The Story of God

Scripture Passage:  Luke 2: 1-20 (KJV)

2 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.  (Luke 2: 1-20, KJV)

And it came to pass…after all this time, not just the season we’re wrapping up but those centuries upon centuries of humanity’s waiting.  Generations passed.  Time passed.  Centuries passed. To be honest, whole cultures passed.  And finally, this, too, has come to pass.  It’s the time for which we have waited.  This is the time that makes the world stop, if only for a moment, and say a prayer for peace and light our candle and gather around our Savior.  This is the night that we keep and ponder.  So even if Covid is keeping you at home, light a candle.  Light a candle to honor the waiting, to honor those people that brought you here, to honor their journeying and their wrestling and their burning bushes.  Light a candle for peace.  Light a candle in affirmation that the Light has dawned.  Now, go back and read the passage like you do not know the story (I even gave you the King James version!).  Pretend that this is the first time you have heard the greatest story ever told. 

The journey took many days.  They were tired and thought about turning back several times.  But they had to keep moving.  The time was almost here.  The desert wilderness was cold and unforgiving.  The winds whipped around the mountains this time of year and made it worse.  The pathway was treacherous.  But now they were here.  Mary and Joseph have arrived in Bethlehem.  The crowds are almost too much to take, pushing and crushing as the couple makes their way through them.  Mary doesn’t feel well.  She really needs to just lie down and rest.  And when you don’t feel well, the last place you want to be is somewhere that is not home, somewhere foreign, somewhere so crowded, so unwelcoming.  They need to hurry.  There is not much time left. 

They stop at a small house up on the hill overlooking the Shepherds’ Field down below.  The owner offers a bed and a meal for a reasonable price.  Joseph leaves Mary for a moment and goes to make arrangements for a place to stay.  But when he returns, his face looks frustrated, almost in tears.  He tells Mary that the inn is full.  In fact, the whole town is full.  There is no place to stay.  There is no room.  But he tells Mary that the innkeeper has given them permission to at least go into the stable room in the back of the house to keep warm.  He’s freshening the hay now.  Well, it will have to do.

You know, I think the innkeeper gets a bad rap.  I mean, was he supposed to kick someone else out?  And consider this:  This was not the Hilton.  It probably wouldn’t even qualify as a roadside motel.  It was probably just a couple of small beds in the innkeeper’s home that he rented out to help make ends meet.  And first century houses were often just a room or maybe two of actual living quarters anyway.  The second or third room was attached to the house and used to house the animals that were so much a part of their life.  No one in this small town would have owned a large “ranch” estate or a garage apartment. The stable probably wasn’t “out back” the way we interject into the story.  It was part of the home.  So the innkeeper was possibly, on some level, bringing Mary and Joseph, bringing strangers, into his home. His home became part of the story.

So Mary and Joseph entered the stable room and, surrounded by animals, tried to get some rest.   They could still hear the crowded city outside but at least it was warm.  The innkeeper has actually been really nice.  They could hear the Roman guards yelling as they tried to control the crowds.  It made the place feel ever more foreign, even more foreboding.  But directly overhead, was the brightest star they had ever seen.  It was as if the tiny little stable was being bathed in light.  So Mary laid down and closed her eyes.  She knew that the time was almost here.  She knew that the baby was coming into the world.

And on this night of nights, into a cold, dirty, smelly stable in a small town filled with yelling and pushing crowds, into a place occupied by foreign soldiers, into a place that did not feel like home, into a world that had no room, into a back door, God comes.  The door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven burst into our little world, flooding it with Light and Life.  And yet, the child in the manger bathed in light, the very Incarnation of the Divine, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Messiah, is, still, one of us.  God takes the form of one of us–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–to show us what it means to be one of us, to be human, to be part of the story.

There is not one of us that does not love The Christmas Story.  It’s got it all–heartache, darkness, intrigue, danger, animals, innocence, an oppressive government, and a baby to boot.  It’s got all those things that make great tales.  No wonder it’s a bestseller!  No wonder there are so many songs written about it and paintings depicting it.  But for all the romantic notions of a baby born into a cold desert night in a small town on the other side of the world to poor, struggling parents, this story is not about a birth.  It’s not a story about a baby.  This is the Story of God.

