Holy Week Temptations

I think that pastors and church leaders have a great temptation right now:
How we can make this as easy and accessible and comfortable as possible for everyone?

The desire is understandable. It comes from a place of love and care for people we are in ministry with and people that we are hoping to establish relationships with in the future. 

At the same time, I believe the word I used is accurate, we are being tempted.
(I think I have much more to say about this, but for now I’m reflecting on Holy Week.)

In this reality of mass discomfort, anxiety, and disconnection, we are being tempted to do whatever it takes to alleviate suffering.
To ease the pain.
Even to distract people from their difficulty.

More videos.
More zoom calls.
More group chats.

I am struck right now by how lonely Holy Week really is.
There is something about experiencing this one in seclusion that makes that piece all the more real.

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Photo by Lucas Myers on Unsplash

The “Hosannas!” of last Sunday quickly melt away.
The reality of betrayal is setting in now.
It will come from one of Jesus’s closest friends.
Someone he had spent years traveling with, eating with, laughing with, crying with, going through storms with, making memories with. . .
Another friend will deny that he even knew him.
Some will fall asleep when all Jesus needed was for them to stay up and keep watch with him.

Everyone will eventually run. 

This is a really lonely week.
It is marked by disloyalty, denial, and desertion. 

During this pandemic in general, but especially during Holy Week, of all weeks, it is good for us to be mindful of the temptation to make this easy.
Jesus refused to chase away the discomfort.
This is not about going and looking for problems.
It is also not about reveling in the ones we already have.
(Even Jesus questioned God and wrestled with what he was facing.)
But the point is that Jesus attended to his present experience in every moment.

I am going to keep reminding people of God’s steadfast love and presence.
I am going to keep reminding people that nothing can separate us from that love.
I am going to keep reminding people that God can work in any situation, that new life can come from horrible and unimaginable circumstances.

But essentially, there is no way around this hard stuff. There is no easy way out.
The only way is through it. 

I pray that we can let this loneliness and desolation be our teacher, resisting the urge to distract ourselves or escape from it.

I pray that we walk through these days in a different way.

I pray that the deprivation, the absence, and the longing that we are feeling will cultivate a deeper intimacy with God and one another. 

And that it will make the day when we can break this “fast” all the more sweeter.

 

 

 

A quick note:
If you need resources to use at home during this Holy Week, including Scriptures, reflection questions, hymns to sing, let me know. I’m happy to pass along what I have shared with my congregations.

Being Undone and Born Anew

Listen here:

 

John 3:1-21

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.

19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20 All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21 Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”

A Jewish leader named Nicodemus slips out after dark and manages to find Jesus. Nicodemus waits for night to fall before he goes looking for this young, new Rabbi, which

means teacher, but he does seek Jesus. In John’s Gospel, that means something. . . It’s hard not to think though, that this esteemed religious leader doesn’t want people to know who he’s going to talk to. Maybe Nic is worried that people will worry, question him as to whether his faith is what it should be.

At any rate, when he gets to Jesus, Nicodemus begins with confidence, “Rabbi we know that you’re a teacher who has come from God.” That’s a bold statement. We know who you are. Nicodemus uses the plural “we,” he’s a leader probably speaking on behalf his community. We know.

It’s important that we remember how Nicodemus begins, by claiming what he knows. . . 

We know who you are because we have seen the signs that you do, so you must be from God. 

That’s going to cause problems for Nic later because ultimately, Jesus is not going to entrust himself or his ministry to people who rely on signs for faith but for now we’ll keep moving.

What Jesus says is this, I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.

This is where Nicodemus really starts to struggle. I can see him there, pausing, scrunching his eyebrows, tilting his head in confusion. Now, how’s that gonna happen? How is it possible for an adult, literally, having grown old, to be born again? Having become an old man, it’s impossible to go back in your mother’s womb and be born a second time. 

Jesus goes on to explains things. Tries to. He’s not speaking on the surface, not speaking literally. Jesus is speaking on a deeper level. A person has to be born of water and Spirit. In order to see God’s kingdom, in order to recognize what God is up to in the world and to be able to participate in it, in order to realize and perceive the new thing God is doing, a person has to be born anew or again. 

Now, a group of preachers helped me think about ol’ Nicodemus in a new way. They made this point. Nic’s confusion and struggle is not so much with the physical impossibility of what Jesus seems to be suggesting. . . Nicodemus’s struggle is the fact that he has reached a place of maturity and establishment and knowledge in his life. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a Jewish leader. He probably enjoys a comfortable life where he is honored and respected and feels quite comfortable in what he’s accomplished. And especially in Jesus’ time, elders were held in high esteem. 

Part of what Nicodemus is really asking Jesus is, why in the world would I desire newness when I’ve been working my whole life to create this station for myself?

Why would a person of knowledge and maturity want to go back and be young again?

Why would I want to start over? Why would I want to rediscover?

I’ve spent my whole life getting here!

In fact, Nicodemus is saying, I’ve reached a place where I’ve finally figured it out and you’re asking me to think again.

. . .

I was in an all-day martial arts seminar yesterday. It was so much fun. We got instruction from all these different high-ranking martial artists in karate, jui-juitsu, judo, different things.

I was in my last workshop of the day and the teacher was working with us on power, specifically the source of our power. Let’s take punches, for example. I didn’t know this before I started martial arts, but a good, effective punch originates from the hip.
So we were doing these drills to work on increasing our power and explosiveness even when the fight might be close. 

We’re practicing leaning in to punches and getting sort of wrapped by our attacker and that’s when the instructor said something that I had heard before and that I knew to be true. . . but it hit me in a new way yesterday. (It’s something our teacher tells us all the time where I train every week.)

He said this,
“Relax. You’ll lose your power if you can’t relax.”

Because here’s the thing- when we tense up. Especially under stress or attack or whatever, if our muscles stay tensed up, they have to be released and then reengaged for us to counter. And guess what? That’s two movements.

But if we can stay relaxed, even under duress, then we are more likely to be able to respond effectively.
And with power when that is necessary.

The situation we were practicing for was physical attack.

But I think there is spiritual meaning here.

Nicodemus was all tensed up.
He had to sneak and meet Jesus during the night. He began by proclaiming to Jesus all that he knew. Yet, in all that knowledge, Nicodemus was unable to grasp what God was trying to say to him.

Nicodemus was all tensed up.
He didn’t know how to relax in the midst of uncertainty and challenge and change.

I assure, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom, Jesus says. 

All that Nicodemus can muster is skepticism.
How is it possible? He doesn’t say an awful lot in this exchange, but two times Nic asks,
How are these things possible?

He was all tensed up. 

Nicodemus is a man of faith. A man of knowledge. A man of deep religious roots. A man that an entire community looks up to. A man who feels confident in his spiritual status.

