Rejoice! | 3rd Advent

Zephaniah 3:14-20

14 Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. 15 The LORD has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy. The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil. 16 On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem: Don’t fear, Zion. Don’t let your hands fall. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. 18 I will remove from you those worried about the appointed feasts. They have been a burden for her, a reproach. 19 Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time. I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. 20 At that time, I will bring all of you back, at the time when I gather you. I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD. (CEB)

Rejoice!

How many of you knew there was a black prophet of African ancestry in the Old Testament? Well, if you didn’t, then meet Zephaniah. He was the son of Cushi, which, in Hebrew, means African, and usually refers to the upper-Nile region south of Egypt. Whether Cushi is the name of Zephaniah’s father or a racial designation, we don’t know.

Zephaniah the prophet went beyond naming the usual two generations of his genealogy, expanding it to four. He was the grandson of Gedaliah, and great-grandson of Amariah, and the second-great-grandson of Hezekiah (c.f. Zephaniah 1:1). It’s assumed that his second-great-grandfather was King Hezekiah. So, Zephaniah was a distant part of the royal family: maybe second-cousin to King Josiah.

After all, King Hezekiah had strong political ties to the 25th Dynasty of Egyptian Pharaohs, who were Nubians of the Kushite Empire. The Scriptures mention several people of African descent living in Israel in the days of the prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah. It was common for marriages to be made between royal families to seal political alliances. It’s possible that a daughter of Gedaliah, who would have been King Hezekiah’s great-granddaughter, was given in marriage to a Nubian noble named Cushi as part of the continued alliance between Judah and Egypt. If that’s the case, then Zephaniah was born from that political union. And, we have a black prophet in the Old Testament.

This section of Zephaniah’s writing stands out as a sudden and unexpected shout of joy. The first eight oracles are only bad news for, and judgment against, Judah and Jerusalem. While King Hezekiah “…did what was right in the Lord’s eyes, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3), his son and successor, Manasseh, was one of the worst. And, while Josiah was described as a faithful king who tried to reform the Kingdom of Judah by returning to the laws of the Covenant at Sinai, Zephaniah saw a different reality on the streets.

The people neglected the matters of justice and righteousness. They didn’t take care of the poor. They withheld their tithes and offerings from God. They treated their neighbors with disrespect. They worshipped idols. They put their trust in wealth, power, and prestige. They believed that God wouldn’t act on account of these things. They thought they were secure.

But, through Zephaniah, God said, “I will wipe out everything from the earth, says the LORD. I will destroy humanity and the beasts; I will destroy the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea. I will make the wicked into a heap of ruins; I will eliminate humanity from the earth, says the LORD” (Zephaniah 1:2-3 CEB).

Not only did Zephaniah suggest the destruction of the earth, but he said that the Lord would invade the darkness of Judah’s heart like a person who takes a lamp into a dark place to ferret out secret and hidden sins (c.f. Zephaniah 1:12). The people thought that God didn’t see the things they did or read the thoughts of their minds, or know the sinful desires of their hearts, so they did whatever they wanted. But Zephaniah declared that the day of the Lord is coming: a terrible day of judgment, and a bitter day of distress and anguish, ruin and devastation, darkness and gloom.

It’s almost-but-not-quite astonishing that the last oracle of Zephaniah is one of rejoicing. To be sure, Zephaniah doesn’t foresee everyone rejoicing here. God declared that the corrupt priesthood which was more worried about appointed feasts than justice for the poor, lame, and outcast, would be removed. Their concern was for ritual. But they neglected the weightier matters of righteousness, namely, caring for people.

This was a problem that persisted to the time of Jesus, who said, “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters” (Matthew 23:23 CEB; c.f. also Luke 11:42).

It’s somewhat ironic that the lame would have been considered sinners according to Deuteronomic theology. They would have been outcasts. Their infirmity would have been proof, in the minds of some, that they were sinners. Yet, it’s the lame and the outcast whom God will deliver, gather, and change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth. These are the very people who were neglected by the king and by the priesthood. He tells those who were being oppressed, “Watch what I am about to do to your oppressors…” (Zephaniah 3:19a CEB).

One thing we need to understand is that, in the Scriptures, promise does not come apart from judgment. The Scriptures do not offer comfort to the comfortable. Rather, God’s promises, like that declared by Zephaniah, come after dark times of death, destruction, despair, and pain. Yet, twice, in the imperative for the people to rejoice, Zephaniah tells the people not to be afraid, and he says that the Lord is in their midst.

But, if we’re honest, we’re afraid of a lot. One scholar suggested that, if we read between the lines of verses 16-20, we can see something of our own souls. “We fear that God is not in our midst… We fear that our hands are weak and powerless… We fear insignificance, doubting that we matter in the course of events and dreading that we will be crushed by them. We fear political defeat and natural disaster. We fear shame and reproach, that our faults… will be discovered and render us less than the person we had fooled ourselves and others into thinking we were. We are afraid that we won’t have enough, won’t be enough. We even fear that God may keep God’s promises, and interrupt the safety of our fears and the familiarity of our enemies with something new” (D. Block in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, pg. 54-55).

Zephaniah’s oracle acknowledges our fears and dispels them with a promise of restoration and joy. It’s as if the prophet has brought us forth to the very lip of the chasm of judgment and doom, only to draw us back at the very last moment. Our joy is made all the more intense because of the absolute hopelessness out of which it springs. The word of God which began as irredeemable judgment has been transformed into transcendent gladness! That which once anticipated the silence of the people (c.f. 1:7) or, worse, our cries of sorrow (c.f. 1:11), now celebrates with a song of joy (c.f. 3:14).

The roots of this song of joy don’t lie in the strength or sudden turn toward goodness of the people. Rather, this song of joy is rooted—absolutely—In the grace and benevolence of God. The God who is Israel’s judge is also Israel’s lover and faithful partner in a holy covenant. The coming of the Lord looked like a moment of disaster and fear, but all that has changed. Now the presence of God among us removes all of our fear; it brings salvation.

This song promises us a day of great joy and exultation. It’s a day of renewed love, gladness, singing, salvation, gathering in, and the restoration of fortunes. It is the Lord who has championed the cause of God’s people. Because our God will now rejoice and exult, we, too, can be caught up in this same celebration. Since the Lord our God will renew us in his love, we are invited to accept this love and to participate in this love with gladness and joy.

Today we are called to rejoice! Rejoice in God our Savior! Rejoice in the one who comes to save us, to heal us, who comes to BE our joy. Christ our Savior not only gives us reason to feel joyful, he IS our joy.

Every December, I hear people lament that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit, that they don’t feel like they should at Christmas time, that they’re missing a feeling of joy. I can relate to that. I think we all can admit there are times in our life where the feeling of joy has been absent. Yet, while joy is a feeling, it’s also a response to what we know to be true. That’s one of the beautiful things about this Sunday: we are reminded that no matter what trouble, trials, or tribulations are going on in our lives, there is reason to rejoice!

