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 Four: Stand Tall

Psalm 79
Micah 5:1-5a
Luke 21:34-38

The story of Israel is a pedestrian one – in quite a literal sense!

From Abraham, who left his family and inheritance behind him in obedience to God’s command, to Moses who led a nation of slaves through the wilderness towards a land of milk and honey, to the regular pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem that their faith required, the people of Israel rigorously put one foot in front of the other in order to follow where God led.

The exile into Babylon – which seemed like the end to so many – was yet another step in the journey; just as the return and rebuilding would be.

As God’s people lamented their sins and pleaded for mercy … “may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need” (Psalm 79:8b, NIV) … a promise was delivered of a Saviour, a ruler who would “stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength, centred in the majesty of God-Revealed. And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect—Peacemaker of the world!”
(Micah 5:4-5, The Message).

This is the promised Messiah for whom many Jews are still watching and waiting, hoping and praying. Yet, for many of us who call ourselves Christ-followers and regularly proclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” the urgent plea for the coming of his kingdom of shalom has too frequently been replaced by polite prayers for God to please do something for someone in a place we can’t even point to on a map ….

The season of Advent provides us with the opportunity to consider how our faith, our commitment to follow, our pursuit of righteousness and mercy  has been dulled down by parties and drinking and shopping, lulled by the drudgery of daily routines, overridden by road rage and envy and a grand sense of entitlement, or buried beneath #hashtags and photoshopped faces.

As Luke warned his listeners to stay on their guard, praying constantly for wisdom and strength that they might end up on their feet before the Son of Man, so do the days leading up to Christmas call us from our complacency to stand tall and follow our Shepherd-ruler faithfully, that his peace may become a present reality in today’s world rather than the pleasant “one-day” dream that we ask for by rote.

If you are anything like me, you may well be wondering where to begin. One of the greatest reasons for our apathy and inactivity is often the sheer size of the problem ….

world_problems.jpg

                                                                                                                . < me

Yet, as Micah prophesies of the coming Messiah, he reveals a vital truth to hold onto: the salvation of the world comes from small things.

Just as the Messiah would be born to the tribe of Judah, the runt of the litter, in the tiny town of Bethlehem, so too can the most extraordinary, unexpected journeys begin with a small step of faith.

Today, put aside your Bible and/or journal in favour of standing up and taking a practical step towards making the kingdom a present reality. For example,  

Walk around your neighbourhood. Smile at people you pass and pray for them as your footsteps take you further. Or put a doggy watering station or a bench out on your pavement to encourage others to pause for a while.

Pin up a map, pick a place, learn all you can about what life is like for the people there and pray for them. Support an organisation offering help or care there. Go on a pilgrimage if you are able.

***

World problem’s image sourced at http://www.diplomacypakistan.com/articles/the-solution-to-the-worlds-problems-lies-not-in-new-economic-policies-or-military-alliances-but-in-love/

Day Three: for the mighty will fall

Psalm 79
Micah 4:6-13
Revelation 18:1-10

“It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.”                            S.J. Watson

The prophet Micah speaks of the agony and the anguish of the Israelites as their city was invaded, their temple desecrated, their sons and daughters dragged off into captivity, their status altered from “God’s chosen people” to “prisoners” and “slaves.”

For many it seemed like the end – of their freedom, of their identity, of their story – as their enemies celebrated and gloated over their suffering.

Yet Micah likens the pain that gripped them to that of the pangs of labour: a beginning rather than an end; a moment of immeasurable suffering bringing forth an eternity of new life and indescribable joy.

This is the heart of the Good News: when things look grave and all hope is gone,
God does the unexpected
… the unimagined
… the impossible.

A shepherd boy brings down a giant with just a sling and a stone….

A prostitute and a foreigner become part of Jesus’s ancestry ….

Water is transformed into wine at a wedding and a few loaves and fishes into a feast for five thousand ….

The crucified Christ appears to his grieving disciples as the Risen Lord  ….

And, indeed, with hindsight and the help of history books we see that the Babylonian kingdom fell as prophesied; and the Persian and the Greek and the Roman ….

Recall a time in your life when it seemed like all was lost or that God was distant.

In hindsight, where was God in the midst of your pain and suffering? 

Were there any “gifts” that you might not have received if you had not gone through this “time of labour?”

How has this experience impacted your relationship with and picture of God?

It can be disheartening to witness all of the wars, the misery, the suffering and death that accompany shifts in power and changes in our natural world.

It can be even more debilitating to experience the pain of loss in our own lives –  be it a job, a loved one, a home, an aspect of our health, or an ability.

The gift of Advent in these devitalizing moments is a hope that is founded neither on wishful thinking nor unrealistic expectations of what it means to have God present and active in our lives, but on the  creative, transformative faith which develops between hindsight and foresight.

Hindsight helps us to remember and trust the  God who has been faithful in our past experiences of suffering and distress, who has brought light into the darkness and order into the chaos in our time of need.

Foresight enables us pray for that which God has promised and to work, with God, towards the justice, the forgiveness, the peace, the healing that we long for.

Babylon will fall. That which seems to have power over us will fade away. The simpler, pleasure-filled lives that we sometimes envy (and even pursue) will end in woeful lament, even as God personally gathers up the lame, the exiled, and the grieving.

What is the gift that you most long for from God today?

Are there any powers, any addictions, any habitual sins that need to fall in your life?

How might you act more from the creative space between hindsight and foresight rather than relying on how you are feeling or what is happening in a particular moment?