seems to stop, where movement stops, where time becomes timelessness. There’s death—a cessation of everything. [6]

In the Christian Apocryphal work, Protoevangelium of James, the author tells of the moment Jesus is born, from Joseph’s perspective.[7] Listen,

“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 liftin 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 return to its course.”[8]

Protoevangelium of James trans Lily C. Vuong

This is what happens to the world when divine exposure is born into it. The moment Jesus is born of Mary, time stops to make room for the light to enter the world that is trapped by darkness. Mary births the babe who is the light of humanity[9] that will convert darkness into lightness and death into life.[10] Everything comes to a standstill as God enters our timeline and completely overhauls it, flipping it on its head, moving space like the water of the red sea during the exodus, and thrusting the cosmos into divine truth. When God shows up, everything grinds to a halt and the world goes through a death as life motions to revolt against death.[11]

Conclusion

In the advent and nativity of the Christ child, we’re exposed by the light of life and shown we’ve been complicit with and held captive by systems and kingdoms of darkness of death. I mentioned before that 2020 is a year of exposure. This exposure hurts and will continue to hurt because none of us is done wrestling against the powers and principalities of this human world. It’s not easy to see how deeply embedded we are in the narrative of white supremacy. It’s painful to see greed and selfishness run rampant and realize those are our feet running and keeping pace with those we’re criticizing. It’s horrifying to realize our silence participates in propping up vile and malicious institutions, practices, ideologies when we’d rather not #saytheirnames or say #blacklivesmatter because it’s…more comfortable not to.

In the exposure inaugurated by the birth of the Christ in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are brought out of the old humanity through death into new humanity.

To be exposed is to endure the transition of darkness into light—being reduced to the moment you are and you are not. To be exposed is to come to a full cessation and be changed from darkness into lightness through death. To be exposed is to see things as they are in the stillness of time and ask the questions so many are afraid to ask: is this all there is? Is this really the good and true and the beautiful? Is anything else possible? The exposure of the encounter with God in the event of faith brings life out of death through resurrection—it’s new life and you are a new creation, with new eyes to see and ears to hear. And you’re given a new mission in the world: joining in the revolt against the dark with the army of the light who is the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, the hurting, the dying. This is the mission of God in the world; this is the thrust of the nativity. Everything we think we know as right, and good, and true is in the line of fire of the great divine revolution of life against death humbly started by God born a baby boy to a young unwedded mother, wrapped in rags and laid in a humble manger surrounded by dirty shepherds.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. P. 20 “In the O.T. the Word of God is his Word of power, which, in being uttered, is active as event. God’s word is God’s deed, and his deed is his word; that is, he acts through his word, and he speaks in his action, and it is man whom he addresses.”

[2] Bultmann John 21. “The Prologue does not speak of the relation of the chosen people to the Word of God, but of the relation of the world to the ‘Word’.”

[3] Bultmann John p. 39. “The radical nature of the idea of creation is evident at this point: in the beginning the world did not, so to speak, receive as its own that which it then maintains by itself; both its beginning and its continuing existence are attributed to the Logos. Precisely this is the meaning of v. 4a: ο γενονεν, εν αυτω ζωη ην: the vitality of the whole creation has its origin in the Logos; he is the power which creates life.”

[4] Bultmann John p. 38. “The Greek view, that wants to understand the world as a correlation of form and matter, is also excluded: the creation is not the arrangement of a chaotic stuff, but is the καταβολη κοσμου (17.24), creation ex nihilo.”

[5] Bultmann John 13. “The concepts ζωη and φως, δοξα and αληθεια are the kind of motifs for which the reader brings with him a certain prior understanding; but he still has to learn how to understand them authentically.”

[6] Bultmann John p.32. “…in the person and word of Jesus one does not encounter anything that has its origin in the world or in time; the encounter is with the reality that lies beyond the world and time. Jesus and his word not only bring release from the world and from time, they are also the means whereby the world and time are judged: the first words of the Prologue at once prepare us for this.”