Rejoice!

Rejoice that God loves you!

Rejoice that God has put God’s own love into us so that we might share it with everyone around us!

Rejoice that God has redeemed us!

Rejoice that God remembers your sins no more!

Rejoice that God calls you by name as his beloved daughters and sons!

Rejoice that God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes!

Rejoice that God has given us each other, to bear with one another through whatever happens in our lives.

Rejoice that God came into our very midst as a human being, born so many years ago, to dwell with us and share our humanity!

Rejoice that Jesus, the Christ, has gone to prepare a place for us where there will be no more sorrows!

Rejoice that our Lord will one day return and make God’s home among us.

Rejoice that we will live forever in the presence of the living God who is Love!

Rejoice!

Rejoice!

This Sunday, we are invited to rejoice and exult with all our heart in the salvation of our Lord and God. Don’t fear. The Lord our God is in our midst.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

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Coming | 1st of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

14 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. 15 In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The LORD Is Our Righteousness.

Coming

Advent seems like a strange season to many Christians. Not only is it strange, it’s maybe not-so-strangely misunderstood. It casts an unfamiliar vibe. Part of the reason for our misunderstanding of the Advent season is undoubtedly due to Advent’s conflict our cultural mindset which occupies the same time. After all, most of us are getting ready for Christmas before the dishes from our Thanksgiving meals are put away. I admit that I did my Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping, albeit from the comfort of my chair in front of my computer.

Another oddity with Advent is that it messes with time. During the weeks of December, most of us are paradoxically looking forward to the birth of a baby that has already been born—and is yet still being born in us. And, we’re looking forward to the New Year when, for Christians, the first Sunday of Advent is the New Year.

The reality of Advent, however, is that it has no star in the east to guide magi toward the child born in Bethlehem. It has no choir of angels singing refrains of God’s glory, and no shepherds watching their flocks by night. Advent has no birth in a cattle stall, no swaddled baby in a manger, and no Blessed Virgin Mary who ponders in her heart the words of the angel as reported by those shepherds.

The Scripture verses we read during the season of Advent are sometimes strange and difficult to hear. The Gospel readings are all focused on adults who speak about the coming of God’s dominion in apocalyptic overtones. The readings from the New Testament letters all point to the nearness of the Lord’s return. The Old Testament readings speak of a future time of restoration and peace with the coming Day of the Lord which are spoken to a people who are facing the terrors of exile with their crushed hopes, dashed dreams, with a trail of blood, tears, and burned livelihoods either before or behind them.

Advent is not filled with the feel-good stories that we love. These are not the childhood favorites that draw the waters of bubbly nostalgia up from deep within our hearts. Even the songs we sing in Advent, with their minor keys and tempered tempos, fail to gratify our desire to sing the carols of Christmas joy and gladness. Advent can be frustrating to us. It can be confounding to those who simply want to get on to the joy of Christmas with its gift exchanges and family gatherings and well-prepared feasts.

For me, Advent is one of my favorite seasons—it always has been—probably because the theme of the season matches most closely to how I feel all the time. I may not always feel joyful during Christmas. I may not always feel a sense of wonder during the season after Epiphany. I may not always feel remorseful or repentant during Lent. I may not always feel like I’m living out the glories or the victory of Easter, or feel alive and empowered by the Spirit in the season after Pentecost.

You see, I’m the type of person who sees how messed up the world is and I long for something better, something more, something to heal the hurts of the world. I’m the type of person who grieves deeply with each injustice I hear about on the news: every life cut short with all the hopes, dreams, and potential that’s destroyed with them; every injustice against women, minorities, refugees. My heart hurts for every person living in the midst of war or poverty or violence, who suffers at the hands of nations and powers, and the inhumanity they inflict all for the sake of the illusion of control. I grieve for the trauma that each person with these experiences and in these situations will have to deal with for the rest of their lives, and for all they lost and won’t ever get back.

I know that all sounds rather bleak. Maybe even pessimistic. Maybe my words sound like those of someone on the brink of despair. Despair would certainly fit with those who heard Jeremiah’s words. They were facing exile. They were living in the midst of war and death and destruction.

What keeps me from the brink of despair is my faith in God’s promises. When I hear about the horrors people have endured or are enduring, these things fill my prayers. And my prayers for justice, for peace, for righteousness, for restoration, for renewal: they shape my despair into hope and hopeful imagination. Instead of the paralyzation of despair, my soul cries out in longing and hope, Maranatha! The cool thing is, that word from Aramaic either means Come, Lord, or The Lord has come. One points to the source of our longing for God. The other points to the source of our hope in God.

I long for the day when the poor have everything they need, when no more children cry because they’re hungry, when cancer and other illnesses don’t cut lives short, when death is no more, when mourning and crying and pain are no more. I long for the day when refugees no longer have a reason to flee, and all are welcomed as friends no matter what insignificant border they happen to cross. I long for the day when every tear is wiped dry. I long for God’s dominion on earth.

It’s a sense of longing that runs through the season of Advent. The name of the season, itself, means coming. And that’s what we’re longing for in the season of Advent: that the Lord will come and set all things aright. We sing the mournful-sounding hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel in a minor key because only a minor-key fits when our unfulfilled longing for God’s righteousness can no longer be contained.

“The time is coming,” the Lord declares, when God’s gracious promise to Israel and Judah will be fulfilled. Jeremiah spoke this word of God’s promise to the People of Jerusalem when their world was crumbling around them. Jeremiah shouts to us that, even when things look bleak, we can trust in God’s promise that a new day is coming, when righteousness is the norm.

Jeremiah foresaw a future king of David’s line who would be righteous, who would do what is just and right. You see, Jeremiah blamed the unrighteousness of the Davidic monarchy for the exile that the people faced in his day. The Davidic kings exploited their own people, and they were unfaithful to God. They let justice and righteousness fall to the ground when they were supposed to be its defenders.

The righteous branch was also foreseen by Isaiah, who said, “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. 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. He will delight in fearing the LORD. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. 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. Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.” (Isaiah 11:1-5 CEB).

God promised to raise up a branch from the stump of a kingly line that had been cut off. Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were the last kings of David’s line. In the middle of hopelessness, Jeremiah offers the people hope. Jeremiah promises them days for which they might long: days when everything that the people have lost will be restored, and the coming-one of David’s line will govern the people with righteousness and justice so that they live in safety.

But, what does the word righteousness even mean? It’s a churchy word that we’re sometimes afraid of because we usually hear it used when we think someone is being self-righteous. Righteousness isn’t an attitude. It’s not an absolute standard. It simply means acting in accordance with God’s purposes. It’s doing the Godly thing. Righteousness is doing good instead of doing bad. It’s also doing as opposed to being. Righteousness is humility, and the ethics of living with and for others in relationships that are loving and just. Self-righteousness is the opposite of righteousness. It’s inflated ego and self-approval. Advent is an invitation for God’s people to remember that we are called to practice righteousness, now, even as we yearn for the future of God’s dominion.

