A doorway to hope

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A message for the first Sunday in Advent, shared this morning at Los Altos Lutheran Church.  (The primary texts were Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13.24-37).

We talked about hope last week when Miriam remembered for me the words of Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” I have to admit that when I heard her recite the poem, it seemed more substantial and profound than I had expected. But the point we were making is that Biblical hope is not a wish or desire for things to get better; it is rather a confidence rooted in a promise.

So when the prophet this morning cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” he is not expressing a wish, he is praying for God to come and deliver the people. The prophet is living in a time when faith has grown cold. Life is hard. God seems far away. And, with God seeming distant, the people have grown callous and no longer bother to call upon God or follow God’s way. It is why the prophet prays for God to come with a new act of deliverance. It is why the prophet reminds God that this people are his people. God is the potter and the people are God’s clay. God needs to claim his people and come make something holy and good of them.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

At the heart of the Advent season is God’s answer to this profoundly human and universal prayer. Advent is about God tearing open the barrier between earth and heaven and coming to reign – coming at the consummation of history, coming to us now in the joys and sorrows of our lives, and coming into the world in the child of Bethlehem.

The color for Advent is blue. The history of why it’s blue is less important than the fact that blue is a color of hope. It represents the darkness of the night giving way to the light of day. And this brings us to the other visual image of this season: the dawning of light into the world – in the full blaze of glory on that day when fear and darkness are forever banished, when the light of God comes to our lives in moments of fear and darkness, and in the incarnation when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. As Advent moves towards Christmas, it moves towards the message in the Gospel of John that we read on Christmas morning:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

These are not just religious words. It is a deep and profound human experience that God enters into the world and into our lives in ways that are radiant with grace and life. It always seems to surprise us, but it shouldn’t, because it is promised to us. God is a god who, however much he may sometimes seem absent, keeps showing up.

God comes in ways that are often unexpected and surprising. He shows up at Cain’s door when he is bitter with revenge towards his brother. He shows up in a burning bush when Moses has fled into the wilderness and is tending sheep. He shows up to Gideon when he is trying to thresh his wheat in secret so that the Philistines who plunder his country won’t take it. God shows up in surprising and unexpected places – to persecuted Hannah when she is weeping and praying at the doorway of the tabernacle and the priest thinks she’s drunk. To childless Zechariah when he is serving in the temple. To Ezekiel when he is standing along the canal in exile in Babylon. To Peter when he is mending his fishnets. And, of course, to Mary when she has not yet gone to live with her husband, Joseph. God keeps showing up.

Advent is about this God who comes. It’s why we have images of doors in the sanctuary alcoves. And over the season, watch the alcoves and you will see doors opening and the light continually increasing until we get to Christmas. (Of course, you have to come on Sunday morning, December 24th, to see all the doors open.)

So the Gospel text that is before us this morning is from Mark 13. We have been reading Matthew all last year and for the next year we will be reading primarily from Mark. Mark is composed during the Judean revolt when armies are marching and Jerusalem will be destroyed. Jesus declares that the temple will be destroyed. The marriage of power and politics and wealth and religious leaders and the use of the name of God at the top of Judean society will be torn down. Jesus warns his followers not to be led astray by those who are proclaimed as saviors or messiahs when that convulsion happens. And he urges us to be awake and watchful like members of a household waiting for the head of the family to come.

(It is important that we understand this about the use of the word slaves waiting for their master. Slavery was very different in the ancient world than in the American experience. Slaves were members of the household. They were understood to be – and understood themselves to be – part of the extended family. These are not hired hands afraid of being caught goofing off, these are household members eager for the head of the house to return.)

When I was a senior at Palo Alto High School there was a student strike to protest the war in Vietnam. There was a grass courtyard enclosed on several sides by buildings and by a colonnaded walkway on the rest. The students were sitting on the grass and speakers were addressing them at the far end of the courtyard. My math teacher from my junior year was standing in the colonnade watching and I came and stood near him. We loved him and, in fact, Deb and I invited him to our wedding. He drank a milkshake every day at lunch and walked through the amphitheater observing the students in ways that would show up as math problems the next day. He seemed to know who was going with whom and what was happening among us all.

As Mr. Parker watched the strike, he turned to me and said something about having a cabin in the Sierra’s. He wasn’t by any means a survivalist, but in that moment I could see in his eyes that he thought the fabric of society was coming apart.

I watched a lot of adults in those years look upon the profound troubles of that era – the riots, the assassinations, the protests, the convulsions in society – and feel deeply fearful about the future. Dad said that flying out of what was then Washington National Airport over the District of Columbia following the riots there, reminded him of flying over bombed out Berlin after the war. Mother called the city in fear when city workers came out and began to dig up the sidewalk late one afternoon, and then left for the day with the rubble still in place. She feared those chunks of concrete could become weapons and, as I remember it, made the city come pick them up that day.

The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, the National Guard being called out to escort children to school as crowds of white adults shouted curses at the children. George Wallace declaring “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and winning five states plus an elector from North Carolina in the 1968 presidential election. The bombings of military recruitment stations and defense contractors. The murder of Medgar Evers by white supremacists. The brutal torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

They were fearful times. They are not the only fearful times in our country’s history. I have heard stories of those who lived through the depression. My father remembers the dust storms in eastern Colorado. We have seen the famous photographs of the displaced persons taken by Dorothea Lange.

And if we could go back, there was the convulsion of the whole country over slavery that ended with a million dead (in a nation of 30 million of whom 4 million were slaves). There were tumults because of massive immigration before and after the civil war. There was the corruption of Tammany Hall, the terrorist bombing of Wall Street in 1920, President Harding sending the Army to fight on behalf of the coal companies against coal miners in West Virginia (The Battle of Blair Mountain), and the Teapot Dome corruption scandal.

Fear comes. We want life to be safe, but it rarely is. Or, at least, it seems like it doesn’t stay safe for long.

It doesn’t surprise me that the convulsions of the 60’s led to Hal Lindsey and the idea that we were the last generation before the coming of the Lord. Social upheaval always begets apocalyptic ideas. At one point Luther thought that he, too, lived in the final generation.

And so did the people in Mark’s congregation. They were living in the midst of war, hostility, and fear. In verse 12, before the portion we read this morning, Jesus says:

Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.

Mark reminds his community that Jesus said that the temple would fall and advised his followers to flee the city when the time came. He reminds them that Jesus understood that times of trouble would come. And he reminds them that Jesus warned them not to be led astray. Others would be acclaimed as messiahs and saviors and we shouldn’t be deceived.

These are all helpful words for us when we are in distress: Don’t lose our way. Don’t lose our hope. Remember what he has told us: “Keep watch, I will come.”

Keep watch, I will come. Expect me to show up when you are in fear. Expect me to show up when you are in distress. Expect me to show up in the most ordinary of moments, when you are washing dishes, or doing laundry, buying groceries. Watch for me. Watch for me in the kindness of strangers. Watch for me in the opportunity to be kind. Watch for me in the lonely nights or when trouble seems to surround. Watch for me. Expect mercy.

See not only what is dark, but what is light. See not only what is cruel, but what is kind. See not only confusion, but clarity. Hear not only the harsh and angry words, but the calm and wise ones.

Watch for God to come to you in the bread and wine and the words “given for you.” Watch for God to come in the daily scripture verses. Watch for God to come in the first breath of the morning and the last sigh of the night. Watch for God to open doors to meet you.

Remember God has already opened the heavens and come down.

Remember the door of the tomb has been rolled away.

Remember that the New Jerusalem is a city where the gates never close.

Watch, for God will come.

Amen

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEmporio_(4494560043).jpg By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece (Emporio Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The feuding farmers

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Watching for the Morning of July 23, 2017

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 11 / Lectionary 16

We call it the parable of the wheat and the tares, but it should perhaps be called the parable of the feuding farmers. A householder sows good seed. He is raising wheat, which means he has good land, not the poorer land hospitable only to barley. It is a high quality product.

Feuding is the reality of life in ancient honor-shame societies. “Enemies” are inherited adversaries, families contending for status in their communities. The back and forth between feuding families provides the substance of village entertainment. In this man’s good field with good seed, his adversary has sown a weed whose telltale signs don’t appear until the wheat begins to put forth its berries. When it does, the farmer looks the fool, as though he were conned into purchasing poor seed – or was unable to see that the seed he had preserved from the previous year was laced with weeds.

He is a laughingstock. Honor is diminished. And the social pattern calls for revenge. But whereas any other might weed his field, this man lets the thatch grow. Though the village snickers, in the end he gathers not only a fine harvest of wheat, but fuel for his fires. The tables are turned; it is the enemy who now looks the fool.

It is with the kingdom as it is with feuding farmers. Despite the hostility of an enemy, a rich harvest comes.

Patient endurance and the certainty of God’s promised reign weave through our readings this Sunday. Through the prophet, God assures a troubled people that they shall see renewal: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants…Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses!”  The psalmist trusts in God’s faithfulness as he cries for help against those who threaten his life. Paul speaks of the creation waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” saying, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”  And then we hear of the feuding farmers and the wisdom of the one who waits knowing that the good seed shall certainly bear forth a great and abundant harvest.

The Prayer for July 23, 2017

Gracious and eternal God,
whose will it is to draw all things into your grace and life:
Grant us confidence in your promise
and joy in your Spirit
that we may be faithful to what seems right,
and suffer with patience what seems evil,
until that day when your goodness reigns over all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 23, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 44:1-8 (appointed 44:6-8)
“You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one”
– To a people in exile in Babylon, the legacy of the nation’s folly and a fifty-year-old war that left their homeland in rubble, the prophet speaks of God’s faithfulness and the certainty of God’s promised future.

Psalmody: Psalm 86:11-17
“O God, the insolent rise up against me” –
the poet recalls God’s words of promise and seeks God’s help in trouble.

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us”
– Paul speaks of the Spirit bearing witness that we are children of God and inheritors of the promise.

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field”
– with the parable commonly referred to as the wheat and the tares, Jesus bear witness to the wisdom of patient endurance and confidence in the dawning of God’s reign.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAEL_Saemann_und_Teufel_-_zweite_Fassung.jpg Albin Egger-Lienz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With glad cries of deliverance

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Saturday

Psalm 32

7 You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

It’s a sweet verse, a memory verse, the kind you might keep in your pocket through the day or find inscribed in a cross-stitch on the wall. It’s the kind of promise added to photos of mountains and sunsets and sent around the Internet or posted on the overhead screen at church. We need such verses. We need the promise. We need the reminder. “You surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”

But the verse doesn’t stand alone in this psalm. The author has just finished describing his distress, declaring that: “Day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” The poet’s life had become arid and brittle: “my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer”.

Though he now finds himself surrounded by joy, he has seen affliction. He has walked those paths where the life of the Spirit withers. Where some bitterness, anger or sorrow occupies the heart, where some hidden sin or open defiance pushes us away, where misfortune darkens the spirit, or where the ordinary burdens of life suck us dry.

The poet finds the root of his particular spiritual wasteland in himself. He is the one who has closed himself from God. He is the one in whom some unacknowledged defect of character or fault of conduct has robbed him of life’s goodness and joy. But he exults that the God of mercy has brought him back. So he sings and sings rightly that God surrounds him with deliverance.

It is important to keep in mind the whole of this psalm and not just the one verse of triumph. The American adoration of success often makes it seem like the Christian life should be an endless stream of victories, but the journey of life is a complicated one. Things happen. Sometimes terrible things. Sometimes we bring these upon ourselves. Sometimes not, as Job knows so well.

We live entangled in a fallen world, but the poet reminds us not to be swallowed by it. These great and precious promises of deliverance stand side by side with the acknowledgment of arid days. They do not judge us when we fail; they call us toward the light. And they remind us that even the driest days and months and years are yet surrounded by the joyful cries of creation’s first light and the empty tomb.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEsprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Together

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Sunday Evening

A look back to last Sunday, the Sunday in Christmas, January 1, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10

9Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem.

I don’t know why that little word ‘together’ affects me so much, but it does. The fallen stones of Jerusalem are summoned to sing together. The ruined city is to be a choir.

We think so strongly of the faith as a personal affair. There is a whole tradition in American Christianity that asks whether you have accepted Christ Jesus as your personal Lord and savior. I understand the need for personal faith, but we could use a little more corporate faith.

Our gathering on Sunday was small, as was expected. It was New Year’s Day, after all. The culture is busy recovering from other things. And there was the final decisive week of the NFL. Children are off school. People are traveling – some to family, others to vacation. I begrudge no one their observance of the Christmas break. But the stones sing together. The stones that comprise the once holy city, akimbo, broken, aged, disconnected, scarred by fire and sword, the stones are summoned to sing together.

