Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances. I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word. Accept my offerings of praise, O Lord, and teach me your ordinances. I hold my life in my hand continually, but I do not forget your law. The wicked have laid a snare for me, but I do not stray from your precepts. Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.
As we read these ancient words from Psalm 119 on Tuesday, I was struck once more by their power and beauty. I admit that I sometimes wrestle with the language of the Psalms. That’s why I most often turn to Nan Merrill’s lovely paraphrase when including a Psalm in our liturgy. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a paean to the Torah, the ancient Jewish law. What hit me Tuesday is that this Psalm is in no way a tribute to the letter of the law but rather to its enlivening spirit. “Your word, O God, is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” This is no dry legal brief; this is a love song to the law, to a living word.
Dinner is done. Bread has been broken and the cup shared. The candles have begun to flicker. It has been a warm and wonderful evening, for the most part; yet something ominous lingers in the air as darkness falls. He has taught them and blessed them, promising them each a role in the Beloved Community. But he has also talked of denial and betrayal, of suffering and death, and this is troubling.
Well, it has been a strange week and a full one at that. Just last Sunday there had been the thrill of entering Jerusalem in a kind of crazy make-shift processional when the crowd had broken into cheers, waving tree branches and tossing their coats onto the road – “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Eternal One! Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest!” Hadn’t that been a day?! Yet, afterwards, some had seen him sitting and weeping over the old city, “Ah Jerusalem! If you…had only recognized on this day the things that [really do] make for peace!” From cheers to tears in one short day – how strange.
Then there he was, wildly driving the sellers from the Temple grounds, shouting, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” They had never seen him so angry. In spite of the threats of those in authority, they had spent the rest of the week on the temple grounds where he had dazzled them all with his teaching. Some of the lawyers and religious experts had tried to trap him with trick questions but he outsmarted them every time. All the people were spellbound by his wisdom and charisma. It was truly a week of wonders!
Now they were feeling a little drowsy. A combination of the full week, the warmth of their intimate dinner, the effects of the wine and the fading of the light was making them sleepy. They cleaned up, packed their belongings and headed back to the campground on Mt. Olivet. In the peace of the old olive orchard they would stretch out on the grass under an ancient tree and gaze at the stars through leafy branches until they drifted off to sleep.
But Jesus seemed agitated. He was not ready to turn in. Something on his mind had to be worked through in the stillness and beauty of this night. He was going to pray and he wanted them to join him. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.” Well yes, that seemed like a good idea, but maybe it could wait till morning. He went off by himself a little distance. At first they could see him clearly in the moonlight. He seemed to be wrestling intently with something. A couple of them caught words wafted on the night breeze, “…take this cup…your will…my will.” But their eyelids grew heavy and the next thing they knew, he was shaking them awake. “Why are you sleeping? Wake up and pray that you will not sink into temptation.”
There is much more to come, but let’s pause here. Today’s reading from Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of finding one’s self in a liminal space, in thin place, caught somewhere between heaven and earth or, in this case, between light and darkness. The quotation refers to an experience she has intentionally sought out, spending some time in the complete darkness of a cave. She has lined up friends who are seasoned spelunkers to take her deep into a cave, beyond the large and lighted chambers where the tourists go. This is all part of her desire to understand darkness better and to walk in it without so much anxiety and fear.
Here she is, caught between the opening to the cave and the deep darkness that awaits. It is decision time and it turns out not to be such an easy decision to make. She stands for a while in a kind of “twilight zone.” She writes, “On this threshold between dark and light, it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out. It is still possible to see what you are about to lose” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark.). Bright daylight on one hand, bleak grayness on the other hand.
Isn’t this the same situation in which Jesus finds himself that night in the olive grove, on the threshold of dark and light? It is still possible to go either way. Shall he go further into his experience of God and God’s way or will he back out? Luke says he prays to God for deliverance. “God, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me.” I take this to mean he does not want to die. It seems to me a very human longing. God has given us the gift of life. We will all die eventually, but not now, not if it’s not necessary. The truth is, I don’t think God wants Jesus to die either. But Jesus knows that if he continues to walk God’s way and the world around him fails to change, the consequences are inevitable. He can’t keep speaking truth to power, love to fear, justice to corrupt systems and equity to those who have grown rich at the expense of the poor without stirring their ill-will. He can’t continue to be faithful to his calling and not pay the price.
On this night on the hillside, he can still “go either way…farther in or back out.” He can still see what he is about to lose and he has to make a choice. Luke makes it sound easier than Mark or Matthew does. “Yet not My will, but Your will, be done.” The right response, but is it really so easily arrived at? Well, Luke, or some later editor, concedes that as he “prayed more intensely…his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Learning to walk in the dark is not easy after all, even for Jesus. He wrestles with God, as we all do, sooner or later, if we’re willing to pay attention, if we’re willing to listen for God’s voice and look for God’s way. It may be a hard road but, in the end, it is the right road. “Pray for yourselves, that you will not sink into temptation.”
We have already seen Jesus handle temptation in his own life and ministry. More than once he has turned his back to ways that are easy, popular, self-serving. As with the disciples, any of us is vulnerable to closing our eyes in sleep when life gets to be too much. It may be the easiest way to handle the stress. When darkness falls around us, it’s easier to turn on the lights and tune out anything that “goes bump in the night.” We keep ourselves occupied until bedtime or we fall asleep on the couch in front of the television or computer. But what do we miss when we choose not to explore the deep darkness of the cave that is before us? What do we lose when we won’t face the fears that arise in those moments when we turn away from every distraction and give ourselves over to wrestling with the questions and concerns that haunt the center of our being? What would it be like if we decided to encounter more intensely the Holy One and explore more completely our role in creating and occupying God’s Beloved Community?
We are especially likely to shy away when we read the rest of the story – the betrayal by one of his own, right there in the olive grove; the harsh denial in the courtyard; the mock trials; the unjust sentence; the fleeing followers; the now jeering crowd as he parades once more through Jerusalem, this time carrying a Roman cross; the ignominious execution. Could we please skip these parts and go directly to Easter? We don’t like this twilight zone. We don’t want to go deeply into the darkness of this cave. There is too much to lose in these elements of the story. Let’s run away. Let’s pretend it never happened. Let’s take a nap and hope it will be over.
Only there he is, hanging on that wooden cross, stretched out to die an agonizing death in the blistering sun. No glowing moon, no twinkling stars, no cool night breeze, just the scorching light of day. We can ignore, deny, pretend all we want, but this is part of our tradition. It is not a pretty picture, but it is one with which we are asked to wrestle.
One irony is that here he is left to burn in the brightness of the day and what happens? Luke says that “darkness fell over the whole region” and lasted through the hottest part of the day. I had never thought of it this way before, but maybe that darkness was like a cup of cold water to a thirsty soul, a small gesture of relief on an awful afternoon. And when that darkness fell, Luke says Jesus was able to turn his gaze toward God, shouting, “Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands!” Maybe that sounds hollow to you, given the circumstances, but I’m going to guess that Jesus is able to place his dying self into God’s hands with such profound trust precisely because he has learned to walk in the dark. He knows, in the core of his being, that, even in death, God goes with him all the way.
This is why Jesus was so eager that his disciples keep awake and pray that they wouldn’t give in to temptation. This is why Barbara Brown Taylor has invited us to share her experiences of learning to walk in the dark. This is why John of the Cross opened for us the dark night of the soul and Thomas Merton writes of the Holy One that “I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.”
Of all the weeks of this Lenten season, we come now to the one called Holy. Now when the darkness falls, where will you find yourself? In this recurring “twilight zone” in which we stand on the “threshold between dark and light,” when “it is still possible to go either way: farther in or back out,” when you “see what you are about to lose” but also have a glimpse of what might be gained, which way will you turn? Whichever way you turn, whether the crowd cheers or jeers, I hope you know that God goes with you, in the darkness and in light, in life and death – all the way. Amen.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to drive at night. Even before my eyesight began any significant aging, I was not crazy about driving after the sun disappeared. Maybe it’s related to all those weary trips of my childhood when my father would drive late into the night to avoid the searing heat of the August days as we drove from southern California to Louisiana. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really enjoy the challenge of trying to find my way in the dark, especially when piloting a powerful machine along an unfamiliar and unlit highway.
The irony is that I may be a better driver after dark because I am more alert. Since I am less of sure of what is going on around me, I tend to pay more careful attention to conditions and surroundings. My eyes may get tired more quickly because I am exercising them to a fuller capacity, trying to see in the dark. It is a stressful situation, so I am always happy to come to my stopping place to await the morning’s light.
As we have been learning in this Lenten journey, darkness has its assets as well as its liabilities. It will not do to label the darkness bad and the light good. The very fact that darkness invites a heightened awareness and more careful reading of our surroundings is a valuable thing. There are lessons to be learned in the dark, lessons that may save our lives, literally as well as spiritually. There are also lessons that might help us lessen the load for others. Traveling in the dark can be a journey inward but it may also be a journey outward, one we share with others along the way.
Today’s Song of Praise tells us that “Some have fled from terror by night, hiding from bullets by day.” For them, darkness provides life-saving shelter. I had a different hymn in mind for today, but I kept thinking about the reality of refugees, those who leave home and everything they hold dear in hopes of finding a better life or of just saving their lives. I was thinking of this partly because some of the America for Christ offering goes to support American Baptist Immigration and Refugee Services. And I also remembered that we have some in our congregation who know first-hand what seeking refuge is like. Talk about traveling in the dark – to be uprooted and flee to God only knows what future, if any, has to be terrifying at the same time it may be fueled by hope.
On the other hand, Joan Chittister observes that “Darkness is a very spiritual thing.” She says, “Darkness, I have discovered, is the way we come to see. It creates the depressions that, once faced, teach us to trust. It gives us the sensitivity it takes to understand the depth of the pain in others. It seeds in us the humility it takes to learn to live gently with the rest of the universe. It opens us to new possibilities within ourselves” (Joan Chittister, “A Walk into the Dark,” 2-22-2016, email@example.com).
Does this ring true for you? Can you think of times when darkness has been your way to see? A place in which you’ve learned to trust? A time when you have cultivated compassion? A lesson you’ve learned about living? An opening to new possibilities? A life-saving opportunity?
There are many aspects of today’s text which we might explore, but I’m guessing our guides have chosen it because of what it teaches us about traveling in the dark. Abram here is confronted with both literal and metaphorical darkness. Neither is easily handled.
In the preceding chapter of Genesis, in a bit of convoluted military history, Abram, now a wealthy, powerful patriarch has won a great victory over an alliance of kingdoms that have conquered some other city-states and captured his nephew, Lot, with all his wealth. In an interesting footnote, the text says Abram’s successful military strategy is to divide his forces and attack the enemy under the cover of darkness – “He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them…” (Genesis 14:15). Darkness is their friend.
After the battle, when it comes time to divide up the spoils, the king of Sodom urges Abram to return his subjects to him but to keep all the goods. Abram refuses. He tells the king, “I have sworn to The Holy One, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me…” (Genesis 14:22-24).
Fresh from his victory and his righteous refusal of plunder, Abram finds himself alone before God. “Do not be afraid, Abram…” We hear the classic words, uttered so often when a human encounters the holy, even in a vision. “Do not be afraid.” That is so easy for the Holy One to say and so hard for humans to live into when face-to- face with the living God. It is an inherently frightening thing to encounter God, even when the word comes in a still small, voice. For the truth is that whenever we allow ourselves to explore deeply the realm of the holy, we are in unfamiliar territory. Holy ground is likely to be shaky ground for us. The invitation not to be afraid will increase anxiety at the same time it reassures. Who can explain such a mysterious paradox?
It is time for God and Abram to talk. Has Abram summoned God or has God come unbidden? The text doesn’t tell us, but the word is clear – “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Obviously there is a link to the events of the previous chapter. Abram was right to refuse plunder. God will take care of him, provide all that he needs. Abram believes God, but…there is this business of the heir. How can Abram be patriarch of a great people and inhabit the land of promise without an heir? The family tree will perish unless it bears some fruit, and, frankly, Abram and Sarai are beyond their prime, far beyond.
Haltingly, traveling in the dark, Abram decides to take God on. It is a measure of his great faith, his trust in God to keep God’s word, that emboldens him to question just when and how this promise will be fulfilled. God takes the old man outdoors to show him the midnight sky. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.” Well, it’s a beautiful, powerful image. It moves Abram deeply but it doesn’t really answer his question. He is left to travel in the darkness. In fact, the text tells us that as he sleeps “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon him. He really is in unfamiliar territory, questioning the Creator. This intimacy with God is not an easy place to find one’s self. Though driven by love, Aslan is no tame lion. And this fierce God is about to do a remarkable thing.
In the story God enacts an ancient ritual of covenant. In the original version of the ritual, the two parties entering into covenant would begin at opposite ends of a path between the split carcasses, walking toward each other, meeting in the middle and continuing to the other end as a means of sealing the covenant between them. The pledge they made was that they would be cut in half, like the sacrificial animals, if they failed to keep the covenant. But what is remarkable in this story is that it is God alone, in the form of the smoking pot and flaming torch, who walks the path, sealing the covenant.
In the end, it is not really a covenant that is created. God uses the ritual to show Abram how serious God is about keeping what God’s promises. God’s action is a gift of grace. God owes Abram nothing but God has said…and God will keep God’s word. In the end, still traveling in the dark, Abram accepts God’s word and comes to trust the promise. It is not a direct answer to his question and it is enough.
Traveling in the dark we find fear and blessing, terror and salvation. Richard Rohr writes, “God teaches the soul most profoundly through darkness–and not just light! We only need enough light to be able to trust the darkness. Trials and darkness teach us how to trust in a very practical way that a good God is guiding us. I don’t need to be perfectly certain before I take the next step. Now I can trust that even my mistakes will be used in my favor, if I allow them to be” (Richard Rohr, “Order, Disorder, Reorder,” 2-23-2016, cac.org).
So, here is the final word for today. God comes to Abram directly, according to the text. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes God needs us to act with God as agents of faith, hope and love. Sometimes God needs us to be trustworthy and keep promises of compassion and care on God’s behalf. Sometimes we must learn to walk in the darkness for ourselves so that we might also travel in the dark with others in need of a “friendly face,” a helping hand. Since we have each been a stranger, have had to find our way when the way was not clear, have had to learn to put our trust in the Holy One, we can also try to understand what it is like for others. There may be times when we feel we must travel the dark hills alone. Still, God says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And, if it is so for us, is this not good news we can share, indeed live out, with others who also travel in the dark? Traveling in the dark is a journey inward and a journey outward.
“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton).
This is a difficult time. I keep thinking of Shakespeare’s phrase, “Now is the winter of our discontent…” I am aware that Richard III does not stop his opening monologue at this point. In fact, he holds up hope as he lifts his tribute to “this sun [son] of York” who has “made glorious summer.” We’ll come back to this glorious sun/son. In spite of his good mood, Richard must have known a winter of real discontent prior to his proclamation of the coming of a glorious summer.
Truly it is hard to hold hope in this winter of discontent, to see any possibility that that glorious sun/son for which we long will ever be seen cresting the horizon of this world gone mad. The horrors of gun violence, mass shootings (352 in this country in the last 334 days), wars and rumors of war, folks who claim to be Christian building walls and issuing edicts to keep the stranger out, masses huddled in refugee camps, political rhetoric that barely rises to the level of trash talk, people arguing over the status of the planet as the earth itself cries out in agony. It is hard to hold hope in such a context, let alone proclaim it. And yet that is exactly what Advent challenges us to do – hold hope when it seems impossible.
I’ve mentioned before my friend, Harold. He’s the younger son of a seminary classmate of my father (back in Kansas in the mid 1930’s). Our fathers were close friends and I’ve known Harold most of my life. Among other things, Harold is a teacher of English, a fine organist and thoughtful agnostic. In his blog postings, he wrestles with his own deep spirituality and a love-hate relationship with organized religion. My sermon from last Sunday, “Hope Bubbles Up,” elicited a response from Harold. I was initially reluctant to read it because I imagined he might call me out for promoting cheap hope.
You see I know that Harold is very passionate about issues of social justice, especially the plight of the people of Palestine. I know this because I receive a daily blog post from Harold reminding me of the injustice and oppression perpetrated on Palestinians by Israel and its allies, chiefly the USA. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope for Palestine and Palestinians right now. I know this because Harold just spent 10 days in that part of world and he has told me all about it in his blog postings.
So I wasn’t disappointed when the last line of Harold’s email read, “I hope all of you hopeful people keep preaching even though, having spent 10 days in Palestine two weeks ago, I hardly see much in the world that is hopeful. At least we don’t (YET!) have 19-year-olds patrolling the streets with M-16s.” I get it. It’s a bleak winter, filled with our discontent. Madmen do roam our streets with assault weapons.
Pope Francis chides us for the frivolous festivities of the season that ignore the deep need of a hurting world, a world Christ comes to redeem, to reconcile with its Creator. I read again Thomas Merton’s powerful poem of Advent that begins:
Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
This chaotic world flush with fear and anxiety, full of pain and destruction, this demented in, this bleak winter of discontent is precisely the setting into which Christ enters – uninvited yet determined to bring…hope? peace? joy? love? Merton continues:
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
His place is with the others for whom
there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power,
because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited
who are denied status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.”
Oddly, these word give me hope. When questioning Harold’s tag under his signature is, “I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me…” (Matthew 25:25-36), I see a flicker of light. There are constant small reminders and occasional larger ones that a better day is possible, that the summer sun might break forth, that the arc of the moral universe, though long, bends inevitably toward justice, that the Love that made us is determined to reclaim us. If we didn’t hold some flicker of hope, how could we continue at all?
An Advent devotional I read this week, puts it this way, “… often hope comes in small doses and flickering images. Signs that are fleeting and brief, and usually seem insignificant. Advent is a season in which we can cultivate a posture of waiting and watching with hope. It is hope that anchors us – it nourishes us, it sustains us, it keeps our eyes up” (d365.org).
One thing that came to me almost immediately in reading Harold’s post is that he helps me hold hope. His insistent reminders of Palestinian pain keep that awful reality before me, along with his other concerns for injustice in this world. He won’t let me forget and for that I am grateful. There are other of you whom I could cite for your faithful witness as well. The more I think about you, the clearer I am that this reflection could run on for a long, long time. Now, in this winter of my own discontent and distress, I give thanks for every one of you who helps me hold hope, even when it’s by my finger-tips. “The Christ in thee meets the Christ in me” and a glimmer of light appears on the horizon.
“O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s deep shadows put to flight.” Amen.
Jesus, I am overjoyed
To meet you face to face
You’ve been getting quite a name
All around the place
Raising from the dead
Now I understand you’re God
At least that’s what you’ve said
So you are the Christ
You’re the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you’re divine-
Change my water into wine
That’s all you need do
Then I’ll know it’s all true
C’mon King of the Jews
Jesus you just won’t believe
The hit you’ve made around here
You are all we talk about
You’re the wonder of the year
Oh what a pity
If it’s all a lie
Still I’m sure
That you can rock the cynics if you try
So if you are the Christ
Yes the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you’re no fool-
Walk across my swimming pool
If you do that for me
Then I’ll let you go free
C’mon King of the Jews
I only ask what I’d ask any superstar
What is it that you have got
That puts you where you are? (Oh, ho ho)
I am waiting
Yes I’m a captive fan
I’m dying to be shown
That you are not just any man
So if you are the Christ
Yes the great Jesus Christ
Feed my household with this bread
You can do it on your head
Or has something gone wrong?
Jesus, why do you take so long?
Aw, c’mon King of the Jews
Hey! Aren’t you scared of me Christ?
Mister Wonderful Christ!
You’re a joke, you’re not the Lord
You are nothing but a fraud
Take him away
He’s got nothing to say!
Get out you King of the
Get out you King of the,
Get out you King of the Jews!
Get out of here, you, you!
Get out of here, you!
Get out of my life
“Herod’s Song,” Jesus Christ Superstar Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber
What’s that you say? I’ve got the wrong song? The wrong season? The wrong Herod? Well, alright you have a point. The Herod of Jesus Christ Superstar is not the Herod of today’s text. He’s a descendant, ruling some thirty years later. And yes this song is sung to the captive Jesus during the Passion when he is dragged in for judgment. But is the song really wrong? The slimy despot from the musical is just as troubled with Jesus as his father was. Uneasy is the head that wears the crown. The fear of anything that threatens power and control is palpable in the murderous acts of these paranoid rulers and in the mocking words of the song.
If you recall the scene from the musical or the movie, Herod, the son, begins his song, sarcasm dripping from his every word and ends the song enraged at the refusal of Jesus to respond, let alone give him what he demands. Does Jesus see the rule of Herod as illegitimate, one which he will not acknowledge? He has cast his lot with God above all others. Alright then, “Get out you king of the Jews. Get out of here. Get out of my life.” Ah, if it was only that simple to rid one’s self of those convicting eyes. Like it or not, something of Christ’s silent but powerful presence would haunt Herod for the rest of his life.
Herod Antipas wasn’t so different from his despotic father except that he ruled only a quarter of the kingdom his father did. His power and control had already begun to dissipate. The Romans trusted him even less than they did Herod, the Great, who ruled over all of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Brian McLaren writes that the older Herod, even in his token Judaism, would have heard the prophecy of the one born king of the Jews. He suggests that, in this particular time of ferment, Herod may have been overly sensitive to rumors of the Messiah coming soon (Brian D. McLaren, “Keep Herod in Christmas” in We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 71-74).
Not trusting completely the counsel of his own religious advisors, he calls in some Zoroastrian astrologers from northeast of Judea to consult their magic as well. Everything seems to point to Bethlehem – both ancient texts and guiding star. For whatever reasons, these foreign operatives leave Bethlehem by a different route, heading home without disclosing to Herod the whereabouts of this baby who is supposedly born “king of the Jews.” Perhaps they sensed Herod’s murderous intent – he was no different than other despot they had encountered – and perhaps they had seen some of that same powerful, convicting presence in the infant’s barely opened eyes.
This leads to Herod’s enraged “slaughter of the innocents.” Just to be on the safe side, he orders his henchman to murder all the babies in Bethlehem two years and under. “A voice [is] heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuse[s] to be consoled, because they are no more.” It would be nice to write this story off as an ancient myth and to claim that we are beyond such horror, but we know that would be untrue. We hear today mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers crying out in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, in Cleveland and Oakland, in Syria and Burma, in Uganda and Mexico, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Children of all ages are being victimized, abused, uprooted, oppressed and executed all over this world. There is wailing and loud lamentation, protest and rioting. Consolation is not the order of the day. This is why McLaren and others insist that we “keep Herod in Christmas.”
I realize that we have not taken the regular route through Advent this year. Instead, we have considered challenging texts for difficult times. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Though today’s text is more typically a Christmas or Epiphany reading, I think McLaren offers it as an Advent text so that we understand the sort of world into which the Christ child comes. True we do not live in an occupied state or in ancient times. We’ve made so many advancements over the centuries that our difficulties are different ones. Still they are no less real and no less challenging. We have not yet fully occupied the commonwealth of God and sometimes we even have trouble seeing it.
We tend to sentimentalize this season. We paint only warm, peaceful, blessed scenes on the front of our Christmas cards. We take the chill and the smell and distress from the stable. We forget that, in addition to the crowds in town, Mary and Joseph could not find a place because Joseph’s hometown relatives and friends shunned him and the unwed teen aged mother who was his traveling companion. No room in the inn. No room in Joseph’s family. No room in Herod’s Judea. “Get out you king of the Jews. Get out of here. Get out of my life.”
I wonder how often such a scene is played out in the world around us. No room for justice. No room for even a fair trial. No room for color. No room for difference. No room for refugees. No room for children living in poverty and terror. No room. Get out of here. Get out of our neatly ordered lives. As Thomas Merton has written, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it—because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it—his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable.)
As I have mentioned before, I first encountered these words, ironically, on a Christmas card. The cover of the card showed a small, dark child sitting naked on the barren earth, weeping. Not much blessing, peace or warmth here – except, perhaps, in the possibilities the Christ child brings to the least and the lost and the last. No sentimentality, to be sure.
It is precisely for the uninvited, the rejected, the weak, the discredited, the dehumanized, the tortured and exterminated that we must keep Herod in Christmas. It is essential to remember the kind of world into which the Christ child is born – a world not so unlike our own in many painful ways. It is vital that we see and understand so that we might stand alongside Christ, offering hospitality to all – even against the Herods of this world.
Joy Caroll Wallis says that “Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn’t enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That’s how the church is described in scripture time and time again – not as the best and the brightest – but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God” (Joy Caroll Wallis, “Putting Herod into Christmas,” adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5, 2004, bigforums.com).
It is into this real world that God comes. It is in this distressed world the Word is made flesh. It is this challenging world to which the King of Glory descends. In Advent, we celebrate hope, peace, joy and love for this very world in which we live day to day. In spite of every obstacle, we affirm and re-affirm, year-after-year that the Herods of the world will not triumph in the end. Fear will not dictate our lives. We will take the hands of sisters and brothers everywhere and walk together in peace and harmony, light and love. We will identify with those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God. While we recognize and refuse to back away from harsh reality, we will cast our lot with the king who sings salvation, who brings hope and peace, joy and love to the most impossible places and the most improbable people, even us. Amen.