God has come before.  There have always been incarnations of God.  But this night, THIS Incarnation, is God’s unveiling.  It is God coming out of the darkness and out of the shadows and showing us what we could not see before.  God became one of us to show who we were created to be.  So, in this season, we again hear the story.  We hear the story of God.  But unless we realize that it is our story, it still won’t be enough.  God came as God Incarnate into this little world to tell the story that goes back to the beginning.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  (John 1: 1-5)

Just now, the light is beginning to dawn.  It is not a new light, but the light that was created in the beginning.  But, this time, THIS time, let us finally see the story it holds—because it is the story of God, the story of God who loved us so much that the heavens would open and spill into the earth so that we would know the story, know the story so well that we would have a part in writing it.  Because this is the chapter in which you and I come to be, the very dawn of redeeming grace spilling into a waiting story-filled earth.  Tonight a baby is born and we continue the story.  What will you now do with your chapter?  Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill toward all.  

Christmas did not come after a great mass of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort. No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled, as a gift of God which is laid into those arms that are stretched out in longing. In this way did Christmas come; in this way it always comes anew, both to individuals and to the whole world. (Eberhard Arnold)

Merry Christmas!

Shelli

Walking Each Other Home

Scripture Passage:  Matthew 1: 1-17

An account of the genealogy* of Jesus the Messiah,* the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,* 8and Asaph* the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,* and Amos* the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.*  17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah,* fourteen generations.

I know what you’re thinking.  What an odd scripture to use on the day before Christmas Eve, the day when we are almost there, almost ready to emerge from the darkness into the glorious Light.  The truth is, we usually skip over these verses.  I mean, they’re full of hard-to-pronounce words that none of us want to have to read from the lectern and, frankly, they’re kind of boring.  Am I right?  In fact, these verses are NEVER included in the Lectionary, regardless of what year you use.  So….why?  Why are we reading them?  Because the story itself is buried in the details…

I suppose God could come into the world with no help from us, with no help from all those faithful ones who came before us.  But what would it mean?  Why bother?  After all, the name of the Christ child is “God With US”.  Doesn’t that mean something?  God did not just drop the baby out of the sky like some sort of Divine UPS package.  The story is incomplete without those that came before. And it is incomplete without us.  Because without us, without every one of us, without EACH of us, God never would have come at all.  God came as Emmanuel, “God with US”, and calls us into the story.

And what a story it is!  It is a story of those that were called and those that ran away, a story of some who were exiled and some who wrestled, a story of scared and wandering people sent to new places and new lives with new names. The story includes prophets and poets, priests and kings.  It is a story of movement between darkness and light and, always, a hope for a Savior.  This line of David shown by the writer known as Matthew is 42 generations of God’s people, six sets of seven generations that lived and questioned and prayed and worshipped and wondered and sometimes shook their fists at God and then handed it off to the children that followed them.  Now you might remember that the number 7 is one of those numbers that connotes perfection or completeness, the hallowed finishing.  So, six completed ages of the history of God’s people waiting and watching and walking the journey brings us to the seventh, the New Creation, the beginning of what is next.

The Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity.  There’s no way out.  The Divine is even now pouring into our midst and we are changed forever.  But we have to birth the Godchild into our lives.  Knowing that we could never become Divine, the Divine became us.  The world is turned upside down.  And so God stayed around to show us how to live in this new world.  The writer of Matthew is right.  All this DID take place to fulfill what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophets.  The Light is just beyond our sight, ready to dawn, ready to call us into it that we might continue the story.  We are all walking together.  As Ram Dass said, “we’re all just walking each other home”.

Open your eyes.  The Light is about to dawn.

God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time.  God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain.  God came with Love.  Rejoice!  Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (Madeleine L’Engle)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

The People Who Walk in Darkness

Scripture Passage:  Isaiah 9: 2-7

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

In a national survey this past week, The Washington Post found that the top three words that people use to describe 2020 are “exhausting”, “lost”, and “chaotic”.  We can probably identify.  We’ve spent this season of waiting looking for something, looking for a light in the darkness, a hand in the shadows, an order to the chaos.  Well, the darkness is beginning to fade as the light has begun to make its way into our lives.  The thing is that we have to be prepared to see it.  Are we?  After this long season of preparation in a longer year of chaos, have we done all our preparing?  Are our eyes adjusted?  Or will we again need turn away and look toward the darkness because we are so unprepared to see the light?

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. 

These verses begin by speaking of past events.  Darkness is a metaphor for despair and death and the light symbolizes joy and life.  What probably began with a joyous mood over the deliverance from a particular oppressor (perhaps the Assyrians) becomes a vision of perpetual peace and joy.  Then midway through the passage, the writing changes to present tense.  Taken together, it is a reminder of what God has done and the proclamation that God is indeed doing it again, this turning darkness into light.  This announcement of a joyous and hopeful birth, the fulfillment of the promise of a son of David’s house, was written probably eight centuries before the birth of Jesus.  They were probably uttered about the birth of a specific king in Judah.  The words became part of the lives and the faith of the people and were handed down as a glorious reminder for generations that followed. So when the early writers of the Gospel began to write what had occurred with the incredible birth of Christ, they drew on these words, affirming that God has acted graciously and fulfilled promises before and that God continues to do that.  They are powerful words—that God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace is made flesh in the smallest and weakest of human creatures, a baby in a manger, a light that shines on those in the darkness.

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. 

But we are a people that tends to run from the darkness.  We don’t do well with it.  We don’t do well with the unknown, with not being able to see (and maybe even control or clean up) our pathway.  And yet so much of our faith journey is made in darkness.  In fact, so much of our faith journey actually begins in darkness.  Creation begins in darkness.  Seeds sprout in darkness.  Birth begins in darkness.  Even light begins in darkness. But we try our best to dispel the darkness, to light our lives with whatever artificial light we can find.  And we fill our lives with enough light so that we will never experience the darkness.  And because our lives are so full, there is no place to begin.  There is no room for light. 

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. 

In my old neighborhood, there was an old French colonial house with wonderful verandas lining both floors of the house.  For years, the house would outline the verandas with twinkling Christmas lights.  It was beautiful.  Then, for some reason I’ve never completely understood, they began to add more and more lights.  They started by stringing lights across the verandas three, five, seven, fifteen times.  Then the next year, they did the same to the house.  They must have had 50,000 lights!  I would describe it as a veritable blob of holiday lights—so many lights, in fact, that you could no longer see the lines of the house itself.  The house had been overtaken by light.  And, let me tell you, it was no longer beautiful.  Light is not pretty or comforting or even helpful alone.  In fact, it’s blinding.  Light is at its best when it illuminates the darkness and creates shadows and contrasts so that we can truly look at the light.

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. 

Part of our Advent journey is traveled in darkness.  Part of our lives are traveled in darkness.  It is a darkness where we wait for what is to come, not really knowing how or when God will come, but knowing that the light is just up ahead as we journey down this Holy pathway, never alone.  Traveling in darkness means that we must look to the One that guides us.  And, here, in the darkness, we will be able to see the light as it dawns on our world.  Do not run from the darkness, do not try to make it go away before its time, do not attempt to dispel it from your life because that is where the Light will shine.

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. 

This journey of waiting is nearing its end.  The Light will soon again pierce the darkness.  Think about that first journey.  Mary and Joseph were not wealthy, prominent citizens of the capital city of Jerusalem.  They were poor working class citizens of a no-name town in what was essentially a third-world country.  Remember the Scriptures:  nothing good comes from Nazareth.  There was nothing there.  And we tend to romanticize their trip to Bethlehem, making it into some sort of painting of a starlit camping trip with a lovely dark blue backdrop and a beaming star above.  That wasn’t exactly the way it was.  If they did indeed have to make that journey as the writer of the Gospel According to Luke claims, it’s about an 80 mile trip, a 4-day journey under the best of circumstances.  But, as we know, the teen-age Mary was pregnant and at that time, they would probably want to avoid Samaria (which was not the friendliest of territories to the Israelites), which means they probably would have circled through what is now modern-day Jordan, making it an even longer trip.  And, remember, the whole reason that they were traveling at all was for the tax census, imposed by a foreign government to pay for foreign rulers that ruled their lives.  These were not the best of times.  They traveled in darkness.  But that part of the story often falls away.  We need to remember that the darkness is part of the story, part of every story of God.

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. 

In every beginning, there is darkness.  The darkness of chaos seems eternal, Yet form emerges: light dawns, and life is born.  (New Union Prayerbook.)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

First Light

Scripture Passage:  Genesis 1: 1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day (and the longest night) of the year.  This night that just ended in the wee hours of the morning was about 14 hours long in the southern part of the United States. If you live farther north, you had an even longer night.  In fact, the northernmost parts of Canada and Alaska had less than 3 hours of light.  (And winter has begun, so Happy Winter!)  The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin “solstitium”, from two words meanings “sun” and “stand still”.  Technically, this comes from the fact that during the days surrounding the solstice, the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky and then seems to have the same noontime elevation for several days in a row.  To early astronomers, the sun appeared to hang in the sky, suspended, paralyzed, as if waiting for some word to move on.

So today we read the passage that speaks of the first light, the first time that the light was spoken into being.  I think some people have this notion that nothing existed prior to that.  But it did.  God was there.  God was there in the midst of what is described as a formless, disordered void, as darkness that covered and consumed everything as winds swept over the waters.  There wasn’t “nothing”; there was a seemingly dark, chaotic, noisy something.  And then God, in God’s infinite wisdom, spoke the light into being.  And the light pushed its way into the darkness, parting the grasp on everything that the darkness had held.  Now note that this isn’t the sun.  (That came later.)  Sometimes we make the mistake of reading this passage and we tend to think of the sun as the source of all light.  But go back and read beyond the passage I showed.  The sun doesn’t come into play until the “fourth day” of the passage so there must have been eons of time between when light came to be and the creation of this sphere of hot plasma that reflects it.  The First Light was something different.  The First Light was a new creation, parting and intersecting the darkness, weakening its grasp on everything, and shining into what was ahead.  The First Light is what God created to lead the way to everything else.

It’s hard for us to get a sense of the profound sight of light dispelling utter darkness. We are seldom, if ever, in utter darkness.  We have the benefit of moonlight and stars and streetlights and car lights and the glow of cities that never really sleep.  Years ago I stepped into a small boat and floated through a glowworm cave at Doubtful Sound in Southwest New Zealand. (How odd, you say!) The cave was lit with artificial light that helped us maneuver our way to the deepest part of the cave.  And then they shut the lights off.  I have never been in darkness like that.  It was the kind of darkness that almost hurt your eyes as your brain’s memories of light bounced off of it and back.  There were no shadows, no rainbow-type rings around dim lights.  There were no forms of anything (huh…it was “formless”, to refer back to the Scripture passage!).  There was just darkness.  My three friends and I were in this boat with two Japanese tourists and two German tourists.  None of us spoke the other languages.  When the lights went off and the darkness consumed us, our initial response was to reach for each other and hold hands.  So, as I floated through this darkness in complete silence with only the sound of the water lapping at the boat, holding hands with my friend Debby and an older Japanese man that I had just met,  As the boat turned down another tunnel, we got our first glimpse.  It was only two or three or first but as we continued on, there were eventually millions of glowworms shining into the darkness.  We could see the cave, the boat, each other.  We sort of sheepishly dropped hands at that point as if we were somehow intruding into each other’s light.  But what I realized is that you can only see the First Light when you’re in the darkness.

Sometimes the darkness is just too overwhelming for words.  Even though this is a joyous season, the world is still hurting.  There is still violence and tragedy.  And for many of us in our personal lives, there is still pain of loss or hurt.  Some of us are grieving someone that is not here this Christmas.  Some of us are struggling with job loss or frustration or changes that we’re just not really ready to handle.  And we are all living in this almost surreal time created by a pandemic that is scary and all-consuming.  The promise of this season is not that there will be no darkness any more than the promise of this life is that there will never be sadness or grief or disappointment or depression or despair.  Life is full of shadows and longest nights.  Life is full of those times when we cannot see the light.  Life is full of roads on which we cannot see where to go to return from exile.  Life is full of poverty and destruction and terror.  And life is full of those times when we’re so afraid, we just want to hold hands in the darkness. 

But in the midst of the darkness, God dwells, unknown and mysterious, the Word that created and dwelled in the darkness even before light came to be.  And even in our darkest places, the first light begins to break through.  That, my friends, is indeed the message of the season.  God tiptoes into the night and gently, very gently, hands us hope for our world, peace for our souls, and light for our longest nights in the form of a baby who shows us the way to walk through the darkness so that everyone might begin to see the world through a new light.  When we are standing in the light, and we look at the darkness, we don’t see darkness.  Light does that—it teaches us to see even through the darkness. 

Maybe the reason we celebrate Christmas in the darkest week of the year is because for generations our ancestors have known that it is in the darkest darkness that we recognize the light of hope.  So in the midst of a season of darkness and endings, we choose to celebrate birth and beginnings.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “when it is dark enough, [we] see the stars.” There is a Maori Proverb that says to turn your face to the [light] and the shadows will fall behind you.  Look, my friends…the Light is beginning to break, dispelling the darkness around us.  It is the First Light that shows us the beauty and leads us to everything else.  And it is very, very good.

Too many of us panic in the dark.  We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

God Is Now Here

Zephaniah 3: 14-20

14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

So, here we are in this short book of Zephaniah, which sets itself in about the seventh century BCE during the reign of King Josiah of Judah.  Josiah is many times characterized as the last great king, whose only equal would have been King David.  The identity of this prophet is not really very clear.  His father’s name is Cushi, which could mean that he was of Ethiopian heritage (Cush being the name for what we call Ethiopia).  This short book is primarily a book of judgment oracles that proclaim and invoke the coming Day of the Lord.  The prophet announces what is essentially cosmic destruction and demise and then at the end, the part that we read, unfolds a ninth oracle of salvation and renewal, a promise of some sort of final resolution of judgment and an assurance that the world will finally stop shaking and moving in what oftentimes seems to be an unnatural and even unbearable way.  And the Lord, no longer a seemingly inaccessible and unapproachable mover of Creation, is actually with us.  The Scripture, using the present tense (rather than the future), says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”  In other words, in the midst of all your worrying, all your bemoaning of lost opportunities of the past, all your despair, is God.  God is there, right there with you.

In this Season of Advent, we spend a lot of time looking forward to God’s coming, both to the “big day” when we remember Jesus’ birth as well as the final culmination of Creation, whatever and whenever that will be.  But then this…God is in our midst.  God is here, now.  There is no waiting for God’s Presence.  God is in our midst.  Yes, it is true that we live in what could be described as an “in-between” time.  The world is now but it is not yet what it should be.  There is still poverty, homelessness, and war.  There is still a veritable shaking of the earth as it groans toward its completeness.  But God is here—right here with us, in the midst of the poverty, in the midst of the homelessness, in the midst of the war, in the midst of the shaking.  God is in our midst.

So what does that mean?  When I was little I used to lay in bed and try to imagine God looking at me. I didn’t really understand what that meant, but I had been told in Sunday School that God was with us. It was odd to me. So I shut my eyes tight and opened them really fast to try to actually catch God peeking from behind some cotton-candy cloud, I suppose. (Apparently God was faster than I was!)  I wondered, though, did God have time to watch me sleep? Did God watch me take a bath? I mean, really, doesn’t God have better things to do than to watch me all the time? So somewhere along the way, we convince ourselves that God is out there or up there or somewhere down that road on which we’re traveling and that our mission is to “find God” (as if God is the one that is lost!). After all, why would God spend a bunch of time in the muck of this messed-up world?  But then we read that “the Lord is in our midst.”—not out there away from us, not up there over us, not down that road patiently waiting for us to catch up. God is in our midst. God is here…among us….with us.

Well, here we were desperately searching for God in our life and this little unsung hero of a book wedged in between all those Minor Prophets had it there all along. God is with US. No wonder we couldn’t find God! We weren’t looking in the right place! So all this time that we’ve been waiting for the Lord, God’s been here, waiting for US to notice. All this time that we’ve spent trying to figure God out and figure out what God wants and figure out how we can get to God when we should have been rejoicing. And the passage says that the Lord has taken away our judgments, just smoothed them right over, I suppose. (Actually, I think that’s called forgiveness.) The Hebrew Tanakh translation talks about it as God “soothing us with love”.   I love that, the thought of being soothed with love.  I mean, I guess it would be uncomfortable for God to hang around with us and continue to pick us apart at the same time and why would God hang around at all if it wasn’t for love?

So, try something with me.  Look at these letters:  G-O-D-I-S-N-O-W-H-E-R-E…What do they say?  Well, it depends on your perspective.  If one is cynical, mired down with despair, buried in what “was” or what “might have been”, one might read these letters as “God is Nowhere.”  Sadly, so many in the world do read it that way!  But if one is open to faith, open to the promise of new life to come, open to the assurance that things ARE going to change, one might alternatively read the letters as “God is Now Here.”  This season of Advent is one that shows us how to relate to the notion that God is indeed now here, that God is not only with us, but has been with us all along, that God is walking with us through the darkness and leading us to the Light.

So, in the midst of a world that sometimes makes no sense, in the midst of a life that is sometimes riddled with questions and heartache, in the midst of the way we hurt each other and judge each other and divide ourselves into camps, in this time straddled between a pandemic that carries death and despair and the hope-filled sight of planes being loaded with a vaccine, God comes.  God comes right there into our midst. You see, God didn’t wait for the world to be right. God didn’t wait for us to stop fighting with each other or arguing over who belongs here with us. God didn’t wait for terrorists to quit attacking innocents. God didn’t wait for us so-called innocents to quit attacking those who we think MIGHT be terrorists. God didn’t wait for us to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless. God didn’t wait for us to figure out what it means to be made in the image of God. God just came. God just showed up, really sort of uninvited because frankly sometimes we forget to do that. I don’t think that matters to God. God is not waiting for us to invite God to show up. God is waiting for us to notice that God is already here.

That’s what Christ was trying to show us.  No, things are not the way they should be and they are not the way they will be.  But God is in our midst.  The Season of Advent is not just for us to prepare for God’s coming.  It is to prepare ourselves to see with new eyes the Kingdom of God that is everywhere.  The Kingdom of God is here, already spilled into our midst and as we wait for the coming of its full completion, as we wait and “look for that day when justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”, as we wait we are called to become the people that God envisions we can be.  And “at that time I will bring you home, at that time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among [and with] all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”  Look!  God is in our midst.  God is now here.    

Bidden or unbidden, God is present. (Desiderius Erasmus, 1466-1536; also attributed to Carl Jung, who supposedly posted these words above the door at his house in Switzerland)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

A Light in the Darkness

Scripture Text:  Isaiah 64: 7-8

7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

The first Sunday of Advent…the first Sunday of a new year in the Christian calendar.  It is the Season of Waiting, the season of looking toward the Light.  But this one feels…oh…so different.  Normally, the culture is pushing us toward fulfillment, toward instant gratification, trying to get us to buy into the mindset that we have to jump while the prices are hot, buy while the getting is good, check off our lists before everything is gone.  But this weekend there were pictures of empty malls and empty stores and what seems to be a somewhat slow start to the season of frenzy.

This year feels so slow to me, as if it’s an old slow motion reel that clips through each and every frame with no real connection.  Thanksgiving was scaled back and I haven’t even started thinking about Christmas gifts (unusual for me).  It feels dark somehow.  I’m tired—tired of masks and social distancing and staying home, tired of growing numbers of cases and deaths and the dangling and undangling of a vaccine that seems so close and yet way out on the horizon.  I miss my friends.  I miss sitting and having coffee and talking.  I miss having a glass of wine in a real restaurant.  I miss Brian, my funny flamboyant friend who is one of those ticking numbers of deaths from this plague.  I miss who we were.

And, yet, maybe in an odd way this Advent is closer to the time that we are supposed to remember in this season, that time of waiting, of darkness, the time when God somehow felt far away and yet, in the opacity of the clouds, there was still a faint light on the horizon.  It was a reminder that no matter what, God is there, shaping us into who God envisions we can be.  And maybe in the bright lights and frenzy of Advents past, in the somewhat panicky culture of the countdown of shopping days and crowded stores, in the packed calendars and the perfect plans, we forgot.  We forgot that God comes to us in the darkness, somewhat hidden, and leads us to the Light.

I suppose that it is right that God appears to hide from those who seek the Lord.  I suppose it is true that God has somehow hidden the face of the Divine from us.  But, really, what would you do if you knew, knew all that was God, knew what God looked like?  What would be the purpose of continuing on this faith journey, of expecting God to mold us and make us?  We are comfortable with waiting for a child to come, for a birth to happen, for the glorious gestation that our biological makeup requires that we endure.  But it happens in the darkness, hidden from our view.  Creation was the beginning, the beginning that came to be in the darkness.  And now we wait.  We wait for eternity to come to be.

Advent teaches us just that.  It doesn’t merely teach us to wait; it shows us that for which we wait.  The Advent season is three-fold.  It is a remembrance of the waiting for the birth of Emmanuel; it is the realization that we must wait in our lives, that we must experience the waiting for God to come to us; and it is the practice that we need to wait for God’s coming into the world in its fullest, the waiting of the glory that is to come.  If we don’t learn to wait, even in the darkness, we will never know what God’s Coming means.  Look….there, there in the darkness on the distance horizon…there is the faint vision of a Light.  God is at work, molding and shaping it.  Just wait….even in the darkness.  Because, think about it, you can’t see light when you are standing in light.  It is in the darkness, the holiness of the hiddenness, that the Light begins to emerge.  Sometimes the purpose of our places of darkness are to compel us to move so that we can finally see the light.

Why fear the dark?  How can we help but love it when it is the darkness that brings the stars to us? What’s more: who does not know that it is on the darkest nights that the stars acquire their greatest splendor? (Don Helder Camara)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

More To the Story

Light into the world2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Solomon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.  And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,* 8and Asaph* the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,* and Amos* the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.  12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.* (Matthew 1: 2-16)

We Christians sometimes seem to have this notion that Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, Messiah, the Savior of the World just sort of dropped out of the sky one cold winter night in Bethlehem and the world began. But the story of the birth of the Divine One into this world is not the beginning but the next chapter in a story that had been read into the world for volumes of the story before.  Jesus came, God with Us, after eons of the earth straining to see the Light.  He came into centuries upon centuries of waiting journeyers, those who had prepared the way for his coming, not knowing what that would be but knowing that it would be.  Those that came before are not just a prelude to the story but are part of the story itself.

I would guess that most of you sort of skip over these verses in the Gospel from the writer known as Matthew. After all, the names are hard to pronounce and, really, what do they bring to the lovely story that we have compiled from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and a little “tradition” thrown in. But they ARE important, SO important. They are the story of our connection. If the writer had not been of Jewish descent (I think the fact that he (or she!) starts with Abraham is the first of many clues in that Gospel version.), the story might have gone back to the beginning—you know, that “in the beginning” part. It’s all part of the story.

In the beginning, God came into the darkness, into the chaos that was the world and filled it with Light. And it was good. And God went on to fill the illuminated world with Creation—waters that bring and sustain life, soils that would continue to birth life from decay, green and blue foliage reaching into the earth for their nutrients, animals of prey and animals that would become companions to us (including the one that just demanded that I open the window blinds so he can make sure no one is going down his road!), and we humans. And then God continued to walk with the Creation, guiding them through the times that they listened and patiently waiting for their return when they did not. And after generations of both failed and incredibly wonderful journeys, God again came to once again bring light to a world who had allowed part of the light of Creation to go out. And it was good. And this time, God came not as the Light on us but the Light within us, coming as one of us to show us how to be Light.

No, Jesus did not just pop out of nothingness. The story had been in place long before. And we, too, did not just appear. Our lives are not merely individual existences that we have worked so hard to create. Our lives are part of the ongoing story of the world becoming more and more illuminated until the darkness is no more. THIS Advent, remember the story and do not forget the light that you are called to carry forward into the next chapter of the story. Even now, God is bringing Light to a partially dark world. We can only imagine where God will take the incredible story next.

God showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in a palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my minds’ eye and I thought, “What can this be?” An answer came, “It is all that is made.” I marveled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, “It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.” And all things have their being through the love of God. In these little things I saw three truths. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. The third is that God looks after it. (Julian of Norwich)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli