My Servant | Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 42:1-9

1 But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight.

I’ve put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations.

2 He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public.

3 He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice.

4 He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

The coastlands await his teaching.

 

5 God the LORD says—the one who created the heavens, the one who stretched them out, the one who spread out the earth and its offspring, the one who gave breath to its people and life to those who walk on it—

6 I, the LORD, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, 7 to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.

8 I am the LORD; that is my name; I don’t hand out my glory to others or my praise to idols.

9 The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened, but I’m declaring new things. Before they even appear, I tell you about them. (CEB)

My Servant

For those who study Isaiah, the “servant” has been a particularly difficult theme, at least, when it comes to the matter of the servant’s identity. There’s no certain historical indication of the servant as an individual who lived during the years of exile in Babylon. The tone of the poem seems to be Messianic but, originally, the servant might have referred to all of Israel. Yet, even that’s a difficult identification because Israel was in exile when this was written. It begs the question, how can a servant in exile serve its master? How can the servant perform their duties if they’re trapped in a foreign land?

It’s a strange and somewhat remarkable theme for Israel to be reminded of its role as a servant with duties to perform and obligations to fulfill while they are in the midst of exile, but perhaps that’s part of the point. During the exile, Israel tended to be more self-focused, self-absorbed with their own destiny, and who wouldn’t be? The main concern of many Jews in Babylonian exile were likely the questions, What about us? When the heck are we getting out of here? What about God’s promises of a kingdom that will last? Some of the people surely despaired in self-pity as their time in exile stretched into decades.

But, with the words from Isaiah, God changes the subject and summons a grieving people to look beyond their own self-concern to other work.

Another idea that we Christians tend to hold is to identify the servant with Jesus Christ, the gentle savior. It is Jesus who reveals the Good News to the world. It’s Jesus who does God’s work in the world. It’s Jesus who reveals God to us, and who has given us God’s teaching. The identification with the work and person of Jesus is why we read this text on this Sunday, which is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus was identified at his baptism as God’s Son.

It is a curious work to which the servant is called. The servant’s purpose, according to Isaiah, is just… weird. The servant is empowered by God’s spirit or wind. The Hebrew word has both meanings. And the spirit or wind of God equips the servant to do what the rest of the world thinks is impossible. The impossible new thing that the servant is to do is to bring justice, and to make equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships available to the world.

It seems impossible because bringing justice to the nations is not something that is without risk. The list of justice-bringers, Christian or not, is filled with the names of martyrs: Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero.

And it’s the way Isaiah describes how the servant works that is interesting. “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3, NRSV). God’s justice is brought forth gently, carefully, caringly, quietly. The servant is gentle enough to respect the bruised and abused, and careful enough to respect those wicks that are barely burning with any kind of life left to them. The servant of God has respect for people who are weak, fragile, and in jeopardy.

The way the servant brings justice is as important as the fact that justice is being brought. Justice isn’t forced, but the goal of justice being brought forth into the world and the means by which it occurs are in harmony. The means serve the end. The servant practices vulnerability while being attentive to the way others are vulnerable. The servant’s ways are quite different from the ways of Babylon and—and every other worldly power—which prefer to snuff out vulnerable wicks and break vulnerable reeds.

The servant also perseveres and is able to accomplish the purpose God has given. In verses 3 and 4, the Hebrew suggests that the “bruised reed” and “dimly burning wick” of verse three highlight the metaphors of verse 4. So, the servant will not burn dimly [or be extinguished] or be bruised [or broken] until the work of establishing justice on the earth is accomplished. The servant will honor the weak, but the servant will also be strong enough to do the work that has been assigned.

The second part of the poem, verses 5-9, turns to the voice of God who has sent this servant. The God who intervenes in human affairs is the God who founded the earth and gave breath to everything in creation, who breathed into us the very breath of life. It’s the power of God that is at work in the mission of this servant.

The purpose of the servant is one and the same with the purpose of God. The servant enacts in the earth the purpose that has been intended from all eternity. God intends that human society should be re-ordered against every form of oppression. God now asserts power to enact that transformation and make it a reality in the world—a reality among the nations of the earth. The Creator intends that the creation should be rehabilitated and restored to its full, fruitful function.

The servant does God’s work and is empowered by God. God says of the servant, “I have given you as a… light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42: 6b-7 NRSV). That’s powerful stuff. For some of us, that’s scary stuff. That isn’t how the world works. Yet, this is God’s work.

Everything about the servant in verses 6-8 is bracketed by the words, “I am the Lord.” The servant is identified by the self-announcement of God’s intention and sovereignty. It is the Lord, not the servant alone, who desires this transformation of creation and empowers the servant to bring it forth. No other voice proposes the transformation. No other person devises a way to accomplish it. No other person gets credit for it. This is, first and last, the Lord, the God of creation, exodus, and homecoming who works and wills the transformation of the world.

The question still remains, Who is the servant? Is it Israel? Is it Jesus? Or is it us?

I lean toward thinking that it’s all three. Have you ever thought of yourself as God’s servant? Have you ever thought that when God looks at you God says, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1a NRSV). The Christian Church exists as a missional body. If you’re part of the church—and I don’t mean, if your name is on the First Church membership roll—I mean, if you have been baptized or if you believe in Jesus Christ, then you are a member of the church. If you’ve been baptized, then you are a missionary. If you’ve been baptized, then you are God’s servant, and you are called to serve in a particular way: a way the world can’t imagine because the world operates differently.

God’s servants are to be the justice-bringers of the world, but not the way the world usually thinks of justice. The world tends to think of justice-bringers as gun-slinging vigilantes who wield power in order bring others to justice, to use force as a means of bringing justice upon the stereotypical bad guys. That’s why superhero movies are so popular. But worldly powers break bruised reeds and snuffs out dimly burning wicks. Worldly powers breathe threats and cry out in attempts to justify their violent words and actions which, ironically, often lead directly to injustice and atrocity.

As servants of God, we are called by God to operate very differently from that model. We are not to lift up our voices to scream in hatred, nor should we breathe threats. We’re to care for bruised reeds and protect dimly burning wicks.

God’s servant brings justice into the world by loving others—especially the most vulnerable, by caring for the needs of others, by building equitable, trusting, life-giving relationships with everyone we encounter, by working to re-order social life and social power so that the weak, the vulnerable, the powerless, the abused, the poor, the lost, the prisoners, the strangers, the orphans, the widows, the refugees, and the displaced may all live a life of dignity, security, and well-being.

And it isn’t we the servants doing this by ourselves or by our own power. God empowers us with the Holy Spirit, which blows in strange and unpredictable directions. The grace of God empowers our lives and enlivens our souls. God enables us to do God’s work.

Right now, we are a people who are facing tough times. We might wonder if anyone in our government has a brain. The violence taking place here and across the world every day is frightening.

We’re nowhere near the state of despair that Israel found itself in during the exile, but we are in troubled times. And in the midst of these troubled times—when we tend to focus more on ourselves, to be self-preoccupied—God reminds us that we are servants. God summons those of us who are concerned and worried about our own future to look beyond our self-concern to other work: to servant work.

The servant who does this work of God—who gently and caringly brings forth justice to the nations—will not burn dimly or be bruised. God is the source of this work of justice-bringing, and we are told that the coastlands wait for the teaching of the servant.

What emerges when the spirit-filled servant does the work of God is newness. It’s a newness, a vision, an act of transformation, that we’re sometimes too bruised and dimmed to imagine. Nevertheless, we are invited by God back into a powerful hope that is rooted in God’s purpose. We are invited back into God’s servanthood. The world needs servants, and each of us has already been called. We’ve been called whether we recognize it yet or not. How will we answer our summons to the ministry of a servant?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Saved | 2nd after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14

7 The LORD proclaims:

Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob; shout for the leading nation.

Raise your voices with praise and call out: “The LORD has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!”

8 I’m going to bring them back from the north; I will gather them from the ends of the earth.

Among them will be the blind and the disabled, expectant mothers and those in labor; a great throng will return here.

9 With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back.

I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble.

I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.

 

10 Listen to the LORD’s word, you nations, and announce it to the distant islands:

The one who scattered Israel will gather them and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock.

11 The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are.

12 They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion, jubilant over the LORD’s gifts: grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds.

Their lives will be like a lush garden; they will grieve no more.

13 Then the young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in.

I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them.

14 I will lavish the priests with abundance and shower my people with my gifts, declares the LORD. (CEB)

Saved

We don’t often get to hear the Scripture readings for the second Sunday after Christmas Day. Usually, we move the readings for the Epiphany, which is fixed on January 06, to this Sunday. We do that, often, because Epiphany is an important holy day for the church. We celebrate the moment when Christ was first revealed to the Gentile peoples on Epiphany. That’s us, by the way. Anyone who is not Jewish is a Gentile. Epiphany is when we celebrate the Magi arriving to meet the child Jesus and presenting the Son of God with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Epiphany celebrates that these Gentiles recognized the Son of God for who he was: a similar recognition, by the way, to that of Simeon and the prophet Anna (Luke 2:25-38). At the temple, when Jesus was a mere 8 days old, Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and proclaimed, “…my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32 CEB). The prophet Anna praised God and began to speak about Jesus to everyone in the temple who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Epiphany is one of my favorite holy days. Not because it marks the end of Christmas, but because it happens to be my wife’s birthday. But officially, as of today, Christmas is not over yet. That’s why the Christmas tree is still up, the sanctuary is still decked out in Christmas greens, and the Nativity scene is still front and center. Technically speaking, the Magi should still be on their horses because we don’t celebrate their arrival at Jesus’ house until tomorrow. (Yes, horses. We don’t know what they rode, but Persians were horse people. The Magi might have ridden elephants for all we know).

Yet, before we get to Epiphany and the Magi tomorrow, we have more Christmas to celebrate today. The text from Jeremiah points to why Jesus came into the world. It reminds us of God’s promise to redeem and restore in the midst of brokenness, homelessness, exile, and suffering. With the birth of Jesus the Christ, a new age began: an age of grace and God’s mercy that are with the human race in a new way (c.f. Hebrews 1:1-2). The manger of Emmanuel in Bethlehem points to the cross in Jerusalem on which the redemption of the whole world was accomplished.

When you think about the situation at hand, Jeremiah must have sounded like a nutcase when he preached these words. The northern kingdom of Israel had been carried off into exile by Assyria long ago, and now Babylon was in the middle of its program of conquering and carrying off the people of Judah into another exile. Jeremiah either spoke these words right before or during the exile of Judah. The Judean world at this moment was one of abandonment, dispersion, defeat, and exile, and here was Jeremiah preaching about God’s care, redemption, restoration, and homecoming.

Anyone might ask how or why Jeremiah was able to do that. The Judean kingdom was ending—the kingdom and nation of people God said belonged to God; the kingdom that was supposed to be under God’s divine protection. How could this prophet speak of singing and dancing, which were expressions of joy? When the Israelites escaped from Egypt through the sea, Miriam and the women of Israel took up tambourines and danced in jubilation (c.f. Exodus 15:20). When David took the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, he danced before the Ark with all his strength. But exile is not a time for dancing.

When the Babylonians destroyed the temple and carried off its holy utensils and treasury, the dancing stopped. The book of Lamentations tells us, “Elders have left the city gate; young people stop their music. Joy has left our heart; our dancing has changed into lamentation” (Lamentations 5:14-15 CEB).

Psalm 137 recounts how the captive Judeans could not even sing because of their distress. “Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: ‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?” (Psalm 137:1-4 CEB). How can anyone sing songs of joy when there is no joy? How can anyone dance when there is nothing to celebrate?

The kingdom was being torn down around them. All sense of security for themselves, their families, their people as a whole, was demolished. You really have to read Lamentations to get a sense of the horrors that the people went through. In addition to the terrors of being conquered and ravaged by invaders, they were being carried off into a foreign land as captives of a conquering empire whose hand was too strong for Judah to withstand. How can Jeremiah call people to sing, let alone to sing joyfully?

Jeremiah’s message was one of intense hope. It definitely wasn’t about what was reality at the time he spoke, but about what was possible through God. And not only what was possible, but what would yet be! It begins with a call to worship, which is an invitation given by God. Sing joyfully… Shout… Raise your voices with praise… call out, “The Lord has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!” (Jeremiah 31:7 CEB).

The prophet declares that God will bring the people back from all parts of the Earth. The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob. That hand, which was too strong for the people, is powerless to withstand the Lord. The assembled masses include the most vulnerable members of a community who would embark on any journey: the blind, the disabled, expectant mothers, and those in labor. These are the people who would require some assistance along the way.

God will sustain the whole needy delegation of people by leading them on easy paths, smoothed so the people don’t stumble, and alongside quiet streams. It’s a scene of homecoming filled with peace and serenity. God will keep the people safe as a shepherd watches over their flock. And when the people get home, God will sustain them with abundance. The gifts of grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds are images of richness and well-being in the Scriptures. So is the image of a lush garden.

Under God’s care, the life of the exiles will be like a well-watered garden that never wilts. It’s a return to a garden like Eden, where people flourish, and where crops and livestock thrive. Joy and gladness supplant grief and sorrow, and there is dancing again. There is a newfound joy that can only find expression in dance. “The young women will dance for joy; the young and old men will join in. I will turn their mourning into laughter and their sadness into joy; I will comfort them” (Jeremiah 31:13 CEB).

The Hebrew of verse 14 suggests the priests’ lives or, possibly, appetites will be saturated with fat and the people will be satisfied with good things. As everyone knows, saturated fats taste the best, and recent medical studies have shown that they might not be as bad for you as previously thought. And, if the studies turns out to be wrong, there’s always Lipitor.

(Don’t take medical advice from a pastor).

Two verbs, in particular, require some attention because they’re rich in theological and covenantal meaning in the Bible. The Common English Bible translates verse 11 by saying, “The LORD will rescue the people of Jacob and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are” (CEB). The New Revised Standard Version, however, uses the more familiar religious-ish terms ransomed and redeemed, and puts the verse in the present tense: “For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him” (NRSV).

Ransom or rescue conveys a sense of liberation. God ransomed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (c.f. Deuteronomy 7:8, 9:26, 15:15). When Saul’s son, Johnathan, unknowingly broke his father’s solemn pledge, the soldiers of Israel ransomed his life when his father intended to put him to death (c.f. 1 Samuel 14).

Redeem or deliver includes a sense of a person’s obligation to members of their family. Boaz redeemed Ruth along with the field of Elimelech by purchasing the field from Naomi (c.f. Ruth 4). Jeremiah redeemed a field in Anathoth by purchasing it from his cousin Hanamel (c.f. Jeremiah 32:8).

Both of the words, ransom and redeem, are used to describe the liberating acts of God. Here, the words are used to describe another kind of Exodus: a glorious and joyful homecoming from exile and oppression in another foreign land.

There is something incredibly persistent about God. Even tenacious. One thing God says over and over in the Scriptures, in one way or another, is: “I will be your God, and you will be my people” (c.f. Genesis 17:7, 17:8; Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Psalm 50:7; Jeremiah 7:23, 11:4, 24:7, 30:22, 31:1 31:33; Ezekiel 11:20, 14:11, 36:28, 37:27; Hosea 2:23 [compare 1:9]; Joel 2:27; Zechariah 8:8, 13:9; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Revelation 21:3, 21:7). I found that phrase six times in Jeremiah alone, and twenty-two times from Genesis to Revelation. And that was just a quick search.

God’s grace is coming for us because God intends to save us. No matter how we’ve sinned. No matter what we’ve done. No matter how we’ve squandered the gift of grace or misused the abundant life with which God has drenched us. God loves us, and the word of Jeremiah reminds us that God refuses to give up on us.

God is our hope. God is our help. God is our present. God is our future. God is our home. Through Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, God is with us. And God will never let us go. Even when we feel like our lives are little more than failure, fatigue, deficiency, and hopelessness, God is with us, and God will not let us go.

The story of Christmas—this coming of a child born in Bethlehem—is the story of our God’s tenacious love that will not quit on us no matter what, and our God’s absolute determination to be our God. We will be saved because God has declared that we will be God’s people. That, my friends, is reason enough for a song and a dance and a shout for joy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Wait | 3rd of Advent

James 5:7-10

7 Therefore, brothers and sisters, you must be patient as you wait for the coming of the Lord. Consider the farmer who waits patiently for the coming of rain in the fall and spring, looking forward to the precious fruit of the earth. 8 You also must wait patiently, strengthening your resolve, because the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Don’t complain about each other, brothers and sisters, so that you won’t be judged. Look! The judge is standing at the door!

10 Brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord as an example of patient resolve and steadfastness. (CEB)

Wait

There is something paradoxical about the Season of Advent. The world around us is decked out in Christmas greens and reds. Indeed, our sanctuary is already dressed in its Christmas best while the color of our altar paraments and clergy vestments is Royal Blue—an alternate color for the season since the primary color used for Advent is a much more somber violet-purple: the same as Lent.

The radio stations are playing every hit Christmas song from the past seventy-five years: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley, Darlene Love, The Waitresses, Mariah Carey, and Brenda Lee’s Rockin Around the Christmas Tree are lighting up the radio. But here in church we’re singing somber lyrics set typically in minor keys: mostly those hymns from page 195 to 216 in our United Methodist Hymnal, but also hymns like #626 where we sing, Let all mortal flesh keep silence.

One of my favorite Advent hymns is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, which reminds us that there’s even something paradoxical in our Advent songs. What other season of the church has us sing the word Rejoice—written with an exclamation point—in a minor key? The minor key makes it sounds like we’re not really rejoicing, or we’re rejoicing over an ingrown toenail. Rejoice! Rejoice! My in-grown toe-nail… No matter which way you spin it, the song doesn’t sound particularly joyful… yet it is! It’s full of hope! Every stanza tells the story of our hope in Jesus Christ.

There is something paradoxical about Advent, in particular, the third Sunday of Advent. The candle of the Advent Wreath is a lively rose-pink color, which intentionally sets it apart from the other three that are, again, either Violet-purple or Royal Blue. This is Gaudete Sunday: Rejoice Sunday. The rose candle stands as a reminder in all of this somberness that while we are waiting in darkness—even waiting impatiently—redemption is on the way.

The paradox of our songs reflects the paradoxes of our faith in Jesus Christ. There is strength in weakness. There is power in our self-emptying. Through the foolishness of Christ, we become wise. There is victory in defeat. When we give, we actually receive. When we die, we go forth to live. We conquer by yielding. We find rest by receiving a yoke. We reign by serving. There is resurrection in crucifixion. We are made great by becoming small. All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in a helpless baby. The King of kings was born in a cave used to stable farm animals. The Royal Son of God’s first bed was a manger because his mother had nowhere else to lay him after giving birth. Jesus Christ is at the same time fully God and fully human.

In addition to being paradoxical, Advent reminds us that waiting is a part of human life. There’s an element of waiting in every aspect of human life. When we’re children, we have to wait to grow up. When we’re in school, we wait to graduate. When we graduate, we have to wait to get a job and earn some money. When we’re in a relationship, we have to wait to get married. Then, we wait to have children. And, once you have children, you have to do a lot more waiting. I didn’t know a thing about child development when I became a father. I remember when Kara was born, one of the things I asked my wife was how long it would be until I could have a conversation with her.

We have to wait for everything. By golly, the pastor even makes us wait to sing all our favorite Christmas carols. The rest of American society is singing the good stuff, why can’t we sing carols during Advent? Believe me, I hear the complaints every year. And every year, I tell people, wait. Christmas is coming, but it’s Advent right now. Wait. But waiting isn’t popular. Waiting isn’t easy. Yet, waiting is an overarching Biblical theme.

It actually takes practice to wait well. That’s what we call patience. Sometimes we call it endurance. Patience is something we learn by having to wait. Patience rarely comes naturally. Anyone who has experience with young children knows that much. Patience is often a difficult lesson for little ones. When a child really wants something, we know how they act. I’ve seen children tense up and start to vibrate, as if they can will time to pass more quickly so they can be done waiting. So, we wisdom-wielding adults quote the adage to our children that patience is a virtue. (Especially when our patience with their impatient antics has run out). Children—and adults—can quickly tire of being patient.

For about two-thousand years, the Church has waited for the advent of Jesus Christ. James reminds us to be patient until the coming of the Lord, and he gives us an example of how farmers have to wait. They have to be patient and wait for the fall and the spring rains. I know that sounds a little backward to us, but the growing season is a little different in Israel. In that climate, fields are sown in the Fall and harvested in the Spring. Farmers have to wait patiently for their crop.

But there’s a caveat about how farmers wait. I have generations of farmers in my family. In fact, part of Eastland Mall now sits in my Great-Grandparents’ cornfield. Joseph and Matilda Hirsch lived on Slaughter Avenue, which was later renamed Division Street, and is now buried under the Lloyd Expressway near Green River Road. If you know anything about farmers, you know they don’t sit around and wait for the rain. Nor do they plant their fields and lay about in their hammocks until it’s harvest time. There’s always work to be done. When farmers wait for the crop to ripen, it’s an active kind of waiting. It’s waiting with a heavy dose of preparation.

But, by and large, our culture is so frantic that impatience might better describe the virtue we value most. Afterall, impatience is the trait we often display. When I get impatient, I grumble and complain. (Surely, I’m not the only one). Whether I’m stuck in rush-hour traffic—which, by the way, I’ve always found an ironic name since rush-hour traffic usually doesn’t go anywhere fast—or standing in the checkout line at the store when there are twenty people wanting to check out and only one cashier. Amazon now delivers on Sundays so we don’t have to wait for an entire weekend to pass by before we get our packages. In fact, the gluten-free crackers I ordered for Communion will be delivered today because I can’t figure out how to tell Amazon to NOT deliver stuff on Sundays. Our impatience as a cultural norm adds unnecessary stress to our lives, and the negative health effects of that stress actually shortens them. We’re so impatient that we’re impatient to die.

But there are saints who can teach us patience. My mother is one of those patient people, and I fully realize that she probably developed her patience shortly after my brother was born. (You though I was going to say after I was born, didn’t you? What? I was an angel. My mom’s friends dubbed me “Chris the Good.” My brother was Eric the Barbaric).

Wherever Mom learned her patience, she tried to teach us that it’s better to be patient. I’ll never forget the time I was driving with her when I got stuck behind some slow boat that I couldn’t pass. I grumbled about the driver, and I told him exactly where he could find the gas pedal. And my mom said, “Just think about it this way. God might have put this driver in front of you to slow you down. It might also be God’s way of keeping you from getting into an accident farther up the road.”

I recall that, after offering one of the most pronounced teenage eye-rolls in human history, I said, “But he’s driving SO SLOW!

And my mother said, “It’s to teach you patience.”

That probably wasn’t my first lesson in patience, but it is one that I remember very well, especially when I get stuck behind drivers who seem unable to find their gas pedal. We need to learn how to be patient, but especially when it comes to being patient with each other. Like Teenage-Me-Stuck-Behind-A-Slow-Car, impatience leads to grumbling and complaining against each other.

One of my friends recently told me that his wife had to ask him why the kids kept calling all the other drivers “jerks.” We’re impatient with others all the time. I am absolutely certain that my own children have learned impatient attitudes from me. James wrote, “Don’t complain about each other, brothers and sisters, so that you won’t be judged. Look! The judge is standing at the door!” (James 5:9 CEB). When we complain about each other, those complaints come from a judgment we’ve already made about someone. When I complain about some slow-driving idiot, I’ve effectively judged and condemned them. When Christians engage in complaining and name-calling, we actually do damage to the Christian message we claim to champion. James reminds us to stay in our lane, so to speak, because judgment is not our job.

Our job is to be patient and strengthen our hearts. Our job is to wait for the coming of the Lord with an active waiting, an active patience that works for God’s coming rule and reign. Mary’s Song speaks of divine reversal where the proud are scattered, the mighty—who had all the power in life—are evicted from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry—who had nothing—are filled with all the best things God can provide, and the rich—who had everything—are sent away with nothing.

We wait with patient hope even in the world’s darkness and sin. We wait even as our hands and hearts work to make the world a better place: a place that might reflect something of God’s dominion. We wait with patience because patience is more than a virtue, it’s part of the fruit of the Spirit. Advent is the time when the church recognizes that God is not finished with us nor with creation. God is with us. God is active among us. That’s why we can wait with patience. It’s what allows us to rejoice—even when we sing it in a minor key. God is still with us, and what God intends for humanity and all of creation will yet be. That’s one more paradox of our faith, isn’t it? We hope for Christ’s return: for the end. Because the end is a new beginning.

Jesus will be here soon. Wait for it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Hope | 2nd of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

1 A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.

2 The LORD’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.

3 He will delight in fearing the LORD.

He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay.

4 He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.

He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.

5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.

6 The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.

7 The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox.

8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.

9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, just as the water covers the sea.

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious. (CEB)

Hope

Joy loves Japanese Maple trees. When we lived in Durham, North Carolina, our neighborhood had several beautiful Japanese Maples. As we walked the broken sidewalks of the old streets we’d admire each one we saw. Joy had wanted a Japanese Maple since, at least, the beginning of our marriage, but we never bought one because we kept moving. My wife didn’t want to buy a beautiful tree only to leave it behind.

Still, back in 2013 when we lived in Fort Wayne, we bought a Japanese Maple after a lot of searching to find just the right one. Apparently, we’re weird about plants because we felt our tree needed a name. So, we named the tree Mariko in honor of a character from James Clavell’s novel Shogun. We found an ideal place for Mariko at the corner of our house. The only problem was that a huge, overgrown bush was already taking up the space.

I fixed that by cutting it all the way down to the nub. Then, I put weed killer on the stumps of the exposed cuts. Once that was done, we planted Mariko the Japanese Maple in front of the dead stump. The space was perfect with no other large plants nearby. Mariko had all the room it needed to grow and thrive, and we were sure our tree would stand out beautifully with a few years of growth.

But wouldn’t you know it, after a few weeks, that darn formerly overgrown bush started sending up shoots of new growth. As much as I hacked and slashed, it keept growing. The shoots were coming up all over the place, not just from the stump. I was pretty sure I’d killed the thing a few times over, but it refused to stay dead. For all I know, it’s still growing at the corner of the house on Candlewick Drive. For the record, we brought Mariko with us to Mount Vernon.

Isaiah describes for us a family tree, of sorts. It’s a family tree that eventually gets cut down to the stump as larger and more powerful empires gobbled up the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. After 587 B.C. only the remnants of a ravaged nation were scattered throughout the world, and there were no more kings of David’s line. Yet, Isaiah declares that the line of Jesse, King David’s father, will see a shoot grow from its seemingly deadened stump. But this new growth from Jesse’s roots—this new king of David’s line—wasn’t ordinary. This was to be something God-breathed and Spirit-imbued. We’re told, “The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD.”

The reign of this future king will be marked by righteousness, justice, and a peace so pervasive that even the most ancient of enemies live in peace alongside one another. This king won’t judge by appearances. He won’t make decisions based on hearsay. He’ll care for those who are exploited by the powerful, and put down those who are violent with a word from his mouth.

We Christians hear Isaiah’s words and connect them to the Messianic reign of Jesus Christ. The reason this text is read during Advent is because it anticipates the full reign of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. It’s the coming inauguration of this kingdom that we’re waiting for in Advent, when all of God’s promises to the human race are finally and completely come to fruition.

The reign of Christ will be a complete restoration of the created order, and everyone is invited to be a part of it. The guest list seems to be all inclusive, as Isaiah gives us this powerful image of the peaceable kingdom where even nature’s most ancient enemies lie down together: wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, lion and calf, bear and cow. We even have the image of both infants and toddlers playing over the den of venomous snakes, which is a reversal of relationship between the oldest of Biblical enemies: the serpent and the children of Eve. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God told the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. They will strike your head, but you will strike at their heels” (Gen. 3:15).

In one sense, these images speak to the complete restoration and reordering of nature, which fell into decay in the Fall. Adam and Eve’s job was to tend the Garden of Eden by governing creation. They were the pinnacle of the created order and its stewards. When the stewards of creation fell away from God, the created order, itself, fell into ruinous disarray.

Salvation is a cosmic event. We, and all of creation with us, await the fullness of God’s salvation in which the coming of God’s kingdom ushers in a new reality. Predators eat straw like their former prey. At first glance, this image looks like it is only the strong and fearsome predators that have been redeemed and turned into peaceful creatures. But I think it’s more than that. I think salvation is all-encompassing; that, just as lions have learned to eat straw and no longer feed on other, weaker creatures, those weaker creatures have, perhaps, been made strong.

What if this redemption means that oxen have learned to roar like lions, and lambs have been made as formidable as wolves? The justice of salvation tells us that the weak and lowly have been lifted up and the powerful have been put down from their thrones, that the hungry have been filled with good things, and the rich have been sent away empty-handed (c.f. Lk. 1:52-53). The powerful are converted, yes, but so too are the weak.

In another sense, the animals—predators and prey—are symbolic for the human race. They are all of us. The drama of human history shows us that the powerful tend to exploit the powerless for their own gain. Our own culture teaches us that the world is us against them. We have to beat the competition. Success means winning no matter the cost to ourselves or others. Putting other businesses out of business is justified as a means of self-preservation.

Our culture teaches us to think in terms of scarcity: that there’s not enough to go around, so we need to get ours before someone else beats us to the punch. If we manage to lop off a few heads so that we can breathe easier, that’s ok because it’s all about us. It’s a deathly life that we live in a death-filled world. Yet, we do see glimpses of the kingdom here and there, where the predator and prey attitudes are laid aside for cooperation and mutual benefit.

The vision of the messianic kingdom presents a vastly different place where the strong and the weak, the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited all experience conversion, renewal, a complete reordering, and live together in the harmony of God’s justice. The lion and lamb image is used in Jeremiah, not Isaiah, but I mention it because Revelation presents Jesus Christ as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the Lamb of God standing as if it had been slaughtered. Jesus, too, is the all-encompassing vision of God’s kingdom where lasting peace is made.

Then Isaiah makes three references to children. Why is a little child leading this petting zoo of converted creatures? In one way, I think, it’s because in the restored order of God’s kingdom, creation itself, desires a human presence to care for it just as Adam and Eve were supposed to have done in the beginning. This picture points us again back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden when human beings cared for and nurtured the rest of creation.

In another way, perhaps our attention is being directed to the coming child who was born in Bethlehem. The world waited for this child to be born. And now we wait for his return.

Some scholars suggest that the children in Isaiah’s vision convey a sense of innocence. I almost laughed out loud when I read that. I’m not sure innocence is the right image. Anyone who thinks children are innocent has either never had children, or they’ve completely forgotten what having children was actually like. If you don’t believe in original sin, get married and have a child. Parenthood will quickly adjust your theological disposition.

No, the children here don’t represent innocence. Instead, I think they represent vulnerability. There is hardly anything more vulnerable than a child, whether it’s a nursing infant or a toddler. A young child playing over a serpent’s den would be a disaster in our world. But in the messianic kingdom there’s no danger. Isaiah says, “They won’t hurt or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the LORD just as the water covers the sea.”

Finally, Isaiah points once more to the root of Jesse and declares that he will stand as a signal to all the peoples and the nations will seek him out. We’re told that his dwelling will be glorious. The guest list for the kingdom of God is already made up, and all of our names are on it. We’re all invited. We only need to present ourselves before the Coming King and allow ourselves to be converted and renewed, whether we’re the predator or the prey. God’s kingdom will be a place of peace, where old grievances are forgotten, and all enmity is put aside.

The vision of Isaiah is our hope during Advent. We are a people who live between two times: we celebrate the coming of the root of Jesse in Jesus Christ; a shoot which has already grown and brought the Kingdom near, and we look forward to the promises of God being fulfilled in the final consummation of God’s peaceable kingdom yet-to-come when the Root of Jesse comes into our world again. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Time | 1st of Advent

Romans 13:11-14

11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires. (CEB)

Time

Well, the time is upon us. I don’t mean the end of time. I mean the time that I dread each year when WIKY and at least two other radio stations begin playing 24/7 Christmas music weeks before Thanksgiving has even arrived. While I enjoy seeing the Christmas lights and other decorations go up all over town in every neighborhood, a few people are already greeting other people with the phrase Merry Christmas. That’s a little too soon for me.

The broader culture and the influence of commerce would have us believe that the Christmas season is in full swing. But it’s not. Today is only the first Sunday Advent. And, if you were at the Sunday School Lecture Series on November 24, you heard me say then that Christmas will have to wait.

Yet, because our culture has done its level best to turn the Christmas season around and celebrate it backwards—all in the name of commerce, increased sales, and greater profit margins—even for Christians, the Advent season can feel somewhat out of place as we approach what actually is Christmas Day and the Christmas season that follows it.

Right now, we’re clamoring for the manger. But Advent takes us beyond the birth of Jesus. Advent takes us beyond his earthly life, his death, his resurrection, even beyond the ascension of Jesus. Advent orients us firmly toward the future that will yet be. Advent forces us to look ahead toward the wide-open future when Jesus comes again and inaugurates God’s dominion in all its promise, when the hope of a groaning creation, itself, is fulfilled.

The lectionary begins this section with Paul stating, “…you know what time it is” (Romans 13:11b CEB). To me, it feels a little ironic because, in the modern church, we don’t seem to know what time it is. We’ve all but lost any sense of anticipation about God’s coming rule and reign. It’s not difficult to see why, really. Nearly two-thousand years have come and gone since Christ walked this earth. Any sense of excitement or anticipation begins to nosedive when the waiting is extended to the point of indefinite.

Do you remember the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25? Five of them took extra oil along while five didn’t. The groom’s arrival was delayed so long that all ten of the bridesmaids became drowsy and fell asleep. All of ten of them fell asleep: the wise and the foolish alike! The longer I wait for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the older I get; and the older I get, the more I realize that if I have to wait too long for anything, I’m probably going to end up taking a nap.

I’m willing to bet that most of us have a lot in common with those bridesmaids. It’s difficult to keep up a sense of anticipation for too long. After a while, we start to get frustrated. We get tired. We can try to force our sense of anticipation but, when we do that, we’re only faking it. Fake excitement or anticipation feels false, disingenuous, and dishonest because we’re not being true to ourselves. It’s really difficult to pretend to feel excited about something. Have you ever seen someone try it? Depending on their acting skills, or lack thereof, it can be pretty hilarious.

You know what time it is, Paul said. But did Paul know what time it was? It’s clear from Paul’s earliest writings, like First Thessalonians, that Paul believed Jesus would return almost immediately. But, as Paul continued to write and Jesus still hadn’t returned, he began to understand that his assumed timeline was off. Instead of an immanent return, the early church would have to be prepared for a delay and figure out how to live in the world a while longer.

This was one of the first major adjustments that the early church had to make. They needed a strategy for long-term survival. They started to get organized with bishops and priests and deacons who were set apart to care for, lead, and guide the people of the church. The apostles were all dying, so the church developed a succession strategy. The early church had to face the reality that they would need to persist indefinitely in this world.

Yet, theologically, Paul was right to believe that every moment in time is bursting at the seams with possibility. That’s why he urges us to wake up from sleep, because eternity is breaking into our world even now. We are living on the cusp between the former age and the new age that Jesus has brought, is bringing, and will bring in full. We live in the between times where the world is transitioning from old to new, from the reign of Satan to the reign of God, where all that is wrong will be set right.

We live in a time when God’s love has already conquered. Jesus Christ, himself, was the turning point in the grand march of time. Heaven has been wedded to earth in the Person of Jesus the Son. The past way of things still persists, but the new has come and the past will not stand no matter how much it claws and scratches to grapple more time for itself. We are called to imagine a new heaven and a new earth, a new way of living with our fellow human beings, and even a new way of being human! In Christ Jesus, we are reshaped into the image of God that we were supposed to be in the beginning, the image that was distorted by sin.

In the early days of the church, Christians lived with a real sense of anticipation. The promises of the Old Testament seemed almost within reach, barely beyond our grasp but stretching toward our hands. The cosmic regime change was almost here!

But our sense of anticipation has, understandably, diminished over two-thousand years. That’s why the season of Advent is incredibly important for us. If we lose our sense of anticipation completely, then we’re all the poorer. For Paul and for the early church, the anticipation of the advent—the arrival—of Jesus Christ wasn’t about circling a date on the calendar. It was about hope.

History has a final goal. God has broken into our world and made reconciliation, redemption, and salvation real. God is constantly pushing us, nudging us, urging us, leading us, drawing us toward this promised dominion in which the old is made new. In light of what is coming, of what is promised, Paul urges the church to wake up from our sleep. Salvation is nearer now than when we first came to have faith. The night is almost over. The day is near. So live like it’s already day.

Why would anyone want to cling to the old ways now that a new day has come, and we know how the story ends? Paul encourages us to get rid of behaviors that belong to the darkness and put on the instruments of light. It matters how we live today! Knowing what time it is—that every moment is bursting with divine possibility—compels Christian people to live in the light. It’s when we forget the time that we not only fail to live and love as we ought, but the very foundation of our hope in God’s promises crumbles.

Do we know what time it is? Time, in this text, is not chronological time. It’s not tied to the clock or calendar. In Greek, Paul uses a completely different word from anything related to chronological moments that you can mark on a clock or calendar. Time, in this sense, means a time that is fit for something: a time that is ripe, right, and proper. It’s a critical moment for action. Time, in the chronological sense, has a beginning and an end. But time, as Paul uses it here, points to something else. Now is the proper time, the right moment, for us to live like God’s reign is upon us.

This is the time to look forward to when our hope is fulfilled, and to live like it already has been. We’re already citizens of God’s future. This is the time when we make the moral decision to live in hope instead of despair. This is the time when we stay awake because we know that God’s salvation could bathe our hurting world with healing and grace any day now!

This is the time to trust in God’s future, yet those who hold such trust are never complacent about the present. Our hope in this future ought to make us restless for what will be. Instead of putting up with how things are, we’re invited—even compelled by our sense of unrest—to make things better so that the world as it is begins to reflect the world as it ought to be: as it will be. Hopeful people are disturbers of the status quo. We’re troublemakers in the world. The hope and restlessness we have for God’s future are to be a source of energy and courage for us, as Isaiah says, to beat our swords into plows and our spears into pruning tools (c.f. Isaiah 2:4).

Our hope leads us to work for the very reconciliation and peace that we foresee in God’s realm when it comes. And, for Paul, the way we are to live and strive for God’s reign in the present has to do with community. This isn’t about individual Christians going it alone. This is about how we live, work, and love together.

It’s with community in mind that Paul wrote, “Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires” (Romans 13:13-14 CEB). And note, this isn’t only about Christian community, this is about human community. The two aren’t supposed to be separate things. Christian community is supposed to be a reflection of what human community ought to be. Paul exhorts us to stop doing the things that tear human community apart and live in such a way that human community is built up. Put away our selfish desires—we all have them—and live honorably. Behave appropriately.

This is why Advent is a season critical for the church. We know what time it is but, like those bridesmaids, we sometimes fall asleep to the world. “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith” (Romans 13:11 CEB). God’s future is near, and every moment is bursting with possibility. Now is the critical time for us to put on Christ and live into the future God has planned. We already know the way the story ends, and it’s worth remembering and rekindling our anticipation.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

The Image | Proper 29

Colossians 1:11-20

11 [May you be] strengthened through his glorious might so that you endure everything and have patience; 12 and [give] thanks with joy to the Father. He made it so you could take part in the inheritance, in light granted to God’s holy people. 13 He rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14 He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation,

16 Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.

17 He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him.

18 He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything.

19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, 20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him—whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross. (CEB)

The Image

The last Sunday of the Christian year gives us a chance to do—in the church—what I often find myself doing as we approach New Year’s Eve on the civil calendar. I tend to reflect back on the year that has now passed. It’s not really a focused thing that I do on purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with the intention of engaging in such reflection. Rather, it just seems to come naturally. I find myself doing the same kind of natural reflection near my birthday and wedding anniversary each year, too.

I mean, those moments feel significant, right? You go to sleep one day, you wake up the next day, and a whole year has passed. On July 27, I woke up and I was suddenly forty-three. On October 13, I woke up and suddenly I’d been married for eighteen years. Last January 6—can you believe this—last January 6, I woke up next to a forty-year-old woman. I don’t even know what happened! The day before, she’d been in her 30s.

And the number of those transitioning events only grows: children’s birthdays and rising grade levels in school. This past year, I ended up with a high school freshman living in my house. (So, if you lost yours… I swear it wasn’t long ago that this young woman fit in my arms).

Every time there is a transition from one season which is known into a new one which I haven’t yet experienced, I wax a little nostalgic about the season that is about to close. I also find myself, near those moments of transition, looking forward to what’s coming. I start to anticipate this new thing that is about to begin, and I have hopes—hopes (plural)—for what might be. After all, this might be the year that…. You can fill in the blank for yourself.

The focus of this Sunday is the Reign of Jesus Christ over all of creation. Yet, this Sunday also looks backward and forward. The Old Testament text from Jeremiah 23 recalls a time when those kings and leaders who were supposed to shepherd God’s people didn’t do a very good job. They were corrupt. They didn’t provide care for the people for whom it was their responsibility to provide care. They took bribes. Perverted justice. They led the people to destruction because they didn’t trust in God and certainly didn’t care to bother with doing right. And the people ended up being scattered.

So, the prophet tells us that God has decided to clean up our mess. God will gather the people together, and God will raise up shepherds for the people who will care for them so perfectly that they don’t have to be afraid or dismayed. And not one—not one—shall be missing. “The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The LORD Is Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:5-6 CEB).

The prophetic arc moves from hope for a good shepherd and a righteous king to the actual appearance of the Son of God, the beloved in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins. The Gospel text for today, from Luke (which we didn’t read), is of the crucifixion. It might seem an odd text to use on a Sunday focused on the reign of Christ, but it does point out the difference in how God’s dominion is established. This is a reign of freedom and peace which is achieved through the saving power of Christ’s death on a cross.

There is no military conquest. No subjugation of unwilling peoples. No removal of freedoms to keep the population in line. No threats. No illicit land acquisitions. This kingdom, this dominion of God, is not like the Roman Empire, or the Mongolian Empire, or the British Empire, or the United States, or any other power that has risen across the span of human history that gained power and wealth by destroying the lives of other human beings.

The inscription on the cross above Jesus said, “This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38 CEB). God has made peace with all things: God has reconciled all things to God’s self, whether those things are in heaven or on earth, through the blood of Jesus spilled on the cross. God doesn’t establish God’s dominion by conquest, but by gift. God has offered God’s own self to redeem the whole creation.

What’s more, Paul tells us that God “…rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13 CEB). God has transferred us to the kingdom of Jesus. The word in Greek refers to a change of situation or place. Despite appearances, we have already been transferred to the reign of God through Jesus Christ. We’re already citizens of God’s realm.

Because the dominion of God is so different from every other kingdom, empire, or republic that has come before, and because we are a part of this different kingdom, everything has changed. Jesus is Lord of ALL. As Paul declared, “Because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible. Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him. He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him” (Colossians 1:16-17 CEB).

We can note this, but still look at the world and know that it’s a dangerous place filled with real concerns and worries. Whether one believes the science or not, global warming is a real threat to life as we know it on Earth. War and conflict, and the tragic death tolls that go with them, seem ever-present. Government officials point across our borders in every direction and tell us that all our problems are from those people on the other side. How are we supposed to feel safe in this world?

One response to this widespread distress (real or imagined) is to emphasize our differences rather than our similarities. When we do that, then we react to those differences by trying to isolate ourselves. We build walls to protect us. We militarize civilian police forces, especially in places with high rates of poverty. We press for tougher immigration laws to keep out people who look, act, speak, and worship differently from us.

As I reflect on the past year, it’s clear that we’ve heard a lot of rhetoric and calls for isolation and division because of a false worldview that attempts to highlight differences between “us” and “them.” We’ve seen a lot of activity focusing on division because of a false worldview that wants to highlight differences. Much of that talk and action is nothing short of an attempt to dehumanize living, breathing human beings who are just as beloved of God as we are; who are part of the same human family as we are.

Paul reminds us that Jesus is Lord of all people and all things, no matter who they are, what they are, where they’re located, where they’re from, what language they speak, how much power or authority they might have, what religion they adhere to, how rich or poor they are, or how highly they might think of themselves. The differences and divisions that we choose to see and choose to highlight are only constructs that we invent. In the dominion of God, these divisions we’ve made will be eradicated.

All human beings have their beginning in God. Scientifically speaking, the entire human race shares 99.9% of the same gene pool. That means the two most radically different people on earth are 99.9% alike. The differences between people whether it’s individuals or groups, really are inconsequential. In the coming dominion of God, the human race is one people. All of humanity has been reconciled to God by the blood of the cross. We are all children of God and, as Jeremiah said, in the dominion of the Good Shepherd, not one sheep—not one—shall be missing.

That’s pretty good news, I think.

Paul supports his stance by reminding us who this Jesus is. “He existed before all things, and all things are held together in him. He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the one who is firstborn from among the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything. Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him” (Colossians 1:17-19 CEB).

I wonder if we don’t forget, sometimes, that Jesus Christ is eternal. Or, maybe it’s not that we forget, but the very idea of eternal is so beyond our ability to grasp that we aren’t able to fathom the consequences of what God becoming a human being means. It’s difficult enough to grasp the scope of the word all when it comes to Christ’s Lordship.

In a way, that’s what this Sunday helps us begin to understand because, as well as looking backward to what has been, this Sunday also turns our eyes forward to what is coming. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent where our expectation of Christ’s return cranks up into high gear. Our anticipation of Jesus Christ coming to establish God’s dominion in all its fullness goes through the roof! Jesus is coming. God’s dominion is here.

So, on this last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, I find myself looking in two directions at once: backward and forward. I’ve found myself reflecting on my personal life and the life of our congregation. Looking back, we’ve all experienced significant changes in 2019. Some of those changes have been loss. Some have been about gain. Some changes were about ending a ministry or a form of how it had been done in the past, and some were about new ministries beginning. Looking forward, I see hope that we might live as if God’s reign were right now. (Because it is). What Paul reminds us in Colossians is that, no matter what has been or what will come, Christ is Lord over all.

I think it’s appropriate to come back to Paul’s words at the beginning of this lection: May we be strengthened through the glorious might of Jesus and endure everything we experience with patience. May we give thanks with joy to God the Father who has enabled us to take part in the inheritance granted to God’s people. For, we have been rescued from the control of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus Christ where all people are loved, all creation lives together in peace, and all that God has made is set free from every kind of bondage that held it captive.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

In My Name | Proper 28 Year C

Luke 21:5-19

5 Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6 “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

8 Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12 But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. 14 Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15 I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17 Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18 Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19 By holding fast, you will gain your lives. (CEB)

In My Name

Every year, pastors in the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church are required to fill out paperwork about ourselves. One is a Summer Conversation Form, where we answer questions about our ministry prior to sitting down with our District Superintendent for a conversation about our answers. It’s meant to be a check-up of our overall spiritual health and vitality, which is always a good thing.

Another bit of paperwork is called the Pastor Consultation Form, which provides the bishop and cabinet a snapshot, if you will, of each pastor’s ministry activities; who we are; how we lead; what we value; and how we understand things like worship and congregational life. That form is important, too, because it helps the bishop and cabinet identify gifts and match pastors with congregations.

Yet, occasionally, a question that is asked will needle my theological sensibilities just a little. This year, it was the very fist question on the form, which asked “What excites you about serving out your call?” I know, it seems innocuous enough. It should be simple to answer. What are the things that excite me about living out my call? My problem with the question is that it felt like the questioners only want to know the exciting pieces of living out my call instead of the wholeness of it, including the unpleasant parts.

Not that I was unable to answer the question as it was asked. There are things in living out my call to ministry that excite me. Right now, I’m working with teachers at the Junior High School to host National Novel Writing Month. I get to hang out with forty-one junior high and high school students and help them write their novel during the month of November. These are students with whom I would not otherwise have any contact outside of the writing program that I started there. That’s pretty cool. It’s exciting to see what these students write, and it’s exciting to watch them accomplish their word count goals.

Although the question about what excites me in living out my call probably wasn’t meant the way I interpreted it—as an exclusion of the difficult parts—that question still triggered something inside of me. It made me feel as if the painful parts of living out my call didn’t matter and ought to be swept under the rug where no one can see them. It made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to name those painful parts of living out my call. And, there was no follow-up question about the painful parts. That made the question and the answer it wanted feel incredibly false and incomplete, because the truth of living out a call from God is that call does not always lead to or stem from excitement.

Very often, living out our call from God, whatever that call might be, leads to pain and suffering: even anguish. A cursory reading of the prophets or the Gospel accounts will reveal that much. Can you imagine asking the prophet Jeremiah—the weeping prophet!—what excited him about living out his call? Or Amos? Or Ezekiel? Or John the Baptizer?

Imagine posing that question to Jesus as he was being nailed to the cross. Hey, Jesus, what excites you about living out your call?

While the question was probably innocent, there does exist in the church a false assumption that living out our faith and call from God results primarily in excitement, happiness, or joy; that sorrow is not allowed or even unfaithful, that the expression of any suffering we might experience must be hidden, that we must put on a brave face and pretend everything is hunky dory. Because we’re Christians, by golly, and that means we’re supposed to be happy and joyful all the time.

I know this false assumption exists because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in false smiles that are meant to deflect questions and mask the depth of pain that a person is feeling because they think that faith in God means we have to pretend everything is fine. I know this false assumption exists because I’ve tried my darndest to exhibit it at times.

Sometimes, living out our call is fraught with difficulties. It doesn’t matter if we’re called to be a pastor, a teacher, an administrator, an auto mechanic, a business professional, a farmer, a missionary, or a stay-at-home parent. Sometimes, our attempts to live faithfully leave feeling like our souls are desolate, and we have been abandoned. So, let’s at least admit that.

At the same time, we should probably ask ourselves why we would be surprised at that. We should also ask ourselves why we try to pretend it should be otherwise. Jesus warns us that life lived in the name of Jesus will be difficult. Peter reiterated this when he wrote: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised about the fiery trials that have come among you to test you. These are not strange happenings” (1 Peter 4:12 CEB).

The warning Jesus gives, beginning in Luke 21:12, points to the reality of what his followers could expect before the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. They didn’t have it easy because they were disciples of Jesus. Being a disciple is not a free ticket to a perfectly happy life. Rather, the disciples and early church often faced enormous difficulties. Just as Jesus warned, they were handed over to authorities. They were beaten, abused, and maligned. Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, records how Stephen was stoned to death and the apostles were dragged into court and beaten. Paul was stoned in Lystra, dragged out of the city, and left for dead.

What’s more, it’s not only our personal trials that pain us, but the disasters that strike the world. In Luke’s narrative, these signs were not things that pointed to the end of time because Jesus was illustrating how these signs pointed to the destruction of the temple. But the mention of nation rising against nation, and kingdom rising against kingdom, and earthquakes, famines, plagues, terrifying sights and great signs in the sky do conjure up apocalyptic thoughts.

At some point in history, nearly every generation has thought the end of time was upon them. This has been especially true in times of war and conflict. In my own memory, people thought Desert Storm in the ‘90s pointed to the end. Others were sure the year 2000 would be light’s out for planet Earth. Then, there was September 11, 2001 and the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then came the death toll of the tsunami of December 06, 2004, and the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. More recently, the plight of the Yazidi, the Rohingya, the wars in Libya and Syria, the drug cartels in Mexico, and the refugees at our southern border remind us that the world has, indeed, gone crazy. These events also give us pause. They break our hearts. And, they assail our faith.

One scholar suggested that the siege of Jerusalem which resulted in the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70 had to happen. The indicative mood in the sentences tells us it’s a fulfillment of God’s plan. So, instead of things like this being a source of anxiety, they should instill expectation and hope in us.

And my initial thought was, does this guy know how many people were slaughtered in the siege of Jerusalem? Does he really mean to imply that human violence is all part of God’s plan? Do the words Jesus speaks about nations rising against nation imply such destruction is part of God’s plan or, rather, does it point to the inevitability of human sin which leads to such violence?

And the natural disasters we face, are those part of God’s plan, or are they also, somehow, related to human sin? You have to go back to the beginning to find it but theologically, the natural world is messed up because we broke God’s garden. Paul wrote about this in Romans:

“Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it [namely human beings]—but in the hope that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:20-25 CEB). We broke God’s garden, but God’s plan is to fix that, too.

Violence and human suffering are not part of God’s plan, but such things seems to be an inevitable part of our plans. We humans are always causing suffering in other human lives, even if it’s not physical suffering.

Suffering for our faith seems to be inevitable, too. We might not face religious tribunals in the synagogue, or get dragged before governors and other civil rulers because of Jesus’ name, but we do occasionally face difficult situations where our faith is tested to the breaking point and we are left staggered and stammering for a word to speak in reply. We do face individuals—even groups—who don’t want to hear the truth of God’s word.

When that happens, whether a defense of our faith is required of us or when our faith is crushed under the weight of people’s violent words or actions so that we can barely breathe, Jesus calls us to endure. When we endure, then Jesus can turn our suffering into an opportunity for us to rise up and confess our faith. In fact, Jesus promises to give us words and wisdom that none will be able to counter or contradict. Our example for that would be Stephen in Acts 7.

We’re used to testimonies that praise God for healing, or rescue from times of trouble, or blessings we’ve received, or confidence of our salvation we might have, or for good times and good things. But here, Jesus reminds us that our endurance in suffering can be a powerful testimony, too. Suffering, whether it’s something we experience ourselves or the empathy we feel for or with others, tends to silence us. It tends to make us feel powerless, and it can push us to despair.

The cross of Jesus Christ ought to remind us that suffering can become an example of faithfulness to those who endure. How many of you are wearing a cross right now? That cross is a symbol of suffering and abject defeat. But it’s also a symbol of endurance, faithfulness to living out God’s call, and trust that God will indeed save, not only us, but the whole world. That is good news worth sharing no matter the cost.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay