The Gifts of God: Hope

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In the parlance of modern language, the word Aleppo has come to be equivalent with the idea of hopelessness. The politically torn, war ravaged town is at the center of the Syrian conflict and finds itself in the unenviable position of trying to carry on with normal life in the face of violent factions built on destroying each other at the expense of anyone in the way. Writing for the UK news service the Guardian last September, Emma Graham-Harrison and Hussein Akoush used social media to interview several people who are just trying to stay alive while holding some semblance of normalcy together. The people of Aleppo describe their circumstances this way.

Aleppo has become synonymous with destruction and death, barrel bombs, bunker busters and shattered hospitals. For the doctors and rescue workers racing to save lives around the clock, life has become a blur of blood, death and desperation.

But between the explosions and the street fights, there are more than 200,000 civilians trying to cling to a semblance of normal life in east Aleppo, a quarter of them children.

Taxis and bakeries, water plants and market stalls, schools and charities all operated in rebel-held east Aleppo. Until government forces began a siege in July, vital supplies filtered in and out, residents could visit friends or even leave if they wanted to. Some stayed out of loyalty, others for desperation or fear of life as a refugee in squalid camps.

Among the factions fighting in the city are hardline Islamists, including a group formerly linked to al-Qaida. But east Aleppo is also still home to artists and moderate activists, including women who work in its charities and schools…

…The siege is also biting hard. Food supplies are shrinking, fruit and vegetables have all but gone from people’s plates, and fuel is dwindling too, so most cars have vanished from the streets. They are hoarding supplies for generators that power not just hospitals but also the internet connections that are east Aleppo’s link with the world.

In other eras, cutting supply lines also cut communication, but smartphones and satellite internet routers mean the people of Aleppo can reach out online beyond the circumscribed world that one resident described as a “vast, open-air prison”.

Food and medical aid cannot get in, but stories of horror can get out.[1]

A woman who runs a local school said this, “Our school is in an underground shelter now, but I can still see when the children arrive with their school bags, there is happiness in their eyes, they are excited to study.”[2]

As we begin today I want to ask you, “What is hope?”

Myself, I think of hope this way: it is something that isn’t now, that we wish to be later; it is a trust in what can and may be. As we begin this Advent season, we start with this idea of hope by looking back in time at another story of hope in a hopeless situation, a story about Daniel.

In the mouths of lions

This morning I’d like to tell a tale, a tale of death and court intrigue. Strangely enough it has nothing to do with Game of Thrones or the recent election. It is the story of opposing ideas and ideals within the Kings Court and the challenge to see who will come out on top. It is the story of a young man uprooted from his home, raised and educated in a foreign land, and given the opportunity to serve a foreign king. This young man has made enemies while becoming a member of the king’s court, enemies who would rather him dead.

In the first six chapters of the book of Daniel, Daniel and his friend assert themselves as heroic figures for the Jewish people. Repeatedly, they have lived out their beliefs despite opposition from the king’s court and advisors. Once again, the text talks about how those governors and vice regents or satraps that were subjected Daniel, despised him for the gifts he brought to governance. The story is reminiscent of Joseph before pharaoh, Esther before King Ahasuerus, and the three men in the furnace in Daniel chapter three. Wherever Daniel serves, Daniel succeeds. In the Message Bible, Eugene Peterson translates it this way,

Darius decided to appoint one hundred twenty chief administrators throughout the kingdom, and to set over them three main officers to whom they would report so that the king wouldn’t have to be bothered with too much. One of these main officers was Daniel. Because of his extraordinary spirit, Daniel soon surpassed the other officers and the chief administrators—so much so that the king had plans to set him over the entire kingdom. As a result, the other officers and the chief administrators tried to find some problem with Daniel’s work for the kingdom. But they couldn’t find any problem or corruption at all because Daniel was trustworthy. He wasn’t guilty of any negligence or corruption.

So these men said, “We won’t find any fault in Daniel, unless we can find something to use against him from his religious practice.”[3]

Like I said, court intrigue, power struggles, political maneuvering. As the story goes on, the other under-rulers devise a scheme to get rid of Daniel for the last time and they try to use Daniel’s faith against him. They notice that Daniel prays three times a day, every day, regardless of the other circumstances in his life. They go before the king with a flimsy, probably common trope of creating a law to honor the king. Most kings of the ancient world liked having their egos assuaged and the idea of a law that demanded the citizenry of the king’s lands to worship only Darius for the next month probably sounded like an innocuous request from a bunch of brown-nosers trying to curry favor.

If you have ever been in a Sunday school class, you know what happens next. Daniel is caught praying to God, the other rulers remind the king that no one should be praying to anyone but the king, and the king is bound by the law of the land to punish Daniel per the law. In the story, the punishment decided on is death by lion, which seemed to be a common method of capital punishment in the ancient world. Daniel is shut up in the lion’s den with these parting words from Darius, “Your God—the one you serve so consistently—will rescue you.”[4] Then, Daniel – much to the delight of those who are allied against him – is left to face his own passion. The next day, after a worrisome, sleepless night, Darius returns to the den to hear Daniel say, “Long live the king! 22 My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”[5] Those allied against Daniel are subject to the same punishment and final story of the narrative half of Daniel ends with Darius declaring that everyone should “fear and revere Daniel’s God.”

Learning from Daniel

And now I guess you all want to know, what does a guy playing with overgrown housecats in ancient Persia have to do with the birth of Jesus? They are both stories of hope for a people in need of something to hold on to. The story of Daniel was written at a time of great turmoil for the Jewish people. During the three centuries before the birth of Jesus, the tiny land known as Israel faced a succession of rulers from Egypt (the Ptolemies), Syria (the Seleucids), and finally Rome. During this time, the Greek rulers tried to impose their customs on the conquered peoples going as far as desecrating the temple in Jerusalem in 167 BCE and turning it into a place of worship for Zeus.

Against this backdrop, the stories of Daniel are told, written down, and become a part of Jewish faith and custom. The hope they have arises from walking with God, even at the cost of one’s life, to carry on the faith of the fathers before them. The stories of Daniel, Esther, and others during this time were stories of inspiration to not give up, to not surrender your faith to foreign gods and to love and serve the God of Israel no matter what.

Daniel in the lion’s den is a story of hope and resurrection. Daniel should have been killed by the beasts and yet certain death is not so certain after all. So much of this story is similar to the story of Jesus resurrection in the New Testament: both are pronounced as criminals before the state worthy of death, both face rulers who are not certain they deserve death, both are condemned by those of their peer group, both are placed in a tomb of death with a stone to seal them in, and both are found alive in the morning, having overcome death itself by the divine hand of God.

Stories of resurrection are stories of hope. They are stories about a life that is not yet finished, a life that has more living in it. When we look at the story of the early church in Acts, they did not preach the cross – many died on Roman crosses, nothing especially noteworthy in that – they preached the resurrection, the hope of one gone to the grave and returned. Why? Because the idea of resurrection is the idea of hope beyond a hopeless situation.

It is the hope we have as believers, that the life we live following Christ is a life reborn. That is the power of the resurrection that lives in us as we live a life devoted to being disciples of Jesus. When we begin to walk as Paul said, “in newness of life”, we walk as people of resurrection. When this becomes our reality, the resurrection is not just part of the Jesus story, it is part of our story, the story of how our life becomes one with the story of Jesus, one with the Spirit of God. Hope is the fuel of resurrection, it is the catalyst that generates the power of the life we now live after Jesus.

The Hope of Advent

The advent story is also a story of hope. The narratives of Jesus birth in Matthew and Luke are stories of a great light shining into the darkness of the world. They are stories of a miraculous, wondrous birth, of God so loving the world that Spirit of God would come to earth in the form of an innocent child to bring living water to barren landscape. It is “…a Savior… born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah [one blessed and chosen of God] and Master [teacher of God’s truth to man].”[6] It is the time of Emmanuel, God with us.

The writer Madaline L’Engle puts it poetically this way,

Into The Darkest Hour

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.[7]

The old adage is, “it is always the darkest before the dawn.” Hope is born in this darkness. Hope has overcome this darkness. Hope shines through the remnants of darkness to point us to the light. This advent season, let us take the story of Jesus birth into our hearts, into our congregation, and into our community that it may bring those who are hopeless to a new hope. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/30/stories-from-inside-aleppo-it-feels-like-we-are-in-prison

[2] ibid

[3] Daniel 6:1-4

[4] Daniel 6:16

[5] Daniel 6:21-22

[6] Luke 2:12

[7] https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2010/12/20/into-the-darkest-hour-2/

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Connections: Jeremiah and the Heart’s Covenant

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Syndromes and Illnesses

I have mentioned before an interest in medicine and I still read medical articles occasionally, especially if they have something to do with psychiatry or psychology since pastoral counseling is a common occurrence in the pastoral calling. As I was preparing for this sermon, I ran across a short little diagnostic article from the Mayo Clinic. It reads,

Broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition that’s often brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. The condition can also be triggered by a serious physical illness or surgery. People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack.

In broken heart syndrome, there’s a temporary disruption of your heart’s normal pumping function in one area of the heart. The remainder of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. Broken heart syndrome may be caused by the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones.

The condition may also be called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, apical ballooning syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy by doctors. The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are treatable, and the condition usually reverses itself in days or weeks.[1]

I found it interesting that the human body responds to our pain with pain of its own, that we as human beings are hardwired to experience our emotional life on such a deep level. I also find it fascinating that the Bible speaks to this kind of pain and broken heartedness, especially in the Psalms. The writer of Psalm 69 writes,

Save me, God, because the waters have reached my neck! I have sunk into deep mud. My feet can’t touch the bottom! I have entered deep water; the flood has swept me up. I am tired of crying. My throat is hoarse. My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God. More numerous than the hairs on my head are those who hate me for no reason.[2]

I see this pain, this brokenhearted-ness and brokenness is common to the human experience and can lead us to healing or continued hurting. God, however, is in the business of restoration, particularly where the heart and soul are concerned. The word salvation itself is a testimony to that in that the Greek word used in the New Testament for salvation, soteria, means literally to “make whole again.” So, in the words of the Rev. Al Green, “How do you mend a broken heart? How does a loser ever win?” I think some of the answers may be found in the Old Testament stories of restoration like the Exodus, the Passover, and from our text today, the Captivity of Israel and Judah.

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Photo by Alex Bruda from FreeImages at http://www.freeimages.com

Broken Hearts

It seems to me, much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament has its origins in the tumultuous times that it was written down. The events of the day – especially during the time before, during, and after the Assyrian and then Babylonian dynasties in the region – were destroying the very fabric of Jewish society and national identity. The prophetic books are witnesses to the upheaval that was felt in aspect of Jewish life as one powerful nation state then another overwhelmed the tiny sliver of land along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

From what I read, the writings of Jeremiah are from the first half of the sixth century BCE, when the people of Judah were being taken away to captivity in Babylon. In the face of a broken-hearted people, God calls a young man, little more than a child by today’s standards, to bear a message of hope to a people who are broken hearted. The reader of Jeremiah should have been encouraged in his day to look at the political, religious, and military disasters of the Jewish people as past events that should be left in the past. The point to be taken from the writings is there is hope: Hope in God, hope in a future.

In the part of this story we read this morning, we revisit this idea of covenant, something we have talked about recently in other sermons. According to Old Testament scholar Sandra Richter,

“[A covenant is] an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance” In other words, a covenant was much like a contract.”[3]

In the Jeremiah text, God looks to be reestablishing this idea of covenant but with some changes from before. First, I understand the covenant is restorative, in that it addresses the divided northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Since the time of Solomon’s sons, Rehoboam and Jeroboam, divided the kingdom after Rehoboam took the poor advice of his younger counselors and overworked the people to revolt. Rehoboam fled to Jerusalem to rule the southern cities and the northern cities crowned Jeroboam their king. The new covenant brings the people that were divided back together.

In the same way, God is still seeking to restore us to one another and to himself. Throughout the New Testament, its writers speak of restoration:

  • The story of the woman at the well when Jesus says, “…the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”[4]
  • The stories of healing and resurrection during Jesus ministry – the centurion’s servant, Lazarus, the demoniac of Gadara.
  • Finally, the entire Book of Revelation is a book written to the people of Asia Minor to remind them to worship and continue their faith in the face of persecution, as they wait for God to make them whole in the face of being brokenhearted.

Second, it strikes me that the covenant is universal, a covenant that reaches out to everyone, everywhere. God says, “I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah,” in verse thirty-one. Again, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are addressed as one, with God reaching out to both with the same directive, the same promise. What was once a divided people based on the political whims of an errant minded king, will now be one people united in heart by God. In time, some, not all the Israelites would return from Babylon as we find in the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah and at the end of Chronicles. Some stayed behind and were absorbed into the peoples of Babylon and then Persia. When those who left returned, however, they returned as one people: The Jews.

In the same way that God called the two kingdoms back together, God calls us as his children to be one people. In the pastoral prayer Jesus prays before going into the Garden of Gethsemane, he says, “Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.” Jesus prayer reiterates that the heart of being a disciple is oneness with God and oneness with each other, as in the Great Commandment, love God and love neighbor. Paul makes this point even clearer in Galatians 3:28,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Finally, I believe the covenant is personal, it is a covenant with a God we know. Again, the text says, “this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.[5] God is telling those who have been bound up and carried off into captivity that they will not be lost and without direction. God will speak directly to them and they will have the words of God, the Law of God within, made a permanent part of their fabric and being.

When I look at these promises made to Israel in the Old Testament, I think we can consider that as followers of Rabbi Jesus, disciples of a Jewish teacher, we too can embrace these promises as our own especially when such things are reiterated in the New Testament writings. In talking to the disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus is speaking about the coming of the Companion, the Spirit of Truth and he tells them, “Because I live, you will live too. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you.[6] In the Holy Spirit, we have the same guidance, the same Law written on our hearts, to help us understand how Jesus would live if he were in our shoes. It is the means by which we order our daily lives understanding that all of us, regardless of where we came from or where we are, can live into a life of discipleship.

A little recap, the covenant of the broken heart is restorative (it puts things back together as they should be), it is universal (anyone, anywhere can take part in the covenant), and it is personal (it is something that you engage in on a deep, meaningful level with God and with others).

Mending a broken heart

So, back to the words of the Rev. Al Green, “How do you mend a broken heart?” The good news is that both the bible and the medical community agree on this one, albeit from different angles. The medical world says, “Emotional support…is recommended… Healing a broken heart may be complicated, but… [it] is entirely reversible.”[7]

I see the bible as a book about restoration, our restoration to God. The Psalmist writes,

“The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, gathering up Israel’s exiles. God heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. God counts the stars by number, giving each one a name. Our Lord is great and so strong! God’s knowledge can’t be grasped! The Lord helps the poor…”[8]

And throughout his ministry, we have already mentioned that Jesus was about the business of healing those who needed restoration. The gospel of Matthew records that,

29 Jesus moved on from there along the shore of the Galilee Sea. He went up a mountain and sat down. 30 Large crowds came to him, including those who were paralyzed, blind, injured, and unable to speak, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. 31 So the crowd was amazed when they saw those who had been unable to speak talking, and the paralyzed cured, and the injured walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.[9]

Remember the description from the Mayo Clinic of broken heart syndrome? “The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are treatable, and the condition usually reverses itself in days or weeks.” I think it’s like the common cold, you can take something to dull the pain, you can alleviate some of the symptoms, but you must let yourself, heal yourself. It comes from allowing restoration to happen in the presence of God as we make the focus of our life God rather than the pain. Will we forget about the pain? No. Whatever the pain is it will still be there, like a common cold it must work itself out of the system. But we can focus on being disciples as a means of refocusing the energy of the pain. At a funeral, recently, someone spoke of how much it hurt to lose their loved one. The pain of losing someone never goes away. In time, it will dull but it will always be there. But the memory of what you shared with the person will eventually overtake the grief of what you feel now.

Regardless of the hurt, the covenant of the broken heart puts things back together as they should be, is there for anyone to receive, and it is something that you engage in on a deep, meaningful level with God and with others. The covenant of the broken heart is the covenant that God makes with us to walk with us, not around the pain, not to take it from us, but with us as we walk through it, knowing the Spirit of Truth is within us to help us withstand the pain until we reach the other side of the trial. In the words of a simple prayer,

Lord, I come before you today in need of your healing hand. In you all things are possible. Hold my heart within yours, and renew my mind, body, and soul. I am lost, but I am singing. You gave us life, and you also give us the gift of infinite joy. Give me the strength to move forward on the path you’ve laid out for me. Guide me towards better health, and give me the wisdom to identify those you’ve placed around me to help me get better.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/broken-heart-syndrome/home/ovc-20264165

[2] Psalm 69:1-4

[3] Richter, Sandra. The Epic of Eden (p.70) InterVarsity Press. 2008

[4] John 4:23-24

[5] Jeremiah 31:33

[6] John 14:19-20

[7] http://digitalcommons.otterbein.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1135&context=stu_msn

[8] Psalm 147:2-6

[9] Matthew 15:29-31

Connections: Isaiah and the Calling

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Chaos

The last half of my senior year of high school was chaotic. I was trying t figure out college and where I should go. I was trying to figure out what to major in when I did finally pick a college. I was trying to figure out how to go from being a teenager at home to being student out on my own and being able to take care of myself.

At the time, I had aspired to be a medical examiner. I was, and still am, fascinated with the forensic process and even wrote one of my senior high school reports on the process. I had looked at several colleges and universities for the best medical school admission rates and the programs that offer the best opportunity for me to study medicine as early as possible. I was convinced that this was what God wanted me to do with my life.

After working in the medical field during my first couple of years of college, I realized that nearly ever doctor I knew was divorced and their families seemed to suffer greatly for the dedication required to be a physician. I also realized that the mathematical aptitude necessary to get into medical school left me a few equations short of an accurate solution.

After that, I thought I might study political science. The idea of being a political analyst sounded interesting and I even went so far as to look at taking the civil service exam and filling out a CIA application. It wasn’t long, however, before I simply got bored with it. Politics was interesting, but not interesting enough for me to want to spend the rest of my life thinking, talking, living, and breathing politics.

Then I decided to consider the idea criminal justice as a major. I was still interested in forensics and thought that maybe this was a good fit for my interest. The theory was good, the practice not so much. The idea of being shot at was not something I cared for not to mention the fact that my reflexes are not so much cat like as maybe dumb dog like. “Oh wait, somebody’s shooting at me. I should duck. I should hide. Squirrel!”

When I started working as a graphic designer the year before my first year at Mercer, I had a full-time job and when I started school I was also going to school full time at night. At Mercer, I finally settled on religious studies but not because I wanted to be a minister. I was just interested in it. I remember a conversation that I had with my father about my final major. He asked me what kind of ‘real job’ could I expect to have with a religious studies major. I told him I might eventually become an academic but the reality was I was simply getting a degree to bump up my salary. Having a college degree would get me an instant pay raise and I could keep drawing pictures for a living.

My calling to ministry would have to wait a few more years but in the interim, there was much learning to do. Then I realized my calling and there was much learning to do. Now, I am living into my calling and I realize that I know even less than I thought I did before. Calling wasn’t a consideration for much of my life because I was busy living and trying to get by rather than being concerned with a greater purpose of life.

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Photo by Nick Knl courtesy of FreeImages (www.freeimages.com)

Isaiah before the throne

The prophetic text of Isaiah is one of the most quoted, most beloved of the Old Testament. The text was commonly studied from the time of its writing into the days of the New Testament when it became a common source to draw from in first century writings. Jesus himself, in the book of Luke, declares his ministry by quoting from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

For me, however, there is no more magnificent story than that of Isaiah’s calling. It’s one of those moments when I feel like I can step into the story and experience the feeling of presence that Isaiah felt and the realization of the calling that he experienced. I can see the winged creatures flying around the throne of God calling out to one another as they fly back and forth across the scene. I can feel the trembling of the room and the walls as the echo of their voices rattles the very fabric of reality.

I can also imagine the overwhelming sense of dread and awe, string at this magnificent scene. The temple of God filled with the presence of God. The throne of God occupied by the only one worthy to reside upon it. The room filled with the smoke and heat from the fire upon the altar. The heaviness of his heart and the overwhelming weight of being from Being itself.[1] Bowed before the throne, on his face, Isaiah laments the distance between his soul and that of the Almighty, the separation of who he is from who he was created to be. Beyond that, Isaiah knows that God told Moses,

“you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live.” The Lord said, “Here is a place near me where you will stand beside the rock. As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by.  Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible.”[2]

Isaiah is terrified that by merely gazing upon the person of the Almighty, he will undoubtedly die. And so, the future prophet lies on the quaking floor, overcome with emotion and cries out,

“Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”[3]

In response to this anguished man’s plea, one of the winged creatures flies to the altar and takes one of the burning hot coals and touches it to the lips of Isaiah,

“See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”[4]

Now, as Isaiah recovers from the ordeal of being cleansed before God, a great voice thunders from the throne, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, trembling in the face of this vision, finds his footing and his courage and replies, “I’m here; send me.”

This powerful scene has provided so much for readers, preachers, scholars, and anyone else who reads it, in that it speaks to so many things about the nature and person of God, the nature of presence, the nature of holiness. So much can be said about this passage and yet I have always connected to the story of calling a prophet. Perhaps it’s the fact that being a pastor in many ways is the call to prophetic office in that we are here to say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” much as the prophets of old.

The idea of calling and living into our calling, is, I think, a call to being a listener. Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and scholar, wrote a book on calling based on an old Quaker saying, Let Your Life Speak. In it he writes,

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”[5]

I want to reread that and make a slight substitution to Palmer’s writing that I think will be enlightening for us.

“Before you tell God what you intend to do with your life, listen for what God intends to do with you. Before you tell God what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let God tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”

Notice what Isaiah spends most of his time doing in this scene: watching and listening. How else could he have offered such a powerful vision of what it is like to be in the presence of God? Isaiah lies there on the ground experiencing this incredible moment, taking in the brilliance, the majesty, of God and does so not by having something to say, but by patiently listening to God.

I think there is a great lesson to be learned here in that most of our communication with God could not be labeled as listening. I think most of the time, most of us, end up offering up to God a list things that are going wrong in our lives or the lives of those around us and spiritually dropping it off as though it were a holy to do list. Is there a place for prayers that are essentially requests for God’s help? Absolutely. But when it comes to discerning the daily call we live into and the greater call that we offer with our life, I believe we should spend more time listening to and waiting for the leading of God than simply making a request and going back to our lives.

Listening for the call

Several times in the gospels, Jesus says, “Let the person who has ears, hear.” In other words, let the person who is truly trying to listen, truly trying to understand, let them understand what has been said. That comes with taking the time to listen and make listening a practice of life that pervades our being, so that we are seeking to hear rather than seeking to speak.

I believe we have two callings in this life. The first the call that Jesus offers to all disciples when he says, “Come, follow me.” Everyone is extended this invitation to take on the character and being of Jesus and everyone who becomes a believer is essentially saying, “I wish to be as Jesus was, is, and will be.”

The second calling is more specific and requires us to spend more time listening in prayer rather than speaking to God in prayer. It requires that we become introspective and consider what we are at heart, in the innermost part of our being. It is the calling that comes out of the part of us that defines the fabric of our being. I think knowing ourselves at this level means that we must listen to God and allow God to speak to the part of who we are that he created for a special purpose. It is looking at what we are naturally gifted to do, the things that bring us joy in their practice. In knowing these things, we know who God created us to be and we can live into that being.

When I realized my calling, it wasn’t like a lightning bolt flying across the sky and hitting me in the head. It wasn’t a moment where the ground shook, the skies opened, and God dropped a scroll at my feet. It was when I could finally be still enough in my soul, quiet enough in my spirit, to listen and hear the voice of God.

I invite you to begin a journey this morning. It is a journey that will take you nowhere and everywhere. It is a journey that bring great difficulty and great joy. It is the journey of listening. It is the day to day, moment to moment, waiting before God that the Almighty of Isaiah’s grand scene may speak to us as to Isaiah. It is the practice of offering God praise for what the Lord has done, to bear requests and troubles before the throne of grace, and then simply sitting there and listening; listening for an answer, waiting for the presence of God, being patient before God.

Our calling as a disciple will be made known in the calm stillness of his presence. Our calling in ministry will be made known in the calm stillness of God’s presence. Our souls will be revigorated to follow as disciples in the calm stillness of God’s presence. Our understanding will deepen as we live in the calm stillness of God’s presence.

Wait. Listen. Hear. Then live. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


 

[1] ““I Am Who I Am… ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” – Exodus 3:14, “I am” as an ultimate expression of being.

[2] Exodus 33:20-23

[3] Isaiah 6:5

[4] Isaiah 6:7

[5] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak. © 2000 John Wiley and Sons. San Francisco, CA. p.3

Connections: Jonah and the Do-Over

connections2

Just Like Starting Over

David Peters’ life was supposed to be one continuous arc of piety and service. But for the U.S. Army chaplain, it’s ended up a more circuitous route. Peters lost the very faith he was supposed to embody for his soldiers — but has also found his way back.

Peters grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical church in Pennsylvania, served as youth minister and then went to war in Baghdad as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in 2005. At the age of 30, he was serving as a chaplain for the 62nd Engineer Combat Battalion, a unit that built guard towers and repaired roads. “So they were operating all around Baghdad, at night, in the streets, in the neighborhoods — and it really exposed [them] to an incredible amount of danger,” he says.

Peters’ duties included administering last rites, grieving with survivors and listening to soldiers lament their broken marriages back home. After 12 months in a combat zone, it was time for Peters to go home. But when he arrived back in Texas, Peters realized that he had changed. “I found that going to war was really pretty easy and it was kind of exciting, and there was a lot of energy around it,” he says. “But when I came home, I really fell apart emotionally and spiritually.”

He had symptoms of PTSD, and his own marriage had shattered while he was away at war. His homecoming was not unusual, it turns out. Former Army Capt. Kurt Stein, the signal officer in the engineering battalion, grew close to Peters in Iraq. “The real crisis,” he says, “is when we were deployed, we were always told, ‘When you guys get back, December 2006, all your problems are gonna be over. You’re gonna be a hero, your families are going to be glad to see you.’ I found that going to war was really pretty easy and it was kind of exciting, and there was a lot of energy around it. But when I came home, I really fell apart emotionally and spiritually. For David and for a lot of us, that just wasn’t the case.”

Peters says it was his lifelong relationship with God that suffered the most. In fact, the God he had taken with him to Iraq — the benevolent deity who loves everyone and rewards the faithful — that concept of God died along with a whole bunch of brave soldiers, he says. He had a hard time even going to church anymore.

“The church was asking me to confess my sins, when I felt like God had done far worse things than I’ve ever done,” he says. Like “standing by and not really doing much for the world that’s full of war and conflict and despair, loss. I looked at my own life and I felt that way. I’d just gotten divorced. I was just really angry at God for disappearing on me when I needed him most.”

Peters wound up working as a chaplain in the amputee ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., meeting with veterans whose troubles seemed to dwarf his own. He also worked in the psych ward, where, he says, “there was a thin line between the patients and me.”

Outside of work, his life had imploded. Newly single, he dated a succession of women because, he says, sometimes they “can take the pain away.” His younger sister, Sarah, visited him in D.C. and noticed a dramatic change. “He was drinking a lot. I just remember him being very angry at people — just things that were so out of character for him,” she says.

Last year, Tactical 16, a small veteran-owned press, published a slim, anguished memoir that Peters wrote about his journey. In the book, Death Letter: God, Sex and War, he writes, “I went into the business of religion to understand death.” Since the book came out, he has gotten emails from others — “Army chaplains who have experienced real transition like I did when they came home,” he says. “And yet, they were religious people — they weren’t allowed to have problems.”

Peters had to start over. Because he was divorced, he had to leave the Bible Fellowship Church that had endorsed him as a military chaplain. He eventually found a home and became ordained in the Episcopal Church. He also remarried; he and his new wife are expecting a child next month. “To start over, to start a new marriage, to start a new job, to start in a new church — all those things took a great deal of, just, patience,” Peters says.

The trauma of war and divorce deepened his spiritual self, in such a way that he can now connect, as a priest and chaplain, with others who are living through a dark night of the soul. Now 39, Peters is on the staff at Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown, Texas, outside Austin. He still serves as a chaplain in the Army Reserve up the highway at Fort Hood. And he started a weekly veterans ministry in Austin that meets to talk, drink coffee and pray for one another.[1]

800px-jonah_the_prophet

Jonah and Walking Away

There are times that we simply don’t want to do what we know we should do. The story of Jonah is about someone who knows what he should do and tries not to but eventually does it. To the best of our understanding, Jonah was a prophet during the time of Jeroboam according the text of Kings, about two decades before the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity. In 2 Kings 14:23-25, the story says,

23 Jeroboam, the son of Israel’s King Joash, became king in Samaria in the fifteenth year of Judah’s King Amaziah, Jehoash’s son. He ruled for forty-one years. 24 He did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes. He didn’t deviate from all the sins that Jeroboam, Nebat’s son, had caused Israel to commit. 25 He reestablished Israel’s border from Lebo-hamath to the Dead Sea. This was in agreement with the word that the Lord, the God of Israel, spoke through his servant the prophet Jonah, Amittai’s son, who was from Gath-hepher.

As was common in the time before the captivity for both divided kingdoms of ancient Israel, the kings had forsaken God and as it says, “did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes.” Prophets were sent to speak to kings about their error of their ways and often were regarded as annoyances at best and enemies of the state at worst. Jonah, apparently, went before Jeroboam II and delivered this message to the king. We don’t have the record of what was said, but given that Jeroboam refused to change, I imagine the king continued in his ways and Jonah continued in his.

The prophet’s story, written most likely after the return of the Israelites to their land[2], is a little different than your usually prophetic book like Isaiah or Jeremiah, when a prophet is sent to the king and the people with a message. Jonah is a story about the prophet himself, a different sort of story, more of an allegory about Israel in the time of captivity. The intent of the story is that of a teaching story, a means of conveying a lesson to the Jewish people in their day and those to follow in later generations. As one theologian puts it, “If a story is skillfully told, the storyteller can use questions to put each listener in the place of the one being questioned.”[3]

In the allegory, the prophet is told to go to the people most hated, most despised by the Israelites: The Babylonians. Ninevah, the capital city of the Babylonian empire, was a God-forsaken place in the eyes of all Hebrews. According to commentator Hans Walter Wolff,

What Nineveh stands for we could only comprehend if it were the goal of a journey of ours today. The narrator characterizes it with two criteria: it is great, and it is wicked (v. 2). From the eighth century onwards Israel had known Nineveh as that huge power-center of the Neo-Assyrian empire, which had subjugated the entire ancient Near East. In its practice of waging war, in its policy of resettlement and its methods of torture, it surpassed all of its predecessors and successors in brutality. Israel had never suffered so greatly under any other world power.[4]

Suffice it to say, Jonah, even as faithful as he had been to this point, had no desire to defile himself by setting his feet on their soil, no interest in a mission of mercy to a people of such hate and vileness, and certainly no interest in delivering a message of repentance that the Babylonians might listen to and respond. So, Jonah does what any self-respecting Israelite would do: abandons his call and runs away.

The prophet tries to run away to Tarshish, a city known for its coastal delights for all the senses. Per 1 Kings 10, Tarshish was a place where King Solomon’s ships, “returning once every three years with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys, and peacocks,”[5] a far sight better than going to the hell of Ninevah. He boards a ship and sets his mind to lands far from Israel and Ninevah.

The voyage, as we all know doesn’t go well. Jonah sleeps below decks and then a storm comes from the very hand of God to frighten the crew to the point that they assume something is supernaturally wrong. The men cast lots and determine Jonah is the problem and at the prophet’s word, they throw Jonah overboard.

Beneath the waves a great fish is waiting for the prophet and according to the story, Jonah spends three days living in the belly of the fish. During this time, Jonah repents or the very least acknowledges his wrongdoing, and God has the fish spit him out on dry land. Jonah begins the journey again, only this time he goes to Ninevah as he was directed to the first time. The message when he arrives is simple, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”[6] When they hear, the people of Ninevah respond just as simply,

“When word of it reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, stripped himself of his robe, covered himself with mourning clothes, and sat in ashes. Then he announced, “In Nineveh, by decree of the king and his officials: Neither human nor animal, cattle nor flock, will taste anything! No grazing and no drinking water! Let humans and animals alike put on mourning clothes, and let them call upon God forcefully! And let all persons stop their evil behavior and the violence that’s under their control!” He thought, Who knows? God may see this and turn from his wrath, so that we might not perish.”

Jonah retreats to the outskirts waiting for the justice of God to fall on the cursed Ninevites. As he waits, God shows him mercy beneath the desert sun and has a bush grow up around the wayward prophet. The prophet’s hatred grows as the plant does until one day God sends a worm to eat the plant. Ninevah repents and God relents. The land is saved from the wrath of God and Jonah is disgusted by it. His hope is running away was that God would visit what should have been justice on the people of Ninevah. His hopes are dashed in the grace and mercy of God. Jonah weeps for the plant that God had sent and God challenges him with what I think is the central message of the allegory.

“You ‘pitied’ the shrub, for which you didn’t work and which you didn’t raise; it grew in a night and perished in a night. 11 Yet for my part, can’t I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who can’t tell their right hand from their left…?”[7]

Grace in spite of not because of

One of the things that strikes me about this brief tale from the books known as the minor prophets is the veracity of Jonah’s hatred in the face of God’s mercy. As much as God wants to offer the opportunity of grace to be extended, Jonah wants to withhold it. If you think back to the beginning of the sermon, you can see how Jonah might come to feel as he does. War, torture, resettlement, brutality, in short, “their evil.”[8]

In the face of this why does God offer grace? Why does God offer the opportunity to repent to those who have lived out and visited atrocities such as this on others? To get the heart of Jonah’s question, how is this just?

Because the point of the story is for Jonah to see the Babylonian people as just that, people. Given the same birthplace, the same upbringing of any Israelite, any Babylonian would have grown up with the view of God as Jonah. Jonah is a type of Israel, unable to see that the grace and love God has is for all peoples regardless of their journey. The rulers of Babylon were wicked but did that necessarily make the people wicked? Was the place of their birth a death sentence on their hearts and minds to be doomed to a second-rate life?

I don’t think the Bible teaches this. Consider that the Old Testament, especially the law, gives Jews strict rules on how to treat the foreigner in their midst. Their treatment should be as you would treat an Israelite,

“Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”[9]

Consider also what Jesus has to say,

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”[10]

As you can see the Bible is clear on how we should regard the “enemy”, by seeing them as ourselves. We are called to grace and peace as a way of life and there is no enemy in the way that Jesus called us to follow. As Jesus said, “as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also must you be complete” as you show love to all, even those who seem against you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


 

[1] http://www.npr.org/2015/01/06/375387392/an-army-chaplain-first-tested-by-war-finds-his-faith-renewed

[2] “These connections with postexilic vocabulary do not prove that Jonah was composed in the postexilic period, but the evidence surely points in that direction.” – James Limburg. Jonah (1993): A Commentary (The Old Testament Library) (Kindle Locations 445-446). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation

[3] Limburg. Kindle Locations 359-360

[4] Wolff, Hans Walter. “Jonah: the reluctant messenger in a threatened world.” Currents In Theology And Mission 3, no. 1 (February 1976): 8-19. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed November 1, 2016).

[5] 1 Kings 10:22

[6] Jonah 3:4

[7] Jonah 4:10-11

[8] Jonah 1:2

[9] Leviticus 19:34

[10] Matthew 5:38-48