In light of disturbing news flashes from Ferguson, Oakland and other US cities, what does one say about Advent, this sacred season in which we wait – with anxiety, hope and wonder – for the transforming presence of the Word made flesh? As we seek to celebrate this baby, born to peasant folk, in an obscure Palestinian village, yet who comes to save the world, how will we also mourn the tragic loss of life on the mean streets of our cities? How will we pair Zechariah’s prayer of blessing with the outrage of grieving fathers or Mary’s song of praise with wail of grief‐stricken mothers?
If you move in any of the same circles as I, your social media outlets and television screens have been flooded with news “coverage,” op ed pieces and laments in the aftermath of the grand jury decision in the case of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The struggle for me has been to understand the depth of the rage without letting that cloud the crying need for change in the social order. Where will the demonstrators and the pundits be when the tear gas clears, the smoke settles and the broken glass is replaced? Will it be business as usual, one more opportunity for transformation drowned in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that overwhelm people of good will everywhere?
I have shared this before but it bears repeating, perhaps every year as we approach Christmas. It is from a Christmas card produced by the Fellowship of Reconciliation back in the ‘60s. The cover has the image of child of color, sitting naked in the dirt, tears streaming down its face. Inside, the greeting contains these words from Thomas Merton,
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of person, who are tortured, bombed and exterminated. With those for whom there is not room, Christ is present in the world.
I suppose these words were penned during the Vietnam War, yet they ring true today when we consider the proliferation of refugees, the debate about immigration in this country, the “New Jim Crow” and the deep‐seated institutionalization of racism in our social order. Once again, the Christ enters this world in which there is no room. That is to say, we sing our carols, decorate our space, join in the feast, sentimentalizing the sweet little Jesus child and leaving no room for that baby’s power to transform us or our world.
My friend Betty Wright‐Riggins, posted this comment on Facebook, which raises a crucial question for people of faith as we once more enter the season of Advent, to watch and wait for the birth of the Christ. She says, “I, like many, am saddened and yet not surprised by the results of the grand jury in Ferguson. Wondering how do we minister with great hope to so many who are hopeless. This sense that the lives of our people and other persons of color are ‘less than’ is gaining credibility. A community leader in Ferguson last night said, ‘People across this country will see all of this violence and anger seemingly out of control behavior and dismiss us. But this is what hopelessness looks like. When your voice refuses to be heard.’” I imagine the leader is referring to Martin Luther King Jr’s observation that “A riot is the
language of the unheard.”
The unheard, the unseen, the unwelcomed – with Betty I wonder how we minister with great hope to so many who are hopeless. How do we let people know that they matter, and I don’t mean just shouting the watchword but preparing the way for that word to become flesh and dwell among us. Betty concludes her comment by quoting Richard Rohr, ʺWhen all appears to be out of control, thatʹs when God does a new thing.” Do you think so? Can you see it, feel it, touch it, taste it – God’s new thing coming among us, not so much in power and glory as in grace and truth? Betty urges us to “pray for the ‘new coming.’ Let us pray, our eyes wide open to see God in the midst of all of this chaos.” And if we see, let us also follow, dig in, get to work to bring in the justice‐bearing, peace‐making, relationship‐building of the God’s beloved community – in Ferguson, Oakland and our own backyards.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
born to set Thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in Thee.
But before we rest, let us find first our hope, our peace, our justice, our joy, our compassion and our love in you. Come, Christ, set us free and transform our lives as we seek to serve you and walk your way. Amen. Pastor Rick
Everyone loves that good old Christmas story about Ahaz, right? “Good King Ahaz, he looked out, on the feast of…” What’s that? You say you don’t remember th e story and there’s no such carol. No one loves or wrote a song praising Ahaz, King of Judah? Well, why is that, I wonder? Because Ahaz is stubbornly stuck in his ways? Because he’s afraid to take a chance on God? Because he’s so obsessed with the present that he can’t see the future?
Well, in case you don’t remember, let me fill you in. Ahaz was king of Judah, grandson of Uzziah, a young ruler in Jerusalem during the time of first Isaiah. What’s that you say? Skip the details and get to the point? Alright, but you need to know a little background. The rulers of a couple of neighboring kingdoms – Ephraim or Israel and Aram or Syria – were mad at Ahaz because he wouldn’t join them in an action against Sennacherib, the ruler of the Assyrian empire.
Now you really couldn’t blame Ahaz for being cautious since the Assyrians had already invaded that northern kingdom of Israel and pretty much hauled all his cousins into exile. No sir, Ahaz was not a fool. He was having no part of a fight with the Assyrians but the result was his nearest neighbors were planning to get together and conquer his kingdom. You see poor Ahaz was stuck between a rock and hard place. He was desperate enough to be in serious thought about asking the Assyrians to help him out against his pesky neighbors.
Enter Isaiah onto the scene. Just what Ahaz needed – some self-righteous prophet, claiming to speak for God. “Listen, Ahaz, trust God. He will take care of you. The kings of Aram and Ephraim will be out of business before you know it and you sure as heck don’t want to climb into bed with Sennacherib. He’ll eat you alive.” But poor Ahaz is too terrified of his present dilemma to look very far into the future. Trusting in God is a lovely idea but really has not practical purpose for Ahaz. He’s a realist. It’s much easier for him to see the kings of Aram, Ephraim and Assyria than it is to see God.
Thus we arrive at our text. Ahaz has refused the prophet’s offer of God’s help. There is an almost defiant exhortation to the recalcitrant Ahaz. “Go ahead,” God says. “Put me to the test.” Suddenly pious, Ahaz refuses to put God to the test – and you can see why. It really goes against all tradition. Remember that Jesus rebuked Satan for trying to put God to the test. It provides just one more challenging option for Ahaz and, frankly, he’s up to his eyeballs in options. “No, thanks, Isaiah. I think I’ll stick to my original plan to go with Sennacherib and the Assyrians.”
“Fool,” says the prophet. “Your lack of faith has worn God out. God is going to give you a sign anyway. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel – God with us. Before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” And you know, that is how things worked out and that’s why we don’t remember Ahaz today or sing songs about him. He got it wrong. His lack of faith did him in.
Walter Brueggemann writes of this text that it tells of an epic battle between faith and fear. In the case of Ahaz, fear wins out. The relationship of his people to God goes back centuries before Ahaz is born. Over and over God encourages the ancestors of Ahaz to put their faith in God, that trusting God will not only get them through the hard times but will lead them to the really good times. Ahaz knows the ancient story well and still he lets fear overwhelm him.
We need to be clear in considering this tale that faith is not a matter of assenting to a set of beliefs. Faith is trusting in your bones that God is with you and will take care of you. Yes, I know that sometimes the road winds up hill and down, is steep and full of curves and the way ahead is not clear at all. And still you know that the One who holds the future walks with you day by day and step by step. I can’t explain it all to you. I can just tell you that I know it’s true. As the old song reassures, “the One who holds the future is the One who holds my hand.”
Unlike King Ahaz, we can pray with Thomas Merton, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude).
And what of Advent, let alone Christmas? Well, Isaiah may not be foreseeing Matthew’s account of Jesus birth when he speaks of Immanuel, but both the prophet understand and put their faith, their trust, their very lives into service of this great truth – God is with us. As John Boswell has written, when God has made all the written and oral arguments God can make through the law and prophets, God grows weary of those efforts and comes in the most powerful argument that can be made. God comes in the flesh, takes human form, lives among us. We know human life and we can put our trust in the one who shares our human existence, who shows us the way and leads us to God.
The story of Ahaz is a very real political one as is the story of Jesus. But they take such different routes. In fear Ahaz turns to the biggest power on earth. He puts his faith in military might. He decides to run with the “big dogs.” In faith Jesus turns to the power that transcends every earthly power that we can imagine or invent. Jesus puts his trust in Love. He decides to go with God. Born in a palace, Ahaz can’t imagine life without his illusions that might and wealth will save him. Born in a stable, Jesus can only imagine a life that lifts us to heaven because he knows how to let go and rise on wings of love.
Joseph trusts the angel’s message as does Mary and the shepherds and the Magi. Those with open eyes and ears, hearts and minds, see the Holy presence, hear the angels sing, turn toward the Love that is on the way and make room in their lives.
We started Advent with the notion that we might be in preparation – preparation for a journey to the mountain of God where the Christ might be born once more in each of us. And if Christ is born anew in us, if the transforming power of love is alive once more in us, we may also, with fear and trembling, with courage and joy, put God to the test as we reach for renewal and commit ourselves once more to building the city of God. That work, which Ahaz could not imagine, becomes our life’s work. Love is on the way. Can you hear it? Can you see it? Can you feel it? Will you trust it?