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The Psalms reveal human emotions in all their rawness. They are a unique part of the Bible. In most of the Bible we try to listen to what the Spirit is saying to us through the writers of scripture. In the Psalms we can listen for God’s voice but we can also use those poetic hymns and cries of the heart to give us words to express our spiritual longings, fears and hopes.
Psalm 27 is a rich source for us to ponder and use. It is a hymn or prayer that includes both confidence in God’s presence and shelter as well as anxiety over not sensing that presence. That pretty well sums up many of our spiritual predicaments. We are a combination of faith and anxiety. We move between those two poles.
In this Psalm we see that the author is dealing with his fear. When someone writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” we know that fear is on his mind. One commentator has this wonderful quote that pretty much captures how many of us deal with our fears. He writes, “Courage is a fragile vessel floating upon the abyss of fear.” Sometimes it is all we can do to pump ourselves up to be courageous when fear lurks close at hand. That is what this Psalm appears to be doing. It sounds so confident, but then the anxiety and fear creep in.
Much of the Bible, and particularly the Gospels, encourages us to come to grips with our fears and anxiety. Fear really is the enemy of faith and trust, not doubt. Many feel guilty about their doubts, thinking they are not good Christians because of them. Doubts are natural, especially for any thinking person. Jesus does not seem to feel too worried about the disciples who doubt. Even after the resurrection we are told some of his closest followers doubted. They were still given the commission to go out and make disciples of other people.
Fear is another issue altogether. It leads to terrible decisions. It makes us overly protective and suspicious of others. It can make us defensive. At its worst it can lead to unnecessary violence because those who are fearful feel vulnerable. They think the only way they will be safe is to destroy those who threaten them.
Sadly, fear and anxiety are rampant in our world and our American culture. So many people are on medication trying to help them function in spite of their anxieties. We are left with this question: how can our spiritual lives help us deal with anxiety and fear?
Psalm 27 can teach us. The Psalmist writes, as I quoted before, “The Lord is my light. . .” Scholars tell us this is an unusual way to talk about God. In fact, this is the only place in all the Old Testament where God is referred to as “my light.” We read about God shining light into our darkness, but here God is called light. This is a very personal connection with God that is being expressed. The author dearly desires to seek God’s face, to experience God’s presence. When he/she can do this, fears are held at bay.
One of the places the Psalmist experiences God is in worship. He says the one thing he will seek after is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of his life. While this is probably not meant to be taken literally, it is an interesting idea to ponder. How do we live, however metaphorically that is meant, in God’s house all of our lives? What do we do to reinforce our connection with God?
This Psalm mentions worship,and then instruction and inquiry as crucial to living in the house of God. Find a community that speaks the language of your heart and worship. Don’t rely on a childish understanding of God and then think it will see you through tough times. So many Christians never continue to grow and mature in their faith. They are stuck in a grade school understanding of God and then wonder why that cannot sustain them when life gets messy. Keep asking questions, says this Psalm. Keep inquiring, whether that be in prayer or in a discussion with another.
I have come to realize the value of a good question, a question that does not lend itself to an easy answer or even any answer. A good question can satisfy my spiritual journey for a long time. When we are comfortable with questions we can’t answer, we are not afraid to let some sacred belief drop by the wayside as we reconfigure how we look at God and our understanding of how we relate to God’s Spirit.
What is fascinating about this Psalm, says another commentator, is that God’s invisible presence is more solid for the Psalmist than visible enemies in “the power of their threat, assault, and false witness.” God’s shelter is more real than outside threats.
Because God’s presence is so real, though invisible, the Psalmist can deal with his fears without resorting to violence. It is interesting that this Psalm does not ask God to destroy his enemies. No, the author is content to seek shelter in God’s presence, comfort in God’s light, and hope in God’s salvation. Sure, he hopes those enemies will stumble and fall, but there is a lack of vindictiveness in this Psalm that I find refreshing. That is certainly not true of other Psalms.
Psalm 27 ends urging us to be strong, take courage and wait for God. The Hebrew word translated wait can also carry the connotation of trust or hope in God. The Jerusalem Bible translates verse fourteen this way, “Put your hope in (God), be strong, let your heart be bold, put your hope in (God).”
We are not just being told to be patient and wait for God to be present. It is more we are told to trust in God’s invisible presence right now. Be aware of it in the midst of our fears. God is always present. It is just that our fears can blind us to that presence.
Andrew Nagy-Benson, a UCC pastor in Connecticut, says this Psalm reminds him of a recent funeral service. He said the “ten-year-old granddaughter of the departed stood in the chancel before family and friends. She sang Robert Lowry’s ‘My Life Flows On in Endless Song.”
Part of it goes like this: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation, I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; It finds an echo in my soul-how can I keep from singing?”
I find that hymn incredibly touching. All of our lives are a journey with ups and downs. We will know exquisite joys and devastating heart-ache. Being a Christian will not protect us from tough times. The issue is: how will we deal with all that breaks our hearts or causes us to be anxious or fearful? What practices have we nurtured that will help us feel the music of God’s presence echoing in our souls?
When God whispers, so to speak, in our hearts calling us to seek God’s face, how will we respond?
First words out of the mouth of one of the characters in a novel or gospel are critical. They set the stage for what is to follow. They give us a first impression about the agenda of the person speaking. In John’s Gospel the first words out of the mouth of Jesus are, “What are you looking for?” This is followed up with, “Come and see,” in his response to the disciples’ question.
Jesus addresses that question to those first two who followed him, but John most certainly intends for that question to be addressed to his readers, including us. What are we looking for in life? To answer that question is to disclose much about who we are and the trajectory our lives will take.
What are you looking for? When I looked at this passage six years ago I came up with some possibilities people might say: health, riches or financial security, safety, power, happiness, a spouse or special friend, sexual satisfaction, stock tips, prestige or fame, a sense of purpose or calling, a stronger faith. There are a whole host of possibilities. The answer we give to that question is critical. It is a question that comes up again and again at various stages in our lives.
One commentator said the enterprise of life is an exploration into God. He says some of us enter that enterprise as tourists or sightseers, others as adventurers, and still others as pilgrims. How would you describe your exploration into God? Are you a tourist who dabbles in your relationship with God? Do you give energy to it as long as it is interesting or captures your attention? What happens if this journey to God becomes difficult? Do we just go back to life as usual and take the first plane home from our little adventure with God?
