Sunday, December 30, 2018

From Generation to Generation: a sermon for the Season of Christmas

Matthew 1:1-17

There once were three brothers, who lived in the Bavarian countryside, who for reasons that have been lost to time and have fallen from the story travelled to the coast, bought passage on a ship and made the long journey across the ocean to America, the land where dreams are found to be true and every man can find his place in this world. When they landed on the shores of the new land they continued their journey until they found themselves directly on the other side of the mountains and settled along Rock Creek in a place that came to be known as Kentucky. Living was hard, but they made families there and their children lived there.
Their sons took up with the coal mines where they worked long and hard. So their sons and their grandsons worked the coal mines until the coal began to dry up along with the jobs and the money. This is when Lawrence Sr. left his wife, Mary along with their children in the hills and travelled to the city to find work. He would send home the money he made in the city and periodically would return to stay with his wife and children, but money would always become tight he would head off to the city again.
This went on until a particular time while the youngest five of their 10 children were still about, and Mary was on the other side of the rise, working a small plot of land they used to grow their food.  She had stopped and was leaning on her hoe to rest for up a bit when she noticed a large cloud of smoke coming up from the other side of the rise…right where the house should be. Mary dropped her hoe and ran up over the hill screaming, “My babies, my babies.” She came over hill and looked down into the holler just in time to see the house all a flame and her five year old daughter, carrying Baby Jesse and dragging little Lawrsy out by his diaper. Everyone was safe but the house was gone. So she took up a collection from all the relatives about and bought bus fare for her and the children.
And you can imagine Lawrence Sr.’s surprise when Mary knocked on the door to his flat one evening, five kids in tow saying, “The house burned down, so we come to live with you here in the city.” And that is the story of how father, who was called Little Lawrcy by his older brothers and sisters until the day he died, and my extended family ended up living in Baltimore. My sisters, my mother and much of my extended family still live in the suburbs outside of Baltimore to this day.
Our family stories matter. Who we are very much comes from where we have been and the place from which our families have come. This is time of the year when families draw close to one another, to celebrate, to eat together, to laugh together, to tell our stories, to make new ones and to remember who we are together. It is the time of year that, every Hallmark movie wants us to know that no matter where we go or how far we wander, getting back to our roots, remembering where we come from and who our family truly is, is the true meaning of the season. As Christians, the meaning of this season runs a little deeper. For us it is a time to remember the birth of Christ, but it is even more than that, we remember the truth of the incarnation, God with us; that God in Christ literally walked in our shoes, experienced life as we experience it, sanctifying and making holy even the most mundane parts of human existence by participating in every aspect of life. It is a time where we, as Christians, as followers of Christ, as believer in the incarnation, a people who truly believe that “God with us” changed everything forever; that we remember where we come from, and to which family it is we all truly belong. It is a time to remember our stories.
The book of Matthew (the gospel in which my congregation will spend the next several months), begins the story of Jesus by telling us where Jesus comes from. It begins with a genealogy, a recitation of the people from whom Jesus came.  This list of names is very much the story of who Jesus is, as told by who his family is and from whom his family came. Each name, each person mentioned represents a story which when weaved together make up story of the family into which Jesus was born.
The genealogy begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Jesus, is ultimately the son of Abraham. Jesus is firstly one of the many promised sons of Abraham, one of the stars in the sky or sands of the desert, both which were metaphors God used when explaining to Abraham the vastness of his progeny. Jesus is not merely among the sons of Abraham as all Jews would have been. He is a son of David. David was considered the finest and greatest king to ever rule Israel. Jesus comes from the line of the great king David, a man who God describes as “a man after God’s own heart.”
But this list tells us more than just that. These names and the stories they represent tell us some very interesting things about the people Jesus’ family. Jesus belongs to a family of tricksters, scoundrels and some pretty awful men.  First there is Jacob who stole his birthright from his brother, basically cheated his way into obtaining his brother’s inheritance. I say, cheated, because come on people, a bowl of soup for a birthright is not a fair deal that would be sanctioned by any law then or now. And then to make the deal stick, he tricks his dying father, solidifying his situation, by making his father believe that he was indeed his brother, taking the birthright and the blessing of his father as the first born from his brother while his brother is away.
He was also the son of Judah, who lost two of his sons and then refused to right by his daughter-in-law, lying to her, and actively working to assure that she could not obtain her rightful place in his family. Ultimately she had to resort to a pretty elaborate ruse in order to trick him into doing his duty to assure her a line and a lineage.  
Among his ancestors are several kings, one of which is Solomon. This is a man whom we remember for his wisdom. But he is not really was not the prime example of Israel’s leadership. It was his reign which ultimately split the kingdom in two and I think it would suffice to say, that the man had far too many wives and they did not always influence him in the most Godly ways.
