The promised blessing

File:Henry Ossawa Tanner - Study for Jesus and Nicodemus.jpg

Jesus and Nicodemus

Watching for the Morning of March 12, 2017

The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday our focus turns to the Gospel of John and the visit of Nicodemus. In the background is the promise to Abraham that through him God will bring blessing to the earth. The earth is in travail. The flood has purged the land but not cleansed the heart of humankind. They denied the command of God to fill the earth and tried instead to storm the gates of heaven by building their ziggurat in Babel. A confusion of languages followed, a deep and fundamental disruption of humanity’s most remarkable achievement: words. With words we can storm the heavens and land people on the moon, but with words we also lie and steal and sow division and hate. With words we can connect on the most intimate level, and with words we can rend beyond repairing. In the face of this fragmented world, God speaks a promise to Abraham: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now Nicodemus stands before Jesus failing to understand these words about being born from above, born of the Spirit, born of God, born of the promised blessing. He wonders what sense it makes to talk of coming forth from the womb a second time. He doesn’t understand the metaphor of the wind. He comes to Jesus “by night”; he is in darkness.

But Jesus does not drive this thickheaded lunk away. He speaks, and in his word is life. He bears witness to the majesty of God’s love, to the sacrifice such love will make, to the redemption that is at hand, to the new creation that is dawning.

Nicodemus will linger near this Jesus. He will defend him to his accusers. He will come with spices fit for a king to give this Jesus an honored burial. He senses there is something of God here, something of that longed for blessing of all creation.

Abraham was in a right relationship to God by faith, argues Paul, by fidelity to God’s promise, for Abraham was declared “righteous” hundreds of years before the law was given. The psalmist speaks of his confidence in God as he looks at the pilgrim road rising through the dangerous hills to Jerusalem. It is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in Nicodemus. And it is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in us who come Sunday to hear the words and share in the one loaf and taste the promised blessing.

Your Name Be Holy

Our focus in Lent on a portion of the catechism, the basic teachings of the faith, takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the first petition: “Holy be your name.” What honors God’s name? And what shames it? And what, exactly, are we asking God to do? There is much to ponder in this simple prayer.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 12, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 12, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Study_for_Jesus_and_Nicodemus.jpg Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Time to plow

Watching for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Monday

File:A Stiff Pull.jpgWednesday we begin our Lenten journey, our spiritual pilgrimage to the three days in which the great mystery of God’s healing and reconciling work in Christ are celebrated. The “holy city” to which we travel are those events in which Christ kneels to wash our feet, breaks with us the bread of life, is arrested and stripped of all honor and glory, is debased and broken upon the cross, and laid in a tomb. The work of God to heal and reconcile and save our sorry world is brutally rejected. No single act could reveal the collective rebellion of humanity from the way of God than this. Among us, when the emissary of a king is so treated, it is cause for war. But God chooses not to take revenge. He raises Jesus from the dead, bearing witness to us that Jesus is the perfectly faithful one whose words and deeds are true.

We have to prepare ourselves to experience again that story. It’s not that we are cleansing ourselves by some outward ritual to participate in a sacred rite – we are tilling the ground, breaking up the soil of our hearts, so that we will be ready to hear and receive all the power and grace of this message – so that it can take root in good soil and bear abundant fruit in us.

We need time to get ready. We need to plow the ground. We need to pull the stumps and clear the weeds.

Ash Wednesday is the first step of this spiritual journey. It points the direction we must travel. Repentance is not about guilt; it is the recognition that we need to turn back to the path, renew the journey, remember the stunning grace of God and live it anew.

The Prayer for Ash Wednesday

By your prophets, O God, you call us to repentance and faith
leading us on a journey into wholeness and life.
Watch over us, renewing our lives and our world
that, abiding in your grace, we may prove faithful to you and to all

The Texts for Ash Wednesday, 2015

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-12 (We are using the alternate this year)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” – After the return from exile in Babylon, life was hard and Jerusalem and its temple continued to lie in ruins. The people complained that God did not respond to their prayers. The prophet challenges the meaning of such prayers when the people fail to embody the life of justice and mercy to which God called them.