[7] For an excellent engagement with this text, please see Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel’s work located here: https://hcommons.org/members/evandeneykel/deposits/ It was his paper—”Then Suddenly, Everything Resumed Its Course”: The Suspension of Time in the Protevangelium of James Reconsidered—that I heard at SBLAAR 2017 and was profoundly impacted by. If you are interested in further pursuing apocryphal engagement, I highly recommend engaging with Dr. Vanden Eykel.

[8][8] 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)

[9] Bultmann John p. 43, “…φως comes to mean revelation. And where one speaks of a Revealer, one can describe him as the ‘Light’ or as the Giver of light.”

[10] Bultmann John p. 41. “In its original sense light is not an apparatus for illumination, that makes things perceptible, but is the brightness itself in which I find myself here and now; in it I can find my way about, I feel myself at home, and have no anxiety. Brightness itself is not therefore an outward phenomenon, but is the illumined condition of existence, of my own existence. Such brightness is necessary for life; so that from the first, and throughout the ancient world, light and life, darkness and death are seen as belonging together.”

[11] Bultmann John p. 47. “Yet the ζωη of the Logos does not cease to be the φως of men just because men have chosen the possibility of darkness. Rather it is only because the Logos is constantly present as the light of men that the world of men can be σκοτια at all. For darkness is neither a substance nor the sheer power of fate; it is nothing other than the revolt against the light.” I made revolution the work of the light because revolutionary violence is in response to oppression and suffering. Darkness’s response would be counter revolution. It is not light who responds to hold the status-quo, but darkness. It is darkness and death to uphold the status-quo and systems bent on destruction to keep your power.

In Rags and Wood

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Canticle 15: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Amen

Introduction

Sermons on love are often so lofty the subject—God’s love—becomes too other worldly and abstract, beyond human grasp, and of no earthly good. These sermons leave congregants grasping at the actuality of God’s love like grasping at oil; there’s nothing in your hand but the residual of what brushed past it. Preachers get in pulpits on Sunday and proclaim the word of comfort—God loves the beloved and the beloved is us (all of us)—then turn around and make that word so abstract and comfortable the divine love communicated about is not communicated to those who have ears to hear. It’s safer to preach abstract love that doesn’t touch down in the material realm in action and conviction because God forbid those coins cease hitting beloved coffers. We love the idea of divine love for us. If we’re honest, we don’t know what that means apart from some safe ideas we’ve memorized from Sunday school, gathered from the repetition of creeds, and absorbed by the incessant bombardment of dogmas.

Love is a remarkable and profound thing surging through the cosmos since the beginning of time—love neither started with us nor will it end with us. While the neuro response to love—both loving and being loved—is locatable in the brain and we can describe the way it feels, science and her scientists cannot figure out the why or the source or, coupled to attraction, the reason it’s this person and not that person. While society has historically tried to dictate who we can love, love knows not artificial man-made boundaries—love transcends and tears down walls and fences built to keep some in and others out. Love is more than a feeling and full of action in a material world.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Is. 61:1-2b)

Isaiah begins by confessing: the “spirit of the Lord God is upon” me. He speaks of something beyond comfortable feeling; he speaks of ruah. Ruah, a word used to describe the breath of God animating soil in Genesis, is the spirit of God, the pathos, the passion, and the emotion of God. [1] It is this spirit that is upon Isaiah. This spirit anoints Isaiah…to do what? Not to perform sacrifices, not to stand high and mighty, not to be clad in fancy robe behind tables decorated with gold and fine stone, not to swing incense, to be solemn, or to be feared for his authority. [2] Rather, it’s significantly humbler than we could imagine. Isaiah’s anointing by the spirit of God is to herald good tidings to the oppressed, to bind and have mercy on the suffering, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, it’s to proclaim to God’s people God’s great love for them.

Isaiah speaks of being endowed with the proclamation of God’s dynamic and active love to God’s people (Ruah). He also speaks of a divine day of favor and divine day of vengeance. Isaiah intentionally throws allusion to the year of Jubilee detailed in the book of Leviticus (cf. chapter 25). The liberative activity of God’s love coming in material form to God’s people is physical and not merely psychological—debts forgiven freeing both the debtor and the creditor. [3] Thus, the juxtaposition here of God’s favor and day of vengeance is intriguing. Make no mistake, Isaiah is intentional with his words. And I’m sure, as we like to do, that day of vengeance is sitting a bit heavy. But don’t lose heart just yet, stay with me; this isn’t bad news. The day of favor and the day of vengeance are one and the same day.

The twin divine decree sounding from Isaiah’s mouth is one of comfort and confrontation, and both are oriented toward the divine art of divine love: God loves God’s people. Isaiah is exhorted by the spirit being upon him…

“…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Is. 61:2c-3).

To comfort those who mourn is to confront those who caused the mourning; to take away ashes and crown with garlands is to raise up those who were made low and to remove the distinction with those who were (already) raised up, thus lowering them; to embolden spirits is to give strength to those who are weak making them as strong as those who were strong. To bring comfort to captives through their liberation is to come into confrontation with captors by liberating them from holding captive.* To bring good news to the oppressed is to confront the oppressor and illuminate the oppressor’s own oppression in the system. God’s love liberates all people from violent and oppressive kingdoms of humanity. [4]

“For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed” (Is. 61:8-9)

Isaiah proclaims God’s desire: justice. God loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing. Echoing other prophets of Israel: God cares about those who are suffering under and because of unjust systems. For Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel, there is a tight link between God’s love of justice and our right worship. There’s no way around it. You can be the most pious person, wear all the right robes, say the words, bow here and kneel there, you can perform the most sacred of ceremonies, but if you are also actively participate and uphold oppressive and violent systems in word and deed, your worship is “detestable” to God. [5] According to Isaiah, there’s one way to serve God: love. Specifically, the love of neighbor in the pursuit of God defined justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[6]

Let us not forget the way Isaiah opened up this proclamation: ““The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me..” (Is. 1). It’s come full circle. This spirit which is also God’s desire and pathos has become Isaiah’s. [7] The math here is simple: being indwelled with God’s spirit, Isaiah’s desire is the same as God’s: a love of justice and dislike of robbery and wrongdoing. Thus, it is for us. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, brought out of death into new life, that new life in the world is marked by the pathos of God: active love for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[8]

Conclusion

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is. 61:11)

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Isaiah proclaims. God’s love will triumph. In other words, divine justice and righteousness prevails over injustice and unrighteousness. The day of divine favor for the oppressed will be the day of vengeance for the oppressor and love will win both out of death into life.

But…How? In a dire and precarious way no one expects: a baby born to a young woman. God will descend into the human predicament to suffer the human predicament and will not remain above it. This is divine love: to come low, to descend to the beloved. “The coming of Jesus is the bond, the event of descending love, is the appearing of new life, of life undreamt of, of eternal life in the earthly life.”[9]

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Love drives us toward and into each other’s burdens, to share the weight, to call things as they are, to provide relief and to comfort. This love knows no bounds, it descends to the depths of human existence, into the muck and mire of suffering and pain and grief; it searches out across vast spaces looking for the beloved who is missing; it surges into the fringes and margins of society to proclaim in word and deed “Beloved” to those who’ve only heard “unlovable”. [10] It’s not found in our personal piety defined by the superiority of our self-righteousness, it’s not found in glory but in humility,[11] not in gold but in wood, not in rich and clean robes in stone buildings but swaddled in rags in a manger.


