Food 4 the Road 7: The way of hope

This week we have entered into the way of hope. It is the prophets who show us how as they hold firm to who God is and what God has promised in the midst of difficult and devastating life circumstances.

Hope does not set us free;
it binds us to the hard places,
to the dry places,
to the burning places,
watching and waiting for the bud to blossom,
for the river to run,
for the promises of God to become a present reality.

Sometimes, we may wish that God would release us and allow us to wallow in self-pity; to throw up our hands in despair and declare, “There is nothing to be done!”

Yet hope catches the lie between ours lips and counters,
“Just wait and see what God can do.”

As we journey with your living Word
and deeper into the eternal Mystery of God-with-us,
may you come to us
like a bud on a long-dead branch,
like a quiet stream in the desert,
like the warm hand of a child,
reaching out to lead us.

Amen.

Food 4 the Road 6: Where does God dwell?

As I was unpacking cupboards this week to make space for some of my “story supplies” in my new office, I came across baby Jesus and his manager made roughly of wood and a painted shoe box full of hay.

For some reason, the scene of Jesus tucked away in a cupboard reminded me of the words of the prophet Ezekiel (after the vision of the valley of dry bones):

My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

Ezekiel 37:27-28

Incarnation is the fancy word for the Christ coming to us in a cradle full of animal feed. Christmas answers forever the question of where does God dwell.

So … for today, a series of questions to remind us of how near God draws to us in this – and every – season, as the prophets said it would be:

Where does God dwell?
In an unseen heaven far away
where we’ll meet Him on our judgment day?
No, no! God’s much nearer than that!

Where does God dwell?
In an oblong box of acacia wood
where She fits in snug as we think She should?
No, no! God’s much bigger than that!

Where does God dwell?
In a fancy temple made by human hands –
a holy place where few can stand?
No, no! God’s more loving than that!

Then where does God dwell?
Where could God be?
Where has God gone?
OH! God dwells with me. 

Food 4 the Road 5: Creative complaining

Today’s Advent task is to attempt crafting a friendship bracelet like this one:

Wikihow makes it look easy: https://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Friendship-Bracelet

It’s inspired by another tiny prophet: Habbakuk. 

Writing (probably) during the Chaldean period when Babylon was at the height of her power, he converses with Jehovah through a series of complaints to which God must respond regarding God’s punishment and providence.

Do you have any complaints that you would like to make against God today? Choose a colour for your bracelet that will reflect your complaints.

Throughout the conversation, Habakkuk wrestles, as many of us do, with the apparent prosperity of the wicked while good and holy people suffer, but holds stubbornly to the ancient stories of God coming forth to deliver his people despite the “evidence” of God’s inactivity.

His faith is based on God’s faithfulness in the past; on the songs and stories of God’s people throughout the ages. From Joshua’s battle with the Amorites when the sun stood still and the moon stopped in the sky until the nation had been avenged (Habakkuk 3:11), to the surging waters of the Red Sea trampling down the Egyptian’s horses and chariots as the Israelites fled captivity (Habakkuk 3:15), Habakkuk has been nursed on the accounts of a God of Action – Mighty to Save – that enable him to wait patiently despite a clear threat to his personal safety and the wellbeing of his nation as a whole.

What are the songs and stories that you hold on to to remind you of God’s faithfulness? Weave a new colour into your bracelet design as a symbol of God’s goodness.

He writes, in conclusion of his conversation with Jehovah, of his conscious decision to trust in the Lord and rejoice in his Saviour despite their current plight:

“Fig trees may no longer bloom,
or vineyards produce grapes;
olive trees may be fruitless,
and harvest time a failure;
sheep pens may be empty,
and cattle stalls vacant—
but I will still celebrate
because the Lord God  saves me”

Habbakuk 3:17-18

Habakkuk sees everywhere “evidence” of God’s inactivity and apparent desertion yet chooses to celebrate, in faith, the God who has shown himself through the ages as mighty to save.

Choose a bold colour for the final strand of your bracelet as a symbol of your choice to celebrate. How might you share this choice in the world today?

Food for the Road 4: A long time to wait

Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:

Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.

In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours.

It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King.

And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.

Isn’t that a beautiful image?
A hope to hold on to?

But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year?

It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …

… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.

But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.

Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.

We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.

But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:

  • Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
  • Ruth, the foreigner,
  • Rahab, the prostitute,
  • Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
  • and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.

Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.

As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:

  • what does that promise really mean?
  • what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
  • do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
  • do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
  • do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?

My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.

