Saturday, December 5, 2015
Can you imagine how Mary must have been feeling? Think of all the emotions that one goes through when they find out they are expecting a child. Excitement at the possibilities, worries and doubts of what kind of a parent you might be, fears for all the things that can possibly go wrong, joy of new life, love for the child you carry, and did I say doubts and fears... and that is just the first minute or two. Then you revisit all of the multitude of emotions in depth as time goes on.
Mary wasn't married. She did not have any knowledge of sex or men or much of anything up to that point in her life. I would imagine that the last thing she worried about was what to name the child, but the angel took that worry off of her shoulders. This may have been good news, but it is unlikely that she felt all that good about it, even if she was obedient to God.
We want to think that she the epitome of serenity and peace, just like we have pictured her in art over the years. But let's think how we would respond--or maybe even have responded--to God laying "good news" on us. We may know where God is leading us, but we have thought of all the ways that will affect our lives, the lives of our families, our friends, We have pondered the changes we will have to make, things we may have to take on or perhaps give up. We have worried about our inabilities, our desires to do something else, that if we are obedient to God, our lives will never be the same again.
So, let us not be so quick to dismiss the value of Mary's obedience by thinking it was easy for her. Let us not discount our need and ability to be obedient to God. God calls us, just as God called Mary. God desires our obedience. And just as all our lives were changed by Mary's act of obedience--even though she may not have been aware of it all--we do not know how lives might be changed by our obedience--or disobedience.
As we journey down the Advent road, let us recommit ourselves and our lives and futures to God for the purpose of God.
Signs of things promised. This is what the prophet spoke of -- the sign to look for the coming of the promised Messiah. Of course, I wonder how popular the name Immanuel was or became at that time. Young women are pregnant all the time. I think this was one of those vague pronouncements, like 'when the sun rises on the third day of the week, this shall be a sign.' Well this happens 52 weeks a year for as many years as we are in existence. Which week, which year? Which young woman? Which baby named 'God with us?'
But that is the thing with signs isn't it. They are everywhere for those who are discerning. They are also everywhere for those who are looking for the latest sign. I knew a young man one time who saw signs from God, God telling him to do something, in everything that happened. It is one thing to have a series of things occur that you realize is God showing you the way; it is another for a multitude of "signs" carrying you in different directions. I do not think God is either fickle or a tease.
So, how do we know when something is of God? How can we tell that it is a true sign? I think it is much like anything else really--we will understand more if we truly know the one sending us the sign. Knowing God and how God speaks to you, not just floundering around thinking everything is a sign from God, but knowing the one sending the sign well enough to be discerning.
Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who is the interpreter between us and God. Through the Holy Spirit we can be sensitive to the leading of God and attune to God enough to understand.
Also, discernment is affirmed on hindsight, in that we can tell if what has come to pass is from God. This is why I think those who are focused on watching for the signs of the "last days" can be so harmful. Not only are they floundering around, believing everything is one of the signs of the apocalypse running around like Chicken Little declaring the skies are falling, they are diluting the importance of the occurrence. There will come a time when the earth shall come to an end, but Jesus himself said that he doesn't know when that will be, so what makes these rapture-theorists think they know better. And what is the purpose? What do they think their sleuthing will accomplish?
Much like the coming of the anointed one of God to a young pregnant woman who would name her child "God with us," it could have happened at anytime, been anyone, happened anywhere. So what are we to do--we who watch and wait, the same as those who watched and waited before. Recognizing in hindsight that this child was something extraordinary--something divine--but living in the moment of the God who is with us always. Living as we are in God's very presence always, for we are.
I do not believe it does any good to get caught up in trying to foretell what the future may bring when there is so much to do to make the here and now happen. There are hungry to feed, naked to clothe, oppressed to liberate, empires to stand up to, and life to be lived. As we watch and wait, let us remember is while we are in the midst of living that we watch and wait for the one who was and is and is to come.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
"Falling to their knees, the honored him." Worship. These travelers from the east--not Jews--worshipped this child that was foretold by the Jewish prophets. We tend to categorize people into at a minimum of two categories--in or out. But these non-Jewish travelers, who were possibly followers of Zoroaster, traveled a great distance from their homeland to bring baby gifts. Why would they do this? Traveling that far was perilous. Why the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Much is unknown about these travelers told about only in the Gospel of Matthew. However, there is a great deal of fascination with them and a great deal of speculation which has become accepted as fact, although there is no basis for it. We do not know how many of them there were, though it is presumed there were three because there were three gifts. We do know there was more than one because the word which is translated as magi in Latin (magoi in Greek) is a plural form of the word magus. This is the word we get our modern-day words magic and magician from; although there is nothing that indicates that these travelers were magicians or sorcerers in the modern understanding of the word. They were probably scholars or priests, rather than foreign dignitaries visiting a newborn dignitary. Regardless of our understanding, they were not Jewish leaders who rightly interpreted the signs for the coming of the foretold anointed one of God. They were outsiders.
As for the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there are two primary understandings of the meaning of the gifts--political or spiritual. Political would indicate that they are presents you would present to a king as an indication of respect and good faith. Spiritual significance would indicate that their worship was one of more than adoration or respect, but acknowledging the presence of the divine.
Gold, a symbol of earthly kingship, seems a fairly practical gift--it was the ancient form of gift cards or just cold, hard, cash. Money, which they did not specify to be put in a trust fund until the child reached some age of maturity. It was for the parents to use to raise the child. The gold likely funded their flight to Egypt where the family (Mary, Joseph, and Jesus) were considered refugees fleeing from political tyranny and death. We would do well to remember that when we consider our modern feelings of political refugees.
Frankincense and myrrh were much more spiritually symbolic. Frankincense carries our prayers to God and is a symbol of divinity. Myrrh was a perfume or spices used in embalming or preparation for burial. Western Christianity has interpreted this to mean that the child born was a king, a god, and a sacrifice (from "We Three Kings",a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857). As we know that Jesus, himself said that his "kingdom" or "realm" was not earthly, then it would be more appropriate to interpret the gifts listed in Matthew with a spiritual understanding rather than an earthly or political one.
While we do not know what happens of the magi, these travelers from the east, following their encounter with the child, there are many legends about them. What we can surmise is that they were observers of another religion, from another culture, that should show us how to worship the Christ. How often do we go out of our way to worship? How often do we bring expensive and significant gifts to God? How often do we worship in the manner becoming a follower of Jesus?
As you continue the advent journey, consider the journey of the travelers from the east. What can you do this season that would be symbolic of the effort and sacrifice of the magi?
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Terrified. We read this story each year as a sweet, pastoral example of the message of God coming to the poorest of the people. Terrified. The shepherds were minding their own business--the sheep--one sleepy night. Some were probably pondering life while others were preparing to bed down for the evening. Perhaps there were some who had already drifted off to sleep. Then BAM, angels. They were not merely startled or honored or curious as we sometimes portray, but terrified (frightened, horrified, scared, petrified, shocked, panicked, alarmed—scared stiff!) I think of all the ways people who are afraid respond in fear. I suppose they could have whipped out their slingshots and began firing at the light of the Lord. They could have run away, leaving their sheep and responsibilities. Perhaps they could not respond with either fight or flight because they were scared motionless. Adrenaline coursing through their veins, but their muscles were rebelling against them.
We live in a world of terror. Terrorism seems to be such a talked about topic that it has become a caricature of what terror is actually. The media, pundits, and politicians whip people into a frenzy—an irrational, foolish, crazy-people-run-amok frenzy. The talking heads tell us who to be afraid of, who to blame, who to fight, who to flee, but not how to have calm, how to have peace, how not to be afraid. The purpose of terrorism is to incite terror. For terrorism to win, we must be terrified and live out that terror in our actions and relationships with one another. All those who stir up this fear in the public (media, politicians, religious folks, others) are terrorists—in that they promote terror.
Those things we do to protect ourselves, are often the very things that wind up hurting us the most. Those safety mechanisms, like closing ourselves off from others or refusing to help others, end up doing more damage to our spirit—our souls—than any possible physical damage that is unlikely to happen anyway. We are terrified, and so we respond, often without thought as to the long-term consequences. But this is not the way God created us to live. God created us to be in community with one another, even those we do not know at all or very well. God created us to live out the example of Christ in caring for the least, the last, the lost, the marginalized.
As long as we are scared and reactionary, our fear gets the better of us. Did you know the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear? Fear grips us and keeps us from fulfilling the life we have in Christ as children of God. We either want to fight at things that we cannot possibly see or engage, or we want to run from our responsibilities and soothe our souls by telling ourselves the world isn’t our responsibility. Or we are scared stiff, motionless, unable to do anything right or wrong, and so we do nothing.
The shepherds could not respond to the message of the angels if they hid in their fearful and closed off cocoons. They would not have witnessed the birth of the one to save their people. They would have hidden away, never living out the potential God had for them.
How do you hide from the things that you fear? Do you give your fears to God? Or do you cling to them like a security blanket, telling yourself that worry is what keeps the worst at bay? This Advent, how can you move from reacting in fear to stepping out in faith to the message of God?
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Joseph was told that his fiancé, Mary, was to have a baby. Enough of a startling revelation as it was, but to be visited by an angel who tells you this child is the promised coming Messiah is almost too much. I think of the emotions swirling about in Joseph’s mind. After all, any ordinary man would have a mixture of such emotions—the internal adjustments you make as you process in your mind and heart that 1.) your fiancé whom you have not yet been intimate is pregnant; 2.) you realize, perhaps by surprise, that your love and compassion outweighs your need to save face; 3.) that this child who isn’t yours is to be raised by you; 4.) that this child is the promised one of God, who will save you from your sin. You would feel—what, doubt and skepticism, fear and worry, overwhelmed, joyful, sorrowful—this is almost too much for anyone to grasp.
Yet Joseph, a good man who wants to do right by his promise, has the very human idea of distancing himself from the entire situation; not to extract vengeance as was his right and not to play the wounded lover, but to simply, quietly, give her back to her family and call the whole thing off. She and her family can deal with repercussions of the situation. But, that is not the way God wants it to be. He is to marry her, care for her and the child, and all of this knowing that this child may indeed be the anointed one of God who would come to save Israel. Could you be this obedient in the face of personal humiliation?
Good men, truly good men, the kind with ethics and morals that are uncompromising and true are hard to come by. It is as difficult for today’s men to live up to the Captain America standard (manly, brave, a moral compass that points true north, looks good in a costume), as it is for women to live up to the Proverbs 31 woman (in charge of the home, makes her husband and kids look good, while still having her own career). I think, however, Joseph was not some illusive image of a good man, but truly one who shows mercy, loves justice, and in spite of the emotions that follow, walks with God humbly. Are you a Joseph kind of person? One who simply does what you believe to be right quietly and without fanfare, without seeking your rights, but rather protecting the rights of others. I think Joseph is a good example for all of us—male and female—this season of Advent when there is so much going on in the world that gives us the opposite understanding of what is right and wrong.