Sunday, December 30, 2012

Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38)

Bill Engvall had a routine in the early 2000s in which he complained about the misuse of the word "awesome." People used it for so many things it didn't mean anything; Engvall said it should be reserved for the things that are really awesome. "On April 15 the IRS sends you a letter saying they made a mistake and they owe you money," he suggests as an example. "Now that's awesome."

I think Simeon might have said the same thing when he understood who Jesus was and the real nature of God's plan for salvation. We meet him in Luke 2 as an old man who has had the Holy Spirit reveal to him he would not die before seeing the Lord's Messiah.

Unless we remember that the people before Jesus came had a very different understanding of Messiah than we do, we might not understand just what Simeon might have been expecting. He's an old man, which means when he was younger he would have heard the old people of that day talk about the Maccabees. They were a family that led a revolt against Judea's conquerors about 160 years before Jesus was born. They established the Hasmonean Dynasty, which ruled Judea for the next hundred years, probably either until just before Simeon was born or during his youth. That hundred years was the only time between the Babylonian conquest to the establishment of the modern state of Israel that the Jewish people ruled themselves. It came to an end when the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem.

Simeon, like most people of his day, interpreted the Messiah prophecies to speak of a political and military leader who would overthrow Israel's occupiers and restore the kingdom. It had happened once, so there was no reason to expect it not to happen again. And the years in which Simeon lived boasted of several revolts, rebellions and uprisings against the Romans. The unrest was basically constant, flaring up now and again into a skirmish or battle. It wouldn't end until the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD.

So there was no shortage of potential leaders against the Romans, even if they all wound up failing one way or another. They had no success against Rome or against Rome's agent, King Herod.

I have no concrete knowledge of what Simeon felt or thought, but if I was in his shoes I would begin to wonder. After all, any successful revolt would take some time; Rome couldn't be thrown out in a day. Would he see the completion of the rebellion, or only its start? Would he see the Anointed Leader begin his campaign, or would he just have met him on the street sometime without knowing who he would be? Maybe he hadn't understood the Spirit's word to him...maybe it had been his own imagination or even some kind of deceiving spirit, not from God at all but from somewhere else and it would delight as his hope faded with age.

I put these possibilities in Simeon's mind because I know that even if I'm not in his situation, I've dealt with times when I wonder if I have heard God correctly. Have I discerned the spirits aright, or have I misunderstood? Did I follow what God wanted me to do, or did I deceive myself into thinking that when I was really just following my own lead?

What usually happens with me in those times is what happened with Simeon -- I learn that God has been working to do what he told me, but in a way far beyond my imagination. Simeon is at the temple, and he sees the people making their sacrifices and gifts, and he sees the parents of new firstborn coming to make their sacrifices as well. For some reason, he notices one couple who bring with them the pair of small birds designated as proper for those who can't afford a lamb.

And he sees.

The Spirit shows him that this baby is the promised Messiah, and that his salvation will be not in the temporary realms of human politics and kingdoms, but eternal and for all. He sees that God's plan was not only different from what he imagined, it was different and greater in scope than he could ever have imagined.

He sings of the great works of God that will come through the child before him, and then God confirms his words through the voice of the prophetess Anna. People who prophesied didn't just predict what would come but spoke God's words to the people. The Hebrew word translated "prophet" even means "mouthpiece" or "speaker." When Anna joins Simeon's song, she doesn't just echo his words but affirms them as truth.

This baby is the Messiah. He will grow and teach the people the truth of God and will offer himself as a sacrifice so that the broken relationship between humanity and God can be healed. His death will not end God's work in him but continue and magnify it, and it will put to death death itself and human sin and suffering.

Now that's awesome.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The King is Born (Luke 2:8-14)

I will freely confess that one of the blessings of Christmas is the end of the coverage of "the Christmas Wars." On the one hand are the people who act as if someone saying "Merry Christmas" to them is the same thing as Tomás de Torquemada saying, "Missed you in church this Sunday." On the other are the people who think that if they can convince a judge that a Nativity scene has more cultural than religious value, so they can set it up in a public park, somehow that's a win. December 26th allows me to bid the both of them goodbye, and I do so with great joy.

But I do think there is a real war on Christmas, and it has less to do with Nativities and holiday greetings than it does with what the Christ born in a stable represents and what the world around us represents.

Humanity's very first sin was to set itself in the place of God, and that impulse has been at the root of our fallen human condition ever since. Now, it may be that we place something other than ourselves there, like a person or wealth or power or something similar, but the same error reigns -- we have made gods out of that which is not God. We have done it before, we do it today and we shall do it again.

Sometimes we deal with the reality of a person or a system that demands worship from us. The summer blockbuster The Avengers featured a scene in which the evil Loki threatens a crowd of people in a street in Stuttgart, Germany. Brandishing a powerful weapon, he demands that they kneel, and they do. But as he talks about how much simpler life is for people who let themselves be ruled by another and how human beings will always kneel to such people, an old man slowly stands. "In the end, you will always kneel," Loki says, and the man says, "Not to men like you." "There are no men like me," Loki tells him, and the old man looks at him with eyes that show memories steeped in unholy history and says, "There are always men like you."

And there are. There is always a Pharaoh, always a Herod, always a Cæsar, always a fuehrer, always a Dear Leader, always a Big Brother, always someone or something that demands from us the allegiance that properly belongs only to God.

But sometimes we choose to give that allegiance rather than have it demanded of us. We set aside ethics and right treatment of our brothers and sisters in order to acquire wealth and power for ourselves. We treat others as though they have no more value than what they can do for us, and we discard them when we have used them up.

Rudolf Bultmann said that when Jesus entered the world, he posed what Bultmann called the "existential question." That means that the reality of Jesus asks us a question and the way we answer it affects our existence. Will we root and ground our lives in what we see and hear around us? Or will we root and ground our lives in the idea that there is more to life than the material world and that more is God? We can't not choose, it's one or the other and the world is full of people and things that will demand we say "Yes" to them.

That seems ridiculous, because on the other side of the question is the Almighty God, creator of the universe. Who could bring more power to bear than God? In a fight, who would win? If we're talking about demands for allegiance, who could possibly push God aside to say, "You'd better pick me?"

But God does not do that. I think it's because he knows that if he adopts the tactics of fear and force and power, our answer to his question -- "Will you follow me?" -- is meaningless. So instead he will show us that all of the power that can be brought to bear on us can't separate us from him. Neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor powers, nor principalities, nor nakedness nor famine or peril or sword.

Christmas shows us that. On Christmas, God showed all of his cards. He would face down evil and death...and let them win. He would let them win so we could see that their victory was no victory, that the Lord of the heavens and the earth ruled over death also. The human vulnerability of Jesus of Nazareth would be the means by which God would triumph.

The baby in the manger was the King before whom all could kneel -- not out of fear, but out of love, thankfulness and praise. He was the Lord who could be loved by the shepherds and by the wise, by tax collectors and the priests, by fishermen and whores, by kings and commoners, and by you and by me. Joy to the world. The Lord is come!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

From Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7)

Someone traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem today could take advantage of modern roads and transportation and make the trip in an afternoon. By air it would take less than an hour; the two are only 80 miles apart as the crow flies.

But those options weren't on the table when Joseph and Mary made their trip, sometime during the last weeks of Mary's pregnancy. There was no direct route, only two winding roads. The longer one crossed the Jordan River, headed south and crossed back over it to head back west. The shorter one went through the Judean hill country and actually crossed the border with Samaria.

Most Galileans and Judeans, being good Jews who didn't mix with Samaritans, took the longer road. As might be imagined of the two people God picked to raise his son, such prejudices played no role in their thinking. Even if they had, the two extra days the other route involved probably would have played a bigger role, especially for the traveler who wasn't too far from giving birth and who would not have traveled well. So while we can't know which road Joseph and Mary followed, I feel pretty confident they took the shorter route that traversed Samaria.

Either way, this was not a journey they had planned on or would have chosen had the decision been theirs. Mary obviously would much rather have stayed near her own mother and friends, women whom she'd known and who she would depend on in the coming difficult time of delivery. The discomfort of late-term pregnancy would only be multiplied by traveling.

Joseph would not have wanted to be away from his wife at this important time. Of course he and Mary knew the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but in the eyes of everyone else this was his own firstborn. That's not a good time for a fellow to be absent from his wife, not if he doesn't want to get talked about by the villagers. And not in a good way.

Yet because of the demands of the Romans, Joseph at least had to make the trip. For her own reasons, Mary made it also. There they both are, probably wondering why answering God's call means so much trouble. I think I would be, at least.

In fact, I know I would be. For whatever reason, we've lost sight of the reality that answering God's call sometimes means traveling a difficult journey. We focus on what God does to make our lives better, and we should never forget that reality. There are things I would never have done right if I had not been following God. There are wonderful things in my life I'd never have had if I wasn't following God. I'm a better person, a better son and a better friend because I follow God.

But there have been hard things. Sometimes I have had to say things or do things that were not easy, and I did them because I'm following the path God called me to. My first six months in Altus, I did six funerals -- one an infant, and then two months later his grandmother. Day before yesterday was the first Friday in four weeks I wasn't at the cemetery. I've watched couples I married split and dealt with other things I would never have had on my plate if I'd had my own way.

Sometimes we need to remember that the journey God calls us to isn't always just a nice downhill glide. Sometimes it's a hard slog along a hilly road when you're nine months pregnant, or whatever equivalent might come in your life. God doesn't cause those things, any more than God caused Joseph and Mary's last-minute trip. But God does call us to perservere in those circumstances, and to still seek him.

The marevlous thing is that at the ultimate end of all of these journeys is the same thing that awaited Joseph and Mary at the end of theirs: The coming of Christ, the presence of God with them.

He awaits us too.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Trip to Ein Karem (Luke 1:39-56)

We don't know for certain the village where Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary's relatives, lived, but the hill town of Ein Karem is a pretty good guess according to a lot of scholars. Having met our two main characters in the story of what leads up to Jesus' birth, we now get the story moving.

Remember, we have Mary, a young girl who today would probably not have her driver's license yet and who agreed to do what God asked her through the heavenly messenger. Even though she risks shame and even death by being seen as an adulterous woman, she will answer God's call. And we have Joseph, probably a few years older, who found this whole thing started without him but who allowed mercy to triumph over the anger and betrayal he probably felt when Mary told him her news.

But that's a few weeks in the future. Right now we have Mary, probably in the next few days after the angel's visit. You might imagine that when she starts to look at her decision after a couple of days she might feel a little uncertain. What seemed like a solid lock when the angel was right in front of her is not nearly so solid a couple of days later. Pregnancy and everything accompanying it probably worry her as much as they would worry any new mom-to-be, and when you add in this "conceived by the Holy Spirit" angle, well, there's just a whole lot of uncertainty.

Her faith may have convinced her that following God and believing God when he said that she would have the child meant that death was unlikely. If she were going to be killed for adultery, then she wouldn't be around to give birth. But the angel hadn't said anything about the shame of an unwed pregnancy, or about what Joseph might do or...perhaps the scariest of all...her parents.

So I think Mary went out to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah because the angel had specifically referred to Elizabeth's pregnancy late in her life. Such a baby would be a miracle all his own, and if Mary could see that for herself she might draw courage to tell Joseph what had happened. Again, these are people who know where babies come from, so she knows that Joseph has absolutely no reason to believe what will sound to him like a verrrrry shaky story trying to cover up a more logical explanation.

I don't mean she wanted "proof" of the angel's message. I think she believed it when it was delivered and still believed it later. I think she wanted to see a solid reminder that amazing things were happening around her and with her. If she could see God's hand at work somewhere else, then that would be a reassurance.

I've found myself in need of those kinds of reassurances from time to time. I know what I believe with my head and I know what I hold to be the truth, but sometimes I wonder. Maybe you do too. Maybe circumstances bring you uncertainty. The things that are going on around you don't seem to provide much evidence of God's work. Or maybe your own experiences cause you to question whether or not God is at work in you. You don't see the change in your life you think should be there.

Perhaps it's a tragedy, either personal or otherwise. This last week we saw that our world has evil in it and such senseless slaughter makes us want reassurance from God that he is real and his work continues even in such an awful world. I can't tell you how to find that reassurance because I don't know what speaks to you, but I know that you can find it, and you may find it unexpectedly. Methodist founder John Wesley was in the midst of a spiritual dry spell that made him question his faith and even whether or not God had called him to minister. He went to a Bible study at the urging of some friends -- he didn't really want to go -- and when hearing someone read the preface of Martin Luther's commentary on Romans, he said he felt his heart "strangely warmed" and he knew that Christ had died so that his sins were indeed forgiven. He had a feeling of assurance that enrgized him and helped the Methodist movement begin to spread.

In times like this, we want reassurance. We Christians proclaim that reassurance is found when we seek the Lord. Mary found it in Elizabeth's words of blessing and greeting, in her visible pregnancy; John Wesley found it in the preface to a commentary. I don't know where God will lead you to find it; sometimes I don't even know where God will lead me to find my own. But I know it will be there.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

There's Something About Joseph (Matthew 1:18-24)

The title is a little bit of a cheat. The movie from a few years ago was called There's Something About Mary, and it didn't have anything to do with the Nativity or the birth of Jesus.

Which sometimes happens in reverse during Advent when we focus on the story -- because we spend a lot of time considering Mary and her agreement to bear God's son. And then we focus a lot on Mary and the baby Jesus. None of these are bad things to consider. Mary's obedience in the face of serious risk to herself and her reputation is a good model for us and offers us reasons to admire her character. And when a baby is born, we focus on the connection between the child and the mother, because physically that connection is a natural one to see.

But leaving Joseph out of things, even by accident, is not a productive path in studying how to follow God, because he offers us a good model as well. His actions also speak of a character worth our admiration and worth emulating.

Like Mary, Joseph learns of the coming child's divine origins from a heavenly messenger. But his messenger appears to him in a dream and happens after the conception has already taken place. Which means he has to deal with the reality of a fianceé apparently pregnant by another man. In our day and time that kind of infidelity is still looked down on (although there's probably a Showtime series in development that will help us accept it as a part of the "new normal" in behavior). But in Joseph and Mary's culture, the matter was much more serious.

People who committed adultery shamed two families -- their own and the family of the spouse to whom they were unfaithful. They insulted their in-laws with their disrespect of their spouses and they shamed their own family with their oath-breaking and lack of self-control. Today we read now and again of societies so backward they feel only death can cleanse these stains. These "honor killings" happen when someone -- usually a woman; remember these cultures are backward and consider women the problem -- has acted in some way that's considered to be the same thing as adultery, even if actual adultery never happens.

The law of Moses did include the penalty of death for adultery, although it didn't single out the woman. The man was also liable to be executed. Joseph, on learning that Mary was pregnant, could have publicly accused her of adultery with her pregnancy as his evidence, combined with his testimony that they had never consummated their marriage. She would have been stoned to death; which means people would have thrown rocks at her until she died. That was rarely quickly done, and Mary faced an awful death. Joseph's honor was considered to have a right to such a death for her.

But Joseph doesn't think that way. Although I'm sure that he feels shock, hurt and anger at this news, he apparently comes to understand that Mary's death won't heal anything that's gone wrong for him. We might say Joseph's honor is strong enough it needs no bloodshed to remain intact, at least in his view of it. So he planned to quietly end the betrothal, perhaps thinking that Mary can then marry the father of her child and things can come to an end.

And that's when the angel comes to him in a dream. Once Joseph has decided that mercy is more important than justice and judgment, God tells him what has actually happened: Mary's pregnancy is not from adultery but from the Holy Spirit. Marrying her will not make him unrighteous in God's sight and he will not risk God's displeasure if he does.

The messenger could have come when Joseph's dominant feelings were hurt and anger (as we know must have happened at some point in the story, whether Matthew describes them or not). The news of the Holy Spirit's role would have stayed that anger and healed that hurt, I imagine. But they might have also prompted Joseph to resent what had happened to him -- he was the only one onstage who didn't realize he was playing a part: "Would have been nice to have known about this before I agreed to the wedding, ya think?"

Either way, we see God's messenger come to Joseph after he has decided to take the path not of vengeance or justice, but of mercy. Only after he has decided he can be at some kind of peace with what has happened does the angel tell him everything's OK.

We know God does come to people in times of despair and offer hope, and we read about his words to angry people calming them with his counsel. But sometimes the right time for God's presence -- his grace -- isn't in the middle of something but afterwards. We may not know when or how it happens. To us, it may seem completely unexpected when it does.

But according to what God knows, it happens at exactly the right time. Joseph's dream might have happened at a time when it might have seemed more useful to him, at least as we read the story. Instead, it happened when he demonstrated the kind of character God wanted in the man who would help raise his son; the man whose image would appear in the human mind of that son when he said the word "Father."

God is, after all, the God of all things. Including timing.