Mark 2

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 

17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” 

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.  “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. 

7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the lake, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.

Things move quickly in the opening chapters of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life. There’s no sweet introit with angels and shepherds and a baby divinity – no ‘runty redeemer’ as Jenni’s Christmas program dubbed him. Even so, our first glimpse of Jesus is quite pleasant. He steps out of the crowd that’s gone to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. As Jesus rises from the water, the clouds clear, the sun dazzles, and we, as insiders to the story along with the narrator, hear the voice directed only to Jesus that claims him as God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.  The spirit, like a dove, settles on him. That, along with the detailed description of John, provides a satisfying visual opening scene. We settle in to hear a story. 

Jesus passes his Vision Quest in the desert, and collects his first disciples. We notice their ‘attraction at first sight’ that causes them to drop the tools of their livelihoods and follow him immediately, and we get more context – Jesus is a teacher – one who astounds with wisdom and authority people have never heard before. Then we learn that he can heal – a fever, unclean spirits, leprosy. By nightfall all of the cities’ sick and demon infested are at his door.

At the end of the first chapter Jesus is a celebrity – sought-after and singled out, a man of awe. Magnetism and charisma, he’s got.

But if Mark’s Jesus generates crowd appeal through God’s power for healing and new life, he generates conflict and opposition in equal measure.

Chapter 2 provides the first inciting event in the plot of Mark’s story and then they tumble together one after another. The tone is set for the main conflict of the story that develops between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees who at first seem to be caught by surprise at Jesus’ words and works –  observing him in action and pondering in their hearts – something any number of us can imagine ourselves doing. What is he up to, where does this ability come from, what is it that he’s saying?  It’s not quite kosher.  

Then they see Jesus eating and meeting with tax collectors and sinners, and they question Jesus’ disciples about his motivation, his rationale.

We, too, tend to judge people by the company they keep, the food they eat or buy. We have a list of those, whom – for one reason or another – we would put in the category of sinner and tax collector – those who are morally, ethically, theologically, politically, physically, or personally objectionable to us. Right?

After the fourth encounter – when Jesus heals on a Sabbath in the synagogue, they have had enough. They can’t argue against his questions, can’t understand his power, but everything he does offends their beliefs. He quotes scripture and then interprets it in ways that upsets everything they’ve been taught. It seems to cut to the heart of the matter – to the heart of God – and exposes a truth they’re not ready for. 

For generations, these professional religious have been tasked with insulating and protecting, setting apart – keeping hidden – the Holy of holies – the sacred presence of God. They kept it within Judah, Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the temple, in an inner room, behind a curtain – into which the high priest was allowed to go just once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the people’s sin. This distance was necessary because holiness is dangerous!

There is an ancient strain of religious tradition that says that which is holy cannot come into contact with the profane without destroying it. God’s holy fire cannot tolerate corrupt human flesh. Rather, God must be mediated through sacred space. And so for generations, the religious leaders have kept the people protected from the nearness of God through layers of mitigating laws like growth rings encircling the heartwood of a tree. 613 laws spiral the original 10 commandments. But here is Jesus breaking those laws willy nilly; claiming to be the presence of God, yet walking around among the dirty and sinful and infectious? It’s not possible. This can’t be happening.

Jesus brings out a completely different, deeper tradition – that God is present everywhere, accessible to all of creation; that God brings holiness to the people, in God’s self, in compassion and love. God does not wait behind the curtain to be approached once a year on tiptoe and in fear.

But anyway, on this day, the Pharisees and scribes have had it. Jesus had to be shushed, dealt with, stopped before it went any further. They left the synagogue, and  – after a brief meeting in the parking lot – agreed to conspire with the king’s men – the Herodians – in order to destroy him. Think about that phrase for a moment: not in order to stop him, censure him, silence him, imprison him, or even kill him; but destroy him, erase him, from-dust-into-dust him.  Their fear of change, of new possibilities – of their professional status and social standing being made obsolete – their fear of this uncontrollable power Jesus commands hardens their hearts and sets the trajectory for the rest of the story.

It seems to be true that people in power want to stay there, and that they want things their way, and therefore, they fear change and new information if they’re not in possession of it. I recognize that in myself in my very small realm of power. We see it here in the gospel. We see it in the embarrassing and inept way our politicians in Washington behave. Like the scribes and Pharisees, they, too, have hardened their hearts to any truth that doesn’t fit their agenda, party line and re-election efforts. They, too, have lost sight of the the content of their purpose – promoting justice and the welfare of the people – while they shore up the institution that keeps them blind – but in power. It’s an old game. In hardening their hearts, the Pharisees and scribes closed their minds to what their eyes were seeing and ears were hearing. 

What the open-minded people saw was prophetic promise becoming incarnate right in front of their eyes. The lame can walk, the blind can see, even the unseen and dangerous spirit world obeyed Jesus. It turns out that God’s presence does not need to be kept in the dark of the temple’s inner chamber. That presence among the people, touching them, was healing them, not consuming them. Jesus said it was actually the scribes who were devouring the widows and the poor. If the Pharisees had gone back to their scriptures with open eyes, they would have seen that what seemed so new and reckless in Jesus, was actually very old indeed. But they didn’t.

I think that dynamic of old and new is interesting and maybe important. Jesus is clearly new to the established order, new to the earth. In his baptism the clouds didn’t clear – I said that to be poetic. What the Hebrew says is that as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens ripping themselves apart – schizomenous – violently tearing asunder, cleaving apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”  That word is used three times in this gospel: in Jesus’ baptism with the heavens, at the moment of Jesus’ death, “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple (the curtain dividing the holy of holies and the people) was torn schizomenous in two, from top to bottom.” Schizma it’s used one more time: it’s here, tucked in the middle of the escalating division between Jesus and the Pharisees.  “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast,” Jesus said.  “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.  No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse schizo is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins;” or the wine will burst the skins, and that would be a tragedy.

A patch of new cloth sits between the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when God claims Jesus as her son, and Jesus’ last earthly breath. That’s heady company for a ripped cloak. Mark is careful about words – this isn’t a common word, and it isn’t an accident. The hardening hearts of the scribes and Pharisees, the cleaving of old from new is a definitive action, a pivotal moment of cosmic consequence. God is on the ground, present in Jesus, self-revealing in acts of power and mercy, meeting people in all their need; responding, teaching, touching them, and the scribes and Pharisees set up a divide, pull their old cloak around themselves, tearing away from the new fabric of life. Making a choice. 

It’s a new order not calling the righteous, but sinners, seeking not the professional mediators and interpreters, but reaching out to everyone, coming not to the self-satisfied, but to those whose need is great.

The new order of Jesus is inclusive in table fellowship, seeing through the conventional rules of society that dictate who is welcome and who is not, it sees each person’s potential for wholeness, not the dis-ease that limits them. The new law of this communion is to be written on hearts, not in dusty books of judgment, so all will know the love of God, all will discover their place within the purposes of God. The sabbath is not a day to be governed by rigid rules and hardship, but a day given in grace, designed for compassionate rest for servants and animals – a day gifted for life to prosper. It’s a new schism and it threatens the established order, frees those bound by the dictates of those 613 laws ordinary people couldn’t meet, and is a challenge to us.

  Do we stand with Jesus when the needs of our world are great? (Or retreat into the safety of the status quo that favors us?) Do we open our eyes to those needs around us and do what we have within us to do? (Or do we say we are small and poor and can’t make a difference?) Do you open your heart and mind to the healing presence of Christ for you?   (Say yes.)

The beginning of the good news according to Mark

With Christmas and the birth of Jesus, the biblical narrative has moved into the New Testament – specifically, into the first gospel written – that of Mark. The gospel of Mark is unsigned and undated, but it is believed by most scholars to have been written during or shortly after the Roman-Judean War of 66-70 AD – a revolt lead by Israel against Roman domination that resulted in the cataclysmic defeat of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, the demolition of the temple.

Mark is the shortest of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death, and, maybe because of the political setting, has a compelling sense of urgency. 

We’ll read big chunks of Mark between now and Easter – today is likely the biggest.

So let’s get started. (on the web we’re skipping the very beginning)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Every thought in this chapter is connected by the word ‘and’ giving a breathless, rushed quality to the reading. It’s worse than that in Greek. They didn’t have punctuation, and the words were all in capital letters, effectively turning what Henrik and I just read into one intense sentence.

I hope you can feel the power of this narrative, the language that draws us into the story, that is bursting to tell God’s good news. The gospels, after all, do not simply offer information about past events and people of long ago… of what God did once. They are not written to be historical. The gospels promise to transform our present lives; to shape our future as people of faith, to show up in your week-old New Years resolutions or your 5-year plan.  Our lives are to respond to the gospel. Mark places us in the center of what God is doing still, now, today, in and through us and others.

The kinetic energy of the gospel propels us along. Hardly has the good news been announced by the narrator quoting Isaiah, when John the Baptist appears gathering crowds awed by his prophetic preaching and the double edge of warning and promise that accompanies the forgiveness of sins. And as we’re observing the person of John in his odd attire and perhaps mentally considering the crunch and nutritional value of grasshoppers, the promised one jumps into the scene and into the river and is baptized as the heavens are torn apart and a voice announces God’s divine favor. As quickly as he appeared, Jesus is gone again – driven out into the desert where Satan and wild animals and angels dwell. In the next breath, we hear that John has been imprisoned. Jesus gathers his first four disciples  – fishermen who suddenly, immediately, abandon their former lives, their families and their nets and follow him. And immediately, Jesus leads them into a synagogue where the crowds marvel at his teaching and his authoritative word that can overcome demons.  And thus begins the ministry of Jesus. Whew!

As evening settles on that Sabbath day it might be tempting for Jesus to sit back with a good meal, a glass of wine, to bask in the successful exorcism, to hear the accolades of his teaching – to be pleased, satisfied, that his reputation is quickly spreading throughout all of Galilee. The kingdom of God has come.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568 – 1625)

 

But in this story, there is no time for resting on laurels. Immediacy is its essence. The story bursts through the synagogue doors and pushes towards the rest of Galilee — out of Sunday and into the rest of the week, out of the distant past and into the rest of our lives, into the places that this good and fearsome news of Jesus will take us. 

This opening chapter of Mark announces that the story, the presence, of Jesus is always on the move, and will not allow any of us as hearers (and bearers) of the Word to remain who or where we are. It’s unnerving –  and, of course, it’s intentional. 

So, where are you? What do you hear in this chapter that moves you, or stumps you? As information,  you’ve heard it before – many times – so what makes it the gospel, the good news of God come among us, for you?

Answering that question might bring the Enlightenment to the fore. Once we get into the New Testament we can’t avoid a culture clash – more so than in the Hebrew Bible, I think. Greek philosophy found its way into the scriptures of the New Testament. Perhaps most significantly, in the separation of body and spirit, creating a dichotomy where God created a unity of being. 

In our western culture, the Enlightenment expanded the boundaries to a dichotomy between reason and faith, science and mysticism. That makes hearing the gospels difficult for many. Biblical healings are searched for a modern scientific footing. Evil spirits are outside the realm of most of our experiences, so therefore are not seen as credible and our eyes skim over the top. Supernatural occurrences belong in fiction and video games and the movie theater, you might think – not in my faith. 

As you can tell from this first chapter, the dichotomy (I think the false dichotomy) of mystery and truth will need to be part of our consideration as we make our way through Mark.

23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 

Oh dear. Demons and unclean spirits. Talking, sentient demons and unclean spirits no less. We’re moving out of the comfort zone, right? Globally, we do still inhabit a world of competing spirits or powers. Eastern Ancestor worship and many native belief traditions have no problem with this part of the gospel, but it can sure trip us up.  For children of the Enlightenment, it’s a bit strange to encounter evil spirits with voices. We’ve seen too many movies of aliens and such, and the best we can do is attribute it to mental illness. 

But think about it for a minute. Are you sure you’re free of demons and unclean spirits?

We are all caught up by something – compelled, encumbered, addicted, obsessed, bound by something – probably many things, and they have tremendous power over us. You might picture the spirits in Medieval form as little red devils with pointy tails and tiny spikey spears poised on your shoulder, or they can take the form of any of the tempters that plague us.

How about guilt for some harm we have done, some secret we hold,  shame we carry over something that has been done to us? How about resentment or anger or jealousy you can’t shake. How about the many flavors of addiction? How about mental illness, or cancer? Do these not hold power over you? Would you not like them to come bursting out of you and roll around, powerless on the floor?  

AA deals with demons and healing from unclean spirits in the most honest, up-front way I can think of.  They readily acknowledge that we can’t manage our own lives and they turn to a higher power for help. Something big has got hold of us. Something will drive us, something will co-opt and override our good will… will it be the spirit of God or of something else? What’s gotten hold of you from which you need to be set free?

In Mark, the demons are palpably real, actively alarming, and Jesus casts them out and will not let them speak. But their presence in the opening verses is a sobering reminder that demonic powers do not go quietly and they, too, form a premonition of what is to come in this story.

Beginning with the healing of a few individual persons, the numbers in the story tumble with staggering effect that no attempt to explain or discount them can undo.  We are to be awed. People bring “all” who are sick to Jesus; the “whole city” is at his door. He heals “many” who are sick with “all sorts” of diseases and casts out “many” demons. The success seems unstoppable and overbearing, suffocating. People come from every quarter of the land, pressing in on him. God’s life-giving, creation-speaking word is clearly evident in Jesus. The healer of our every ill has come among us. And the need for healing is real.

In the morning Jesus is up early and out again in the wilderness, in prayer. They will move on – “It is for this reason that I came” he said – to preach and teach in the cities that lie ahead. Jesus’ words name the purpose and mission that is already part of the story. They breathe the power of forgiveness and healing that God has in store for all the world, in all times and places.

In just this way, Mark invites us into faith. Stumbling ahead, pathway unseen, perils unknown, fear and hope in equal, mixed-up measure. What if we were to be persuaded by this good news? What if our lives, from this day forward, were to be shaped by confidence in the One who invites us into healing and forgiveness and hope? This story is not only about a Palestinian community 2000 years ago. It is a story that bursts beyond its time and place, beyond Sunday worship, coming into our lives with its power to see the good news of God in a new way, to be inspired with a new vision for and of ourselves, to be healed in unexpected and mysterious ways. The gospel of Jesus is not what you expect. It’s much more than that. Open your heart and mind to take it in, and be changed.

Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 

3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ 

6 A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 


8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,  ‘Here is your God!’ 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 

11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom; he will gently lead the mother sheep. 

These poems of Second Isaiah are written 150 years after the first part of Isaiah. The Assyrians were defeated by Babylonia and Babylonia was in turn defeated by Persia. The prophet’s words ring with hope because of a new foreign policy. The exiles are allowed to go home.

Persia maintained control over the people, but allowed them to live in their native lands as long as they remained loyal to the government. Isaiah credits this change in foreign policy to God, who works through King Cyrus to change the status of the displaced Jews.

After half a century in exile and shame, a new word breaks through their gloom, a word that promises reversal, that speaks of expectation, of hope for those who wait in darkness – that their iniquity and punishment will be replaced in God’s mercy with restoration. This new voice of prophecy is a message that in spite of, and in the midst of, human misery, God comes to us, has plans for us, will gather, and carry, and gently lead us. 

“Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”

This is not a victory speech. The opening words of comfort aren’t announcing it so much as prescribing it, commanding comfort to be offered. This is a  ‘reason to venture forth’ speech – a word of hope and anticipation to justify or outweigh the uncertainty, the hardship that is still to come.   Isaiah balks: “ How can it be? All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” nothing new can happen. They can’t be faithful or stand firm, and so God will hide his face again and devastation will follow disaster.” But instead Isaiah is told, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”  The prophet is sent to regather Zion, the scattered people of God, and recommission them with the covenant once given to Abraham – to be a blessing to the nations, be a light to the people, to show them the way to God. 

That’s a far cry from life in exile under the oppressive and watchful eye of Babylon.

Isaiah is somehow to fortify and re-member the house of Jerusalem. He is to tell them that “you have served your term. It may seem like the Lord has forgotten his people, that God has turned away and favored our enemies, but your time is soon coming; a time when all the world will see that God’s power and love are for all time, that God’s justice is greater than the days of your oppression; indeed, your salvation and your deliverance are at hand.”       

The poem doesn’t promise that all suffering will end, but it announces – reminds – that the unexpected can happen: that God still comes, still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.

The message Isaiah receives is that comfort is coming even though nothing has changed. The people are still in exile and based on what we know – based on what they have demonstrated in the past, they will always be in exile from God. They will never be able to live according to God’s intention or will for them. They will never be deserving of comfort – for they are as faithless as grass – it withers and the flowers fade – an apt metaphor for their inability to stick with the covenant. “Surely the people are grass.” Isaiah knows it. God knows it. And God says, “Speak comfort to them anyway, tell them the power of the Lord is coming to them anyway.” The people’s inconstancy won’t change, but God claims them anyway. 

It’s not about what they – or we – will do; it’s about what God will do. “I will make a highway through the wilderness, I will provide springs in the desert, I will come to them, lead them and carry them. Surely the people are grass, just as surely, I am God,” says God.

It is in the season of Advent that we are so often and poignantly reminded, through scripture and in song, of the rift that lies between what is and what will be. The once and future nature of Christ’s coming reminds us that we are in the middle – trusting a promise, yet living a reality that is very different than that promise.

And as it always does, the world around us echoes the scriptural rift.  There are bombings and shootings, domestic violence and drugs. There are harsh truths about the global climate. Disease and death come among us. The pace of life seems on a steady, stressful increase until we think we might break under the load.

Even in the relative safety and sanity of West Denmark we’re feeling the squeeze of our calendar, the pressure of preparation. And in the midst of it all, people we love get sick, injured, disillusioned. For some it is the first Christmas without a loved member of their family. For some, the addition of a new member to the established family means much loved traditions have to be changed. For some the financial pressures of what we expect to be able to provide or participate in become a stressful, guilt-ridden, conflicted mess. For some, the loneliness of Christmas seems overwhelming, but how can we bypass Christmas, when it is so pervasive. 

“Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”

What is your need for comfort? 

Do you have enough food, resources, help? Do you have a relationship with God that brings you peace? We might feel exiled from God, estranged, divorced – or be in crumbling human relationships. Is there comfort to be found? A path forward? A home through others? 

We might feel overwhelmed and long for those childhood days of joy and wonder and excitement, instead of the weight and effort and financial stress of the holiday. Can the church offer a new perspective?

Where is comfort to be found? 

Most of us would say home, picturing the hygge components of comfort, companionship, food and warmth. But we know that homeless shelters are brimming this time of year and so are domestic violence shelters. Where is comfort to be found? How might we extend our light and privilege to those in need?

Where is it in your life that you seek the comfort of God?

Can you think of someone who needs a word of comfort right now?  How might you meet them with acts or words of empathy and caring?

In these weeks leading up to Christmas we might feel more acutely than at other times, that we are conquered people: undeserving of God’s mercy, stuck in patterns and pathways that lead us nowhere, longing for deliverance and not seeing it on the horizon. 

And into this, Isaiah repeats the word of God. “Comfort.” It’s not based on what we do to deserve it, it’s a gift from God. It’s a gift of God through you for the sake of others. “I will come to you,” said God so many years ago to a conflicted, defeated people of exile. 

“Take Comfort, my people. I will come to you,” God continues to call through scripture, through church, through the weeks of Advent. “I’m coming,” says God, “as I have always come – into the midst of you, hidden, and in glory.”

God will come whether we get things done, or not. Whether we are disappointed by the results and by our own efforts, or not. Whether we stop to meditate properly on the significance of Christ’s coming, or not. Whether we can free ourselves from the encumbrance of too many traditions and expectations, or not. God will come to us, just the same. May you recognize him in the manger, in the workings of your life, in the companionship of others, in the comfort – that real comfort that we long for. May you anticipate and look for God’s coming in all the surprising and unexpected ways of God, and somehow feel that comfort of true belonging nurtured deep in your soul. God remains hidden, and yet God comes. May that be a word of hope for you as we wait.

Resources: Corrine Carvalho. Professor University of St. Thomas. St. Paul, MN Michael J. Chan Assistant Professor of Old Testament Luther Seminary Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, chapter 8, “Second Isaiah”

Advent 1 ~ The days are surely coming

The book of Jeremiah is the longest of the Old Testament, and is dominated by gloom and doom. Jeremiah was a prophet for a long time, spanning the last three kings of Judah and the exile of the people. Like the prophets before him, Jeremiah is charged with words of condemnation for his community, king, and nation for abandoning their identity as the people of God. Jeremiah is to announce their imminent destruction, belaboring both God’s judgment and God’s grief over Judah. They have systematically violated the covenantal agreements. They have transgressed the Ten Commandments through economic policies that abused the poor, by foreign policy that centered on military might rather than on justice and mercy, by theological practices that countered God’s word, and by illusions of privilege. In the theology of their day, these violations will culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its elite as a natural consequence of their actions.

In the midst of judgment and gloom come a dense cluster of promises. They glimmer with visions of hope, comfort and restoration. These few chapters of Jeremiah proclaim that after the judgment of exile is over, God will indeed bring the people back to the land of Judah and restore them as a new and faithful people. This light in the darkness is significant because it suggests that what Jeremiah pronounced as God’s “anger and wrath” are not the final words. God’s will is for things to be set right through the people’s repentance and obedience. God does not want their death, but their life lived in the light of God’s teaching.

From Jeremiah chapter 33, the book of consolation:

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 

16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” 

17 For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, 18 and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.

The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness has not overcome it. 

Hymn 261   As the dark awaits the dawn.   

Even before Thanksgiving dishes are washed and put away, Christmas is in full swing. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and tomorrow’s Cyber Monday surround and overwhelm the first Sunday of Advent like Assyria, Babylon and Egypt overwhelmed and oppressed ancient Israel. 

And from here it’s a rush to Christmas day and after-Christmas sales. God’s word of objection to the world’s will and way of power, commerce and consumption is seriously muted, made quite irrelevant to the bottom line. We’ve got too much to do in preparation for Christmas, too much at stake in this holiday, to pay attention to the coming of God in Christ. The irony of that will gradually sink in. 

The four weeks of preparation for the Advent of that Word are crowded with parties, shopping, cookie baking, meal planning, over indulging, over buying. It’s a bit discouraging to be an Advent people: to feel the pull of Christmas wonder and fun and holy joy, and yet hold it back, waiting, letting the longing and self-reflection have it’s day. We might recognize the once and future sense of Christ’s coming, but still get swept along in the cultural stampede of 20% off sales, this day only.

For some reason, Advent is an unexploited gem. More than a holiday or festival, it is a season – a short season for those of us with short attention spans – just four weeks. I guess wreath and candle sales are the commercial side of Advent, but that’s not much. It’s colors are blues – midnight blue so dark it’s almost black, then gradually lightening blues, brightening to pink and palest blue on the horizon, then gold as the sun rises on Christmas morn. 

It’s appropriate that Advent begins in the dark. That is where prophecy finds us. As ancient Judah could not see the coming onslaught of Babylon, but chose to think God would always protect them as a people, so we in our day, have lived oblivious to social and environmental prophets’ words. We have preferred to stay in the dark on such matters, minding our own business, as though care of creation, the poor, and our fellow creatures is not our primary business. And even if we listen and agree, the doing is another matter when it means radical change.

Jeremiah’s prophecy was not welcomed, either. He was imprisoned for his discouraging words, the future of his consolations was too distant to comfort. Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed, it was inevitable now, but the days are surely coming, he said, when God will bring return and renewal.

Historically, these promises were not fulfilled, have not been fulfilled, and so the day has not yet come for justice and righteousness in the land.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord…

Anticipation, Hope, Expectation – these are the words of Advent. And this prophesy is perfect. The days are surely coming. Jewish people are still awaiting this day, this Messiah. Christians believe the day has dawned, but not arrived in its fullness. We, too, wait for peace, for justice and wholeness in the land – and more and more – for the land. Ecological justice is our calling and may be our dread.

But Advent doesn’t give up. Christ has come and Christ will come again, we profess. Dark it may be, but more light and light it grows. Advocacy is the new righteousness, people like Greta our new prophets.

This Advent we are focusing on ELCA World Hunger. You may have noticed ornaments taped to the front doors. They are supposed to be on a small tree, but my plans got snowed under. Each ornament represents a gift – $50 for a goat, $25 to feed a refugee family, $10 to stock a backpack with food, $15 for a rooster, $125 for a micro loan for a woman, $30 for a water filter…on they go. If you would like to give the gift, you take the ornament, sign your name and place it and your check in the offering plate. 

These gifts are little sparks of light for those who dwell with deeper darkness than we do. We can’t buy off our iniquity like carbon offsets. We must also prayerfully consider the lifestyle choices and changes our prophets call us to enact. Advent is a short season. The need is not.

Jeremiah didn’t have the assurance of Advent to work with, what he warned against was the abandonment of God. While this is not our worry, he makes an interesting point – which Abraham Heschel describes in his commentary, The Prophets: pg 142-3: 

“Israel’s distress was more than human tragedy. With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, His displacement, His homelessness in the land, in the world. And the prophet’s prayer, “O save us,” involved not only the fate of a people. It involved the fate of God in relation to the people. The Lord who had dwelt in the midst of Israel was abandoning His dwelling place. But should Israel cease to be His home, then God, we might say, would be without a home in the world. He would not have left His people altogether, but He would be among them like a stranger, like a wayfarer, withholding His power to save.

Jeremiah was constantly exposed to the situation of God, and tirelessly attentive to the mood of the people, attempting to unravel the knots in the relationship between God and Israel.”

Our calling as Christians in Advent is to wait for the coming of Christ, to work for justice and peace as an embodiment of our faith in Christ, and to look for sparks of light, glowing faces, radiant hope in the people of God’s love and concern – that is, I believe, in all people – and creatures, too.

Jeremiah’s parting word for us, from chapter 14:

“You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. Leave us not.”

God ~ it’s complicated ~ from Hosea

Narrative connection:

King Ahab and Elijah – last week’s king and prophet pair – lived in the northern kingdom, Ahab ruling from 869 to 850 BCE, roughly, and 120 years have passed between last week’s story and this. For many generations following the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms, Samaria and Judah were not disturbed by any military power other than skirmishes between the neighbors. This relatively peaceful time came to an end, however, as Assyria gained super-power status and began military excursions across the Euphrates – first into Syria and then into the northern kingdom. Conquered states were spared complete destruction only by submitting to severe terms of probation – testing their loyalty to Assyria’s rule, becoming vassal states with puppet kings. During the reign of Tiglathpilezer III, Assyria became still more aggressive in expansion, reducing once sovereign states to oppressed misery. He introduced a new policy of conquest. Instead of the usual extraction of gold, silver, slaves, and a steep annual tribute, he began the policy of deporting conquered people from their homeland and repopulating the emptied territory with exiles from distant conquered lands. This disorientation eliminated effective rebellion. 

I’ve read this before, but you’re hearing it again because it sets the scene. Abraham Heschel offers this quote from the History of Assyria; “Assyria has been characterized as the nest of the bird of prey from whence set forth the most terrible expeditions which have ever flooded the world with blood. Ashur was its god, plunder it morality, cruelty and terror its means. No people was ever more abject than those of Ashur, no sovereigns were ever more despotic, more covetous, more vindictive, more pitiless, more proud of their crimes. Assyria sums up within herself all the vices. Aside from bravery, she offers not a single virtue.”

Hosea was the prophet during the decline and fall of the Northern Kingdom. He began his prophetic activity in the prosperous days of the reign of Jeroboam II, and continued through the period of anarchy following Jeroboam’s death in 746 BCE. King Jeroboam was succeeded by his son Zechariah, but after only 6 months on the throne Zechariah was assassinated by Shallum, who survived for one month before he was assassinated by Menahem, who was able to hold onto the throne for 10 years. In the meantime Tilgathpilezer had come into power in Assyria, and an inscription dated 738, lists Menahem among a series of kings throughout the region from Mesopotamia to Arabia who paid tribute for the pleasure of their survival. Mehahem was succeeded by his son who was assassinated after two years by Pekah who lasted for three years. Gilead and Galilee fell after a failed rebellion in 733, and Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea, who was a vassal lord for Tilgathpilezer. 

The last few years of Israel’s history are still unclear, but Tilgathpilezer died and was replaced by Shalmaneser who laid siege to Samaria, taking it after 3 years and leading away as booty some 27,000 inhabitants and 50 chariots. So ended the political history of the northern kingdom.

In the last 24 years of her existence, Israel had 6 kings, but for Hosea there was no legitimate king. Kingship derived its power from divine election, and God was not consulted, considered nor confessed in the political intrigues, corruption and shifting alliances that took place in those dark, fearful years.

Hosea had warned – as Amos had before him – of the coming destruction due them because of the infidelity of Israel (which he called Ephraim) toward God. The people and king had turned away from God and therefore away from God’s concern for truth, integrity and justice for the poor. And yet the fall of Samaria was not the final chapter in God’s relationship to Israel. Amos had proclaimed the righteousness of God, whose iron will would let justice roll down like an everflowing torrent. Hosea speaks both of the wrath of God who wants nothing more to do with this people, and God’s overarching, unrequited love for them. God is not only the Lord who demands justice and loyalty, but he is also a God who is in love with this people. God could not give up on the people he had promised to accompany. Hosea’s message was not primarily one of doom, in spite of the really horrible violence he describes as his word of God for his people. His message was intended to effect reconciliation and return.

Hosea  

6:4-6  What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.  Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.  For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

11:1-9  When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baalim, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.

 

The prophets are some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: they are those whose inspiration brought the Bible into being –  whose voice and vision inform our faith, who embody the word of God and bring it to life through their own bodies and personalities and emotions. They are the original practitioners of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. 

But you can’t live, embody, give voice to God and not be a little different, changed.

Still, the prophet was a person, not a mouthpiece. They are endowed with a mission, with the power of a word not their own – and also with a temperament, with concern, character, and individuality very much their own. The word of God reverberated in the body and vocal chords of a specific human form – a physical embodiment fo the word, an incarnation of God’s word that began with the incarnation of creation itself. The divine infused moments that occurred in the prophet’s lives, their backstories and daily doings, none of that is available to us. All we have is the consciousness of those moments preserved in their words on behalf of God.*

Abraham Heschel writes, “The prophets’ experience of God is characterized as a communion with the divine consciousness, a sympathy with divine pathos, a deep concern by God for humanity. The prophets do not become absorbed into God, losing their own personalities, but they share the divine pathos through their own sharply honed sympathy.”

Through it all they teach us about God. But it’s a disturbing, complicated, multivalent lesson.

“It is not a world devoid of meaning that evokes the prophets consternation,” Heschel writes, “but a world deaf to meaning.”  

That sounds like our world, in fact, which makes it all the more difficult to know what to make of the prophets.. and of God.

Hosea comes to see his life as a metaphor for the message God gives him. His relationship to his unfaithful wife, models God’s relationship to unfaithful Israel. Hosea takes up this passionate cause saying NO to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism. Hosea tells a terrible, violent tale, yet his goal was to reconcile humans and God. Our reading for today is notably different than the bulk of his message.

These comforting, beautiful lines are not representative of Hosea’s prophecy. In fact, he talks about God much the way Heschel described Assyria. Assyria seems to be given the divine go ahead to destroy, plunder and slay with unspeakable violence.

God is angry (really angry) because the people of the northern kingdom have turned away, and forgotten, and courted other gods. Angry enough to destroy the nation. This sounds – to our ears –  like a bit of an overreaction. It sounds a bit like Jonah pouting about God’s willingness to save his enemies. Jonah was angry enough to die, God to destroy.  If you remember, the enemy Jonah wanted destroyed was Ninevah, the capital of Assyria – not his own people. 

This is a confusing God.

Is God being peevish, feeling jealous of the neighboring gods? Is it so bad that the Israelites added other gods to their worship practices? The fertility and diversity of nature is an astounding wonder – even to us! To people surrounded by desert, the mystery of growth and greening, the dry wadis running with spring rain, sprouting into blossom and bud – evoked profound thanksgiving. The beauty of the first skim of ice on Little Butternut under moonlight, geese honking overhead – I can understand worshiping a neighbor’s gods of land and fertility – wool and flax, oil and wine, grain and fig trees and lambs. Did it really matter that worship of God was shared if there is only one God? The answer was yes, even though we might not think it deserved Assyria as punishment. The people worshipped the gods of the land who in return for the blessing of fertility demanded incense, live sacrifice, sacred prostitution, intoxicants  – self-centered excitements of the flesh – rather than Israel’s God, the holy one who demanded righteousness, justice, mercy, faithfulness, and love. The difference is in how we treat our neighbors in the practice of our religion. This is the thing that pleases or peeves God. 

According to the prophets, the thing we get wrong is that we – like ancient Israel and their Canaanite neighbors –  think in individual terms.  As along as we are nice and good-intentioned and basically honest and kind, we’re fine, we have fulfilled the righteousness of the law. Right? But through the prophets we learn that God isn’t so concerned about the behavior of any one individual; God’s concern is for the many, the nation. Assyria was the response to the Israelite communal sin of disregard for God’s justice and compassion. Hosea was chosen to speak for and to the whole nation, not just his family or for himself. If your salvation depended not on your individual actions but on your part of a culture, your advocacy that changes policies for the benefit of multitudes of poor or immigrants, if we were convinced – as Hosea and his people were – that God actually cared about our communal actions – cared enough to destroy or redeem one nation with another – what would you think of that? We have individual agency on behalf of the many. Our individual salvation is communal, depending on the condition of the disadvantaged among us. That doesn’t sound very different from the message of Jesus. Hmmm.

The thing that caught me this week  – well, there are two. The first is that Hosea presents God in this terrible, wrathful vengeance mode against Israel, not Assyria. Assyria is figuratively and literally ripping people apart, inflicting tremendous misery on nation after nation, yet, in the prophetic, inspired understanding, God is punishing Israel through the actions of Assyria, for ignoring God and their covenantal relationship. It doesn’t seem that the cause warrants the means. And that surprises me about God. 

I read this week about the halo effect. If we see an interview of a baseball player, say, who is handsome and well-spoken, who is doing good in the community, we are convinced that he is also a very good player. Our first impression colors and covers all the rest of the facts. He may be mediocre, but we’ll give him extra credit because of the things we like about him.

This also works against people, obviously – racial profiling, hate crimes – negative assumptions based solely on the way someone looks.

We give God the benefit of the halo effect as well. Which is only kind of funny. I believe that God is good, that God is love and loving, creative, invested in this world, this earth, our lives.

And so I don’t know what to do with the discrepancy of a God who comes in vengeance against people he loves. I tend to skim over the reams of prophetic words and biblical history that show God in a very different light to the one I like. There is too much cognitive dissonance, two of these things are not like the other. How can God come in wrath, and come in mercy? How can God’s right arm bear the sword of vengeance and in her left arm nestle lambs against her bosom? How can God create, and save, and destroy out of love? Those actions are opposites, how do they fit in God’s emotional life?

That is Hosea’s concern and, finally, his message.

Listen to the verbs God uses: God’s inward talk and outward talk – on the one hand, but on the other hand. God is complicated.

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.  Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.  For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

‘I desire…’ Does your image of God hold a place for desire – it is an emotion with an unknown outcome  – is your God that vulnerable?

When Israel was a child, I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baalim, and offering incense to idols. 

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them. 

They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call,  but he does not raise them up at all. 

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [Cities that were destroyed]

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 

I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 

They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria;  and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

‘I desire steadfast love, to be known’ – not worshiped. That’s the other thing that caught me. What we do here on Sundays is worship, I hope, but what we also need to be doing is prying open our hearts to receive the steadfast love of God for us and for our communal lives, our encounters. And, I hope, opening our minds, our imaginations for ways, places, people – unexpected and mysterious – to know God beyond our Sunday worship hour. To experience God’s desire, God’s warm compassion, the cords of human kindness, the human bonds of love God provides.

Tell me, or someone at your table how this goes for you; how you hold together the divergent images of this complicated God.

Reflection on 1 Kings 18:17-39  by Nikki Strandskov

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 He answered, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 19 Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

There’s a little problem with lectionary readings –not enough context. What is Elijah doing, and why? Most of us are probably not experts on First Kings. So let’s back up a little.

After King Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided into north – Israel – and south – Judah. Israel was ruled by a succession of kings, each worse than the last. Elijah began his prophetic mission in the time of King Ahab. Ahab had married a princess from a neighboring country, the infamous Jezebel – a worshiper of Baal and Asherah, a god and goddess who were thought to control thunder, lightning, and rain. Ahab began to worship them and even built temples for them; he also persecuted the Hebrew prophets – Elijah and many more – who preached against idol worship. Elijah came to Ahab and prophesied that there would be no rain or even dew in the land of Israel until Elijah gave the word. Then he fled, and was protected by God for three years. Now we resume the story.

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel.  Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word.  Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.  Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.”

All the people answered, “Well spoken!”  Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.”  So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made.  At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them.  As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.  

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down;  Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”;  with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed.  Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.”  Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time,  so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.  At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding.  Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”  Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.  When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

Once to every man and nation – hymn sung

It’s also not easy to find hymns that reference the stories from the Hebrew Bible, but the Hymnary website suggested this one. James Russell Lowell wrote the poem from which its lines are taken in 1845, when the US was heading toward the Mexican War and the abolitionist movement was heating up. Lowell was against the war and pro-abolition. We may envy Lowell – he only had two great moral issues on his mind. When was the last time you had to choose between truth and falsehood? If you read the paper or watched Meet the Press before church, maybe it was only an hour ago. We are inundated with information and opinions, and it’s not always easy when the moment to decide comes.

The prophet Elijah had no trouble making his decision. It was self-evident to him that God – Adonai Elohim – Israel’s one true God – was the only God, and that Baal and Asherah were merely idols. God had given him the power to withhold rain, to cause a widow’s meal and oil never to run out, and even to raise the widow’s son from the dead. 

It’s not clear what led Elijah to provoke the showdown with the priests of Baal and Asherah. Maybe he had pity on the people of Israel – some of whom were still faithful – and decided it was time to bring rain once more. But he had to prove his point, so he set up the contest between the Lord God and the false idols. The Lord God and Elijah prevailed, and, cannily left out of the lectionary reading, Elijah had all the priests of Baal killed, and the rains came.

The powerful Queen Jezebel didn’t like this, and threatened to kill Elijah, so he fled again. He also became very depressed, begging the Lord to let him die in the desert. He and God had won the contest, but Ahab and Jezebel were still in power. But God saves Elijah yet again. He lives to prophesy again to Ahab, who finally repents; but Ahab’s son will still pay the price for his disobedience, as will Jezebel.

What does this story mean to us today? At first glance it seems almost juvenile, a macho contest of “my dad can beat up your dad.” We don’t worship idols – or do we? How often do we put our faith in a particular -ism, our favorite political commentator or news source, or someone who rants and raves like the priests of Baal? Often today it seems that truth indeed is on the scaffold and falsehood on the throne, and each day brings a new crisis. What will I decide, what will you decide, when the moment comes? I take hope and courage from Lowell’s last word:

Tho’ the cause of evil prosper, 
Yet the truth alone is strong; 
Tho’ her portion be the scaffold, 
And upon the throne be wrong; 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, 
And, behind the dim unknown, 
Standeth God within the shadow, 
Keeping watch above His own.  Amen.

 

Kevin McMullin – “Into the Black Sea: Stories of Darkness and Light”

Author, Storyteller, Musician

 

From Kevin’s website:

In the performing arts, as in life, you’re only as good as what you’re doing right at the moment.

And getting diagnosed with a brain tumor, caring for and watching your father die, and living in the aftermath of all that, only drives home the point more forcefully. Much more forcefully. All of the stuff that I’ve done: thetravels, the gigs, the dances, the creative collaborations, the awards, the students taught, the workshops offered – they happened a life-time ago. Somebody wants to know how many times I’ve performed at the Big-Top? Seriously?

These days the question, “Who am I?” looms plenty large. And it doesn’t have anything to do with marketing. I grapple with it daily. Am I my diminished abilities? Am I the dizziness? The anger? The depression? The anxiety? Am I – God help me – the work I do? The people I touch? The granola I make?

I meditate in various ways. And therein lie worlds of exploration of the self, identity, compassion and I don’t know what all. It has helped me survive the challenges life has thrown at me. But it doesn’t offer much for writing a bio.

The new material I’ve been creating is a kind of bio. The best I can come up with for now, anyway. Into the Black Sea: Stories of Darkness and Light is a collection of written and performance works that I’ve assembled to help me make sense of it all. It turns out other people find it worthwhile too. So, who am I? Well, I’ve got a few stories to tell you. If I tell them right, you won’t need to ask.