Sunday, November 27, 2011

song of hope - 1st sunday of advent

These are the final words of the Hebrew scripture:

Malachi 4:5-6

5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Israel had survived exile, returned to Jerusalem, rebuilt the temple, and reestablished worship in the holy city. But, by the time of Malachi, they had grown, not wicked or rebellious, but apathetic and hopeless. In this short book (only 4 chapters) we read God’s final words to his people. We read his final prophetic utterance of the old covenant. God speaks and is then silent for 400 years. Like most of the Old Testament books of prophecy, there are warnings and correction. There is a call to change. But, Malachi ends with hope. Malachi ends with a promise. God makes a promise… and then God is silent.

400 years later, Israel is occupied, as is much of the known world, by Rome. There was an old Jewish priest named Zechariah who was descended directly from Aaron, the brother of Moses. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were devout and devoted to God and the Gospel of Luke tells us that they were “upright in the sight of God”. Luke also tells us that this old couple had no children as Elizabeth had never been able to conceive a child.

In those days, temple duties rotated by family and Zechariah was charged with burning incense inside the temple as the gathered worshippers prayed outside. While performing his tasks, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah (which scared Zechariah Spitless!) and said:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth…

… He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

If you know this story you know that Zechariah expressed what would have seemed a healthy dose of skepticism and asked, simply, “How can I know this is true?” He also reminded Gabriel that both he and Elizabeth were not getting any younger and that the whole story seemed a bit tough to swallow.

Gabriel’s answer to Zechariah’s “how can I know?” is exactly what I would have said… you know… if I were an Arc Angel… Gabriel essentially says “Duh… I am Gabriel… I stand in the presence of God…”

Oh… right… ok… sorry…

Then Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will be unable to speak, not a word, until the child is born.

Zechariah completes his temple rotation (in silence) and Goes home to Elizabeth who, soon after, discovers that she is pregnant. Over the coming months, Elizabeth remained in seclusion and is later visited by her cousin Mary who, as it happens, is also pregnant.

Finally the time comes for Elizabeth to give birth. The baby boy is born and their friends and neighbors shared their good wishes with the family. On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the boy and publically name him. Most everyone assumed that he would be named after his father, Zechariah but Elizabeth protests. To settle the issue, Zechariah is given a writing tablet upon which he writes: HIS NAME IS JOHN.

And then Zechariah’s voice returned… and he sang!

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[c] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
At the end of Malachi, God speaks a promise and is then silent for 400 years. And then, 400 years later, he speaks the promise again, the same promise, to a humble and devout priest… and the priest is silent.

Hope is not found in our speaking, in our singing, in our words. Hope is found in silence; in listening for a voice that does not speak and then trusting in the silence. God spoke and then he ceased speaking but He was not absent; he was not idle. In his silence he began the work of preparation, of gestation, of preparing creation for the birth of hope.

Conception begins in passion, it is drama and life and excitement and fireworks. But then, the mystery takes over. The silence begins. The miracle of life that is set in action with such passion becomes a silent time of waiting; a time of anticipation; of hope. And life grows and becomes and is made ready… in silence.

Hoping is not wishing. We confuse the two fairly often but they are very different. A wish has a specific object. We create “wish lists” for Christmas. We make a wish when we blow out the candles on a birthday cake. When we make a wish, we wish for something. It can be noble or incredibly selfish but it is always specific. Hope is so much more; so much deeper. Hope is a thing that, when we most truly experience it, often has no tangible object; no thing we can name. While wishes often do not come true it is only lost hope that leads us to despair. A wish needs to be articulated or written down. Hope is often hidden… it is more fragile and more precious. And it is silent in the waiting.

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” ~Vaclav Havel
‘The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen’ ~thomas merton
God spoke and then God was silent. And creation hoped. Creation groaned. Creation waited.

In the early stages of pregnancy, there is not a lot of visible activity. Many of us wait months to even tell our friends or families that we are expecting. But, as the due date approaches, the signs become more clear, the change more dramatic. And hope grows stronger… more real… more visible. After 400 years of silent and un-noticed growth, the hope of God’s promise began to “show”. The signs of eminent birth became visible. And creation, who had carried this hope, began to feel the first subtle and then more pronounced kicking of hope, ready to be born.

Zechariah watched as his son grew inside his wife’s body. He watched in silence. He waited. And when the son came and he looked into his eyes, his silence turned to song and his waiting was over. So, within a matter of weeks, would God’s silence end as he looked into the eyes of his own son and sent his own song, in the voices of angels, to proclaim that hope had finally come.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

smile! god hates you.

“There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.” ~Jonathan Edwards

Today’s scripture passages were, to say the least, challenging. In Malachi; God rebukes and curses the priests and vows to smear dung on their faces. I was understandably less than enthusiastic regarding this pronouncement. And so; I flip over to the new testament passage in Revelation to find horse; bridle deep in blood from the proverbial “Grapes of Wrath”.

OK. So God is angry. God is mad.

I guess I should not be surprised. Every natural disaster - every hurricane, tsunami, earthquake – is explained by various prophets and preachers as the natural and expected outpouring of God’s wrath. I am not surprised but I am confused.

God destroys most of Haiti because of a generations old “Pact with the Devil”. God allowed or possibly even caused New Orleans to be ravaged by hurricane Katrina in order to prepare or for another terror attack or possibly to prompt the confirmation of a particular Supreme Court nominee. And yet; No natural disaster has stopped genocide in Rwanda. No earthquake has swallowed the evil in Darfur. And the state of Pennsylvania, or at least Penn State University, remains safe and untouched.

So we struggle with the idea of an angry God. We struggle because, if he is angry, it seems that he is, at very least, somewhat arbitrary in the way he rations out his wrath.

Many of us learned very early that god was angry and that his anger was more than justified. I opened with an excerpt from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. The sermon was given on July 8, 1741. Let me read the quote again:
“There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.” ~Jonathan Edwards
Most of us look back at these words, spoken 270 years ago, and smile that we have risen above this view of God. That we have gained considerable ground in those almost 300 years and that, while historically important, Edwards’ sermon has not footing in 21st century mainstream Christendom.

I want to read another quote. A quote made more recently; within the last few months rather than the last few centuries.
“Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is “meritous” (not an actual word). He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”
You might assume that this quote was taken from a fringe, outside-the-mainstream, preacher. Maybe the pastor in Florida who wanted to burn the Koran or the pastor in Oklahoma who protests at the funerals of veterans. The quote comes, in fact, from a very mainstream and very popular pastor; the pastor of a very young, hip church in a very hip city; a church of 10,000 plus members and several church plants; a bestselling Christian author and highly in demand speaker; the poster boy for young, hip, cool evangelicals.

The idea of an angry God is central to many, if not most of our teachings on salivation or atonement. Most of us were taught that there was this gulf between us and god – a gulf that burned with his anger toward his creation. Anger toward each and every one of us. And that we are saved, not so much because we were forgiven but because God decided to pour ALL of that anger out on his own son… on Jesus. (well… all except what he saved for Haiti and New Orleans).

My favorite theologian, N.T. Wright has written recently about the atonement and how our theology is a bit off point. Let me read from his response to a recent question on the topic of atonement and God’s anger.
“If you say Christ died in our place and took our penalty and our punishment, that’s fine. But if the narrative that you have in mind is of a malevolent, capricious, angry God who is determined to punish somebody for all this sin that’s going on, and, ah! here’s somebody who happens to be his own Son, right, he’ll do, we’ll punish him and then the rest of you can go free—that story radically distorts the beautiful biblical meaning of substitionary atonement.

Now I deliberately caricature to make the point. But substutionary atonement which is so central to justification means what it means within the biblical story, which is not that rather arbitrary angry God, determined to take it out on somebody, and it just happens to be an innocent victim. I’m not surprised that when people hear the story told like that, they often react against it”  ~N.T. Wright
You guys remember the old Saturday Night Live bit, “Deep Thoughts, by: Jack Handy”? One of my favorites was this pearl:
If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is "God is crying." And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is "Probably because of something you did."
It’s funny because we know two things about the statement. First; that it is so - very - wrong. And second; that it is pretty close to what most of us have and, maybe on some level, still believe.

Again, Tom Wright:
“This is what happens when people present over-simple stories… …with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’.” ~N.T. Wright

I don’t pretend that scripture does not fully express God’s anger or His wrath. I would not suggest that these elements of his nature are false or that he has changed. I simply say this: that He is most fully and completely revealed in Jesus. In Christ we see Him fully for the first time. This is why Jesus said “if you have seen me, you have seen the father”. And so, all of God’s story, all of his character, all of what can be known of Him must be filtered through the gospels and through the person Jesus.

When we embrace and embolden ourselves with the angry God, we give ourselves license to be angry. When we embrace a God who hates, we are then able to justify our own hatred. We use this Anne Lamott quote a lot around here:

“You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

A God who hates releases us to hate. To hate anything other – anything we do not understand, anyone who looks or behaves, or believes differently - Anyone not like us.

Kris Kristofferson wrote a song in the early 70s entitled “Jesus Was a Capricorn” 

Jesus was a Capricorn, he ate organic foods.
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes.
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends.
Reckon they'd just nail him up if He come down again. 
'Cos everybody's got to have somebody to look down on.
Who they can feel better than at anytime they please.
Someone doin' somethin' dirty, decent folks can frown on.
If you can't find nobody else, then help yourself to me. 
Egg Head's cussin Red Neck's cussin' hippies for their hair.
Others laugh at straights who laugh at freaks who laugh at squares.
Some folks hate the whites who hate the blacks who hate the clan.
Most of us hate anything that we don't understand.

May we be a people who throw away hatred and embrace love. May we be a community where hate and anger find no ground fertile enough to grow. May we remember that Jesus came, not because God hated the world, but because he loved it… and because we are loved may we love the world, both inside and outside our own tribe. His Kingdom Come…