Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Year, Same Stuff

Hebrews 2: 10-18

I’m old enough to remember New Coke. Some of you are too. Remember in the 80’s how Coke decided that they needed to improve the recipe of the drink they’d dominated the market in for so many years? No one knows why—maybe Pepsi was starting to gain on them. Anyway, they did adjust the recipe, the art on the cans and bottles was tweaked ever so slightly, and a very big marketing push was started.

And it sank like a rock. Quickly, Coke re-introduced the old recipe as “Coke Classic”, and recovered. I think it still says “Coke Classic” on the can, though the new Coke has long since disappeared.

Sometimes it happens like that. Once, one of my favorite football teams, the San Francisco 49ers, decided the time had come to change the logo on the side of the helmet. They wanted to go from the red, gold, and black "SF" inside the oval to “49ers” in some odd, jagged lettering. There was one press conference where they introduced it, and the outcry was so strong against the change, even among the press at the conference itself, that they never implemented it. Eagles fans would have done the same thing if they had wanted to take the wings off the helmet. I expect that fans of the Rams, Vikings, and Seahawks would have reacted the same way. Have they ever tried to put a Steelers logo on both sides?

Innovation isn’t always good. Sometimes what is old is precisely that because it can’t be improved on. Cast iron pans for cornbread are still used just like the cowboys did. Canning is still done in glass and with hot water and paraffin.

I do understand the urge to change things, though—if you were raised with something, then it makes sense to me to explore different ways of doing things. And sometimes innovation does make things better. Bill Monroe took old time mountain music, added jazz, and invented bluegrass.

When we talk about Jesus, we can say a lot of things about him that people 100 years ago couldn’t say. We know more about his diet than we did then, we can guess more accurately about what he might have been thinking because we know more about how humans think, and astronomy can tell us more accurately what the star might have been.

But some things really can’t be improved. 40 years ago, the talk was all about how God had died. No one is really arguing that anymore. Now, some people suggest that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier and a young victim named Mary. I expect in 40 years that that discussion will also have fallen by the wayside, too. Innovation is good, because it is always asking questions in order to learn more, but in theology and the things of the faith, the basic answers always come out in the end. That's how we know they are true.

We shouldn’t be afraid of any questions that may be asked, no matter how much they make us uncomfortable, tense, or feel as if they are out of bounds. Slavery would never have been abolished if not for new ways of thinking. Women ministers would never have been allowed if not for innovation.

In fact, it should be easy for us to explore anything that is a little off the wall, because we have a rock-hard foundation.

The author of Hebrews knows this, and is telling it to their audience throughout the letter. For them, the rock hard foundation is that Christ is for us, and for all. He is connected both to God and to us. He is considered the highest of high priests, and in our passage today, is fully human, so that we may understand that God understands us.

There is nothing innovative or new about that. Hebrews is an old text, and the author is already reminding people of what they already know, not telling them something new.

Verse 16 talks about how Jesus didn't come to help the angels, but the descendants of Abraham. The author recalls Psalm 8, where it says that God has created humanity a little lower than God, and just a little lower than the angels, presumably. There's a song that basically asks the question; if we are created a little lower than the angels, then why do we have so much trouble making ends meet? Why do we work so hard, and sacrifice so much? Why do we, to borrow the image from an ad on the radio, sometimes have to choose between diapers and tuna? If we are but a little lower than God, shouldn't this all be easy?

Apparently not. And Jesus' role is to be with us in our struggle, knowing full well what struggle is. No, he may not have needed to buy new snow tires. He may not have had to struggle with a learning disability. But he was the child of a mother who got pregnant before she was married. He may or may not have been the son of the man who claimed to be his father. Growing up the son of a carpenter may have been comfortable, or it may have been hard as work was spotty. And of course, he died in one of the most painful ways humans ever devised to kill each other. Human struggle is not news to Jesus. His humanity is what connects us to him more than how great he is as the son of God.

To put it into another term, though he was the son of God, though he was present at the creation of the universe as "the word", because he was raised as a human being by ordinary human beings, he did have "that common touch". And it's not even to say that he learned anything--if he is the Son of God, and God as well, then he knew already what being human was like. But living through it was, for us, to understand that he knew. We saw him live in the flesh, and that is the basis of our love, not just our worship and adoration.

He "gets" us. There is nothing new about that. The church claims that Jesus is both fully human, flesh and blood, and fully divine, the Son of God and the Word, the Logos. And while we don't necessarily understand the mechanics of that, how it works, we know it to be true. It has been a basic belief ever since he was alive, and 2007 years of questioning and innovation hasn't changed that. We still believe it now.

This is the last week of the old year. We'll be seeing pictures of an old man with a beard wearing a sash that says 2007 soon, if you haven't already. Jesus will be in the New Year as he was in the old. It's a New Year, but it's the same stuff. It's a New Year, but we are carrying our same stuff into it, as well; our same bills, our same problems, our same "baggage". And Jesus, in the Holy Spirit, will be walking with us, just the same as yesterday, last year, and as he has throughout our lives.

My prayer for you this year is that you trust him more than you did last year. That you can stop and listen more. That you find or carve out silence, away from radios and ipods and Nintendo and screaming kids and just listen. Don't worry about flowery language when you pray. Just say what's on your mind, and then just Listen.

He'll still be there, just the same as he's always been.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Not Resolutions, but. . .

It's the time of year when people naturally think about life and what can be done differently, better, etc. I'm not much for resolutions, per se, but I do understand the drive to review one's life. The light is beginning to return to the world, as my friend Audrey commemorated on Dec. 22 with a little campfire at sunrise (a thing I might join her in doing, next year), and it is the time to think about what the new light will find as it grows.

I have little things that I would like to accomplish this coming year, like getting more music by Elton John and Stevie Wonder. I had a song by Stevie Wonder running through my head a good part of the day yesterday, ever since Donna and I stayed up way too late the night before watching "High Fidelity", with John Cusack. As the movie ends, there's a song called "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)". The thing was very sticky!

There's bigger stuff that is coming than that, of course. There are 3 things, and I mention them here because this is where my head is.

  1. It's time to eat differently. I think that if I can drop some of these lovable curves, specific benefits will happen; I'll spend less money on meds, i'll spend less time limping from various knee and ankle pains, i'll have more energy, and i'll feel better.
  2. As we speak, there are two books on how to play Celtic/Irish mandolin in the care of the United States Postal Service. I want to learn more about how to play in that style, and more about picking in general.
  3. Starting January 6, I formally begin a year's novitiate as an Oblate in the Order of St. Benedict, through a Methodist "monastery" called St. Brigid of Kildare in Minnesota. It was created as effort of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in the 80's and has cooked along since then. There are currently about 25 members. As part of this year, I will have a series of conversations about discipline, the Rule of St. Benedict, and I guess how Wesleyanism and this style of submission to a Rule would intersect.

I haven't forgotten about the post(s) about the Golden Compass, I just haven't gotten there yet.

Something’s Here!

Christmas Eve 2007
Isaiah 9: 2-7, Luke 1:26-35, 38, Luke 2: 1-20

So, here we are, at the end of Advent. The candles have been lit, the songs sung, the Scriptures read, and the promise of the Peaceable Kingdom pictured.

We’ve listened to Isaiah’s prophecies of what is coming for God’s people—in the midst of their fear of invasion, of war, of the loss of their connection to God, there is Isaiah, speaking the word of hope to the people.

That in God, there will be grace, when people shall be able to live together and cherish each other, and all shall approach God for judgment upon his holy mountain;

That in God, there will be peace, when guns and bombs will no longer be necessary, and children will be able to play near the den of poisonous snakes;

That, in God, there will be Joy, when weaknesses of body and mind will be lifted and all shall be strong and can dance in the presence of God;

That, in God, there will be Hope, when we can live and love on God’s schedule, and not always be trusting only in our own abilities.

A good friend wrote a poem about what Isaiah was prophesying for us, and it is the poem we’ve been using to light the Advent candles for the past four weeks;

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, as you spoke long ago.
Tell the news that comes from Zion; bring the hope we long to know.
Swords and spears are found in gardens tilling soil and pruning trees.
Schools of war are closed and shuttered; from that madness all are freed.

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, of the one from Jesse’s tree.
Tell us of his thirst for justice and his zeal for equity.
In his realm the wolf is harmless; calves with lions rest secure;
Nursing children feel no danger, peace and amity now endure.

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, how the desert will rejoice
As all the exiles struggle homeward and the ransomed find their voice.
Tell how God will heal the sightless, loose the mute, and heal the lame;
How, when they return to Zion, all will praise God’s Holy Name.

Now we come, o blest Isaiah, to the dawning of the morn
When the God of every nation will appear in human form.
What you saw and spoke so boldly in your great prophetic dream
We now see with jubilation in the simple Nazarene.

The simple Nazarene. The boy who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents were compelled to escape to Egypt, who returned and lived and grew in Nazareth. The God of every nation has now appeared in human form, as a baby in a feedbox in a stable to a poor, young, as-yet-unwed mother.

This, this, is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Come quickly, Come quickly to bring him praise, the baby of Mary.

This is our Christ, the one sent by God to teach us about God’s own love for us. This is Our Christ, the one who grew into a man and a teacher. This is our Christ, who grew into the man who chose to teach us the greatest lesson of love. His death showed us the fullness of the love of God, and his resurrection taught us that God is more powerful even than death. All of this, from birth to death, was all for the love of us, the descendants of the two he originally created to be companions.

Christmas calls us to pay attention to one thing—that God is with us; that God came and was among us for a while. Oh, sure; he wasn’t wearing jeans or a suit, he wore a robe; he didn’t drive a car or fly a plane, he walked or rode a donkey; He didn’t listen to an iPod or play Nintendo, but he did dance to music and laughed at weddings. He wasn’t born into the 21st century, but he did all of the important, eternal things that make us human. He had parents, he went through puberty, he was rebellious a time or two.

Because he was born the way we are, because he grew the way we grow, because he felt pain the way we do, we now know that he knows us. And he started as a baby that we celebrate the birth of, tonight.

All through Advent, something’s been coming—Grace, Peace, Joy and Hope. Well, now, Something’s Here! Immanuel, God with us. We can claim that our God knows us because our Lord became human. And that is worth all the Glory, Praise and Honor we can gather up!

Amen and Alleluia!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Something’s Coming—Hope

Isaiah 7: 10-16

Now we come, o blest Isaiah, to the dawning of the morn
When the God of every nation will appear in human form.
What you saw and spoke so boldly in your great prophetic dream
We now see with jubilation in the simple Nazarene.
--Used with permission of the author, John Thornburg

(2 Kings 16: 1-20)

In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of King Jotham of Judah became King. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was good in the sight of God, but followed in the ways of the kings of Israel. . .

Eyes rolled back in your head yet? Yeah, Not a very Christmassy passage. It's from 2 Kings, and is the historical account of what Isaiah refers to. It’s full of history, it’s full of impending war, geo-political maneuvering, and a ruler who ignores God, trusting to his own instincts. Hmmm. . . .

Yeah, not very Christmassy. Still, there’s a reason why we read this Isaiah passage during Advent. It’s because we, as Christians, understand verse 14 in a special, unique way. We understand that young woman (the most accurate translations do not say virgin) to be Mary, and we understand that child to be Jesus. He is the one who has come to be with us, to be Immanuel.

But there is a more universal reading of this passage. Ahaz’s actions can teach us something all on their own, without our needing to jump right to Isaiah 7:14.

So, back to the history lesson, just a little more concise.

Ahaz. King of Judah, is confronted on two sides by armies. One is the army of Syria, one is the Army of Israel. Both are armies backed by bigger regional powers, and Judah is being told to submit. Ahaz gets it into his mind to ask Assyria for help, the big daddy of all empires at this time in world history. Ahaz will trade Judah’s sovereignty, their independence, for security against these other two powers.

Problem is, he’s doing this against the advice of Isaiah, his prophet, and against the covenant that Judah has with God. Israel at this point is already a foreign country, long gone in terms of faithfulness to God. Judah is heading that way, especially with Ahaz as it’s king. He is the descendant of David, the holder of the covenant with God, and was required to model faith in the face of everything, even something as heavy as this.

And he’s not doing it. In old Texas Honky Tonk language, "he ain't dancing with what brung him." His reason sounds pious and god-fearing: "I refuse to put God to the test”, he says. Great! The problem is that his God-based advisor is telling him to, giving him permission to. So Ahaz' approach to Assyria is a pretty bullheaded, faithless, cynical response hiding behind a pious face. And Isaiah will have none of it. He gives Ahaz the sign anyway—a young woman is going to conceive and bear a son, and by the time that son is old enough to know right from wrong, this danger will be over.

Now, Isaiah may know who the baby is, he may know the mother. It might be Ahaz’ own son, it may just be Isaiah saying that this danger will be soon past. Whatever—It is pretty clear that Isaiah is talking about a specific national crisis at a specific time. He is almost definitely not prophesying about the coming of one of Ahaz's own descendants, a baby born in Bethlehem some 700 years later.

Here is his message—Put your faith in God, not in your own political wrangling. Put your faith in God, not in Assyria, who was a former enemy. Put your faith in God, because God will turn things to the good for His chosen people, on his time.

What was true for Ahaz to remember in his time is true for us in our time. We too live in a time of war, a time when piety and “God talk” hide much more secular motivations, a time when people say that they have trust in God, but their actions show that they trust their own minds much more.

What we forget is that, just like Ahaz, what troubles us is also temporary, and will also soon be taken care of in God’s own time. God took care of us in the birth of his son. God took care that we could know him most fully in the birth of a baby, one that grows over time, God’s time, to become the savior, and the teacher. It is through Christ that we know God’s character.

We know that God does deliver. It isn't according to our schedule, it isn't according to our plan, but we know it happens. That time of waiting patiently and actively for God to reveal God's plan is filled with hope. Hope is something deeper here than "I hope that there is a Nintendo Wii under the Christmas tree." This sort of hope is knowing that what is coming is Good, will benefit the whole world. Hope is knowing that the city on the mountain, the New Jerusalem, the Peaceable Kingdom, is already out there, just out of sight. Hope is living like it has arrived. Ahaz' cynical approach to the crisis of Judah, to submit to a former enemy in order to protect Judah from current ones, went against the national character as the nation of God, distrusted God's own command AND historical precedent, and ignored his own mandate as the King of the nation.

Far too often, we rely more on what we see, tangible items, rather than on God, don't we? We plan according to what we have on hand, rather than on what we are being asked to do. We seek security in the physical, rather than security and trust in the Lord.

Well, folks, behold--A young woman is about to conceive and bear a son, and by the time he knows good from evil, our troubles will have been resolved. That little child's' name is Immanuel--God is with us.

Trust in him, and in God, who has brought you this far, after all! Why not dance with what bring ya!

Friday, December 21, 2007


This is the sermon preached by Carol last week, as promised!

By Carol Folk
Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's, Dec. 16, 2007

Waiting…that’s not a word many of us like, is it? The statistics about waiting are staggering. Someone somewhere has compiled the figures which indicate how many minutes (and hours) we spend waiting in specific places over the course of a year. But, we still don’t do really well, do we?

I once heard a poem about a young boy who couldn’t wait to be a teen-ager, then in his twenties, then thirties, etc. When he was old, he wished he was young again. Like many people of our day and age, he wasn’t satisfied to live in the moment.

What are we waiting for? The retail stores at this time of year are waiting for us to spend our hard-earned money with them.

Children aren’t always patient are they? I often think of my two children beginning a trip with the words, “Are we there yet?”

During Advent, waiting comes to my mind; it is a time of waiting, isn’t it? Waiting for the celebration of the birth of our Savior.

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading the book, A Bethlehem Christmas, by Charles Swindoll. In this book, Swindoll tells the stories of Mary, Joseph, and Gabriel in the first person. For me, this book really makes the characters in the Christmas story come to life. He tells us of a young lady who comes from a close knit Jewish family. Mary’s father, Eli, was a stone mason and the family lived in the tiny village of Nazareth. Most of the residents of the town were related, but the town was often used as a base for Roman Soldiers, due to its location. It was a small town, but outsiders often looked down on the Nazarites because of their contact with the Gentile soldiers.

Swindoll’s account tells of Mary meeting Joseph, who was a carpenter from Cana, about two hours from Nazareth, and even though their marriage was arranged, the two fell in love.

After the marriage contract was signed, Mary and Joseph had to wait 12 months for the marriage feast to take place. It was during this time period that an angel appeared to Mary and informed her that she was the “Favored One.” The angel tells Mary that she will become pregnant and bear a Son; not just any son, but the Son of the Most High. Mary suddenly realizes that the baby that she will bear will be the Messiah, the Son of God. Mary had been waiting for one thing, her marriage, but now she knows she is being used by God to bear His Son.

Can you imagine the emotion of Mary’s family, and Joseph, when she told them that she was fulfilling the promise of God that was told to them in Isaiah? We’re told that Joseph left the house and wasn’t heard from for three months and Mary’s father decided that it would be best for her to leave town. Mary went to visit Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was up in age, but also pregnant. Elizabeth realized as soon as she saw Mary that she was to be the Mother of the Messiah. Mary found comfort in Elizabeth and stayed with her for several months.


After about three months Mary returns home and her father surprises her by taking her to Cana to be re-united with Joseph. Joseph had spent the same three months looking for answers in the temple and praying that he would be led in the right direction. Joseph revealed that an angel had appeared to him during his time in the temple and confirmed what Mary had told him, that she was to be the mother of the Messiah.

I love the way that Swindoll expands upon the ever familiar story of Christ’s birth to the virgin Mary. Mary & Joseph go to Bethlehem , which was Joseph’s ancestral city. Bethlehem was teeming with visitors from near and far and Mary and Joseph were left with a stable to use for their lodging. Swindoll tells us that Mary calms herself while Joseph is away by singing songs from her youth, and, when the baby finally comes, they tear Joseph’s tunic into strips of cloth to wrap the child in.

Can you imagine the shock that Mary & Joseph felt when they were visited by a band of shepherds? Shepherds were treated as outcasts, but they had been given a message of great joy by an angel and were directed to where the baby was laying in a feeding trough. They came looking for the Messiah, the “Son of God.”

Swindoll’s book has made it much easier for me to picture Mary and Joseph in very rough surroundings holding their new baby, the baby that would die for our sins.
And Mary, the new Mom, was left to ponder the meaning of what it would mean for her son to be the “Son of God.” How could she have known what that would mean during the course of His life?

God had prepared Mary & Joseph from their youth to be parents of His Son—they both came from devout families and took their responsibility seriously. How would we react to a challenge such as the one Mary & Joseph were given?

What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for Christ to come again before we spread His love to others? Are we waiting for God to appear to us in a dream before we show forgiveness to someone who may have hurt us? How can we make a special effort during this Christmas season to show Christ’s love in a way that makes His love real to someone that doesn’t know Him?

Psychological Neccessity

In other words, a non-focused, random rant:

  1. Jesus has never been the only reason for the season. He's the reason for my season, sure, but the varied traditions of Christmas have always been a mix of good and bad; as much about marketing and retail, family, and the ancient need to supercede pagan festivals as about celebrating the birth of the Lord. It's a cultural holiday for us in America and Europe, and as far as Christmas goes, it's nowhere near as big a deal in other, less retail-obsessed parts of the world.
  2. We've even screwed up the original meaning of Hanukah, which is even less about retail excess than the Feast of the Nativity. That particular festival is about making do with less, and discovering just how far it will go.
  3. "Happy Holidays" is a reasonable, hospitable greeting in a multicultural, non-Christian nation like the United States. It is perfectly allowable for other religions to share the calendar (a calendar that is already based on when Christ was born, after all). In fact, considering Christ's demand of us that we be hospitable to all children of God, it's actually MORE Christian to greet people with the proper greeting for their tradition, or if you don't know it, to say "Happy Holidays", "Seasons' Greetings", or somesuch. I am actually offended when people in letters to the editor and other venues demand salespeople and other service workers greet them only with "Merry Christmas".
  4. Jessica Simpson can go to any football game she wants. D'jever think that she's not just showing up to watch Tony Romo play, though it is sweet that she did? Don't forget, the woman is from Texas, she grew up in the DFW area during the time when there was just one NFL team in Texas, and they were half an hour away. She might not show up if Romo was playing for, say, Cincinnati. T.O. was just joking, but it didn't apparently transfer well in print. Any Dallas fans threaten her life yet? Eejits.
  5. Nothing promotes solitude in the presence of the Lord like a trip to Arena Hub Plaza/Wyoming Valley Mall (Wilkes Barre's major retail area) between the 15th and the 24th of December. It would make anyone a hermit.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Week Just Past

This past week was a little out of the ordinary. My father had surgery, and I went to help where I could, standing anti-bacterial guard over him, or sitting with my nephews. I got some reading done, and yes, I have finished The Golden Compass. I will post thoughts this week, after I get Christmas Eve and Sunday squared away, and deliver some communion to folks who can't get out.

There is no sermon from me this week, I knew I wouldn't be able to give quality time to it. A good friend from Shavertown, Carol Folk, braved the snow, sleet, and ice to preach at all three services on Sunday. If she assents, I will post her sermon here this week.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Golden Compassing

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from one of my new parishioners. It was a chain-e-mail warning that the movie The Golden Compass was basically a tool to recruit youth to atheism. At that point, I pledged to that parishioner that I would go get the book and read it, and I would try to see the movie, and then, and ONLY then, would I feel qualified to judge the merits of the argument.

Two weeks later, I got a very similar e-mail from another current parishioner. I replied similarly to them, but adding the statement that I hadn't yet gotten the book.

This weekend, I got a third very similar e-mail, this time from a parishioner at a church I used to serve. At that point, I still hadn't gotten the book.

I take the hint! I am going to Delaware this week, and I have a gift card to a bookstore down there. I will use it to buy as much of the series as I can.

After that first e-mail, I read a few articles online about the author, Phillip Pullman. (Don't worry, they were from repuatable sites like regular British newspapers.) Indeed, he is an atheist. From what I gather in the articles, he is a much more genial atheist than guys like Christopher Hitchens. He personally chooses not to believe, but he doesn't seem to mind particularly that others do. His big beef is with a monolithic church that demands assent and seeks to run people's lives. In the books, apparently, he has created a "magisterium", which functions much as the worst parts of organized religion do. And in England, where he's from, the organized church means the state church, the Church of England. That particular church is invovled in the official and governmental life of England in a way that is foreign to us in the US.

A few things about me as I begin this project--I enjoy fantasy, though my patience runs out quickly with certain formulas (Robert Jordan, anyone?). I also enjoy movies. This project will not be entirely a chore. I am not going into it with the attitude that sin and heresy are present, and I am seeking it where it lives and destroying it. I do, however, have the ability to name what I consider to be theologically suspect, even as I enjoy the storytelling.

So, I am going to read the whole series of three, and I will see the movie of the first one. But I will warn people--I approach controversies like this from a very skeptical angle. Often, I believe, books like this, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the like are protested because one particular scene or idea is taken out of context, and made to be heretical. Usually the controversy is kindled by folks who never actually even try to see what the author/moviemaker intended. And the intended statment of the movie turns out to be entirely orthodox, devotional, or something that religious people probably should hear. Don't get me started on one of my favorite TV shows ever, Nothing Sacred, about an inner city Catholic priest, which lasted one season on ABC 15-20 years ago.

It may happen that I will blog periodically as I am trying to fit in reading these books along with the rest of my vocation as a pastor. If they are a quick read, then I will write less.

Who knows?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Something’s Coming—Peace

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, of the one from Jesse's Tree.
Tell us of his thirst for justice and His zeal for equity.
In his realm the wolf is harmless; calves with lions rest secure;
nursing children feel no danger; peace and amity now endure.
Used with permission of the author, John Thornburg

One of the more famous paintings in American Art was painted in 1834 by a Quaker minister and artist named Edward Hicks. He was born and was always based about 2 hours south of here, in Bucks County, PA.

The painting is that extra sheet that came with this morning’s bulletin. It’s called “The Peaceable Kingdom”, and its inspiration is this morning’s Isaiah passage. In the foreground, there are all the animals mentioned in the Bible passage, as well as the child whose hand lays over the snakes’ den. The landscape in the middle is pretty close to some of the scenes you see all down the Susquehanna and the Delaware, and on the left in the distance, you see Indians and other people dressed in colonial manner. That is a representation of William Penn’s signing of his treaty with the Lenni-Lenape tribe when he came to found what is now our state.

Hicks’ claim, through this painting, is that Pennsylvania was founded on peaceful and respectful principles, and that the Quaker commitment to peace was to be practiced and followed. And he chose, as his medium, Isaiah’s statement that peace looks as crazy to us as a baby putting her hand over a cobra’s den.

Crazy is sometimes what we think of peace. It just doesn’t seem realistic, does it? There’s just too many people who are against us, too many countries who seem to want to do us harm, people who are tying to take advantage of us. If we really believe in peace, peace of Christ, we have to care for these people, and their feelings about us are irrelevant. It really is the peace that passes understanding, sometime. As Isaiah shows us, it is a peace that goes against nature, at least the nature we think we understand. The nature that makes us nervous when children get around poisonous snakes, the nature that we observe when we see bears hunting salmon, or wolves hunting deer. That's what nature is, to us.

But Isaiah's vision is another kind of nature. It's the nature of God, the way God designed the world, originally. It's the nature of Eden, the time before Adam and Eve messed things up. You see, Christian theologians, those people who think about God, say that when Adam and Eve ate of the apple and were banished, they didn't just mess themselves up-- they unleashed their sin into the world, and it is that sin that now is in evidence in that natural world, just as it is in evidence in the world of humanity.

It is into that world that Jesus was born, where the negative reactions of some people to his preaching, his teaching, his existence, could have been explained by saying that people were relying on their "animal" instincts. The instinct to fight or to run away, to destroy whatever it is that is threatening you, this is animal instinct all right, but it is from a sort of animal that is "fallen", in a way, no less than humanity. Jesus was born into this way of life, and as a human being, struggled with that same life. Part of our lesson from Jesus is that he did overcome his "animal instinct". He loved those who persecuted him. He did not allow natural fear to guide his actions when he was challenged and threatened.

And I think his lesson for us here was that when you act not out of animal instincts, but instead out of the love of God, you can do things like walk unharmed through a crowd of people intent on hurting you, like he did when he visited Nazareth. When we as Christians say we want to be like Jesus, what I think we mean is to live as if the new world has already come, the new world of a new Eden. I said last week that we should live in the world as if it is already that shining city on a mountain. This story is the same lesson; it is Isaiah teaching the same idea a different way.

Life on earth as a Christian, then is a lifetime struggle between living a life as if Jesus has returned, and contending with the rest of a world that doesn't see it yet. We are caught between the instincts of the peaceable kingdom, a vision of God's will in the natural world, and the instincts of the fallen world we were born into, where wolves hunt and kill weak and young sheep, and are shot in turn by angry farmers. Where animals feel threatened and attack when cornered. Where human beings individually and as societies seek to hurt back when they are hurt, and sometimes we call it revenge, and sometimes we call it by fancier words, like pre-emptive strike or the penalty of death.

Jesus was born to us at Christmas so that we could understand, fully and finally, the idea that in God's world, there is no revenge. There is no food chain. There is no fight or flight. Jesus came as the most vulnerable thing we could think of, a baby, so that we might understand that a baby, with all of it's potential and possibility of growth, is the most powerful thing on the earth. The weakest thing we can see, the most vulnerable, is where God locates himself on earth. That is not "natural" thinking. That is peaceful thinking. It is the thinking of a God that knows the world he created, knows that this world isn't that, and is showing us what that other, original world, could be like.

It's a world that looks very different than ours. But nonetheless, it is the world we are called to live in, to grow into, in the name of God, who created it. Last week, we talked about living in the world with our hearts already living on that high mountain that God has raised up. Now, in another Isaiah passage, we see what the countryside looks like around that high mountain city, and we see that it is as changed as the city is. But even though it is different than what we see as our reality, we are told that in our walk as Christians, the Peaceable kingdom is a reality no less than the new Jerusalem.

In the real world, a little child can play over a nest of snakes, and animals are not food and predator, but live together. In the Peaceable kingdom, the history of Native Americans and whites in America is changed, and both parties stand as one people. Isaiah gave us the vision of what the world really is meant to be. The artist, Edward Hicks, painted what he believed to be true. He painted what he saw as the real world of God. Jesus was born to help bring it about in our hearts and in our lives. To bring the reality of God to our "natural" world.

And in Advent, we can almost see that it is true, by God's grace and peace.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Something’s Coming—Grace

Isaiah 2: 1-5

Speak a word to us, Isaiah, as you spoke long ago.
Tell the news that comes from Zion; bring the hope we long to know.
Swords and spears are found in gardens tilling soil and pruning trees.
Schools of war are closed and shuttered; from that madness all are freed.
-used by permission of the author, John Thornburg

When I was born, my parents lived on the top of a mountain. It was on the eastern range of the two ranges that made, in the middle, the Napa Valley. It was pretty high--they told me that on clear nights, with a telescope, you could see the exterior elevators going up and down on the Fairmount hotel in San Francisco, some 60 miles away. There are pictures of people standing on a rock outcrop, and behind them are vague outlines of the other side of the valley, and far below, the valley floor. They tell me they used to watch clouds float by below them, the fog roll in from the bay, and planes would fly below their level, too.

It's a mountain like that that I see when I imagine this mountain of the Lord's house established as the highest of the mountains. I can see that view.

When Isaiah is speaking about Zion being the mountain all nations climb to receive God's wisdom, he's saying that somehow the actual hill the tourists call the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem, will somehow become the highest of all. He's having a vision, and while the idea of the mountain is interesting, what happens on it is the most important bit. This vision is so strong that both Isaiah and another prophet, Micah, use the same imagery (Micah 4: 1-3)!

All the nations of the earth will come to the lord God, for counsel and guidance and because God is the judge and the teacher for the world. In this vision, there is no more need for the peoples of the earth to argue, fight and war with each other. They will no longer need to learn the proper way to swing a sword. They will no longer need to know how to shoot a machine gun. They will no longer need the algebra and the geometry needed to put a 3000 pound shell on a target 12 miles away, or a intercontinental missile a hemisphere away. Nether shall they learn war anymore.

This, this, is Christ the Lord. This is what we as Christians wait for. The grace to be judged mercifully by God, rather than have to rely on human beings. The grace to be able to approach God and to know that we will be treated fairly, with mercy and forgiveness. Jesus, our Christ, the one who comes at Christmas, is the advocate for us on that mountain. The mountain with the long view, the one I can see in my mind's eye.

It is interesting to note that in Isaiah's view, when we are given instruction by God directly, that is when there will be no more war. When God involves himself in the world, in Isaiah's vision, there will be no more peacekeeping, no more police actions, no more surges. No more war. The baby whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Eve is not coming to provide us the grounds for declaring war on the world. The man that baby grows up to be will not expect us to fight in his name. He will expect us to take cannons, to take bullets, to take armor plating, and make life-giving tools out of them, like tractors, like sprinklers, like plows. Can you imagine an F 16 crop duster?

If faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, then perhaps grace is the willingness to act according to our faith, maybe grace is the action of the people of God in the world. Maybe grace is acting as if we are assured, as if we are convicted of the love of God, and the coming world. Grace is certainly what we received from God when he gave us his son. Our response, in love and gratitude, is to act in grace to the world in God's name. To be a peaceful people. To approach the mountain of Isaiah's vision in our hearts for judgment and mercy, even though it isn't fully arrived on earth yet, and then to act as if it is true, is our grace to the world.

Acting as if something is coming. Maybe that is what grace is.