A tree of remembering

It’s a powerful thing to know your story, your whole story. The whole set of stories that have made you who you are.

It was about 4 a.m. when the Reverend’s phone buzzed with a message from far away. He read it once, twice, three times before he woke his sleeping wife to tell her the news. “I’m a prince,” he whispered as she blinked herself awake. “A prince.”

I first heard about him on the radio, and then read some more in the Washington Post.

Jay Speights from Rockville, MD, 66 years old, had spent much of his life wondering about his forebears, probing public records until the trail went cold. Like many black Americans who are descendants of slaves, Speights could find little written evidence of his family’s history. In April last year, he turned to a DNA test from Ancestry in the hope that something, somewhere might turn up.

He learned that he was the distant cousin of a man named Houanlokonon Deka — a descendant of a royal line in Benin, a small nation, just west of Nigeria, that once housed West Africa’s biggest slave port. Four hundred years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia, Speights is grappling with his newfound identity as the descendant of slaves and the African kings who put them in chains. The king from whom Speights is probably descended was one of several who captured and sold slaves — typically members of rival tribes or captives of war — to European merchants, who then loaded them onto ships bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.

Speights said the more he learned, the more questions he had. Eventually he got the phone number of the king of Allada, a state in central Benin and the historical home of the Allada kingdom, and he called. The king didn’t speak English, only French, but the queen did. She asked Speights to see photos of his parents and grandparents. She inquired about his motivations — what did he want from them?

His response was simple: Answers.

“You are a descendant of King Deka, 9th King of Allada who ruled from 1746 to 1765,” she wrote in a message over WhatsApp. “We will be delighted to welcome you to your home, dear Prince.”

Last month, Speights traveled to Benin. The family pictures he had sent to the queen were plastered on big blue posters hung throughout the airport. “Welcome to the kingdom of Allada, land of your ancestors,” the posters said in French. As he stepped outside, Speights said, he saw what looked like a festival, hundreds of people dancing and playing instruments and singing. It took him several minutes to realize it was a welcome party — for him. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is serious,’” Speights said. “I thought I was going to go, hang out with the family, do some sightseeing. But this was something else.”

He spent the next week in what he calls “prince school,” learning local customs and visiting various sites and dignitaries. He was enthroned by the king, given white lace robes to signal he is a holy man, and several crowns. At night, an armed guard kept watch outside his hotel door. During the day, local journalists followed him around with cameras.

Speights said his relatives in Benin told him members of the royal family would not have sold their own people to slave merchants, but they could not explain how his ancestors wound up aboard a slave ship.

“No matter who did what, we all ended up the same way,” he said. “In chains.”

In Benin, a tree once stood near the city’s historic slave port from which more than a million people were shipped to the Americas. Before they departed, West African men and women would walk around the trunk up to nine times to shed the life they were leaving behind and accept the bondage into which they had been sold. It was called the “tree of forgetting.” Now Speights is walking around the tree in reverse, as it were, piecing together his story, thinking about his father, who died never knowing the truth of his family’s history; thinking about his grandfather, who grew up in the segregated South; thinking about his ancestors, who were chained and beaten, carried to a foreign place and sold as property.

“I thought about how much they survived — and what it means for me to return to this place, to restore our family,” he said. “I can’t tell you what that felt like in my heart. … This was the most beautiful thing I have ever done. I am the descendant of slaves. I am the descendant of a family who was involved in the slave trade. And I’m just starting to make sense of that.”

Before he left Benin, Speights said, the king gave him a new name: Videkon Deka.

It means the child who came back.[1]

It’s a powerful thing to know your story, your whole story. The whole set of stories that have made you who you are.

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites camped in the plains of Moab, near Jericho, across the Jordan. There Moses, who would never enter the promised land, recited one last time the commandments of God for them to observe as God’s covenant people.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.[2]

They had been slaves and wilderness wanderers, but soon they would possess the land and settle in it, and the big question was, would they remember who and whose they were? Moses taught them rituals of remembrance, actions to observe and words to recite – he planted a “tree of remembering” for them to walk around, as it were, again and again, in order not to forget.

Three times in the first three verses of today’s reading the word ‘to give’ is heard, like a mantra:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

And then you put down your basket and tell your story, not because the priest needs to hear it, but because you need to remember it:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

It’s a story of hardship and deliverance. The ritual of offering and story is a tree of remembering, so Israel, plump from milk and honey, wheat and barley, oil and wine, wouldn’t forget the faithful Giver who made covenant with them in the wilderness.

The forty days we started counting on Wednesday echo the forty years. We’re invited to join Jesus in the wilderness, on the edge of the settled land, and like him, to let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit in the wilderness and beyond, to the city whose architect and builder is God. We’re invited to forty days of intentional wilderness time in the company of Jesus, forty days of slightly unsettled lives, in order to remember that we are still on the way. It is good for us to be in his company, because, unlike us, he doesn’t forget that he is God’s beloved child and, unlike us, he refuses to listen to the voices whispering of other, more convenient, ways and sowing doubt.

The teachings of Moses come with concern for the particular danger of life in the land of milk and honey – “the danger that when the sojourners settle, they will settle for something less than the vision of hope for liberation and justice that sent them forth in the first place,” Heidi Neumark wrote. “It proved to be a valid concern: those who entered the land did eventually settle … as possessors who overlooked the dispossessed and disconnected.”[3]

There’s that moment when the citizens forget that their ancestors were wandering Arameans, aliens in Egypt, sojourners in the wilderness, refugees from political oppression and economic exploitation, from violence and war, driven by hunger for bread and freedom and home. There’s that moment when the new arrivals in the city of refuge start talking about closing the gates.

The forty days are a tree of remembering for us. We are a people on the way, in the company of Jesus, with all who long for liberation and justice and home. The final lines in today’s passage from Deuteronomy speak of a feast:

You shall set [the basket of firstfruits] down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the [landless] Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

We are invited to forty days of wilderness time to remember that we must not settle for less than celebrating the gift of God’s bounty together with all the wanderers and aliens; together with all who’ve been told by their neighbors or even their families that they don’t belong; all who’ve been told they’re too old or not old enough; all who’ve been driven onto slavers’ ships like cattle and those who have captured, sold, and driven them.

We must not settle for less than the whole story, that is, all our broken stories made whole by the loyal love of God. We must not settle for less than the welcome table where Jesus is the host.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/im-a-prince-after-years-of-searching-for-family-history-a-pastor-discovers-royal-ties-to-africa/2019/02/21/47238d0a-316e-11e9-86ab-5d02109aeb01_story.html?utm_term=.7efba443f222

[2] Deuteronomy 8:2

[3] “Aliens Welcome,” The Christian Century 124, no. 3 (February 6, 2007), 17.

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You don’t have to bring a thing

Last Sunday, Free Solo (2018) won the Oscar for documentary feature. The movie invites viewers to follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000 ft high El Capitan wall. Free meaning without ropes or safety gear, solo meaning just that. Spider Man comes to mind, but Spider Man gets to shoot sticky lines of silk. And he scales imaginary obstacles in the Marvel universe, not a 3,000 ft granite wall in California.

“Mountains rise out of the lowlands in a massive show of power,” wrote John Mogabgab. “Ancient, solid, imposing, they permit only the most minimal human footprint.”[1] Humans have long been drawn to mountains. Moses entered the presence of God and received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Elijah encountered God in sheer silence at Mt. Horeb. Bill Bryson wrote about hiking the Appalachian trail, beginning with the mountains of northern Georgia and North Carolina.

The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see what’s to come. Between the curtain of trees at every side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come. Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs—nearly there now!—but this is a pitiless deception. The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?[2]

Alex, Moses, Elijah, and Bill — three mythic heroes who inspire admiration and awe, and a guy who sounds more like the rest of us.