Then there is Ahaz, another king of Israel, who was known as a king who did evil in the sight of the Lord, allowing idol worship to flourish and offered his own sons as burnt offerings to Ba’al.  And along with him this is king Manassah, who not only worshipped Ba’al and Asherah, but out did king Ahaz and worshipped the stars. He even erected an idol in the temple to the starry host, as well as being known as a king who killed many of his own people. And those are just the highlights of some of the less than honorable people found in Jesus’ lineage. According to this record of the ancestors of Jesus, it seems he came from a long line of people who made some pretty poor choices with their lives.
Around the family table of Jesus’ lineage these sketchy uncles and off the mark cousins are seated right next to his three amazing, brave and courageous aunties. First is Tamar who put herself and her reputation in danger in order to trick her father-in-law to do right by her and give her what was rightfully hers. Then there are his two foreign born Aunties. Auntie Rahab, who was a Canaanite and a woman of ill-repute, but she sheltered some Israelites spies and helped the people of Israel take her city during the time period when Israel was settling the Promised Land. And last but not least is Auntie Ruth, the Moabite grandmother of David; who left her home, her family and her country of origin in order to assure the safety and wellbeing of her mother-in-law Naomi. And although she was a foreigner, and did not completely understand the culture or the entirety of the situation she acted faithfully and pursued a course of action which insured both she and Naomi were provided not only provided for but had a place in her new society and a future.
In this genealogy, the good men and women are sitting at the table right next to the bad, and all of them are proudly listed, by Matthew, here in this genealogy as the ancestors of Jesus. Each generation adds to the story and provides context allowing us to understand the people and the family into which Jesus was born.
A thread that is weaved through the fabric of Hebrew history is God’s promise for a messiah, one who will redeem Israel and ultimately all the world; making right was is wrong, mending was it broken, healing what is diseased and bringing wholeness into every corner of the globe and into the crevices of every life lived.
From generation to generation, the promise of the messiah was carried on, passed down and maintained. The people of God, some of whom wandered far from the fold, going against the laws of God, the laws of society and sometimes common decency, while others are named as fair minded kings, brave and courageous women and simply righteous men of God. Together they make up the family into which Jesus, the son of God, the hope of all humankind, the one who bring redemption to the world, is born. Together their stories are redeemed by providing the context and the background of the one who brings salvation to all. As the stories of their lives are weaved together to create the family of Jesus, their lives, their stories are redeemed. God is able to use even the worst of them, to bring them together to give us Jesus Christ, from generation to generation redeeming all of their stories in the process.  
God is always at work in our lives, taking the good, taking the bad and weaving it all together to create the beautiful tapestry which is ultimately the redemption of all things. As we come to this list of names this morning some of us may see ourselves as tricksters and scoundrels. We may not see ourselves as evil, or bad, but we are not always so proud of the lives we have lived, the choices we have made. It seems to us that nothing good can come out of us, our past is too marred, we are too broken. It all seems too hopeless. Others of us can see ourselves in the God-fearing Abraham, the wise and good King David, the rebellious but righteous Tamar, the brave Rahab, or the faithful and tenacious Ruth. But no matter who we relate to in this list, the message is the same. God is always at work redeeming our stories.
God is and always has been a God of redemption; a God who sets right the wrongs, who mends what is broken, who works to bring wholeness and healing to lives and situations which otherwise seem unredeemable. God takes the worst parts of us and works to bring good out of it all. All the ways in which we have messed up, all the times we have worked against God’s will, all the times we have chosen to do wrong instead of right, all the poor choices we have made, all the ways we have hurt those around us, all they ways our actions have worked to bring hurt and harm into the lives of others, God is able to redeem those situations.
God is constantly in the business of redeeming and making right the sinful things in this world, healing all the ways that evil unleashed corrupts and degrades our lives. All the horrible things that has happened to us, all the ways we have been wronged, all the ways we have been hurt, all the parts of our lives that ache with pain, with sorrow, and with loss; God is always at work to bring wholeness and healing to those places, always working to redeem even the darkest and most hurtful parts of our stories.  
The God of creation, who created all things, who looked upon the newborn world and declared everything seen to be good, desires to look into us into our lives and take even the most sinful parts, the place where evil permeates the most and bring redemption there, making right were we did wrong, bringing healing where there is sickness, mending what is broken and making us whole, declaring us, as God did with creation, “good.”
 From the very moment of creation God has been at work to make all things right in this world. No matter how much we work against God, no matter how many ways we mess up and mar the beauty of God’s creation, God has always been at work redeeming it all. As we look at the very genealogy of Jesus we see that even in the less than honorable stories of those who came before him, Jesus, the one through whom we all find our redemption, was already at work bringing redemption to the stories all those who came before him. Beginning with Abraham all the way down through the generations, as we come to the birth of Jesus, the stories of all those who came before him from generation to generation, the lives of these people are showing us and pointing us to the redeeming one, who is born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem of Galilee, who redeems the generations and rewrites the script of the universe with his life.
As Christians, we know that redemption begins with Jesus Christ and extends to us and to all who will call up him, all who worship Jesus as Lord and shape our lives into the story of the God of creation, the God of redemption. The God who can make wrongs right, and bring goodness where only evil can be seen. That God is calling us into relationship so our stories can be rewritten, so that all the wrongs in our lives can be made right. No matter who we are, no matter from where we have come, no matter what the story of our lives is, God can bring redemption to us, to our story, to our lives.
Jesus the one whose story is grounded in the stories of so many men and women of faith, as well as so many men and women who fell short of “the glory of God.” Through his life he brought redemption into their stories. Jesus can, also, speak into our lives, into our stories and change the outcome, change the ending, he can speak redemption over us and make right the wrongs in our lives, whether they are wrongs, hurts and tragedies which have befallen us, or whether they are wrongs, hurts and sins we ourselves have committed against others. Jesus, the one who was born to Mary and Joseph, whose birth we have just celebrated this last week, can step into our lives and make things right, he can make whole what is split, mend what is broken and bring healing to all that is diseased in our lives and the lives of all those who love and accept his redemption. Jesus brings wholeness and healing, to all who look into arms of Mary, peer at the child held there and see the birth of all things made right, see their newborn faith, see the One in whom all life is found. Come look into the manger this morning and find wholeness, find healing and find redemption for your story. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent Love: Christmas Eve Eve

Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew 1:18-25
On the eve of Christmas Eve we come to the story of Joseph. Now usually I am all about the women in Bible stories. But that is because most of the time they are the forgotten heroes of the Bible and they get such little press. When it comes to Christmas, as with most stories dealing with birth, the man takes the back seat. He is by nature not the center of the story. Even though we know that husbands and fathers are (literally) vital to the situation, the woman does get all the attention because she does all the work. She is the one who labors. 
So on this eve of the eve of Christmas, let us spend some time thinking about Joseph. Only Matthew and Luke tell us anything about Jesus prior to this baptism. And whereas Luke tells us Mary’s story, Matthew tells us Joseph’s. In this story Joseph finds out about Mary’s pregnancy from afar. For Mary, turning up pregnant would have been fairly surprising, as she very well would have known exactly what she had and had not been up to. But luckily before she began to wonder if she really did know where babies come from, an angel came to her and explained things to her. Joseph on the other hand, not having the luxury of knowing and not knowing what it was Mary had, or had not been up to, is also surprised but in a completely different way. So there are only three courses of action for him. He can make a big deal her being unfaithful which would get her stoned to death, because in those days the betrothal contract was just as binding as the marriage contract. Turning up pregnant justified a divorce, and the Law of Moses justified the stoning of an unfaithful wife. He could instead choose to divorce her quietly and hope that the baby’s father would step in, marry her and save her from utter destruction. And then there was always just goint ahead and marrying her. Marrying her would be him essentially in claiming the child was his own and be an admission that as a couple they were less than chaste in the months prior to their marriage. They would not have been the first couple to do this and far from the last. So he is contemplating how to go about this. What will he do? Will he call Mary out and have her punished to the full extent of the law? Will he basically admit to some amount of moral laxity? Or will he do this quietly and hope the baby’s father will do the right thing? And while he is trying to figure out what the right thing to do is and contemplating down which of these paths he will travel. The baby’s father does step in and sends an angelic messenger to Joseph and explain things to him.
Both Mary and Joseph have to have faith and trust God in this situation, but in the end, I have to say, I think Joseph has to trust a little more than Mary does. Mary knows what is going on and has gone one with her body, it being hers and all. But Joseph does not know what is going on with Mary; all he knows is that God has told him to marry Mary. God has told him to accept the child Mary is bearing as his own. This is not the first time a man of God has been asked to raise a child he knew was most definitely not his own. God asked Hosea to do the same thing after his wife cheated on him, but at least Hosea was a prophet and already had a relationship with God that involved divine revelation and a certain amount of built up trust. This is a cold call, to trust God in an extreme circumstance with a little more than sketchy story to go with it. Since Joseph is not a prophet of God, who expects God to give him odd messages with strange and difficult to believe prophetic messages in actual happenings in his life, this is the first time God has come to him asking him to trust that miraculous events are at play in the goings on in his betrothal and the womb of his soon to be wife. God is asking him to be in the middle of some circumstances that are pretty hard to believe and trust God through. But God does come to him and say, “Things look weird, this is not what you expected but trust me, this is ok. I am at work here.”
When it comes to trusting God, I think most of us can relate to Joseph a little better than we can relate to Mary. Mary is in the middle of it all she knows exactly what it going on. She knows herself and her actions. It is easy to trust that something is a miracle when the miracle is growing inside of you. Joseph on the other hand has to trust God when God tells him that he can trust Mary. The waters are murky; the way looks muddy and hard to travel. But God says trust me, you will not sink; trust me I know the path down which I am leading. When it comes to trusting God, the circumstances are always clear, things are not always cut and dry. Trusting God in all circumstances is hard and sometimes it would be easier to find our own way; to think things through and find the best way ourselves. That is not to say that God does not ask us to trust the logical or even most convenient way, but the hard part is that sometimes God asks us to trust that the least convenient way, or the path that is a little less than logical is the one down which we should go. 
Joseph worked things out. He thought things through. He figured out what was best, but then he had an encounter with God and God tells him a story that is a little more than hard to believe. But then he wakes up and, “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
Now I don’t know about you but most of the time, I am a little more like Mary in this situation. When the angel of the Lord came to her she has questions, ‘But how can this be?” I usually have questions, I need answers, I need to know more, I need to be able to understand. But God tells Joseph what’s what in a dream, no conversation, not back and forth, and he wakes up and simply trusts God. If only I had that much faith even half the time!
Trusting God is hard. Trusting God without question, without discussion, without needing time to think it through is even harder. Luckily the Biblical account, between Luke’s accounting of the angel coming to Mary and Matthew’s telling of the angel coming to Joseph, gives an example of both instantaneous trust, and questioning faith so that we know, that faithful followers can do both. The point is, in the end we trust, at the end of the day (or night, in Joseph’s case) we have faith and move forward going where it is God is leading us, even if it does not make sense or just little bit hard to believe.
The story of Joseph is a call to faith. It is a call to trust. It is an example of what it looks like to go where God is leading us. Joseph is a model of what it looks like to encounter the mysterious will of God and to trust God that wherever it is God is leading is a journey worth taking.
In our own lives God asks us to trust, to go where it is God is leading. Only once did God ask someone to trust that his fiancĂ© pregnancy was a miracle and not proof of unfaithful actions, but sometimes the things God is asking us to do, the places God asks us to God, the trust God asks of us seems to be of that magnitude. When it comes to our lives even the smallest leaps of faith seem to be uncrossable chasms. When God say jump, don’t worry I will be sure you will land on the other side, rarely do we look at the way ahead of us and see nothing but a small stream over which we can easily hop, instead more often than we feel like we are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon being asked to take a leap of faith, no matter how big the leap may actually be.  But whether God is in fact asking us to hop a small stream or jump over the largest precipice, our final response is to be one of faith, one of trust, one in which we wake up and do exactly what God is calling us to do no matter what it is God is asking, not matter where it is God is leading. We trust, we have faith, even when God is asking us to believe the impossible.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Advent Peace: The God of Redemption - Esther 4:1-17

Esther 4:1-17
What we have before us this morning is a nice rages-to-riches story; perhaps the prototype of the Cinderella stories ever written. A young minority girl loses her family, is orphaned but then is taken in by her cousin, raised and provided for. Meanwhile, the queen angers our dimwitted King who can never make a decision with out asking others what he should do first and then always does what they say without thinking thoroughly through the consequences of following their advice.
But then there is what seems to be this tangential story of her cousin, Mordecai. Some good stuff happens to him. He uncovers an assignation plot and saves the King’s life, which is always note worthy, but it kind of goes unnoticed by the king, which is not bad, but it is also not so great. And then some bad stuff begins to happen. The villain of our story comes into the picture, his name is Haman and he threatens the peace and security of our beautiful and rather lucky, up to this point, heroine, by developing this unseemly hatred for Mordecai.
Haman is one of the king’s top men and he takes offense to the fact that Mordecai, refuses to bow down to him when he passes by. So, Haman, being a reasonable man, plots not only to kill Mordecai but also to kill all the Jews who live in country and its outlying providences, as well. Seems like reasonable retribution for refusing to bow down to a man doesn’t it?
Meanwhile it comes to the King’s attention that Mordecai never got his reward for saving the kings life and so being the wonderful free thinking kind of man that he is the king asks Haman what he should do to honor someone he thinks of whom he really highly. Haman, being wonderfully modest, believes the king means to honor him, that is Haman, and tells the king to put on an elaborate show with the one to be honored riding on the king’s horse and wearing the king’s clothes with someone going before him telling everyone how much the king thinks this is one truly amazing guy.
So, the king tells Haman to go do this for his servant Mordecai. Haman is a little disappointed and greatly annoyed by all this, to say the least. It does nothing but solidify his bitter hatred of our heroine’s cousin and Haman seeks to do away with this troublemaker and all his kindred. After all genocide is the only way to appease his vendetta.