Yet when he is presented with a new invitation, an invitation to reimagine, rethink, rediscover, look again at what he thought he had seen before, to see it with new eyes, in a new light, -Nicodemus is all tensed up.

It’s as if all that he has ever known is under attack and instead of being able to receive the new energy and harness it, instead of relaxing in the midst of it,
Nicodemus is all tensed up.
He freezes.

All he can muster is misunderstanding, How are these things possible?

______

I think it’s worth mentioning that this being born anew or being born again business is something that happens over and over again. I don’t think it’s a one-time deal.

A theologian named Serene Jones in her book Call it Grace describes our need to “open eyes, ears, hands, minds, and hearts to receive the truth of God’s real, persistent presence, God’s grace.”

This is what conversion is. We begin to see everything everywhere differently. All things everywhere are infused with God’s love. God’s grace suddenly saturates all of our existence. She says, “This process of awakening to what is already true, but you haven’t previously seen it, is called conversion-a word that literally means, ‘to see anew.’”

Conversion can be thought of as redefining and rediscovering meaning.

Like,
You thought you knew what love was- and then you became a parent.
Or a grandparent. And you were born anew.

You thought you knew how strong you were- until you hit a bottom that was lower than you ever imagined you could hit and it was only after you had clawed your way back that you knew what strength was.
You were born anew.

Maybe you thought you knew grief- until you lost someone that it was truly impossible to imagine life without.

Maybe it was grace.
You thought you knew what it  was, the unconditional nature of it, what it meant to be loved even when you did not deserve it- until you got yourself into something that you really could not get out of on your own. And someone just loved you back and then and only then did you really know what grace meant.
You were born again. 

Conversion- to see anew. To relearn. Rediscover.

A preacher named Meda Stamper writes this, “When we become too sure of what we know about Jesus, when we believe that we have grasped him at last, that is when we can perhaps expect to be undone like Nicodemus.”

Maybe being born anew is a lot like being undone. In a necessary way.

Having what we thought we knew redefined, reimagined, remade.

And maybe just maybe, it becomes all the more possible for this to happen when we resist the urge to tense up,

and simply relax.

into the wilderness

Listen here:

Matthew 4:1-11 (Common English Bible) 

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.”

After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.

Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written,You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Jesus refuses to be who we want him to be. He won’t turn those stones into bread. He won’t jump off of a building just to prove God would save him. He won’t turn from God to become successful in the kind of way that we recognize and really celebrate. And just a few years down the road when Jesus catches the attention of the authorities, he won’t let the disciples fight for him, won’t let them pick up the sword, won’t let them resort to violence, and he won’t call an army, a legion of angels to rescue him (Matthew 26:51-53). At the end, Jesus won’t come down off of a cross. This Son of God refuses to be who we want him to be. 

The wilderness is always a place of struggle in the Bible. It’s not where people go for easy living or vacation. We hear wilderness and it sounds nice to us, camping, hiking, getting away from it all. But in Scripture the wilderness is a darker place, a place of wondering, confusion, facing temptation and wrestling with faith.

Immediately after the joyous celebration of his baptism, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit straight into the wilderness where the tempter is waiting. Famished after forty days and forty nights of fasting, just when Jesus is at his weakest and most vulnerable, the devil pounces and tempts him in various ways that would give Jesus a quick and easy way out of his suffering and hunger. 

The tempter says hey, if you’re really the Son of God, prove it. Command these rocks to become bread. After all, what kind of a king goes hungry? What kind of a Messiah sits around and listens to his stomach growl? 

Maybe we’re thinking, what’s the big deal? What could it hurt for Jesus to wink at a few those pebbles and enjoy a biscuit or two… But it was about way more than the bread. Some folks say this temptation was for Jesus to keep the focus small. On his own hunger. His own pain. His own need. So much so that Jesus would be tempted to use his power to help himself. To save himself. Jesus refuses to do that. In fact, when Jesus does exercise his power in ministry, it is always on behalf of other people: to feed others who are hungry, to heal the sick, and always to give God glory. The temptation was for Jesus to use power to satisfy himself rather than trust that God would provide. Jesus resists making the gospel so small and narrow; Jesus resists being consumed with his own hunger, his own need, his own plans, his own pain. 

How are we also persuaded to concentrate only on our pain and experience?

How is the church tempted in this way today? To use what we have at our disposal to satisfy our needs alone?

So the devil takes Jesus to the holy city to the highest point on the most holy building and says, jump. Why? Because the tempter says, don’t your Scriptures tell you that God will send angels to hold you so that you’ll never fall? The devil knows Scripture. He was quoting Psalm 91:11-12. But Jesus knows the sacred texts even better, and he quotes Deuteronomy, “Do not put put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). If our knowledge of Scripture is that superficial, that easy, that shallow, that we don’t take the effort to dig deep and wrestle and ask hard questions, then we might fall into the temptation too. Of misdirection, doubt, putting God to the test, clamoring for safety and security, domesticating the Divine until we fool ourselves into believing that the LORD answers to us. What kind of faith demands that God perform miracle after miracle?

Finally, the devil takes Jesus up a high mountain and says, all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor are yours. All you have to do is fall down and worship me. Here is the temptation of self-importance, domination, and prestige; Jesus refuses to misuse his power to amass status and esteem.

And just like that, the tempter is gone. Angels come and take care of Jesus.

The only way that Jesus is able to overcome the temptations, to resist misusing his power and being infected by fear and lies, is by trusting that God will provide. Perhaps, this is as much a story of provision in the wilderness as it is temptation.

But in order for Jesus to learn that, he had to go.

After being anointed God’s beloved at baptism, Jesus had to get away. Unplug. Mute all the voices vying for his attention so that he could listen for God.

Strip himself of the distractions so that he could look inside himself. 

It struck me especially this year, that Jesus doesn’t go into the wilderness with his leadership team.

He doesn’t go into the wilderness with his small group.

Jesus goes into the wilderness alone. 

Where he has nothing to do but face his own demons, embrace vulnerability, practice the posture that he will put forth in his ministry in the face of overwhelming seduction to betray his own identity, and rely on God- and God alone- to supply every need.

Jesus’s time is up, but our forty days are just beginning. Lent is here. The first Sunday of Lent always includes Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Perhaps, it is to remind us that our work is similar. That for us too, this is a season for extensive self-reflection and vulnerability. That for us too, this is a season to hush up all the voices inside of us except for God’s and to pay attention to who God is calling us to be. To discern the kind of behavior that God is requiring of us even in extreme and anxious circumstances. To reflect on what response we’ll give even when our stomachs are growling and we’re faced with a shortcut that we can take to satisfy our own discomfort.