There’s a mountain in the middle of Luke’s gospel. It simply appears, without name or introduction:

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Not a mountain, but the mountain. Luke is not talking about the Galilean landscape, but rather about the topography of faith and discipleship. Jesus went up and the three went with him; this was no free solo spiritual quest.

I imagine that their feet were sore, and their legs, weary. They had been working long hours bringing the good news to villages in Galilee and curing diseases, setting food before thousands and gathering baskets full of leftovers. They were tired. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes were shining like the sun. Everything was bathed in that dazzling light. They were tired, very tired, but they saw Jesus, their master and friend, talking with Moses and Elijah – it was as though time had ceased or all the fullness of time had been crammed into that one moment.

Moses, Elijah and Jesus were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. They were talking about his death on that hill outside of Jerusalem, at the end of the way he was on, but they did not use the word death. And they did not speak of it as something that would happen to him, but something he would accomplish. The word translated as departure is the Greek exodos, and with Moses right there, no other hint is needed. Jesus would go to Jerusalem to lead God’s people from bondage to freedom. And this time the great opponent wouldn’t be Pharaoh; the great struggle would be with the powers that keep humans in captivity under sin, with all that prevents God’s people from entering the joy of God’s reign. Jesus’ departure would be another exodus from the house of slavery, with Jesus laying down his own body to part the waters and rising on the other side, the firstborn from the dead.

Elijah was the prophet whose coming meant that redemption was near, that the Messiah was due, and there was Elijah talking to Jesus – everything was coming together beautifully for Peter, James and John on the top of the mountain. They saw the glory of God shining forth from Jesus. They heard the great prophets affirming the way of the cross as the way of redemption. The moment was awesome and holy, and they wanted it to last; everything was beautiful and clear, bathed in heavenly light. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Don’t let this end. Let us mark this moment and make it last. Don’t let this fullness, this glorious beauty, slip away.

Perhaps they wanted to mark the spot with a rock like Jacob who saw a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. “How awesome is this place!” he said. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I, I did not know it,” and he called it Beth-El, house of God.[3] Perhaps they wanted to mark the spot on the map of divine encounters; perhaps they simply wanted time to stand still. But a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

In that darkness nothing dazzled, nothing shone, all they were able to see was the absence of all things visible. Whereas before everything had been exceedingly clear and together, now they were completely in the dark without any sense of place or direction. They had fallen from the heights of holy awe to the depths of disorientation. And in the darkness they heard the voice: This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him. Just one commandment: Listen to him.

The three didn’t say a word about what they had seen. They followed Jesus down from the mountain, down to the lowlands of life, down to where a great crowd was waiting. And there, at the foot of the mountain, the silence was broken by a father who cried out, “Teacher, I beg you, look at my son; he is my only child.” This father’s cry was like the echo of the voice they had heard on the mountain, only here it was filled with pain and helplessness. This is where we long to see transfiguration: down here in the valleys and plains where life is broken, wounded, fragmented; down here where despair threatens to smother all hope; down here where we work and watch and pray for the light of heaven to illumine all the earth. This is where we long to see transfiguration, and this is where we encounter God’s Chosen One, calling us to follow him on the way of the cross. Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of spiritual splendor, but deeper into the world.

And because we follow him, our journey is never a free solo quest. We stagger on together, trying to remember that this is the one in whose face we recognized the face of God, the one in whose life and death and resurrection Peter, James and John, Mary, Martha and Mary of Magdala recognized the redeeming presence of God, the fulfilment of ancient promises. The long journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world.

The first followers tell us that with the wondrous light of the resurrection shining in their hearts, their eyes were opened to see Jesus in every man, woman and child, to see the image of God in every person, regardless of what labels had been slapped on them, to see what is there, what is really there, in every human face, in every creature great and small, in all that God has made.

Seeing what is really there is of course no simple matter. I still haven’t found a lovelier set of lines that capture with candor and wit the difficulty of “seeing what is there” than Elizabeth Barret Browning’s four lines from her impossibly long poem, Aurora Leigh. [4]

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

Nothing’s wrong with noticing the sweet, shiny blackberries amid the prickly branches. Nothing’s wrong with sitting round and plucking sweet fruit – but what is it that keeps us from seeing every common bush and each berry afire with God?

Browning’s lines speak of heaven as a reality that crams the everyday and shines through everything. We have built powerful scanners that allow us to look deep into things, and telescopes that give us glimpses of cosmic events that happened millions of years ago, but we also sense that even the most advanced technology will not open our eyes to see what is there: a universe crammed with heaven, the love and light of God in all things.

John Ames told his son, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”[5] He makes it sound simple, because it really is. A little willingness to see. A little willingness to listen. A little willingness to follow Jesus across the plains of everyday. It really is simple, and, of course, it’s not.


[1] John Mogabgab, Weavings, XVI: 4, July/August 2001, 2.

[2] Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, New York: Broadway Books, 1998, 35.

[3] Genesis 28:10ff.

[4] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (New York: C. S. Francis & Co, 1857) p. 275-276 http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barrett/aurora/aurora.html#7

[5] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 245

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Embraced by mercy

The Southern Poverty Law Center published its 2019 Spring Intelligence Report last week, including its annual hate group count. For the fourth consecutive year the numbers have gone up. There were 1,020 hate groups in the U.S. in 2018, the highest number ever counted by the organization, with much of the growth coming from an increase in white supremacist groups like the National Socialists of America and various branches on the Klan tree.[1]

Jesus says, “Do good to those who hate you,” and I try to imagine what that sounds like in the ears of those who find themselves the target of this growth in organized hate – black and brown people, gay or queer folk, transgender persons.

Do good to those who hate you.

Lord, that’s a tough one to swallow.

Pope Francis called bishops from around the world to a meeting in Rome last week to discuss clerical sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The yearning for a response from Pope Francis yielded on Friday a first step to holding bishops accountable for abuse in their dioceses. … But survivors and law enforcement officials say they doubt that the church’s response so far matches the magnitude of the crisis sweeping the United States.

“Now all they are going to do is set guidelines again?” Mark Belenchia, 63, an abuse survivor and activist in Jackson, Miss., asked on Friday.[2]

Jesus says, “Pray for those who abuse you,” and I try to imagine what that sounds like in the ears of the victims of clergy sexual abuse who are waiting for accountability, for some acknowledgement of complicity from the hierarchy, for real reform and transformation, and not just in the Roman Catholic Church. And I think about those of you who have suffered abuse by family members, partners, spouses, supervisors – and I wonder what hearing these words does to you.

Pray for those who abuse you.

Bless those who curse you.

Do good to those who hate you.

The sayings are so short, so dangerously memorable. I say dangerously, because these pithy sayings easily take on a life of their own, floating around, destructively settling into minds without the necessary ballast of Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed — because he was sent to proclaim freedom, not religiously whitewashed oppression.

Brush your teeth.

Listen to your mother.

Love your enemies.

The three sound deceptively similar, but the third one doesn’t pretend to be folk wisdom. The third one is Jesus throwing a monkey wrench into the gears of our ethical thinking.

Love your enemies.

The only one who can legitimately say that is somebody who’s done that. Somebody who loved the least-likely-to-be-loved and who revealed the unfathomable depth of God’s mercy in his life and in his death by execution.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Christ died for the ungodly… While we still were sinners Christ died for us… While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God.”[3] Love your enemies is not some pithy adage, short, memorable, made to bounce around as a meme on twitter or instagram. Love your enemies is the life of Jesus in three words. It is the revelation of the heart of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor killed by the Nazi machine for his resistance in the name of Christ, wrote,

How then does love conquer? By asking not how the enemy treats her but only how Jesus treated her. The love for our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified. The more we are driven along this road, the more certain is the victory of love over the enemy’s hatred. For then it is not the disciple’s own love, but the love of Jesus Christ alone, who for the sake of his enemies went to the cross and prayed for them as he hung there. In the face of the cross the disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love.[4]

That is what opens the disciples’ eyes. That is what enables them to recognize a sibling in an enemy. They know that they owe their very life to one, who though  they were enemies, embraced them, accepted them, forgave them, did not expel them from fellowship with him.

