Monday, December 22, 2008

Real Estate (2 Samuel 7:1-11; 16)

Well, it’s a good thing that God told David not to build the temple before he got started, isn’t it? What would David have done if God made that decision known once construction began?

Both of the men in the story act like they see fit to act until God speaks. David decides to build a temple that’s a proper house for the Ark of the Covenant and God’s manifest presence that accompanies it. Nathan sees no problem with the idea and when consulted, says, “Sounds good. Knock yourself out.”

But God intervenes, telling Nathan to tell David he is not to build a temple, and also tells him why he’s saying that.

We don’t know David’s motives, beyond what he says to Nathan. It doesn’t seem right to him that he lives in a palace when the Ark is in a tent – either the exact same tent the Israelites built during their wandering in the wilderness, according to God’s instructions, or its replacement. What’s that say, David wonders, about what we think of our God when we let mortal me live in a great palace but limit the eternal God to a tent?

These motives seem good, and we don’t see anything to suggest otherwise. While God tells David not to build a temple, he doesn’t seem angry and in fact makes a promise to David that is at the root of our Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

I suspect that God appreciates David’s thought but knows that his desire to build a temple would have consequences David can’t foresee. There’s an obvious one, of course – whenever people would look at the temple that David had constructed, they would think as much or more of David as they did of God. “Wow, what a great king he must have been to be able to command the building of this great temple!”

Also, many people in the ancient world judged the power and importance of a god based on what kind of temple the worshippers used. A shabby little shack meant a god of little power and no influence. A magnificent building meant a god of great might and a people of great might as well. God lets David know he won’t play that game. He is the one true God and Lord, and he is such whether he lives in a splendid temple, a tent or a van down by the river (I may have added that last part). God will be God no matter where he chooses to be manifest or what kind of vessel he decides to use for that purpose.

And now we get to something that has to do with Advent, it seems. An early knock against the idea of Jesus being God’s Son was that the Almighty God would not enter creation and become part of it. God made the created world, and to suggest that any part of that created world, even a human being, was somehow divine as well was to blaspheme against God. Some people who dispute the Christian message today have the same idea.

During Jesus’ own life, people wouldn’t accept him as the Messiah because he was born in some pretty humble beginnings. His own hometown folk rejected him because they knew he was just plain ol’ Joe and Mary’s boy and he didn’t have any call to be putting on airs about fulfilling prophecies.

God, it seems to me, answers those objections with words not too far off from what he told David. “I’ll pick my own dwelling place, thank you, and I’ll pick it for my reasons which you may or more likely may not understand.”

In fact, God tells David, I will build a house for you, one that lasts through eternity. Jesus, of David’s house or family, will be the king who restores God’s chosen people and in addition restores all of creation to the relationship God designed it for. In part, this is a promise made to David because of his desire to serve God. But it’s also God reminding David who did the creating and who was created, and which of those will define the relationship and the way things are. You won’t define me, he says, but I will define you and I have a purpose in mind beyond what you can imagine.

That purpose eventually came into its own in a life that started in a manger, ended on a cross and was renewed in a tomb. A dwelling place far more humble than David imagined, but with a purpose greater than he could have ever dreamed.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My Soul Magnifies the Lord! (Luke 1:47-55)

“Magnificat” seems like such a big name to give a song that a Jewish teenager sang in praise to God, but this particular Jewish teenager has had a big impact on our world in other ways, too.

Mary sings this song when she visits her kinswoman Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s unborn son John leaps inside her when the mother of the Lord arrives. The translation of the Greek word megaluno into Latin gave us a word like our “magnify,” which is where the song’s name came from.

The obvious meaning is that Mary is saying her soul praises God for all his great deeds, and she goes on to list some of them. But the translated word we use, “magnify,” started me thinking about something else Mary’s soul might do for us when we read this passage. We all know that “magnify” means to make something larger or make it appear to be larger. When we use a magnifying glass, we want to see something that’s too small to make out clearly or has details we can’t see with our eyes alone. I think Mary’s experience here does some of the same thing for us.

One thing we need to understand is that Mary, like most of the people who lived in her place and time, didn’t separate body from soul the way we sometimes tend to when we talk about them.

We sometimes look at things as though we have a true self, our soul, which is separate from the bodies we live in. As the great philosopher Yoda put it, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

But in the ancient world, people were more likely to see their true selves as a combination of their bodies and their spirits, in addition to their experiences and the things they had learned. They saw the true self as a unity of all of these things, and counted the physical part of existence as just as much a part of a person’s true nature as the spirit or the soul.

So Mary suggests everything about her, from her spirit to her body to her experience and more, serves to magnify the Lord and maybe show us something about God we might not see without her story. What might that be? What did Mary do that might gives us a picture of God? Well, obviously, she agreed to God’s plan that she be the mother of the Savior. She had the choice to refuse, the same choice God gives every person to reject him. But she didn’t.

Even though, when we consider the whole thing, she might have had good reason to. For one, there’s her husband Joseph. They haven’t had their final wedding ceremony yet, but legally they are husband and wife. Whether or not they had any romantic feelings for one another was not nearly as big a deal for marriages in their day and time, but I don’t think it’s wrong to assume she respected, liked or maybe even loved him. And if she did, she would know that her pregnancy, which would not be by him, would be an insult to him and maybe even a deep wound to his spirit. Not to mention how she will explain this to her parents.

And for another, there’s the problem that in Mary’s culture, adultery is a capital crime. Have that today and Las Vegas would be the world’s biggest cemetery and the Billy Graham Association would be the only studio making movies.

Sure, there were probably couples that came to the final wedding ceremony having gotten a couple of the steps of the process out of order, but Joseph would know that wasn’t the case and he could denounce her as an adulteress.

At the very least, she was subject to a lifetime of shame. But she might have suffered worse and been stoned to death. That’s when the village dragged you outsde of town and threw rocks at you until you died. It sometimes took a couple of days, so the rock throwers would rotate and take a break. You didn’t get one.

There are plenty of common sense reasons for Mary to say no to God’s plan, but she doesn’t hesitate. She asks one technical question, gets her answer, and says, “Let it be with me as you have said. I am God’s servant.” No hesitation, second thoughts, weighing the options, figuring out the pros and cons, whatever. It’s almost impulsive, isn’t it? Almost reckless, even.

Hmmm…you know, Mary, because of the way marriage functioned in her culture, was probably at most 16, maybe 17. Youth and strength were a woman’s best chance of surviving childbirth, so women often married much younger than men did.

So Mary’s a teenager…and she’s done something impulsive, something where she just steps out in complete faith that God will do what he has said. Remember, the angel told her she will bear his Son. Not, “Now, if everything falls just right,” or “If we get lucky,” or something like that. So she just takes God’s messenger at his word and agrees, without an apparent thought for the consequences.

Anyone who’s ever been a teenager ever remember Mom and Dad looking at you and saying, “What were you thinking?” Think those words may have been part of the conversation Mary’s parents had with her before the truth became apparent?

There’s really a simple reason we all had so much trouble thinking about the consequences of our actions when we were younger. Our forebrains, the part that says, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” doesn’t finish developing until we’re in our mid-20s. Of course, plenty of people choose not to use it anyway, but all the equipment’s in working order by then. Before then, it’s like a baby learning to walk. We might use our forebrains, but they’re still developing and sometimes don’t work as they ought, just like a toddler’s legs don’t.

For the mother of his Son, God picked someone who was prone to snap decisions, impulsive judgments and actions she might not have thought through completely, because he knew those qualities would make her more likely to trust him. He used her willingness to trust Him without second thoughts to accomplish his greatest work. He didn’t pick a wealthy woman of wisdom or a great lady of philosophy. Nor did he transform Mary so that she was wealthy or wise beyond her years.

He used her as she was, and his strength was made perfect in her limitations. So the next time you may feel God leading you to do something for him, don’t demur because you’re not a speaker or a worker or have a great track record of holy living. As Mary’s soul has magnified the details for us, we can see that God will use us as we are, weaknesses and all, to do his work. In fact, it may even be the weaknesses that he covets most.

And that’s plenty good news to me.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

We Were Born Ready (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Advent is a season of preparing for Christmas in the same way that Lent is a season of preparing for Easter, but don’t try to tell someone to give up chocolate for Advent. Some things are more sacred than others.

But during Advent we do try to make ourselves ready for the coming of the King. So it may be confusing when I say that the point of the Isaiah passage is that we are in fact ready for a savior. Obviously, I’m doing something funny with the words.

And yes, I am. We use “ready for” in a lot of different ways. In one, we talk about getting ready for something, meaning we’re preparing for it. That’s the normal sense of Advent, and Advent itself is a symbol for how we should always be making ourselves ready for the coming of the King.

Another meaning of being ready for something refers to really wanting or needing it to happen. We talk like this about vacations or meals or a cold drink after a working outside in the heat. “I’m really ready for a vacation” means “I really want and need a vacation right now.”

The Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke can help teach us how we get ready for Christmas in the first sense of the word “ready.” Isaiah’s prophecies can teach us how we’re ready for a savior in the second sense.

Many people know that the primary objection many people in Jesus’ day made to his being the Messiah was that he didn’t do what they expected the Messiah to do. They expected him to be a political and perhaps military leader who would overthrow their current oppressors, the Romans, and reestablish Israel as an independent nation, under its own king. The Messiah would be that king, a descendant of David, and through him and the nation of Israel, God would renew his direct relationship with humanity.

Jews held the desire for this kind of Messiah for a long time. When Isaiah wrote, the Messiah would overthrow the Babylonians. Later on, it would be the Persians, then the Greeks, Seleucids and finally the Romans, with a brief period of independence under the Maccabee family mixed in there.

These people believed that if they could just get rid of their oppressor du jour, then they could run things themselves again and they would follow God the way that they were always supposed to, and had long ago promised that they would. Today, we might not use the word “oppressor” and we’d give them different names – the Seleucids haven’t caused problems for a long time for anyone but students trying to identify them on quizzes, for example – but we don’t have a vastly different mindset.

If I didn’t have this mortgage, or this car payment or these bills, if I didn’t have to put in so much time at work, if I didn’t have to do this or that, then my time could be my own, we might say. If church didn’t have so many people who just aren’t very spiritual, if the pastor had a clue, if we just sang the kind of music I like all the time…you see where I’m going. If only I could somehow get saved from all of this other stuff going on, then I could handle things on my own.

We understand, though, that the point of Christ’s coming was that we can’t handle things on our own. If every external thing I figure is holding me back somehow disappeared, I’d pick up new ones pretty quick, because I need saving from something inside me more than I need saving from something outside me.

Even after Jesus’ resurrection, the people still had a hard time figuring out that his plan and his work was a lot bigger than they had ever thought. Gradually, they came to understand what Jesus had taught them about the Messiah working out the salvation of the people through his sacrifice, rather than through his great power. They looked to Isaiah’s prophecies to help flesh this out, among others.

We may think that whatever jeopardizes our spiritual health or growth puts us in need of salvation and makes us ready for a savior, meaning that we need one. Nope. We weren’t made ready. We were born ready.

And unto us who were born ready for a savior, a Savior is born.

Good news to all, not to mention tidings of great joy.