Listen to Him | Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-9

1 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.” (CEB)

Listen to Him

My wife likes French toast. So, early in our marriage, she made French toast for breakfast fairly often. And I ate the French toast she made. About ten years into our marriage, I finally found the courage to admit to her that I don’t really care for French toast. She never asked me if I liked French toast, and I never said anything because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. We both failed to communicate. I think we finally communicated with each other about it when she asked me why I never ate more than one piece. Marriage is a relationship, and relationships require the people in them to relate.

A big part of that relating to each other is a willingness to speak and to listen together. Words like commune and communication come from the Latin prefix com- meaning together and the root munis meaning burden, duty, and obligation. Community is sharing the burdens of life together. It’s our obligations and duties to each other. Sometimes it’s bearing with each other. For community, communion, and communication to happen, we need to listen to each other and learn about each other. We especially need to pay attention to what the other in any particular relationship wants, needs, likes, dislikes, etc.

The reason I mention relationships and the etymology of com-mune is because we’re made for this stuff. God designed us for relationships: relationships with God, with creation, and with each other.

If you were asked to summarize the narratives of the Bible, how would you describe them? When I think on that matter, what I would describe is the story of God’s relentless pursuit of a relationship with us—God’s beloved creatures—who, more often than not, try our darndest to ignore the very God who created us as reflections of the Divine. The Bible tells the story of a God who desires our attention, to be in a relationship; a God who—for our sake—gave the law to teach us, sent the prophets to remind us, sent the Son to walk with us, and gave the Holy Spirit to guide us.

God loves us so deeply, so potently, so vastly that God refuses to give up on us or let us leave. God has fought for us and worked on our behalf from the moment we were created, and God will keep fighting for us until we’re all gathered-in to live with God as a family, which is exactly what we’re made to do and be. God wants our attention because relationships require our attention. Relationships require effort from all parties involved. When we stop giving attention to someone, or they stop giving attention to us, our relationship with that person will break down.

There are innumerable hindrances and obstacles to the necessary work for building up and developing our relationships. Every day, we are assailed by attempts from people and things who want our attention. The bombardment becomes even more of a constant the moment we turn on the television or radio. Every advertisement, whether it’s for a political candidate or a new product which is guaranteed to make our life easier, or grant us more success, or gain increased wealth, or feel a deeper sense of contentment, or find secret meaning: they’re all vying for our attention. They promise us that if we listen to them, then our lives will be better.

The things that want our attention are more than TV and radio advertisements, obviously. There are people peddling ideologies and sentiments that promise us their way will make our lives better. If we exclude these people, for instance, they promise that we’ll prosper. If we blame these people for our troubles, then we can fix our problems by getting rid of them. If we make these people look bad or less important than us, then we can feel better about ourselves.

We all have strong beliefs about lots of stuff. We each have our own thoughts, values, and hopes which we espouse and champion, whether the stance is religious, political, ideological, or otherwise. We’re somewhat defined by the stances we take. Our stances set limits and lines for our lives that we dare not cross. We all have them, and often times these are good things. It’s how we know not to kill someone when we get angry at them, for instance. We all have ideas that we desperately know—to the core of our being—that our beliefs are true and right and divinely approved. The problem, of course, is that God doesn’t always agree with our assessment of what is true and right and divinely approved.

The Apostle Peter was a person with a firm belief in who Jesus was. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is God’s Son, the Christ who had come into the world. Peter was, in fact, the first one to confess this belief. Slightly earlier in Matthew, just before our text begins, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” (Matthew 16:13 CEB). And, they replied by telling Jesus the latest word on the street. Some suggested that Jesus must be John the Baptizer come back from the dead. Others said Jesus was Elijah. Still others said he was Jeremiah or one of the other prophets (c.f. Matthew 16:14). Then, Jesus asked his companions, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 CEB). It’s then that Peter makes his great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 CEB).

And, you know what? Peter nailed it! He knew exactly who Jesus was. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the true Ruler of Israel! And, since Peter got the answer right, Jesus apparently felt he could trust the disciples with more information. So, after blessing Peter for his God-revealed confession, Jesus began to tell his disciples that he needed to go to Jerusalem and suffer terrible things at the hands of the elders, priests, and legal experts. There, in Jerusalem, he would be killed and raised on the third day.

But Peter didn’t like what he heard. We’re told, “Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: ‘God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.’ But he [Jesus] turned to Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts’” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).

Peter reminds us that it’s possible to know who Jesus is without really understanding what Jesus is about. Peter reminds us that we should be cautious about believing—let alone declaring to others—that we possess the whole truth. Sometimes the stances we take—while they might seem good to us—they do not have their origin in God.

“Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:1-3 CEB).

I wish I could have listened in on that conversation. Can you imagine? Luke’s Gospel tells us that they spoke about Jesus’ departure, which was a reference to his death, resurrection, and ascension. Moses, the prophet of God who represented the law and the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai; Elijah, the Man of God who represented the prophets of Israel; and Jesus, the Christ and Son of the Living God who came to fulfill both the law and the prophets were having a chat on the mountain.

But, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are connected. The teaching of Jesus wasn’t new or innovative. Some of what Jesus taught corrected misguided human interpretations, but it wasn’t new stuff. The teaching of Jesus is inextricably linked to the prophets and the law. That love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength thing, Jesus got that from Deuteronomy 6. And the love your neighbor as yourself thing, Jesus got that from Leviticus 19. Love is at the center of what Jesus taught, just as love is the central reason why God pursues us no matter how badly we mess life up for ourselves and for others.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is this powerful moment in time. And, in a sermon on this day, I should probably talk about the parallel connections to Moses at Sinai: how they both went up on a mountain, how they both were overshadowed by a luminous cloud, how God spoke out of the cloud, how Moses’ face shined brightly and Jesus’ whole being lit up like a newborn star.

I could talk about the connection to Elijah at Mount Horeb with the wind, earthquake, fire, and God’s voice like the sound of silence.

I could, or probably should, talk about the theological significance of this moment being the second time that God is fully revealed as Three-In-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I could talk about how the Son went up the mountain, the Holy Spirit covered them in a luminous cloud, and the Father spoke from the heavens to identify the Son and call him beloved.

I could talk about Peter’s offer to act as servant by building shrines to house this profound appearance of divine splendor where all of Israel’s history suddenly intersected with their present.

But what I want us to hear, what I think we desperately need to hear, are God’s words about listening. “Listen to him!” You see, Peter already knew the first part about Jesus. The voice of God said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him” (Matthew 17:5 CEB), all that, Peter already got. He confessed it. It was the last bit, “Listen to him!”, that was—and so often still proves to be—the difficult part. When Peter didn’t want to hear the lesson Jesus had to teach, Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).

When we listen to the wrong voices vying for our attention instead of the voice of Jesus, we sin. When we heed the wrong teachers instead of the teaching of Jesus, we sin. When we listen to our own rationalizations and pay attention to our own desires instead of the lessons and examples of God’s Son, we sin.

“Listen to him!” We must listen to Jesus in order to learn the way of God, not to our politicians and political leanings. We must listen to Jesus to learn what God demands of us, not to our personal preferences. We must listen to Jesus to discover how God wants us to treat other human beings, not to our human ideologies. The teaching of Jesus trumps everyone and everything because the teaching of Jesus is the teaching of God. What Jesus teaches us is that love is central to everything.

God loves you. God loves you, and God loves the people you think are unholy sinners, and God is as desperate for a relationship with you as you need a relationship with God. God has pursued you with grace and love your whole life long. But, if we want to build our relationship with God, if we want to foster and com-mune with the God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine, who sent the Son to live and die for our sake, then we need to listen to Jesus.

I’ll be the first to admit that listening to Jesus might lead us into places and among people and into ideas that will make our hearts and minds recoil in fear. But maybe that’s where our listening to Jesus can begin. Because after Peter, James, and John fell prostrate to the ground, trembling in fear at the voice of God, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Get up,” and “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 17:7 CEB).

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

Rev. Christopher Millay

Do, Love, Walk | 4th after Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8

1 Hear what the LORD is saying:

Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains; let the hills hear your voice!

2 Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!

The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue.

3 “My people, what did I ever do to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!

4 I brought you up out of the land of Egypt; I redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.

5 My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned, and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him! Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal, that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the LORD!”


6 With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil?

Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?


8 He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (CEB)

Do, Love, Walk

Sometimes people of faith ask questions about what God really wants from us. How good is good enough? If I have my checklist of religious things that I do, how many of them do I need to check off before I can say I’m saved? One of our human tendencies is to answer those questions with what we think or what we want rather than listening to what God has already told us. We like to congratulate—even justify—ourselves by pointing out all of our religious activities. We’re doing the right things. We show up for worship. We dot our “i”s and cross our “t”s.

Truth be told, we are not wrong to think that our presence in worship matters, that being an active part of our religious community is important, because it is. Our worship and religious rituals do matter. At the same time, God expects to see our religion result in something. True worship extends into how we live and behave every day. True worship extends into how we treat others, how we live with others, how we give of ourselves for others. Our everyday ethics matter to God more than anything else.

Our worship is not about self-interest, but self-offering. But, as a pastor who organizes and leads worship, I’ve heard people complain more times than I can count about how they didn’t get anything out of it. As if they only came to worship so they could get something for themselves. One of my seminary professors, Will Willimon, was Dean of Duke Chapel, and he had someone say that to him: that he didn’t get anything out of the sermon or the worship. Will responded by asking the man what he brought to it.

We call worship a “service” because it’s our service to God. We offer our worship to God by offering ourselves. And we do get something out of that. We do receive grace, which is God’s presence with us. But if receiving is our primary reason for worship, as if God or the pastor owes us some good feelings, then we have disordered priorities. And, if our worship fails to result in the ethics that God expects of us, then we haven’t listened to what God wants.

If that’s us—and we ought not rush to discount that it might be us—then we’re in good company. The people of Israel and Judah had similar listening problems.

The prophet Micah, who lived in the late 8th century B.C., presents a covenant lawsuit that is brought by God against the people of Israel. Back in 1996, God got into a small argument with me about calling me to ministry, and I didn’t win. But this is a lawsuit, and God calls the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth forth as witnesses to the proceedings. “Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth! The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue” (Micah 6:2 CEB).

There is some mild wordplay going on in this verse, with Israel he will argue, or will contend. You might recall that, when Jacob received the name Israel he was told, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won” (Genesis 32:28 CEB). The name Israel literally means fight against God. Now, in this lawsuit, God is the one who will contend. God will argue. God will strive. The name Israel can also mean God fights.

God begins the argument by asking the people what God has done to them, how God has wearied them. Then, the savings acts of God on behalf of the people are recounted: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt where God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead them; the attempt of King Balak to get the prophet Balaam to curse the people but thrice spoke a blessing instead (c.f. Numbers 22-24); all the events from Shittim (which was east of the Jordan where Joshua had the people camp before crossing over) to Gilgal (which was west of the Jordan, where Joshua had the people camp after God parted the Jordan’s waters so the people could cross into the Promised Land) (c.f. Joshua 3-5).

The people seem to have forgotten their story and, in forgetting their story, they have forgotten the saving acts of their God. In forgetting who they are and the covenant faithfulness that God has shown to them by always remembering them, they have fallen out of a right relationship with God and with each other.

You see, earlier in Micah, we find that God has already laid out the charges against Israel. The powerful “covet fields and seize them, houses and take them away. They oppress a householder and those in his house, a man and his estate” (Micah 2:2 CEB).

They’re the ones who “hate good and love evil, who tear the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones, who devour the flesh of my people, tear off their skin, break their bones in pieces, and spread them out as if in a pot, like meat in a kettle” (Micah 3:2-3 CEB). They proclaim “Peace!” when they have plenty to eat, but at the same time they stir up violence against the poor and starving (c.f. Micah 3:5). The officials of Jerusalem, “give justice for a bribe, and her priests teach for hire. Her prophets offer divination for silver” (Micah 3:11 CEB).

It’s dangerous to forget our story. When we forget, or when we only remember certain parts, then we lose something about ourselves. The adage that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it rings true yet again. This is one of the reasons why we hear the account of the Great Thanksgiving each Sunday, because it reminds us of our story and recounts the mighty acts of God on our behalf from creation to the future yet to come.

Here, God calls the people to remember their story once again, and not merely part, but the whole of their story. They were slaves, and God let them to freedom. They were homeless, wandering refugees, and God guided them to a home. They were led by God’s hand all along and, as part of the covenant God made with them, God has expectations for their behavior toward other people. To remember their story serves as starting point for a return to right relationship.

Then, in verse 6, the defendant, Israel, responds with a series of questions. Essentially, Israel is asking God, What more do you want? How much more religious do we need to be to make you happy? Do you want burnt offerings and calves a year old? Will you be happy with thousands of rams, or rivers of oil? Do I need to sacrifice my oldest child to receive your forgiveness? What more does the Lord God want? It’s as if Israel thinks that God could actually be pleased with excess, and they’re trying to figure out exactly how far they need to go with it.

That’s when Micah re-enters the conversation by reminding Israel that God has already told them—and uswhat is good and what the LORD God requires of us: “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB).

The first thing God requires is justice, but what does that mean, exactly? Justice is part of God’s nature. Isaiah tells us that the Lord is a God of justice. (c.f. Isaiah 30:18). Justice is concerned with community by finding a balance between personal good and the common good.

There is the kind of justice that focuses on the relationships between people in a community—including those who might be considered outsiders to a community. Under God’s Law, there is no person among us who is outside of our community or whom we can treat as less than a full member of our community (c.f. Leviticus 19:34).

There is the kind of justice that focuses on the equitable distribution of goods, necessities, wealth, and burdens of a community.

And there is the kind of justice that focuses on the social order that is necessary within the community to accomplish the first two. Justice is about our ethics. It’s about how well we live, relate, and share together.

Next, Micah tells us that God requires us to embrace faithful love. Some English translations render this: to love kindness or to love mercy. Like justice, to embrace faithful love is about our ethics. It’s about how we treat others with kindness, dignity, love, grace, peace, encouragement. It’s about how we bear with others in the midst of joy or sorrow, famine or plenty. It’s about how we look past a person’s circumstances and consequences-of-birth to see the person: beloved of God, made in the image of God, redeemed by God, and commended into our personal and communal care by God.

To walk humbly with God implies an openness to the idea that, despite what we think in our frail certainties, we really might not have all the right answers. To walk humbly with God means that we recognize our faults before we start to pull specks out of other peoples’ eyes with our divine tweezers. We might see faults and sins in others but, instead of passing judgment on them, we remind ourselves that we’re guilty of sin, too.

The holiness that God expects of us is not that we separate ourselves from those whom we deem as not holy as us. In light of the petitions up for vote at General Conference in May, it’s my hope—my prayer—that United Methodists everywhere would remember that. Only when we learn to walk humbly with God can we learn and understand how to do justice and embrace faithful love.

Through Micah, God reminded the people that religious activity and ritual adherence do nothing for us—and do nothing but disappoint and anger God—when our when our ethics fall short of what God requires. Yes, religious activity is important. It is. It’s important to worship and tithe and receive communion and sing and eat. We definitely like to eat.

Jesus spoke to the importance of religious observance when he told the Scribes and Pharisees, “How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42 CEB; c.f. also Matthew 23:23). They gave every 10th leaf of their herb plants because they wanted to make sure they gave a full tithe which, honestly, is probably better than some of us do. But they also failed to do justice. Jesus notes that they cheated widows—who were among the most vulnerable members of the community—out of their homes (c.f. Luke 20:46).

We are invited to religious practice and ritual observance because they help us remember our story. Faithfulness is going through the motions of our religion and meaning it. And, faithfulness is remembering that our worship of God doesn’t stop at the sanctuary exit. Our worship of God extends into the world, and God is more concerned about how we love others—or fail to love others—than just about anything else. There is no room for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, or any other personal fear or form of discrimination that prevents us from loving others fully. Our relationship with God is only right when our relationship with each other—especially the least and different among us—is right, too.

We’ve been told what the Lord requires. The question is, are we courageous enough to live it?

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

Rev. Christopher Millay


A Great Light | 3rd after Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4

1 Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations.

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.

3 You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy.

They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice.

4 As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. (CEB)

A Great Light

This text might sound familiar to you. Some of you might recall that we read Isaiah 9 verses 2-7 on Christmas Eve. Those are the verses that state, “Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire. A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulder. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5-6 CEB).

We might ask, why we’re reading this again so soon. One reason might be that the Gospel according to Matthew, which we heard earlier in the service, uses part of Isaiah 9:1 and the whole of 9:2 to announce the beginning of Jesus ministry (c.f. Matthew 4:12-17). This text from Isaiah shines a spotlight on Jesus and his ministry, while Jesus and his ministry opens a window for us to see the vision of Isaiah in a new way; a broader way.

The fullest meaning of the gospel is to liberate the oppressed from bondage. That’s why Jesus came. That’s why God came down from heaven and became incarnate as a human being. When John the Baptizer was imprisoned, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the one who is to come, or should they look for another. Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them” (Matthew 11:4-5 CEB).

In Luke, we’re told that Jesus began his ministry after visiting his hometown synagogue where he quoted Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 42:7, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19 CEB). Every kind of bondage and oppression is reversed in the vision Isaiah presents, and those reversals are exactly what Jesus came to inaugurate on earth.

Isaiah 9 turns our eyes to examine the world and see the deep darkness that we, ourselves, or others languish beneath. The opening verse reminds us of a time when the people of Judah lived under a cloud of gloom because of their distress. For Isaiah this was the recent past and present.

There is a significant translation problem in verse 1. I know Hebrew grammar lessons in a sermon are super boring. I promise to spare you the technical intricacies, but this is significant enough that I think it should be mentioned. Most popular English versions of the Bible translate the Hebrew in a way that doesn’t follow the rules of Hebrew grammar. Adjectives and nouns are supposed to agree. Wouldn’t it be nice if people agreed as readily as our adjectives and nouns?

There are also two past tense Hebrew verbs, but the major English translations render one in the future tense. The verb will make glorious should be past tense.

Lastly, the English translations miss the sense of the Hebrew for will make glorious. The verb essentially means to make heavy. That can lend toward something weighty and profound, like glory, or something that weighs down like oppression. And, like I said, it’s supposed to be past tense.

I hope I haven’t put  you to sleep yet.

A more accurate translation would be: “Surely there will be no gloom on her for whom there has been distress, like the time the former [ruler] treated contemptibly {as insignificant} the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali and the [ruler] who followed treated harshly {weighed heavily upon} the Way of the Sea, Beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the Nations” (Isaiah 9:1 my translation).

Nothing in this verse points to glory. Rather, it all points to oppression: specifically to the oppression of Israel’s northern lands by two successive rulers who were likely Syrian kings.

While verse 1 is about oppression and suffering, hope (in the form of release from oppression) is injected into Isaiah’s vision. Even as Isaiah points to the cause of his people’s suffering and oppression, he rejoices in a prayer-song about God’s light invading his people’s darkness. God has made a way for the people of Judah when no way was visible. God shined a light, a ray of hope, a rising of the sun so the people could find their way out of the gloom and anguish.

That brings up another point that’s important for us to remember. Isaiah didn’t speak this oracle as an outsider who was watching from the sidelines. Isaiah spoke as an insider who was experiencing this oppression with his people. There is something significant about solidarity. That’s why the church talks about ministry with people rather than ministry to or for people. Our call to ministry doesn’t invite us to be outside actors, but rather, in the trenches. Our call to ministry isn’t an invitation to point and nod at problems from a distance, it’s a call to walk through the mud alongside people who are oppressed and hurting. It’s a call to love boldly, powerfully, meaningfully, even self-sacrificially.

In verses 3 and 4, Isaiah bends our sight to events of the past when his people had experienced oppression. Judges 6 recounts how the Midianites and other peoples oppressed the Israelites. “Whenever the Israelites planted seeds, the Midianites, Amalekites, and other easterners would invade. They would set up camp against the Israelites and destroy the land’s crops as far as Gaza, leaving nothing to keep Israel alive, not even sheep, oxen, or donkeys” (Judges 6:3-4 CEB).

So, God raised up Gideon and led him to defeat the Midianites and other oppressors. The day of Midian is the day the Israelites prevailed. The yoke that burdened them was shattered, the staff over their shoulders and the rod of their oppressors was broken. On the day of Midian, the Israelites divided the plunder of the enemies who had come against them like a swarm of locusts. Then, in their newfound release from oppression, they were able to plant and reap their harvest where there had been no harvest. The nation was emboldened by their victory and, because of this liberation, there was joy among the people again.

This was God’s act of liberation for the Israelites, and the fact that it’s God’s act is driven home in Judges 7 by the fact that Israel began the day with 32,000 warriors. But God didn’t want the Israelites to think they had saved themselves. So, God told Gideon, you have too many people. God dismissed the Israelite warriors until there were only 300 left. Three-hundred warriors against an army that was described as a swarm of locusts. The day of Midian was the day the Lord, the God of Israel, liberated the Israelites from bondage and oppression.

In the Christian Faith, we understand liberation in two ways. The first is a spiritual kind of liberation in that we are liberated from our bondage to sin. Jesus came to release us from the hold that sin has over every aspect of our lives: our actions, our inactions, our speech, our thoughts, even our deeply-held-yet-sinful beliefs and self-interested politics. We are set free to see God’s glorious and infinite reality beyond our own limited and impoverished one. We’re set free in this way because when we believe in Jesus Christ, it’s then that Christ lives in us (c.f. Galatians 2:20). We experience a transformative, spiritual renewal that makes us new creations. But we’re new creations that still need to grow.

The second is that liberation of peoples from oppression, like that which the Israelites experienced under the Egyptians and Midianites is something God continues to do. And we who follow Jesus Christ are called to partner with God in that work of liberation. We are liberated to respond to God’s good news which most definitely includes liberation from racial, social, gender, and economic divisions of human society.

Not only are we enabled to respond to God’s good news, we’re empowered to go forth and become co-operators with God to work against the very real physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual oppression and bondage of the world’s vulnerable people. We’re empowered to become justice-bringers and heralds of the very good news that freed us, and in which we continue to grow. We are empowered and enabled to see and experience a foretaste of God’s coming rule and reign, live—fully—the values of God’s design for the human family, and roll up our sleeves to work for it in the here and now.

As new creations in Jesus the Christ, we are given a new yoke. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 CEB). The yoke of Jesus is love. The burden of Christ our God is love.

The continuing work of God is liberation. The meaning of the good news—as described by Isaiah and interpreted by Jesus—is liberation. And liberation has that duel sense: both spiritual and practical. Liberation, in both senses is a kind of divine enabling. We are enabled by God to become children of God, to be followers of Jesus Christ, to have our sins forgiven, to participate in the saving work of our God that leads to eternal life.

And we are enabled to serve and love as Jesus Christ served and loves us: to work so that others within our human family, who are even now under the rod of oppression and injustice, might be liberated from their gloom and anguish so that they, too, may experience joy as on the day of Midian, when harvests are gathered in and the plunder from our oppressors is divided and shared with equity, when peace and security are the rule of the day.

Our God is, has always been, and always will be a liberating God who sides with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the impoverished, and the suffering. It only follows that those who believe in this God should share in God’s continuing work of liberation. This is our task as those who have seen the brightness of God’s light shine into our own dark places to illumine a way for us that we could not see without the grace of God.

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

~Rev. Christopher Millay

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)


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)


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)


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