Speaking of our longing: Holy Communion, this meal we’re about to share together, it’s a foretaste of our longings fulfilled. But we need to remember that this meal doesn’t point to magi, or a star, or the things of tender nostalgia. Instead, it points to a world gone mad: a world that desperately needs and longs for the salvation of our God. This meal is of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ whose body was beaten, broken, and bled out by people and powers also for the sake of the illusion of control. This table is set with food paid for at a costly price. Yet, we’re invited to partake, to share in this meal with each other so that we are reminded that our longing for God is not in vain.

God declares that “The time is coming.” Maybe Advent isn’t so strange or unfamiliar after all.

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

 

(c.f. Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 1, pg. 2-7).

Everlasting God | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? 22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon– its inhabitants are like locusts– stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. 23 God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw. 25 So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one.

26 Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? 28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, 29 giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. 30 Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (CEB)

Everlasting God

You’ve probably heard this text before. This section of Isaiah 40 is commonly used at funerals. It’s depiction of God’s power over all things is meant to offer comfort to those of us who’ve lost a loved one. Its poetry beautifully balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence—God’s powerful otherness and God’s intimate nearness. But it isn’t an easy text. While the imagery of God’s power and tirelessness can give hope to some, it can generate skepticism in those who either live in the midst of violence, poverty, hopelessness, or exploitation, or in those who witness such things. After all, if God is so powerful, why does God allow all this horrible stuff to happen? At the same time, if God is so loving and close to us, how can God allow all this horrible stuff to happen?

Those very questions were likely on the minds of the original hearers of Isaiah’s poem. Isaiah chapters 40-55 is called Second Isaiah because it was likely written in the 6th century B.C.E. toward the end of Babylonian control and the rise of the Persian Empire. The first 39 chapters mostly deal with 8th century life before the exile when Assyria was the power broker in the region. Those earlier chapters foreshadowed the exile to Babylon. These chapters, beginning with Isaiah 40, tell of the end of the power that carried Judah’s elite into exile over the course of at least three separate deportations.

Verse 27 gives us the thoughts of the people: My way is hidden from the LORD; my God ignores my predicament” (CEB). The people were in exile for fifty to sixty years, depending on when they had been deported. Their children and grandchildren grew up in Babylon. The people tried to maintain their Jewish identity, but it wasn’t always easy. They had suffered captivity for a long time and they probably wondered if God cared or, even if God did care, could God do anything about it? Was the God of Israel powerful enough to help?

Isaiah’s answer is a sweeping poem of monotheistic faith. There is only one God, Isaiah insists, and that is Israel’s God who made all of creation. The prophet begins with rhetorical questions that point to the beginnings of both creation and the human race. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded?” (Isaiah 40:21 CEB).

These questions sound similar in tone to God’s questioning of Job, when the Lord said, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” (Job 38:4-11 CEB).

The questions Isaiah asks act like a gentle reprimand for those captives who have forgotten who their God is. They’re for those whose skepticism or cynicism has grown to the point that they no longer trust that God cares about them or is able to act. These amnesiacs who’ve forgotten God’s identity and the skeptics who’ve dismissed the Lord’s power and care should have known! They had surely heard the stories of Israel’s past. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and set them in a new land. God established prophets, priests, judges, and kings to order the lives of the people. God had taken care of them in the past when they were no people, and the Lord built them into a community and a kingdom who were God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the captives that God inhabits earth’s horizon—God encompasses everything—the Lord is the one who stretched out the skies for us to live under. God is that big! God is that powerful! Everything belongs to the Lord who made everything! Isaiah reminds the people that they know this. They’ve heard the stories of their people.

Then again, maybe it was those very stories that made the people a little cynical. Maybe the Jewish captives had grown impatient and frustrated. After all, their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt for four-hundred years before God acted. Maybe they didn’t want to wait that long. Maybe they thought God had given up on their generation. Maybe they thought God wouldn’t do anything for the people who were alive now. What’s the point of staying faithful and standing firm in their beliefs about God if God won’t bother acting for another few hundred years? Sure, the day of liberation would be great for their progeny, but not so great for them. If God waited a long time, their bodies would already be in the ground in a foreign land. So, maybe we can understand why some of them wondered about the point of faithfulness.

Isaiah seems to suggest that the point is both God’s transcendence, immanence, and the people’s identity as God’s people.

If we were to examine the text closely as a piece of literature, we’d notice that all the verbs belong to the Lord, and everything else are objects of the Lord’s verbs. When the verbs are positive, they point to objects that are features of creation. When the verbs are negative, they point to objects that are nullified. Isaiah reminds the people that God is greater than the so-called powers among the nations. Princes and kings come and go, but the Lord outlasts them all. More than that, God has the power to make dignitaries useless and judges into nothing. They’re present for a short time, but God can unmake the most powerful king on earth in a breath.

With the Persian-Achaemenid King Cyrus threatening the power of the Babylonian Empire, it seemed as though God was about to bring the empire that had carried off God’s people to its knees. Isaiah offers hope to the exiles who may well have lost a good deal of it, if not all. Indeed, by chapter 45, the prophet identifies King Cyrus as the Lord’s messiah, not anyone among the Jews. The prophet insists that a reversal is coming.

The poetry of verses 21-24 echoes the power reversals of Hannah’s Song, which was the thanksgiving prayer of a once-barren woman who had been mercilessly mocked by the other wife of her husband who had many sons and daughters. After Hannah had weaned her son, Samuel, she presented him to the priest, Eli, to live as a nazirite to God. When she gave her son up, she prayed a song of victory and reversal:

“The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! The LORD! He brings death, gives life, takes down to the grave, and raises up! The LORD! He makes poor, gives wealth, brings low, but also lifts up high! God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! The pillars of the earth belong to the LORD; he set the world on top of them!” (1 Sam. 2:4-8 CEB).

Isaiah insists the people should have known that God’s power overwhelms everything else. The monotheism of verses 25-26 brings God’s transcendence and immanence together. There is no comparison to the Holy One of Israel. God can bring out the whole host of heaven, yet God knows each one of them by name. God’s power makes God’s nearness possible.

So, when the people imagine that their way is hidden from the Lord, and that God is ignoring their predicament, Isaiah asks his questions again, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?” (Isaiah 40:28a-b, CEB). And he reminds the exiles who their God is: a tireless creator whose work of creation is not a once-and-done deal. God refreshes and revives, lifts up and makes the flightless soar the skies.

Still, understanding God’s ways won’t likely happen in an instant. (Be wary of those who say otherwise). Whatever hardship we’re facing, it won’t likely be resolved instantaneously either. Finding the gumption to persist through hardship is tough when we’re relying on our own strength. It wears us out.

Isaiah essentially leaves us with an either-or. Either we’ll be tired, weary, and stumbling—yes, even the young who are so full of energy!—or we’ll wait for the Lord, who will renew our strength so that we can run without weariness, and walk without tiring.

The difference has to do with who we are and how we bear the trouble we face. If we turn away from the Lord in times of trouble, we aren’t going to last very long. The years in exile had caused some of the exiles to forget, and they were tired. Understandably so. They’d live in the hardship of captivity for decades. I’d probably get tired, too. But Isaiah reminds us that there’s another way: a way of reliance upon the God who made heaven and earth, and who knows each of us by name.

Hannah prayed for years and endured incessant ridicule before she finally got the child she wanted. But I think it was her faithfulness, her prayers, and her reliance upon God that saw her through those years of barrenness. Whatever exile we’re facing, whatever hardship in life, or trial of faith, we need to remember that God hasn’t left us alone. God is transcendent and powerful beyond imagination, but God is also small enough, close enough, near enough to know us, to love us, to feel each beat of our heart and shuddered breath, and to hear each prayer that falls from our lips. When we remember that the God of the universe is sitting right beside us, surrounding us, and filling us, that’s when we fly.

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

~Pastopher

The Advent | 1st of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you 2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.

3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. 4 From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! 5 You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. 6 We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. 7 No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.

8 But now, LORD, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. 9 Don’t rage so fiercely, LORD; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us. (CEB)

The Advent

When I go to the grocery store, I usually walk down the entire checkout row to find the shortest line. I don’t like to wait. It makes me wonder how I ever survived the days of rotary-phone dialing, and dial-up internet when it took ten minutes to load up a single webpage.

And I’m not the only one. Waiting isn’t something that any of us like to do. Oh, sure, there are people who don’t mind waiting so much, but I’m not one of them. And it’s not like any of us seek to wait. That’s why I think the Black Friday shoppers who camp out at store entrances are crazy. Seriously, think about what they’re doing. They’re waiting in line so they don’t have to wait in line when the store actually opens. Who thinks that’s a logical idea?

Right now I’m waiting for five books to be published so I can read them. They’re already pre-ordered, and they’ll be at my door the day they’re released. But they’re all sequels, and I want to read them now. I don’t want to wait. Waiting is not on my list of virtues.

I don’t know that it’s on anyone’s list, quite honestly. We are a people of hurried, if not instant, gratification. We don’t even want to wait for Christmas to get here. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you, “I can’t wait until Christmas!” and they mean it! I think some kids would rather hunt Santa Claus down than wait for him to show up at their house.

It’s no wonder that Advent is not a very popular season on the Christian calendar. Some of us would prefer to skip Advent and get right to Christmas. We want these four Sundays to get out of our way so we can get to the Christmas family gatherings, the food, the candy, and the presents!

What’s Advent about, anyway? Why does it feel like some ogre-saint of old put this season in the way to block our path to Christmas joy? What’s this inconvenient season even doing here? Can’t we just shove it aside? Why do we have to bother with Advent?

I don’t like to wait, and yet, Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the Christian calendar. I think it’s one of my favorites because, in part, Advent tries to teach us how to do the very thing I don’t like to do. Advent tells us to learn how to wait.

In Isaiah 64, the prophet laments this very thing. Terrible stuff was going on all around the people of Israel. Horrible things were happening to them. They were waiting for God to act, to intervene, to get involved. But God wasn’t appearing. For Isaiah, this became an active waiting. He cried out, he prayed, he looked, he searched. The people suffered in exile, their cities had been laid waste, their Temple where they once worshiped the Lord had been burned to the ground. And still they waited for God to appear. But waiting is hard.

He cried out for God to come down, to make God’s presence known and felt, to do awesome deeds of power like God did in ages past. Isaiah remembered what God had done and cried out for God to show up again. After all, no one has ever heard or seen any God besides the Lord. Isaiah confessed that God works for those who wait, and meets those who do what is right and who remember God’s ways.

But something had gone wrong.

Isaiah looked around him and saw abandonment. From his point of view, God had simply stopped showing up. His prayer turns in a direction that sounds surprising to us. Isaiah acknowledged Israel’s sin, but claimed that God, too, must share some of the blame. Isaiah said, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

How can human beings not sin when God is absent? How can we possibly do what is right when God hides from us? God can’t brush these sinful people off for this very reason: God’s absence initiates sin in human community! We might be sinners, but when God disappears, we sin more!

Now, what we need to understand about Isaiah’s prayer is that Isaiah is not saying this in order to excuse the people’s sin. He’s not passing the buck by blaming God. Rather, Isaiah is trying to make the claim that God has a stake in them as a people. He’s trying to motivate God to act in a redemptive manner on behalf of the people whom God took for God’s own self and made God’s own inheritance.

It’s like marriage. When Joy and I got married, I knew that I was hers and she was mine: the good, the bad, and everything in-between.

Isaiah fully acknowledges the people’s sin. He admits that they’re unclean, that their righteousness is like a menstrual rag in need of washing. He admits that the people have turned away, that no one calls upon God’s name or attempts to hold on to God. God’s face is hidden.

Isaiah describes the punishment the people are currently enduring as a result of their own iniquity. They are reaping the consequences of their sin. He says, “You have melted us into the hand of our iniquity,” (Isaiah 64:7d my translation).

This is what we chose, and so this is what you allowed us to have. The guilt of the people, Isaiah suggests, is a guilt so insidious, so all-encompassing that it engulfs and overwhelms both Israel and God.

Then Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are all the work of your hand,” (Isaiah 64:8 CEB). Isaiah is trying to remind the Lord that Israel has a claim upon God because they are FAMILY. The Lord made Israel what they are: children of God. So the Lord is bound by an irrevocable covenant to act on Israel’s behalf. God cannot abandon them. The relationship between God and Israel requires God to act.

Gaze now on your people,” Isaiah says. God cannot, God will not let the people be wiped out any more than a loving parent would abandon their own child to death, or a potter shatter the prized work of their hands. God must act. Isaiah knows it, and Isaiah is waiting. He’s even screaming his head off about it, God, I’m waiting!

When I read this, I hear Isaiah’s longing and Isaiah’s anguish. I hear Isaiah’s prayer, and I find that it echoes my own prayers of late. I read the news reports where men, women, and children are being slaughtered. I read about so-called “honor killings,” rape, kidnapping, murder, sexual slavery, and violence against women and girls. School children are murdered in classrooms here, and kidnapped from classrooms in other lands. Captive girls are sold as brides. Children are gunned down by police officers. Nations play power games by inciting violence in other nations. And the lives of people who, like any of us, just want to live are destroyed.

And I find myself asking God, Where are you? How long will you let this go on? Get up off your couch, rouse yourself and get involved! If you’re going to hide away from us, of course this is going to be the result! Where are you, God? I’ve prayed this prayer because I feel helpless. I feel abandoned. And it seems to me that only God can fix this.

It sounds like an impertinent prayer. But it’s a prayer that I learned from reading the Psalms. My heart echoes the words of Psalm 44, “No, God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter. Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Don’t reject us forever! Why are you hiding your face, forgetting our suffering and oppression? Look: we’re going down to the dust; our stomachs are flat on the ground! Stand up! Help us! Save us for the sake of your faithful love,” (Psalm 44:22-26 CEB).

It’s a prayer of desperate need for God’s presence.

And yet, I must acknowledge that I, too, am guilty. Even in this community at First UMC, I haven’t loved as well as I ought to love. I haven’t cared as I ought to care. I haven’t always been the father or husband I ought to be. And those are just a few of my sins of omission.

When we’re surrounded by such violence, injustice, and oppression it’s easy to forget that God is with us. It’s easy to forget that God has torn open the heavens and come down. The Word became flesh, the Son became a human being in order to be Emmanuel: God with us. The Holy Spirit has been poured out and is with us in the midst of everything. God is with us.

Advent is a season of waiting. It’s about how we wait, hope, and watch. It’s been almost two-thousand years since Christ was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, but still we wait for the fullness of God’s Kingdom to come. We await Christ’s return and the day when every wrong that has ever been shall be set aright.

In the meantime, Isaiah reminds us that our waiting is an active endeavor. This kind of waiting requires action. It requires that we seek God.

Advent reminds us to seek the Lord. But it tries to do so in the midst of the very weeks of the year when we’re encouraged to go crazy. It’s the season in which our culture invites us to—in some sense—lose control and lose patience. It’s a season of excess.

We need to seek God, but it requires action on our part. It takes active waiting where we watch and hope with joy. We are God’s people, and God has torn open the heavens and come down to us. God is here. But God’s presence is not always what we expect.

Advent invites us to wait as Isaiah waited: to wait with action. Like Lent, Advent is a time to renew our dedication to God and the disciplines of the faith. We are invited to grow closer to God; to pray, to seek, to study, to search, and to serve others. It’s the Christian New Year, so make a resolution. Christmas will be here soon enough, and the Kingdom of God is on its way. Let’s wait for the arrival of both with action by loving and caring for others.

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

~Pastopher

The Day of the Lord | Proper 27

Amos 5:18-24

18 Doom to those who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or sought refuge in a house, rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Isn’t the day of the LORD darkness, not light; all dark with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. 22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food– I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. 23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.

24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (CEB)

The Day of the Lord

I took Old Testament Prophets with Dr. Louis Stulman at The University of Findlay, and Amos was the first book we covered. When I tell people that Amos is one of my favorite books of the Bible, it’s passages like this one that might make them ask, “Why?”

For one thing, I like the guy’s style. The dude can preach. He doesn’t care if the message is unpopular, when God gives him something to say, he says it without holding back. And, Amos has the coolest similes and metaphors: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

For another, Amos has a way of irritating us that can’t be denied. Jesus had the same habit of irritating people. The problem with religious people is that, little by little, we forget the enthusiasm we once had and slip into various degrees of apathy. If Amos’s words do annoy us, it should give us pause to consider whether we’ve come to accept that apathy as normal and okay.

Honestly, apathy needs a little irritating. Sometimes we need to hear a challenge to our comfortable status quo, or have our feathers ruffled, or get our underwear in a twist. If we need a spiritual wedgie, Amos is ready to provide. If the kingdom of God is to come, then God’s people need to hear Amos’s challenge and get busy.

Let me tell you a little about Amos. He was a street preacher. He was a shepherd and trimmer of sycamore trees who went from his home of Tekoa, probably the one in Judah, to the capital of Israel to tell them they were worshipping and living wrong. For some perspective, we might appreciate that about as much as a migrant agricultural worker from Mexico traveling to Washington D.C. to tell the American people off. To get the people’s attention, he started out by preaching against all of Israel’s enemies, even his homeland of Judah. You can almost hear the people saying, Yeah! God’s gonna bring the hammer on ‘em.

Then, suddenly, Amos turned on Israel. And he kept going for seven more chapters. It was a scathing indictment, but Amos had their attention. In fact, Amos 5 begins this way: “Hear this word—a funeral song—that I am lifting up against you, house of Israel:” (Amos 5:1 CEB). This is doom and gloom. This is apocalypse. And Amos voices the rage of God against a people who should have known better.

The Kingdom of Israel broke away from Judah and the kings of David’s line because of Solomon’s corruption. For a wise guy, he did some really stupid things, and God told Jeroboam that he would take ten tribes from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, and give them to Jeroboam because the people had abandoned God under Solomon’s reign (c.f. 1 kings 11:26-39). They broke away from Judah so they could be faithful to God. They rejected Solomon’s innovation of worshipping only in the Jerusalem Temple for the older shrines of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba (c.f. Amos 5:4-6).

Roughly 170 years after they broke away, Israel had slipped into unfaithfulness and apathy for what’s right. Prosperity and comfort can do that to people. The wealthy had grown wealthier, and the poor had grown poorer. The Kingdom of Israel was at the height of its prosperity and power. The King at the time of Amos’s preaching, Jeroboam II, had pushed the boundaries of the kingdom out to an extent larger than any previous king. By some standards, the kingdom was doing well. They projected a sense of power. King Jeroboam II had made Israel great again.

At the same time, the people were not living out God’s expectations for justice and righteousness. Amos points out that Israel has done things like selling the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, crushing the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way. They’d also turned to some business practices that God had outlawed, (c.f. Amos 2:6-8). The wealthy had built lavish summer houses and winter houses with beds of ivory by cheating the weak and crushing the needy (c.f. Amos 3:15-4:1). They’d corrupted the judges against justice, crushed the weak, taxed their grain and used the proceeds to build houses of stone. They’d afflicted the righteous, taken money on the side, and turned away the poor who were seeking help (c.f. Amos 5:10-12).

It’s this lack of justice and righteousness on the part of a people who are supposed to be holy that has the God who made the Pleiades and Orion seething with anger. The people who think they want the Day of the Lord to come might want to get their act together first. The people of Israel likely assumed the Day of the Lord would mean victory for them over every enemy. When God comes in judgment, that judgment will be inescapable. The people seemed to assume that they had nothing to fear on such a day because they were on God’s side.

God, however, seemed to have a different idea. Another prophet, Joel, described the Day of the Lord this way: “Blow the horn in Zion; give a shout on my holy mountain! Let all the people of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is near—a day of darkness and no light, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread out upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes, unlike any that has ever come before them, or will come after them in centuries ahead. In front of them a fire consumes; and behind them a flame burns. Land ahead of them is like Eden’s garden, but they leave behind them a barren wasteland; nothing escapes them,” (Joel 2:1-3 CEB). Joel presents this army as coming for Israel, too. But he also tells them that the people can return to God and live because God is merciful, compassionate, patient, faithful, loving, and ready to forgive (c.f. Joel 2:13).

Joel and Amos both suggest that God is going to judge the world fairly and, whether we’re a part of God’s chosen people or not, our actions of justice and righteousness are what matter to God. If we’re on the wrong side of that, we should expect darkness, not light; gloom and not brightness. We can run, but we’ll be caught. Like a person who fled from a lion only to be met by a bear, or like a person who fled into the safety of a house and rested against the wall only to be bitten by a snake.

Then, Amos tears into Israel’s worship. God says, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps,” (Amos 5:21-23 CEB).

These festivals included the three annual pilgrimage feasts of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Harvest mentioned in Exodus 23, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 16. The joyous assemblies are the times of festival and breaks from regular work so the people can celebrate and worship God as mentioned in 2 Kings 10:20 and Isaiah 1:13. The offerings of the people no longer please God, and every kind of traditional offering is rejected: the whole burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace or well-being offering. God even refuses to listen to singing and harp-playing. The Hebrew word used here is the title for the Book of Psalms. God doesn’t want to hear the hymnbook of the Scriptures! And the question is, why?

Earlier in the chapter, Amos mentions three ancient sanctuaries: Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba. Bethel was the site of Abraham’s altar, Jacob’s ladder, it’s where the matriarch Rachel died. It’s where Deborah sat as a Judge, prophet, and administrator over Israel. It’s where Saul went to seek the Prophet Samuel.

Gilgal was where Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan so the people could cross over into the Promised Land. It’s where Samuel had abandoned Saul as king over Israel in favor of David. It’s where Elisha turned poisonous gourds into something edible. Beer-Sheba was where Hagar had her second theophany (Genesis 21:14-20). It’s the site of Abraham’s well and Jacob’s altar. It was where Elijah hid from Jezebel.

These are holy places to Israel. Significant places in the history and life of the people. It almost sounds like God is rejecting Israel’s worship as a whole. But a complete rejection of worship is not the case here. We have to look at the whole of Amos’s message to understand why God has gotten so angry. All those things I mentioned earlier about Amos’s message: cheating, selling, crushing, and pushing away the poor, the needy, and the afflicted tell us that, although the people participated in the correct liturgies, sang their favorite hymns, participated in all the wonderful holy days, and gathered together every Sabbath to worship, that worship didn’t affect how they lived.

In other sermons, I’ve preached about how our worship of God is more than gathering together in this building. Our worship of God is also how we live our everyday lives outside of these walls. How we treat others is our worship of God. What we give to others is our worship of God. How we speak about others is our worship of God. Our everyday actions reflect our worship of God.

At the same time, our worship of God, here, is supposed to shape and influence our everyday actions so that what we do, what we think, what we say, are holy and righteous and just. If it doesn’t… If our worship doesn’t shape and influence us so that we speak and act like God’s people in our everyday, then what’s the point? If we don’t offer ourselves to God when we come here, if we don’t seek a change of heart and mind for ourselves so that we can live according to God’s ways, then we aren’t worshipping as we ought. It’s at that point that coming to this place is pointless.

And, to be clear, any lack of being shaped or changed or influenced to righteousness is not something we can blame on the preacher or the choir or the liturgy or the hymns. Worship in this place is what we, ourselves, give to God. The question we may need to ask is, are we really giving ourselves? The difficulty with any living sacrifice is that, no matter how many times we throw ourselves on the altar, our tendency is try and crawl off before our lives are no longer our own.

Yet, it’s when we give ourselves to God that we worship as we ought because our life, itself, becomes worship. That’s when we live in such a way that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God wants our actions to be righteous. God wants us to seek justice for those who need it. Our relationships need to be set right.

Amos reminds us that, as much as God loves us–as deeply as God loves us–God also expects certain things from us. In fact, I would argue that God loves us so much that God will not let us ignore justice and righteousness without saying something about it. God speaks strong truth when it needs to be spoken so that we can turn back to God and live lives that are holy, righteous, and just. That’s why Amos preached this stuff. If God didn’t love us, then God probably wouldn’t bother. I would argue that the fact that God speaks these difficult words to us is proof that God does love us.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

Do What Is Right | Proper 21

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

1 The LORD’s word came to me: 2 What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: “When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer”? 3 As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! 4 All lives are mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child belong to me. Only the one who sins will die.

25 But you say, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” Listen, house of Israel, is it my ways that don’t measure up? Isn’t it your ways that don’t measure up? 26 When those who do the right thing turn from their responsible ways and act maliciously, they will die because of it. For their malicious acts they will die. 27 And when the wicked turn from their wicked deeds and act justly and responsibly, they will preserve their lives. 28 When they become alarmed and turn away from all their sins, they will surely live; they won’t die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “My Lord’s way doesn’t measure up.” Is it my ways that don’t measure up? Isn’t it your ways that don’t measure up, house of Israel? 30 Therefore, I will judge each of you according to your ways, house of Israel. This is what the LORD God says. Turn, turn away from all your sins. Don’t let them be sinful obstacles for you. 31 Abandon all of your repeated sins. Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel? 32 I most certainly don’t want anyone to die! This is what the LORD God says. Change your ways, and live! (CEB)

Do What Is Right

Life would be a lot simpler if the Bible were a book that spoke with one united voice. But it doesn’t. It’s a collection of books that speaks with many voices, and those voices can contradict and disagree with each other at times. It’s kind of like an old-fashioned Facebook conversation. Something gets said, and not all the parties who decide to post their thoughts are in agreement.

For example, Isaiah says, “…they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools,” (Isa. 2:4 CEB). But Joel reverses that sentiment and says, “Beat the iron tips of your plows into swords and your pruning tools into spears,” (Joel 3:10 CEB). Then, Micah (4:3) reverses Joel’s thought by repeating Isaiah.

In Ezekiel, we’re told that the people were complaining about their state by quoting a proverb that highlighted the unfairness of God’s ways because they believed God punished children for the sins of their parents. In fact, they were living that very nightmare in exile. The prophets before them had warned the earlier generations of what might come through their continued disobedience, and then it all became reality. Previous generations had not been faithful to God’s covenant, and now the current generation was suffering when they hadn’t done anything wrong.

And they were right, I suppose, to a point. They were right that they hadn’t been the ones to break the covenant that caused the exile. And, they were right about the idea that God might punish children for the sins of their parents. It’s even written in Scripture that this kind of thing happens.

Exodus 20:5-6 says, “…I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments,” (CEB). Numbers 14:18 says, “’The LORD is very patient and absolutely loyal, forgiving wrongs and disloyalty. Yet he doesn’t forgo all punishment, disciplining the grandchildren and great-grandchildren for their ancestors’ wrongs,’” (CEB). Deuteronomy 5:9-10 repeats the Exodus text verbatim.

So, this proverb about children suffering for what their parents had done came from a very Scriptural idea. And we can empathize with them about the unfairness of such a thing. Modern examples of children suffering for the sins of their parents happen all the time. If I were to go to jail, my children would suffer. They’d feel embarrassed, probably disgraced. Other kids in the schools might make fun of them if they found out. They might have to move or make any number of major adjustments to their lives due to loss of family income and housing. It would be a mess.

So, we can understand their thought process. We can see why the children of exile in Babylon would have quoted this proverb, and maybe looked at their parents’ and grandparents’ and previous generations with some degree of annoyance, disdain, and blame for their situation. They saw themselves as innocent sufferers for crimes they didn’t commit, and came to the conclusion that God’s ways are unfair.

There is no question that the present and future are always tied to the past. They’re in conversation with the past, and they result from the past. The actions of previous generations affect the situation of future generations. That’s one of the reasons why I care about social justice, racial and gender equality, and environmental issues. I want my children (and potential further generations from them) to thrive, to be able to live in peace and prosperity and not lack for anything. I want to leave the world in a better state than when I came into it, not worse.

I think the reason Ezekiel speaks out against this proverb, despite it’s apparent accuracy and Biblical root, is that many of those who were children of the exile—the generation casting blame on previous generations and calling God’s ways unfair—were not doing much more than casting blame and shrugging their shoulders. While a healthy understanding of the past is a good thing, it can lead us to have an unhealthy understanding of our present. It’s unhealthy to throw up our arms and tell ourselves there’s nothing we can do about whatever we’re facing because people messed everything up years ago.

That’s kind of like saying we shouldn’t bother to recycle now because the environment’s already a disaster. Or, suggesting that we shouldn’t bother working for racial justice and reconciliation because slavery and Jim Crow already happened.

The exiled Jews still had a choice in their own behavior that wasn’t tied to how the previous generations acted. After making it clear that all lives belong to God, whether it’s the parent or the child, Ezekiel tells us that only the person who sins will die. Now, first, this isn’t physical death. It’s the kind of death that occurs when we separate ourselves from God who is the source of life itself. What should any of us expect if we cut ourselves off from the source of life? Death seems like an obvious result.

Ezekiel reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions and inactions. It’s almost too bad that the lectionary cuts off verses 5-24, because they develop this idea by giving us the example of a righteous parent who acts justly and responsibly, doesn’t give their attention to idols, doesn’t sleep with other people’s spouses, doesn’t cheat anyone, fulfills their obligations, doesn’t rob people, but gives food to the hungry and clothes to the naked. The parent does everything right. They settle things fairly and follow God’s regulations, laws, and they act faithfully. Ezekiel says that parent will live.

But, suppose that parent has a child who is a little hellion and the child does everything wrong: the opposite of what their parent did. God asks the question, should this child live? The answer is no, and the child’s blood will be on their own head.

Then, say that hellion child had a child who, like their grandparents, did everything right. God says the grandchild won’t die for their parent’s guilt. The grandchild will live.

So, in an apparent reversal of Exodus 20:5-6 and the like, Ezekiel 18:20 says, “Only the one who sins will die. A child won’t bear a parent’s guilt, and a parent won’t bear a child’s guilt. Those who do right will be declared innocent, and the wicked will be declared guilty,” (CEB).

Then, Ezekiel gets into repentance. If the wicked turn away from their sin and do what’s right, they’ll live. None of their sins will be held against them. Similarly, if those who were doing right engage in the same detestable practices that the wicked committed, they’ll die.

God says, “Therefore, I will judge each of you according to your ways, House of Israel,” (Ezekiel 18:30a CEB). I think most of us would agree that that seems pretty fair. If we’re all culpable for our own sins and no one else’s, that’s pretty fair. Now, when most people hear this part, they focus in on the word judgment. That’s what we’re all scared of, right? Being judged for the way we’ve lived because, heck, nary a one of us are perfect. Some of us have done some pretty terrible things, so the idea of judgment feels intimidating.

What we tend to gloss over when we can only focus on judgment, is the merciful grace of God splattered all over the pages here. Yes, God will judge us according to our ways, but we have the opportunity to repent. We can make changes in our lives now that free us from the past, not only the past of previous generations, but our own previous bad behavior and horrible choices. God is rooting for us in this whole thing called life. We’re told, “I most certainly don’t want anyone to die! This is what the LORD God says. Change your ways, and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32 CEB).

The people complained that God’s ways weren’t fair. If you think about it, that’s absolutely ludicrous. Who would want to be treated fairly by God? Fair is measure-for-measure, tit-for-tat, good-for-good, evil-for-evil, all in equal amounts. We give and we get. I don’t want to be treated fairly by God because I’m just not that good of a person.

God knew that this pitiful human race that God created needed to be treated so incredibly unfairly that it could never be considered right. That’s why God sent us Jesus. God changed the game entirely with the incarnation, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only does God offer us repentance, God came down from heaven to be with us. God tipped the scales so unfairly in our direction that no one can be untouched by God’s love and grace. God went far beyond fairness. Instead God showed us how completely in love with each one of us God is.

When God tells us to do what is right, it’s fairly simple. We’ve heard it before. We love God. We love others. And through our successes and failures at doing those two things, we get to rely on the utter unfairness of a God who rigged the whole blasted game in our favor.

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

~Pastopher

The Sound of Silence | Proper 14

1 Kings 19:9-18

9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

The LORD’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

10 Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”

11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the LORD. The LORD is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the LORD. But the LORD wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the LORD wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the LORD wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

14 He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the LORD God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”

15 The LORD said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. 16 Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill. Whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 But I have preserved those who remain in Israel, totaling seven thousand– all those whose knees haven’t bowed down to Baal and whose mouths haven’t kissed him.” (CEB)

The Sound of Silence

I thought ministry would be easy. Even after a pastor whom I’ve known since my days in Jr. High told me, “If you can do anything else and be happy, do that instead,” I still had this idea in my head that working as a pastor was going to be this wonderful Spiritual journey full of smiles, blissful happiness, and high levels of job satisfaction. I quickly realized that I had been misled by none other than me, myself. People in the church are still people. We all have our flaws. And we—both clergy and laity—don’t always behave the way we ought.

I think most of us probably get Elijah’s dejection here. It’s relatable. There have been moments, even seasons, when I wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits. Last Sunday I mentioned that bullying saga I went through. I almost took a leave of absence from ministry over it. My move away from that situation was a last-minute emergency thing. I hated leaving that congregation because I loved so many people there, but I was relieved to get out of the bullying situation that had led to many an anxiety attack. Joy gave up a job working for a university and the free masters degree they wanted her to earn while working for them.

The next church to which I was appointed had a decades-long track record being hard on pastors. Of course, no one told me about it at the beginning so I walked in blind. Two years into that appointment the district superintendent told me that certain people in that congregation were complainers before I got there, they were complainers before she became the D.S., and they would be complainers long after we were both gone. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my emergency move, that congregation would have been left without a pastor because they treated their previous one so poorly. I got put there because there was nowhere else to go. All the appointments for that year had already been made.

Now some of the issues that came up there weren’t all the congregation’s fault. I was a lot younger then, inexperienced, still hurting from the bullying stuff, and still fairly naïve about a lot of things. But the accusatory letters written to the bishop and district superintendent behind my back, the mean letters written to me without a name on them, the attempts at sabotage, the lack of common manners on the part of some really dysfunctional people, made it a tough appointment. I get Elijah’s story.

It’s not easy to love the people who are making your life a living hell for no other reason than that’s their habit. I’ve discovered that, for some people, complaining is like breathing and, if they stop complaining, they’ll die. While ministry there was often difficult because of certain people, a lot of good things happened. Still, the broad strokes of my memory paint those years as a painful time. It was like being nibbled to death by ducks. But I still keep in touch with a lot of people from that congregation and feel only love for them. Others, not so much. But, the love one develops for good people in the midst of difficult times tends to stick. And mine has. It has been a great joy in my life to be able to remain a part of their lives.

Then, I had two really great church appointments in a row. I was at the first one for three years and the second for four years. The problem was that Joy and I wanted to stay put somewhere. We had children. We wanted a home, and we wanted to put down roots. And the churches wanted us to stay there: they loved and cared for us and we loved and cared for them. But then we got uprooted again and again. And we hurt so badly. We didn’t think the church should treat pastors and their families so flippantly. At the second of those churches, Joy was going to start her masters degree once again. She felt a call to minister to children. She had plans to work with kids who didn’t have a voice. And, due to our being moved, she had to give up her graduate degree for a second time. Our children had to give up beloved friends and activities. And we all had to give up a faith community that had truly become our family.

So, my family and I, we kind of get Elijah’s despondency. We get it that, when a person tries to serve God they’ll have both successes and failures. They’ll be loved and reviled by different people at the same time. They’ll have moments of joy and moments of pain, they’ll find pieces of community and abject loneliness.

This text shows us one of Elijah’s deepest moments of pain. If you look at what happens just prior to it, Elijah was at the height of his prophetic career. He had just won a miraculous victory at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal—450 of them to one prophet of the Lord! He seemed unstoppable. He was going to bring the people of Israel back into the covenant God made with their ancestors. He was going to teach them how to live faithfully so they would be blessing to other nations, just as God declared in the covenant. Imagine how great he must have felt, the hope he must have had for his people, the joy that must have filled his heart that they were turning back to the Lord!

Then Queen Jezebel sent him a threatening message saying she was after him. And when she got ahold of him, he was a dead man. In that moment, the bottom fell out of the barrel for the Man of God. Elijah didn’t merely come down from the proverbial mountain, he fell off the summit cliff and splattered in the foothills. He was terrified and he ran for his life (1 Kings 19:3). By the time he got to the cave, Elijah was so distraught that he’d had enough of living. Can you relate?

When God asked him, “Why are you here, Elijah?” the prophet’s response is that he has worked so hard for the Lord. But the Israelites have done terrible things. They’ve forsaken the covenant, torn down the Lord’s altars, and killed the lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and now they’re going to kill him. In that moment, Elijah could only see his fear, failure, and forlornness. There was nothing left for him to give. What more could he possibly do?

God told him to go stand on the mountain before the Lord because the Lord is about to pass by. A strong wind tore through the mountains: a wind so powerful it shattered stones. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. Then, the earth shook, surely ripping more of the mountain apart, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. Then, fire scorched the land and seared the air, but the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire “there was a sound. Thin. Quiet” (1 Kings 19:12 CEB). Another translation calls it “a sound of sheer silence” (NRSV).

When Elijah heard the sound of silence, he went out to speak to the Lord. God asked him the same question, and a still dejected Elijah gave the same answer. He’s worked hard. The peoples refuse God’s covenant. They’ve destroyed the Lord’s altars and killed the Lord’s prophets. He’s the only one left, and they’re after him.

At first glance, the Lord’s response almost feels insensitive. “Go back through the desert to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram. Also anoint Jehu, Nimshi’s son, as king of Israel; and anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:15-16 CEB). But, when you look at what God provides for Elijah, it’s incredibly compassionate. For one, God doesn’t give up on Elijah, even though Elijah has given up on himself. Instead, God gave him a plan. Elijah was given three tasks but he only got one of them done. He designated Elisha as his successor, and it’s Elisha who does the other two. Elisha encouraged Hazael to assassinate the king of Aram and usurp the throne. It was also Elisha who instigated the rebellion of Jehu against King Joram of Israel.

One thing we can take away from this is that we don’t have to accomplish everything ourselves. We do what we can. We accomplish that which can be accomplished and trust that neither the world, nor the church, rests on our shoulders alone. God will prevail.

For another, God lets Elijah know that, despite how lonely he feels, he is most certainly not alone. This is the part that assuaged Elijah’s deepest fear. The Lord has left seven-thousand in Israel who have not knelt down to Baal or kissed Baal’s image. There are people of faith in the congregation of Israel. There are those who hold fast to the covenant. All is not lost. God will continue to be with the faithful.

If we had read verse 19, we would have discovered that Elijah left the cave and found Elisha. It took a moment of quiet, a time of prayer, for Elijah to hear the Lord’s voice and find his way forward. That’s something we need, too. I once heard a pastor joke that, if you want to make your congregation uncomfortable, let silence linger in worship for more than 10 seconds. We are so used to noise—both literal and metaphorical—that silence is scary. We aren’t used to quiet. We’re used to the wind, earthquake, and fire. If we don’t have some kind of audio stimulation going on, we get uneasy, even scared. People leave their TV on when they aren’t even watching it because silence is uncomfortable.

I dare you to turn off all the noise, find a quiet place, and spend 10 minutes in absolute silence. Don’t even talk to yourself. Turn the voice in your head off and just be silent. It’ll take some practice before you’re able to do it successfully. Use those minutes of quiet as preparation for prayer. And, when you pray, try listening for God’s voice as much as you speak.

Prayer is where we find God. Sometimes, we need to shut everything else off so we can hear when God speaks. I’ve begun to seek those moments of quiet again. It’s not easy to shut off the noise or set aside my worries, or the weight of my responsibilities, or the need to get the things on my to-do list checked off. Simon and Garfunkel were right about the sound of silence. We need to set aside the distractions of the world—the flashing neon lights, the babel of people talking without speaking, the pretense of people hearing without listening—so we can see and hear rightly.

No matter who we are or how passionate we are for God, we’re going to have ups and downs. We’ll have days when we’re on the mountain and unstoppable, and we’ll have days where we’re hiding in a cave, utterly dejected. We’ll have times when our faith feels unbreakable, and times when our faith feels like it’s been shattered to pieces. Yet, no matter where we are on any given day, some things are certain.

We are not alone. God is with us and we have a community of people who love us and will choose to walk beside us and hold us up when we stumble or fall.

There is always more to do for God’s kingdom, but we do it best by working together.

God will never give up on us no matter what we think of ourselves. God’s love for us is simply too great, too unbreakable, too much for God to let go of us.

~Pastopher