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/

Paying attention: a prayer of confession

In response to Isaiah 40:21-31

O True Light,
our Constant Companion,
we confess that we have not always paid attention to the signs of Your presence with us;
that, often, we have failed to grasp the immense gift of Your eternal love.
We spend our days scurrying after the insignificant and insubstantial –
worrying about how to get by,
how to compete
how to get ahead,
how to move on,
how to afford what we have,
how to get more,
how to find balance,
how to juggle it all
until we are burnt out, exhausted,
wondering where You are
and why You’ve lost track of us.

Great God who marches out an army of stars each night,
counts them off, and calls them by name,
forgive us for our foolishness
and set us in the firm foundation of Your faithfulness.
Remind us that You have not overlooked a single one of us,
nor a single moment of our circumstances.
As we wait upon You now, give us fresh strength
to persevere,
to hope,
to flourish
in Your presence
and through the power of Your love.
Amen.

Day Twenty Nine: Liminal Living

Psalm 148

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Luke 2:22-40

Galatians 4:4-7

“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning 
but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instil in us.”

Hal Borland

What beautiful, and pertinent, Scriptures, for this liminal time: the old year making way minute by minute for the new …

… like Mary emerging from the period of ritual separation or purification following her son’s birth to present Jesus at the temple and offer her sacrifice of doves (Luke 2:22) …

… or Simeon, who had been waiting his whole life for the coming of the consolation of Israel, declaring that he was ready to be released in peace now that the Light was out in the open for everyone to see (Luke 2:29-30) …

… or faithful Anna, an elderly prophetess who spent all her time at the temple, fasting and praying, now breaking into an anthem of praise and thanksgiving to God at their Redemption come into the world (Luke 2:37-38) ….

Zion’s righteousness
blazing down like the sun at dawn;
Jerusalem’s salvation
flaming up like a torch in the darkness
(Isaiah 62:1)

– that now
when the fullness of time had come,
we might receive the Spirit of adoption
in our hearts
through that self-same child
and cry,
“Abba,

Father!

Daddy!!”

(Galatians 4:4-6)

not because of anything that we have 
attempted,
resolved,
done,
or not done,

but because God has clothed us
with the garment of salvation
and covered us
with the robe of righteousness
(Isaiah 61:10).

In this liminal space, we have the opportunity to experience neither a beginning nor an end, but an ongoing growth and transition
from slave to child,
from child to heir,
with God
and in God
and through God (Galatians 4:7).

Our experience of 
the earth bringing up its shoots 
in each shifting season
or of a garden causing that which is sown in it to spring up long after we have forgotten what we had even planted in a particular patch 
is a powerful testimony to the faithfulness and the capacity of God 
to bring righteousness and praise to full bloom within our lives in the coming year.

Rather than resolving,
planning,
striving,
failing,
(or even succeeding),
perhaps the invitation of this new year
is to rest,
to trust,
to receive 
what God would give God’s children.

May the Turner of our Nights and Days
give us hope in each beginning,
thankfulness in each ending,
and the peace of his presence
for each moment in between.

A Prayer for Human Rights Day

*using the words of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 40) for a congregational response*

O Lord who calls us into the Way of Right Living
we remember this day the rights we’ve been given –
rights hard fought for by those who have gone before
through terrible suffering, oppression and war;
rights taught in our classrooms and upheld by our law;
rights that so many are still longing for.

For those without freedom,
working for little or no wage,
treated as outcasts,
imprisoned, enslaved:
clear a path in the desert,
level the rough ground,
move mountains and valleys,
til Your love abounds.

For those who are tortured,
exiled, and killed,
for someone’s sick pleasure
or cheap power thrill:
clear a path in the desert,
level the rough ground,
move mountains and valleys,
til Your love abounds.

For those seeking asylum
and fleeing in fear
to whom no place is offered –
especially not here:
clear a path in the desert,
level the rough ground,
move mountains and valleys,
til Your love abounds.

For those without work
or shelter or food,
Who we label as “lazy”
or “up to no good,”
clear a path in the desert,
level the rough ground,
move mountains and valleys,
til Your love abounds.

Where women are objects
And children are things
And the “love” of a man
just bruises and stings:
clear a path in the desert,
level the rough ground,
move mountains and valleys,
til Your love abounds.

For those different from us
in conscience, colour and creed
who we brand as the “Other”
and ignore in their need:
clear a path in the desert,
level the rough ground,
move mountains and valleys,
til Your love abounds.

Created in Your image,
we’re all made to be free;
the God-light wrapped up
in our frail dignity:
clear a path in the desert,
level the rough ground,
move mountains and valleys,
til Your love abounds. 

Day 1: Turn us again

Psalm 80:1-8, 18-20
Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37
1 Corinthians 1:3-9

One of my favourite memories of my children’s Montessori preschool remains their particular way of celebrating birthdays. Once a year, each child had the opportunity to sit in the centre of a circle of their peers while their teacher ambled around them, spinning a large globe in her hand.
All together they chanted:

The earth goes round the sun,
The earth goes round the sun,
Three hundred and sixty five days a year
the earth goes round the sun.

Five, six, seven  times she would circle and they would chant  until the birthday boy’s (or girl’s) new age had been counted.

It was a sacred moment, not only of remembering all the years that had passed before and brought them to that particular time and place, but also of rooting their lives within the greater context of a world that would continue to move and spin – three hundred and sixty five days a year, year after year after year.

The start of the Advent season is a similarly sacred time; an opportunity to reflect on the days that have passed within the greater context of God’s continuing plan to bring the entire earth into right and whole relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So we pause ….

We pause and hold at the centre of our thoughts, our prayers, the abundance of tears which we’ve choked on or choked back over the past year ….

We pause and open ourselves fully to the anxiety that we have not wanted to acknowledge as the earth has quaked and flooded and the sun has scorched ….

We pause and feel the weight of our own sinfulness and selfishness as it ripples through our family, into our community, into our society at large; even into our leadership, until we are smothered by our iniquity and immortality ….

We pause
in the darkness of sin
and the dis-ease of despair,
with no magic word to offer
a world so broken
that it seems beyond repair ….

It is in the painful pause that the significance of the Advent season is borne. Three hundred and sixty five days of the year, year after year after year, the world keeps on turning, going about its business; trying through its busyness to drown out its groaning, aching need for a Saviour. Advent reminds every Christian of the call to watch and to wait for the Word, the Light of the World, to come again and save us.

“Turn us again, O God; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved,” the Psalmist beseeches (verses 4, 8, and 20).

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah invites (verse 1).

Today, practise the pause. 

Offer God the hurt and anxiety that you might have felt over the past year. 

Express your empathy and concern for the pain of the world.

Then pray repeatedly the plea of the Psalmist or Isaiah’s invitation.

Fasting by feasting

*** a sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 and John 60:30-35, 41***

Today is the beginning of Lent – a 4o day period of repentance and fasting as we prepare for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection in which we focus on our relationship with God, often giving up something as a sign of our desire to walk the way of suffering and sacrifice with Christ.

For many of us, this is not a new commitment; not a new journey. Many of us have, in fact, grown up in homes and churches where the Lenten language is familiar and fasting is  common practice. Really, even the secular world now recommends that people participate in this Christian custom because of the health benefits associated with abstaining from certain meals or food groups.

So, at the beginning of this well-worn, world-sanctioned season, let us acknowledge that, like the Israelites, we are well-practiced in these particular religious rituals: we lament in loud voices, we come forward for the imposition of ashes with sad faces, we dress somberly, we dismiss our colleagues’ invitations to lunch with an offhand “I can’t. It’s Lent. I’m fasting.”

But often, like the Israelites, our outward actions do not reflect our inner state. Truth be told, we feel smug in our self-imposed suffering; proud of ourselves for our willpower, our discipline, our sacrifice. And just below the often-authentic desire to repent, to be different, lurks the unconfessed belief that God will owe us something good for what we’re putting ourselves through, for doing the right thing.

And yet, like the Israelites who went through the right religious motions, we miss the point of this period, of this practice, and the fast we offer is not really the kind of fast that God desires.

Sure, we may cut out sugar, but that means nothing if our lives lack the sweetness of God’s love. We may give up caffeine, but it’s pointless when we still cling to to our grudges, our disagreements, our prejudice. We may go without meat, but what does that matter when we show no concern for those who go without bread, without shelter, without dignity, without justice on a daily basis? We may even waive all but one meal a day, but if we won’t abandon our ambitions, our pride, our busyness it’s all for nothing.

This struggle is not a new thing. Even Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, wrote in the 4th century to the Christian community of the time:

“Do not limit the benefit of fasting to the abstinence of food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbour, forgive him his offenses. Do not let your fasting lead to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother; you abstain from wine, but not from insults – so all the labour of your fast is useless.”

How do we get it so wrong? And how do we, on this first day of Lent, put aside the “right” religious rituals to which we have become so accustomed and enter into a true spirit of sacrifice and penitence?

Our Scripture reading from John’s Gospel holds the key.

The story is set after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 where the crowd wants to crown Jesus as king, and a time of teaching at the Feast of the Tabernacles where the crowd wants to kill him for preaching against the legalism that binds them in favor of what God really wants.

In the conversation with those who have followed him hungry for more, the question from the people reveals their preoccupation with their history, with the beliefs and practices of their ancestors handed down over many generations: “What miracle will you do?” they ask him. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So what will you do?”

Jesus shocks, and even offends some of them, by explaining that he is the real miracle – the true bread sent from heaven to give his life for the world.

It is a disruptive moment in which Jesus challenges their tradition, their faith; in which he proclaims that they should not be following Moses, a man who worked miracles, but God in heaven who made such miracles possible. He contests their tendency to follow after that which is temporary and unsustainable while that which is transformative and eternal is right in front of them. He opposes their desire to be satisfied – to be full – by revealing that it is only in the brokenness of his body and the giving of his life that they can enter into the abundant and the everlasting.

Perhaps our preoccupation with tradition is why our fast fails; for instead of fixing our eyes on our Father in heaven, we focus on that song, that ritual, that preacher who – for a moment – made us feel satisfied.

Perhaps it is our infatuation with the tangible: we fast from food, from television, from Facebook, from the things that we can physically give up rather than the powers that possess our minds and our spirits – the lust, the fear, the hatred that has taken hold in our hearts.

Perhaps it is our absolute lack of understanding that the fullness of life is not found by mourning and praying and fasting for forty days but in a costly and ongoing commitment to the broken and shared life of Christ… which is why so many of his listeners grumbled. They wanted a ready supply of food for their stomachs, not a lifetime of sacrifice and surrender. And, honestly, are we any different?

This year, may the Lenten invitation be clear: not just to fast for the sake of fasting, or because that’s what we think good Christians do, or because we hope to earn God’s favor going forward for the rest of the year; but rather to feast on Christ, to feed on the eternal, to nourish our souls with God’s Word, to spend time in his presence, to open ourselves up to uncomfortable conversations, to make ourselves vulnerable and available to that broken and shared life, and to be surprised by the abundance…

of mercy,
of generosity,
of forgiveness,
of love,
of peace,
of joy  that emerges when this season centers around the Bread of Life and the fullness of life on offer in Christ.

A true fast starts with and is sustained by feasting on the One who gave up all that we would never be hungry, never be thirsty. Will you grumble and complain, or partake and eat in the Feast that is set before you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sure-footed: the invitation of Advent

As human beings we often cannot avert our eyes from the disasters that befall people living in places with shaky ground – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. Yet as we find ourselves on shaky ground through human decisions like BREXIT and the US elections, the challenge of Advent is to find a message of hope and comfort that rings true. Isaiah 40 invites us to surrender our own strength and be sure-footed in the promises and the faithfulness of the eternal God for whom we watch and wait.

A Lenten Confession

Lenten Prayer
inspired by Isaiah 58:1-12 and the featured image which was sourced from : www.sourcanvas.blogspot.co.za

Holy God,
Lover of righteousness and truth,
We have come into this place and time
declaring that we are eager to know You;
almost excited to enter into this season of prayer and penitence
for what we might get out of it –
what we might gain –
from the Lord of lords and God of gods
as (s)he gazes down on us from highest heaven
and finds us as expected
~ in the proper place,
~ at the proper time,
~ singing proper songs,
~ raising proper hands,
~ using the proper symbols,
~ making the proper promises ….

Who do we deceive, O Sinless Saviour, besides ourselves?
For You dwell not only in the highest heavens
but also in the hidden depths of our hearts.

What greeting have we given Your Spirit within us?
What does Love see in our secret places
deep beneath the proper postures and props?

We are unapologetic liars,
shameless frauds:
a people who pray for Your Love to live with and within us
even while we point judgmental fingers
and gossip behind each others’ backs.

We put on the right clothes
and bow our heads in apparent submission and humility,
even as the weight of our boots press down heavily
on the necks of those less powerful, less important,
than ourselves.

We give up meat or bread or booze
and declare that truly we have shared in Your suffering,
made an acceptable sacrifice,
when we will not spend a cent
on food for the hungry
or shelter for the refugee.

We even turn away our own flesh and blood,
declaring them unworthy of our help and our compassion.

Violence and hatred smolder throughout our land;
racism and bigotry are birthed daily though our words –
yet we stand with pious faces
and prayerful hands
and accuse You of not intervening.

Forgive us, O God, for our selfishness and sin.
Let Your light break through – into our darkness.
Illuminate the truths from which we long to hide.
Strip away our pretty masks of self-deceit
to touch marred and scarred faces long unseen.
Show us the actual meaning of sacrifice and surrender.
Hold onto us when we cannot bear the discomfort
of this season of wrestling with who we really are.

Bear our shame and give us the courage
to meet You face to face –
in the fullness of Your glory –
that we may come away changed:
~ bone deep, soul deep;
~ not just skin-deep.

Amen.

God of the Upside-Down

Oh God of the Upside-Down,

You turn chaos

into the order and the beauty of creation,

The simplicity of water

into the fragrance and the fellowship of wine,

The desolation of mourning and ashes

into the anointing of oil and gladness.

Come into our lives with Your transforming power.

Shake us.

Move us.

Stir things up a bit

that they may settle down again into new patterns of life and light.

Oh God of the Upside-Down set our hearts,

our thoughts,

our lives aright.

Amen.