A few years back, on a cold winter afternoon, I received a phone call from my across-the-street neighbor.
She wanted to give us some home-made rolls, fresh baked. Of course, I couldn’t resist. So, I put on shoes, grabbed my new born son, Jack, in my arms–wrapped in a blanket–and headed out. I didn’t even pause to consider our front porch stairs and the effects of the recent (that day) winter weather. As I stepped on to that first stair, I hit a patch of black ice. My feet went out from under me. I grabbed the railing to stop my fall, but to no avail, I still fell. I landed three stairs down. My heart raced. Was Jack OK?! I looked at him, still cradled in my arms; he let out a huge shriek. I then examined him from head to toe…not one scrape or bump or possible bruise did I find on his fairly small, 12 week old, newborn body. I did, as one does, praise the Lord.
Somehow, during the fall, my maternal instincts kicked in; somehow, I was able to contort and twist my body so that I was the one who absorbed the fall–between me elbow and me bum–and protected my baby. I didn’t think about it…it just happened. I have often wondered what I would do should I slip down the stairs carrying one of my babies…I have never been able to come up with a good “exit” plan. You don’t get training for such an event; you just hope it never happens. And, in that very real moment, love for my child poured forth un-summoned and I took the entire fall with my body.
I bore the pain in my body for my son when we fell. Love actively takes the other into its safe keeping because the well-being of the beloved is the well-being of the lover. Love bonds one to another in such a way that the beloved’s pain is the lover’s pain; the beloved’s joy, the lover’s joy. The lover grieves with the beloved, gets angry with the beloved, rejoices with the beloved. It is a full and embodied presence of the lover with the beloved, otherwise, it would be impossible for the lover to feel the grief, the anger, the joy of the beloved. As people encountered by God in the event of faith, we are deeply and intimately connected one to another, like a mother and her child. Your pain is my pain; your joy, my joy.
And so it is with Christ. Christ has loved us with a full-embodied, self-giving, love-gift. In this gift of love the love of God is given to us (to you, thus, to me), and the love of one for another. John’s Christ declares,
“‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. …You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,’” (John 15:12-14, 16-17).
The love of Christ for the world, drives him to take on flesh and to be born into the human predicament, the human problem. The Christ came into the world to identify in a real and embodied way the plight of humanity, the plight of the oppressed and marginalized, those stuck in situations dominated by the powers of sin and death. The pain of the beloved the lover feels; when Saul is persecuting the church, Jesus reveals himself to Saul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting…me?” Not: the followers of the way, or the young church….but me. In love the beloved is united to the lover and the lover feels to the core the pain and suffering, the joy and celebration of the beloved.
In your pain and in your suffering, you are not alone. In your joy and in your celebration, you are not alone. Not only are your family and friends here, and your teachers, but, more than that, almighty God of the cosmos is also present with you by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in you and among you, uniting you to the Christ by faith by God’s grace. To gaze upon the cross is to see God united in solidarity with you even in your suffering, with the suffering of all humanity, with the suffering of the world. To gaze upon the cross is to see love at work, love loving the beloved, in an embodied full way unto the depths of human experience: suffering unto death.
Beloveds, you are you are heard, you are seen, you are loved; you are the beloved.
There are longings in the heart we cannot define with words. We yearn for something or someone so much that our hands shake and our fingers ache to touch, feel, grasp and embrace, tightly. We cannot speak; caught in moments of deep longing, words do more violence than good we merely groan. We groan in the presence of love and desire, we groan under the weight of expectation and waiting, we groan under the pressure of demand and captivity.
When we feel we are stuck, we groan: another bill, *groan*, the car needs more repairs, *groan*, the house remains in disarray, *groan*, the fight happens…again, *groan*, the job steals more of your life, *groan*. Shame and regret, grief and sorrow, your nightly bedfellows…*groan*
Nationally and globally, more groaning: another bomb, another shooting, another threat, another fear, another contentious election just in time to divide families for the holidays. Many people in the world and in our country groan from hunger, cold, isolation, sickness, poorness, from racism, sexism, classism (etc.), from real captivity and physical oppression. *Groan*
Human existence is hard. So, we groan. When will this end? Some of us try to fight the feeling of doom through a positive attitude–faking it until we are making it. Some of us stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to hear the cries and groans of others (surely ours are loud enough). And some of us slip off into entertainment and extreme forms of destructive self-soothing (drugs, alcohol, food, money, sex, etc.). “The less I can see and hear, the less real the fear is,” goes the lie. “Ignorance is bliss!” proclaims desperation. Everything around us is burning down and we’re all, “To blessed to be stressed!” Human beings are remarkable creatures especially when we do not want to face the truth.
So, we numb. Check out. Look the other way. Stop caring. But numbing only works for a moment and isn’t a long-term solution. Before too long we need more and more and more….and in this numbing we deny our humanity because part of being human is suffering in the realm of compassion and empathy: to hear the cries of others, to acknowledge our own.
Something kinda sad about/The way that things have come to be Desensitized to everything/What became of subtlety? How can this mean anything to me/If I really don’t feel anything at all? I’ll keep digging/Til I feel something It’s not enough/I need more Nothing seems to satisfy I said I don’t want it/I just need it To breathe, to feel, to know I’m alive
Jesus Presented at the Temple
Luke tells us that Jesus’s parents, in obedience with the Law, bring him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord–it was custom for parents to bring their first-born sons. In the Passover event, God claimed all the first-born sons of Israel—from then onward—as his own. The redeemer has to be redeemed not because he is sinful; he’s not. He has to be redeemed because he is a first-born son of Israel. For the meager price of the lives of two turtle doves, Jesus’s poor parents and the young Jesus participate in the divine rescue plan for the cosmos. Luke is clear to portray this small family has followed the law: Jesus is the son of God and the son of Humanity.
And there was in Jerusalem a man whose name (was Simeon) and he was a righteous and God-fearing man who was awaiting/expecting the consolation/comfort of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him. (Lk 2:25)
Luke tells us Simeon is righteous and God-fearing; and, he was awaiting and expecting the comfort of Israel. One could say that Simeon wasn’t merely hoping for or occasionally thinking about this one to come, but was actively looking, eagerly waiting, anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of the warning from God made to him in v.26. (Simeon was warned to keep an eager eye out for the one to come who is the Christ, and this anxious awaiting would be his duty until that day came.) That day has come. A humble couple shows up at the temple with their son; Simeon lays eyes and hands on the long yearned for Messiah. Luke establishes Simeon as the reliable witness to this first-born son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth: this one is the consolation of Israel, the light unto the nations, the salvation of the world.
In fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, Jesus will not be a comfort to all; there will be those who come into conflict with the Christ, the savior of the Lord. Just like the prophets of old who stood in the midst of Israel calling out the rampant injustices and oppression caused by the leaders and rulers of Israel, so will Jesus. There are those in Israel who will trip over his teaching and his actions like a stumbling block; there are those in the nations who will consider his words and life foolishness. In ushering in the consummation of God’s divine dominion of peace and justice, mercy and humility through waging a cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death, Jesus, the Lord’s Messiah—God of very God—will come face to face with those who oppose the will of God. Thoughts will be exposed, deeds and intentions revealed, no one will be spared. Not even Mary herself can step in between her baby boy and the fate of some yet unknown sapling.
Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2)
The sword of God goes forth, brandishing its strength and power in steel and edge, dividing the people of Israel and the Nations, some on the left and others on the right. And the dividing line drawn will be between those who cause the will of God to go forward and those who stand in opposition. In Luke’s narrative account of the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and raised, it’s best to side with God’s will and never against it, for the oppressed and marginalized and not against them. “The way of the love with which God has laid hold of our hearts, and led us into tribulation, is the way of a hope that cannot be disappointed and will not be disappointed.” God deals justly with those who oppose him and oppress his people.
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:3-4)
The light of God shines brightly, illuminating with penetrating rays the just and unjust alike, revealing who is who. This light Immerses the world in the brightness of the reign of God, exposing our sickness and desperate situations, moving the world into light out of darkness. While in the dark we cannot tell who is who, in the light our deeds are exposed. We see the ground under our feet revealed for what it is: a mire from which we cannot become unstuck by our own power.
Human existence is hard. So, we groan. But rather than numb that groan, let us be lifted by the vocal vibrations, and, like a woman in the throes of labor, let us groan and push new life into a world being overrun by hopelessness, canceling, and just plain quitting. Let us be the midwives of God, participating in the divine glory established on earth by the first born of God, Jesus Christ through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and coaxing and urging new life into the world like the Hebrew midwives did so many 1000s of years ago as they stood in defiance of the oppression and tyranny and genocide of Pharaoh.
We who are encountered by God in the event of faith have active and abundant hope. As Rev Kennedy preached a few weeks we are defiant lights in the darkness bringing hope into the world. To build on the image, we are also verbal and active swords soberly battling against the powers of sin and death with and in God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because, everything here and in the cosmos belongs to God due to the totality of what Christ did…for the entire world.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21)
“For now already God’s Spirit is at work in us,” writes Helmut Gollwitzer, “…and through him the love of God which fills our hearts, our wills, and our thoughts, and sets them in motion.” We are bound and united together with Christ through the proclamation of the gospel, and it is this word that renders us to dust and recreates us into newness and fullness of life, into the absurd messengers of hope–the name of Jesus Christ–and thrusts us into the world to follow the footsteps of our Lord as the children of God. To quote EbonyJanice Moore, “[The] Earth is in literal pain waiting for me to show up.”
Beloved, the earth is pain waiting for you to wake up and show up. So, Let us love as we have been radically loved.
 Tool “Stinkfist” Aenima 1997; I took the liberty to reorder the chorus after the 2nd verse.
 Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK 2010. 41, “Throughout his Gospel, Luke presents Jesus as obedient to the Law and to the observances of Jewish religion. The one significant and repeated exception is when such observances, or the Law itself, are used to subvert God’s main commandment of love, in which case Jesus refuses to allow the Law to be used in such a way.” But his family are in fact good and faithful Jews.
 Gonzalez 41-2, This particular law that is being obeyed here: “In this particular case, the requirement was that every firstborn male child be redeemed—bought back—from God. This was based on the story of the Passover, when the angel of the Lord brought death to all the firstborn among the Egyptians, but ‘passed over’ the houses of the children of Israel, whose doors were sealed with the blood of a lamb. As result, God claimed possession of every firstborn male in Israel…” (Num 3:13).
 Gonzalez 42, “Curiously, Luke tells us that the Redeemer has to be redeemed, has to be bought back. This is not because he has sinned, but simply because he is a firstborn, and all the firstborn in Israel belong to God.”
 Gonzalez 42, “The paschal lamb that was sacrificed is a type of Jesus. Jesus himself is the new Passover, for in him God shows mercy to us. According to Luke and the other Synoptic Gospels, the last meal of Jesus with his disciples before the crucifixion is a paschal meal. It is there that he instituted the Lords Supper or Eucharist Here, at the presentation in the temple, another Passover theme appears: Jesus the firstborn is to be redeemed by the sacrifice of two turtledoves, and he will then redeem all humankind by his own sacrifice.”
 Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Ed. Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 141; Douglas qtd in Green. “Here Luke portrays Mary as faithful to the law, and his family as not wealthy. ‘Following the birth of a son, the mother was impure for one week after which she was bathed as a means of purification. Following this, she remained at a secondary level of impurity for thirty-three days, during which time she could touch nothing holy. She then presented an offering—if she were poor, two turtledoves or two pigeons (Lev 12:8; cf. 12:6).’”
 Green 140-1, “Hence, these ‘normal’ occurrences are laden with narrative purpose, redirecting attention to the plan of God, revealing again that Mary and Joseph are willing supporters of God’s aim, and certifying that Jesus will operate from within God’s purpose.”
And there was a warning by God to him by the Holy Spirit that he will not see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.
 Green 144, “This may be why the focal point of the characterization of Simeon in this narrative is his believability, In multiple ways-a character reference (from the unimpeachable narrator) supporting his piety, his status as an agent of the Holy Spirit, his physical location in the Jerusalem temple, and his capacity to borrow heavily from Isaiah to express his praise to God—Simeon presented as a reliable witness.”
 Green 143-4, “In particular, Simeon’s prophetic utterances surface Luke’s emphasis on the universality of the effects of Jesus’ mission. Simeon also introduces in the clearest way thus far the motif of conflict that will pervade the Lukan narrative. Not all will take the side of God’s salvific purpose; some, in fact, will oppose Jesus, God’s salvific instrument.”
 Green 145, …God’s mighty work exalts some, humbles others (1:52-53; cf. Isa 40:3). The vocabulary is absent, but the well-known image of God as the stone that causes God’s own people to stumble is echoed in Simeon’s words (cf. Isa 8:14-15; 28:13, 16).
 Green 145, Consolation as restoration of Is. Under reign of God used here specifically “Undoubtedly, then, this usage rests on the Isaianic context that is otherwise resoundingly echoed in Simeon’s Song. This anticipation is theocentric, emphasizing God’s intervention to deliver Israel from its enemies and so to usher in the epoch of peace under the peaceful, just dominion of God.”
 Green 146, “The ‘consolation of Israel’ of which Isaiah spoke was promised by God and related to his own, personal intervention in world affairs. For Simeon, who speaks for God, the coming of the ‘consolation of Israel’ is construed as the appearance of the Lord’s Messiah. It is still God’s aim reaching its consummation, but that purpose is being realized in the coming of God’s Son, the ‘Lord’s Messiah.’”
 Green 149, “Simeon emphasizes the identification of Jesus himself as this point of crisis, the one destined within God’s own purpose to reveal the secret thoughts of those who oppose the divine aim (cf. Luke 12:1-2).”
 Green 149, “The image of the sword, then, relates to Jesus’ mission of segregating those within Israel who embrace God’s salvific will from those who do not. In fulfilling this divine role, he will be opposed, just as God’s aim is opposed; indeed, the opposition will be such that it will reach as far as the experience of Mary.”
 Green 148, “Through God’s agent of salvation, people do not merely see evidence of the advent of God’s dominion, they are engulfed in it; they are, as it were, led from the dominion of darkness into the light.”
 Jürgen Moltmann “Claremont Lecture” qtd in Stephen D. Morrison Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English. Columbus, OH: Beloved Publishing, 2018. 213. “The key promise for the development of my eschatology is to be found in Isaiah’s vision: ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’ (6:3)”
 Moltmann qtd in Morrison, 222. “The confession of Hope has completely slipped through the church’s fingers…There can be no question of God’s giving up anything or anyone in the whole world, either today or in eternity…The end has to be: Behold, everything is God’s Jesus comes as the one who has borne the sins of the world.”
 W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017. 157. “The church exists as an earthly-historical community insofar as it is gathered together by this message, that is to say, insofar as this message penetrates through people’s privilege and produces new forms of life. These new forms of life are a necessary consequence of hearing the gospel message.”
Helmut Gollwitzer “Hope for the Hopeless” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edingburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. 103. Jesus Christ is a name of hope “And now with this hope, whither are we going? Not directly to heaven, but back into our earthly life, and that means into tribulation, into hopes that can be disappointed, into battles into which he sends us as his disciples, into the unpeaceful world as peacemakers, in to solidarity with the hungry and the enslaved and the prisoners.”
Have you ever been trapped? I have. I’ve been trapped by my big brother. As kids, he’d chase me through the house, yelling, “Pick your exits!” Meaning: make the choices you need to make to get outside. However, I’d panic and make just one irrational choice, and end up hiding deep in a closet or locked behind the bathroom door. Waiting…waiting for help or for the menace to leave.
I’ve felt trapped when as a young adult struggle against a destructive lifestyle that was running me into the ground. I was powerless against these forces that were controlling my days and night. No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from self-destructive behaviors. I was trapped and I need help, something or someone to intervene.
Have you felt trapped? Unable to break free? Liberty just so close but so far away?
I’ve felt trapped now, not always knowing what to do or how to move forward. Sometimes we put on a façade that things are all put together, but they aren’t always put together. False confidence, soothing and charming grins, and white lies pave our fool’s gold paved roads. Bills demand, cars break, foundations crack, family strains, and there seems to be no way through.
And I’ve not mentioned the world yet; feeling trapped and being trapped are realities in our world. Our world seems to groan and sigh under the weight of oppression and injustice, sicknesses and despairing unto death. The world and her inhabitants are weary to the point of death. As I’ve asked many times before: is hope lost?
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Is 35:3-4)
Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in words of hope; hope in darkness. In the chapter preceding the one read, God promises to execute judgment on the nations. Thus, God demonstrates his great power over the nations and his promise that a cosmic battle will ensue to defend his own. Those who come against the beloved, will have to contend with God himself and his retribution.i God does not play nice with those who use their power for evil, get drunk on authority and greed, oppress and willingly participate in the oppression of those who can’t help themselves. Mark Isaiah’s words: Zion will come to Israel; justice will flow; salvation will be Israel’s by the retributive power of God.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there. (Is 35:8-9)
Hemmed in on all sides, Israel can’t defend itself from the oppression of the surrounding nations and enemies. The oppressive nations and enemies will be parted like the waters of the red sea at the boarder of Egypt; God will usher Israel out of enslavement and captivity into Zion, life, and salvation. As if lead by the hand through that verdant garden nearly forgotten, God will walk Israel through a deadly desert on his road, protected on every side.ii
Israel will not travel on just any road, but on the “Holy Way,” the golden road paved by God himself.iii And this road is for Israel and Israel alone; for those called and sought for by God, those freed and liberated by God, those whom God defends and rescues. It is these who are the clean and pure who are in God’s company.iv Isaiah prophesies, “Behold, God’s on the move; ‘He will come.’ All will be well; keep your hope, small nation.”v
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!vi
This movement, this divine arriving, this promise all will be well is the crux of Advent. We wait, along with Israel, for the great “Holy Way” of God to be made before us, for God to place our feet upon its firm foundation. With Israel, strengthening our hands and our feeble knees, fortifying fearful hearts we wait for our God. And in a way no one expected, he shows up. He shows up in tangible redeeming love.vii
It’s in the arrival of a vulnerable baby, the one born of Mary, who will be the way, the truth, and the light through the deadly desert into Zion and Salvation. It will be upon his back our burdens will be laid as we walk unburdened out of our cages and our captivity into liberty and freedom. It will be by his hand we are led into God’s presence, where the unclean become clean, the slave become free, and the lowly are lifted. The birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the one pined for under the weight of sin and error is the advent of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death running rampant in the world. It’s in Christ, born in a manger, where those trapped reach out and grab not cold, restraining metal (bars and chain-link), but the warm, liberating, loving hand of God, and who are brought into great joy and gladness, into rest and peace, into life our of every present death.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!viii
iBrevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255. About chapters 34 and 35, “The relation is that of a reverse correspondence and together they summarize the two major parts of the Isaianic corpus: God’s power over the nations, and the exaltation of Zion for the salvation of Israel. The crucial decision to make regards the peculiar function of these chapters in their present position. Chapter 34 picks up from chapters 13-23 the call to the nations to bear witness to God’s sovereign power and to his imminent cosmological retribution. The geographical sweep is far broader than in chapters 28-33. Already the rod of punishment has been transferred from Assyria to Babylon (13:15), and the proud boasting of Assyria before its destruction (chapters 36—37) is paralleled by the taunt against the king of Babylon (chapter 14).
iiJSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc ZviBrettler (Oxford: OUP 2004). 852. “This ch [35[ is the converse of the previous one: In ch 34, a land inhabited by Judah’s enemies becomes a desert; in ch 35, the desert is transformed so that Judean exiles in Babylonia can pass through it with ease on their journey to Zion. Normally, travelers from Babylonia to the land of Israel would move northwest along the Euphrates, then southwest through Syria, avoiding the route that went directly west through the impassable desert. But this prophecy insists that the exiles will be able to go directly and quickly through the desert, because the Lord will provide water and safety for them there. This passage borrows extensibly from Jeremiah’s prediction of the exiles’ return in Jer. 31.7-9. It amplifies that prediction, while changing its historical referent from another (Israelite) exiles in Assyria to southern (Judean) exiles in Babylonia. It also deliberately recalls the vocabulary of Isaiah 32.1-6.”
iii Childs 256. “The same typological tendency to transcend the specificity of earlier texts and to extend the prophecy in a more radically eschatological mows cam to in chapter 35. The same imagery of Second Isaiah recurs–the eyes of the blind opened, the transformation of the wilderness, the highway for the returnees–yet the images have increasingly taken on a metaphorical tone. The highway is not just a means of improving the route home, but now is portrayed as a holy path reserved for the pure of heart.
iv JBS 856 “No on unclean: Since God would personally accompany the exiles (v. 4), they would have to be in a state of ritual purity.”
vChilds 257. “…chapter 35 immediately launches into an elaborate portrayal of the salvation of Israel. The imagery is not only closely related to that of chapters 40ff.—the desert blossoming, the joyful singing, the seeing of Yahweh’s glory—but the vocabulary of v. 4 offers a parallel to 40:9-10: ‘Behold, your God! He will come.’”
viOh Holy Night
vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”
*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.
I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.
In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”
You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.
In the midst of a book that is primarily  comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel,  why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?
Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.
Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.
The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).
This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.
That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.
And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.
The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.
Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.
1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study BibleTanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc ZviBrettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004.
2 Walther Eichrodt,Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451)
3“The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible).
*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.
In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I had a chance to talk shop with my twitter friend and IRL friend: Kait Dugan (@kaitdugan). Having finished Dr. Philip Ziegler’s book, Militant Grace, I was eager to find someone to discuss the core concepts of the book: eschatological-apocalyptic theology. I needed more information, and the first person who came to mind was Kait. She knows her stuff, and I really enjoy talking with her—in person and online. I chose wisely. Kait provided me—and thus you—with an excellent discussion unearthing the core body of apocalyptic theology. Through her own personal journey in her faith, Kait highlighted the fracturedness of the world under the oppression of the powers of sin and death, both of which are everywhere and seek to destroy and dehumanize. She explained the cosmic battle God wages against these powers through the advent of the crucified one, the Christ—a cosmic battle highlighting God’s radical grace and action. According to Kait, while forgiveness of sin is involved, God’s cosmic dealing with the powers of sin and death are about liberation from the powers of sin and death. She articulated that things are far worse than we can see and imagine: we are in a struggle, and it’s serious. I believe we can be myopic about our own lives and about our “sins” that we miss, according to Kait, the emergency: “The world is on fire!” If this is true then spending time perfecting your own personal and moral virtue is silly unless the personal and moral virtue is defined in terms of giving a damn that your neighbor also suffers under these powers of sin and death. Fretting about quiet times and our religious piety misses the point entirely and just gives us a saccharine moment of feel-goodness. God’s battle is for the liberation of the cosmos, and thus we are liberated in the event of encounter with God in faith to participate in that battle in the world IRL. We are liberated in our event-encounter unto joy, laughter, and living in resistance to the systemic and oppressive systems perpetuating injustice and captivity (the powers of sin and death) in our world.
A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).
Kaitlyn Dugan is the Managing Director of the Center for Barth Studies, which involves managing the daily operations, programs, and conferences of the center as well as curating, preserving, maintaining, and developing Princeton Theological Seminary’s Barth Special Research Collection. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and political science from Taylor University, a Master of Arts in theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing her PhD in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen. Her research is focused on the role of Death in Pauline apocalyptic theology. Kait is a member of St. James Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Harlem, New York City.
I don’t talk about this fact of my life often, but I was raised in a wealthy environment. In the world of the elite and the privileged, I am comfortable. Among hunt clubs, country clubs, cotillion, and the weekend house in Vermont, I was raised and trained to be skilled for any social situation. I understand not only the demands and pressures of this type of life, but also the demand for right social etiquette. So, whenever Jesus is addressing the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful, I feel the weight of his exhortations. Jesus’s words hit too close to home. I prefer it when Jesus speaks of another group of people, one that I’m not associated with through birth and upbringing. But, alas, here we are in Luke 14 with the elite and their etiquette being called out, and I’m guilty. My number’s been pulled (again), and I have no choice but to listen to the voice of my Lord and my savior.
At a dinner party, Jesus engages the guests with a story about what to do when invited to a dinner. Don’t take the foremost seat, Jesus says. Take the lower seat and allow yourself to be invited to the position of honor. Here’s the reason: you’ll avoid the shame of being asked to move to take possession of the last place. While avoiding risk, you may also incur reward: you’ll receive the glory being asked to move to the more honorable place. Finally, this makes sense to us. Isn’t Jesus’s reasoning in vv. 7-10 logical? Sit lower at the table to avoid being embarrassed by being asked to move. And maybe, you’ll even gain some pleasure in being called friend and given the place of honor!  This is win/win. Right? This is etiquette Emily Post can get behind!
Or is it?
v.11 [Because] All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Verse 11 is the right-hook of right-hooks in this passage. We should’ve known better than to trust that Jesus and Luke were finally on our side. While at first glance v. 11 looks to be the tl:dr of the previous discussion about choosing your seat at the next wedding banquet you attend, it’s anything but. To seize the place of honor with hopes it would not be taken away would validate one’s elite position in society. But, like the healing of the bent woman on the Sabbath in chapter 13, Jesus challenges our allegiance to laws and rules. He’s saying: do not vie for the top seat; forgo that affirmation. Sit, Jesus says, sit for all to see in the last seat; let honor be given to you and do not seize it for yourself.
Receive honor; not take it. Let it be placed in the hand. But what if we don’t get the honor we think we deserve? Could you imagine being so empty handed, waiting for your host to call you forth, giving you the place of honor, the place you swore was rightfully yours? Could you watch as someone else was given that seat? Could you admit maybe you didn’t deserve it?
Humility is not about relinquishing your personhood and self; it’s not about stripping the self of dignity and humanity. Rather, humility is the art of being in the fullness of your embodied self, and intentionally stepping aside, saying, “No…you.” It’s the voluntary full-self self-sacrifice bringing life to others where there should’ve been death. It’s the moment where you shrug off what’s rightfully yours, to identify with those significantly below your status. This is the level of humility that is the call on every disciple who follows Christ.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:3-8)
Apart from the exhortation to follow after Christ, taking the lesser station over and against the higher station you believe you deserve, there’s a deeper eschatological (last) aspect at play. This “last” (eschatological) aspect incorporates the view to a new order inaugurated by the advent of the Christ into the world.  In the most beautiful of all divine subterfuge, Jesus steals the position of host and offers his host (now guest) a lesson about the true table etiquette of heaven, the last will be first and the first will be last.
Jesus explains: do not invite those people who’ll bolster your status in society (friends, brothers, relatives, and wealthy neighbors), who can repay the invite. Rather, invite those who are not worthy according to society’s standard. According to Jesus, it’s about using what you have to bless those who have not and (precisely because they) cannot repay you for your hospitality.  Those who are beggarly and cowering over, the maimed, and the blind are the unworthy of society and thus the most worthy in the economy of the reign of God.  Standard social and religious conventions are met (once again) with divine the sentence in Christ: XXX. 
Inviting those who are from the fringe of society, the “unclean/untouchables,” would be death to one’s social status, according to the system of the day. And yet it is precisely these that Jesus exhorts his hearers to invite to their banquettes—even if the invitation is wasted, and the one invited cannot reciprocate.  Both the rich and the poor knew the system; thus this command form Jesus, this exhortation, puts both the rich and the poor into one bind: risk your pride. The etiquette of the kingdom of humanity collapses under the weight of Jesus’s inaugurated new order of the reign of God .
It’s hard to receive a gift you haven’t earned and can’t repay. It is hard to give a gift without expectation of gratitude in the form of repayment. Jesus folds these extremes in and makes them meet at one point: the reign of God. The war is waged not with human beings but on behalf of them; not with creation, but on behalf of it. The war Jesus leads is against those forces that keep division and placing intact to keep people from people; those forces of sin and death that keep the rich from the poor and poor from the rich.
There’s no way around it, according to Jesus, we’re to engage and give to those who cannot repay in kind; this is “blessed.” Those who receive and cannot repay and those who give without expecting repayment: they are the blessed. These who are first are last and these last are first.
The reign of God comes to fruition in this meager and simple act. It’s not grand and abundant sacrifice; it is an invitation to dinner. Jesus rewrites the symphonic tones of what it means to be in communion; the orchestra plays and the band responds; each gives as needed and takes as is given. And community, real, true community abounds. The kind of community that is marked by the characteristic of divine love that causes heads to turn: those are Christians.
As a priest called by God to tend the flock, I now set for and serve you from the table of the banquette of the wilderness; a humble table set for one (one cup, one plate) that is for all people. Bread placed in the diversity of hands having done everything to those that have yet to do a thing—the bread of heaven knows no distinctions. I get to participate in the event of baptism ushering you in to this whacky and absurd reign of God that turns everything upside; I get to wash you and welcome you. In short, I get the opportunity to serve you, invite you to the table and to the water, tend to your cares and concerns, remind you that God is good and that you are the beloved.
The last one into the Jordan was the first one out; it is he who is the first to embrace a death he didn’t deserve to be called to the place of honor. It is he who arrives at the banquette table in the wilderness of the new heavens and the new earth to make room for us, the very last. And we come, anxious, limping, hunched over, exhausted, with nothing to offer but our deep gratitude for the free gift of life that we could never ever repay. You are the beloved. God is good.
 From the Greek text..και ελθων ο σε και αθτον καλεσας ερει σοι «δος τουτω τοπον,» και τοτε αρξε μετα αισχθνης τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν.
 From the Greek text see the second half of fn 1 (τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν)
 From the Greek text “φιλε, προσαναβηθι ανωτερον; τοτε εσται σοι δοξα ενωπιον παντων των σθνανακειμενων σοι.
 Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). 551, “…he demarcates a more prudent strategy when entering a banquet room. Because honor is socially determined, if one’s claim to honor fails to be reciprocated by one’s audience, one is publicly humiliated. Better, Jesus says, that might not be granted.”
 Green 550, “…where one sat (was assigned or allowed to sit) at a meal vis-à-vis the host was a public advertisement of one’s status; as a consequence, the matter of seating arrangements was carefully attended and, in this agonistic society, one might presume to claim a more honorable seat with the hope that it (and the honor that went with it) might be granted. What is more, because meals were used to publicize and reinforce social hierarchy, invitations to meals were themselves carefully considered so as to allow to one’s table only one’s own inner circle, or only those persons whose presence at one’s table would either enhance or at least preserve one’s social position.”
 Green 552, “The aphorism of v 11, then, must first be read as an indication of what God values, of what is most highly valued in the kingdom of God, and of the basis on which judgment will be enacted. …those whose dispositions have been transformed to reflect the divine economy, v 11 can be read as moral guidance, reflected in behavior advised in vv. 8-10; read in this way, Jesus’ “parable” is not designed to provide one with a new strategy by which one might obtain the commendation of one’s peers. Instead, it insists that the only commendation one needs comes from the God who is unimpressed with such social credentials as govern social relations in Luke’s world…”
 Green 542-3, “Relative to his table companions in 14:1-24, Jesus has a distinctive view of the world, shaped fundamentally by his experience of the Spirit, his understanding of the merciful God, and his awareness of the presence of God’s redemptive project, the kingdom of God, in his ministry. Within this immediate co-text, Jesus’ version of dining etiquette, shaped fundamentally by these preunderstandings and dispositions, comes to expression as a warning and invitation to his companions at the table, Pharisees and scribes. Within its larger co-text in the Third Gospel, however, the reach of Jesus’ message is more inclusive, calling for an embodiment of the kingdom of God in the social practices of Pharisees and legal experts, yes, but also in the behavior of his followers and the people as a whole.”
 A potential play on words here considering that the word Luke puts in Jesus’s mouth to describe the last spot is “εσχατον” to speak of the “last place” at the table.
 Justo Gonzalez Luke “Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible” Louisville, KY: WJK 2010 180, “But at a deeper level one can see the eschatological reference of his words. Jesus speaks of a ‘wedding banquet’—a subtle reference to the final day of celebration, repeatedly depicted in the Bible as a wedding feast. Then he concludes his remarks by applying them to the larger, eschatological dimension of the final judgment and the new order of the kingdom, which reverses the present human order: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”
 From the Greek text “…μη φωνει τους φιλους σου μηδε τους αδελφους σου μεηδε τους συγγεωεις σου μηδε γειτονας πλουσιους…”
 Gonzalez 180, “The reason invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind is precisely that they cannot repay you, and you can expect payment only at the day, at the resurrection of the righteous.”
 From the Greek text: πτωχους, αναπειρους, χωλους, τυφλπυς
 Green 553, “Jesus’ message overturns such preoccupations, presenting ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’—notable examples of those relegated to low status, marginalized according to normal canons of status honor in the Mediterranean world—as persons to be numbered among one’s table intimates and, by analogy, among the people of God.”
 Gonzalez 180, “What Jesus now says and proposes is contrary to all rules of etiquette. Then, as today, it was quite common for people to invite to a dinner those who were of equal social standing with them—family, friends, colleagues…When one holds such a dinner, the guests are expected to return the invitation. To us. This would seem normal. But Jesus sees things differently: when a former guest invites you, you have already been repaid. While we might consider this an advantage, or at least the normal order of things. Jesus proposes inviting those who cannot repay…Surprising as this may seem to us, it would have been even more surprising for the host whom Jesus is addressing, for it was precisely such people whom a good Pharisee would consider not only unworthy but also religiously unclean. Thus Jesus is rejecting both social and religious convention.”
 Green 550, “To accept an invitation was to obligate oneself to extend a comparable one, a practice that circumscribed the list of those to whom one might extend an invitation. The powerful and privileged would not ordinarily think to invite the poor to their meals, for this would (1) possibly endanger the social status of the host; (2) be a wasted invitation, since the self-interests of the elite could never be served by an invitation that could not be reciprocated; and (3) ensue in embarrassment for the poor, who could not reciprocate and, therefore, would be required by social protocols to decline the invitation.”
 Green 553, “The behaviors Jesus demands would collapse the distance between rich and poor, insider and outsider; reverting to anthropological models of economic exchange, such relations would be characterized by ‘generalized reciprocity’—that is, by the giving of gifts, the extension of hospitality, without expectation of return…”
The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.
We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward, unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.
When she appears, Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.
On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again) and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.
And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.
As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.
In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind. After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.
Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…
 More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.
 The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.
 The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.
 Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.
 Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.