Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Jesus Talked Back to His Parents

Luke 2:41-52
Christmas 1
December 30, 2012
William G. Carter

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. 

             It is the only story that we have from Jesus’ childhood. At age twelve, around the time of his Bar Mitzvah, Jesus goes to the Temple. His parents are returning to Nazareth, at least a three day walk to the north. They have been in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Luke says they were a pious Jewish family; they went every year. As they return home in a great throng of pilgrims, neighbors, and extended family, Jesus slips away.

And on the third day, they find him. Here is how poet Thomas John Carlisle speaks on behalf of Mary:

I am your mother and I have a right
To be upset about your disappearance.
How could we guess that you weren’t with the neighbors
Or with our relatives if not with us?
The Nazareth caravan was big enough
To keep you safe without our close surveillance.
How could you do this stupid, thoughtless thing
And leave me limp with frenzied desperation,
A trauma I will carry to my grave?
The city isn’t safe for one young boy.
The Temple itself hides its own depths of dangers.
A sword has pierced my heart, as Simeon said.
Yes, I am shaken – and relieved – and angry.
I have no oath or pledge as Hannah had
When she left Samuel to serve old Eli
And traveled home without him. You did wrong
To scare me so – and I forgive you for it –
But never again go traipsing off like this
Without informing me of your intention.
I don’t want anything to happen to you –
Not now or ever. Are you listening?[1]

            I think we can understand her concern. We don’t have to be parents to understand her concern. When a child slips away, it is frightening. You wait for the security guards to report it over the loudspeaker. Or you buy cell phones to the kids when they are much too young to need them. The parent calls, and even before she says, “How are you?” she asks, “Where are you? What are you doing?” Because there is nothing so terrifying as losing a child.

            Mary says to her son, “I don’t want anything to happen to you - not now or ever.”

            Luke tells us this story as a way of looking forward. The day will come in another twenty years when Mary will lose her son. It will be a terrible day. The emotional sword will pierce her, just as the old man predicted so long ago. Luke understands this as a consequence of the incarnation. Jesus is born into a family, and one day he will leave the family behind.

            This is a wrenching thing, a terrible thing. Those of you who have seen the brilliant film on “Lincoln” were introduced to the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She was well acquainted with grief. She lost two young sons to illness. Then her husband died. Six years later, her son Tadd also died. She never got over those losses. Who could?

            Luke puts a shadow over the story of young Jesus. He tells us that the twelve year old boy went to study with the teachers, to ask them questions, to listen to their answers. He had an impressive grasp of the Jewish scriptures at such a young age. But his mother was terribly afraid that something evil had happened to him. She worried about him because she loved him – and this is what good mothers do.

Even so, when Jesus explained himself, he gave his declaration of independence: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

            Joseph just stood there, as always, mute and awkward. Neither he nor Mary had a clue what their boy was talking about. Luke goes on to pretty-up the tale, declaring Jesus to be perpetually obedient to his parents, stating that Mary locked this away as a treasured memory in her heart. Yet the fact remains that Jesus had pushed away from his family to study the commandments of God. It’s a glimpse of what would later unfold in his life. The day would come when he hung up his carpenter’s apron on a nail, sneaked up behind his mother to kiss her on the cheek, and whispered “goodbye.”

            One of God’s commandments goes like this: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long.” (Deuteronomy 5:16). Jesus honored his parents, says Luke – although his days were cut short. The same kind of teachers with whom he studied that day in the Temple would later turn against him and shorten his life. But there is no question that Jesus honored Mary and Joseph. No question at all.

            Yet as Jesus grew, he developed an ever more clear dependence on God. A family can love you, but a family cannot do everything for you. A family can teach you values, and it can distract you from a higher allegiance to God. One day, Jesus turned to the large, indiscriminate crowds that were nipping at his heels. He said, “Have you counted the cost of putting God first, before all else? Are you willing to carry the cross?” Then he spelled it out: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple…” (Luke 14:25-28, paraphrased)

            It is one of those things we wish he had not said. It would have been so much easier for him to say that families are always good for us, that parents are always right, that human relationships are always healthy and intact. But Jesus was a grown-up when he said it. He knew that children must be protected when they are vulnerable, but when they grow up, they have to make hard decisions about their priorities. He knew that children must be cared for, nurtured by love and good instruction. But the day also comes when a child leaves father and mother, and cleaves to a new commitment. The family teaches value. The family can teach what is most important in our lives. They can model self-giving love, so that the children can go on to love others. Most of all, a family can teach the central, life-giving importance of God as the One who is worthy to worship and serve.

            All of this is signaled in this brief story that Luke recounts about the twelve-year old Jesus. He knew that he had to be about the interests of God. He knew that every one of us exists to know God, to love God, to serve God. His family taught him this.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] “I Am Your Mother” – Beginning with Mary: Women of the Gospels in Portrait (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986) 8.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Peace on Earth

Luke 2:14
Christmas Eve 2012
William G. Carter

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

            I hope we have not heard the Christmas story so many times that we miss its strangeness. There are many strange details in this well-worn story.

            A virgin gives birth to a baby boy. An untouched young woman becomes pregnant and delivers. That doesn’t happen every day. It is strange.

            The king of kings is born among the farm animals. His first home is not in a palace, but the cattle’s feeding trough among poor peasants. This is not a rag-to-riches myth; for Jesus, the Son of God, it is rags to rags. That is strange.

            We do not know the names of the first visitors to the Christ child. They are anonymous. All we know is that they are sheep herders, members of a trade that was despised the religious people of Jerusalem. The announcement comes first to them, as outsiders. A Savior, Messiah, and Lord, is born for them. For them! He is freshly born, wrapped in cloth bands to keep his infant body straight, and harbored among people very much like themselves. Shepherds have a Savior? That is strange.

            But tonight, perhaps the strangest detail of all is the message that comes on the lips of a heavenly army: “Peace on earth among those whom God favors.”

            It is indeed an army. A “heavenly host” is a battalion of angels. It is a gathering of fierce soldiers with haloes and wings. They are the front line of God’s tactical mission. They are the first-responders sent to do God’s holy will. Tonight they are sent, not to wage war, but to wage peace. How incredible is that!

            After two thousand years of celebrating this birth, the human race is still fighting against the angels. We are a warlike species. We manufacture wars, we fight wars, we profit by wars. We picture peace on our Christmas cards in the most idyllic images, and then somebody tells our first grade teachers that they ought to ask Santa to put handguns in their Christmas stockings. Meanwhile heaven’s angels sing of peace on earth.

            It’s Christmas Eve. I was going to play it safe tonight and speak of love, joy, and wonder. But then, as I stood in line last Wednesday at the Chinchilla post office, I heard this lady at the front of the line work herself up in a shout. To listen to her words, she was on the verge of  “going postal” – Gotta arm the teachers, gotta give rifles to the principals, gotta put armor in front of elementary school windows. Those kids are sitting ducks. On she ranted, talked to nobody, talking to everybody. None of us wanted to hear it.

            It was clear she was having a hard time hearing the angels. And what is the first thing the Bible’s angels ever say? Fear not. Stop being afraid. And then an army of Christmas angels sing of peace on earth.

            It really is an army. The Hebrew word is “Sabaoth.” This is an intentional military word, indicating that God has battalions of heavenly servants who go forth to make holy peace. The heavenly host creates reconciliation. The heavenly host enforces forgiveness. The heavenly host is all about the work of God to eliminate strife between people, to teach them to get along.

            When Luke uses the “army” word for angels, he is offering an alternative to the world as we know it. In his own day, everybody knew how the Roman Caesar worked: by force and intimidation. The Roman army was the most brutal and well-armed in the world. When Caesar wanted something, his army had no regard for human life. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar stationed soldiers in nearly every area of Israel, under the guise of “keeping peace.” But there was no peace. In one smooth move, Caesar Augustus created a census to find out where the peasants were, so he could tax them to pay for the very soldiers that oppressed them. That’s how the Christmas story begins. This is when Jesus is born.

            The good news is that another army comes, a strong and vocal army of angels. They serve the God who created every person. They are commanded by the God who made the world and loves it. They come to announce God’s mission to the whole human race: Peace on earth among those whom God favors.

            The strangeness of Christmas is that God offers another way for the world to live. This is the way of peace. Peace means a lot of things. Peace is tranquility between the nations and harmony between individuals. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but a certain stillness in the midst of conflict that is expressed in good will and reconciliation. Peace is the intentional choice that we will not respond to violence with violence; if that were God’s way, none of us would be left standing. But God comes to set us free from our war-like tendencies. God sends Jesus into the world to initiate peace.

            In a Christmas Eve sermon offered some years before he was shot to death by a gun, Martin Luther King Jr. said these words:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. . . Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in (our) quest for peace and security.[1]

            There is another way to live. A world perpetually at war will regard this as strange. But God sends an army of angels to announce that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is born into our world. We are not left alone to our fear and savagery. God intervenes, and we have to decide if we can take part in God’s peacemaking mission to the world.

            It proceeds as someone has said: Believe – Behave – Become. “What we believe here, what we put in the forefront of our heart, is what drives our behavior. Our behavior shapes who we become. So if we put peace at the forefront of our hearts, not only is our behavior driven by that ethic, we are changed, our communities are changed, and our world is changed.”[2]

            Jesus is born. The angels announce peace. What are you and I going to do about that? Before anybody answers, I remind us of the third stanza of the carol we are about to sing: "No more let sins or sorrows grow / nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow / far as the curse is found." Merry Christmas. Merry, strange Christmas!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving your Enemies,” Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, Christmas 1957. Full text available online at
[2] Rev. Susan Sparks, “Wishes for the New Year,” Odyssey Networks, December 21, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Blessed is She

Luke 1:39-45
Advent 4
December 23, 2012
William G. Carter

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

             We took our pillow and went to the birthing class. I was still a young man, thirty-one, curious about what kind of coaching I could provide my pregnant wife. Those were the last days of pregnancy and I was doing my best to be supportive. Frankly, it wasn’t my body that had been invaded by the gestation of a new life. I was merely the observer. The mother of our child was the participant. And until we walked into the room, I had not realized how much she had been in seclusion.

            That changed in the twinkling of an eye. About twenty other pregnant ladies wobbled around the room, some holding their distended bellies, a couple of them groaning quietly, most all of them ready for the joyous event to come as quickly as possible so they can be over with it.

            The miracle of that moment is that these pregnant women found each other. They met, they chatted. The chatter increased, as their clueless men-folk stood pitifully by. We were the pillow-holders, beginning to wonder what great mystery we had stumbled into.

            Meanwhile the women spoke of significant matters. Did you get sick? Was there much vomiting? When did it stop? My ankles began to swell immediately. This isn’t our first, but it’s harder than the first three. I’m getting tired of these expandable waist slacks; I was a size four before he did this to me. Well, I have a little soccer player inside my womb and we can’t agree on when to settle down at night. Did you see that girl over there? Her baby goes out straight, while mine gave me these enormous hips.

            Twenty confused men stood by helplessly, as women talked together about their pregnancies. There is a grand conspiracy of silence about birthing. As one young mother summed up so eloquently, “If my mama had told me what was coming, I would have thought twice about doing it.”

            Yet this is the biological mystery of how the human race continues. This is how family lines proceed, how the genetic dice are tossed. Every baby comes as a gift, some long anticipated, some unexpected, some wanted, some sadly not. But each child is a gift that God offers for the future of the world.

            Two pregnant women meet in our Bible story. They have a conversation with no men participating. One of them is very old, the other is very young. The young woman traveled some distance to initiate the conversation. She greets the old lady, and then the old lady does all the talking.

            Her name is Elizabeth. She was the daughter of a Jewish priest. Her husband is a Jewish priest, and was the son of a Jewish priest. It was probably an arranged marriage, as many such marriages were. She supported her husband and his work, because it was the same family business, so to speak. She knew what it required, as her husband tended to the ministry of God.

But her life was marked by a great irony. As her husband served a generous God, God had withheld the blessing of a child from Elizabeth. In her fertile years, she had wanted a baby but the child never came. The door stayed shut, as relatives and neighbors birthed their babies and presented them for her husband’s blessing. Prayers for a child had gone unanswered, and Elizabeth had long settled down into advanced middle age. This was her life’s one disappointment. There is no evidence that she was resentful or bitter, just disappointed. She learned to smile while she stayed empty inside.

            But then, about six months before, there was that day when Zechariah came home from the temple. His eyes were wild. His tongue was tied. Something had happened to him. What was it? He could not say.

            It was clear from his pantomime that he was deeply affected by a holy moment in Jerusalem. But what? She had helped him prepare for a most significant event. Zechariah’s division had been scheduled to serve as priests in the temple. While he was there, he was chosen for the first and only time in his life to go into the holiest place on earth. Behind the curtains, deep into the heart of the temple, into the inner chamber – it was said that if God were to appear anywhere on earth, it would happen there.

            And then it happened to Zechariah. The awesome angel appeared and said, “Don’t be afraid. God hears your prayer. Your wife will bear you a son.” In a moment of pure stupidity, the old Jewish priest said, “I don’t know how this could happen. We are as old as Abraham and Sarah . . .”

            The angel said, “Oh, be quiet!” Zechariah stumbled out of there, his face sunburned by glory. He staggered home. Elizabeth caught him, held him close, asked, “Dear heart, are you OK?” Soon after that, she was astonished by his vigor. Repeatedly she was astonished. And when the morning sickness came, she was astonished again.

            A child grew inside her, just as the angel had said. She pondered this deeply. The first time she ever speaks in scripture, she proclaims something profound: “God has replaced disgrace by grace.”

            Now it’s six months later. As she sorts through the laundry, her distant relative’s daughter shows up in her doorframe. The child in her belly gave a kick. Then another one. She dropped the laundry basket and took a breath. As young Mary helped her scoop up the clothing, they began the conversation that has been recorded in today’s text. These two pregnant women speak of their mysteries. They find one another. Neither is hidden from the other. On a purely human level, did they speak of the same surprises that pregnant women share? Of course they did.

Yet the conversation we have is at a different level. As Luke tells it, it is a conversation prompted by the Holy Spirit. Luke loves to talk about the Holy Spirit. He says here, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean? This is Luke’s way of saying that she is full of God. When somebody is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” it means God gets into them. The power of God fills up Elizabeth. The joy of God overflows out of her. The breath of God fills her lungs and she exhales blessings.

            In the temple, her old man Zechariah had his holy moment. This is now hers. God infuses her body and soul. God gets into her, as much as God gets into anybody. Such moments can come to any of us. I believe they can come at any time. They have come for others, they have come to me. It’s an uncalculated event of pure grace, a moment when the Holy Force of the universe becomes deeply personal, and we are affected and changed.

            I recall a couple of years ago. There was a person who was as angry a soul as any I have ever met. She stomped around, created wreckage wherever she went. But that Christmas Eve, her heart completely thawed, and she descended into a flood of tears. When she caught her breath, she explained, “I was singing Silent Night by candlelight, and I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help myself.” I think I know what it was. God got into her. Or as Luke says, “Filled with the Holy Spirit.”

            Nobody manufactures these moments. They fall on us out of heaven. As Luke introduces us to the coming of Jesus into our world, he says the Spirit of God gets into all kinds of people: Elizabeth, Zechariah, their son John, mother Mary, old Simeon and ancient Anna. The Spirit prompts the birth of Jesus, and then falls on him completely when he is baptized thirty years later. As Jesus prays, preaches, heals, and feed, the Spirit spills out of him for the benefit of other people. Then the Spirit comes upon a frightened group of his friends and turns them into a bold and serving church.  

            In our text, the Spirit comes upon Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and she is no longer the same person. She begins to speak while her husband the priest remains mute. Even if she were a woman of her times, instructed by the male-dominated culture to be quiet and stay out of sight, here she is, bubbling over with blessings, effusively honoring the future mother of Jesus. There is something new happening in the world, signals Luke: it’s time for the women to speak of God’s goodness. They are not to be swept away in the old world of Jewish tradition. Oh no, not when the Spirit of God comes upon them!

            What we have here is a story about the turning of the ages. The old Elizabeth – barren like Sarah, barren like Rebekah, barren like Rachel, barren like Hannah[1] – she is having a child because of the generosity of God. She stands for the women of every age who are disregarded and dismissed because they cannot produce for their men – and God provides what their men cannot provide for them.

            It’s like the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah:

            Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!
            For the children of the desolate woman will be more numerous
than the children of her that is married.[2]

            Something is happening through Elizabeth – the barrenness of centuries of Jewish hopes is now being countered by the grace of God.

            And something is happening in Mary, the young unmarried woman. Her child comes as a complete gift, unrequested, unexpected, without the initiation of any man. The Spirit comes upon Mary, and that’s all it takes to have a child. That’s all it takes. And this child of hers will grow to honor women and men as equal children of God. He will push aside the cultural restrictions of his day to speak to women, to heal them, to welcome their support of his work. He counters the world’s disgraceful assessment of women with God’s abundant grace. So it is the women who first sing of his birth, and women who first share the announcement of his resurrection.

            How can this be? It’s because God gives God’s own self to the world. God breathes God’s Breath as a way of pushing open something new. Without the Holy Spirit – without God’s purpose or presence in our lives – we are left only to ourselves. All we have is our own words, our limited hopes, our restricted abilities. But when God comes into our midst, we find ourselves players in some larger plan.

            “Blessed is she who believes that what God speaks will happen.” Elizabeth the old sings this to Mary the young. With this burst of Spirit, the ages turn and something new is announced.

            This is the promise of Christmas, as we sing our carols, pray our prayers, and offer ourselves to the work of God. God has a mission to this world. It is announced by Elizabeth’s child on behalf of Mary’s son. God comes to say that every single one of us matters. If our lives are barren, God has the power to fill them. If our hopes have frozen, God comes to re-ignite them. If our work is hard and met with resistance, if faith is shaky and energy is depleted, God comes in the blessing of the Holy Spirit. This gift is not a birthright or a stockpiled asset. The Spirit comes and goes, as wild as the winter wind. But the Spirit does come – and that is God’s blessing – to Elizabeth, to Mary, and to us.

            Watch for this, O beloved people of God, for all of you are pregnant. You have the seed of God’s future planted deep within you. Watch and prepare for the Spirit to fill you, to move you, to lift you, to empower you, to increase in you. Prepare for a great and benevolent force beyond your own to equip you to love strangers, to forgive enemies, to create new possibilities for life where there were once only death and dead-ends.

            Trust the good news of God. And remember one thing more: belief is a muscle that needs exercise.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Genesis 11:30, 25:21, 29:31, 1 Samuel 1:2
[2] Isaiah 54:1

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Shout in the Dark

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Advent 3
December 16, 2012
William G. Carter

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.
The LORD has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy.
The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem: Don’t fear, Zion. Don’t let your hands fall.
The LORD your God is in your midst— a warrior bringing victory.
He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.
I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts. They have been a burden for her, a reproach.
Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time.
I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast.
I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth.
At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you.
I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples
when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD.

Today I want to talk about hope. Hope. Hope is a human word. It is in our DNA. It runs through our bloodstreams. Whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, there is the possibility of hope. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Hope is an Advent word. The four Sundays before Christmas invite us to be full of hope. Advent slows down our speedy impulses when everybody is in a hurry. We wait for Christ to be born within us, to become more like him, to love as he loves, to live in union with God as he lives. The church knows this takes a while. We don’t become like Christ without effort and the passing of time. So we have the days of Advent to wait it out and work it out. And the promise of Advent is that, when Christ comes, we shall join in the Christmas carol that says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” We hope for Christ to come right here. We hope for him to come where he is needed most.

            But hope is a misunderstood word. Hope is often confused with “wish.” We have lived the age-old scenario: “Blow out the birthday candles, close your eyes, and make a wish.” The problem comes in closing the eyes. A wish always closes its eyes. A wish imagines something that cannot happen. But hope is different. Hope keeps its eyes wide-open, sees how things really are, imagines what things could be, and works for that.

            We heard some people “hope for peace.” Truth be told, they aren’t hoping for peace so much as they are wishing for peace. They are blowing out birthday candles and expecting magic. Because, you see, a wish is always a wish for magic. But if we hope for peace, it wires us differently. And that’s what I want to talk about, as a way of addressing our national crisis, as a way to get through our days and nights.

            Our guide for this Zephaniah, one of the Bible’s nearly forgotten writers. How many of you knew there was a book named Zephaniah? We don’t hear from Zephaniah very much because he wrote one of the grumpiest books in the Bible.

We call him a “minor prophet” and do not know much about him. According to the very first verse, which was added later, Zephaniah spoke up for God during a time of national housecleaning. Israel had a decent king for once, a king by the name of Josiah, who was leading a national “Back to the Bible” reform. The king’s Bible at the time was the book of Deuteronomy. By returning to Deuteronomy, the people were returning to God. There was a brief national emphasis on getting rid of the counterfeit gods – you know, the small “g” gods that everybody tends to worship.

It’s all too easy for anybody to fall into that kind of idolatry. The God of Israel is frequently very quiet, and The Creator of the Universe is sufficiently enormous to remain out of sight. And in that supposed vacuum, other pretenders fill the gap. Or we turn to small little things or small little people from whom we expect great things. Josiah rediscovered the biblical book of Deuteronomy, a book about keeping God first, a book about loving God first before everything else.

On the surface, the prophet Zephaniah did his preaching during that time of reform. The first verse of the book was added later to date his work at that time.

But apparently, a lot of people weren’t getting the memo. Because what Zephaniah actually says is that God is coming with fiery nostrils to snort and rage against the people. The very first thing God says is, “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth!” And who can blame the Holy One of Israel? God’s own people are worshiping their own pleasure, in the name of Baal, the pleasure god (1:4). They are weighing all their silver coins (1:11) and bowing down before the fake gods of money and affluence, and Zephaniah says, “Neither their silver nor gold will be able to save them” (1:18).

God says, “I have called them to live by justice, but they have ignored me” (3:2). The people live by the status quo as violence breaks out around them. They put up walls and think vainly that this will keep them safe. And to make matters worse, the so-called holy leaders take the Bible and use it as “a weapon to maim and kill souls” (3:4, The Message).

To sum up, it was a dark time in the national life. If there was any reform, it was not taking root. When you start reading the prophet Zephaniah, it is like, “Whoa! The Day of the Lord is right here. This murderous, indifferent people are going to be flushed down the sewer.” It looks like gloom, doom, destruction and despair are riding closer on the horses of the Apocalypse. God is sending judgment on the people – and in a way, it was largely self-inflicted.

And then, just at that point, just when the darkness is so heavy, we get the passage that we heard today. “Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Rejoice, my little girl Jerusalem! The Lord removes your judgment. The Strong King stands in the middle of all of you. You don’t have to fear evil anymore.”

Let me say something, then, about how the Bible talks, and specifically how the prophet Zephaniah speaks. Here is a prophet who brings the honest word of God. There is no tinsel on his description of how corrupt are the people, no glitter as we describes our broken lives. As God speaks through the Bible’s prophets, God never softens any words about how messed up the human family was, is, and always shall be. Because of this divine honesty, the prophets, as God’s press agents, often took the brunt of human response.

But just after God speaks, and the moment of recognition comes when the people say, “Yep, that’s what we are,” God will then often interrupt that dark moment by saying, “Rejoice, little girl. The Warrior God will bring calm with his love. God will rejoice over you with singing.” That’s called “the good news.” Hebrew scholars call this “the salvation announcement.” This is the shout of God’s light in the thickest human darkness. And it is intended to shape us differently, to remake us into different people.

You know, a lot of people could say, “Where was God on Friday, when shooter went into the Sandy Hook Elementary School?” The assumption is that God should show up like a comic book super hero, block all the bullets, defend all the innocent, and punch the crazy guy to the moon. Remember the distinction that I made between “hope” and “wish”? That would be a wish. You can shut your eyes and make that wish.

Perhaps other people ask other questions. Here is one that I have heard: “Where was God in the gun store, when overly dangerous weapons were sold?” Or here is another: “Where was God, when a young man was so tormented that the reptile part of his brain struck down little ones who had done nothing against him?”

Where was God? The answer is right there in the words of the prophet Zephaniah: “The Lord your God is in your midst. God will create calm with his love. God will rejoice over you with singing.”

So I want to talk about hope. On a day of national grief, what are you hoping for? Twenty children in Connecticut have been taken from us, six adults cut down, the shooter himself and his mother are gone – what do we hope for? I could turn you loose to talk among yourselves, but I’m not sure I could get you back. We are a divided people, especially when it comes to guns. All of us agree that children must be kept safe. We will do whatever we can to protect them. But we do not know how to do this.

One of the Bible’s words for hope is the Hebrew word gavah. The root of it means “to twist,” as in when the strands of a rope are twisted together. As someone has said, this is a word that seems to fit our brand of hoping well. “The possibility that that good thing happen and that bad thing will not happen, a hundred little strands of hope that we  twist together to make a cable of hope strong enough to pull ourselves along through our lives with.”[1]

So we take everything that we hope for our children and we twist it together. It can become strong enough that we can pull ourselves along and get through the dark.

There is no question that this world is a mess. Anybody have any doubts of that after the gunshots in Connecticut? I suppose we can obsess about the killer, flash his face repeatedly on the news, do an amateur psychological analysis, and become addicted to the sensationalism. But this can become a sick distraction from the fact that whole world is a mess. And this pushes us toward God. What we hope for is God – a good God, a just God, the only God who, in Zephaniah’s words, can “change shame into praise.”

I think of how Fred Rogers, the prophet for children, once put it. He said, “At the heart of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job.”

So then, hope is more than a vacant wish. Hope is something we invest in. Hope is what we give ourselves to. And when a senseless tragedy happens, we open our eyes to see – and then we decide if it is going to define who we are. The prophet Zephaniah is well aware of what deep trouble the human race repeatedly creates for itself. But as the prophet listens to God, he hears God say, “Don’t be afraid.” Our world may be in a mess – but people who listen to God refuse to live by fear. No, there is another way forward.

Saint Augustine, the early bishop of the church, knew this. In one of his most memorable quotes, he said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”[2]

Hope has to do with what could be. It has to do with what we will do to invest ourselves in changing what needs to be changed. One of the dreamers who taught us a great deal about hope was the poet Langston Hughes. Here are some words that he passed along:

I dream a world where man no other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth and peace its path adorn.
I dream a world where all will know sweet freedom’s way
Where greed no longer saps the soul nor avarice blights the day.

A world I dream where black and white, whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth and every [one] is free.
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And Joy, like a pearl, attends the needs of all humankind   [“all mankind”]
Of such a world, I dream, my world.

You, there is something curious about that poem. It is never says who is speaking. I think it is God. For God dreams that “love will bless the earth and peace its path adorn.” This is God’s dream for God’s own world.

And when we hear God’s dream - when we work for it - that is the very definition of hope.

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: Seabury Press, 1969) 123.
[2] As quoted in Spirituality and Liberation: Overcoming the Great Fallacy (1988) by Robert McAfee Brown, p. 136.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Preparing the Way

Luke 3:1-9
Advent 2
December 9, 2012
William G. Carter

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

            Advent signals more than the coming of Jesus Christ. Advent is the coming of John the Baptist. This strange prophet calls out from the desert. He is a throw-back to the Old Testament, one more demanding desert preacher. God gives him a Word to speak that differs from the emperor, governor, and rulers of the day. John works the region on both sides of the river, out beyond the cities and the towns. He speaks a Holy Word when the official religious leaders apparently had little to say.

            All the Gospels say the people were ready for him. Of course, they were ready. When John the Baptist opened his mouth, God came out. God was on his lips. God was in his voice. And what people want more than anything else is to be in the presence of God.

            I remember when my parents were invited by some neighbors to go and hear a traveling preacher. My sister and I were taken along, as I recall. We squeezed into the neighbors’ car, all six of us, and went over the hills to the country church that our neighbors attended. I don’t know where it was. I was little. From what I can piece together from that night, it must have been a revival. The old country folk in that church needed to be revived.

And when the preacher came out in a black suit and a glistening brow, he revived as many of those folk as he could. He worked pretty hard at it. I can’t remember what he said, but I remember he was loud. He blew our hair straight back. He raised the temperature in the room. I was just a child, but I remember it was loud and scary – and I didn’t want to leave.

            Luke says there were crowds. Large numbers of people! They came to be washed by John. He didn’t care who they were. He didn’t waste any time reading their resumes. John yelled at whoever showed up. ‘Who do you think you are, to show your face or tout your credentials?” he screamed. “Do you think God is going to give you a free pass to glory? Oh no, it’s not free. It’s going to cost you everything!”

And with that, the people came. They wanted to be in the presence of somebody who took God seriously. They wanted somebody who could cut through the nonsense and talk about something real. They came out to experience John the Baptist because it was just like experiencing God.

            Now, I hesitate to say much about this. We are a long way from John. We sit on cushioned seats in a temperature-controlled room. Our music is well rehearsed. Everybody looks so respectable. This is such a contrast from John’s sanctuary! In the desert there are no seats and certainly no thermostats. There was no music other than the scream of animals and the cry of human hearts. John spoke in such a situation of extremity. We can speak of him only from a distance. We are a long way from his desert.

            But maybe not. Advent invites us to close the gap, to reflect on the same human hunger to experience God. When I consider John the Baptist and his habitat, I remember a few lines from poet T.S. Eliot. He knew there are many sorts of deserts in life, and some of them have nothing to do with sandy wastes and scorching sun. The poet says,

            You neglect and belittle the desert.
            The desert is not remote in southern tropics
            The desert is not only around the corner,
            The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
            The desert is in the heart of your brother.[1]
            The barrenness is just that close. The howling wind, the wild exposure, the rawness of the elements – it is all right here, so close to so many of us. Every human heart knows the desert.

            A few years ago, I felt the tug to spend a little desert time. A plane ticket took me to Albuquerque, a bus took me to Santa Fe, and a borrowed car took me to a red rock canyon. There is a monastery in the canyon, thirteen miles from nowhere. I wanted to know: what does it mean to go to the desert? To confront the barren wasteland that is all too familiar? I asked the brothers in the monastery; they smiled and kept their vow of silence. They waited a week before any of them said a word. They watched to see if I was serious – or if I was merely a tourist passing through.

            On my final day, they told me what they gave up to go to the desert. One of them had been an engineer. He gave up a job researching solar energy in a laboratory. Another left behind a career as the development director of a major arts organization. A third didn’t really have a job, he said, just drifted from one employment to another, and the impulse to join the desert monastery seemed to set him free from years of fumbling from one meaningless job to another. The engineer spoke up and said, “I was very good at my job, but the stress was killing me.” The development officer said, “I raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for my organization, but it left me empty and hollow.”

            All of them gave up lives that had become numb, empty, and suffocating. Each one moved away from a life that paying very well but killing them in the process. They walked away – to seek life together in the desert. They pray, they share the chores, and they contribute their skills for the life of their small community.
            That’s what came to mind as I reflected on the words of John the Baptist, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” It is a real picture from first century agriculture. A vineyard owner would cull the grapevines that were not producing fruit by killing them. On the day when vines were to be dressed, the farmer would visit the field with a sharp axe. He would hack up the vine that produced nothing, that took up space and soil. It was smothering the other vines, taking away valuable resources, so it needed to go.

And when I recount the story of those three monks, they were confessing there was some part of their lives that was unproductive. It didn’t amount to anything. It was dragging them down. It needed to go. And that gives me some insight into a very practical way for us to prepare the way of God to come to us.

            For Advent, I suggest that we spend a little time doing an inventory of our souls. Is there a part of our lives that is dead and has no use? Maybe it’s an ability that once we had, but we have let it wither, and all that remains is a faint trace. Or we encounter the young person who does it far better than we ever could; it may be time to let it go.

            Or perhaps it is a memory that lingers with us. Say, for instance, a picture is fixed in our heads: “This is how Christmas is supposed to look. This is who should be there. This is how we are going to decorate. This is how we are going to dress. This is what we are going to do.” But if we are truthful, Christmas has not been like that for a number of years. We are hanging onto a memory that does not work anymore; it may be time to let it go.

            Or it might be an opinion that we hold of ourselves. We look into the mirror to say, “This is who I am, this is what I am about.” But if we are completely honest, that is not who we are or what we are about. And it hasn’t been, for a while. A small distortion has grown to be a delusion, and our reinforced messages are only holding us hostage. It may be time to let this go.  

            Or maybe, just maybe, there is some voice, a tempting voice, that repeats that we are now worthy of the love of God or the love of anybody else. The desert is a place of testing, of sorting through the voices that bombard us. Sometimes we may hear the parent or the teacher or the critic denouncing us, restricting us, reducing us, declaring, “You are nothing. Nobody loves you. You are a cosmic mistake.” And if you give into that voice long enough, you will start to believe it. The voice of self-negation needs to be cut off. We have to let it go.

            If Advent calls us to prepare a way for God to come, it calls us to the honesty of the desert. Is there some deadness in our branches, some withering piece of our spirit that we simply need to let go?

            Maybe it’s time to let go of the manufactured holiday. You know, the heavy burden of having to do all the shopping, go to all the parties, put up all the lights, bake up all the goodies, hang all the ornaments, send all the cards, get in touch with all the friends, and maintain all the traditions. Is there some part of this that doesn’t give us any joy anymore? The old Christmas train carries a lot of freight, doesn’t it? And if some part of this is smothering us, John the Baptist says, “Let me get my axe and bring it to that old dead vine.”

            Or maybe it’s time to let go of the incessant spending. I’m the first one to get caught up in it. On Friday afternoon, I found myself with the first free hours of my week, so I swung into the parking lot of the Junk Emporium. That’s the name of the store: the Junk Emporium. It has aisles and aisles of Christmas stuff. I piled my shopping cart full of stuff that I didn’t want and do not need but planned to give to other people. I picked up gifts for some friends, a goofy gift for my dad, an even more ridiculous gift for my mother, and some very special gifts for my household that do not appear on their wish lists.

I labored to push my laden shopping cart out the door. It was so full that it was hard to push, and a man had to help me get the cart over the door frame. Then I realized who he was: he was the bell ringer from the Salvation Army that I had ignored on my way into the Junk Emporium. He, in turn, gazed into my loaded shopping cart, and looked up with disappointed eyes, as if to silently say, “Do you really need all this stuff? I’m ringing the bell for hungry people here. Do you really need all this stuff?”

Well, I pushed by him without saying a word, loaded up my sleigh, and flew home. And as I am carrying the bags into my house, I looked at what I bought, and asked, “Do I really need all this stuff?”

            That’s a good question for the desert. Having a shopping cart full of unnecessary stuff is not the same thing as being a tree with good fruit. Not at all.

            John the Baptist runs the checkpoint on the road to God. He will not let any casual travelers pass. In fact, he directs us to the weighing station to check if we are carrying any unnecessary burdens that we need to drop. God sends John to make us pare down, to push us to focus, to claim the life that really is life. If there is something that holds us back from experiencing the simple joy of God, we have to let it go.

            I’m thinking of my friend Carlos. He lives in the desert of Point Pleasant, New Jersey, a town damaged greatly by the hurricane. The Presbyterian Church that he serves as pastor will be housing up to thirty-six volunteers a day for the next four years. The volunteers will be helping that community to rebuild its life.

            Carlos is well read. He suggests that Henry David Thoreau is a helpful guide for understanding John the Baptist and the call of the desert. Thoreau wrote a book called Walden, to reflect on some time he spent living in the Massachusetts desert. Here’s what Thoreau says of his journey:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.[2]

Don’t be afraid of the desert. That is where God meets us.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock,’” The Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1952), p. 98.
[2] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Houghton Mifflin, 1854), p. 257.