The Gospel of John says we can answer Jesus’ question about what we are looking for by hanging out with Jesus, so to speak. That is what the disciples in chapter one do. Jesus says, “Come and see.” That is John’s version of “Follow me,” in this instance.
John says the disciples took Jesus up on his call to come and see. He writes,” they remained with him.” They abided with him is another way of putting it. John had already said the Spirit descended on Jesus and remained on him. That is what made Jesus such a great revealer of God in his life. The Spirit abided in him. To be in his presence felt like being in the presence of God.
One scholar says the order of “come and see” is critical. We need to come to Jesus first. We need to take a risk and spend time with him. We need to decide to follow him. It is only then that we have an epiphany of the divine. It is only then that we see him clearly.
Being a Christian is not having all our questions answered before we make a commitment. It is coming with all of our questions and taking a risk. It is entering on an adventure of faith where the future is not known. It is only in taking the first step and trusting the one who calls us that we begin to see more clearly the purpose of our lives, what we are looking for.
John says be careful here. If you truly come and remain you will be changed. The way the Bible shows us that people change is when they are given a new name. In our passage Andrew’s brother Simon is given a new name, Peter.
We have come to see Peter as a normal name. Many name their baby boy Peter. But back in Jesus’ day that was not a normal name. People did not name their sons Peter or Cephas (the Hebrew form of Peter). One commentator said it would be like calling our child dirt, or tree. It was a very odd nickname. Surely it got the attention of those first readers. What would Simon be like with this odd nickname?
We can’t help but ask ourselves whether our faith has changed us enough to require a name change. Are we different people because we have journeyed into this exploration into God? Could anyone tell we are different? Do we even want to be different?
Certainly when those first disciples remained with Jesus they started acting more like him. See what Philip says a few verses after our passage. John writes, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see..’”
Philip is imitating Jesus. When we remain with Jesus through thick and thin in this exploration into God, we begin to look, act, and speak more like him. Rodger Nishioka, one of our Meekhof lecturers a couple of years ago, says that Jesus might be a difficult role model. After all, we say that in Jesus we experience God. Most of us don’t reveal God in our lives as clearly as did Jesus.
Rodger says a better role model might be John the Baptist. He says, somewhat tongue in cheek, that instead of asking ourselves WWJD? (What would Jesus do?) as a popular movement not long ago promoted, we would do better to ask ourselves, WWJBD? (What would John the Baptist do?). John is much more accessible.
When you take a close look at John we see someone who saw his life as preparing others to encounter the Messiah. He says twice he did not know who that Messiah would be. He was acting in the dark, in other words. He did not have all the answers, or even the most important answer to his life’s purpose. He just patiently went about baptizing folks and asking them to repent.
It was not until the Spirit descended on Jesus that John knew who the Messiah was. It was not until he had this spiritual experience that he could name Jesus as the Lamb of God. The other gospels talk about Jesus having a spiritual experience at his baptism. Mark even hints that this was the time Jesus saw himself as God’s son in a special way. But in John’s gospel Jesus’ baptism was more for John the Baptist’s benefit.
When John sees clearly who Jesus is he sends his own disciples to follow Jesus. And when they see who Jesus is, they go out to tell others. This is a chain event the gospel of John is describing. It goes from John the Baptist to Andrew, and then to Simon. It causes us to ponder. Who turned us on to the search for God in Christ? Who are we inviting by our lives and invitation?
When we come and see, when we remain with Jesus in our spiritual practices, our prayer or meditation lives, we get a glimpse of what the Christian life is all about. Another of our Meekhof Lecturers, Susan Andrews, says that our faith journey begins with curiosity rooted in companionship that leads to commitment. This colors how we see life and our faith journey.
She puts it this way. Christianity is not an idea it is a life style. It is not a destination, it is a journey. It is not a product, it is process. It not routine but a relationship. And finally it is not an individual endeavor, it is all about community.
Those are very helpful distinctions for us to contemplate. It all begins with our attempting to answer Jesus’ question, “What are you looking for?” It continues with our response to his call to “Come and see.” It ends with a changed life, a richer life, a life built for an adventure. What are you looking for? Amen
Houston Smith once had a PBS series on the world religions called “The Long Search.” That title pretty accurately describes many of our spiritual lives and our journeys of faith. We are on a long search for God, for an experience of the holy, an experience that will lift us above the mundane aspects of our lives that seldom inspire.
Herb O’Driscoll says the greatest of journeys is the journey to God. He describes this journey as a kind of inner spiritual travelling to Jesus. Our Matthew text, a familiar one about the Magi travelling to Jesus, can be a useful passage for our own journeys to Jesus. It is a rich text with hints for us as we negotiate all the twists and turns of that journey.
As the Magi arrive at Jerusalem they encounter Herod, the one who thought he was the true king of the Jews. As we know, Herod was a ruthless leader and very paranoid. He pretends to be interested in the Magis’ journey. His real motives are not so benign. He wants to use them to find this threat to his throne. Certainly if the Magi found Jesus and returned to Herod their fate would be uncertain at best. He would probably end their journey before they could get home.
O’Driscoll says Herod is a symbol for all that might disrupt our spiritual journey. He mentions a few things like a preoccupation with business and work, weariness, depression, anxiety, or cynicism. Certainly most of us can relate to those realities. Some of them may have disrupted our inner journeys to God at one time or another.
All of this is to say this spiritual journey is a tough one. It will draw on all our imagination, courage and patience that we can muster. It will require us to plow through many distractions. It will require that we don’t let doubts discourage us, or be an excuse to just give up on the journey.
Let us, this morning, attend to the Magis’ journey and see what we can learn from them. They started this long search for the Jewish king because they had paid great attention to nature and the stars. Could Matthew be affirming that God’s handiwork in nature might be an avenue to pursue God? I certainly think that could be possible.
Many people have found nature to be a good teacher and a pathway into an experience of the holy. Those who, with care, pay attention to their physical surroundings can find themselves looking at life in a deeper way. There are places on this earth that have become holy ground for me. Just being there brings me closer to God.
But, notice, following the star, paying attention to nature, did not finally get the Magi to Jesus. Walter Brueggemann says the Magi missed Bethlehem by nine miles. He goes on to say that many of us look for God in the wrong places. Nature is helpful, but sometimes it falls short as a complete guide to God.