*The Work of David Justice on Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s conception of the Beloved Community and Creative Rage does excellently to detail out in more detail how the liberation of the oppressed is good news for the oppressor.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets NY, NY: JPS, 1962. 315. “The word ruah means, according to standard dictionaries, ‘air in motion, breath, wind, vain things, spirit, mind.’ What was not noticed is that one of the chief uses of the word ruah is to denote pathos, passion or emotion—the state of the soul. When combined with another word, it denotes a particular type of pathos or emotion.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 195 “Sacred fire is burning on the altars in many lands. Animals are being offered to the glory of the gods. Priests burn incense, songs of solemn assemblies fill the air Pilgrims are on the roads, pageantries in the sacred places. The atmosphere is thick with sanctity. In Israel, too, sacrifice is an essential act of worship. It is the experience of giving oneself vicariously to God and of being received by Him. And yet, the pre-exilic prophets uttered violent attacks on sacrifices…”

[3] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary TOTL. Louisville, KY: WJK 2001. 505. “…the theme of proclaiming liberty in ‘the year of Yahweh’s favor’ (v.2) is formulated in the language of the Jubilee year…and articulates succinctly the great change in Israel’s fortunes initiated through God’s favor. Finally, to ‘bring good tiding’ … is to assume the mantle of the herald…who first sent out the message of God’s return to his people in power.”

[4] Childs Isaiah 506. “It has also been rightly pointed out that the description of Israel’s deliverance has shifted a way from Second Isaiah’s portrayal of captivity and exile to that of release from economic slavery within the land.”

[5] Heschel Prophets 195, “However, while Samuel stressed the primacy of obedience over sacrifice, Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

[6] Heschel Prophets 195. “Questioning man’s right to worship through offerings and songs, they maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, Justice, and righteousness.” See also: W. Travis McMaken’s book on Helmut Gollwitzer, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress Press, 2017). “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy,” p. 91.

[7] Childs Isaiah 506. “The speaker in these verses is clearly God, who confirms the word of the servant figure. The grounds for the mission of the one endowed with the spirit in vv. 1-7 rest on God, who loves justice while hating injustice.”

[8] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy.” 91 And, Speaking in terms of principle, however, the demand is more exacting…’The conversion to which the Christian community is daily called by God’s Word also includes the renunciation of their integration in the dominant system of privileges and their active exertion for justice, and so for social structures no longer determined by social privileges’…Christians are called to resist the social structures that imbue some with privileges while disadvantaging others.” 113-4 . And, “But if Marx turns theology into politics, Gollwitzer transforms politics into theology. That is, he clarifies for us that there is no such things a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” 166-7.

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1981. 80.

[10] Gollwitzer 79. “…he did not remain above, did not count his superiority a thing to be grasped at, but came down into human existence, into a slave-existence, to a place where he was spat upon, trodden down, and put to death. Thus anyone who wishes to find the ‘above’ of which the whole Bible speaks, must, w strange though it may seem, go right down below here on earth. The paradox is that what is of the earth, the thought that is of earthly origin, is actually a striving upwards, everyone wants to get on top; while on the contrary what is here called the true divine ‘above’, is a string downwards, and is only to be found at the lowest point of the earth, on the gallows among the most downtrodden and outcast of society, with one who has no longer a place in it, in the grave which is the destiny of us all.”

[11] Gollwitzer 79. “There in the depths the Lord of glory of the religions is not to be found, but the servant God of the Gospel, the ministering, self-sacrificing brother Jesus who ‘and no other one’ is the living Lord of the Gospel.”

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

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

 

 

i Brevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255About 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).  

ii JSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (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.”

v Childs 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.’” 

vi Oh Holy Night 

vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”  

viii Oh Holy Night 

In the Lap of Mary

Galatians 3:23-29 (Homily)

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.

Divine Love Song

Luke 1:46-55 (Homily)

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1)

 

Music moves and keeps me. I absolutely love music. I study to music, write to music, live to music, and even my classroom often welcomes students with music. I’m one of those people who definitely has multiple soundtracks to her life; one for each era, if not one for each year. My workout play lists have everything from Taylor Swift to Childish Gambino, and I’m not even sorry. I prefer the Orchestra to the Symphony and some of my favorite instruments are: guitar, piano, and the cello (which I’m comically trying to teach myself to play). I love music.

I love how music has the ability to get to our subterranean layers of our person and being. I love how with or without words music can draw up in us emotions we’ve had or are having a hard time articulating in word and deed. I love that when I’m happy, there’s a song on my lips. I love even more that when life has dragged me into darkness and an existential crisis and its cousin depression seize the fibers of my being, there’s a song on my lips then, too. When I’ve struggled with saying the words, “I believe…” my voice through worship and song cries out, “…help my unbelief.”

And it’s not just humans who sing and make music. But the whole world does, too. The cacophony of a vehicle-infested metropolis is music as much as is the cricket and grasshopper symphony surrounding the farm stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The trees make music, the birds, the stars in the night sky, and the sun at noonday, even the creeping and crawling things along the ground. All of it is song and music. Dogs barking, cats meowing, horses neighing, all of creation sings. Harmony is everywhere. The cosmos is a song; a song sung over us and to us. And we have no other response than to sing back and to join in the great song of creation.

The biblical story is no stranger to songs. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, songs weave and wend through the story of God’s love for God’s creation. The biblical narrative is wonderfully decorated with songs about the work and activity of God almighty on behalf of God’s people and the world. We sing to God and God sings to us. The great song of the cosmos was set in motion and is sustained by God’s love song sung over us, like a mother rocking her new-born child to sleep using her voice to soothe and comfort this child she loves so very dearly.

Or like a mother who understands the heavy burden that is on her unborn son’s shoulders: God’s love for the world, reconciliation and redemption, love and sacrifice, mercy and justice and peace.

“‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (v.47). Mary begins to sing. “…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (v.48). Mary’s voice isn’t unique here; her voice pairs with those of the other noble women of Israel: with Miriam after safe passage through the red-sea (cf Ex. 15) and with the barren Hannah who longed for a son and received one (cf 1 Sam 2). “…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (v.49), Mary continues, “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v.50). Mary declares the character of the God she worships, of the God she knows intimately, of the God who is about to overturn the world as she knows it.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” (v.51). Mary’s song here in v.51 turns from praise of God’s mighty historical deeds to prophetic utterances (what God is about to do). “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (vv.52-3). And here I can’t quite distinguish whose voice I’m hearing; is it Mary the mother of Jesus who is praising God? Or is this God’s song over us? “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’” (vv.54-5).

And maybe that’s the point? Maybe that I can’t distinguish between the song of this young woman to God or God’s song over the world is the tension where I need to be located, where we need to be located. Because it’s here in that tension where we see our role in the story. Mary sings to God of Jesus, but Jesus sings through her voice to the world: I am coming low to bring liberty to the captives and freedom to the oppressed. Jesus is the royal[1] son who will cast off his royal robes and stoop down[2] to take on the role of a servant, a lowly servant to redeem and reconcile humanity to God. It is Jesus (God of God, Light of Light) who will associate with sinners and tax collectors, with the sick and the lame, with those who are far-off and those who are abandoned and thus declare to the world: blessed are these![3] Jesus is the one who lifts the faces of those who are cast-down, gives dignity to those society has declared barely human, and brought the light to those who feel trapped and hewed in by darkness; and this activity becomes the very definition of the reign of God, of the good news, of God’s activity in the world in Jesus Christ, this man who is God. [4]

And it is this lowly servant who is the fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants and this is how that promises will be fulfilled: Jesus will die for our sins and be raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Mary’s song of praise of what God has done and will do, and that which is God’s song over us, is also Jesus’s funeral march;[5] this is the song that will sound in the background as Jesus climbs Golgotha to his sacrificial death on our behalf to reconcile us to God. Just as the cross hangs in the background behind the manger of the baby born, so to do Mary’s tears lurk behind her words of praise and prophecy.

But because God loves us, because God loves the world, this dirge, this funeral march doesn’t end in the grave. Rather, it leads to life, resurrected life for those who have been brought low; resurrected life for us not just in the future but now. And all of us are of the lowly, no matter what car you drove here or what brand your watch is, or the amount of money in your wallet or in your bank account: none of us escape being the lowly, the ones who are brought low. And as we are made aware of our lowliness and our need of Christ and the Cross,[6] the same gospel that has laid claim to our faith lays claim to our activity in the world; that which characterizes Christ’s reign, characterizes the activity of his disciples. That we—through our movement from death into new life by faith—have become a people whose interest is not on ourselves but on our fellow human beings, our neighbors. [7]

We have been commissioned into the commission of Christ to bear the trajectory (the intended direction) of Mary’s song of good news for the world through the death and resurrection of Christ, and with Christ we are called, to quote the major Prophet Isaiah, “To bring good news to the afflicted…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners…To comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1b-3a).

The good news comes to you today singing over you, incorporating you into the story, into the greatest love song ever recorded: The song sung since the beginning of time about the long awaited son of God, the babe born of Mary, who is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the cross, which is the word of comfort for the afflicted, rest for the burdened, freedom for the captives, and the word of life to those who are dead.

Praise be to God, Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Karl Barth CD IV.1.278 “…the distinctive solidarity of the man Jesus with the God who in the eyes of the world—and not merely the ordinary world, but the moral and spiritual as well—is also poor in this way, existing not only in fact and practice but even in theory, somewhere on the margin in its scale of values, as the mere content of a limiting concept. In fellowship and conformity with this God who is in the world the royal man Jesus is also poor, and fulfills this transvaluation of all values, acknowledging those who (without necessarily being better) are in different ways poor men as this world counts poverty.”

[2] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “The God who stoops down to man… in judgment and mercy, slaying and making alive, is Himself supremely and most strictly an object of desire, joy, pleasure, yearning and enjoyment…”

[3] Karl Barth CD V.1.277 “It is of a piece with this that—almost to the point of prejudice—He ignored all those who are high and mighty and wealthy in the world in favour of the weak and meek and lowly. He did this even in the moral sphere, ignoring the just for sinners, and in the spiritual sphere, finally ignoring Israel for the Gentiles.”

[4] Karl Barth CD V.1.277-78 “Throughout the New Testament the kingdom of God, the Gospel and the man Jesus have a remarkable affinity, which is no mere egalitarianism, to all those who are in the shadows as far as concerns what men estimate to be fortune and possessions and success and even fellowship with God.”

[5] Karl Barth CD IV.2. “It is this merciful and redemptive visitation of Israel by God, in faithfulness to Himself and His people, which forms the subject-matter of these hymns. But in the mind of the authors, or at any rate in the mind of Luke, who incorporated them into his text, this visitation is indirectly identical with the life and works and passion and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, whose story he is concerned to tell…But they are indirectly identical (at any rate in the mind of Luke), we are forced to say, because the introduction of these hymns could serve no literary purpose if they did not speak (at any rate in the mind of Luke) of the Son of Mary whose way was prepared by the son of Zacharias as the prophet of the Most High; and of this One as the One in whom the new act of the faithful God of Israel to His people has found its human correspondence, in whom the divine visitation has become an earthly history.”

[6] Helmut Gollwitzer, The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans: David Cairns (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.) “Who will free us for discipleship, for imitation of God? For he is the one who does not hold on to his privilege’s, who did not remain on the throne of Lordship, but spent himself and gave himself to sinners, to the men of privilege, to free them from enslavement to their privileges.” p. 82

[7] Ibid, 146 “From [people] whose interests centre in themselves, to make us people whose whole concern is for other people – that is the great concern of Jesus, that is the great change that God wants to bring through the Gospel into our way of life.” p. 146