Digging and Building | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 3/5)

Part 3/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 9:18-10:4 

18 Wickedness burned like fire,
    devouring thorn and thistle.
It kindled the thickets of the forest;
    they swirled in rising smoke.
19 The land was scorched by the rage of the Lord of heavenly forces;
    the people were like fuel for the fire.
Not one person pitied another:
20     they consumed on the right, but remained hungry;
    devoured on the left, and weren’t satisfied.
    They devoured the flesh of their own children.[a]
21 Manasseh devoured Ephraim and Ephraim Manasseh;
    together they turned against Judah.
Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away;
    God’s hand was still extended.

10 Doom to those who pronounce wicked decrees,
    and keep writing harmful laws
    to deprive the needy of their rights
    and to rob the poor among my people of justice;
    to make widows their loot;
    to steal from orphans!
What will you do on the day of punishment
    when disaster comes from far away?
To whom will you flee for help;
    where will you stash your wealth?
How will you avoid crouching among the prisoners
    and falling among the slain?
Even so, God’s anger hasn’t turned away;
    God’s hand is still extended.


Reflection

One of my favorite Christmas movies is Home Alone, which is a slapstick comedy about burglars who try to rob a home that is inhabited by a young boy accidentally left at home. What makes it so ridiculous is that the villains never learn to stop while they’re ahead—they keep plowing through an increasingly booby-trapped house. If there’s a mistake to make, they make it. They never quite get the message.

This is a light-hearted example of what I see in today’s reading from Isaiah. When trouble comes, “not one person pitied another” and the wicked keep writing “harmful laws to deprive the needy of their rights”. Israel just doesn’t get it. They don’t know how to respond in a way that doesn’t just compound the mistakes that they were originally making. They dig themselves deeper into the hole.

It’s easy for us to look at this passage and realize what was going wrong in Israel. But I wonder if we’d be so quick to point it out in our own day. After all, there are so many conflicting messages about truth and fact (let alone right and wrong) that it’s hard to know if we’re building a ramp or deepening the hole.

This passage, however, gives us a place to think about where we can amend wrongs like writing laws that deprive the needy of their rights, robbing the poor of justice, and stealing from the vulnerable. As we await the celebration of the birth of ourSavior, let’s use this time to discern where we’re digging, and where we’re building a ladder.

Breaking Points | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 2/5)

Part 2/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 9:8-17

The Lord sent a word against Jacob;
    it fell upon Israel;
    the people all knew it—
    Ephraim and the one who rules in Samaria.
But with a proud and arrogant heart they said,
10     “Bricks have fallen,
        but let’s rebuild with stones.
    Sycamores were cut down,
        but let’s replace them with cedars.”
11 So the Lord raised up their foes against them,[d]
    and stirred up their enemies—
12     Aram from the east and the Philistines from the west—
    and they devoured Israel with an open mouth.
Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away;
    God’s hand was still extended.

13 But the people didn’t turn to the one who struck them.
    They didn’t seek the Lord of heavenly forces.
14 So the Lord cut off head and tail,
    palm branch and reed from Israel in one day.
15     (Elders and celebrities are the head;
    prophets who teach lies are the tail.)
16 But this people’s leaders were misleading,
    and those being led were confused.
17 So the Lord showed their youth no pity,
    and showed their orphans and widows no mercy;
    for everyone was godless and evil;
        every mouth spoke nonsense.
Even then God’s anger didn’t turn away;
    God’s hand was still extended.


Reflection

Everyone has a breaking point. You know what that’s like, right? I certainly do. It’s that moment when you feel like you can’t take anything more—if someone says one more thing, or something else happens, you might snap.

When I read a passage like this, it reminds me that God, too, has a breaking point. After all, this is one of the few moments in theBible when even God doesn’t have mercy on orphans and widows, or punish the rulers and those in power rather than the common person. Instead, Isaiah prophesies the exile and the destruction of the tribes of Israel, and most of the tribes of Judah.

So what do we do with this God, who is unnervingly human? I can’t speak for God, but my own experience of breaking points is this. First of all, they happen. For whatever reason, relationships don’t work out, things flare up and get out of control. Sometimes I feel the need to say and do things that let someone else know how I really feel in that moment of frustration. And sometimes that frustration takes a while to go away, or I need to take sometime away from that person or situation. I picture God reaching this breaking point and staying there for a while. It’s hard to be in relationship with a people who won’t listen to you.

It’s particularly poignant during this season of waiting that we read about God reaching a breaking point. As much as we sit and wait onGod, and complain about why God isn’t listening to us, perhaps it’s helpful to imagine that God can and has done the same thing about us. God is waiting on us. God got so tired of waiting on us that Jesus came to redeem us. And God is still waiting on us today.

On Endings | Reflections from Advent 3 (part 1/5)

Part 1/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3. 


Isaiah 9:1-7 

9Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations.

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
    and authority will be on his shoulders.
    He will be named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
    for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
    establishing and sustaining it
    with justice and righteousness
    now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this.


Reflection

We’re spending a lot of time Isaiah during Advent. The joy and trouble of the daily lectionary is that we have texts that don’t seem to make a lot of sense in our context, occasionally interrupted by a passage like today’s that everybody knows and loves.

For the Christian tradition, you might say that this passage is one of Isaiah’s greatest hits: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light… A child is born to us.” For me, this conjures up images of the birth of Christ, of the star in the east, of shepherds and wise men and several dozen Christmas pageants. These verses are a promise of peace, reminding us that Christ will come, and bring an end to darkness and bloodshed.

There’s something unabashedly hopeful, almost shameless about these verses. They’re surrounded, both before and afterwards, by prophesies of judgement and war upon disobedient Israel. Yet, these words of peace remind us that that’s not the end. No matter how hopeless things seem, they’re not the end.

Whatever is going on for you this Advent—exhaustion, too much to do, illness, the stress of the world we live in—I invite you to consider Isaiah’s ridiculous, prophetic hope. Despite all the cares of our worlds, there’s a promise of peace. Whatever it is, it is not the end.

Jesus is coming. Those of us in darkness will see a great light, and darkness is not our end.

Your redemption is drawing near (Sermon)

A friend of mine writes a blog titled “Sermons I Wish I’d Heard”. She reflects on what preachers often say about a particular set of lectionary readings, and wonders if that’s really what she would need to hear, and then writes her own sermon on the text.

Today’s sermon, if you will, is a sermon I wish I’d heard.

You see, we get to these apocalyptic passages in Mark and Luke, and suddenly, the preaching I hear is inevitable. You’ve heard this sermon too, haven’t you, how we must keep ourselves pure and follow the commandments to be ready for Christ’s coming which could break forth at any minute. And perhaps this is true, but to be honest, I’m not sure what to do with this hurry up and wait—how can I live more fully into being a Christian when all I’m doing is waiting and trying not to break any rules?

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

I feel like I’ve heard this sermon too many times to count, yet it always leaves me deeply dissatisfied. Why are we promised all of this, but not yet? It has been hundreds of generations since these words were recorded, but we still must wait? What I want to know is not about the future, but what these words have to say to us sitting here today.

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

What I want to hear about this text is not some dream of a king coming in clouds and might who we have to wait for.

You see,

I’m tired of might.

Of shows of strength.

Of the games of politics that we play that are really about power and control.

Of money and nationalism being more important than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the refugee, the immigrant, the orphan.

And I don’t know if one day the Son of Man will be wreathed in cloud, how or if there will be an end to all of this.

But what I do know is that the Son of Man has already come.

Not in might, but in a manger.

Not in strength, but in a stable.

Not in power, but as a prophet—speaking uncomfortable and inconvenient and financially devastating truths to those who claim power.

Not in wealth or palaces or possessions, but as an impoverished son of a carpenter who healed the sick, raised the dead, and ate with women and outcasts and tax collectors.

Jesus has already come, two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. Jesus has already died on a cross on Golgatha. Jesus has already arisen at the tomb and ascended into heaven. The Son of Man has already come.

And yet, we’re still waiting. Advent is a season that illustrates this tension beautifully—Christ has already come, but every year we engage in a time of waiting, of preparing, of pondering this coming in our hearts. Our redemption has come, and yet our redemption is drawing near as we count down the days until Christmas.

And maybe this will be the Son of Man wreathed in cloud, judging everyone in the last days.

But, maybe redemption is the passing of one of life’s storms—a surgery gone well, an illness cured. An orphan adopted by a family. A community rising up to shelter those who are homeless, tired, and cold. An end to a personal crisis, love found just when we need it the most.

When I read Luke, what I know in my heart is that my heavens and earths have passed away over and over again, and I wonder if yours have too. The stones of my temple have often fallen, and perhaps you know what that feels like, to have everything crash down around you. Our heavens and earths have passed away and will continue doing so, but the promise of this text is that your redemption is drawing near.

Redemption is not a one-time-thing, or a two-time thing. We are living in an in-between time, friends, and rather than tell us to worry, Luke says that we need to stand and lift up our heads and wait for the redemption that is coming. You can almost hear the hope and excitement between the lines. This world is a crazy, heartbreaking place and yet there is a hope of redemption that can happen again, and again.

So maybe, this Advent, you’re waiting for change in your life, for a miracle, for hope. Or maybe you know someone who is waiting, and you’re waiting with them, preparing for the promise of a Savior who seeks to draw closer to us, to love us, to save us.

“When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near”. Christ of the manger is drawing near. Christ the Son of Man is drawing near. And perhaps you too are drawing near, drawing near to someone who is desperately waiting for redemption, the light that you are called to bring to a friend, a neighbor, an enemy, a stranger. Christ is drawing near.

Your redemption is drawing near. Will you wait?

(Sermon recording, with some substantial variation from this text, will soon be found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under Advent I, 2018, or may be found below.)