The Violent Bear it Away (A Meditation on Matthew 11 and some current events)

JB headThe appointed gospel text for advent 3 was Matthew 11:1-19. Due to our Christmas schedule, we skipped it and went for Advent 4’s readings. When you are aiming for rejoice, the second John the Baptist lesson just doesn’t fit the bill. So we took it up in Bible Class Sunday and this morning. When I should be wrestling with the Christmas Eve message, I can’t let this one go. It seems so appropriate, yet so against everything the modern American church attempts to say.

It starts out with a question. John the Baptist sits in Herod’s prison and sends a couple of disciples to Jesus with a question. Are you the one, or should we expect another? Most of the commentators in Christian history have attempted to paint a fig leaf on this question. They have typically made comments to the effect the John was just moving his disciples along. He was asking the question and sending them for their benefit. We don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that to me, especially when we encompass Jesus’ answer.

Jesus’ answer to me is twofold. A yes, look at the miracles. And when concludes the list with “the good news is preached to the poor” that is a textual referent to Isaiah 61:1. But then Jesus appends a “but”. “Blessed in the one who is not offended by me.” Why would someone be offended by Jesus? Especially why would someone sitting in prison who once gave a bold witness to Jesus be offended? Part of Isaiah 61:1 is “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Surely the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus would say the Baptist was/is, would be included there. Jesus, are you going to free me, or not?

The disciples are always asking are you going to establish the Kingdom now? The 5000 fed out in the desert tried to crown Jesus. He was eventually crucified because he claimed to be “the King of the Jews”. Did you come out in the desert to see a reed blown by the wind? No, we don’t need to come out to the desert to find someone who will tell us what we want to hear. Did you come out to find someone in fine clothes? No, if we wanted to see worldly power and authority we’d go to Congress (or K street). We’d get plenty of reeds in the bargain. No we came out to hear the Word. We came out to hear a prophet. And this prophet, this inbreaking of the reign of God is not by power and glory. It does not empty out the prisons, at least not the physical prisons. John, blessed are the ones who are not offended at this humble Kingdom. This Kingdom that only comes hidden. This Kingdom that only frees you of your sins.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away. The Kingdom comes not in pomp, but as a child in a manger. It comes not at the head of an army, but on a donkey. It comes not by bread and circuses, but by every Word of God. It comes not by authority, although it has that, but through appeal. It comes to the poor, those who know they need it. It comes by grace.
And as with everything that comes by grace, that makes appeals, that feels soft. The violent take it. They took him…to a cross. They took the apostles. They killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them. Do we really think it is different for us? From the time of John the Baptist until now…

The kingdom can come with kind words such as these. It can come with crass words captured here. Doesn’t matter to those who don’t have ears. “We played the flute and you did not dance/We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.” From the time of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers, and the violent bear it away. There is just an order to these things. First they will come for the crass, and then for those who can use nice words unless they are quiet. I wonder what my 10 year old self would have thought soon after the miracle on ice if I had told him a Russian president, as Machiavellian as he might be, might understand the place of religion better than an American. (This is not an assertion that it is true, just that in 1984 I would have laughed at the thought – the Godless red commies, today after reading that from Cold-Warrior Pat Buchanan it can’t be laughed away.)

But this is Advent closing in on Christmas. Immanuel did come and did free us from our sins. “Jesus, friend of tax collectors and sinners.” And he will come in triumph and make all these minor trifles blow away. When the government shall be upon His shoulders (Isa 9:6), and with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked (Isa 11:3-4). And wisdom is justified by her deeds (Matt 11:19)

At the Intersection of Christmas, Technology and Finance

Lower Lights NoelNow I suppose by the title I could be talking about how Amazon has taken over Christmas and destroyed my family finances, but for a brief second I want to turn away from that smiling Cheshire Box.

One of my favorite Christmas Hymns/Carols is one that I discovered only recently. Part of the inheritance from my brother was his massive collection of Christmas CD’s. After digitizing them all I guess I picked up that tradition. This year’s addition was the new Christmas album from the Lower Lights. The new one is much like the one from a couple of years ago and if you like folk-y/acoustic settings of what I call the non-staple carols it is pretty. And you can pat yourself on the back for avoiding one more rendition of “Santa Baby”. Their version of The Holy and The Ivy, a song I never appreciated, has been on repeat recently. But their first Album included a Christmas Hymn that I had never heard that just melts my heart.

The Carol is Stars of Glory . It appears to have found a place in hymnals in around the turn of the last century but then been dropped by newer hymnal committees. I can understand why. It centers around the angels’ anthem which is well represented already by Hark the Herold Angels Sing and Angels We Have Heard on High which are both bright and cheery. And you then go into the second tier or denomination specific such as It Came upon the Midnight Clear or Angels from the Realms of Glory. There really isn’t room for an angel song that is somewhat introspective. We like our angels loud and glorious. But the first verse of Stars of Glory invites us to consider what is of true worth and to whom it is given.

Stars of glory, shine more brightly,
Purer be the moon-light’s beam,
Glide ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down times deepening stream,
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Saviour’s birth.

The stars, the angels, as the gospel according to Matthew is fond of using, say “look here”. The hours and moments swell in time’s deepening stream. A stream that can seem to overwhelm us. Yet here is the hour, “look”, here is the moment of true worth.

Technology and the web have been about the stream. Our facebook feeds, our twitter lists, our blog pages and tumblr’s – all of them are newest first scrolling off the page in the endless stream. And the type-A personality is stuck with the FOMO (fear of missing out). Hence all the pictures of 20-somethings staring at their phones. It is all stream and no “look” at this moment. Here is Alex Madrigal in the Atlantic thinking about “the end of the stream”. The technologists are figuring out how to say “look”. He quotes a theory dating from 2010 (ancient!) about the flow and the stock. Which translated into a different language is the income statement/cash flow statement and the balance sheet. The income statement and the cash flow statement are two ways finance takes a snapshot of the flow. The balance sheet is “time’s deepening stream”. It is the stock. Balance sheets are often full of things that someone once said “look” but now we don’t know why. It is just there as a stock and a mystery for those interested. “$200 bequeathed in the name of Someone we might not recognize”.

For some reason God chose to send the angels to shepherds. He said “look, here is a moment not to miss, a moment to ponder and rejoice” in a way that would seem destined not to go viral. I mean how many followers or friends could a few smelly shepherds have? Time rolls on. The stream deepens. But God marked that moment with Shepherds and Angels.

See the shepherds quickly rising,
Hastening to the humble stall,
And the new-born Infant prizing,
As the mighty Lord of all,
Lowly now they bend before Him
In His helpless infant state,
Firmly, faithful they adore Him
And His greatness celebrate,

The lowly, the humble receive the message, from the great. The helpless infant is the mighty Lord of all. The virgin brings Him forth in a stall where he is worshiped. The church is the collection, the stock, the saint of all times and all places, who have “looked”. The flow, started by this child, the alpha of creation, also finds its fulfillment, the omega, in this child. Firmly, faithful they adore Him. Sometimes the flow can overwhelm. But God has sent his angels in strange places saying “look”. And he promises to gather, to keep stock. When we are lost in the stream, God remembers and gathers. The Spirit does not forget time’s deepening stream but guides it along its appointed route.

The Time of Christmas

Brueghel Murder Holy Innocents

It’s the shortest season in the church year, 12 days, from Christmas day until Epiphany. But within that short season there are some interesting minor commemorations.

Dec 26th – The Feast Day of St. Stephen, protomartyr or the first martyr. Luke gives him two chapters, Acts 6:8 – 8:3 and maybe a little of the psychology that lead to St. Paul.

Dec 28th – Holy Innocents, Martyrs The picture above is Bruegel’s depiction of the event. I always appreciated how Bruegel could bring biblical events to Flemish towns. In the midst of the landscapes that we know all too well, something profound takes place. There has always been for me a profound lesson in that. Here, these stories are timeless, because they tell us something about ourselves and the Truth. And now they are yours. You are their keepers and teachers and livers. Are you Stephen who inspires Paul, or are you Herod? How will you keep them?

Jan 1st – Circumcision and Name of Jesus

That is a lot of blood. The Christ child came, was incarnated, in flesh and blood. And blood in this world gets spilled and spent. The question to you on this Childermas, is how do you spill yours? As Martyrs and witnesses or to make full the sin? For most of us that is a metaphorical question. We won’t be martyrs. But who are our saints that the Augsburg Confession says, “we may imitate their faith and good works according to our calling.” How is your blood spent, or who is your blood?

A Few Links, and a few Seasonal Grumps

a short meditation928_0570The Children’s Christmas Pageant (ours is 12/23 @ 10 AM! …

The religious pageant, that peculiar intersection of liturgy and theater, traces its roots to the Middle Ages. Christian clerics in Europe introduced drama into the Mass (a dramatic event in its own right) as early as the ninth century to enrich the faith and understanding of worshipers. Over time these performances evolved into cycles of plays that told the whole salvation story, from the fall of humankind to the nativity to judgment day…

On the church. Point 1: Christ instituted a church. You (normally) don’t get Christ without a church. And If you don’t get Christ, you are still in your sins. Point 2: I’m a little sick and grumpy today, but I’ve reached my fullness of things like this. I’m tired of ever so cool people making their hay beating up on mother church. An atheist or one outside can do what they like. There are internal conversations and knowing laughs about the church in the way that siblings talk about mother but rarely in her presence. But for ministers to go bad mouthing Her in public, It’s a “yo momma” joke without the joke part. This guy explains the connection very well.

Christmas Songs: I inherited a tradition from my brother. Cleaning out his place I think we found a Christmas album for every year. Imagine a 6’6″ guy with a beard listening to some Celtic sprite sing Ave Maria. He liked Carols and Hymns vs. songs, but you could tell that he was reaching in the later years; getting tough to find singers cutting albums with such tracks. Out and about I caught an interview on NPR. I never caught the names, but I’m willing to bet its one of these: Tracey Thorn 1, Tracey Thorn 2, Tracey Thorn 3. The part that caught me in the interview was talking about what a studio expected in a new “Christmas Song”. The list was roughly: no mention of the word Christmas, no religious images, major key, upbeat tones and rhythms, 2:30, preferably with either a mention of Santa, snow, reindeer, or some other “traditional” element. (The artist was trespassing several, although I don’t think the religious ones. We know what the third rail is). Yes, I’m religious, but come on: 1) It is Christmas and 2) you don’t get something White Christmas with the original first verse (“in Beverly Hills, LA…”) or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas if everything deep and meaningful has been drained out of the time. It is almost enough to make you as grumpy as this guy.

Christmas Day – Children’s Pagent

I have a big thank you to send to the parents of St. Mark. By a blessed miracle they were all in town and agreed to do the children’s service on Christmas day. The picture above is the “stars”: Mary, Joseph, Shepherd and Angel, preparing before the service. We also had a couple of wonderful readers who read us the Christmas story (and one OT passage), and a couple of sheep this year (although the sheep got scared and decided not to hang around). We had joked during practice about Christmas turning into a sermon on the parable of the lost sheep.

The service was broken into three parts according to the movements (Birth, Passion, Ascension) of the 2nd part of the Apostle’s creed. The children would read and act out. The congregation would respond and sing. I’d add a short meditation.

It was a really humble Christmas service that was just lovely. Adding to that vibe was the fact that we sang acapella. We exhausted our organist the night before. So we decided that we’d just sing. Thank you also to those who “kicked us off” close to pitch.

Service Folder

All the Stockings are hung by the Chimney with care….

Well the sermons are done, the programs are practiced, the booklets being printed. As the sticky post above says, everyone is invited to come and worship. Its good for your soul, even if you don’t know what that word means. At Christmas you find amazing things where you don’t think they belong.

There are several people my thoughts and prayers stray toward at this moment. Most of those prayers are for a measure of peace to be granted. Mixed in with those have been a couple of songs in my “Christmas Album” this year. (Here is the Album, by the Lower Lights – it really is gorgeous) In going through my brothers things I found a huge collection of Christmas albums. I converted most of them to MP3. It reminded me of just how big a softie he could be. Every year he would buy a few more, but they were never the big ones. Not a Mariah Carey to be found. He found singers instead of pop stars; instrumentalists and choirs instead of soloists. So I’ve kinda inherited the tradition. I’m sure sometime in early December to pick up a Christmas album. It doesn’t take but a couple of days of WARM 101.3 “Frosty Fest” after Thanksgiving to get my fill of secular tunes. (If I hear Rudolf or this years off-beat tale of grandma being run over again I’ll beat something.) To hear the sacred takes MP3s it seems.

One of the Songs is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Its taken from a Longfellow poem. And the third stanza seems very “unchristmas-y”.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Sorry for the downer, but I bring that up for two reasons. First, unlike this plastic season of manic Christmas we seem to get foisted with, the older Christmas was preceded by Advent and had the strength within it to contemplate such things. Look at all the good older Carols and Hymns of Christmas. Look past the first verse into verse 2 and 3. Take What Child is This – “Nails, Spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you”. Take We Three Kings – “Myrrh is mine, is bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing, breathing, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb”. Take Once in Royal David’s City – “For He is our childhood’s pattern, Day by day like us He grew; He was little, weak and helpless, Tears and smiles like us He knew, And He feels for all our sadness, And He shares in all our gladness.” Longfellow talked of all the bells of Christendom. The days of Christendom as Longfellow knew it are over, but that culture knew things that we forgot – or never bring to mind, until forced to.

That brings up the second song on this years album – Stars of Glory. The performance seems designed to break your heart just at the time the soprano’s folk-y voice breaks. The hymn must be a Roman Catholic favorite as it is older. I was not aware of it to my impoverishment. But verse one strikes just the right vein…

Stars of glory, shine more brightly,
Purer be the moon-light’s beam,
Glide ye hours and moments lightly,
Swiftly down times deepening stream,
Bring the hour that banished sadness,
Brought redemption down to earth,
When the shepherds heard with gladness
Tidings of a Saviour’s birth.

The hours and moments gather. Time’s stream deepens. Even in sadness all is not lost. It is brought to fulfillment. The angel’s tidings of peace and joy still ring, even though they are mocked from all corners, because the LORD upholds them. The LORD chose to be with all the moments: Gladness and sadness. Cross and manger; tomb and throne.

I have no interest in a plastic Christmas. But the LORD who can inspire such songs…be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.

Christmas Eve Midnight – “Light is the Metaphor”

Text: Isa 9:2-7, John 1:1-14 Christmas Eve Midnight
Most of you have probably heard me say that John is impossible to preach on. I broke my rule earlier tonight, but the only way it is possible is by picking one verse or one theme and then reflecting it through an epistle or some other scripture to help. Earlier tonight it was receiving. Christmas really is all about receiving. Receiving eyes to see. Receiving the light.
And that is what I want to meditate on a little tonight. Please forgive the cliché, but at midnight how is light a metaphor for Christmas, and how that light works on us.
Life & Death
“Those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” – Isa 9:2b
That word for deep darkness has been translated a bunch of ways. The King James divines translated it the land of the shadow of death. It is the same word as in the 23rd psalm. Modern attempts say deep darkness. One even tried death-shade. The word is used 17 times in the old testament. 10 of them in Job. 2 more in Jeremiah. And once in that burning prophet Amos. Just knowing where it is used tells you what “deep darkness” is about – death, destruction, exile. One of the psalms that uses it is about prisoners in chains in deep darkness.
That is where Isaiah puts us. A people who dwell in a land of deep darkness.
But on them a light has shined. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
That is the start. Somebody told us about the light – a little baby in a manger, the man on the cross, the empty tomb – and nothing is ever the same. The Father and Spirit have moved us from deep darkness to light, from death to life.
And that is a dramatic event. In our age a digital event. For many Christians an unremembered event – being baptized as little babies. But we’ve had our mountaintop experiences, and have heard the dramatic conversion tales. Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I see.
Goodness & Evil
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (Isa 9:7 ESV)”
Another Biblical way we talk about light is good and evil. Nicodemus would come to Jesus at night – the original Nick at Night. Jesus would flabbergast him with talk of needing to be born again. “How can I a grown man re-enter my mother’s womb?” Jesus was talking more about that life & death metaphor. But Nicodemus wasn’t ready. So Jesus says to him,

“Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” – John 3:19-20
We understand the law. We might get it mixed up every now and then. We will try and mitigate its impact, but we get it. Bad men might glorify in their badness, but they know who and what they are. But in the midst of the land of deep darkness, there are Kingdom’s of light.

The promise of Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus, is a new kingdom. A Kingdom upheld with justice and righteousness. We know these when we see them. Our literature and history are woven through with reflections – Camelot and Plymouth Rock, Cincinatus and Washington, Reagan’s shining city on a hill. They are always more filled with light in reflection and myth than they probably were in reality, but that is because they are reflections of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem whose King was born tonight, whose government increases, like yeast in the bread, like the mustard seed, slowly, quietly until its final fulfillment.

Wisdom & Folly
The last way the Bible uses light is probably the toughest. People will envy you for your stuff or for your intelligence, for your looks or your luck, for almost anything. But rarely will you hear words of envy for someone’s wisdom.
I’m always amazed at the wisdom of the King James translators – which really goes back to William Tyndale who was burned at the stake for his wisdom. They had no tools compared to modern scholars who sniff at the texts they used – but they created a language that lasted really until it met the force of modern marketing that needed to sell bibles.
“And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Joh 1:5 KJV)
The word they translated as comprehended has a wide area of meaning: more modern translations have tried overcome, understood, extinguish, and perceive. And those are all valid. The greek word is used in a variety of ways and he probably meant to evoke all of them, this being John. But here, he’s talking about a people not receiving. He’s talking about how the one through whom all things were made, was incarnated as a baby. Herod’s killing of the innocents is Matthew. To John, Jesus always knows what he is doing. Jesus puts down his life, and takes it back up again. This one came full of grace and truth. Not everyone sees it. Not everyone comprehends it.
In fact, the world looks at this baby and says foolishness. We have an inner light. We have our ways. God in this helpless child? God on a cross? God adopting us? God living with us? Impossible. The light shines, but the darkness – those living in a land of deep darkness – comprehend it not.
But the true light, which enlightens everyone, came into the world. He shines in the darkness. The boots of the warrior and the uniforms bloodstained by war will all be burned. They will be fuel for the fire. We call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts has done this…for us.