Even my enemy is the recipient of God’s love and stands with me beneath the cross of Christ, both of us together in the embrace of the love that will not let us go.

Love your enemies.

Pray for those who abuse you.

Bless those who curse you.

Do good to those who hate you.

Thsee words were not spoken for easy repetition, to be passed on as well-intentioned advice in moments when we run out of things to say. The only place to hear and ponder them is in the embrace of God’s love, and it is only there that we can even begin to think about living them.

We have to thank Victor Hugo for the story I’m about to tell you.[5]

Jean Valjean, after having served a sentence of 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child, was taken in by a local bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenue. The old bishop knew God to be a God of love and hospitality.

The next morning at sunrise Monseigneur Bienvenu was strolling in his garden. Madame Magloire ran up to him in utter consternation.

“Monseigneur, Monseigneur!” she exclaimed, “does your Grace know where the basket of silver is?”

“Yes,” replied the Bishop.

“Jesus the Lord be blessed!” she resumed; “I did not know what had become of it.”

The Bishop had just picked up the basket in a flower-bed.

“Here it is.”

“Well!” said she. “Nothing in it! And the silver?”

“Ah, so it is the silver which troubles you? I don’t know where it is.”

“Great, good God! It is stolen! That man who was here last night has stolen it.”

In a twinkling, with all the vivacity of an alert old woman, Madame Magloire had rushed to the oratory, entered the alcove, and returned to the Bishop.

“Monseigneur, the man is gone! The silver has been stolen!”

The Bishop remained silent for a moment; then he raised his grave eyes, and said gently to Madame Magloire:—

“And, in the first place, was that silver ours?” She was speechless. Another silence ensued; then the Bishop went on:—

“Madame Magloire, I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.”

“Alas! Jesus!” returned Madame Magloire. “It is not for my sake, nor for Mademoiselle’s. It makes no difference to us. But it is for the sake of Monseigneur. What is Monseigneur to eat with now?”

The Bishop gazed at her with an air of amazement.

“Ah, come! Are there no such things as pewter forks and spoons?”

Madame Magloire shrugged her shoulders.

“Pewter has an odor.”

“Iron forks and spoons, then.”

“Iron has a taste.”

“Very well,” said the Bishop; “wooden ones then.”

A few moments later he was having breakfast at the very table at which Jean Valjean had sat on the previous evening. As he ate his breakfast, Monseigneur Bienvenue remarked gayly to his sister, who said nothing, and to Madame Magloire, who was grumbling under her breath, that one really does not need either fork or spoon, even of wood, in order to dip a bit of bread in a cup of milk.

“A pretty idea, truly,” said Madame Magloire to herself, as she went and came, “to take in a man like that! And to lodge him close to one’s self! And how fortunate that he did nothing but steal! Ah, mon Dieu! it makes one shudder to think of it!”

There came a knock at the door.

“Come in,” said the Bishop.

The door opened. … Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were police; the other was Jean Valjean.

“Ah! here you are!” the Bishop exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.

“Monseigneur,” said the lieutenant, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. He had this silver—”

“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”

“In that case,” replied the lieutenant, “we can let him go?”

“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.

“My friend,” he said to Valjean, “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them.”

He stepped to the fireplace, took the two silver candlesticks from the mantel, and brought them to Jean Valjean.

“Now go in peace.”

That’s not the whole story, far from it, but I thought I’d end it here, with the bishop’s good wish and blessing for the thief. A lifetime in the company of Jesus, a lifetime of listening, wondering, and trusting had taught the old man the power of mercy. He didn’t even have to remind himself of Jesus’ teaching, “If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”

The indiscriminate mercy of God had become second nature for the bishop. He simply lived in it, inhabited it with gratitude, and let it transform his thoughts and speech and actions.

Jesus doesn’t call us to moral heroics. He calls us to live fully in the boundless mercy of God.


[1] https://www.splcenter.org/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/22/us/catholic-sex-abuse-pope.html

[3] Romans 5:6-10

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 166-167.

[5] Les Misérables, chapter 12, with some edits from http://www.online-literature.com/victor_hugo/les_miserables/26/

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Fickle hearts

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.

The contrast Jeremiah presents is stark, the coin he holds up has only two sides; it’s either/or. Either/or talk makes me uneasy. You’re either with us or against us. You’re either with us or you’re one of them. Either/or talk divides the world into binaries – black and white, red and blue, us and them – and keeps our minds from noticing the many colors, sounds, perspectives and traditions that actually constitute the world.

But I don’t hear Jeremiah and Jesus as peddlers of simplistic world portrayals. I hear them speak with urgency about fundamental choices and ultimate outcomes. They talk about life in contrasts of arid wasteland and lush fruitfulness, of blessing and woe. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make their flesh their strength,” Jeremiah warns us. Hearts turned away from God, the fountain of life and blessing, and relying on human strength alone – whatever shape that may take, economic power, political influence, military might, technological expertise – hearts turned away from God lead to a shrublike existence in parched places. But hearts turned toward God, hearts trusting in God, hearts open and receptive and obedient to God’s will and purposes lead to life’s flourishing and fruitfulness. Those whose hearts are turned toward God are like a tree planted by streams of water. Even during a dry season, its thirsty roots reach deep and find moisture and nourishment. They are not anxious when drought comes.

You look at the two scenes and you wonder, who on earth would choose a path that leads away from the source of life? Ask Jeremiah, and he’ll cry for an hour.

So much depends on where the heart turns. And the heart, that part of our inner life where our intentions hatch and our decisions are made, the heart turns quite a bit. The heart is fickle, devious above all else, perverse, according to Jeremiah. “Who can understand it?” he asks, implying that no one can. It turns this way and that way, we don’t know how.

We have a lively debate in our culture over what constitutes lush, fruitful life. Our answers differ widely, but most Americans – regardless of age, gender, political affiliation, education, or income – would agree on this: every person is free to live the way they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others. We admire mavericks, creative entrepreneurs, and those fearless explorers who boldly go where no one has gone before. We value freedom and autonomy, and we don’t want to live lives controlled by others. We follow our hearts. We create and follow our own paths, directed by our own will and our own goals, pulled by our own dreams, energized by our own desires, in pursuit of our own accomplishments, with as little or as much concern for our neighbors as we see fit. We make our own respective self the measure of our lives. And the heart turns this way and that way, we don’t know how.

The understanding of reality in scripture is not self-centered but thoroughly God-centered. Where we think of the good life in terms of self-fulfillment, the biblical witnesses speak of the purposes of God for us and for all, and the unfolding of God’s plan for creation. Where in our culture prosperity has become a matter of getting as much of what you want as fast as you can, Jeremiah and other witnesses in scripture tell us of prosperity as the fruitfulness of life rooted in God. They see being autonomous as being alienated from God, from other people, and from creation. To be autonomous is not to be free, but to be cut off, and to perish in isolation like rootless tumbleweed. Our hearts need to turn, we need to turn. We need to let ourselves be reoriented toward God and let our restless hearts rest in God.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord,” says Jeremiah. “Where is the evidence?” you may ask, adding your cautious hesitation or your protest to that of generations who have gone before. “The wicked boast of the desires of their heart, those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord. Their ways prosper at all times,” we read in Psalm 10. There is plenty of evidence that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. God’s people proclaim among the nations, “The Lord reigns,” and the nations laugh and continue to worship the idols of power, greed, and lust.

Jesus stood on a level place when he taught us, saying,

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

He didn’t say that poverty is a blessing.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

He didn’t say that hunger is a blessing.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

He didn’t say that tears are a blessing.

He said to the poor disciples, You are blessed, for the reign of God is not a distant dream but already a present reality, and you are a part of it. You are blessed, because the logic of the world is not divine law. You are blessed, because the reign of God is not a reflection of the world, but its transformation in glory, and you are witnessing the beginnings of it.

“God has a preferential love for the poor,” wrote theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will.”[1] The world pushes the poor to the margins and leaves them out of the conversations about the future, but they are at the center of God’s attention and of Jesus’ mission. The good news proclaimed to the poor is the assurance that God is for them. In a world governed by the rules of the wicked, the poor and the hungry may be overlooked and forgotten, but God remembers them. The good news proclaimed to the poor is that the kingdom belongs to them and not to those who act as if they owned the world. The good news proclaimed to the poor is the community of Christ, a community where justice, equality, and compassion are living realities.

Jesus said to the rich disciples,

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

He didn’t say that the rich are cursed.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

He didn’t say that having enough to eat is cursed.

Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

He didn’t say that laughter is cursed.

How can the rich be blessed? You know the biggest dilemma of gift shopping: What can you give the person who already has everything? Shopping for a bridal shower is easy: they’re registered; they ask for pots and pans, silver, glass and china, towels and linens, mixer, blender, coffee grinder.

But what do you get your bachelor uncle for his birthday? He already has everything and proudly declares that he doesn’t need anything. That is, on a very human scale, God’s dilemma with the rich.

Wealth becomes a curse when it cuts us off from the needs of others, from the community of life, and from God. Wealth becomes a curse when we sit back and say to ourselves, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!”[2] Wealth becomes a curse when we tell ourselves that the only thing God could give us is to live forever with the body of a 27-year old.

But “Woe to you” is not Jesus’ only or final word to the rich. He proclaims good news to the poor, and it is not inevitably bad news for the rich. It is the good news of God’s reign, the good news of a new community in Christ where compassion, justice, and mutual love are living realities.

The way of proud self-reliance is cursed, it ends in an uninhabited wasteland. But the way of trust in God is blessed. So much depends on where the heart turns. And the heart is fickle, devious above all else, perverse, according to Jeremiah. “Who can understand it?” he asks, implying that no one can. It turns this way and that way, we don’t know how.

But God searches the heart; to God all hearts are open, all desires known, and from God no secrets are hid, we sometimes confess in our prayers. God does not wait until our restless hearts finally rest in God to dwell in us. God comes to us, again and again, searching, knowing, nudging, challenging and affirming, through the words of scripture and the movements of the Spirit, calling us back, again and again, to the way of blessing, the way of Christ.

The real challenge, then, is to trust, and not to fear, the One who searches and knows the heart.

To trust, and not to fear, the One at work among us and within us.

The real challenge is to let God’s reconciling love reign in our hearts and in the world by following Jesus on the way.


[1] Quoted in Culpepper, Luke (NIB)

[2] Lk 12:19

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Tell me, Emma Faye

In the gospel of Luke, the Spirit drives the plot. The story begins with the births of John and Jesus. John, we’re told, would be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb (1:15). Jesus’ mom would give birth to a holy child, because the Holy Spirit would come upon her (1:35). When the two mothers meet, John leaps in his mother’s womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit (1:41). Then his father is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies (1:67). Then we meet old Simeon, upon whom the Holy Spirit rested, and to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would see the Lord’s Anointed before his death; and guided by the Spirit he comes to the temple when Mary and Joseph bring their child (2:25-27). And then Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John and the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and led by the Spirit, Jesus enters the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil (3:22; 4:1). Then, we read this morning, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, where he began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone (4:14-15). The Spirit drives the plot. Women and men, young and old, entrust themselves to the Spirit’s presence and direction, and the story of salvation unfolds.

And now the famous son returns to Nazareth where they’ve known him all his life and where they’ve heard stories, bits and pieces, about his teachings and other wondrous things he’s done down in Capernaum and the other villages by the lake. It’s the Sabbath, and he’s in the synagogue, and they invite him to do the second reading and teach, and they hand him the scroll of Isaiah. He opens the scroll, he finds the passage he wants to read – it’s like all the movement, the back and forth from Nazareth to Bethlehem, back to Nazareth and down to Jerusalem, to the Jordan and into the wilderness and back to Galilee – it’s like all the movement slows down to this one moment. Jesus reads from Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Ancient words of promise and hope. Jesus sits down to teach, Luke tells us. The eyes of all in the synagogue are fixed on him. They want to hear his comments. They are hungry for a teaching, for a word to, perhaps, assure them that the ancient promise is still theirs, a word of encouragement not to give up hope, that the day would come, that their suffering would come to an end someday, and they would live in freedom. And the first word out of his mouth is “today.”

Jesus identifies himself with this Spirit-bearer, anointed and sent to bring good news to the poor, to the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. He wasn’t reading, he was giving his inaugural address. “This is who I am. This is what I’m about. This is my mission.” Good news for the poor. Release for the captives. Sight for the blind. Freedom for the oppressed. His Sabbath talk is short because his whole life is the teaching, because all he is and says and does and suffers is the embodiment of who God is for us and who we are, who we really are, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. In great compassion, he has made our broken life his own, and his own life ours, a life of unending communion with God.

In the gospel according to Luke, the Spirit drives the plot, and in the second part of Luke’s work, the book of Acts, the Spirit continues to inspire and empower men and women for mission. Baptized into Christ, immersed into his death and resurrection, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, the church is called, anointed and sent to be the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed – to be the embodiment of the life of Christ. The church, of course, has been and continues to be all kinds of things, but in the power of the Spirit, we are a new humanity, fully alive in communion with God and with each other.

Good news for the poor – that is as simple as Room in the Inn, as simple as making a bed in fellowship hall and cooking a meal, so a veteran who can’t escape the ghosts of war can escape the cold and find rest for a night. Good news for the poor is as simple as the Souperbowl of Caring, reminding us of the power of sharing God’s abundant gifts. It’s as simple as a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a winter jacket for the man whose things were stolen, few as they were, when he was looking for help at the Campus for Human Development. Good news for the poor is as simple as food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and a couple of nights at the inn for the man who was beaten and left for dead by robbers by the side of the Jericho road. But it doesn’t end there; it can’t end there, because the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of life that is nothing but life, fullness of life, for all. We can’t stop asking what we can do to keep people from being pushed to the margins of our communities. Simple charity won’t do. We must be willing to open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new.

A few years back I read what became for me an eye-opening story. I don’t want to merely tell it, I want to invite you to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes for a moment.

You’re Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African American mother of two. You were just arrested as part of a drug sweep. You are innocent. You don’t use drugs, let alone sell them. You just happened to be there.

After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, telling you the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. You didn’t do anything wrong.

Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty just so you can return home to your children. You are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs.

You are now a drug felon. This means you are no longer eligible for food stamps. This also means that on any job application, you have to check the box that you have been convicted of a felony. And it means that you cannot vote for at least twelve years, but that’s the least of your worries: You are about to be evicted from public housing, and once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.

You think it couldn’t get any worse? It can and it does. A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, Emma Faye, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.[1]

Tell me, Emma Faye, what do you hear when Jesus proclaims freedom for the oppressed? From where you see the world and know life, what does release for the captives mean? I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because you and I live in the same country, but in very different worlds.

I’m asking you, because you and I are baptized, and the apostles of the church teach us that we are one in Christ. He has made us his own, and that makes us family, and that makes us each other’s business. I can live my life quite comfortably without you, tucked away in my little world and you in yours, but in God’s household our worlds are one.

I’m only beginning to see you; only beginning to see fullness of life from your angle; only beginning to see what freedom from oppression might look like for both of us, a black woman and a white man, wondering what life outside the long shadow of slavery might be like for us.

The apostle writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” He says you and I are parts of one body, which is a whole lot closer than being siblings or members of one household.

It’s a dangerous metaphor, the body, because every body needs a head, and who determines who’s the head and who’s a toe and who’s the appendix? The apostle doesn’t want us to go there, I know;  he wants us to know in our bones that in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male and female, young and old—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Each of us indispensable for all of us to be whole.

Tell me, Emma Faye, how will we let the Spirit draw us deeper into the life that is nothing but life?


[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition, p. 95

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Unexpected love

Expectations. They can give you wings or be the chains around your feet. They can lift you up and take you places you didn’t think were within your reach, and they can stifle you, weigh you down, keep you from blossoming. You don’t always know where they come from, whether they are your own or your parents’ or some accumulation of the images and messages we all receive daily from our culture, subtle or not-so-subtle.

People were filled with expectation about you before you were born. They were filled with expectation when they looked at you in your crib, when you went to school, when you tried out for the baseball team, when you walked down the aisle in your long white dress, when you graduated, when you joined the church, when you had your first child, when you started your new job. And you have been trying to find your way through that thicket of expectations, the spoken and unspoken. You have been trying to find a way, to make a way that feels like your own rather than someone else’s idea of your life.

In the Gospel of Luke, we get to look at a short and curious sequence of scenes. John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, far from following in his father’s footsteps as a priest at the temple in Jerusalem, has appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He admonishes the crowds that have come to be baptized by him to bear fruits worthy of repentance. “The ax is lying at the root of the tree,” he says with fire on his breath. He urges them to be generous, honest, and just in their relationships, and the people are filled with expectation, questioning in their hearts whether he might be the Messiah. “I baptize you with water,” he says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And more fire to come when the one more powerful than John will judge the world, separating the wheat from the chaff.

And then Jesus steps into this scene that is charged with messianic speculation and expectation, with apocalyptic visions of judgment and redemption — but he doesn’t come down from on high, winnowing fork in hand and and an ax in the other. He comes to be baptized, washed in the river, along with all the people.

This is the Jordan, the river that Israel crossed after long years of wilderness wandering to enter the promised land. This river marks the border between what was and what is to be, between longing and fulfillment. Its waters wash away the dust and grime of the journey, the failures and the regrets, the anguish and the sticky shadows of all the things we can’t undo. Forgiveness flows like a never-ending stream, and in repentance we step into the current, we let ourselves be plunged into the deep, and we let the water cleanse and renew us, and we emerge filled with gratitude and ready to finally live as God’s people on God’s earth, according to God’s will.

And now Jesus gets in the water with us. He gets in and he makes our lives his own, our real lives with all the distortions and ugliness our lovelessness and disobedience have caused. He gets in and he lets himself be plunged into the deep, all the way down where its dark and cold, and, making our broken lives his own, he makes his life ours – his love and compassion, his righteousness and humble servanthood.

This moment in the river is the gospel in a nutshell: God bears all that fractures the wholeness and fullness of life, and we are given a new beginning and a new purpose as those whom Christ has made his own.

The curious thing, though, about Luke’s account, is that he mentions Jesus’ baptism almost in passing, in a subordinate clause: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

Luke makes sure we notice that Jesus was in the water with all the people, but the real news is the opening of heaven and the Spirit’s descent when Jesus was praying. Remember, this was a moment charged with messianic expectation, with firy judgment in the air and anxious hope for redemption – and Jesus prayed. He stood amid the flurry of expectations of John and the crowd and, not to forget, his mom and dad, his siblings and friends, and he prayed. And a voice came from heaven.

Now this is God speaking in the first person, which doesn’t happen very often in the scriptures, and if you think that it’s important to have all the words of Jesus printed in red, what color do you suggest for the voice from heaven? Gold letters in 18pt font? Or should our Bibles perhaps have a page break right after the comma to give these precious words a page of their own, so our eyes don’t just keep reading as though getting to the end of the story were a matter of speed? An extra page might slow us down enough to notice that the voice from heaven didn’t add to the already dense thicket of expectations: there’s no solemn commission to Jesus to go and save the world. Instead we read this beautiful statement of love and delight, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And that’s all. Perhaps we should insert another blank page at the end of this sentence to help us realize that these twelve words are all the voice from heaven says. No second sentence opening a whole new paragraph, “Now listen, Son, this is what I need you to do.” No parental reminder, “Now don’t you forget that, Son, or I won’t be pleased.” Only these words: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

In Luke’s gospel, this scene by the river is followed by a long genealogy, name after name, generation upon generation, layer upon layer of family history and all that comes with family history – but Jesus’ true identity, his true name was spoken by the water by a voice from heaven. The list of generations goes back all the way to the first parents, Adam and Eve, and perhaps Luke inserts the list here to illustrate that Jesus life and work is about all of humanity in our need of redemption. He comes to make his life ours. He comes to remind us of our true identity as God’s beloved children in whom God delights. He comes to reveal to us that who we are is ultimately not defined by layers of generations nor the deep wounds of past injustice that continue to cause pain, shame, guilt, and despair. We are, every last one of us, God’s beloved children in whom God delights. And this love God has for us is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up. We can deny it, sure, we can ignore it, neglect it, forget it, run away from it, but we cannot destroy it. Nothing we do or refuse to do will change who we are: God’s own and God’s beloved.

Sometimes we forget. We forget because we’re busy sorting through piles of expectations, trying to put all the pieces together into a life we still recognize as our own. We forget because somehow life has convinced us that we are not worthy of love or too insignificant to even be noticed. We forget because pain and fear and shame bury our sense of self as God’s own and as siblings in God’s one human family. What are we to do about that forgetfulness?

Luke draws our attention to Jesus’ praying after he had been baptized. I don’t think he does this to suggest that heaven opened because Jesus prayed, but rather to remind us that the openness of heaven is a reality we can perceive with the openness of heart and mind which prayer cultivates. He wants to encourage us to pray so we will know deep in our bones and not forget that we belong to God and are loved.

Martin Luther often struggled with a deep sense of unworthiness, and when he became discouraged and dejected he would say, “But I am baptized.” It was the prayer of a desperate man hanging on to the promises of God. He even wrote it on a slip of paper he pinned to the wall above his desk, “I am baptized.” When the waves of conflict around him and within surged high, the tempter would say to him, “Martin, you’re a hopeless, stubborn, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, no-good sinner.” And he would reply, “True enough, devil, but I am baptized.”

Luther wrestled with a host of demons, he was passionate about the truth of the gospel and the faith and faithfulness of God’s people, and he was pulled in many directions by the expectations of many. I imagine that on some mornings, perhaps every morning, when he washed his face he paused and whispered, “I am baptized. Christ has made me his own. I belong to God.” Not a bad habit; perhaps you should try it. In the morning, when you step into the shower, and the water runs over your face and shoulders, pause for a moment to remember your true name and say it, “Holy One, I am your beloved child and you delight in me.”

In this morning’s reading from Isaiah is another passage where God speaks in the first person. The words were first addressed to a small band of uprooted men and women who felt abandoned by God: Do not fear. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.

First spoken to God’s people in exile in Babylon, far from the land, far from Jerusalem, we hear ourselves included in these words, in the promise to all of God’s sons and daughters, the promise of the great homecoming from all our exiles:

Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give them up, and to the south, Do not withhold. Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

That is the heart and the end of the story: All of us knowing ourselves and one another by our true names. All of us living fully in the love that made us, redeemed us, and never ceased to call us. Thanks be to God.

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Stargazing

It’s a frozen chunk of rock and ice on the edge of our solar system. Astronomers call it a trans-Neptunian object, and they named it Ultima Thule. A few days ago we got to see the first pictures, grainier than a bad first-trimester ultrasound print. The spacecraft that took the pictures, New Horizons, was launched in 2006. Twelve years to cover 4.1 billion miles. The data transmissions back to Earth take a little more than six hours. To the folks at NASA, Ultima Thule looks like a snowman; others, schooled in the aesthetics of Star Wars, noted the striking resemblance to the very cute droid BB-8.

It’s been quite a week in space news, from the edges of our solar system to the Moon, the astronomical object closest to Earth. Humankind has looked up to the moon for a very, very long time, but we first laid eyes on the far side of the moon in 1968.

“The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time,” the astronaut Bill Anders told NASA mission control. For millennia, people had gazed up at the same view of the Earth’s companion—the same craters, cracks, and fissures. As the Apollo spacecraft floated over the unfamiliar lunar surface, Anders described the new territory, which promised to be a tough landing for anyone who tried. “It’s all beat up, no definition,” he said. “Just a lot of bumps and holes.”

Fifty years later, humankind landed in the sand pile. China set down a spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Wednesday, Beijing time.[1] And on Thursday, the rover Jade Rabbit 2 left the lander and began driving around, leaving the first wheel tracks on the backside of Earth’s ancient satellite.

On Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 — Frank Bormann, Bill Anders, and James Lovell, Jr. — were busy scouting landing spots on the moon for a future mission when they suddenly witnessed a spectacular moment: over the ash-colored lunar mountains, against the black backdrop of space, they saw the Earth rising like a shining, blue marble. As one science writer put it,

Major Anders had the job of photographing the lunar landscape. When Earth rose, a robot would have kept on clicking off pictures of the craters. Indeed the astronauts briefly joked about whether they should break off and aim their cameras up. “Hey don’t take that, it’s not scheduled,” Commander Borman said. Then, like good humans, they grabbed cameras and clicked away.

“Earthrise” became an iconic image, something of an epiphany. Sent to examine the Moon, Major Anders later said, humans instead discovered Earth. Apollo 8’s greatest legacy turned out to be a single photograph of home, glorious and beautiful, “fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble.”[2] Fifty years later, we know a lot more about just how fragile our planet is, and we’re still far from knowing how to be at home here, together.

Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these sky-gazing travelers from far away lands who came to Jerusalem guided by a star to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And because we know almost nothing about them, we have long let our imaginations soar. Matthew gave us an almost blank canvas, and we have gladly filled it with rich, colorful detail. First we looked at the map, and we listed all the lands East of Jerusalem – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we looked at the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Very expensive gifts, not the kind of stuff you can pick up at the market on your way to the birthday party — but didn’t Isaiah mention gold and frankincense, and didn’t he write about kings? That was when, in our imagination, they began to look like kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because three gifts are mentioned, we determined that there must have been three of them. And we began singing songs like We Three Kings From Orient Are, but our hunger for detail wasn’t satisfied yet. How did they get from the East to Jerusalem? Certainly they did not walk all the way — but wait, didn’t Isaiah mention a multitude of camels? Sometime in the Middle Ages, we named the three Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and we saw them riding high on their camels, with more camels carrying their treasure chests.

With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift, because in this baby, we see the face of God. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them — we come from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to pay homage to the newborn king. Matthew gives us but a hint or two, and we let our imagination run and leap and soar, because this child is the good king, born to bring us all together in the city of God, born to show us how to be at home in God’s creation, together.

What about the other king? Imagine King Herod’s face when his staff informed him that visitors of considerable wealth and status were entering the city. He was very fond of hearing his underlings refer to him as Herod the Great, but imagine the satisfaction in his eyes and the regal pace with which he made his way to the palace window to see his own majesty and greatness reflected in the very important visitors from far away. They had come from distant lands to meet him and, no doubt, pay him homage, to admire the magnificent building projects under way in the city, especially the temple — he was Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the most important person in the realm, was he not? Imagine his face when the foreign visitors entered and asked him where they might find the newborn king of the Jews.

We hang a star in the baptistry window during Advent and Christmas. It’s beautiful, especially at night, and it’s hard to miss. It’s been made to stand out. It’s been made to illumine for us the path to the manger and from the manger to the cross. But in Matthew’s story, only the astronomers from the East notice the one star among the thousands of others visible on a clear night. Herod doesn’t see what they see; nor do the experts in reading the sacred texts whom he consults. They talk about Bethlehem, but they can’t see the star, they can’t see the house, they can’t see God’s saving presence in this child, Emmanuel, God with us.

Epiphany means manifestation, appearance, showing forth – but Matthew wants us to see the hiddenness of Christ, how God slips into the world by way of a poor family in a one-light town. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Matthew knows the words by heart, but he wants us to see that the glory of God has risen, not upon Herod’s palace or his spectacular temple, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty hill town called Bethlehem. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” the prophet declared, and Matthew shows us the nations coming to the light. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” – and they do, but all Herod can see is a threat to his own reign.

As Rome’s puppet king and client of the emperor, Herod’s task was to foster loyalty to Rome’s power. He presided over a political system that benefited a small elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Describing Herod’s cruelty, the Roman writer Macrobius penned the memorable line that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his wife or son.”[3] He was used to getting rid of people who didn’t serve his ambition. He had ten wives and ordered multiple assassinations, including the murder of some of his own sons to make sure the one of his choosing would take his throne when he died. No epiphany for Herod, only fear and cunning and ruthless determination.

Matthew’s story is not about three kings, but about two, Herod and Jesus. The contrast between their kingdoms runs through the whole gospel, all the way to this year and this moment and to us and whether we see the glory of the Lord that has risen upon us or only lights of our own making; whether we see the epiphany of God-with-us in Mary’s boy and let him guide us or put the vision away together with the rest of the Christmas decorations.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” Isaiah declared.[4] Our reading is from chapter 60, but the background against which Isaiah calls us to arise and shine, is found in chapter 59:

“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.”[5]

“The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes …”[6]

Groping along a wall, of all things… I laughed when I read about us, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. It was the uncomfortable laughter of recognition. We’ve become experts at Herod’s game, but our redemption, our hope, and the hope of the Earth, “fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble,” lies on the way of peace Jesus has opened for us. Let us walk in the light of the Lord.


[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/far-side-moon-china/579349/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/21/science/earthrise-moon-apollo-nasa.html

[3] Warren Carter, “Between text and sermon: Matthew 2:1-12,” Interpretation 67, no. 1 (January 2013), 64-65.

[4] Isaiah 9:2

[5] Isaiah 59:14

[6] Isaiah 59:8-10

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Magnify

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Mary sings of the magnifying gaze of God. She sings of the Holy One of Israel who looks with favor on what is small and poor, easily overlooked or ignored. She sings of God’s magnifying gaze that has changed her life and the course of the world.

An angel came to her and told her that she would get pregnant and give birth to a boy, and that she would name him Jesus. And that was only the beginning; the surprise kept unfolding. God would give to her boy the throne of David, and of his kingdom there would be no end. And this child of hers would be called the Son of the Most High.

Then the angel lingered a little, didn’t just depart, having delivered the divine birth announcement. The angel lingered a little, because this pregnancy was not just a matter of divine fiat. The angel waited to hear what Mary would have to say. The angel waited because the good news for all people does not overwhelm us, manipulate or coerce us. God speaks and patiently awaits our response, our consent to let our lives serve God’s saving purpose.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Under the magnifying gaze of God we become fully visible in our dignity and freedom as creatures made in the image of God. None of us are mere means chosen and used for God’s ends. We are partners whose consent God desires and honors.

“Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary said.

Then the angel departed, and Mary departed as well, with haste, to go and see Elizabeth down south, in the hill country. It’s with Elizabeth, that Mary finds words beyond her courageous, “Let it be.”

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

My dictionary defines to magnify as to 1. praise highly; glorify; extol; esp. render honour to (God); 2. make greater in size, status, importance, etc.; 3. increase the apparent size of (a thing) as with a lense or microscope. Mary glorifies and extols God her Savior, because the Mighty One of Israel doesn’t act like the mighty ones of the world. God’s merciful gaze magnifies small things and seemingly insignificant people, making them greater in size, status, importance, etc. Mary has spoken her world-changing “Let it be” and now she magnifies the Lord because God has looked with favor on her lowliness and asked her to participate in the great work of salvation.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,” she sings, but her song quickly moves from the very personal to the horizon of God’s promise to Abraham: all generations will call her blessed for her faith and her participation, and in the end all the families of the earth will be blessed because God is faithful.

The prophet Micah reminds us that God’s magnifying gaze is by no means a new thing, but the way God looks at the world.

“You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel … He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, … he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”

Of all the towns and clans of Judah, God chose Bethlehem. Of all the sons of Jesse, God chose David. Of all the nations, God chose Israel. Of all the women, God chose Mary, a teenager from some town called Nazareth that nobody had ever heard of. Under the magnifying gaze of God, what we easily ignore or overlook or dismiss as marginal and insignificant becomes fully visible in its true stature and dignity.

Wendy Farley wrote,

When we expect the power of redemption to mimic the power we see around us every day in fathers, judges, rulers, warriors, or captains of industry, it is because we have not been able to digest the shocking images of power we celebrate every Christmas and Easter.

Christ has always been a terribly offensive icon of the Holy, not least because he is perhaps the poorest display of power one sees in any of the world’s religions. In him, we see immortal, invisible God birthed into this world through an impoverished and nearly outcast young woman. We watch Jesus wander around a little rag-tag occupied country for a while and then leave it by one of Rome’s most hideous methods of execution. Although we love these stories and tell them over and over again, they capture something about divine power that [many of us] often find indigestible. Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus.

Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus, and we are tempted, forever tempted, it seems, to fashion God in the image of imperial and autocratic rulers.

For centuries, Christians have recited Mary’s song in their evening prayers, with the desire to join her exuberant praise of God’s world-flipping redemption and with the hope of having their own vision of life, of power, of the world shaped by God’s own magnifying gaze.

You have shown strength with your arm;

you have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

You have brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly.

You have filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

You have helped your servant Israel,

in remembrance of your mercy,

according to the promise you made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The song reaches far into the past, into the time of promise, and it reaches deep into the time of fulfillment, even as the time of fulfillment reaches into the present with the birth of Mary’s child. We sing with Mary, because we trust that the Spirit who filled Elizabeth and came upon Mary is at work among us. We sing with Mary, because we trust that the God she birthed into this world is moving creation toward its consummation with redeeming mercy. We sing Mary’s words of confidence and courage, because in the singing our own hearts become a little more confident and courageous and willing to follow Jesus on the way. We sing justice. We sing redemption. We sing the end of hunger and war. We sing the resurrection. We sing the power of love overcoming the love of power.

During the years of military rule and civil war in Guatemala and El Salvador, those in power banned the public reading of Mary’s song because to their ears it sounded subversive. When Martin Luther first translated the Bible into German, the princes who gladly supported Luther in his struggles with the Holy Roman Empire, were nervous about the peasants singing too lustily with mother Mary of the One who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Luther was convinced he needed the princes’ support, and so he left Mary’s song in Latin. Only that kind of maneuvering did not then nor will it ever prevent God’s merciful gaze from lifting up the lowly. In the late 80’s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christians in Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings in and around St. Nikolai church to pray for peace and to sing. They lit candles, week after week, and they sang songs of hope and protest, and their numbers grew from a few dozen to more than a thousand and eventually to more than three hundred thousand men, women, and children. After the fall of the Wall, a reporter asked an officer of the Stasi, the dreaded secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others. The officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”

In the darkness of injustice, lovelessness and hatred we sing the birth of Jesus. Soon we will set out once again and go to Bethlehem to see what God has done for us. We will enter the house where the promises of God come true and new life comes into the world. We will kneel next to the manger, and all that is proud and powerful in us will be brought down and scattered. And all that is lowly and poor, humble and hungry in us will be lifted up and strengthened and filled. And the hungry will eat. And those who flee for their lives will find refuge. And those who thirst for righteousness will drink. All of us will know and live the good news of great joy. And together we will magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior.

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Being at home before getting there

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

The poetry of Advent invites us to stand on the tip of our toes, our eyes raised with expectation, our parched souls ready to drink and enjoy life’s restoration from the deep wells of God. In exile, the prophet sings of homecoming. In deep  darkness, the prophet sings of light. In a culture of injustice and oppression, the prophet sings of freedom and righteousness.

The lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water.[1]

When the poor and needy seek water,

and there is none,

and their tongue is parched with thirst,

the Lord will answer them,

I the God of Israel will not forsake them.

I will open rivers on the bare heights,

and fountains in the midst of valleys;

I will make the wilderness a pool of water,

and the dry land springs of water.[2]

I will pour water on the thirsty land,

and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,

and my blessing on your offspring.[3]

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;

and you that have no money, come, buy and eat![4]

In the midst of exile — with all its physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma — the prophet sings the promises of God and invites the exiles to sing along, celebrating Israel’s repeated experiences of God’s deliverance.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation, because God is faithful. With joy, so don’t let your mortal flesh keep silent! Sing the river in the desert. Sing the light in the night. Sing of home on the road.

“We carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home that beckons us,” wrote Frederick Buechner. The prophets of Advent give voice to that vision and our musicians give it melody – for us to sing and sway and join the procession home. “To be homeless the way people like you and me are apt to be homeless,” wrote Buechner, “is to have homes all over the place but not really to be at home in any of them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”[5]

Real peace. Intricately interwoven lives of righteousness. The home that love builds. Paul wrote about it. He sat in a prison cell facing capital charges, and he wrote a letter to his friends in Philippi, his siblings in Christ who courageously lived and proclaimed the gospel of life in a hostile environment. He sat in a prison cell knowing that he might die soon, concerned about his friends, knowing that they were worried about him and about the church.

“Even if I am being poured out as a libation,”  — he speaks of his own possible execution here — “even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.”[6]

Joy is woven through the text of Paul’s letter from jail to the church in Philippi like a string of Christmas lights through the branches of a tree. Joy shines forth throughout. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Always, at all times, regardless of circumstances: Rejoice!

The good news of the world’s redemption in Christ has become Paul’s life. He knows that Christ has made him his own and that is all that matters anymore. They can lock him up and throw away the key; they can beat him, they can even execute him – nothing they do can change or undo what God has done in Christ. The horizon of Paul’s world – whether he is on board a ship on the vast ocean or confined to a cell – the ultimate horizon of Paul’s world is the love of God. That is where he lives now, nowhere else. He doesn’t worry about anything. The Lord is near. The peace of God is guarding his heart and mind. Paul knows something about being at home before getting there. He knows that in Christ, God came to complete the journey with us.

These are times when we feel homeless like we haven’t in a long time, mostly because we have run out of ways to guard our hearts and minds ourselves, and anxiety has crept in. Paul tells us, Do not worry about anything; not because there is nothing to worry about or because the things we do worry about are unimportant. Rather he wants us to inhabit the wide horizon of God’s love and to place our anxieties, fears, and concerns in the context of our relationship with God who raised Jesus from the dead. For him, the cross marks the center of reality and the resurrection the hope of all whom Christ has made his own. Paul knows something about being at home before getting there. “For Paul, the Lord is near in two ways,” wrote David Bartlett.

The Lord is near, present, close at hand, even in the difficult times of imprisonment. The Lord is near in the comfort of the Spirit, in the loving prayers of other believers, in the astonishing fact that Paul’s imprisonment actually fosters the spread of the Gospel. For the Philippians, the Lord is also near, working reconciliation, strengthening prayer, deepening love - even if life is not invariably comfortable or physically secure. The Lord is also near because Paul believes the Lord will soon come again, and in that coming those who are faithful will be justified and those who ignore or persecute the faithful will be judged. For Paul, joy is closely tied to hope. Because we have confident hope in God’s vindication of God’s cause we can rejoice even when happiness seems a remote memory or a foolish dream.[7]

A week ago yesterday, a special mass was held in Oran, Algeria, celebrating the beatification of six women and thirteen men who were killed between 1993 and 1996, while Algeria was locked in a 10-year civil war between the government and a ruthless Islamic insurgency. Among the martyrs were seven Trappist monks — Fathers Christophe, Bruno, Celestin and Christian as well as Brothers Luc, Michel and Paul — who were kidnapped and murdered in 1996 by members of the Groupe Islamique Armé.[8] On Christmas Eve 1993, six armed members of the group entered the monastery in Thibhirine where they lived. One of the six, the leader, was responsible for the beheading of 12 foreign workers in a nearby town, a couple of weeks earlier. Father Christian de Chergė, the prior, talked to the man, reminding him of the monks’ commitment to peace and refusing any attempts by the Islamic militants to draw them into collaboration. Eventually the six left, promising to come back.

As a child, Father Christian had lived in Algeria while his father, a ranking officer in the French military, was stationed there. His mother had taught him to respect Muslims as people of faith, and he developed a deep and lasting belief in kinship between Muslims and Christians.

When he became a monk, he recognized the commonalities between the monastic life and the villagers’ practice of Islam: a commitment to regular prayer, times of fasting and penance, the high premium placed on hospitality, and an ethos of submission to the will of God. The villagers saw the same commonalities in the monks: in the villagers’ eyes, the monks were good Muslims.

After Christmas 1993, there were several attempts by the Algerian government and church authorities to offer the monks refuge or provide them with a military presence, but the community rejected the proposals. Instead they reaffirmed their commitment to remain at Tibhirine as witnesses for peace and companions in solidarity with the local Muslim villagers.

On March 27, 1996 the monks were abducted by the Groupe Islamique Armé, and on May 21, 1996, the group announced the beheadings of Father Christian and six of his brothers. A few days later, his mother opened a sealed letter he had written three years earlier, anticipating his own death. I want to share with you excerpts from this letter:

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. … I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the ‘grace of martyrdom,’ especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of extremists. …

This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his passion, and filled with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences.[9]

Father Christian had the courage to love deeply, because the vision of wholeness that beckoned him was the life of God. He simply participated in the movement of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully deligthing in the differences.

With joy he drew water from the wells of salvation even when terror and death appeared to reign. Like Paul, he knew something about being at home before getting there.

[1] Isaiah 35:6-7

[2] Isaiah 41:17-20

[3] Isaiah 44:3

[4] Isaiah 55:1

[5] Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 110 and 140

[6] Philippians 2:17f

[7] David Bartlett, “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” The Living Pulpit 5, no. 4 (October 1996), 14.

[8] http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2018/simple-christians-ordinary-trappist-martyrs-gave-extraordinary-witness.cfm; their story was told in the film “Of Gods and Men.”

[9] Karl A. Plank, “Muslim neighbors,” The Christian Century, December 12, 2006, pp. 10-11 and https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/dom-christians-testament

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Messengers

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

These are the closing lines of the book of Malachi. After reading them, you turn the page and you realize you’re at the end of the Old Testament. One more page, and you’re looking at the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi, the last of the prophets, with the promise of Elijah’s return as a messenger of reconciliation.

Our Jewish friends and neighbors read the ancient scriptures in a different order. First the Torah, the five scrolls of Moses, just like in our Bible, but then the prophets, followed by the writings. The Jewish Bible ends with 2 Chronicles, where King Cyrus of Persia, after his defeat of the Babylonian empire, says to God’s people in exile, “The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all his people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up.”

The reader of the Jewish Bible closes the book with a look to the end of exile and the return of God’s people to the land of God’s promise. The reader of the Christian Old Testament turns the final page looking for a messenger. That’s not just a curious bit of Bible trivia. Jews and Christian have organized our sacred scriptures around our deepest hope.

We turn the final page waiting for a messenger, expecting a messenger. Malachi announces the coming of ‘my messenger who will prepare the way before me’ and our ears are ringing because we run into John the Baptizer in each of our four gospels where he is in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. We look at John and we recognize one whose coming had been announced.

In Malachi we read of the coming of a messenger who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap, a messenger who burns and scrubs to purify and refine— and who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

I don’t know a thing about refining silver, but I read in a commentary that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete when she can see her own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the melted metal. We are made in the image of God, meant to reflect the face and the glory of God, and the refiner’s fire speaks to me of God’s commitment to remove anything that would keep us from shining, anything that would keep us from being who we are meant to be.

Many generations after Malachi, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas— something happened. Luke situates his story in time by listing imperial, regional, and religious authorities of the day, which was a common thing to do for writers of his time. But he does more than just follow literary convention. We hear this roll call of big names of men of power, and we are prepared to hear an important announcement, the kind of world news for which broadcast stations will interrupt their regular programming. What was the big announcement?

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

The word of God came— not to the emperor or one of the governors or rulers, not even to the high priests, not to any of the connected people who are used to journalists taking notes whenever they open their mouths, but to John son of Zechariah. The word of God came to a man on the periphery of the world, far away from the cities and markets, the media centers, the palaces, and the temples. The word of God came to John in the wilderness as once it came to Moses and Elijah and the prophets of old, and he began to speak of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The word of God came and the wilderness became once again a place of hope and deep change.

When Israel was in captivity in Egypt, the word of God came to Moses, and the people, weighed down by the yoke of oppression and exhausted by years of toil, stood and raised their heads, because their redemption was drawing near. In the wilderness, the prophet declared, the Lord would make a way and lead them to freedom. And against Pharao’s stubborn resistance, the Hebrew slaves followed God’s call through the desert and the sea to the land of promise, in the great exodus.

Generations later, Israel was again in captivity in Babylon, and the word of God came to Isaiah. The prophet declared that the Lord would end their exile, gather the displaced, and bring them home in a long procession of joy on a highway through the wilderness. “Make a road for the Lord, and make it straight. Fill in every gulley, every pot hole, and grade the land until it is level. Where it’s crooked, make it straight. Where it’s rough, make it smooth. This is the road to freedom, this is the way home.”

Generations later, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, with Rome’s legions occupying the land, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. And it wasn’t a call to arms against the foreign occupier— it was a call to repentance, and John sounded just like Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord. Another exodus was in the making, and those who heard the call, entered the water of the Jordan, just as their ancestors had done when they crossed the river into the promised land. It was a new start. It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those who passed through the water didn’t change where they lived, but the transition was no less dramatic, because they were committed to changing how they lived.  The world was governed by powerful men, but the reign of God was drawing near and those who came to hear John in the wilderness began to live in that nearness.

John is the messenger who calls us to repent, and that is more than a call to look back and feel sorry for what we have done and left undone. It is a call to turn and look in the direction of God’s coming reign and to begin to live in its advent, our faces turned toward the rising sun. John’s father had sung at his birth,

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John announces the dawn and calls us to live in its light: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to us? No, God makes a way out of no way. Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to others? No. We are the ones in need when it comes to preparing the way of the Lord.

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose name means the Lord saves. It doesn’t mean the Lord comes to visit us in our exile and make it a bit more bearable. God in Jesus comes to us calling us to follow Jesus on the way. It’s the way from oppression to freedom, from the reign of sin to the flourishing of righteousness, from terror and violence to peace, from the long shadow of death to the new light of life. Jesus comes to us to be for us the way into God’s future, and to be with us on the way.

And so preparing the way of the Lord is not a seasonal exercise, but a daily discipline. It’s a discipline of letting myself be reminded daily who is coming and where I’m going. It’s a discipline of letting God show me daily the valleys that need lifting up and the mountains and hills that need lowering — whether that’s in my attitudes and habits or in the disparities around me. It’s a discipline of letting God show us daily how we can be part of the Jesus road crew that makes a way by beginning again and again to follow him on the way.

What I hear John saying is, “Brother, you gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re preparing a way you don’t want to be on. You gotta prepare the way of the Lord— for hope’s sake, for love’s sake, for life’s sake.” The word of God has come to us in our wilderness, calling us to repentance, calling us to live and walk in the light of the coming One. In this light, penetrating the darkness around us, we see where we are and we know where we’re going. In this light we are given orientation in the wayless wilderness, and we become messengers ourselves: road builders, kingdom servants, truth tellers, justice seekers, breach repairers, peace makers. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

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