Will we shimmy out of it, or will we lean in trusting that the Spirit is moving and that growth only happens when we resist escape from the uncomfortable?

Our forty days are just beginning. A time for confronting those dark places in our lives, naming them, confessing them, repenting of them, and asking forgiveness for them. 

And hear me when I say this, Lent is NOT about guilt, it’s about freedom.

Lent is not about guilt, it’s about freedom. From the fear and insecurity and from the lies that lead us to give in to temptation in the first place.

Remember, Jesus overcame because he trusted that God would provide. Even in the most stressful of situations, Jesus held on to his core belief that God would supply his needs.

Lent is not about guilt, it’s about freedom. But if the Exodus story and Jesus’s story teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t get to freedom without going through the wilderness. We don’t get to freedom without struggle. We don’t get to freedom without giving something up.  We don’t get to freedom without confronting our own insecurities and fears. We don’t get to freedom without listening deeply to God. 

And if we’re spending more time listening to Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, Facebook, than we are to Scripture and the silence of our own hearts, then how can we expect to hear from God?

We don’t get to freedom without self-examination. Without spending an awful lot of time with our thoughts and feelings and behaviors.

But the good news is that there is a way to freedom.

The wilderness is not where it ends.

The struggle is not the culmination.

And there is nowhere we can go to flee from God’s presence. 

Perhaps, this is a season to remember that there is far more than temptation waiting on us in the wilderness. That there is also profound growth, depth, clarity, and abundant provision.

how are we going to be?

Isaiah 42:1-9

If loved by God is what we are, then how are we going to be
and what are we going to do? 

These are the questions for today.
These are the questions Isaiah 42 continues to shed light on.

Last week we spoke about how coming to terms with our own belovedness is essential before we ever do anything for God. That it’s absolutely crucial that we meditate and reflect on the fact that we delight God apart from anything we accomplish.
This is where we begin, but we do move out from that.
The acceptance of how loved we are is the very thing that gives us what we need to do God’s work in the world.

So if loved by God is what we are, then how are we going to be in this world?
And what do we do?

I’ve put my spirit upon them; they will bring justice to the nations
They won’t cry out our shout aloud or make their voice heard in public.
They won’t break a bruised reed; they won’t extinguish a faint wick, but they will surely bring justice.

I changed the pronouns to they, but this is a description of God’s servants.
People of God.
This is how people of God are and this is what they do.

They won’t be extinguished or broken until they have established justice in the land. . .
I, the LORD, have called you for a good reason.
I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people,
As a light to the nations,
To open blind eyes, to lead prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.

People of God are not aggressive. They are patient, nonviolent, merciful, showing tender care to the most vulnerable.

Isaiah 42:3,
He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice.

I love how one preacher put it like this,

“True leadership protects what is weak until it’s strong enough to stand and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn again.”

God’s people are not forceful or domineering; rather, they show real strength through gentleness and guarding the most feeble and fragile among us.
People of God gather around the ones who feel weak and weary, the ones whose flame has started to flicker.
People of God are people who huddle close and guard that spark until it can burn strong again.

People of God are not the kind of people who say,
“No one stood by me when the flame was going out. Figure it out on your own.”

People of God are not the kind of people who say,
“When I was bruised, I had to keep going. So should you.”

People of God won’t break a bruised reed; they won’t extinguish a faint wick, but they will surely bring justice.

If people are of God, that is if they live in God’s love, if they have been changed by God’s love, if grace and abundance and life are the things that reign in the heart, then people of God are different.

They act differently.
They respond differently than the world would respond.
They give differently than the world would give.
They understand better than the world would understand.
They are not violent or forceful. They are gentle and merciful.
They don’t overpower the weak; they guard them.
Like hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn again.

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That same preacher asks this question, which is even more powerful now that we are in an election year, “Can you imagine a candidate for public office running on a platform of tenderly caring for the bruised reed and carefully tending the dimly burning wick?”

I think it’s useful for us to remember that Isaiah is giving us a portrait of leadership for anyone who is called by God. The prophet is identifying servants of God, whoever they may be (you, me).

Put yourself in these words.

And I realize you might be tempted to count yourself out of it. “I’m not a leader, I’m just a regular person.” Or, “I’m not a leader I prefer to be in the background (as if the only kinds of leaders are spokespeople… I’m not a servant of God, my life isn’t that important.”
I hear stuff like this all the time in one version or another.

You might really believe that, but it’s not gospel.

Our gospel reading today is Jesus beginning his ministry and calling his disciples. If you notice, Jesus didn’t go down to the local university and ask for the best and brightest, most promising students to join his movement.

Jesus didn’t call a meeting of the most successful Fortune 500 CEO’s of his time and recruit a handful of them for his movement.

Jesus didn’t even start at the local synagogue with the religious professionals and insiders to begin his movement.

Jesus went out into the middle of nowhere and called a bunch of regular, everyday, ordinary people who had average jobs and he said, Follow me.

And his message was simple. Jesus said, It’s time for you to change your heart and your lives because God’s kingdom is now. And our calling is to start living by it.

If folks who are following Jesus act and speak and lead like everyone else, then what’s the point of this faith at all?

God’s people are different.
They are tender and merciful.
God’s people guard the weak and work to bring people out of their darkness, out of their dungeon.
God’s people bring justice.

They won’t be extinguished or broken until they have established justice in the land (42:4).

They won’t be extinguished or broken. . . until.

Until.

I’ll never forget my professor, mentor, my inspiration, Dr. Cannon, telling us all the time. People are not going to jump up down and yell, “Hercules! Hercules! The do-ers of justice have arrived!” 

No. The work is hard. The victories are few and far between. The opposition is fierce and we’ll burn out fast if all we are relying on is our own strength.
Our willpower and abilities alone will not carry us far.

We’ll burn out fast if we do not develop deep, deep spiritual wells from which to draw when things get hard.
I think that’s what this part is about in Isaiah.
We need deep inner wells. That won’t run dry, else we’ll never last.

They won’t be extinguished or broken until they have established justice in the land.

So if loved is what we are, then how are we going to be in this world?
And what will we do?

Well, if you’re like me, I imagine you know of people whose wicks are faint right now.
It might be you, it might be someone near you, but you know of someone who is bruised. We know people whose eyes are blind, we know people in prison- in body, mind, or soul. We know people who sit in darkness, people who need to be brought out of dungeons. People who are longing for light.
People of God are people who are moved by pain and brokenness and do not sit idly by.

People of God are people who won’t be extinguished or broken until they have established justice in the land.
Until everybody is free.
Until all the chains are broken and every dungeon demolished.

People of God are people who won’t be extinguished or broken-
Until everybody’s eyes are opened wide.
Until every child walks in the light.