The Magi finally get good advice from the chief priests and scribes as they read and interpreted the scriptures. Matthew is saying scripture can be a very helpful guide on our journey to Jesus. While that is very true, scripture is a complicated, and sometimes ambiguous, guide.
Scripture can be used to reinforce prejudices. We’ve seen many sad, and even disgusting, examples of this among Christians down through the years. Some Christians have read scripture to prop up slavery, the oppression of women, hate for homosexuals, and to degenerate earnest believers of other faiths. We must be careful with how we use scripture on our spiritual journeys.
Note, as well, how those who knew the scriptures did not let their knowledge lead them to Jesus. Just being able to quote scripture, be a regular worship attender, and even be in leadership in a religious institution is no guarantee of a willingness to do the hard, and sometimes risky, work of traveling to God. Still, scripture is a valuable guide in our inner spiritual journeys.
Another commentator says we need to pay attention to the Magi once they finally get to Bethlehem and Jesus. Matthew says they pay Jesus homage. They worship him. This commentator says the life of faith is all about finding someone worthy of our worship. He goes on to say it is important to note that the Magi did not give gifts and then worship. No, they worshiped first and this resulted in giving gifts. That is the correct order. Our gift giving in church comes out of being touched by something, someone worthy of our worship. We know our lives are richer as a result of this encounter and the only genuine response is giving back.
This gift giving is a symbol of something more than just offering gold, frankincense and myrrh. When we have a true encounter with the holy, it drives us to reorganize our priorities, our possessions, and maybe even our politics. This journey to God is not always safe. We may be changed. We may find ourselves journeying in our lives by another road. You can’t go back to life as usual if you have a genuine encounter with God. The Magi returned home by another road, and so will we.
Joan Chittister, one of my favorite spiritual mentors, once said the real question is not how many Magi were there. We have come to believe there were three, but Matthew does not say. We have even given them names. But Chittister says that is not the real question. The real question is: how many Magi set out on this spiritual journey but never made it?
It is tough to keep journeying toward God. Many have given up. They settle for life as usual. They get lost in all the cares of the world that can suck the joy of life right out of you. We need to encourage one another on our spiritual journeys. We need to seek nurturing experiences whenever we have an opportunity. Certainly a regular time of prayer or meditation is helpful. Sacraments, like the one we will partake of this morning, are also helpful. They remind us that the holy is often hidden in the ordinary.
As we enter this new calendar year, I urge each of us to keep at this long search, this inner traveling to God we know in Christ. Let us give some of our best energies to this journey. Let us glean what we can from nature and from scripture. Let us not give up until we find something, someone worthy of our worship. And then may the joy we experience at finding what we have been searching for lead to acts of generosity and compassion. Amen
Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2: 1-20
Christmas Eve. This is an emotion-packed night. We bring many complicated feelings to this time of the year, and to this service. The Christmas season, and especially this Holy night brings back so many memories, so many issues that crowd our heads and hearts for attention.
Some of us come with warm memories of Christmases past. This night is filled with the sights, sounds, and smells that make us feel warm inside and very happy. It is one of the best nights of the year as we anticipate gift giving and receiving, family reunions, and great food. Maybe some of you have the tradition of watching a favorite old Christmas movie like Elf or It’s a Wonderful Life. Others of us look forward to just taking a nap by the fire as we listen to Christmas music or the music of the voices of the ones we love talking, laughing and telling stories.
Some of us dread this season where so many seem so happy and we wish we could be happy ourselves. We dearly miss a loved one who has died. We can only see the empty chair at the table or in the circle around the tree that should have been filled with a spouse, child, or grandparent. Some of us have bitter feelings about this season due to not having enough funds to buy the gifts we want because of unemployment or under employment. Some of us grieve the brokenness in our families causing estrangement, and silence when we wish the phone would ring.
Regardless of how we are feeling, we bring our happy and our messy selves to this service as we listen to very familiar texts in Isaiah and Luke. If we listen carefully, we see that these texts understand our emotions. They, too, are filled with people like us who know joy and hope, but also fear, and hard circumstances. So, this Christmas Eve let us look at the people in our text, their feelings and responses on that first Christmas.
All of the main characters in our Luke passage know what hard living is like. Mary gave birth in very uncomfortable circumstances because there was no room for her in the inn. Jesus was homeless at his birth and would grow up to live a life where there was no place to lay his head.
The shepherds, the first witnesses to the birth of the Christ, were also homeless in their own way. We tend to move quickly over what Luke says about them in verse eight. He writes, “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields. . .” This kind of living is far removed from our romantic notions of camping out. There were no bathrooms or showers in the fields. It was cold. They were smelly as only those homeless can be when they don’t have a place to clean up. It was these homeless men who were given a very prominent place in Luke’s gospel. This is a gospel for the homeless, for those polite society would reject.
Then there is the emotion of fear. One commentary says the word translated here as fear or awe is all about the recognition of the limits of human understanding and power before God. The shepherds were out of their depth and they knew it.
We are told that there was a belief in that time that said when God comes to earth, the unrighteous will be judged and destroyed. Certainly if the shepherds felt that the angel represented God’s presence they had reason to be afraid. Most shepherds were not respectable people. But that fear was calmed by the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
They may have stopped being afraid, but awe remained. Awe is sorely lacking in our day. We think we know it all. We think we are in control and can protect ourselves from almost anything that might come down the pike. It is not until a tornado hits, or an earthquake, that we realize we aren’t in control all that much. Luke is saying when God’s presence makes an entrance in our world, it is like an earthquake. His gospel is an invitation to accept our limited knowledge and allow awe, wonder, amazement, and joy space to be felt.
Finally there is that very interesting word, “pondered”. Luke says, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Commentators tell us pondered means considering but not necessarily understanding. Does that not capture how we encounter the holy in our lives?
Mary is our role model in Luke. She accepts her pregnancy which she did not fully understand. She gives birth and is visited by these scruffy shepherds with words she does not fully comprehend. We, too, hear these fantastical stories in the Bible of a virgin birth, of endless peace, and light shining into our darkness and are left with hope tinged with doubt. Could it be true? Dare we risk our hopes being disappointed? Luke says to us, maybe the best thing we can do is just ponder these mysteries. Don’t dismiss them out of hand. Make space in your hearts to let the seeds of hope and joy grow.
Fred Craddock wonders why there were angels in the fields with the shepherds but no angels in the stable where Mary was giving birth in less than ideal conditions. He concludes, “Faith is usually one angel short, left to ponder these things in the heart.”
I suspect that is our experience of faith as well. Where are the angels when we need them? But, instead of focusing on what we don’t have, on all the ways that lead to doubt and cynicism in the face of Biblical stories and promises, maybe we can learn to ponder a bit more. Maybe we can let awe overtake our arrogance. Maybe then joy and amazement will have a chance to surface in dark times.
When Martin Luther preached at Christmas in 1531 he preached on Luke in the morning but moved to preach on our Isaiah passage in the afternoon service. As one scholar notes, “He told them that they would not hear (the Christmas story) again; rather, they would learn how to make use of it. Luther then turned to the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.’”
It is significant that Isaiah always seems to tie words about God’s deliverance of the oppressed with talk of a baby. Commentators tell us Isaiah wanted to show how God’s power is often expressed in weakness. If our hope for deliverance and justice is a baby, then we realize we are going to have to help. These wonderful words of hope we read every Christmas in Luke and Isaiah are not just something dropped into our laps. We have a part to play.
May we accept all the emotions we bring to this service and not run from them. May we also commit ourselves to be part of the solution, part of the realization of the astounding, perplexing words of hope we so cherish. May our pondering lead us to work for peace with justice in our world. Merry Christmas. Amen
Isaiah 35:1-10 and Luke 1:46b-55
Here we are at the third Sunday of Advent. This season is moving along all too quickly! This third Sunday is known as Gaudete, or Rejoice, Sunday. Both our texts for today speak of joy and rejoicing. What is amazing is they can rejoice, they can compose these wonderful hymns to hope and joy, in the midst of very bleak circumstances.
Isaiah was speaking to captives in exile. The Jews had been ripped from their homeland and brought to a foreign country by Babylon. Some of the people were literally blinded by their captors. That lends a particular poignancy to Isaiah’s words about the hope of the eyes of the blind being opened.
Mary’s Magnificat is sung in the context of a poor Jewish girl living in an occupied country. The Romans could be very cruel to the Jewish people. Not only that, but Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. This would not be an easy time for her. She would be subjected to all kinds of ridicule. She could very easily be rejected by her husband-to-be, Joseph. Yet, in the midst of this hard situation comes this powerful hymn to hope and joy.
We who read these passages long after they were composed know that the hopes their songs capture have never been fully realized. While we live in a world where the lame and the hard of hearing have good medical care; where it is safe to travel on well-lighted roads without fear of being eaten by lions; we still live in a world that knows terrible violence. We live in a world where heartache is felt on both global and personal levels. The peaceable kingdom has not become a reality.
The question for us is: what are we to do with these passages of outrageous hope? Are we to dismiss them as naïve? Are they just a cruel carrot for those who are hurting, promising better times that most likely won’t come? Should we give in to cynicism?
What if we decide to be people of hope? What if we commit ourselves to working to make that peaceable kingdom more of a reality? What if we give our energies to end war as a strategy to defeat evil? What if we work to pass legislation that confronts income disparity where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation becomes unstable as a result?
One of the ways we can do this is to remember and point out all those moments in our lives and in recent history when the impossible became a reality. I am thinking of things like the Berlin Wall finally coming down. When I was younger that wall seemed awfully permanent.
How about the USSR finally breaking up and some of those republics becoming free from Moscow’s domination. That, too, seemed highly unlikely.
Certainly as we remember Nelson Mandela in these days following his death we can marvel at the miracle of his basically non-violent revolution in South Africa. The fact that he could leave prison after all those years and not seek vengeance on those who tormented him is almost beyond belief. Yet it was true and his actions are a shining beacon to all the world.
Advent comes at the darkest part of the year before the winter solstice. It is a time to remember our job as Christians is to shine a light into that darkness. It is a reminder that we must keep hope alive even when it seems naive to do so. We are people of hope.
We can do this on a grand scale as we push our politicians to work for peace, justice, and a budget that takes care of the most vulnerable in our society. We can push them to pass more restrictive gun laws. We can do this on a very small scale as we bring light to dark times in our lives and the lives of those we love.
I was touched this past week when I visited Frances Horner the day before he died. It was becoming apparent he did not have long to live. The family invited our pianist/organist, Jennifer Greene, to come to his room in the care home and sing to him.
Jennifer brought her little harp and sang old hymns. Frances’ favorite hymn was “It Is Well With My Soul.” When Jennifer played and sang it many of us present had tears in our eyes. Those words of deep faith and hope in the face of this dying man captured the essence of Advent for me. We can affirm even when death is near, “It is well with my soul.” Death will not have the final word.
At the lectionary class Peggy Felton reminded us of that great Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It is one of my favorites as well. It was written at a dark time in our country’s history. I am going to let some of the lyrics of this carol be the closing remarks of this sermon.
“The cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men. It was as if an earthquake rent the hearth-stones of a continent, and made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head; there is no peace on earth, I said; for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men! Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
While the language is not inclusive, still the message is stirring. We do not give up hope even in dark times, even when all seems lost. God is always present with us. That presence makes all kinds of improbable things possible. We can rejoice and be hopeful in dark times. That is the focus we cling to in Advent. Amen
Here we are at the second Sunday of Advent. As usual, on this Sunday, the lectionary presents us with that wild man, John the Baptist, the one with the funny clothes and questionable dietary choices. One commentator says this about John and his message: “Like a yapping little terrier, it nips relentlessly at our heels as we attempt to slide past the message to Christmas.” The trouble is, we can’t get past John. There is no getting to Christmas without going through John the Baptist.
Actually, he, and his message,are the perfect Advent focus. United Church of Christ pastor, Mark Yurs, reminds us that all true worship takes place in a wilderness, of sorts, where people can rethink their lives. He says that the sanctuary where we worship is the place we sit with our “fears, worries, responsibilities,” and where “people confront the howling winds, thorny brambles, and lonely emptinessess of their lives.” So it is appropriate to join John the Baptist in the wilderness this Sunday as we get ready for Christmas.
Another commentator says if we want renewal in our faith, “we must travel outside of holiday sounds, sights, and social events to the place in our lives where ‘wild things’ live in order for something new to be born.”
Both are getting at the same truth. Advent and wilderness go together. It is not that holiday sounds and sights are wrong. Enjoying holiday parties is certainly appropriate. But, if we want to take advantage of this season of preparation in order to grow in our faith, we will need to seek out and not be afraid of wilderness places, places removed from where we are totally in control. I am talking about literal places of wilderness as well as those wildernesses of the heart many of us know intimately.
John’s message in our passage for today is a call to repentance. It is a call to make room in our hearts for God’s presence to do the work that leads us to walk in another direction. After all, repentence is simply realizing we are walking in the wrong direction and then turning and going in another. It is recognizing that we have been walking away from Christ’s light and into the darkness, into places in our lives and hearts that do not lead to life. And when we recognize this, we should not wallow in guilt for all the stupid or mean things we have said or done. We just need to turn and walk in another direction.
Episcopalian priest, Suzanne Guthrie writes, “If the foundation of existence is God then everything about my life must change.” She says when we accept that God is that foundation then our job is to “orient my life so that I live in a way that accommodates God’s existence.” What would that look like in your life? What must we discard, or rearrange, in order to accommodate God’s presence?
John says when the one who is more powerful than him comes (referring to Jesus), he will burn all the chaff with unquenchable fire. When we discussed this in our lectionary class, someone said this passage is perfect for a fire and brimstone sermon. It sounds so harsh and judgmental.
I suspect that kind of sermon is the last thing people who come to worship during Advent want to hear. I know such a sermon would not be one I would seek out if I weren’t the one preaching! But, as tough as John’s words seem, they don’t have to lead to harsh judgement or fear of being sent to hell.
Many have seen these words about fire as a purifying image. They also see the words about the threshing floor separating the wheat from the chaff as a call to do some inner housecleaning. We are all a combination of wheat and chaff, so to speak. We all have parts of ourselves that can be referred to as chaff. We all have attitudes and behaviors that are not helpful and even harmful to ourselves and others.
Advent can be a time to do some introspection. What distracts us from spending time with the really important people and things in life? What worry about the future robs us of living fully in the present where God dwells? What guilt and grief from the past makes it impossible to live in the present with grace and freedom?
Especially in this season that pushes consumerism, always wanting more can be seen as chaff in some people’s lives. That’s an easy thing to point our fingers at and deplore as unhelpful. What about the more subtle things that get in the way? Could the need to be in control at all times be chaff in your life? For some an obsession with neatness, causing crankiness and criticism, gets in the way of enjoying fun, but messy times. Others nurse little sleights that sour relationships. All chaff. Perfectionist tendencies, as I have said so many times, are a common type of chaff we would do well to burn off.
The point is simple. Don’t waste this Advent season by avoiding inner housecleaning. Decorate your homes, to be sure, but clean out the chaff in your hearts at the same time.
Advent is also about a deep sense of longing for the world to be a better place. We long for peace in our violent world. We long for healed relationships. We long for things to be less hectic. Ultimately we long for God. We have to be careful with this longing. Another Episcopalian, vicar Rosalind Brown says, “It is rarely safe to long for God, and impossible if we are unwilling to be changed.”
When we create space for God to be born in us as God was born in the manger in Bethlehem long ago, we need to accept that when we are hospitable to God, our lives will change. We will cease to act like we are the center of the universe. We will do little acts that contribute to God’s Commonwealth becoming more of a reality in our homes and our communities.
It is no accident then, that Advent is not just linked to wilderness. It is also intimately linked to hospitality. Hospitality has been the theme of our kitchen campaign begun last spring and our stewardship drive this fall. It is a central biblical virtue. Hospitality urges us to welcome all in our worship service and at our tables, including our communion table. Hospitality recognizes there is no peace without justice.
I have been reading a little book called Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro. She says in Advent, “we are invited to practice a unique kind of hospitality with one another: the sort of hospitality that makes room for people to share the strange ways in which God is moving in their lives; the sort of hospitality that encourages people to put down wearisome baggage and trust God to fill their empty hands and hearts; the sort of hospitality that nurtures space for holy listening.”
I have to admit, I love Advent possibly even more than Christmas. Sure Christmas is wonderful, festive, and emotional as we light candles while singing “Silent Night” and other beloved carols The music is stirring. The smells are mesmerizing. It is fun to give and get gifts. It is hard to beat warm and fuzzy. But, there is something about the deep longing, the bitter/sweet ache that wishes things were better, more whole, less broken or strained that touches me on a deeper level than warm and fuzzy. Even the hard work of inner housecleaning, soul cleaning as it were, draws me in and captures my best instincts.
So, as this Advent progresses, let us not shy away from the wildernesses in our lives. Let us find those places far away from all that might distract us, and begin to sift through the chaff so that all that remains is the wheat, all that remains is our best instincts and our most hospitable selves. Let us remember John did not call his hearers to believe differently. He called them to bear fruit worthy of repentence. He called them to be hospitable to God so that they might be more hospitable to others. Amen
Luke’s Gospel has a unique take on Jesus’ life. He makes a connection with Jesus’ entry into this world at his birth with his exit at his death. When he is born in Bethlehem the only ones to greet him and pay homage are the lowly shepherds.
The First Testament used to talk about kings and even God as a shepherd. Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd. . .” To call someone a shepherd, then was to say they were king. But, by the time we get to Jesus’ day, the shepherds have become outcastes. They were considered ritually unclean and consequently they were unwelcome in the Temple. It must have been very surprising for Luke’s early readers to see that the ones to welcome Jesus were not important religious leaders or even respectable people. No, Luke gives that prominent role to the lowly shepherds.
Then at the end of Jesus’ life, on the cross, it is the despised criminal who is the only one to recognize Jesus as the true king. The religious leaders scoffed at him. The sign above his head: “This is the King of the Jews” was meant to be sarcastic and a cruel joke.
The soldiers, representing the secular power of Rome, mocked and teased him. They offered him sour wine in order to revive him so he could suffer some more. And the other criminal derided Jesus for not helping him. Surely if he was a true king he could do something. Instead it was the other criminal suffering with Jesus who recognized him and paid homage to him as king in his request to be remembered.
Jesus’ last conversation on earth, for Luke, is not with good religious people, not even with his disciples, but with this criminal. It is an amazing conversation to be sure. We have read it so many times it has lost some of the shock Luke must have intended.
Listen to how commentator, Lance Pape, an assistant professor of Homiletics at Brite Divinity School, describes this conversation:
“What Luke wants to show us about the peculiar sovereignty of Jesus, he communicates through a brief but remarkable conversation. Amid a chorus of mockers a lone voice, that of a condemned man hanging beside him, asks, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (v.42). This is preposterous. At that moment you could have searched the entire human realm and it would have been impossible to find two people with less earthly hope than these conversation partners. They were Jews in a Roman world. They were condemned criminals in a world of brutal and often arbitrary law. By any reasonable human standard they were finished. They had been cast outside the city wall, stripped of all possessions right down to their bare flesh, impaled with cold iron, and hung naked to suffocate and bleed out their last hours on earth as subhuman refuse. Every possible dignity was denied them. The only remaining use the world had for them was to make an example of them-to exact the greatest possible price of pain from their bodies, the greatest possible price of shame from their personalities, before they perished. In the end, they would hang torn and lifeless, a gruesome testimony to the power and brutality of the world that rejected them-a warning to any who questioned the authority of the powers that be. But the conversation Luke gives us is not one of despair. As they live their social death, as they stare physical death in the eye, these two speak of the future!”
Can you see how amazing this was? When we strip away all our preconceptions and try to read this passage as if for the first time, we can begin to see just how preposterous, just how wonderful is this little conversation. It is so much deeper than a story about a last minute conversion as some try to interpret it.
This is the focus of Christ the King Sunday. When we call Christ King and follow him, outlandish hope in the face of total hopelessness becomes possible. When we call Christ King we march to the beat of a different drummer. We follow the one who forgives his tormentors. We follow a king whose power is expressed in weakness. We follow a leader who does not protect himself but is willing to suffer for doing the right thing. That is so unlike many of our politicians today who are afraid to vote in a way that might not get them re-elected. This king puts others and the common good ahead of his own comfort and power.
Most amazing of all we follow a king who is a giver of surprising grace. When Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” we need to know he is not talking about heaven as we know it. Paradise, in that day, was the place of the righteous after death where they waited for the final resurrection. Jesus, then, was calling this criminal a righteous man. He was invited to rest in the place of the righteous along with all those respectable people who looked down on him. This would have offended people in that day. His calling him righteous was a matter of sheer grace. It was unearned. It came at the end of a troubled life of crime.
As we end this liturgical year we can see how the whole year builds to this affirmation: Christ is King and Caesar is not. It is an affirmation we can make today. I realize the king language is not comfortable for some. It does sound very paternalistic. But sometimes it catches the meaning of the scriptural hope in ways other language does not. So, we can say today Christ is king and all those powers and leaders in our day who seem so invincible are not. No, Christ is King. We follow a shepherd, we give our allegiance to a humble king as we try to live by his standards and ethics.
All are welcome in Christ’s Commonwealth. Grace abounds, even to those who have done nothing to earn it. Violence is condemned as a means to fight injustice. Hope is possible even in the bleakest of moments. For this we give thanks.
It is serendipitous on this Sunday before we celebrate Thanksgiving that we also celebrate Christ the King Sunday. As we give thanks for all the blessings in our lives, may we also recommit ourselves to follow the one the Bible calls the true shepherd, the true king. May we do our part to make the reign of Christ more visible in a world that can be so selfish and self-centered. Amen
What are we to make of this outlandish passage of hope in Isaiah? He even encourages us to forget the past. Aren’t we told that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it’s mistakes? But here in Isaiah we read, “the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.”
If that is not perplexing enough what about the rest of the passage? We read about a world where there will be no infant mortality; where people can expect to live to be 100 years old or feel cheated if they don’t. Isaiah then gives a vision of the peaceable kingdom, a kingdom that sees the wolf and the lamb feeding together, the lion not ravaging people and the snake not biting anyone. Really?
In a world where dictators butcher their own people, as in Syria; where devastating cyclones wreck whole cities and the lives of its citizens; where governments are dysfunctional, including our own; where school shootings are on the rise, and the NRA prevents any sensible gun laws; and where cancer seems to be running amok, affecting almost every family; in such a world, how can we read this passage of outlandish hope and not cynically dismiss it, or even laugh at it?
Let’s step back a moment. This part of Isaiah was written to those Israelites who had returned to their homeland from Babylon after Persia defeated the Babylonians. They returned to a land in a shambles. Their beloved temple built by Solomon was no more. Things were bleak. It seemed impossible to regain what had been lost.
Remember when they were taken into captivity others moved in and lived in their homes. Others ate the fruit of the crops they planted before being taken away. Many died in the battle with Babylon. Many children born in that time did not live into adulthood. These people knew the opposite of the hopes Isaiah wrote about.
It was tempting for them to give up and mourn their pathetic present. It was easy to nurse the hurts of the past, get stuck in their grief, anger, and, no doubt, desire for revenge. It was easy, as well, to remember how things were before they were defeated, and to wish it could be like that again. Nostalgia for the past usually forgets the whole story, but is sure feels better than a hard present.
Somehow they needed to put that past behind them. They needed to not remember the former things so they could be open to something different, something new, maybe even something better than their glorious past.
The first step for them, for us, is to believe something new can actually happen. And when they/we get a glimpse of something new, we will need to accept the changes. Being comfortable with change, even good change, is hard enough.
When I went back to my old seminary this past month, things were not the same. There was a new library in place of the old library in which I had spent hours studying, writing papers, and getting ready for tests. The old bookstore where I was the assistant manager was gone. Everything was online now. Things were different and I hated it!
Well, hated is a strong word. I was a bit disoriented and disappointed. While I still think getting rid of the bookstore, where one could go and actually thumb through books, and replace it with an online store was not a good move, I have to admit the new library was stunning. There were wonderful little reading nooks with comfortable chairs looking out on the campus through floor to ceiling windows. There were plug-ins everywhere for peoples’ computers. There were gracious meeting places for students and faculty to congregate. It was different, but I have to say, it was better.
Still, change is not always good news for those stuck in the past. No new creation can be embraced, however, unless one stops holding on to the former things. That’s the first step in believing something new can happen.
The next, and last step is even harder. It is to have a vision of a wonderful future and then work for it. That is why Isaiah’s outlandish passage of hope is important. It was an impossible ideal, but it showed the people a goal towards which to work. Their job was to ask themselves a simple question: what am I doing today to make that impossibly wonderful vision more of a reality than it is now? How am I creating room in my head and heart for God to work through me so that I can be a co-creator with God of that new creation?
I remember, as I have said several times this past year, when Sandy said she hoped money given in memory of her would be used to build a new kitchen. It seemed impossible. But two years later we are using that new kitchen. We are growing into being a more hospitable community because we have a kitchen that will better enable us to welcome others for a meal.
Hospitality has been the focus of our stewardship campaign this year. When we are hospitable we create a world more like the one Isaiah’s poem envisioned. It won’t happen all at once. It begins with simple little steps.
One of the commentators I read this week put it this way: “One book given, one friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of commendation, one confession of God’s presence but for the asking, one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person is a child of God: these acts accumulate within God’s grace.”
If we believe that, we can have hope even when the present seems bleak. One commentator said that hope helps us see there is a purpose to human history. Without hope this life we all share is just one darn thing after another. It can feel meaningless or absurd. We may never fully grasp the purpose of our collective history, but we desperately need to trust that our actions, our lives have meaning. We need to trust that we are about creating a better world than we inherited.
So, rather than laughing at Isaiah’s outlandish poem of hope, rather than giving up and being stuck in the past, let us take one step toward living into that hope. Let us commit to doing one action God might use to help create that kingdom where violence is no more, where children are safe, where all have a roof over their heads and are fed, where hospitality reigns. May our pledging this day be one of those steps. Amen
Let me tell you a story. Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee who prayed a typical Jewish prayer of gratitude similar to many passages out of the Psalms. He was very grateful for his lot in life. The other one was a tax collector who beat his breast, lamenting what a horrible person he was in a super humble way.
When they both left the Temple it was the Pharisee who goes home justified for his gratitude and proper Jewish prayer. The tax collector, who relied on his humility that he knows God loves, was rejected for his presumption. He was probably thinking, “Thank God I am not like that self-satisfied Pharisee!”
I stole that version of Jesus’ parable from a couple of the scholars I read this week. They wanted to help us not leap to easy conclusions as we read this very familiar parable. It’s easy for us to jump to the conclusion that the Pharisee is the bad guy. We have been pre-conditioned to see Pharisees in a poor light by how they are often presented in the gospels. That means we are tempted to root for the underdog tax collector. In doing that we miss Jesus’ point. We miss the shock the original hearers of this parable felt.
Listen to how Paul Duke, a pastor of the Kirkwood Baptist Church in Missouri understands this passage. I will quote him at length, since I can’t see any better way of getting his point across. He writes, “To see the Publican as honorable and the Pharisee as a creep makes the story false, curdles it to a dishonest (and easily anti-Semitic) morality tale and sends us straight into the trap of saying, ‘God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee!’ Better to see him as he is-a thoroughly decent, generous, committed man-and to see the Publican as a compromised, certified stinker.
” I know which character my church depends on. I know which one pays the bills, teaches the lesson, visits the sick, feeds the hungry. I’d love a churchful of people with his commitments-people who care enough to fast, people who tithe on all their income and who thank God that they can. As in Jesus’ day, it’s people like the Pharisee who hold the community together and keep the faith with diligence and passion. We can’t color him sinister. He’s not J.R. Ewing in a choir robe. He’s a better man than I am, and probably better than you.”
Duke reminds us we have made this parable into a cliché. We need to remember Jesus shocked his original hearers in telling this story. Pharisees were the admired liberals of his day. They would be the Newport Presbyterian type of Christians as opposed to the fundamentalists in our day. And the tax collectors would be the terrorists if Jesus told that parable today. They were absolutely hated, and for good reason. They were traitors working for the occupier Rome to collect taxes. They charged exhorbitant rates making money for themselves.
For Jesus to make the tax collector the one who left the Temple justified would have blown the minds of those first hearers of this parable. How could that be? How dare Jesus make the tax collector the one God seems to favor.
Where did the Pharisee go wrong? His prayer was very similar to other Jewish prayers of that day. Duke quotes other classic prayers: “I give you thanks, O Lord my God. . .that you have not set my portion with those who sit in street corners,” and “Praised be the God who did not make me a heathen. . .and who did not make me an uneducated man.”
No, this Pharisee was not doing anything wrong with his prayer of gratitude. But, as commenators are fond of saying, he went wrong when he stopped praying and started peeking. When he used the words “and even like this tax collector. . .” he was comparing himself to others in order to bolster his own esteem.
Sound familiar? What one of us has not done a similar thing. We compare how much we make to those who earn more or less. We compare how we look to those we think are prettier or more handsome. We compare our athletic ability, or any other skill we might have to those more, or less skillful. His comparison is painfully familiar to me. How about you?
When the Pharisee compared himself to the tax collector, he felt very justified in his own actions. In fact, he felt so justified he did not ask for anything from God. He did not ask for forgiveness and therefore was not forgiven.
Luke wants us to see that we are all flawed people. We are all in need of God’s grace. It is interesting to note that even the Pharisee could be seen as a tax collector. He was involved with the Temple tax where those in leadership in the Jewish community charged other Jews to keep up the Temple and to pay for the hierarchy. One scholar said the Temple tax could be as high as 21 to 23% of a farmer’s income. The tax Rome charged was on top of that. So, both men in the Temple in that parable were tax collectors of a sort.
Both, as another scholar points out, saw God as a rule giver. The Pharisee was a big rule follower in terms of fasting and tithing. He felt like he justified himself in his ability to follow the rules. The tax collector also saw God as a rule giver only he was not able or willing to follow the rules. Therefore he felt very bad about himself. He could not earn God’s love by his obedience to the rules.
Luke’s point in telling this parable is to say we can’t earn God’s love or grace by our rule following. There is nothing wrong with following rules. It certainly makes society run more smoothly. And, as Paul Duke says in his commentary, churches love folks who take their faith seriously and try to be obedient to the rules.
But the point is not about following rules in order to be loved. It is also not an instruction manual about how to pray as one commentator notes. We are not to follow the tax collector and beat our breasts in prayer. Interestingly many of us, like the tax collector, bow our heads and close our eyes when we pray. That posture in prayer may go back to passages in scripture like this. I know I was sternly warned when I was a kid not to open my eyes in prayer. To do so felt like a sin. I still feel a little guilty when I open my eyes when praying!
No, the point Jesus was shockingly making was that even this hated tax collector was loved by God. Grace is not earned but freely given. This is something church folks in our day need to remember. Many of us secretly think we can please God by our obedience, by our church attendance, by following the rules. The perfectionists among us especially struggle with this.
I read where the results of a poll taken in the 1980′s said that 72% of church members said they expected to go to heaven because of their goodness and humility! Some Christians still think trying to be a good Christian is all about getting a ticket into heaven because of what they believe or how they follow rules. Jesus’ message is far more radical and freeing than that.
Last week we talked about prayer in terms of not losing heart in hopeless situations. This week Luke follows that up with two men praying. Luke wants us to stop trying to earn God’s grace by comparing ourselves to others and feeling good about ourselves because we are better than others. We don’t need to beat ourselves up like the tax collector. We can, however, follow his example by accepting who we are, warts and all.
Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage ends this way. “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
When we can stop trying to impress others or God and accept ourselves as flawed people, not horrible people, just imperfect people, we end up giving God’s grace room to work in our hearts. If we give grace a chance to work we will find we slowly become more than we are now. We are loved into being lovable. That is good news. Amen
We all know of, or have experienced a time when it just felt like there was no hope. Things were so bad or so absurd, and we could not see any way we could do anything to make it better. I am thinking of things like a spouse going through the last stages of dementia, not recognizing anyone or able to have much quality of life; a cancer diagnoses that has no hope for remission or even a cure; the recent stalemate in Congress where our representatives push their own partisan agendas and the common good is neglected; being laid off with no job possibilities in sight; or even some parenting situations where we are at our wits end and don’t know what to do to make it better.
When we face these kinds of situations what do we do? How does our faith help us? How do we move forward without just giving up, becoming depressed or just angry at the world or God? Our passage in Luke is one response to a very hopeless situation.
Luke was writing to a church that was experiencing persecution. Their situation seemed hopeless. Christians were in the minority. They were alienated from the Jewish community where many early Christians were raised. The Roman authorities were persecuting them. They had virtually no power to deal with these hardships.
So Luke records one of Jesus’ parables. It is the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. It is a funny parable on the surface. Seeing a judge intimidated by this persistent widow, finally giving in and helping her, must have made his original hearers smile. The literal translation in the Greek says the judge was worried this widow might give him a black eye, both literally and figuratively!
But this parable is getting at a deeper reality. Luke sets the stage when he writes that this parable was about “their need to pray always and not lose heart.” Then he tells the parable. The situation is really hopeless. The widow in that culture was very vulnerable. She could not work to earn a living once her husband died. If she did not have anyone to take her in and provide for her she was in big trouble. She was the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in that time.
Her one hope for justice, maybe getting what was due to her from her husband’s relatives, was to go to a judge. Sadly the only judge she could see was one who did not respect anyone and did not fear God. These qualities were the exact opposite of how the First Testament talks about the qualifications for a judge. He was a terrible judge by the biblical standards of that day.
Jesus is painting a picture of dire hopelessness. We have a widow with no power of her own to protect herself and a judge who does not give a hoot about her or God. It cannot get much more hopeless than that.
We don’t want to allegorize this parable as we try to make sense of it. We don’t want to ask who does the widow represent? or who does the judge represent? That is not the point of the parable. The point is to paint a hopeless situation. The original hearers would relate to this because many of them were in a hopeless situation.
They had to decide what they are going to do. They had several options. They could become cynical and just give up or lose heart. Nothing will change this bad time. No one cares. I just give up. Or they could become angry and lash out. They could try to fight for justice or take their anger out on their family or community. Certainly some in Jesus’ day became zealots and tried to fight Rome. They all failed miserably. Or they could pray.
I just finished a book by Elie Wiesel called Open Heart. It is a remembrance of his life after his open heart surgery at the age of 82. The thought of possibly dying on the surgery table prompted him to think back over his life. As you may know, Wiesel was one of those Jews taken to Auschwitz at the age of 15. He survived but others in his family did not.
After he was liberated he had this to say, “I know eternities ago, the day after the liberation, when some of us had to choose between anger and gratitude, my choice was the right one.” It affected how he lived the rest of his life. It enabled him to write and teach impacting many, many others.
How we handle hopeless situations, tragedies, or any events that affect us profoundly is crucial. We have choices. Luke says the choice for Christians during their persecution was between giving up the faith and losing heart, or to pray.
Of course, the next issue is what do we expect to be the result of our prayers? Do we get what we need or think we want when we pray to God? Jesus, in this passage, says God will quickly grant justice to those who cry to God.
My guess would be that some in that day might question how fast God responded. Certainly some of us in our day who have prayed fervently for something, whether it be for justice, an end to war or some resolution to a problem, might question whether God has responded quickly. We have not seen anything change. Is prayer then worthless?
We need to turn to another parable in Luke on prayer to help us with this discussion. In chapter eleven Jesus is talking about prayer and says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” He goes on to say, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Note carefully how this ends. We ask for things in prayer and God responds with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of presence. The answer to our fervent prayers is not necessarily all that we want. The answer is a deeper connection to God. Prayer is critical to a relationship with God. It opens all kinds of possibilities. True healing, as opposed to a cure, becomes possible when we experience presence. Sometimes an experience of presence empowers us to act instead of give up.
It all comes down to a choice. When life feels hopeless do we not lose heart and pray or do we give up on God and become cynical or angry? Elie Wiesel ends his book of remembrances this way. “I have already been the beneficiary of so many miracles, which I know I owe to my ancestors. All I have achieved has been and continues to be dedicated to their murdered dreams-and hopes. I am infinitely grateful to them. My life? I go on breathing from minute to minute, from prayer to prayer.”
The life of faith is a life of “breathing from minute to minute, from prayer to prayer.” It is a life that weathers some tough times without losing heart and giving up. It is a life that tenaciously works at a relationship with God, a God that can sometimes feel so silent, so distant, even absent.
If Wiesel can talk about a life of prayer after all he experienced in Auschwitz, I find any heartache I have had to endure is no excuse for giving up and losing heart. No hopeless situation is so hopeless we cannot reach out to God in prayer. Those prayers may be cries of lament. They may even express anger. The Psalms give us permission to express a whole gamut of emotions in prayer. But, no matter the emotion, prayer opens us to an experience presence. That is good news. Amen