Prepare the Way of Love

Baruch 5:1-9 | Philippians 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6 | Canticle 16

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee (i.e. King of the Jews), and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” when this was the time of all these people of power, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

John, from the beautiful, verdant hill country, born to the faithful Zechariah and Elizabeth, left the comforts of his home to wander in the wilderness, where the word of God came to him. The wilderness, a scarce and desolate place, is also a place of safety and divine protection. However dark the wilderness, it’s not a place without the presence of God.

In fact, in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the Christian church transitioned into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, there were Christians who also fled to the wilderness to stay closer to God. These people became known as the desert fathers and mothers–the abbas and ammas–to whom people would seek for their wisdom, wisdom acquired from their time in prayer and solitude apart from the political/social scene. These people who fled intentionally decided not to practice their beliefs within a system that offered reward for their affiliation. Where there is favor, there’s tendency toward corruption. The folks who fled to the desert weren’t having any part of it.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to see John the Baptist as someone who wouldn’t have any part of it, either, as we’ll be reminded next week. But he didn’t stay isolated.

John went all around the River Jordan in the midst of everyone he met along the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t anything new. The Jewish people had a ritual cleansing signifying a return to God with expectation of forgiveness. His methodology might have been unconventional. I don’t think any of us would go up to a roadside preacher or someone wearing a sandwich board (let alone camel hair), telling us to get baptized in a muddy river. Even the synagogues then had their baths for the ritual cleansings.

But John is intent and hearkens to the Prophet Isaiah, as he conveys the traditional hopes for Israel’s restoration into a place of favor as God’s people. These are their hopes; this is what Baruch offers words of encouragement for; even Zechariah’s song places John in a position to proclaim the goodness to come. There is hope for God’s people.

Valleys shall be filled. Mountains made low. The crooked made straight, and the rough made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John believed it with all his heart and all his life, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant that such a promise is open to everyone, to all. Still, he lived it. I don’t see John asking a lot of questions at the border of the river. I don’t see him playing favorites with those in positions of power. He does what the word of God guided him to do, and when he comes face to face with Jesus, he continues to do what God tells him to do and baptizes Jesus, then fading into the background, even with his tragic death, knowing that as he decreases, Jesus will increase, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. It will be done. All this in the midst of the people.

We have a president and a governor. We have rule-makers for our regions, counties, cities, and towns. We have priests and pastors of all kinds, who similarly have their systems of governance. We rejoice that we have a system of governance in both our nation and our church that gives voice to many so that decisions aren’t made by a top few or even a top one. But there are powers at play that have fallen prey to corruption in the name of what is right or even Christian. Even as people flock into metropolises to plug into a system of bigger, better, more, there are people simultaneously saying no and moving off the grid or into communities that work together for a common good. It seems that it’s all or nothing.

Those of us who had the honor and privilege of listening to Bryan Stevenson last night at Crystal Bridges heard directly from one who has heard the word of God.

Disillusioned by law school, Stevenson told us he went into government policy. But there he said they were studying how to maximize benefits and cut costs, regardless of whose benefits and costs were affected. As someone who knew it was a privilege to be in college and knew the plight of those who lived in struggle, he returned to law school determined that he could make a difference, even if he didn’t know how. In his book Just Mercy, he details events of his work in the South that one could describe as wilderness experiences but also account for all the difference he has and continues to make.

His lifetime of experiences, starting with his mom and grandma and going on to today with all the people he encounters in his endeavors, teaches and affirms that while we could isolate ourselves or ignore the world around us as we pursue personal gain, that lifestyle won’t change the brokenness that is. And when he really hit the core of his own suffering and grief, typically when sitting in the midst of someone else’s suffering–like the pending death of an inmate whom he had tried to save–he realized that not only had that person’s life been broken, but he himself was a broken person, too. Not only that, but he worked within a broken system. But brokenness revealed makes way for mercy. What are we all called to do but to do justice (what he called the opposite of poverty), love mercy, and walk humbly? (Micah 6:8)

It sounds a lot like filling valleys of poverty, addiction, and despair and lowering mountains of pride, gluttony, and greed. It sounds like clearing a way through the twist and turns of bureaucratic, convoluted systems and calming storms of anger, fear, and distrust to get straight to the heart of matters and work efficiently. Rather than focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done, though, Stevenson provided four characteristics on how to meet the challenges we face when we are preparing the way for the kingdom:

> Get close to those who are marginalized,

> Change false narratives that are out there,

> Stay hopeful, and

> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Oh, Bryan John-the-Baptist Stevenson, you’re gonna get a lot of people beheaded. But for this man who still feels the hugs of his grandmother, speaks truth to those who face death, and won’t back down from his charge from a civil rights veteran to keep beating the drum of justice, he knows what it means to be in proximity to those who are pushed down and beaten back. He hears the stories we tell that some people are worth fighting for or defending while some people–some of our neighbors–are disposable. He has sat in the shadow of the valley of death and wanted to give up, but he learned that we can either be hopeful or be part of the problem. So he does what he’s gotta do. He’s found his vocation, his purpose in life. He’s living out the prophecy.

And I sat in that crowded room of people, and I slouched back in my chair, angry. Angry because I was sad, and I realize it’s a selfish sadness because I’m sure many of these people are doing good and great things in their own time, but I can’t see it and don’t know about it. Maybe someone else was sitting across the room thinking the same thing about me. But for this sold out lecture, I don’t know who is also beating that drum for justice with hope, guiding us toward a future where our neighbors don’t have to worry about being wrongfully imprisoned, profiled, discriminated against for housing or work, fed a story that convinces them that they are the ones who need to apologize and be grateful for the so-called worthless life they have.

Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord to break into our lives. Not just our own blessed life but the lives of all. How willing are we to go into the midst of the oppressed, to speak up when false narratives are told about us or even of strangers, to keep faith and hope alive in the darkness, and to do that which is uncomfortable and inconvenient?

From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians who had disagreement among themselves and doubts and struggles. Paul reminded them of his joy for all of them. When he thought of them all, of sharing in God’s grace with all of them, he was even more inspired to pray for them all. All of them, he keeps repeating. His prayer: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was more important than following the letter of the law. Determining “what is best,” I found, actually translates better as determining “things that matter.”

Paul’s prayer for his companions in faith is that they love one another and have wisdom to discern what matters most. Without love we are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, right? (That’s what he told the Corinthians.) John’s love for God opened him to hear the word of God in the wilderness that called him back into the midst of the people to kindle in them hope in their forgiveness. Bryan Stevenson, fueled for love of justice and mercy, works in the trenches of law and everywhere that takes him to confront the narratives that we’ve misshapen to the detriment and brokenness of one another.

We’re called to wake up. We’re called to heed the voice and voices of those crying out in the wilderness. The Word of God is coming to us all. May we be grounded in Love for God and one another so that we don’t miss what matters most.

 

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Persist

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 | Psalm 26  | Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 | Mark 10:2-16

Knowing Jesus’ perfection, maybe rather than asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” we should ask ourselves “What would Job do?” We wouldn’t have to change the acronym or anything. WWJD still applies. Job, unlike Jesus, doesn’t have divinity in his being; Job is just–like us–fully human. Yet, in times that tried his soul to his very core, Job persisted as one whose actions mirrored his beliefs. Job remained blameless and upright, full of integrity and obedience to God.

If we aren’t careful, we might miss that while we start with the first verse of the Book of Job, we skip right on over to the second chapter. There’s this meeting of the heavenly beings like in the first chapter, and there’s Satan. Let’s check ourselves here, too, before we get carried away in our imaginations. “Satan” is better translated here as the “Adversary” or the “Accuser.” Notes in the Jewish Study Bible say that it’s more like a heavenly prosecutor, like a prosecuting attorney. That makes sense. Because in the Book of Job, one of the basic questions is: Would Job be so faithful even if he weren’t so blessed? Does he fear God, obey God, for nothing or only because he has something to gain? God grants the Adversary permission to try Job . . . but not take his life. All that’s in the first heavenly court meeting or pre-trial chambers.

The rest of Chapter One continues with the Adversary systematically removing Job’s wealth and possessions and even his children. Truly, it’s a horrific account, even with the lone witness coming to tell Job of his loss, the haunting refrain repeated four times: “I alone have escaped to tell you.” In response to these calamities, Job tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped. He neither sinned nor charged God with wrongdoing. Job remains blameless and upright, even prostrate before the LORD in the midst of his devastation.

What we have in our lesson today, then, is the second heavenly council. God is pleased to confirm that Job still persists in his integrity, and I prefer the Jewish Study Bible translation that reads like God says the Adversary incited God against Job “to destroy him for no good reason.” We agree, don’t we? Job didn’t–doesn’t–deserve to suffer this way or in ways to come. Like the people of Job’s day, we tend to have a worldview where if you do good, you get rewarded: calamity befalls those who are bad. This worldview fuels the question of theodicy: why do bad things happen to good people? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t see the reason for it–at least, no good reason. As we encounter Job over the next few weeks, we’ll go along with him as he struggles to find order in his world, in the events happening to him, and like me, you may marvel at his ability to remain blameless and upright.

But Job isn’t perfect. Job isn’t Jesus. Job’s wife isn’t perfect, either.

Job’s wife, who–keep in mind–has also lost her children, is in despair and cannot believe Job’s faithfulness. She taunts him to curse or blaspheme God and die. We sense her desperation and longing to escape misery. Job’s response?

“You speak as any foolish woman would speak.”

That’s a hard line for me to hear this week, when the voices of many women have been minimized, mocked, ignored, or silence . . . as has been common for millenia. And our translation, again per the Jewish Study Bible, is actually more tame than the original Hebrew in just calling the woman “foolish,” losing the sexual promiscuity associated with the Hebrew word. Basically, Job is telling her–his wife–she speaks as any prostitute would speak.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job goes on to say to his wife.

In all this, we’re told, Job said nothing sinful. Because Job is blameless and upright, embodying the righteous one before God.

I want to give Job credit for staying with his wife and not casting her aside. By Jewish law, Job could divorce his wife for any cause (Deut 24), releasing her. By Jewish law, she could not do the same. Marital relations in antiquity were no less stressful (and probably were more so) than they are today. But in the time of Jesus, as in some places in our world, women by and large were considered property of their fathers or husbands. Women, unquestionably, were inferior to their male counterparts in society.

So when Jesus defends the sanctity of marriage to the Pharisees and then goes on to use the same language for both the husband and wife in his further response to the disciples, he’s just being Jesus, transgressing those social norms, rocking their worldview.

Thanks to Jesus, we recognize that in a healthy marriage, there is strong emphasis on mutuality. A healthy marriage is one of mutual affection, respect, and joy. The marriage is life-giving for each partner and maybe even life-bearing if it works out that way, though that’s not always the case, nor does it have to be. The two are an embodiment of who God created us to be in God’s image, a harmonious union.

And in case we miss what Jesus was doing there regarding elevating the role of the woman, he reaches out to the very least of those in his society, the children. He gathers them in his arms, lays hands upon them, and blesses them, for they have what it takes to receive the blessing, to receive the kingdom of God.

What does a child have?

Until it’s been taught, children have an unobstructed worldview. They exist, and they need. Children are completely dependent upon their care provider(s). Whether that provider does everything perfectly or not, the child is attached to their source of nourishment, of life.

In times of trial, heaven forbid it ever be like Job’s, we are vulnerable–as vulnerable as a child. We might, like Job’s wife, rather die than endure endless suffering. But that we could be like Job, who maybe in his prostration was curled into the fetal position–as we often are in times of distress–returning to a most child-like state, vulnerable and dependent on the mercy and grace of God, yet persisting in our righteousness and obedience.

So when we hear or read a psalm like Psalm 26, which is a prayer for divine justice, we read it not solely with the voice of David or Job in our head. We read it with the voice of the mistreated wife, the mother in despair, the son not living up to society expectations, the child kicked out of their home. We read it with our own voice as we struggle to make sense of our world. Even if we know we’ve sinned and faltered, we’ve returned to God as a faithful child who delights in the glory of God and stands on level ground–blameless and upright. We, too, bless the LORD, persisting in what is good and true.

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