Food 4 the Road 3: The Stump of Jesse

For our first Christmas in Australia, I insisted that we find a living tree we loved that would grow, like us and with us, in this new land.

Spruce me up for Christmas.

After several futile trips to garden centres and nurseries, we finally found the perfect little Norway Spruce and planted it in a big red pot and surrounded with poinsettias to mark the season. The tree itself was so small, however, that we had to hang the lights and few ornaments that we had held onto on a metal frame around the fragile branches.

Hmmm … I think the moose are multiplying in the Christmas closet.

This morning, as I braced myself to lug it from its sunny spot by the front door into the lounge, I realised that it is actually as tall as I am – and I’ll probably need a few more muscles to get the job done.

Seeds of hope

The lovely little leaves and acorns that I bought as decorations will probably also just disappear among the branches but they are symbols to me of the living hope that we honour and nurture in the time of Advent.

Yesterday, we read in the words of the prophet Micah, a reference to the Promised One coming to a little and unlikely place. But we also read that this One still to be born will have ancient roots.

Isaiah, too, writes of these old, old origins blending the promise that is to come into a past in which God has always been faithful:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
 from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

Isaiah 11:1

This is a great mystery of the Christian faith: that both past and promise inform our present hopes, dreams, and choices in life-givng, creative tension.

I’ll elaborate on that a little more tomorrow, but today I’d simply like to link you to a song by Heather Price entitled “Seed of Hope” which is a prayer for our environment in a time when we celebrate new life and beginnings and also recognise the ongoing hardships of those threatened by drought and bushfire.

Click on 07 Seed of hope on the website: https://heatherprice.com.au/downloads/carols-in-the-sun/

Food for the Road 2: Little and Unlikely

These beautiful advent calendars are two of my favourite Christmas decorations. Aren’t they lovely? Don’t you just want to peek inside at the mysteries they hold; mysteries to be revealed one by one each day in the journey to Bethlehem and the Christ-child in his cradle?

I can tell you right now that if you did slide out one of the drawers to discover what lies within, you would be very, very disappointed.

Each Christmas, with great intentions I declare that this will be the year that I find 24 (times two!) little treasures to point the way to what it most important (which is what good prophets do) and – every year – I simply don’t get around to it because of: lack of time, or lack of money, or a total lack of inspiration!

But, this year, thanks to a small prophet writing about a small place being of great significance to the whole, wide world, I’m inspired to do things differently.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Micah 5:2

The words of the prophet Micah are spoken to the people of Israel at a similar time to those of the better known prophet Isaiah, and the message itself is quite similar (though very brief in comparison). But Micah writes from a very different context: from a tiny village in the countryside where the life and death of the marginalised and the poor are determined daily by distant and greedy rulers, judges, priests, and even prophets. It is because of them that all will be destroyed, he warns.

Yet God’s future plans will not be ruined by the desolation of God’s people.

One day, the greatest of all kings will be born to a small family in the small town of Bethlehem. God will use the little and unlikely to change the world.

So, today, I labelled my lovely advent calendars: “Little” for the tree (which is very miniature in comparison to the Norwegian fir tree that we’ll decorate this week), and “Unlikely” for the reindeer-moose-thingy because – though undeniably cute – he seems completely inappropriate for our Australian context.

Into “Little” I popped a small scroll of something little that I can do that will make a small difference to another person’s life in some way. The first task was inspired by a very particular person and a very particular need but I’ve generalised the idea: Reach out in a sensitive way to someone who usually keeps others at a distance.

Into “Unlikely” I popped a small scroll containing a big prayer. With today being Cyber Monday, I prayed for the cancellation of debt and a financial breakthrough for individuals and families who are victims of our consumer culture. It seemed like a pretty impossible thing to ask for but … “though you are small ….”

Each day in Advent, I plan to add a scroll to both, detailing a little task that can make a difference in another’s life and a big prayer that seems so unlikely of coming true that we may not think to ask for it. And each day, I plan to offer both.

At the end of the Christmas season, the boxes will be full instead of empty.

So next year when each drawer is opened (whether with my family or my church community), there will be inspiration of simple gifts that we can give one another, and huge hopes to hold onto, and even – I hope – opportunities for thanksgiving and celebration as we discover that God is working in our world in marvellous and unlikely ways.

Note: even if you don’t have fancy advent calendars that you’re trying to put to good use or want to do this in a different season, you could label two jam jars and fill them with colourful post it notes.

Food 4 the Road 1: Prophets

At the start of the Advent season, we light the candle of the Prophets.

Prophets are people who come so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what is most important.

Jerome Berryman, Godly Play

Generally speaking, prophets are not popular people.

It’s understandable really. Either they are throwing out some quite confronting warnings about where particular life choices might lead us (generally ending in despair, destruction, and death), or they’re painting such impossible pictures (like wolves lying down with lambs or an-all-you-can-eat-banquet at no cost or dry bones coming to life again) that you have to question their sanity.

It’s important to note as we celebrate our “prophets of old” in this month that prophets are not just people of the past.

Have you ever met a prophet?
How do you know?
How were they received?
What difference did their words make?

An important task of the Church today is, in fact, to exercise a prophetic voice in the communities and societies and countries in which we gather. In other words, part of our calling as Christians is to offer warning about where particular life choices might lead us and/or to paint seemingly impossible pictures of God’s future for the whole world with great hopefulness and expectation.

These are not to be our own desires or judgments ill-wrapped in “godly language” to suit our own causes or sense of what is good and right but pointing people to the One who promises the renewal and reconciliation of the whole earth.

During Advent, when we are particularly aware of God coming close to us in Christ, we have the opportunity to come so close to God that we know what is most important, that we have something to say in the world that can make a dramatic difference.

How can you come close to God over this special season?

Over the next six days we will enter deeper into the mystery of God-with-us through the prophets, beginning with Micah who sets us firmly on the road to Bethlehem:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Micah 5:2

Prayer

God of Promise,
we hear, in Christ, your greeting
to the universe as we enter into this season of mystery:
“Hope to you:
hope for healing,
hope for refreshing,
hope for a world made new!”

We confess, today, how hard it is to pay attention to the signs of your presence with us –
or within those who are radically different from us.

We acknowledge, today, how easy it is to speak criticism
or judgment or bad tidings
above good news and affirmation and promise.

We turn away, today, from the past that holds us captive
in the place of pain and despair,
as we turn in the light of your revelation
and the movement of your Spirit
to your vision for this new day,
for a world made new.

Open our hearts to the words of the prophets – past, present, and future –
as we seek to be signs of Your hope in this season.

In Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Day Twenty Two: Home

2 Samuel 7:1-11,16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

This year was a tumultuous one for my family and I as we sold the house that we had dreamed of, built, and lived in for fifteen years; packed a lifetime of memories into 52 boxes; and immigrated to an unfamiliar land with the hope and the promise that God would go ahead to prepare a place for us ….

In the midst of all the uncertainty and anxiety lay this grace: that we had a home to go to, a place of our own where we would be sheltered and safe while jobs, schools, church, furnishing etc. slowly fell into place.

Home. Our home. From the moment we inserted the key in the lock and opened up a welcome space, all of the unfamiliarities and inconveniences and heartaches suddenly seemed manageable.

Home.

King David had found one in the conquered city of Jerusalem. All settled in, he was suddenly conscious of the fact that while he enjoyed the comfort and protection of his cedar house, the Spirit of the Lord had been residing in a plain tent since the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in the land of Egypt.

Yet even as he ponders building a dignified sanctuary for the Lord, God declares:

“ I shall build you a house.
I who took you from leading sheep to leading my people,
who raised you from a humble shepherd to a conquering king;
I who have been with you and gone before
and granted you victory after victory over your enemies –
I will appoint a place for my people
and ensure that your family and your royal kingdom are permanently ensured”
(2 Samuel 7:11-16, paraphrased).

Home.

A home worthy for a king: the King of Creation, our Prince of Peace.

And so God sent the angel Gabriel to a small village called Nazareth, in Galilee, to a young virgin named Mary who was engaged to be married to a man from David’s line.

And Gabriel appeared to her and said:

“Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you,”
(Luke 1:28, The Message).

Mary was perplexed – and probably more than a little shaken – to receive such a greeting from this divine messenger.

As we may well be when we realise that God does not want to be housed in an ornate temple that we visit on sacred days or even relegated to the mysterious heights of heavens …

but God chooses to make God’s home with and within us.

God is with us:
settled into the ordinary and the everyday of our routines,
present  for our wonderings and our worryings,
sitting in on our questions and our conversations,
welcoming the visitors to our door
and walking with us through the neighbourhood …

… God is home

… we remember and we celebrate – particularly this night.

Light a candle or leave a light on this night as a symbol of welcome and invitation to God who longs to make home with you.

Day Sixteen: War Cry

Psalm 125
1 Kings 18:1-18
Ephesians 6:10-17

There are certain passages of Scripture – particularly stories of conquest in the Old Testament – that always summon the words of an old hymn now long out of favour for its militant imagery and  imperialistic associations to mind.

Today’s texts do the same.

As I read of the prophet Elijah’s deliberate encounter with the evil king Ahab after months in hiding, and anticipate that epic showdown between the prophets of Baal and this faithful servant of God, the refrain begins:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

As I imagine the stamping feet of hundreds of pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem, praying (Psalm 125:4-5),
O Lord, do good to those who are good,
whose hearts are in tune with you.
But banish those who turn to crooked ways,
O Lord.
Take them away with those who do evil,

the rhythm builds:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

As I hear the apostle Paul urging the Christians of Ephesus to put on the full armour of God so that they might stand firm in the spiritual battle in which they were engaged against their old paganism with its dark thoughts, dirty talk, and immoral ways, the cry resounds:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

Unpopular, outdated, uncomfortable as the metaphor may be, in this season of watching and waiting for the Christ-King, today’s Scripture (the sword of the Spirit) opens our eyes to what is going on in the vast unknown of the spiritual realm.

There is a spiritual war going on; a showdown between God and Satan in every part of the cosmos, in earth and in heaven; forces of darkness and evil at work in the world even as we celebrate and long for the True Light of Life; an unholy influence evident where dictators usurp power and the human institutions created to protect and preserve life become instruments of corruption and oppression.

What are we to do in the face of such an intimidating foe?

Trust in God,” the Psalmist answers. “Like Mount Zion, nothing can move Him; nor those who are encircled in his arms forever,” (Psalm 125:1-2).

Stand firm in the power of the God-of-Angel-Armies, as Elijah did when he defied Ahab’s accusations: “It’s not I who has caused trouble in Israel,” said Elijah, “but you and your government—you’ve dumped God’s ways and commands and run off after the local gods …” (1 Kings 18:18).

Put on God’s armour and take your stand in God’s strength – the same strength that God used to conquer death and raise Jesus from the grave!

“Truth, righteousness, peace, faith,
and salvation are more than words.
Learn how to apply them …. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon …. prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare …. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out”
(
Ephesians 6:14-18, The Message).   

Today, pray long and hard for brothers and sisters in the faith …

… for those who are going through a particularly tough time …

… for those whose spirits are low or who are struggling with their faith ….

Day Fifteen: The Song of The Spirit

Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11
Luke 1:46b-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8,19-28

Over the second week of Advent, we encountered a God who longs to break open the way of Right and Whole living for us and to lead us into the light, the space, the zest that life with God is all about.

It may seem increasingly difficult to hold onto the gifts of sufficiency, hospitality, and eternity that we have received as our footsteps quicken with the countdown to Christmas but our daily Scripture readings urge us to keep seeking the Son; to take a breath with the Spirit in the midst of the busyness …

… and remember that the Good News of God with us is the promise of God’s power and presence transforming the ordinary, the every day; even the busy day into blessing ….

This week we awaken to the song of the Spirit:

bursting forth from the prophet Isaiah – a powerful proclamation
of good news to the poor
and healing to the heartbroken;
of freedom to the captive
and pardon to all prisoners;
of comfort to those in mourning
and favour to the least …

… the exaltation of a young virgin’s troubled heart set free to glorify the Lord and rejoice in God, her Saviour, for showing such care to a humble, simple servant and making her the most fortunate woman on earth …

inspiring the apostle Paul to write during times of imprisonment and persecution to be joyful and give thanks in all that happens …

truth-telling through John the Baptist concerning the Light that was coming into the world so that all could be clean, new, free.

The song of the Spirit:
… an overture of love thrummed by the morning’s sunrise,
accompanied by mountain-creaks and river gurgles,
the cheeky chirps of the blackbird in the garden,
the wind’s playful passage through the trees …

… an invitation to discern through
the cacophony of car horns, the press of people, the agenda of tasks, the juggling of roles

crotchets of compassion,
minims of mercy,
breath marks and breaks,
caesura (in which time is not counted),
accents of grace …

… an ancient melody full of promise and  of longing, which is finding fulfilment even in this present moment.

Read again the words of Isaiah (61:10):

“The Lord makes me very happy;
all that I am rejoices in my God.
He has covered me with clothes of salvation
and wrapped me with a coat of goodness,
like a bridegroom dressed for his wedding,
like a bride dressed in jewels.”

Sit for some time in silence, becoming aware of the Spirit with and within in ….

Then, when you are ready, write your own song of praise beginning with the words, “The Lord makes me very happy; all that I am rejoices in God. He has ….”