People of God are people who won’t be extinguished or broken-
Until every bruised reed is healed and dances free.
Until every faint wick is strong, and every flame burns bright again.

God’s delight

Here is the link to an audio version of my sermon:

Isaiah 42:1-9

42 But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him;
he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t cry out or shout aloud
or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;
he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
but he will surely bring justice.
He won’t be extinguished or broken
until he has established justice in the land.
The coastlands await his teaching.

God the Lord says—
the one who created the heavens,
the one who stretched them out,
the one who spread out the earth and its offspring,
the one who gave breath to its people
and life to those who walk on it—
I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.
I will grasp your hand and guard you,
and give you as a covenant to the people,
as a light to the nations,
to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison,
and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.
I am the Lord;
that is my name;
I don’t hand out my glory to others
or my praise to idols.
The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,
but I’m declaring new things.
Before they even appear,
I tell you about them.

I doubt it will come as a great shock to you all that I love the emphasis of justice in this passage. You cannot read the prophets of our Scriptures without hearing over and over and over again the call to work for justice in this world. People think it’s some sort of new, liberal thing. It’s actually an old, old- ancient thing. It’s a Bible thing. It’s a God thing. God has always been concerned about justice, about equity- not equality- but equity in our world. We’re all wired up differently but I’m wired up for that and it’s the part I want to jump to. . .But this isn’t going to go the way you think it’s going to got today.

But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
My chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.

Oh, how I want to herd everyone into that justice-to-the-nation section. You might go with me, though most of you would do it kicking and screaming.
But there’s something crucial before that.

The more I read this text from Isaiah, the more I called to mind my own journey the last few years. And in one way or another, this impulse is universal: the desire to jump to the doing. To the fixing. The discomfort of what is wrong is often so unbearable for us that we rush to the busying of ourselves so that we feel like we are accomplishing something. So that we feel like we have some control. 

Here is something wonderful that I believe Isaiah offers us today-

All that doing. All that working. All that striving, even for good and worthy things, requires that we begin by acknowledging our chosenness and belovedness in God just because of who we are, and not because of anything that we might do.

Listen again to the first words of this chapter,

But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
My chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.

God delights in us before we ever do one, single thing for God.
Before we have anything to offer God, before we make any decision to accept the Lord, before we dedicate our life to whatever, before we work hard, before we serve others, before we do the right thing, before we become responsible citizens, before we bring justice to the nations, before anything, God simply delights in us. 

Just because we are God’s beloved, created in the divine image, chosen and accepted and claimed and called. Before we ever do a thing, God delights in us.

Do you feel the power of that word?
It is not that God tolerates us. It is not that God puts up with us.
We bring God delight.

On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday when we’re invited to remember our baptism, this is what we are invited to remember. This is what baptism is. And it’s exactly why we baptize babies instead of dedicating them.

In baptism, we are saying, “You’re God’s!” God has a claim and a call on your life. God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it. Before you ever choose God, God chooses you. We don’t dedicate a baby and leave it up to them to choose the Lord.
We say, you’ve already been chosen, whether you really accept it or not.
And as a community we’ll invite you to live into that chosen-ness over and over and over again.
We’ll keep calling you home.

In our house when my sister and I were growing up, there was always lots of music. My mom took us down to church when we were young, and had the music director start teaching us piano. I had to have been 7 or so. As the years went by, I picked up guitar in middle school, my sister eventually learned drums and bass guitar. I fiddled with mandolin, learned the harmonica. There was just always music in our house.

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Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

When I think about all those hours of practicing and learning, I remember so vividly, that my mom and dad would always pop into the hallway where the piano sat and insist, “That’s beautiful.” 

. . . even when it wasn’t. I can remember getting aggravated, clunking through something, trying to learn, struggling and even then, they would say, “That’s beautiful.”

Marla Ham (one of the music directors of my home church) had us up in front of church, also from a young age, doing stuff. Playing an offertory, prelude here and there, in the Christmas programs, singing solos. My dad is the softee among us, and whenever we would sing in church, he’d get teary-eyed. It made him emotional, seeing his girls up there. Still does, I know.

Laura and I laugh so hard because we can remember all these times when we messed up so bad. We can remember times when we screwed up the lyrics, when we forgot the words and started giggling, which was usually a death wish. (When the giggles start… it’s usually bad news). But even after those times, my mom and dad would still proclaim, “That was beautiful.”

 

As I thought about what it means that God delights in us, before we bring justice to the nations, that God delights in us because of who we are, I thought about my parents.

It was never about us becoming concert pianists (which we clearly didn’t). It was never even about whether we hit the right notes. They just loved us.
Loved hearing us.
Loved our presence.
They just simply delighted in us.
Even the music was secondary.
They said, “That’s beautiful.” And they meant it.

That’s what God says to us. 

Before we sit down to play the first note. Before our voices can even form a song.
And down the line, even when everything seems out of tune. When it feels like all we can produce is dissonance, when it seems that we are completely incapable of making anything that sounds pretty or pleasing to anyone, 

God walks into the room time after time after time and never wavers and says,
“That’s beautiful.”

God wasn’t paying attention to the music in the first place.

God’s just looking at us. 

Delighted.

 

New Year? I’m not ready.

I know, I know, “ready or not. . .”
Whatever.

I’m not ready.
Anybody else not ready for a new year?

I feel like there’s some stuff leftover from 2019 and I’m just not super eager to go charging into a brand new year all optimistic and motivated and ambitious.

For starters, I lost someone very dear to me in 2019. And somehow, it feels like if time would slow down a little bit I wouldn’t feel so far away from my grandmother who transitioned from this life on August 3, 2019. I’m not ready to move on.
I know I don’t get to, but I still wish I could linger a little bit longer in the year that I will always remember as the one where we lost her.
I’m just simply not anxious to flip the page on this one. 

Also, I had dear friends step away from ministry in 2019. Their situations and contexts are distinct but the commonality is the loss of their presence. It might sound minor (after all, people switch jobs all the time right?), but it has messed with me.
This isn’t just a job- it’s a calling. Pastoral ministry is unbelievably rewarding and it is also difficult beyond description. When friends who have always been there in the daily grind, friends who were able to share and support and commiserate and encourage and hold fast when you couldn’t, when they are suddenly not in this anymore, it affects you. It has evoked deep sadness and anger and confusion and disconnection in me. These losses have taken a toll that I am just now beginning to be able to articulate. 

This one will be shocking to you, but my congregation experienced some conflict over the last year.

I know- gasp.

No, our church hasn’t split or fallen apart, but we had some stuff come up. Any church that has a pulse and any pastor who has conviction is not immune to it, but conflict has a way of wearing you down.
There is so much anxiety in the system. It’s directly related to the uncertainty of the future and there is an incessant pressure to, “Grow the church! Try new things! Move us forward!” while simultaneously being told, “Not too fast! What about tradition! People aren’t ready for that yet!”

Again, there’s some unresolved stuff from the last year and I am still trying to figure out how to handle it all in a healthy way. 

A certain poem has been posted a few times on my social media feeds over the last few days, and it is about the best landing place for me when it comes to my feelings about a New Year.

“Continue” by Maya Angelou is resonating deeply with me.
I think it’s because I do not have the capacity to think in terms of weeks or months at the moment. I am in a day-by-day, keep-showing-up, small-steps kind of mode right now.

Lofty resolutions, sweeping clean slates, and dramatic fresh starts are not where my spirit is gravitating.

If you’re in a similar place, take comfort. You’re not alone.

Right now, I am more focused on continuing.
Going forward gently.
With intention and love and care.
Towards myself, others, and the world around me.

I am thankful for the poet’s words this new year.
And for the reminder,
that it’s ok if I’m not quite ready.  

 

CONTINUE: a poem
by Maya Angelou

My wish for you
Is that you continue

         Continue

To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness

         Continue

To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart

         Continue

In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter

          Continue

To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined

         Continue

To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you

        Continue

To remember your own young years
And look with favor upon the lost
And the least and the lonely

        Continue

To put the mantle of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless

        Continue

To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street
Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise

         Continue

To plant a public kiss of concern
On the cheek of the sick
And the aged and infirm
And count that as a
Natural action to be expected

         Continue

To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to
Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge
You build to overcome evil
And welcome good

       Continue

To ignore no vision
Which comes to enlarge your range
And increase your spirit

       Continue

To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing

       Continue

To float
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name

       Continue

And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue
Eternally

only a poet

Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:1-10

11 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
    a branch will sprout[a] from his roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
    a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    a spirit of planning and strength,
    a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
    nor decide by hearsay.
He will judge the needy with righteousness,
    and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent[b] with the rod of his mouth;
    by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
    and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
    and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
    the calf and the young lion will feed[c] together,
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze.
    Their young will lie down together,
    and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
    toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
    The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
    just as the water covers the sea.

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.

 

From Walter Bruegemann’s Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent,

In poetry we can do things not permitted by logic or reason. Poetry will open the world beyond reason. Poetry will give access to contradictions and tensions that logic must deny. Poetry will not only remember but also propose and conjure and wonder and imagine and foretell.

So Jews, in their covenantal fidelity, did poems. Miriam did poetry when they crossed out of Egyptian slavery. Deborah did poetry when it dawned on them that the Canaanites were not so formidable. Hannah did poetry when little Samuel was born. Eventually Mary did poetry when she found out that she was pregnant. All these mothers in Israel celebrated the impossible that was right before their eyes, even though they could explain none of it. They did poetry while the hard men were still parsing logic, writing memos to each other, and drafting briefs.

I propose that Advent is a time of struggle between the poem that opens the future that God will work and the memo that keeps control. Advent is a time for relinquishing some of the control in order to receive the impossible from God. 

 

There’s something about Advent. The impossibility of it. There’s something about the poetry of the prophets. The imagery. The language. The vision.
There’s something about the wildness.
The persistence of the prophets in proclaiming that a new thing is surely coming.
Advent is the season for these prophets to tell us that something is going to grow out of the thing that looks dead.
There will be a shoot from a stump.

A spirit of wisdom and understanding will reign. Can you imagine that?
A spirit of wisdom and understanding. . .  on facebook. In Congress.
Spirit and understanding everywhere from city halls to sanctuaries and all places in between.
People in need and people who are suffering will receive what is right and just.
The wolf will live with the lamb.
A nursing child will reach into the serpent’s den and nobody will get hurt.
Poison will be gone from the world.
No one will harm or destroy.
Violence will be eradicated.

Only a poet can give us a vision like this. 

And even though this is Bible, poetry that made it into our most sacred of texts, most of us. . . the vast majority of us. . .  will write this off.
Most of us will hear it as impossible and keep on moving. 

Only a poet can give us a vision like this.
Perhaps, this Advent, what we need more than anything else is more poets.

I know. It’s hard to believe. Difficult to know what to do with a vision like this.
The only world we know is one where wolves devour lambs.
Calves and lions do not feed together in the current reality.
It’s hard to lay aside logic and reason, even for a few moments, to entertain poetry.
To ponder the impossible. 

I like how Walter Brueggemann says it, that, “Advent is a time of struggle between the poem that opens the future that God will work and the memo that keeps control. Advent is a time for relinquishing some of the control in order to receive the impossible from God.”

I asked a question at a gathering with some church folks last week.
The question was this, if you knew money were no issue and you knew that you couldn’t possibly fail, what would you want to do?
It’s fun to answer that for our lives or our families, but I was wanting us to respond from a church context.

If money were no issue and you knew you could not possibly fail, what would you want the church to do?

It was an interesting exercise. The conversation didn’t flow easily. We eventually got to a place of talking about that question and sharing ideas. But the question was met with hesitancy, even suspicion at first. 

I was reflecting on that experience later. It compelled me to ask the question-
why is it so hard for the church to dream?

The God that we worship, the God of Scripture, the God of the incarnation of Jesus, the God whose people we are, makes certain promises to us.
A shoot will come from a stump.
The thing that looks dead still has roots, and a branch will sprout.
Wisdom and understanding will reign one day.
People who suffer will be judged equitably.
The violent won’t prosper.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the young goat.
A little child will be our leader.
Lions will eat straw.
Toddlers will be free to play with serpents.
No one will harm or destroy.

The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, just as the water covers the sea.

The God in whom we put our trust is capable of this and more. 

Why is it so hard for us to dream?

Admittedly, it is easy for hope and imagination to be stifled in our time. One doesn’t have to go far to find discouragement and division these days.
The proclamation that something new is on the horizon sounds a little too good to be true. 

Maybe, this season can serve as the recalibration that it is intended to be.
Perhaps, our call is to get a little lost in the wilderness with poets and prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist.
Perhaps, the remedy to the obstacle of dreaming is simply a matter of focus and attention.

Because if the object of our attention, devotion, and meditation is the God of Isaiah, the God who can bring peace, the God who can cause shoots to come up from stumps,
then, surely,
we will remember how to dream again.

“Advent is a time of struggle between the poem that opens the future that God will work and the memo that keeps control. Advent is a time for relinquishing some of the control in order to receive the impossible from God.”

Typically, I read a number of commentaries in my sermon preparation during the week. I regularly turn to a variety of Biblical, historical, theological scholars and preachers.

It’s funny.
Over the last few days,
I just read poetry. 

Faded Glory and Future Promise

Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?
Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?

This is the first question that the prophet Haggai poses. He’s speaking to Judah’s governor, Zerubbbabel, to the Chief High Priest, Joshua, and “to the rest of the people.” 

Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?

He poses the question and also delivers God’s promise to politician, priest, and people. (Don’t skip over that detail. The governor is present alongside the priest.)
Politician, priest, and people.

I’d be real impressed if you knew what was going on in this short little prophetic book (or if you had even heard of it!). The Spirit kept pointing me to this passage, but it required a whole lot of extra homework because I sure as heck didn’t know what was going on with Haggai. 

Here’s what I learned: Haggai is situated in the time frame after the exiles had returned from Babylon. When Persia rose to power in the ancient Near East Jews were permitted to return to their homeland. Now, the Babylonians had destroyed the Temple and deported the people. That’s what exile was. It was destructive, was dislocating, and it was a stripping of the people’s identity. So when they get to go home, the task before them was the rebuilding of everything: homes, shops, community, place of worship.

They would have come home to rubble, ruins, and weeds.
Haggai prophesies in a time after the rebuilding of the Temple had begun.

[Sidenote: preaching is what prophets did. Prophets were not predictors of the future. They didn’t read palms or stare into crystal balls. There’s a widespread misunderstanding that Biblical prophecy was about forecasting the future. It doesn’t mean that they never spoke of the future, but God called up prophets to proclaim God’s word in the present moment. They were the go-between, the vessels of communication between God and humanity.] 

So Haggai is a preacher, if you will, prophesying to a mixed congregation of people. He’s got folks who had spent decades in exile, and a few who remembered the former Temple in all of its splendor and glory. He’s got folks who were born long after the former Temple was destroyed who have no memory of the old days. The older members among them couldn’t help but look around and compare the majesty of a bygone era to this meager and mediocre present.

Does this sound relevant to us?

After Haggai asks, Who among you is left who saw this house in its former glory?
He says, How does it look to you now?
Then he says what everyone is probably thinking- it doesn’t look like much.
He says, “I know. It looks like nothing doesn’t it?”

It looks like nothing. . . I couldn’t help but think that is the story of many a masterpiece. The story of how it doesn’t look like much at first. . . but someone holds the belief that eventually it will come together.
There was a time when that hit song was just a few chords strung together with a verse or two.
That sculpture was just a chunk of rock until the sculptor chipped away at all that wasn’t a contribution to the creation.
At its inception, the world’s fastest car was just a frame in a shop.

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Photo by Jenna S on Unsplash

That world-class meal originated from incidental ingredients in a kitchen.
That timeless novel started with a few stray ideas scratched out in the middle of a sleepless night.
That painting was just a mess of colors on a pallet.
That cathedral was nothing more than a pile of stones at its conception. 

How does it look to you now? Doesn’t it appear as nothing?

 

Haggai acknowledges that, on the surface, the current reality doesn’t compare to the former glory.

It matters- to name that, to hold space for that. The people are weary, overwhelmed, and disappointed. This is not going well at all.
He says, I know. I see you. And I know what we’re doing doesn’t look like much right now. (This is how I feel literally every time I get asked about New Faith Communities. This is actually how I feel. . . most mornings when I wake up and remember that I’m still a pastor in these current times!)

But here’s what happens- the “now” of verse three is replaced by the “now” of verse four.
So now, be strong. Take courage.
Governor, Zerubbabel.
High Priest, Joshua.
All the people of the land.

The word of the LORD is this, so now- yes in this disappointing, mediocre, looks-like-nothing reality that we are living- take courage and be strong.

Work, for I am with you, says the LORD of heavenly forces.
The same way I was with you when you came out of Egypt, my spirit stands in your midst. Don’t fear. 

Haggai goes on to remind the people of how God has acted before, how God came through for the people before, and how God’s gonna do it again. And again. And again. God is trustworthy. Remember what has happened before. 

 

I started reading a book last week called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. The writer Rev. Susan Beaumont describes a liminal season, or liminality, as a time when anything is stuck in neutral space between an ending and a beginning. During liminal seasons, the destination isn’t clear just yet. We are on a threshold of sorts: one foot is rooted in the thing that is not yet over, the other foot is planted in whatever is coming but that is not defined, something that has not even yet begun (p. 7). 

This is liminality. I think Haggai knew something about leading in a season like that.

One of the really helpful distinctions she makes is the difference between change and transition. (She’s actually quoting someone else, but this is what she says). Change is situational and depends on the arrival of something new: getting a new pastor, moving to a new physical site, adopting a new policy. It’s clearcut.
Transition is different. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the change. The starting point for transition is not the outcome you’re moving towards, but the ending that you must make to leave the old situation behind (p. 11). 

Think about a couple expecting their first child. Joy and excitement are there. A new and beautiful change is coming. But something significant is also ending. Couple will no longer be only couple anymore. Couple will be family soon. It’s a happy time of new beginnings, but it also requires saying goodbye to a way of life. No longer is it two beloveds, living life on their own. Couple is becoming family. Transition begins long before baby arrives right? Transition begins by giving one thing its proper ending.

Haggai sees the people who remember the former glories.
Haggai also gives them God’s promise in a time like this.

Be strong, take courage, keep working because God is in it. God’s spirit is in the midst. 

This house will be more glorious than its predecessor, says the LORD of heavenly forces. I will provide prosperity in this place, says the LORD of heavenly forces.

God’s not done. God’s not done moving. God’s not done acting. God’s not done calling up new leaders. God’s not done making the heavens, the earth, the sea, and dry land quake. God’s not done anointing new prophets. God’s not done bringing unexpected blessing. God’s not done filling this house with glory again. God’s not done continuing God’s ongoing commitment to establish shalom in this world. 

In the moments of fear and anxiety and weariness, we would do well to remember when God has come through in the past. I know you’ve done the thing before where, in the midst of something, you get to telling stories with your friends or family about “that one time when. . .” and remembering that story gives you a little more courage, to stand a little more tall in the moment. 

My family has these stories like everyone. My grandma would always talk about this one storm that blew up so bad when she was babysitting my sister and me. We were kids. I was probably 10 or so, my sister around 8. For whatever reason, my grandad wasn’t around and my parents were out of town. I had had a softball game, a friend’s parent dropped me off at home and so it was just my sister, my grandma and me at the house. This storm blew up out of nowhere. It was scary. I can hear my grandma’s voice now talking about how she had to drag my sister down the stairs half asleep, dead weight, because we needed to get in the hallway in the middle of the house to ride it out. Tornado watches, wind howling, lightning, the works ya know.

It was one of those times though, that my grandma would call to, whenever we needed help getting through a new storm.
She would tell the story of an old storm, to take courage that we could make it through this new one.

I know- many of you remember this house in its former glory.
I know- things don’t always look so good right now.

But God’s not done with us yet. It’s not over yet. Haggai reminded his people that the LORD was interested in far more than just a new Temple. God was intent on establishing shalom in that place. God’s intent has not changed over time.
God is still working for the peace and prosperity of the whole community.

Shalom- when health would return, when old hostilities would cease, when the enrichment of life in its fullest sense would be a reality. Spiritual and material. Individual and collective prosperity.
Shalom- when nothing is broken and nothing is missing.

This is God’s dream for the world.
God’s not done making it come to pass.

So now, be strong, Zerubbabel, says the LORD,
Be strong, High Priest Joshua,
And be strong, all you people of the land, says the LORD.
Work, for I am with you, says the LORD of heavenly forces.
As with our agreement when you came out of Egypt,
My spirit stands in your midst, says the LORD, 

don’t fear. 

A Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Link to listen is here:

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

 

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“Glory to God and praise and love / be now and ever given / by saints below and saints above, / the Church in earth and heaven.”

So concludes Charles Wesley’s classic, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing. Appropriate words to lead us into our Scripture today. John, the writer of Revelation, invites us in today. A multitude gathered together, too many to count, they come from every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages, and they stand before the throne before the Lamb and they’re wearing robes and waving palm branches. 

Can you feel the robes? Are they heavy or light? Scratchy or silky? Can you picture the crowd? There’s people as far as the eye can see. Tall people and short people. Young and old. Skinny and round. Wrinkly and smooth. Black and brown and white people. Can you feel the palm branch in your hand, can you see all of them waving in the air?

There are angels and elders and they fall on their faces and worship God and they do what saints do. . .  they sing. 

They sing.

They sing a song of salvation, a song that declares that God is the one on the throne. No matter how bad it looks. Regardless of what’s going on around us. They sing a song that says despite all evidence to the contrary, God is the one on the throne.

Today is All Saints Sunday. It’s the Sunday that falls after Nov 1 which is All Saints, a feast day of the church. It’s the day for celebration in honor of all the saints of the faith, known and unknown, dead and alive. All Saints Day is also known as All Hallows, and so the root of Halloween is All Hallows’ Eve. 

What is a saint?

And what does John’s vision of the multitude in Revelation mean for us today? Christians living in and around Pink Hill, NC in 2019?

The word saint probably conjures some specific images for us. We might imagine high church icons. We might call to mind images of people like Mother Teresa or Ghandi. We might picture women or men who have seemingly mastered Christian faith, obtained unquestionable morality, people who perhaps gave up their own life for a worthy cause. What is a saint? What does it bring to mind for you?

That word in the New Testament literally means “holy ones.” And if we think that word doesn’t apply to us, well we’re probably right. Except that it does. Our beliefs around saints differ here from our Catholic sisters and brothers, but all followers of Jesus are saints or holy ones and it’s not because of how good we are. We’re not saints because we made the right choice. It’s not because we figured it out and people who don’t follow Jesus haven’t figured it out. It’s not because of anything we have done or decided or accomplished. It’s God’s grace, only and always God’s grace, that makes anyone or anything holy.

There is another aspect to sainthood. John touches on it in Revelation 7 and I’m getting back to that soon, but saints are people who keep on going in the midst of suffering. Saints are people who find ways to sing. To sing through the pain, through the heartache, through the dark nights. 

Many of us stumble into the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. We might look put together on the outside, but the truth is that we oftentimes wobble in, weary and worn down. We dress it up. Put on our Sunday best. . . 

somewhere along the way, Christians got so good at this. We slap on a smile, greet friends and loved ones. We don’t let people in to our real struggles, and we so often forget that the people most drawn to Jesus were those who couldn’t hide their problems. The sick, the paralyzed, the possessed, people who were too poor, too rich, too religious. Somehow, church has become the place where you have to clean up before you come in even though Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary. . .”

Why is it so hard for some of us to admit that we’re weary? 

We don’t want people to see us weak. We don’t want people to judge us. We don’t want people to talk. So we go through life, not showing our hurt. 

God knows our heart. God sees our pain. God hears our cries. God weeps our tears. And ultimately, God is the giver of salvation. 

And that’s really what Revelation 7 is about.

I don’t mind telling you that I wade into the waters of the book of Revelation with great fear and trembling. Most of what we know about this mysterious book in the back of our Bible comes from pop culture, from books and movies that are often times more interested in scaring us. But it’s important to know that John wrote this letter not to instill fear, but to comfort people. John was writing to Christians living under the rule of the Roman Empire, pleading with them not to accommodate to the ways of the Empire. And he was trying to comfort and support persecuted believers. 

After this I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count he writes. They came from everywhere and every place and they were everyone. And they bow before the throne and they worship the Lamb. And there are angels and elders and they do what saints do and they sing.

They sing a song of salvation, a song that declares that God is the one on the throne. No matter how bad it looks. Regardless of what’s going on around us. 

They sing a song that says despite all evidence to the contrary, God is the one on the throne. Not your boss. Not your diagnosis. Not your addiction. Not your disease. Not your dysfunction. Not your demons. Not your conflict.

All glory and wisdom . . . all power and might are God’s. Now and forever.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying “Who are these, robed in white and where have they come from?” He has the annoyed attitude of a long-time country club member whose party has been crashed by unwanted guests. And John says, you’re the one who knows. And the elder looks again.

Maybe this time the elder looks with more compassion, more gentleness, more Godly eyes. Because when he looks again. . . he says, “Oh ok. Now I see. These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

When we are prone to say, “Who are these and where did come from?” At those we pass and interact with and run into in our everyday lives. Perhaps, we need only to pause. To stop. To look again. With more compassion, more gentleness, more Godly eyes. Then we might see what the elder saw, “. . .these are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

The truth is that we’re all in the midst of or coming out of or facing one we can’t even see, an ordeal of some sort. And the vision, the song, the music of the throne in Revelation 7 is a gift for those of us in any ordeal.

I can’t help but think today of the great losses so many in our church have suffered over the past year. Spouse, mothers, father, in-laws, grandmothers, grandfathers, dear friends, lifetime neighbors. We have lost loved ones. Some of us are still grieving losses of years past. 

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Others of us are in “ordeals” of different kinds: health, job, finance, family, mental health ordeals, something.

Regardless of what our ordeal is, the music at the throne reminds us that there is victory. The ordeal, whatever it may be, did not and will not do us in. The song of the angels and the elders sustain us. Singing helps us endure. 

The song doesn’t erase our troubles. We don’t live with our head in the clouds, but with our feet firmly planted on the ground, and our voices raised- regardless. The song reminds us that while sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. That as sure as our trouble won’t go away, it won’t last always either, and God will be present to wipe every tear. 

The one who is seated on the throne will sustain us.
“Salvation belongs to our God!” the multitude cries out.
There is victory over death. Shelter from all that causes harm.

We will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike us, nor any scorching heat. The Lamb will be our shepherd.
The Lamb is surely leading us to springs of the water of life.

The music helps us endure. The song keeps hope alive. And the shadows at bay.

When the powers and the principalities of this world have had their way and run their course, take heart. God remains on the throne. Always and forever.
The one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come.

a way to make it through

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

29 The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

We want the real thing.

Whether it’s purses, preachers, or prophets, we don’t want a fake.

In Jeremiah’s day, there were false prophets preaching to those who were left behind in Jerusalem after others were exiled in Babylon, and they were saying all kinds of feel-good stuff, “Don’t y’all worry now. You’re gonna be out of this mess in no time. Your friends and family and loved ones will be back home before you know it, cheer up!” 

This is Jeremiah’s “competition” so to speak. It must have been tough. Those prophets were giving desperate people all kinds of messages that they wanted to hear.

(It’s like pastoring a small, mainline denomination church in an era of “non-denominational” [read, “Baptist”] pop-up churches on every corner).

Jeremiah writes to the ones who are in exile, to the people who have been forced to relocate a long ways from home, in a place that is unfamiliar, where they are surrounded by folks who live differently, speak differently, eat differently, dress differently, and worship pagan gods. They are cut off from all that is comfortable and well-known to them and on top of all that, they don’t have access to the temple where they worship in Jerusalem. So even God feels distant.
You can imagine that they would be incredibly eager to listen to anyone saying that all of this will be over very soon, two years tops (Jeremiah 28:3). 

You know what the problem was? It wasn’t true. 

That message felt great, but it was a lie. 

Jeremiah makes it really clear: any prophet promising that everything will get better soon is full of crap. Jeremiah writes to say, Your situation is what it is, and for a good long while, exile is your reality. It’s not changing anytime soon. There’s still good news, but you might as well get comfortable. Cause you’re not going anywhere.

There’s no empty optimism, no pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams that Jeremiah is peddling here. He gives it to em’ straight. Your old life is dead and gone. Your new life is this. It’s here, in Babylon. Among your enemies. Amidst pagans. Deal with it. Dig in. Settle down. Adjust. Exile won’t be over in two years. Actually, you’re gonna have grandchildren here. It might sound harsh at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Jeremiah is being real. Jeremiah is doing what prophets do best- he’s telling the truth. He doesn’t want his people hanging on to any false hope.

And even though there is no promise of a quick or easy way out of this, the LORD does give the people a way to make it through.

It’s unexpected, it’s not what they want to hear, but it is good news.

Build houses and plant gardens and make family and work for the welfare of the city where you are, pray for it, and when the city is whole, you will be whole. That’s the message. Accept the unacceptable. Your situation is not going to change right now, the glory days are gone, things will never be the same again, and that’s hard, but there is a way to make it through.

I know this sucks but it might mean that your financial situation doesn’t get any better any time soon. For what you have, there might not be a cure. The wilderness that you’re in, the feeling like you don’t know which way to go, well, the right path might not present itself right away. Whatever struggle that you find yourself in right now, and it’s something for all of us, the family trouble, the friend trouble, the school trouble, the job trouble, the money trouble, the living situation, it might not get better for awhile.

I know, it’s not what I want to hear either.

But the word for us today is to take heart. There’s a way to make it through. And God is never as distant as it seems.

There is a way to find goodness and beauty and stillness and peace and purpose and wholeness and shalom even in the midst of our chaos and confusion and struggle. 

I can’t help but think of how relevant this is for the church today. Church is so often the place where people are desperately trying to preserve bygone days.
There’s the strong belief that if “we could just get some more young people,” or “if we could just get the right pastor,” or, “if we could just host the right event or play the right music,” then everything would be revived and security and stability would be ours again.

Pastoral leaders speaking prophetically are not popular people. Nobody wants to hear this news at first. No new amputee wants to be reminded that they’ll never walk the same way again, yet how can he ever begin the process of relearning to walk unless he faces the truth? No patient can begin treatment if she doesn’t first accept the diagnosis, no matter how grim it might be in the beginning.

Church, our old life is gone.
We are in a new reality.
There is no quick or easy way out of this, but there is a way to make it through.

Build houses and plant gardens and make family and create community and work for the welfare of the city where you are, pray for it, and when the city is whole, you will be whole.

Jeremiah’s point today is this, even in exile, even in horrible circumstances, even in unimaginably awful situations, even in the midst of death itself, there is a way to experience life. It’s a promise that God gives us through the prophet Jeremiah today and it’s a promise that was substantiated and embodied to the fullest extent in Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection. 

So if things aren’t going to change, how are we supposed to make it through?

Dig in. Plant roots. Seek the shalom of the city, and that’s how you’ll find your own shalom.

Seek the shalom שלום of the city where you arethat’s the Hebrew word for peace, yes, but way more than what we mean when we use that word. 

Shalom is wholeness, completeness, total welfare.
It means nothing is broken and nothing is missing.

What would the shalom of Pink Hill, Lenoir County, Duplin, Jones County look like?

Rather than spending energy on putting it down, pining for bygone days, complaining about how much has changed, and yearning for what will never be again, how would things be different if the people of our community worked for the welfare of this place, for its shalom, for its wholeness? How might we dig in, plant gardens, build houses, and pray together on its behalf? 

What if we found a way to grow food in former dumps (I know of community gardens that got started just like this!)?
What if we figured out how to make art with other people’s trash?
What if we started to repurpose what others have thrown away?
What if we got the lights back on in abandoned buildings? 

What if we listened deeply and lovingly to people’s pain and searched for the poetry in it?
What if we crossed the street and shook hands with our enemy?
What if we laid down our fear? 

What if we learned a new language so that we could surprise a neighbor and say something familiar to them?
What if we didn’t give up?
What if we had eyes to see that things could be different?
What if we tried to help somebody else even when it feels like we’re the ones in need? What if we buried the hatchet?
What if we just let old grudges go?
What if we prayed like it was all up to God and we worked like it was all up to us?
What if we had more neighborhood cookouts?
What if we planned more dance parties?
What if instead of “Yes, but. . .” we said “Yes, AND. . .”

We are being commanded to pray for other people’s welfare. We are being encouraged to work for the wholeness of a place where we might not want to be. We are being reminded that our situation might not change anytime soon.
We are being promised by God though, that there is a way to make it through.

Jeremiah says that if we were to do these things for our city, our community, the place where we are, that in its wholeness, in its welfare, in its shalom, we would find our own. 

Our destiny, our fate, our future is actually tied up in everyone else’s.