First Peter calls us living stones of God’s holy temple. Paul calls us the body of Christ, and spends a chapter of his letter to the Corinthians on this idea. Ephesians declares:

You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19-21)

We are far from perfect stones for God’s holy temple. And I rather like the notion that we are hardly more than the rubble of a ruined city. But through the prophet God calls us to join our voices in praise, for God has drawn near to build such stones as these into his holy dwelling-place.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APalmyra_Ark_at_night.JPG By Erik Albers (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

A crimson cord

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Wednesday

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

Her life hung by a thread, a length of crimson cord.

Joshua sent two spies into Jericho. The text says they took lodging at the house of Rahab, a prostitute – presumably the line between a public house and a brothel was thin in those days as in many others. When the king of the city learned of their presence, he sent word demanding Rahab bring them out, but she hid the spies and sent the soldiers on a chase saying the men had already left the city. Her house was built into the city wall and in the night she let the men down by a rope, having asked for them to reciprocate her loyalty. They told her to gather her people into the house and mark it with a crimson cord. When the city was taken and sacked, it would be her protection.

The brutality of the slaughter is for another time. What haunts me is that in the midst of the cries of chaos and confusion, the screams and blood, all her hope rests on a promise made visible by a crimson cord.

When Abraham went out from Haran he left with nothing more than a promise. When Joseph languishes in prison, he is sustained by nothing more than the promise given by God in dreams he received in his youth. Amidst the wails and sorrows of that night when death struck Egypt, the hope of the Israelites rested on a promise made visible by the blood of a lamb upon the doorpost.

Faith is not my own inner conviction; it is clinging to the promise we have received. Amidst the cries and cruelties of our broken world, all our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise: a splash of water and the promise that our death is taken by Christ and his life given to us.

Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Rahab – this great litany of saints – are lifted up to us by the author of Hebrews as examples not for their great deeds or holiness, but because they entrust their lives to the promise of God.

We who gather at the table of the Lord trust our lives to the promise incarnate in a bit of bread that all debts are lifted. We trust our lives to promise that the world belongs to the God who rescues the enslaved and opens the grave. We trust our lives to the God who promises that mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness are the destiny of the world.

All our hope is in a crimson cord and a promise, in a lamb slain who lives and shares his imperishable life with us.

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

This reflection is slightly edited from that for Propers C 15 in 2013.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARed_thread.jpg By Saurabh R. Patil (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

With eyes raised

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Watching for the Morning of August 7, 2016

Year C

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 14 / Lectionary 19

Sunday’s Gospel contains a stunning and unexpected reversal. The servants who are “dressed for action” with “lamps lit” waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet are suddenly brought into the joy of the wedding feast. Instead of serving their master when he comes, they become the recipients of his banquet.

The readings Sunday are filled with promise and joy. Abraham is brought outside and promised descendants like the stars for number. The psalm sings of the providential care of God and the joy of those for whom the LORD is their watchful, caring god. Hebrews sings of Abraham’s trust in God’s promise – a trust, the first reading tells us, God acknowledged as true righteousness (fidelity). And Jesus’ followers are assured that God delights to give them the kingdom. God’s reign, God’s new creation, God’s healing of the world does not have to be extracted from him as justice wrested from reluctant politicians; God is eager to give his Spirit. God is eager to breathe upon us his grace and life.

We live in eager expectation not just for that final day when the trumpet sounds heralding the coming of the king, but for every taste of the banquet to come, for the breath of the Spirit, for surprising mercies, for stunning majesties and every small and unexpected act of kindness. We live in expectation that kindness shall prevail, hate shall perish, and reconciliation triumph. We live with open hands and generous hearts. We live with lamps lit and eyes raised. The master is bringing the joy that has no end.

The Prayer for August 7, 2016

Gracious God,
you promised to Abraham and his children a wondrous inheritance
and called them to live trusting in your word.
Grant us confidence in your promises
and courage to live as children of your kingdom;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 7, 2016

First Reading: Genesis 15:1-6
“And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” – God renews the promise of descendants to Abraham and his trust in God’s promise is recognized as righteousness.

Psalmody: Psalm 33:12-22
“Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,” – A hymn of praise at the providential care of God.

Second Reading: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” –
For whatever reason, the reading of Hebrews is divided between the end of year B and August of year C in the lectionary, so this Sunday we resume readings from Hebrews, beginning with the great recital of those who put their trust in the promise of God (whose fulfillment we await with confidence).

Gospel: Luke 12:32-40
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” – Our reading continues Jesus’ teaching on wealth/possessions from last Sunday, calling us to live for and trust in God’s dawning reign of grace and life.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A’Looking_Up’_at_Withybush_Hospital_-_geograph.org.uk_-_925250.jpg ceridwen [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Righteousness

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He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

Friday

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abraham was 75 when he left Haran, taking his wife, Sarah, and nephew, Lot, and leaving his father behind. He left, according to the narrative, in obedience to God who promised he would be the father of a great nation through which all families on earth would be blessed.

He went to Shechem, then to Bethel, then by stages to the Negev. During a famine he went down into Egypt and eventually returned, moving again in stages from the Negev back to Bethel. Tension between his household and the household of Lot caused them to separate, and Lot to move into the Jordan Valley and took up his fateful residence in Sodom. Lot became the victim of a war between the “kings” (chieftains of city-states) of the region and Abraham went to rescue him. After all this, “some time later” according to the text, we find him still childless.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Three times he has heard the promise of descendants, and three times nothing has happened but the ongoing vicissitudes of life.

“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

I appreciate the frankness of his conversation. He can see no future but that his steward will end up with the estate. God, however, explains nothing. What God does is simply repeat the promise. And Abraham trusts it.

Trust is not a substitute for righteousness. Righteousness means fidelity to God and to others. Abraham has shown fidelity to Lot. Now he shows fidelity to God. He accepts God’s word.

Few of us have a vision such as Abraham’s. What we have is the promise of God mediated to us through the text of scripture and embodied in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion. They are the equivalent of the smoking pots: God’s covenantal promise made visible: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.”

We don’t know how we will get to the fullness of the promise of the world brought into the blessing of God. But we accept and live by the promise. And it is righteousness.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The desert shall bloom

Thursday

Isaiah 35:3-7a

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The Judean Desert in bloom

6waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
7the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.

As we watch our lawns die, take brief showers and conserve what little water we have, the image of a lush and abundant wilderness gains power to us in California.

But more than our drought, I think of the refugees we see on the television attempting to walk from the desolation of Syria through the Balkans and into Europe. Refugees seem to end up in arid places. Those led by coyotes across the border from Mexico carry milk jugs of water hoping not to perish in the desert. I remember the anxiety on a hot afternoon backpacking across an extended stretch of rocky ground when the water bottle slipped from my grasp and spilled, leaving my daughter and I only a sip. I did not know how far it would be before we came to a water supply.

Water is life. Lush water is luxury. Swimming pools, mountain lakes, cool streams, they all speak to us of abundance and joy.

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;

The exiles in Babylon are fully aware of the arid lands that lie between them and their home in Jerusalem. Their parents and grandparents have walked those lands in chains as they were carried away from home and their destroyed city. Now comes the promise that God will turn that desert into lushly watered lands. God will make a way for them to come home.

There are arid times in our lives, in our marriages, in our work. Times when loss is great and hope is thin. Times when the future bodes ill. It is the nature of life east of Eden. And there is no promise that every time of trial will be followed by health, wealth and prosperity. But there is the promise that God will bring us home. The deserts shall yield. The river of life will flow from the temple. The heart of the believer will be an eternal and overflowing spring. The wilderness will give way to the promised land.

There is a deep and abiding hope at the heart of Biblical faith – not mere wish, but a confidence born by God’s hand and God’s promise. God has shown his character. God has revealed his purpose. He is a God who redeems. He is a God who delivers. He is the defender of orphans and widows. He binds up the wounded and frees the prisoner. And the God who has shown himself as deliverer has promised the healing of our world, the writing of his law on our hearts, the inspiration of all creation with his Spirit, the beating of swords into plowshares, the lifting of the veil, the desert become a lush garden.

We live by that promise. We live in that promise. It is like those whose lives are changed by falling in love – or those whose lives are made radiant by a long, deep and abiding love. The sorrows of the world lose their dark shadows. A child’s body lying in the surf breaks our hearts but not our hope that our humanity will be restored. For we have seen the empty grave. We have tasted the Holy Spirit. We have heard the promise of the deserts breaking forth into bloom. The world belongs to a redeemer God and he will bring us home.

By this we live.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJudean_Desert_in_bloom.jpg.  By Daviddarom (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The power to heal

Friday

Numbers 21:4-9

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Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.

 

By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons