God with Us!

“God with Us!”

Matt 1-23 Emmanuel Greek

Matt 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38 – December 8, 2019

Have you ever had something unexpected happen? I mean, something huge. Something you never would have expected in a hundred years. Maybe, even a thousand. I know that, with statistics, we can figure out just what are the chances of having something happen. Like, a car accident, or a fall at home, or catching a rare disease. We can even figure out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it.

But—what about being visited by an angel? At night, when you are sleeping? Picture this—our Scripture reading from Matthew 1 tells us about Joseph receiving a visit from an angel of the Lord. Statistically, that angel probably would not even factor, because angels are not material, they are not able to be quantified by any earthly scale or system.

Regardless of whatever statistical system is used, I doubt very much whether Joseph would have been considered “the one most likely to see an angel.” And, especially when we consider what the angel had to say to him.

I wanted to focus on the sleeping part. The angel came to Joseph while he was asleep. That reminds me of someone creeping up on Joseph, trying to surprise him. Perhaps, even trying to scare him. I do not think the angel meant that at all, but the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!”

We are considering light and dark this Advent season. Last week, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

This week, we look at the angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream. But, before we even start with the angel, what was the background to this Scripture reading?

We know Joseph and Mary are engaged—or, pledged to be married. I suspect that it was more than just an engagement thought up by the two young people themselves, with no one else involved. No, at that time, in that part of the world, a marriage was much more. A marriage was an alliance between two families, a merger, a joining of one extended family with another.

When two people got married, it was a long, drawn-out affair. First, both families needed to talk and negotiate. Most times, money or other kinds of valuables changed hands—some kind of dowry or bride price. The man and woman were seen to be engaged, promised to each other. But the actual, official marriage ceremony had not taken place yet. From what I see in the Scripture passage today, this is the point we are at. This is what is going on. Joseph’s family and Mary’s family have arranged the marriage; Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married.

This is where the story starts getting sad, or weird, or surprising—maybe all three. Mary tells Joseph privately, confidentially, that she is pregnant. And, this pregnancy is special. Super extra special! Mary told Joseph that God was the father of her baby.

Now, what did she say? Wait just a minute. What did Mary say? Joseph could not believe this tall tale Mary tried to tell him. And, this certainly seemed to be a whopper, in Joseph’s eyes.

What do you and I do when we have something happen that is statistically unlikely? Even, impossible? What would you or I do if we had someone tell us that they had heard from an angel, and they were pregnant. And, all this had to be kept confidential?

I suspect Joseph had really unsettled sleep for the next few nights. (Wouldn’t you?)

The Gospel reading tells us “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Seriously, if Mary were tried under the law of Moses, and found pregnant before she went through with the marriage ceremony with Joseph, she could be stoned for adultery. Serious, indeed.

This Scripture reading focuses on light and darkness, too. Sailors and other travelers used the light of stars at night to find their way. The stars, of course, were made of light, but the night—the darkness—enabled the sailors to see stars clearly enough to navigate their path. Light and dark worked together to illuminate the way.

It was during one of these nights of agitation and discomfort that the angel of the Lord came to him. In both Joseph’s and Mary’s cases, darkness plays a significant role. Night tells our bodies it’s time to sleep, and sometimes, we can even have dreams. Light and dark can work together in surprising ways.

Do you remember how I started this sermon, and talked about figuring out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it? What are the statistical chances of two engaged people each getting visited by an angel?   

I want to remind us all about the words of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. “The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”

Mary and Joseph, both received word from the angel of the Lord, both at home, and both were scared out of their wits. In both angelic visits, the angels say not to be afraid.  We begin with two people who both did not understand—both were in darkness, except the angel brought light and understanding to both people.

The angelic message offers peace, even as Mary and Joseph face an unexpected future. Like the night sky for ancient sailors, these holy visits to Mary and Joseph point the way when they don’t know what to do. And we know, of course, their message is very good news.

What about us, then, today? Would we receive this same news in the same way?

Each one of us is encouraged to ponder our selves, our lives. Let me suggest that in this pondering, we have the opportunity to offer our thoughts, feelings and emotions to God. Each of us can think of times of regret and sorrow, the deep feelings, the difficult memories. And, what about those times of anxiety and deep sadness? Of desperate loneliness and fear.

Like Mary, like Joseph, each of us today has the ability to ask God to take away the distress and anxiety from us. Just like in Mary’s situation, where she accepted the angel’s news with joy. Just like Joseph, who was persuaded to continue with the engagement by the words of the angel. The angels spread light and life wherever they went.

The angels delivered important messages to Mary and Joseph. Another word for angel is “messenger,” and we can all be messengers of hope, light and life. How can you or your family deliver a message of good news today? Take a moment to think of someone who could use a message of love and hope. Then write a note, send a photo by Facebook or Instagram, draw a picture, or send a text to that person or family.

God willing, we can all be messengers of God’s light, life and hope to others.

Alleluia, amen.

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

The Light Will Shine!

“The Light Will Shine!”

John 1 1-14 word cloud

John 1:1-5 – December 1, 2019

Light versus dark. Good versus evil. The powers of the Light pitted against the powers of Darkness. And, think about the Good Witch, all shiny and light, in the Wizard of Oz, as opposed to her sister the Bad Witch, all black and dark. Think of movies, and television, and fairy tales, and folk tales. All of the stories we have ever heard tell us the same thing. Everyone knows the good guy wears a white hat, and the bad guy wears a black hat.

The Gospel Scripture reading this morning comes from the first chapter of John, John 1:5, where we are told “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” But, what if we do not think of this contrast as a good versus evil set-up? What if we don’t think of this as a sharp duality, where light (or, white) is good, and dark (or, black) is bad? What then?

I know we have a number of people here in this congregation who are familiar with several languages. I suspect you are aware that sometimes it is a challenge to translate from one language to another with exactly the right words. Sometimes, the words and phrases of one language just do not quite fit the other language. So, you approximate. You give it your best effort, and try hard. But, translation is not an exact, word-for-word science. Sometimes, translation is more of an art.

That is the case with our verse from John 1, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Greek word translated “overcome” here in the New International Version of the Bible sometimes is translated as “did not comprehend.” As in the New American Standard Version of the Bible: “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

Remember, in the beginning? Way back, at the beginning of creation? John hearkens back to that beginning right here. He starts his Gospel with verse 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

God made everything that was made. All things! Yes, God made the light. Yes, God made the dark. And – this concept may blow our minds, but at the end of Genesis chapter 1, God called everything in creation very good. Everything! That includes light and dark!

John uses a comparison, a metaphor, comparing “the Light of all people” to the darkness, which could not comprehend the Light. I have heard this comparison lifted up by preachers and commentators many times in the past. Yes, it’s a vivid concept, that of Light and Dark. In fact, Jesus Himself uses this metaphor when He says “I am the Light of the world.” But, that is a whole different conversation, in a different place.

I want us to reflect about creation, and how God made all things in the beginning. God created Light and also Dark. What is more, God called them both very good!

But, wait a minute! What about all that stuff from movies, and from television, and fairy tales? What about all we have ever learned about light being good, and darkness bad?

People often thought that meant Jesus banishes the darkness. But actually, the darkness is still present. Jesus works in the midst of them both. Dark and light coexist together.

Let’s think more deeply about the dark; it is good for a lot of things. How about nocturnal creatures? Bats, opossums, cats, and owls all like the night. There are many creatures who have a thriving life in the hours between dusk and dawn. And, God made all of these creatures.

What about many baby mammals? Puppies, kittens, horses, elephants, mice, and dolphins. All of them are mammals, and all of them gestate in darkness. So often, mama animals go to a dark, quiet place to give birth. Think of a dog or cat looking for an enclosed closet or a cupboard where they can give birth to their puppies or kittens.

Darkness is not always frightening! Sometimes, the dark can be friendly and warm. As humans, we gestate in darkness, too. Comforting, calming, friendly darkness.

But, some people might still be puzzled. What did the prophet say in our Scripture reading this morning? From Isaiah 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” That sure sounds like light versus dark, good versus bad.

I would like to suggest that the prophet is using a similar metaphor, using light to express hope. Hope and goodness given by God.

What if people twist such verses, and cause them to mean painful and twisted things? Like, for instance, believing that darkness is always bad and evil—and dark or black. And sometimes, some people have the false belief, the mistaken assumption that people with lighter skin are better or more loved by God than those with darker skin. This false belief is untrue, and so damaging to so many people!

When I was a child in Sunday School, we learned the chorus “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I wonder, do you know it, too? “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Just reminding everyone: Jesus was Jewish, and a person of color, too.

I have a good friend, a fellow pastor. He does not live here in the Chicago area any more, but moved to Oregon about a year and a half ago. He was born with sight, but due to a progressive eye disease, he lost all of his sight shortly after he turned 30 years old. He’s now in his early 60’s. and has been completely blind for decades. Is my pastor friend somehow “bad” because he is blind? Or, because he is always in the dark? No, light is not necessary for my friend to live life to the full and to pastor a church and love his children and grandchildren.

God made all things. God made all people. Everything God created, both the bright light of day and the darkness of night, are called “very good.” We have God’s word on it, from Genesis 1:31. What is more, all people—each person—is equally beloved, equally created for good, and equally made in the image of God.

When we believe that black-and-white thinking that light is only good, and darkness is only evil, we miss so much in life. Nocturnal animals, gestating babies, seeds growing in the ground. All of these are living life in the warm, friendly, nurturing darkness. Think about the good gifts of God, giving us both bright, radiating light and comforting, friendly darkness.

John chapter 1 hearkens back to that first chapter of Genesis. Yes, in the beginning God did create everything, and every person, and God called it all very good. Including the light, and including the darkness.

We can look forward to the Light of the world, God coming to earth in the Baby Jesus. We can reflect on the growing Baby inside of Mary His mother, gestating in the warm, friendly darkness of her womb. And, we can praise God for the birth of that Baby in Bethlehem, God with us, Emmanuel.

Alleluia, amen!

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 1 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God Gives Us Good Things

“God Gives Us Good Things!”

Deut 26-1-11 words

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (26:11) – November 24, 2019

This season we are in right now I call the thankful time of the year. We give thanks for the harvest just brought in to the barns across the country. We give thanks for fruits and vegetables harvested from our back gardens in cities and suburbs. And, we give thanks for God’s wonderful bounty of gifts poured out upon us all, regularly.

Our Scripture reading from the book of Deuteronomy lists a thanksgiving for the harvest for the Jewish people. It’s not only a thank-you to God, but chapter 26 lists a required offering of first fruits all Jews ought to bring to God. The first fruits—or harvest—of the season we bring to God, as an expression of gratitude and thankfulness.

What is more appropriate for our reading today than this Scripture reading, especially at this thankful, grateful time of the year?

Deuteronomy 26 begins with these words: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name.”

Talk about making an actual, physical offering of the first fruits you have gathered from your farm, or orchard, or dairy, or hen house. Whatever we have the opportunity to gather from our harvest, that is what we are to present to the Lord

Yes, showing our gratitude and thankfulness to our God is truly important. But—does this Scripture passage say more than just a duty-bound thank-you operation? Our biblical commentator certainly thinks so. “God gave the unexpected and free gift of a new life to a group of stateless persons, making of them a people with a special relationship to him and giving them a ‘land of milk and honey’ to live in.” [1]

I can understand how this presentation of first fruits was so important for the Jewish people—finally with a land of their own after centuries of having no place to call their own. Wandering and landless. Just as Moses gave one of the biblical patriarchs as an example: this reading even mentions a “wandering Aramean.”

Moreover, the manner in which the Jews are to say “thank you” to God for material and spiritual gifts is important. That is what I hear when I listen to this chapter read: it has not only the instructions for presenting the first fruits of our harvest to God, but also the underlying reason why, in the first place.

“The members of the nation are invited to respond to this divine initiative by showing their gratefulness, and to do so by returning to God part of what God has given them. But how can we give a present to the invisible God? Here is where the institution of organized worship comes in, to enable human beings to make a symbolic offering to God and in this way to express their relationship to him.” [2]

So, we are not only to give God thanks individually, but we are instructed to do so in organized worship services. This is a way to gather together and to jointly—as a worshiping body—lift our voices to the Lord in gratitude and thanksgiving.

This is not just for adults. Families can give thanks. We ought to look for opportunities to get our children and grandchildren involved, too. An excellent bible commentator I often reference, Carolyn Brown, mentions how we might possibly get our children involved in the giving of thanks. “Involving children in community services is a good way to draw a crowd and to introduce children to their community’s religious base.”  She also suggests that we “provide paper and crayons or markers for children (and older worshipers) to write poems or draw pictures of where they see God all around them.” [3] These are imaginative and creative ways to celebrate God and give God our thanks.

There are many ways we can celebrate at a joint Thanksgiving service to God. One way is to sing hymns of thanksgiving and celebration and thank God for the wonderful harvest, as we are in this service today.

Can we think of a better way to have everyone in our community gather together to give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy? Just like on this coming Wednesday, when our wider Morton Grove community will gather here in this place to give thanks.

I know that several people here in this service have attended many of the past community Thanksgiving Eve services. I would like to remind everyone that the giving of thanks is a universal expression of gratitude. We have a tremendous opportunity for everyone to gather together and give thanks, despite our variety of backgrounds and despite our religious differences.

Just as we collect an offering at the close of each service on Sunday mornings, so we will gather an offering on Wednesday night. Not only are we making a symbolic gesture of our worship through the gathering of people from diverse faith traditions and various world cultures, but we all can lift thanksgiving and gratitude together as a community, no matter when each of us separately and regularly praise and worship God.

Is there a better and more praiseworthy way for us today to give thanks to God? What is more, is there a better way for us to show God how much we care for and love God? The Jewish people have gathered for millenia, in regular praise and worship of God, and especially in thanksgiving for all God has done for them in the past.

Deuteronomy 26 tells us that each individual citizen was told to rejoice with the priests (or, in this case, Levites) and foreigners. God wishes everyone to come before the Holy One with thanksgiving, including foreigners. Just saying, but God repeated informs Israel that they are to treat the foreigners who live with them exactly the same as any citizen of Israel. God makes no distinction, and tells the people of Israel those exact words.

How wonderful to have that continuity across the ages. From the Jews, wandering in the wilderness, through the time of the Temple and what formal worship happened there, up through the times of the foundation of the Church and more recent centuries—we have always had occasion to gather together to give praise and thanks to our God.

Everything, even life itself is a gift from God above, enabling us to give thanks to God in all things. Isn’t this what the apostle Paul told us in his letter to the Philippians?  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2014-10-01

“Giving back to God what God has given us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taizé, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3][3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/09/year-c-thanksgiving-day-october-14-2013.html

Worshiping with Children, Thanksgiving Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

We Know the Ending!

“We Know the Ending!”

Isa 65-17 new-heavens-new-earth

Isaiah 65:17-19 – November 17, 2019

Who likes to watch movies? I’m thinking in particular of scary movies. There’s the plucky heroine, the brave protagonist, the encouraging older character actor, the quirky supporting actor. I bet you recognize these typical parts of the horror movie formula. And, have you ever found yourself yelling at the screen, “Don’t go down in the creepy basement!” or “Don’t go up to the scary attic!” You and I could almost guess what was coming, couldn’t we? Many of them are so formulaic we already know the ending.

In the scripture reading from the end of Isaiah 65, we find out how things are going to end, at the end of all recorded time. It’s the end of the ultimate scary and suspenseful movie. Sure, there is a lot of scary stuff that happens in each of our lives, as well as really sad things and even some overwhelmingly traumatic happenings. But, there is no ultimate surprise ending to the overarching story. We already know the ending. God wins, and the whole world is re-created!

Let’s take a step back. What came before chapter 65 of Isaiah, in the original creation?

We all remember the blessed words of Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That was the time of the first creation. God created everything in this world, and God made it all very good. We have God’s word on it – it says so at the end of Genesis 1:31. “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.”

The sad—even traumatic—events of Genesis 3 happened so soon afterwards, where the spotless creation was marred by sin, and the whole world was changed, turned topsy-turvy.

Just think—creation, blessed and sanctified by God in the beginning, was indelibly altered, leaving a huge upheaval in the whole order of all created beings and created places. We are still in that in-between time, dealing with the aftermath of Adam, Eve and the apple.

All this fall, I have done a part-time chaplain internship in a busy downtown hospital. There is nothing quite so intense as a critical care unit of a busy hospital to get across the sorrow, agony and mourning of the human experience.

Here at this church last week, we prayed for a senior who was scheduled for a delicate procedure the next day, last Monday. I have not checked up to see how that dear senior is doing now, but there are several serious continuing health issues in this dear one’s life and body. I do not know whether or not there are additional concerns in this situation. All I know is that I promised we would pray for this prayer request for four weeks. That is what I could do for this dear senior, to encourage and come alongside of this dear one.

But, we all are still in the time of the first creation. We all know about that time; still in the time of imperfection, of fallenness, of crying and suffering and sorrow.

I have mentioned Rev. Janet Hunt before. She is a Lutheran pastor in DeKalb. She is dealing with a real-life experience right now, where one of the families in her congregation is reeling from the unexpected news of cancer. This heart-breaking diagnosis affects not only the young person medically affected, but the whole extended family as well.

Rev. Hunt is correct when she says that this loving family has resources, both material and spiritual. They have adequate health insurance, and live near wonderful medical care and excellent hospitals. This youth’s particular medical diagnosis is the most common, and the most treatable form of that hated disease, cancer. And still—and still, Rev. Hunt’s heart breaks “to be living in a world where mothers weep, and dads stand stoic so as to emit a sense of much needed calm, and [young people] try to hold back tears of confusion and fear.” [1]

While here in this flawed world, we groan, and we struggle; we cry and we mourn. Why me, Lord? Why us? Why are there many children and young people in horrible circumstances, both in and out of the hospital? For that matter, why is anyone suffering? Why do bad, negative, even traumatic things happen to good, loving and compassionate people?

Why, Lord? Why, oh why? Please let me know. Please, please, dear Lord, act in all their troubled lives, relational difficulties, and medical situations

As we consider today’s Scripture reading from Isaiah 65, Rev. Hunt says, “I want the world the prophet promises now:

  • Where the sounds of weeping and distress are simply no more.
  • Where little ones (and children) never die and where life is still short when we live to be 100.
  • Where hard work is rewarded with adequate shelter and enough to eat for everyone.
  • Where sworn enemies —- the wolf and the lamb — eat together.

Oh, what a world that would be, will be where not one is hurt or destroyed on God’s holy mountain.” [2] This whole reading incorporates God’s wish for the entire world. When God describes Jerusalem, God means the whole world.

Remember how I started this sermon, talking about scary movies? We wanted to warn the characters of the dangers.  But, what if we have already seen that movie for the second, third, even fifth time when we knew the ending?  Once we knew the ending we sometimes might want to tell the hero not to worry during the scary parts and sometimes want to warn the heroine to be careful when everything is going well.

In our Gospel reading from Luke 21, the disciples ask, “Teacher, when will these [dire, horrible] things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” The Hebrew Scripture readings for this week tell us God’s final ending.  The New Testament readings advise us on how to live until the ending comes. [3] Yes, we could concentrate on the disheartening Gospel reading, and look at all the bad, awful, and even worse things that are going to happen – and even happen right now. However, I wanted to look at God’s truly happily-ever-after ending. Let us all know and look forward to God’s ultimate, Good News ending.

Yes, creation is part of God’s continuing work today, and the continuing reality of the world today. Remember the prophet’s words in verse 65:19, that sorrow and crying will be taken away as God re-creates the world. Never fear – God will wipe away every tear from every eye. No more sorrow! In this reading, we see real celebration! Praise God, we will have joy in the morning on that day! In the words of that joyful gospel song, Soon and very soon!

Isn’t that God’s ultimate Good News? Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/new-heavens-new-earth/

[2] http://dancingwiththeword.com/new-heavens-new-earth/

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/10/year-c-proper-28-33rd-sunday-in.html

Worshiping with Children, Proper 28, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Our Redeemer Lives

“Our Redeemer Lives”

Job and his friends - Ilya Repin, 1869

Job 19:23-27 – November 10, 2019

Have you ever thought that God is just not fair? Look at the world today. With natural disasters, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, torrential downpours, and flooding, some insurance policies still today list “acts of God” as a factor in their settlements.

Many people throughout the world live with debilitating illness or long-term disabilities. We may know several of them, personally. We may even be some of them, with illnesses like multiple dystrophy, polio, lupus, fibromyalgia, ALS, and complications from AIDS; not to mention the disabilities we see Jesus healing on a regular basis—people who are blind, lame and mute, to mention just a few.

Yes, there is a whole lot of bad and awful going on in the world. Many, many people think—and outright say—that God is just not fair. Do you ever feel that way? I know I have.

Job definitely felt that way; he expressed his feelings openly in the book named after him, in his discussions with his friends as well as his discussions with God. This book squarely brings up the question: is God fair? I ask again: is God fair? Job wanted to know. I think, so do we.

If people want comfort, they turn to the Psalms, or the Gospel of John, maybe parts of Isaiah, or the encouraging sections from the letters in the New Testament. Not the book of Job.

Perhaps you only know Job as a character in the Hebrew Scriptures who was very rich, and then through a horrific series of circumstances and through no fault of his own, had everything taken away. How many here know the basics about Job? And…that is about it? Oh, there is a sort of postscript to this book, where Job gets all of his wealth returned to him, plus additional children are born to him and his wife, but that does not come until the very ending of the story—a real happily-ever-after ending.

In the middle of Job’s disputing and arguing with his friends, the middle of his traumatic loss, paralyzing grief, and horrid debilitating physical condition, Job is really hard-pressed by his circumstances.

Plus, Job’s so-called friends are ostensibly there to try to comfort and help Job out. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down! Essentially, his friends wag their fingers in Job’s face and tell him to confess his secret sins. He is repeatedly, verbally beaten up by these three.

Poor Job slogs through his desperate life, one day at a time, one hour at a time. He goes through all manner of crap, from his circumstances, his health, and the people around him. Can we blame for saying, “God is not fair!”

Coming closer to home, we might consider the holiday tomorrow, Veteran’s Day. This day is set aside to remember veterans, and honor all veterans everywhere for their duty and sacrifice for our freedom. As we remember the horrors and deprivations of armed conflict throughout the world, what can you and I do about it? I feel powerless, puny and insignificant in the face of such things as conflicts and wars. Maybe you do, too. We also might say, “God is not fair!”

Seriously, I know I have thought God isn’t fair, sometimes. I suspect you have, too. Or, one of your loved ones has, or one of your close friends. If we assess the world today, it is enough to make even a sensible person throw up their hands and walk away, shaking their head.

Earlier in chapter 19, Job says that he repeatedly cries out to God, but God just doesn’t answer! The commentator James Limburg has the heartrending paragraph: “Job’s further complaints: and it is all God’s fault! Job says his life is miserable. He finds no support from family or friends (verses 13, 14, 19, 21). Even little children do not like him (18) and his wife finds him repulsive (17). Job is certain that God is behind all of this (13, 21, 22).” [1]

If we are looking for a poster child for miserable, suffering humanity, Job is definitely a finalist. But, wait. In the midst of all of Job’s cries for help and his complaints to his friends and to God, we have this shining jewel of verses in 19:25-26. What does Job say? I will read it again, so we can all savor the words: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;“ I’m amazed at Job, having the gumption and the perseverance to make this proclamation. What a statement! James Limburg says about these words that this is “Job’s declaration of faith: I know that I have one who will rescue me from this mess!” [2]

We all agree that Job complains! He kvetches and complains to his friends and to God. Yet—Job does not quit. Some people we know may very well feel like quitting, and Job certainly was a candidate for throwing in the towel, yet—Job makes this shining declaration of faith.

In this unexpected verse he talks about a Redeemer. In Jewish usage, this term might be used for buying back a field or a person sold into slavery. Perhaps in modern terms we might “redeem” a musical instrument or piece of jewelry from a pawnshop. This same Hebrew word (go’el) is used in Exodus for God redeeming God’s people from slavery in Egypt, or in Psalms for God delivering an individual from death. God is the Redeemer! God will save Job! [3]

We might feel captive to our debilitating illness, or our desperate continuing situation, or shattering emotional state. It might seem like no one could ever reach down and help us out of the deep, dark pit we are in. Just like Job. Yet—God can reach down. God can save us. God is our Redeemer, just as God was Job’s Go’el, Job’s Redeemer.  

I would like to quickly add: Job was a realist. Job came right out and said he might die first, because he said his skin—his body—could very well be destroyed first before he was redeemed. Nevertheless, Job had the confidence to say “yet in my flesh I will see God.“ As James Limburg says, “Job expresses his conviction that there is One living who will eventually rescue him from the suffering and mess his life has become. As that One once rescued Israel, or the exiles, so the Redeemer will one day put Job’s life back together.” [4]

Does anyone doubt that this Redeemer can put our lives back together, too? In part three of the well-loved oratorio Messiah, the soprano soloist begins with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” I fully agree that the other Scripture passages Handel used in this part of the Messiah explain Job’s words so well.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.  
(I Corinthians 15: 20)  
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  
(I Corinthians 15: 21-22)  
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  
(I Corinthians 15: 51-52)  
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.  
(I Corinthians 15: 52-53)
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  
(I Corinthians 15: 57)  
If God be for us, who can be against us?  
(Romans 8: 31)  
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.  
(Romans 8: 33-34)  

Where part three of the Messiah began with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” is there any way more fitting and more glorious to close this meditation on Job’s shining declaration of faith than the way Handel finished his oratorio? The words of Revelation 5:12-14:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.
Amen.
 
(Revelation 5: 12-14)  

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=735

Commentary, Job 19:23-27a, James Limburg, Pentecost 24C Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

(Many thanks to James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN, for the use of his excellent commentary article on this passage from Job 19.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Have Hope in God

“Have Hope in God”

1 John 3-2 like Him, stars

1 John 3:1-3 – November 3, 2019

Some days are everyday days. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill days, days where nothing particularly special happens. Some days are like that. We all are familiar with those kinds of days. But, today is a special day in the life of the Church. Not only in the life of this church on this corner, but in the lives of all churches that observe All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday.

The day for the commemoration of All Saints started only a few hundred years after the beginning of the Church on Pentecost, to remember all the saints who were persecuted as well as the martyrs who had died for their faith. “All Saints Day was established as an opportunity to honor all the saints, known and unknown.[1]

But, what does that have to do with you and me, right here and right now? What about people who are still mourning, and grieving the loss of loved ones who have died? What can this day of remembering and commemoration possibly do for those who mourn and love and long for their loved one who has died?

I lost a dear brother last December, my brother Mike. His photo is on the table with the others, near the altar. Yes, this All Saints Day remembrance is personal for me, today. I think there might be some others here who have a very personal connection, and might even be struggling with their memories. That is the whole reason why we have gathered her today—to remember together, and to lift up these loved ones, along with all of the other friends in Christ who have died. Not only recently, but all throughout the years, throughout the centuries.

Instead of going with one of the primary Bible readings for All Saints Sunday, I felt drawn to an alternate reading, the second reading that Eileen read today. It is just a little, short reading, but it means a great deal to me. I will zero in on one particular verse, 1 John 3:2, where the elderly apostle John says Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  

The elderly John has been traveling around for years—as best as he could—and preaching the Good News of his Master, Jesus Christ. He knows life has been tough for these scattered believers in Christ. So, he encourages them again and again in this letter.

How many people here have gotten discouraged? Perhaps you have been all alone, working at some thankless task. Or, perhaps no one is noticing you, and you feel left out, out in the cold? Or maybe even someone has been bugging you, pestering you for your faith, for standing up for what you believe in? Whatever sad or awkward situation you find yourself in, believe me, the apostles were familiar with a similar situation.

The apostle John was writing to some friends who had been dealing with some very difficult things, including the loss of some of their own congregation, their loved ones and friends. John specifically wants to lighten the hearts of his friends with these words.

Have you ever been down, and had someone blithely give you a super-sweet saying and just walk away without even seeing how you reacted to it? Perhaps even a verse of Scripture? I have. I had someone—thirty years ago, now—just breeze up to me and blurt out a verse of Scripture, and toddle away, oblivious that I was really hurting. I was devastated, and he did not notice me at all. He did not notice the true me, standing right there in front of him.

But, the apostle John is not that way at all. John hears the emotions of his friends, and he encourages them. John is honest and up front. He freely admits what he does not know. John does not know how Jesus will appear or what Jesus will be like when He returns. However, what John does know is that when Jesus does return, “we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I don’t know about you, but this verse gives me comfort. All of it. From John’s honesty in his not knowing, to his assurance that we shall see Jesus in that day, when Jesus returns. I do not know whether God will give us special insight, or whether our eyes will be changed to brand-new heavenly eyes. Regardless, John’s words reach down deep inside of me. John’s words comfort me in my mourning and grieving, and penetrate through my suffering and pain. John’s words encourage my heart, and give me heavenly assurance and hope.

As we remember all the saints, we might think of the “big” saints, like Mother Teresa, or St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John, St. Luke or St. Paul, the apostles. However, I want to remind everyone that Paul in several of his letters refers to all believers as saints. We all are saints, every one of us. Young, old, big, small, believers of every race and kind and way of being.

For the closing hymn today, we will sing a lovely hymn. “A children’s hymn, popular in Great Britain, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” suggests that ordinary people, going about their business, can be saints, that is, revealers of God’s grace whose faithfulness changes the world.” [2]  I suspect that the apostle John would wholeheartedly agree with these words.

I love the letters of John, written in the New Testament. Simple words, simply written, but oh, such profound thoughts! Listen again to verse 2: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

I close with some gentle words from the Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor in DeKalb. She writes for this special day:

May the promise and hope of this All Saints Sunday lift you.

May the music carry you.

May the familiar words hold you, filling you with comfort and confidence.

May the flickering candles remind you of the light Christ is and ever shall be: a light which we, in turn, hold and carry and pass along.

Oh, may the mystery of promise and hope and grace surround you and fill you.

And may you have at least a moment when you can simply stand still and receive all that God has for you. [3]

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/worship/christianyear/all-saints-day/

[2] https://www.patheos.com/resources/additional-resources/2010/10/remembering-all-saints

Remembering All Saints, Bruce Epperly, Patheos, 2010.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-sunday-standing-still-in-the-mystery/ 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Keeping the Faith

“Keeping the Faith”

2 Tim 4-7 kept faith, purple

2 Timothy 4:6-9 – October 27, 2019

Happy Reformation Sunday! Yes, we celebrate and commemorate the beginning of the Reformation on the last Sunday of October each year. It is that time of year when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, or complaints, against the Catholic Church. He put them up on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a professor of theology, on All Hallows Eve, 1517—or, Halloween, October 31st.

Among other things, Martin Luther wanted the Catholic Church to be faithful to God in many practices. Being faithful was really important to Martin Luther! You know who else being faithful was important to? The Apostle Paul. Eileen read the end of the second letter Paul wrote to Timothy, and Paul strongly stressed being faithful to God. Just like him. Just like Martin Luther. Just like countless saints throughout the centuries. Keeping the faith, through thick or thin, through good times or bad, no matter what.

I always get sad when I read the second letter to Timothy, and especially the fourth chapter. That is the part where Paul is being up front with Timothy. He realizes he does not have very much time left here in this world. Paul was in prison in Rome for the second time, and this time, Paul did not have much hope of being freed. This is one of the last letters he expects to write to his good friend and protégé Timothy. What kinds of important things does Paul say in these last few paragraphs?

When other people know they are going to die soon—because of illness or other tragedy, somehow time becomes much more precious. Their internal and external focus becomes more acute. I think this was happening with the Apostle Paul, right here, where he told Timothy what was most on his heart.

What did he want to communicate to Timothy? Looking at this last chapter, we find so much on Paul’s mind. I would like to focus on two verses in chapter 4: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul had been through the wringer, as we read when Paul wrote about many of his experiences in the second letter to the church at Corinth. He lists that he has been put in prison repeatedly, been whipped, beaten with rods, given thirty-nine lashes, shipwrecked, then adrift on the sea for a day and a night, not to mention being cold, starved and thirsty repeatedly, in danger and on the run from all manner of people, for years at a time. What is more, Paul said he would do it all again for the sake of preaching the Good News, and knowing Jesus Christ crucified.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Paul describe everything he has been through, I am in awe. And yes, I feel so insignificant, so unworthy even to be in Paul’s presence. Paul’s whole life is one huge example of keeping the faith.

As we come forward through the centuries, and learn more about Martin Luther, we can see that for years Martin was on the run from a bunch of different groups and from people sent by the Catholic Church. These wily guys wanted to prosecute Luther before a church court, and he argued his case again and again. Martin Luther was put through the wringer repeatedly.

True story: 1521, Martin was put on trial yet again, and finally offered the “opportunity” to say he recanted what he said and had written. Luther knew his response would get him in even deeper trouble, but that did not stop him. He boldly told the emperor, his officers and some leaders of the Catholic Church that he would not move. Martin said he was captive to the Bible, the Word of God, and he could not go against God. Many people remember Martin’s famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Martin kept the faith and stayed true to God.

Have you—have I—ever felt put through the wringer for the sake of Jesus Christ? Just thinking about what the Apostle Paul and what Martin Luther went through, being put through the wringer is definitely not fun. Standing up for what is right and Godly and the God-honoring thing to do, or a certain way to pray, or even a specific way to worship God? All over the world, for centuries, any of these things could get you imprisoned or perhaps even executed. I am serious. This is not a joke.

According to Professor Dirk Lange, “Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.” [1] God-given and God-planted faith helped Paul and Martin to keep on going, and to keep the faith. Can that God-given faith help us to continue on, as well?

Professor Michael Jackson had such an intriguing idea about this verse. Let me share it with you: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… all three verbs are in the perfect [tense]. Even though Paul is still alive and writing these words, he views his life lived for Christ as complete… and as my Greek teacher, Roger Hahn always loved to point out for the perfect tense – completed action that has continuing and ongoing repercussions… I like that idea – our finished lives continue to speak, to influence, to make a difference in the lives of those we have served. That’s how we leave a legacy!” [2]

Whether we have been on this earth only a few years or are in the later decades of life, how have our lives been used for God? What kind of legacy are you and I leaving? Have we—as Paul commanded Timothy—fought the good fight? Finished the race? Kept the faith in Christ Jesus? These are not simple questions. They are reflection questions, questions to ponder, and questions that I hope and pray we all bring to God.

I would like to close with some words of reflection from Joseph, Cardinal Bernadin, Cardinal of this Chicago archdiocese for a number of years. He was diagnosed with a rapidly moving cancer, which took his life. In the months before he died, Cardinal Bernadin wrote a final, short book: The Gift of Peace. I’ve read it, and it is so poignant.

I would like to read from the last chapter. “As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that is very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace…. I will soon experience life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve Him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, He is now calling me home.” [3]

So similar to what Cardinal Bernadin wrote, Paul tells us God is leading him home, in these verses we are considering today. Just like Martin Luther, Paul tells us to keep the faith, just as he did. Just as Martin Luther kept the faith, just as Cardinal Bernadin did, too.

What is Paul’s charge to all of us, on this Reformation Sunday? Keep the faith. Know the faith, preserve the faith and see that faith in God gets passed on.

God willing, I will follow Paul’s charge. Will you, too?

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Pentecost 22C, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=740

[2] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 | Michael Jackson | Associate Professor of Homiletics, TNU | A Plain Account, 2016, http://www.aplainaccount.org/copy-of-proper-25c-psalm

[3] Bernadin, Cardinal Joseph, The Gift of Peace, (Image Book: New York NY, 1998) 151-52.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!