So, Haman still intent on the murder of Mordecai via genocide, he talks to the king about this disreputable man who is a nuisance and a menace to society and he is just the tip of the iceberg he represents an entire people group who disrespect the king and are a threat to his authority. The king is naturally dismayed by this and gives Haman the authority to do as he wishes to rid the kingdom of these loathsome people. Genocide is the only answer in Haman’s mind and uses the king’s seal of authority to make an edict, which declares a great day of wiping out all the Jews.
Cousin Mordecai gets wind of what is going on and pulls his dear sweet cousin aside, telling her perhaps you have come to this royal position for just a time as this.
At this point, everything is just background, to show us that our heroine is a heroine not only in name but in deed as well. And this is where the small piece of Esther’s story which we encountered today comes in.  And Esther begins to contemplate what she must do. She calls for all the Jews to pray and fast with her. While she builds up the courage to do what she knows she must do. What is arguably the thing God is calling her to do at this point in her life?
Then following this time of prayer and fasting, somewhat ironically, Esther sets out to do just the opposite of her predecessor. Where Vashti had refused to come into the king’s presence when summoned, Esther seeks to come into his presence when not summoned. Her new life as queen and the lives of all whom she holds dear hang in the balance. Will the king be more pleased with a new wife who comes when unbidden as opposed to the last who refused to come when called? 
Luckily for Esther and the Jews, the King was in a good mood that day, not only does he accept Esther’s imposition of her presence into his, happily, but he is so pleased with her coming that he hyperbolically offers her anything she wishes, up to half his kingdom. Esther, being wise, does not ask for half the kingdom, but instead either to flatter the king or to give herself time to build up the courage to confront the King about Haman, (after all she has just stared death in the face and come away unscathed) she instead invites the king and Haman to dinner and there she invites them to join her for yet another dinner. It is taking some time for her to gather her courage again.
It is at this second dinner that Esther steps into her purpose and exposes Haman for who he truly is. She tells the king Haman has used the authority vested in him to try to do away with all the Jews in the kingdom, which would include herself. Our bumbling king, who apparently is still quite enamored with his beautiful new bride takes offense to this and then interprets Haman’s pleading as an affront to his Queen and has Haman hanged on a set of gallows Haman had made especially for Mordecai if that is not irony I don’t know what is.
The king then gives Mordecai the ability to set in motion a new edict, which although he can’t change the previous edict – once a king’s law has been made, it cannot rescinded. This clause in Persian policy making has come up in other Biblical stories such as Daniel and the lion’s den when the king realized his decree incriminated his most favored advisor but had to go through with putting Daniel in the lion’s den because it was the law and not even the king can change a law or disobey a law once it is made. So, although the current law declaring there to there to be a day for killing all the Jew,  Mordecai is able to make a second edict, which states the Jews can fight back against anyone who moves against them. And thus the Jews are saved from destruction and peace is brought upon their lives once again.
There are actually a surprising number of women mentioned in the Bible and who play important if not prominent roles. All patriarchs had a least one wife who was instrumental in the foundational stories of our Faith, but still there are not very many Heroines in the Bible, by my reasoning there are only a handful, Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Esther (there are a handful of other women who get some press in both the Old and New Testaments but I am not sure the count at “heroines”) But Esther is a true heroine, she holds onto her roots and arguably her faith when she could have kept both hidden and thus herself remains unthreatened and unscathed, no one in the court knew she was a Jew. She would not have been killed in Haman’s purge if she did not expose herself. She could have decided that she was just a girl, that she had no power, she could have chosen not to look certain death in the face, by walking into the king’s chamber that day. But she took the words of Mordecai, to heart, “perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” And steps out in faith to do what arguably is what God is calling her to do.
But the problem is that throughout the entirety of the book of Esther, God is not mentioned. Not even once! Nine chapters of narrative and there is not a single reference to God in any of them. God is just barely alluded to. At face value, there is NO God in Esther. There is no paragraph or explanation of how God had worked through Esther. No line is traced that shows us where God is working and how God is working. No recorded instance of Esther conversing with God. Other than Esther declaring a time of prayer and fasting for all the Jews. But really that hints more toward her faith than it does God’s presence in this situation. The lack of a clear declaration of God at work in this book has bothered many people down through the centuries.
It bothered some people so much that there are some versions of the book of Esther written in Greek, dating from shortly before the birth of Christ in which whole sections are added. Some deeply spiritual prayers of Esther and Mordecai in which they call to God asking for guidance and help and others that give thanks to God for God’s direction and aid in times of struggle and hardship, as well as added narrative, which places God directly in the center of all the action of the book.
But really truly they are not needed to “add” God to the story. God is in this story whether it mentions God or not. The book of Esther is perhaps the best statement of God’s ability to bring redemption to ANY situation I have ever read. After all, how do all these “good” things come to Esther in the face of all the “bad” things that also happen? Her parents die, but she is provided a kindly uncle who takes her in and treats her as a daughter. Then she is taken from her new family, forced to be a part of a harem, and has to hide her Jewish identity. But then she ends up not just another woman in the king’s harem, she becomes Queen of all Persia, which as you can imagine is not without its perks. But then her people are in danger and she is in a place to do something about it. Her story could have been so much worse. What might look to some like a series of fortunate turns in a poor girls tumultuous journey toward royalty, I see the hand of God continually working to bring redemption and ultimately salvation to a series of unfortunate events. Each time death or destruction, the ignorance and shortsightedness of what seems to be a bumbling buffoon of a monarch threatens to ruin her life and her happiness, God steps in and cuts the sharp edges off what are otherwise terrible things happening to this young woman.
God does not need to be “added” to this book because mentioned or not, explicitly pointed out or not, God is in this book. God is all over this story. Where others see a complete lack of God I see a story that shows us how God looks to us in the events of real life. Rarely in “real” life is God seen explicitly. In the grand narrative how God is moving in our lives, God is there working and moving often times without drawing much attention.
It is not often that we get lead, almost by the hand, out into the dark night to converse with God as we look at the night sky, like God did with Abraham? Never in my life, and I am pretty sure you can say this as well, have I ever been minding my own business and then Boom burning bush, or burning anything for that matter, from which the voice of God speaks. Very few of us can say we have been woken up and mistaken the audible voice of God, so real and so very present, for the voice of the person next to us. I have yet to have visions of eye wheels that help me understand how the full picture of God’s redemptive plan for the world will work itself out. And much to my disappointment not one single raven has come and fed me when I was hungry. Now perhaps I cannot speak for all of you but I think I speak for most of us when I say God is not quite that easy to spot in my life.
Amazing things do happen, but not very often. Not to me. The God I experience is much more like the God I see in Esther’s story than the one seen in Abraham’s. The God we find in Esther is a little more commonplace. God may not be mentioned in the entirety of the book. God may be little more than alluded to in the statement, “perhaps you have come to royal position for such a time as this.” And only tangentially pointed to when Esther declares a day of prayer and fasting, but those are not the only places where god is in the story. God is there, throughout Esther’s life. God WAS there – redeeming it all. It is ultimately the hand of God at work throughout this story, in the life of Esther in the faith of Mordecai, in all of it, bringing peace to the people of God at a time death and destruction are immanent.
Now don’t get me wrong, God did not make Esther’s parents die. God did not cause her to be forced to be part of the harem or even to chosen to be Queen (most likely without ever being consulted about whether she wanted to be or not). God does not cause people to die, or have a young woman taken away from the only family she has really known, to bring about the “greater good”. Some terrible, hurtful things happen to Esther.  But God was there in it all taking the hurtful things in her life and redeeming them, bringing good where there was only pain and heartache, making things right where it seemed they were all wrong, bringing peace to the chaos. She lost her mother and father but God was there. In the face of the loss of her parents and becoming an orphan, God provided for her to be taken care of by her cousin who raised her as if she was his daughter. That is God bringing redemption to a terrible situation
As a young woman, she is taken from the home to be in the harem of the king, and come on guys this is not every young woman’s dream true. This is sexual slavery. But God was there with Esther, even in the harem.  Then to make things worse (because again begin taken at a wife without her consent is not necessarily a good thing) she is not only chosen to be one of the kings many consorts in his harem but she is chosen (forced?) to be his queen. But God at works once again keeping her safe and allowing for her to continue to be in relationship with Mordecai, kindly eunuch enable to keep in contact with him, allowing her to have the support and love of her family even in what was probably overwhelming loneliness in the king’s household.
God’s hand continue to be at work bring redemption what into what was not really a great situation. God was there when Mordecai gave her advice on what to do. God was there in the presence of Mordecai as he encouraged her to do what she needed to do. So that through her God could bring redemption to her people. God was there giving her strength to face the king and soften the heart of the king when she came into his presence.  
God is at work through all of this. God was there giving her the courage to speak against Haman. God was there when the king allowed Mordecai to write the edict, which would save the Jews from immanent destruction. God was there! God was there always taking the pain, the hurt, the terrible situations and working to bring redemption, working to set the wrongs right, working to take the evil in the world and bend it so that even in the face of that evil, malice and hatred redemption can be found. Because God is continually at work in this broken world redeeming the pain, the hurt, the loss that is in this world due to sin and the destructive forces it unleashes in this world. God’s redemptive work in this story brings peace to the entire Jewish population in Persia when it was threatened with death and destruction!
God might not have been standing in the foreground of all the action but God’s hands are at work in the situations and God’s fingerprints are all over the glorious events of this story. God is in the book, even if God is not mentioned even once. God may not be outwardly seen or visibly noticed in the story but the fingerprints of God’s redemption are all over the action, the climax, and the victorious end of these events.
It seems to me that the way God works in the story of Esther is the way God works more often than not. When I look at the story of my life, God is not booming voices and pillars of fire leading the way. And I would venture to say when you look at the story of your life, God is not outwardly or visibly present in the foreground of all that is going on, but when you look God is there. God’s finger prints are all over the events and the happenings that when you look close enough even in your darkest days and through your most difficult struggles you can see God working and bringing about good when otherwise there might have only hardship and pain. Even when it might have seemed at the time that God was nowhere to be found, when you look back you can see that God was always there.
The fact of the matter is, that very few of us will hear the thunderous voice of God, very few of us will have undeniable miracles happen in our lives, but that does not mean God is not there, it does not mean God is not at work.
Sometimes, I think we look at the miraculous lives of the people of the Bible and we can see undeniably that God is at work in mighty and powerful ways in their lives, sending whales to swallow them up and spit them out, staying the mouths of hungry lions and saving young men from the fires of a furnace and then we look at lives and it is hard to see how God could possibly be in our lives. We are not hearing God’s voice out of burning bushes or dark thunderclouds in or in fantastical dreams. We do not see ourselves calling fire to come down from heaven or the rulers of nations seeking our counsel because they know God speaks to us in a mighty way. But, God is at work in our lives, quietly, softly, walking alongside of us, giving us strength and peace and mercy to make it through all of our days. Helping us to make it through the struggles of our lives, working and breathing the Spirit into the dark and lowly places we walk. Giving us strength to make it through the dark times and rejoicing with us in the times of victory.
We may not have walls tumbling down when we shout and blast our trumpets, we may not see water coming out a rock when we touch them but that does not mean God is not at work in our lives. Providing for us and walking with us, guiding us and placing us in certain places at certain times so that God might not only bring redemption into our lives but using us, and the places our lives have brought us, to work through us to the glory of God’s kingdom and so that God’s will might be accomplished on this earth. When we look it is really neat how often God is able to use us, and our broken stories to bring redemption to the world around us.
We might not think God is at work, but I could bet that as you move through you life; as you have the ability to look back you will see over and over again how God used you, and your faithfulness and persistence to do God’s work in this world, to bring God’s redemption to people and into certain situation and into the lives of people around you. in this world to accomplish things that make a difference for the Kingdom, and to bring the goodness and grace of God, that each of us are able to be agents of God’s redemption in this work, in both big and small ways, into this world and into the lives of people who might not otherwise experience the goodness and greatness of God. God is continually at righting the wrongs, healing the hurts, bringing salvation and redemption into the darkest places and the most desperate situations and God works in and through each of us when, we like Esther seek God’s guidance and direction throughout the course of our lives. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent Hope: The God of Hope - Habakkuk 1:1-7, 2:1-4, 3:17-19

Fires in the West, earthquakes in the North, migrants plea for asylum to the South, blizzards in the Midwest, senseless shootings every couple months, and our nation seems that it will be ripped apart from the inside due to turmoil and contention among us. As we read these curated sections of Habakkuk we can see how little the world has changed and we can all relate to Habakkuk’s cry, “How long? ... Violence... wrong doing ... trouble ... destruction… strife and contention ... (it seems) justice never prevails...the wick surround ... and justice comes forth perverted.”
What do we do in the face of it all? Weekly, daily, we call out to God but tragedy piles upon tragedy. There have been so many shootings in the recent past that I cannot name them all, much less keep them straight. We call out to God, and we call out to God, and we call out to God. Our knees are sore from praying, our eyes burn with the tears and bodies tremble with the pain of it all, still event piles upon event, hurt upon hurt, turmoil follows chaos, and calamity trails behind like an undesired caboose. But even an unwanted caboose would bring hope because it would mark the end to what seems to be a never ending train of tragedy that just keeps trialing along, keeping us from passing on to a better land, a more pleasant place. “O Lord, How long?”
I don’t think we need to fully understand the internal and external turmoil the countries of Israel and Judah were in when Habakkuk spoke these words, to understand the place from which he spoke them. If Habakkuk stood in our place in this world today, his cry would not vary much at all from this one he made thousands of years ago. Violence, injustice, strife and contention it all rings true, it all sounds all too familiar, the cry of his hear, “How long?”with its respite nowhere in sight, we are Habakkuk and Habakkuk is us.
And so we join Habakkuk on his watch tower, keeping watch by day and by night. Waiting, waiting for the light on the horizon, waiting for salvation to come, waiting for a sign, a glimmer of peace, a glimpse of a vision that says the day is coming.
And so Habakkuk waits, and waits and waits, eyes trained on the eastern sky looking for the light to come, the dawn’s first light, for the coming of redemption, the coming of salvation, of hope, of mercy and justice, waiting for God to move, to act, to make all things that are currently so wrong right. He calls out to God in prayer, in desperation, in anticipation that God will act and he waits. Waits with hope, knowing that God is coming, just as surely as we know the sun will rise each morning. The night is often so long, and when the clouds are dense and thick the darkness seems impenetrable, yet even after the darkest and gloomiest nights the dawn always comes, the sun always appears, and a new day always begins.
We like Habakkuk need to watch and to wait. Even as we cry out to God in our desperation, even as chaos and turmoil, death and destruction, sin and brokenness are all around us, even when wickedness hems us in, even as the world seems to be tearing itself apart, we look for the light to come. Even when the dawn seems to be never dawning we wait, we hope, we anticipate a better world. For even as Habakkuk stood waiting for Christ to come, we also wait for Christ to come again.
We like stories. They are complete. Even as we read the first word the last word has already been written. The plot will work itself out. In the middle we never doubt that the end will come. When we begin we do so anticipating its closing. When we are in the middle we might not know how the events will play themselves out, we do not know what the characters will do, we do not know what surprises the author has in store for us, but we do know there is a final chapter, an ending paragraph, a closing word and we read on knowing that we are always working our way toward the finale.
I am an advid reader. I love reading, fiction, non-fiction, I am always reading something (often times many somethings). Most of the time I am a “good” reader, I read all the chapters, all the paragraphs in their proper order from first to last, but I would be lying if I said that I have never peeked to the end of the book, that I have never “snuck” and read the last sentence, paragraph or even page. My rules of reading (and many other people’s) say this is a kind of cheating, but I have broken these rules, because I could not bear not knowing that things are “alright” in the end, that my hero does not fail, that my favorite auxiliary character is still around on the last page. So that I can make it through the middle, the darkest parts of the book, knowing that things will be alright in the end, sometimes, I look to see, to assure myself that they will be.
We have that assurance. We know things will be alright in the end. We know how things play out. We know that goodness wins, that all the wrongs are set right, that righteousness will rule and all wickedness is stamped out. We can move through the dark middle parts knowing that the brokenness is healed and that things turn out “alright” in the end. We have that assurance, God has given us a glimpse of the last page, of the final word and it is God’s word and that word, is peace, justice and mercy. That word is truth, goodness, and love. That word is God’s word and it is a good one.
Right now we are in the middle, the darkness is thick, injustice runs deep, there is calamity and chaos all around, death and destruction seem to rule and peace seems to be a far off unobtainable concept for which overly smiling beauty queens tends to advocate.
In the middle of the Two Towers Sam, say this, “It's all wrong, by rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories...The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened. But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think,…, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.”
We are in the middle, we are the people who are slogging through the darkness, and we are given every chance to turn back, to give up hope, to look away and stop believing that the dawn is coming, but we hold on to something too. We hope. We wait, we anticipate, because we know there is something for which we are waiting, for which we are anticipating. And it is not just the newest gadget under the tree, it is not simply to see the joy on a child’s face when she gets exactly what she wants, it not even the joy of family like every Hallmark movie wants us to believe. We are waiting for something bigger, something better, something to which all the other waitings point us, something of which we see shadows and distorted reflections in even the over commercialized, secular season which has grown up around the Christian seasons of Advent and Christmas. We wait for salvation, for redemption, for a dawn that marks a bright and joyous day to come. We wait for Christ.
During Advent we are all play acting, joining together with the children waiting for Christmas to come, remembering what it was like, the wonder, the hope, the anticipation, the expectation, experience it all again. We all come together and enter into a grand Advent play in which we are portraying the people of Israel in the BC darkness; awaiting the coming messiah, looking to God to send the One who will bring redemption and salvation, the one who will set all things right, uphold the righteous, cast out the unrighteous, bring justice with mercy, judgment and forgiveness. We pretend that we are a part of a pre-Christ world waiting, and not even exactly sure what for what or for whom we are waiting. We hold our breath along with all creation wondering when, and how long our wait must be. We are pretending to be children waiting for Christmas, play acting at being the people of the earth awaiting the coming of the Messiah. We make believe, we immerse ourselves in the story so that we can remember, remember who we are and what we are doing. We are the people of God waiting for God, knowing God will act, knowing that God will make all things right. We are waiting for Christ to come again, to bring the kingdom of God to completion. We wait as ones in the middle of the story, who know how the story will end, making it through the darkest middle part of the story, because we know that in the end right defeats wrong, goodness will win and God’s will be forever be done on earth as it is in Heaven. And so we wait and hope for that, knowing that just as surely as the sun always rises, that day will come as well. And we wait.