Psalmody: Psalm 103:8-14
“He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness.” – In our parish, we use the appointed Psalm 51 (the famous cry of repentance by David after he has been confronted by the prophet Nathan over the murder of Uriah and the taking of Bathsheba ) in the confession at the beginning of our liturgy. When we come to the time for the psalm we hear the poet speak of the tender love and faithfulness of God who has “removed our sins from us” “as far as the east is from the west.”

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1 (Appointed: 5:20b-6:10)
“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
– Paul calls his troubled congregation to live within the reconciling work of God in Christ.

Gospel Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” – Jesus declares at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that, in order to enter into God’s dawning reign, our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Now, having spoken about the meaning of the commandments (in contrast to the way they are taught by the scribes) Jesus turns to the acts of piety for which the Pharisees were known. Our prayer, fasting and charity must be done not for public acclaim but to please God.

Assigned First Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.” – Facing a terrible plague of locusts, the prophet calls for the people to turn to God, marking themselves with dust and ashes, rending their hearts that God may see their desperate plight and come to their aid.

 

Photo: Peter Henry Emerson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Into his presence with thanksgiving

Thursday

Psalm 95

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Piligrims riding on the outside of a train after a three-day Sunni Muslim festival in the ancient city of Multan, Pakistan

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving.

A few years ago I met my brother and his son in Berkeley for the Big Game between Stanford and Cal. It was the first time I went to see this game on enemy territory. Stanford was the home team when we were growing up. Palo Alto’s main street is University Avenue. The Stanford stadium was across the street from my high school. Our high school played its big rivalry game at Stanford Stadium and though our small crowd looked silly rattling around a 90,000 seat stadium, this was the big time! Playing in Stanford Stadium!

Going to the game in Berkeley with my brother and his son was my first foray into the enemy’s camp across the Bay. I rode up on a BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and joined the throng walking up the hill to the stadium. As the crowd ascended it grew ever bigger and the energy level grew ever higher. The mounting excitement was contagious. Songs and cries and chants broke out continually. We might as well been led by the marching bands. (The infamous marching band story we won’t get into.)

I think of that day when I hear these invitatory psalms calling the community to worship – the throngs of people ascending the temple mount to stand in the presence of God and acclaim him as their lord and king, their rock and deliverer.

It’s too bad we can’t recreate that energy as people walk from the parking lot to the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. We get a taste of that pilgrim excitement on Christmas Eve when the place will be full and people come early for seats. There is a taste in the energy of the children eager for Christmas morning. There is a taste in the walkway bordered with luminaries and the buildings adorned with lights. There is a taste in the beauty of the sanctuary, the special music as people arrive, and the moment the congregation rises to sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As children, we waited all year for that moment at the end of the service when the lights are extinguished, candles distributed and the warm, flickering candlelight spreads through the room, passed from one person to the next, until we all lift up our candles singing “Silent night, Holy night.”

We don’t generally see that excited expectancy on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost or in the cold or wet winter days of the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. But this is true of all of life. I am much more likely to duck out for the restroom or refreshments in the middle of the fifth inning at AT&T Park than the bottom of the ninth.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving sings the psalmist to the crowds ascending the hill of Mt. Zion. There is excitement and energy in the crowd because it is a national festival like Christmas. The city is full of pilgrims for the holy season. But the psalm does more than capture the excitement of the day – as we can tell from the warning in the second half of the psalm. We won’t read those words on Sunday, but the thought shapes the meaning of the call to enter God’s presence.

We are not coming in the excitement of the festival to celebrate our team. We are coming to honor the God who promised a homeland to Abraham, who gathered a people from bondage in Egypt, who taught a new way to live, who guided his motley crew of former slaves through an arid wilderness and brought them to a rich and abundant land. We are coming to honor the God who revealed himself in the words of the prophets and in the words and deeds of Jesus his anointed. We are coming to bow down before the one who bears the brokenness of the world in his hands and side, and deals with us according to his goodness not our deserving.

2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving. The singers of the psalm are not serving as cheerleaders or the marching band to geek up the crowd. They are reminding us that our only proper response to God is a profound gratitude.

He is the creator who lifted up the mountains and governs even the depths of the earth. He is Lord of all, setting limits to the chaotic seas and forming the land upon which all life depends. He is master over every spiritual reality and has made us his own. Shouts of joy are appropriate, but above all we come into his presence with thankfulness.

Dust covered pilgrims

Friday

Jeremiah 20

File:SPRY(1895) p098 OUR COMPANIONS EN ROUTE TO MECCA.jpg7O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.

I love this prayer of Jeremiah. I love the outrage, the sense of betrayal, the anger at God. God has summoned him to be a prophet. What greater privilege can there be than to deliver God’s message to God’s people. What greater honor? What a treasure to be on such intimate terms with God that he should become a vessel of God’s choosing? But the message is dark. It is warning and judgment. God is ready to destroy the city and his holy temple. Armies draw near; death and hunger and disease – the horsemen of the apocalypse. Yet even these bitter words are sweet, for they are God’s words. But the people want none of it. The believers are few. The priestly officials and royal house conspire against him. The king tosses the scroll of prophetic words into the warming fire. And there is no relief; when Jeremiah would walk away, God’s message burns within him. So Jeremiah does what we all do; he cries out against God. “You cheated me.”

We call it ‘burnout’.

There was a moment when even Moses lost it.

It doesn’t only afflict prophets and leaders. It afflicts all of us in those times when frail, ordinary Christian sinners show themselves to be less than we hoped. Churches must take the charge seriously when non-Christians see them acting in not very Christian ways. But the more troubling reality happens inside congregations. We so often come hoping for the shining city and find instead dust covered pilgrims. The taste of that dust can be bitter in our mouths and we lose hope and walk away.

But we are pilgrims; we are not yet what we should be, we are on the road. We are not yet as compassionate as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as generous as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as welcoming as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not yet as bold and courageous and daring and encouraging as we should be, but we are on the road. We are not as kind as we should be, but we are on the road.

At least we should be on the road. Sometimes believers settle down comfortably at some watering hole and forget they are pilgrims. Sometimes they even arm themselves to defend their settlement. Then God has to go searching for an army to make them break camp and resume their journey.

Jeremiah had the misfortune of bringing such a word to his people. The Lord found an army in Babylon. And Jeremiah is weary of bearing this message. He is in anguish for the sorrow coming on his community. Like Jacob, he wrestles with God and goes away limping – but he remembers: “the Lord is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.” It is not a promise of personal success or vindication; it is a reminder of the message God spoke to him in the beginning:I am watching over my word to perform it.And Jeremiah’s lament ends in praise – “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” – because, in his struggle, he is reminded that the purpose of the Lord is to bring his pilgrims to the land of promise.

“The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (32:26-27)

“Trust me.”

Wednesday

Genesis 12

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The Caravan of Abram c.1896-1902 watercolor by James Tissot

1The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

 “All right, everybody, get in the car.  We’re going on an adventure.”

“Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Don’t worry; it will be fun!  Trust me.”

We could write many more lines of this dialogue, replete with protestations, rolling eyes, “Who else is going to be there?” and a dozen other variations.  Some of us like such adventures, but most of us want to know more.  Who, what, where, when and for how long.  Especially “How long?”  Maybe, “What should I wear?”

“You look fine.  Trust me!”

1The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

The formal language of the text, the name of God and the varnish of piety obscure the fact that God gives Abraham no information about where he is going.   “I’ll tell you when you get there.”  God is calling him to a journey of faith.  This is not just a change of location, moving to a new town, a new school, a new job, or trying your hand at a new ministry in the community.  This is a journey whose end they cannot see.  All they have to go on is their trust in God’s goodness.

The story is certainly a very old story for Israel, told for generations before the compilers of the Torah set it into its place in Genesis, but I think about the weight of this story for those who wrote it down.  They are now a people in exile, far from home, far from the land that was promised to Abraham – a land they had possessed for 600 years, but had lost.  What is it like to write down this story of Abraham when their future is unknown?  What is it like to record these words about their ancestor who left home with nothing but the promise that God had a purpose to bring blessing to the world through him?

Do the compilers of Genesis record this story through tears?  Do they hear in the narrative a promise that they are called even now to trust?  Do they find themselves in Abraham’s shoes – unable to see the future, but daring to trust God that God yet intends good?

Trusting is easy when the sun shines warmly, the rains fall on time, and there is peace in the world.  But going forth into the unknown future in times of uncertainty – that is a different journey.  We are people who want to know where we are going; God is a god who wants us to trust him.  We are a people who prefer certainty – or at least some reasonable probability; God is a god of pilgrims on a journey to bless his world.

We have no guarantees but one: that wherever this journey leads, God is good.  And so we go forth in trust, even when we find ourselves in Babylon – for God has promised that the journey does not end in exile but in blessing to the world.

Pilgrimage

Watching for the morning of March 16

Year A

The Second Sunday in Lent

File:Pilgrims.jpgSunday we continue our Lenten journey. The psalm is a pilgrim song – a song for the journey to one of the great feasts at Jerusalem, a song of confidence that God will protect them as they travel through the dangerous hill country up to Jerusalem.  Abraham is sent out on a great pilgrimage, leaving home and kin towards a new and promised land.  But the journey of Abram and Sara is not ultimately about land or descendants – they journey to be the agents of God’s blessing, they journey towards a blesséd world, a saved world.  So Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about new birth, birth from above, birth from the wind/breath/Spirit of God, birth not just for one but for all.  And Jesus speaks of that journey towards Jerusalem where he will be lifted up, that in him the world might find that imperishable life of the age to come.

The Prayer for March 16, 2014

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life

The Texts for March 16, 2014

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

 

“My help comes from the LORD”

Wednesday

Psalm 121

Judean hills

Judean hills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

The journey of faith is not a simple one.  The pilgrimage to the temple for the great annual feasts was not just a matter of loading the family into the car.  It was a journey on foot through rough terrain made rougher by threat of violence.  People traveled in clans because of the risk.  Jesus could be left behind at age 12 by the assumption he was with other families in the caravan.  The Biblical concern for the sojourner is related to the vulnerability of the stranger on the road.  Who is there to avenge harm done to those far from home?  There are no police in the ancient world, just the protection offered by the threat of an eye for an eye.  Away from your village who will come to your aid?  Who will vow for your safety?

1I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

The pilgrims step forward through new territory towards the holy city trusting in God’s providential care.  They step forward singing of God’s faithfulness, God’s eternal watchfulness, God’s compassion to shade them from the heat of the day.  It’s a psalm worthy of every step out our front door.

The River Jabbok is the northern boundary of Edom, the country of Esau.  Jacob has fled his father-in-law and is headed home towards the brother who vowed to kill him.  He is headed there with no assurance that anything has changed for Esau.  All he knows is that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men.   All Jacob can rely on is the promise that God will be with him.

1I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

The journey of faith is not an easy one.  The words of this psalm are not tossed off by those seated comfortably in pews surrounded by friends and family.  They are spoken in joy, because they are headed to meet God in the temple.  They are spoken in hope, because they know the goodness of God.  But the path before them is fraught with uncertainty and risk.  Nevertheless they step out the doorway.  They head through the hills.  They cross the river.  They go forward.

1I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.