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“Pleasures Forevermore”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.


 

This Psalm is rich.

The Psalmist confesses that God is his chosen portion, his sustenance, the one who holds his lot.  I like this because it speaks to the choice God gives us and to the responsibility we have to choose.  The Psalmist reports that in choosing God, he has effectively surrendered his sustenance and his lot in life, to God.  This is a supreme measure of trust, truly a surrendering, to have God take control over the outcomes of our lives.

Then the Psalmist acknowledges the blessings in his life – how the boundary lines for his life have fallen in pleasant and good places.

I find this confession of gratitude particularly moving because we generally have a harder time truly seeing the gifts we have inherited and those God has given.  I’ve found that this season of quarantine has accented for me the blessings in my life.  I have others, with whom I can eat and watch a movie.  I have folks I can hug and kiss.  I am not alone.  I have folks I worry about – which means I have folks I care deeply about in this life.  I am more acutely mindful of just how blessed I am by those paid the least in our society, the trash collectors, the grocery workers, those who make toilet paper, and those who run around warehouses fulfilling our online orders…  I am aware of how much more space I have to quarantine than many, if not most, in our world have.  Only a year ago and this quarantine would have rendered 4 people wedged in a two-bedroom apartment.  And for how many would even that be a luxury?

 

I am grateful to still seem well.  I am grateful to not have lost anyone dear to this dreadful virus.  I am grateful for private transportation – for the chance to get out without feeling vulnerable to a multitude of other people’s germs.  I am grateful that my work doesn’t require me to put myself and my family at risk on a day to day basis.

I am grateful.  But without a crisis to highlight how fortunate we are, do we actually stop long enough to ponder the ways our lives have been built on the shoulders of others; the ways our parents set us up for success; the benefits we enjoyed of education, connection, and experience?  My own experience is that my laments and complaints quite often steal the lion’s share of my attention.  So this Psalmist’s awareness of his blessings in life is quite notable.

 

Then the Psalmist describes his communication with God.  He says God counsels him, that his own heart guides him in the night, and that God is always before him.  With God at his side, he is secure, he is confident, he is stable and steadfast.

And this my friends, is a feeling quite scarce these days.
How many of us feel confident and secure?

The test of this for me has been grocery shopping.  Every day I learn something new, a new way to protect myself, new best practices and strategies, and every day I find myself wishing I’d known more and done better, earlier.  Each time I go to the store, I find myself winding up tight, like a coil compressed and ready to unleash.  The anxiety and discomfort of my mind manifesting in physical tension, pain, and exhaustion.

But this Psalmist writes that because he has God ever with him, before him and guiding him, that his heart is glad, his soul rejoices, and even his body rests secure.  His body rests secure.  How I am yearning for that!

 

It would seem that…

Living life with God taking the reigns and controlling the outcomes…
Living a life in which God counsels us, staying ever before us,…
Living a life of seeing and giving thanks for the blessings undergirding our lives…
This is a life the Psalmist finds life-giving, joyful, and secure.

And isn’t this what we all yearn for?  Life.  Joy.  Security? 

 

The Psalmist is secure in trusting that God does not give up on him but shows him the path of life.

I remember once, decades ago, as a staff member at Camp Hanover, how one of the lifeguards was gathered with friends in staff lounge, cutting up and shooting the breeze.  A fellow lifeguard, new to the role, came in to ask a question about lights, and instead of showing her how to do it, he withheld information needed for her to succeed and rather made fun of her as soon as she left.  I was taken aback.  But isn’t it true that quite often we are more comfortable judging and despising one another, than in helping one another and pointing one another in the right direction?

Our God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through God.  And here, long before Christ came to walk the earth among us and work his saving acts, this Psalmist understood the heart of God:  he understood that God shows us the way, so that we might be blessed and be a blessing.  God shows us the ways that lead to life, so that we might have life and live it to the fullest!  Thanks be to God!!!

The Psalmist has experience to show him that in God’s presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. 

 

Do we have these experiences?
Have we tried and tested our faith? 

Have we pushed back on traditional teaching to challenge those things that make no sense to us – perhaps that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, or that we must lose our lives in order to find it?

Jesus said many things that folks found it very hard to swallow.  And if we are being honest, we will too.  But until we raise up our doubts and test our faith, we cannot be transformed by our God.  Until we experience God’s timely word, God’s saving arm, God’s perfect provision, God’s answers to our doubts…our confession of faith is often mere ritual.

 

Do you want to be someone who can honestly say that your mind is at peace and that your body rests secure?

Do you want to be someone who experiences fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore?

Do you want to entrust the outcomes of your life to the only One who truly sees, the master-gardener, the virtuoso Artist of your life?

 

Until we, like Thomas, question the things we do not understand, until we exercise our muscles of faith – following wherever God leads, until we let go the reigns of our lives and entrust all that matters to our Lord God, we will never know the awesome power and salvation of our God.

When Thomas doubted, it must have been hard.  He was alone in his disbelief.  And that uncomfortable position lasted for a full week.  But God met him.  God showed up for him.  God answered him!

 

As we navigate the new landscapes of our changing realities,
As we work and move and shop differently,
As we wrestle in isolation and quarantine,

May we like Thomas squarely face our demons, our questions, our doubts, our desires and hot anger.

May we bring our full selves before the living God, in honesty and truth.

And may we experience God-with-us in new, transformative ways

So that we too may joyfully confess with the Psalmist,

That with our God is life and peace and security

Gratitude, joy, and pleasures forevermore!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Life and Light of ALL People”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

 

Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

 

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


 

This scripture from John is rich.  It is rich in theology.  In other words, we learn a lot about God and Jesus Christ through this passage.

I love the images we get for Christ – such as the Word, Light, Life, and God’s only Son.

In this passage we learn that Christ has been with God from the beginning.  We learn that God and Christ are together as one God.  We learn that Christ has made God’s heart known.  Christ is the greatest revelation of God – the greatest window into God’s character and heart.

But what strikes me the most today, is the word “all”.  In Christ ALL things came into being.  Not one thing came into being except through Christ, who is the life of ALL things.

 

We, in our wisdom and intelligence, might beg to differ with this statement.  After all, how many are born out of love and lust, abuse and power, inequality and coercion…  How many have come into being after a drunken night.  And there are nights of celebration and rejoicing…  You’ve heard about Super Bowl babies, right?  There are a slew of babies born precisely nine months after the Super Bowl each year…

In our wisdom and intelligence, we might argue that many things have come into being by human invention.  We have created things.  We have bio-engineered life.  We have cloned beings.

In our wisdom and intelligence, we might argue that some living beings cannot be created by God – because they are do detrimental or degenerate…

And yet this passage does not say, SOME things came into being through Christ, but that ALL things came into being through Christ.

 

This claim flies in the face of all we think we know.  Can it be, that behind all our loving and lusting, abuse and coercion, mistakes and happenstance, invention and ingenuity,…is Christ, lending life, giving life, granting life, making life out of everything?

Could it be that everything we think we’ve done and made, we are simply borrowing the light, borrowing life?

Could it be that all light and life spring from the One Light, the Source of all LIFE?

 

I think that is what this passage is claiming.  And I believe it to be true.

 

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Again we have this word “all”.

Not only is the claim that all life springs from Christ, but that Christ’s life is the light of all people.  Christ is the hope for all people.  Christ is the salvation of all people.

All.

 

So for the all differences we notice among ourselves.  For all the differentiations we make between ethnicities and backgrounds, intelligence and perseverance, do-gooders and do-badders…  For all our sorting of people and creatures, GOD speaks of us all.  GOD gives LIFE to all.  GOD created ALL.  GOD is the life and the LIGHT of ALL.

GOD came for all. 

And going yet one step further, it says that from Christ’s fullness, we have ALL received grace upon grace.

ALL

 

We are all here because of Christ.  The life that is within us has come from Christ.  And we have all received grace upon grace upon grace through Christ’s fullness.

Our light in the darkness is Christ, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The darkness did not overcome it…from the beginning until now.

 

I don’t know about you, but believing this changes how I see and treat others.  We are not more different than we are alike.  We all come from the same God.  We all live and move and have our being through Christ.  We have all received grace upon grace.  And our hope is bound up together, for Christ is the light of all people.

It also changes how I see myself.  I find it humbling to realize that behind all my life-giving work is Christ, the author and giver of all life.  It puts things in perspective to realize that insofar as I have created and restored life in the world, I have done so by Christ, the creator and life-giver of all things.

 

 

For all this talk of unity – common source and common hope – I realize that in this world, we will continue to have our differences of opinion and lifestyles.  We will continue to call God by different names and understand God in different ways.  Some of us will draw near to God and others of us will flee away.  Some of us will join our lives to God’s life and others will take their own paths.  We may even be both of these people, at different times and seasons in our lives.

But down deep, beneath all our differences, I pray that WE may actively and intentionally remember that truly there is more that unites us than that separates us.  Our beginning and our end is Christ.  Our life and our hope is Christ.

 

Christ has given life and light to ALL people.

May we

do the same.

“Thy Kingdom Come…In Us”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Samuel 8
Isaiah 35:1-10

 

1 Samuel 8

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” Samuel then said to the people of Israel, “Each of you return home.”

 

Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.


 

What is the point of all these Isaiah prophesies – telling of the coming of justice and God’s reign?  We are instructed that with Christ, comes God’s reign, and yet for the last 2000+ years, we’ve had knowledge of Jesus Christ, and yet wars still rage, injustice still reigns, and all things have not yet been made right.

What are we to make of this?

 

Is all this just a nice dream, a fairy-tale, make-believe?

Is it what we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better in the presence of evils and powers we feel powerless to change?

 

I wonder.

 

 

And I feel bad for asking these questions.  After all, I’ve not known more love and truth, hope and goodness than what I’ve found in Jesus Christ.

But what do I make of these prophesies and the disparity we see between the vision of God’s Kingdom and the realities of our broken world?

 

In the Old Testament, we read a lot about kingdoms.  Israel as a nation was supposed to be led by God and not by any human, that is why God raised up for them judges and prophets instead of kings.  They were to communicate God’s will to the people.  But in the end the people wanted a human king.  Like every child who wanted the same things as his peers, the nation of Israel wanted a king.  They wanted to be like all the other nations around them.

To this request, God warned them that if they got what they wanted, they would regret it.  Kings would cause suffering – asking of them the fruit of their labors and the lives of their children.  But the people did not heed God’s words through the prophet, and so God gave them over to their misguided desires.  God gave them a king.

 

And indeed the people knew suffering.  Their first king, King Saul, led them in God’s way for awhile, but he strayed from the Lord and began to disobey God’s leading, so much so that he was tormented by an evil spirit and God’s Spirit left him.

Their next king, King David, is remembered as a man after God’s own heart, but he certainly made his share of mistakes – taking life unjustly and abusing his power for his own personal gain.

And then after David, we have King Solomon – known as the wise king who rebuilds the temple.  But alas, he has many wives and is quite indulgent.  But following these three kings, the list goes downhill sharply.

 

Thus, Israel came to intimately know the downside of spurning God’s leadership and trading down for a human leader.  But experiencing all this suffering unfortunately does not insure that any of us learn our lessons.  And the nation kept wanting a new a better king.

This is something of the environment into which Jesus is born.  And Jesus starts using the phrase “Kingdom of God.”  Does it remind you of anything?  If the people’s memories had been preserved strongly, with the passing on of the knowledge of God and their history as part of God’s story, then this phrase, “The Kingdom of God” should take them back to the times of the judges and the prophets, the time when God sought to lead them more directly, without a personal ego in the way.

 

“The Kingdom of God” could also take them back to that original story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Because it was then that God walked and talked with the people directly.  Indeed THIS is what God intends for each of us.  But in our sinfulness, we have traded that possibility for the chance and power and knowledge and control.  We have sought not to be led but to lead.  We have sought not the One who knows but rather to know ourselves.

We wanted to BE God, rather than to be with God.

As a human species we have always wanted to be in full control, from our very beginnings – as though any of us possess the wisdom and power to do that, much less effectively.

 

And when God called Israel into covenant relationship with God – to be God’s people, a city on a hill – God provided leaders, judges, and prophets.  But again the people wanted more.  It seemed to weak perhaps.  They wanted a figure-head, and human display of power and might.  And so they got what they wanted.  And they traded down God’s good gift of intimate leadership for a human leader, a human king.

 

So here we have Jesus, claiming to have brought the Kingdom of God to earth.

For the first time in our history, since our fall in the garden, God will reign.  God’s will has come to earth, in the person of Jesus Christ.  And everywhere, hearts that receive Christ, receive God’s reign in their hearts – where God will live and guide them, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

And so, God’s Kingdom has come.  But not in the human sense.  Jesus didn’t make himself their human mascot king.  Jesus had bigger fish to fry.  Jesus didn’t want to govern our actions but to be Lord of our hearts – that we might will to do what is pleasing to God.

And Jesus came to bring that Good News that God wasn’t looking for perfect people but for followers.  WHO would let Jesus into their hearts?  Who would allow the Spirit of God to break into their lives and sensibilities?  WHO would be so transformed in God’s unwithheld love that they’d never be the same?  WHO would be among those who finally realized that life isn’t life at all, unless it is the life that God freely gives?

 

And so our Messiah has come.  Our King has come.  Our Rescuer, Deliverer, Savior has come!  But not in the human sense, not in our human political machines, not into our systems of laws and societal order.

 

God has come into hearts, far and wide. 

 

And if God reigns in us,…

If God truly lives in us,…

Where God is still truly received,…

Where God’s WORD is still welcomed and followed,…

THERE is the Kingdom of God.

THERE is power and authority like none other.

 

THERE we find justice flowing down.

THERE we hear truth rightly spoken

THERE the sick are made well.

THERE the lame are healed, the deaf hear, and the blind see.

THERE the burning, thirsty ground becomes a pool of refreshing.

THERE we hear singing, with everlasting joy and gladness.

THERE no one steals or kills or destroys.

 

THIS is the power of God.  THIS is the Kingdom of God.

WE are the body of Church.  WE are the body of Christ.

 

Will we rise up and be people of God?

The family of God?

The messengers of God?

 

Will we bring Good News?

Will we set the captive free?

Do we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?

 

 

In all things and at all times, we have a choice to make: 

To follow Christ our Lord and King

Or to follow in our own way. 

 

May we,

Both individually and collectively,

Choose to bear the Kingdom of God into this weary and burnt-out world,

Day after day

After day.

 

The world is dying for the LIFE that lives in you. 

 

“And Still Life Emerges”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:7-12
Matthew 3:1-12

 

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

 

Romans 15:7-12

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

 

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”


 

 

I am struck by this image of a branch growing out of the roots of a tree – the stump of the tree of Jesse, scripture says.

I’ll read you this excerpt from the book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by Peter Wohlleben.

12'8'19 And Still Life Emerges Insert 112'8'19 And Still Life Emerges Insert 2

It is amazing that a tree felled four to five hundred years earlier would still be alive…at the roots.  As a scientist with understanding of trees, it is even more amazing, because you know that the green color in these roots was only possible by chlorophyll, which this stump could not possibly create, having no leaves.

It became clear to this Arborist that this stump was being fed by neighboring trees…all these many four to five hundred years.

What a mystery!

Understanding how trees are connected by a web of fungi underneath the ground we walk on, is an emerging area of scientific research.  We had no idea before that trees were interconnected.  We had no idea that when we planted a tree in our yards, that we were asking it to survive on its own, without a community, without a support network developed over hundreds and thousands of years in a forest.

 

 

And so we return to this scripture, where we hear of a shoot coming out of the stump of the tree of Jesse, a branch growing from the roots of this stump…

Jesse was the father of David, King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” scripture tells us.  And David’s throne was promised to be forever.  But how could that be?

Over time, Israel falls to the Neo Assyrian empire.  Judah alone remains, the smaller, less densely populated remnant of the Jewish people.  But then there is Babylon, and despite Jeremiah’s warnings, the people are carried away into captivity.  And the temple and the land are laid waste, baron and devoid of life.

 

So far, God’s promise that there will never cease to be a descendant of David on the throne, seems to be a false prophecy.  There is no one on the throne of David.

 

But God calls Zechariah to return to the land and rebuilt the temple.  And after that, the first resettlements of Jews occur to the holy land.

And then there is King Herod, who makes the temple mount bigger and better, and who rebuilds the temple, more glorious and magnificent that it had ever been before.

 

So, Israel seems to have hope again.  But their hope is starting to be placed in the might of architecture.  And their light is dim, with injustice and corruption rampant.

 

How can they be a light to the nations, if they themselves are barely shining? 

 

And this is the Jewish nation into which Jesus is born.

 

Born of a woman who became pregnant by the Spirit of God, out of wed-lock.  Born to a family from the po-dunk town of Nazareth.  Born obscurely, in the shed for animals.  Laid to rest in a feed trough….

This Christ came out of nowhere.  Though a descendant of David, his lineage took turns through the most unholy of places, like the Moabite Naomi and Ruth.  He was, by all worldly means, a nobody of nobodies.

…And yet, no star has shone so brightly, before or since, to mark the birth of this holy child.  And yet, there were those who recognized him and rejoiced greatly in his coming, like Anna and Simeon.   And yet, the wise men of the day traveled from far off places to come and pay him homage.

What mystery!

Indeed, a branch grew from the roots of the stump of Jesse.

 

Though light and hope and justice were dim, GOD was still at work, working all things for good, coming to this world as a little child, that ALL might finally know God’s love.

All along, this promise that David’s throne would have no end – it wasn’t for the sake of Israel alone, it was always for the sake of the whole world.

And despite the many times Israel stumbled and fell…  Despite the times they were defeated and exiled…  Despite the rise and fall of their kings and prophets…  Despite the good and the evil of their religious elite…  God showed up.

 

Even when they had been cut down.  Even when their trunk had rotted away.  Even when all that remained were the roots, even then life emerged.  Even then, hope sprang up.  Even then, God still came, and lived among us.

What joy!  That even when we have made a thorough mess of all God’s good gifts to us, Christ can still redeem.  Christ can still save.  God still makes whole, what has been broken.

 

And so let us come, in our brokenness and incompleteness.

Let us come, with our failures and imperfection.

Let us come, even after death has stolen from us all that was beautiful and good.

 

For our God is not finished with us yet.

And our God can make life spring up, out of death.

Halleluia!!

“From Death to Life, Destruction to Construction”

Psalm 122

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

 

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!


 

While in Jerusalem this past spring, I was amazed at just how many different people actually do flock to that city.  People of so many different faiths come to seek God. It was truly a melting pot, like none I’ve ever witnessed before.   For all the hyper-militant, negative images of Israel we hear in the news, I found it to be one of the most tolerant places I have ever been.

The streets are narrow.  The traffic is immense.  Many of the residents and visitors are devotedly faithful and diligent in following various religious laws and observances.  Jerusalem and all of Israel has a challenge like few other nations have.  The faith of many of its residents prohibits them from eating various foods, dressing in various clothing, associating with various people, working on various days, and even touching folks of the opposite gender.  How does one make room in such a crowded and diverse city for this faithful difference?

Unlike America where we segregate by neighborhoods and suburbs, churches and schools, in Israel there is truly no space to be had between groups.  They also have various quarters of the city for predominantly Christian, predominantly Armenian, predominantly Muslim and Arabic, and predominantly Orthodox, but these exist shoulder to shoulder.  It is impossible to navigate Jerusalem without rubbing shoulders with all these people – many of whom have very widely differing and fiercely held views and ways of living.

Tolerance is not merely an ideal held.  Tolerance is a routine exercised with every passing day.  At certain times you give up your rights to do something, so others can do it in the way they see fit.  And then they give up their rights at other times for you.  There is an ever-present social and ethnic agility in living in the holy city of Jerusalem.

 

We got to speak with a former general who worked on the wall that divides Israel and Palestine.  All my strongly held, uninformed beliefs melted away, as I listened to how this soul sought to navigate what it meant to secure a country so diverse and so despised in the middle east.

Especially fascinating to me was his story of how they designed technology to sniff out explosives.  Their airport is always on high security, as they are viewed by most of their geographic neighbors as intruders and infidels profaning their holy area.  There is a word for this concept, but it escapes me at present.  Since Israel is on so many people’s black list, they have had develop new technologies and to exercise more vigilance to prevent war and their own genocide.

They needed a way to detect non-metal explosives.  But the best way is using dogs, and dogs are widely seen as unclean and offensive in Arabic culture.  If they have dogs walking the airport or manning the check-in locations, they will cause great offense.  And so they developed technology where they funnel travelers through a maze area and vacuum the air from that maze into a room where the dogs are.  And this works!  They are able to flag non-metal explosives moving through the airport – without creating offense.

 

How many of you would go through that added trouble to trying not to cause offense?

How many of us have developed new systems and technologies, all to minimize offense to a minority group?

Isn’t it more often true that we expect that group to suck it up and understand?

Isn’t it more often true that we expect them to bend to the majority’s or the powerfuls’ preferences?

I don’t think we would have designed such technology in America.  Here I’d been judging Israel for so many years as being intolerant, and it was in Israel that I was seeing tolerance lived out more tangibly than I’d ever seen it before.

 

Now I speak of my own awakening and bits of transformation in Israel, while understanding that there is far more at play there than I could ever see or perceive.  No one side of these entrenched battles is wholly correct.  But I found God putting my ignorance and judgement in check.  And it is a good feeling when our facades and false narratives begin to fall away in the light of truth.

 

I bring up my experience in Israel because in the passage from Isaiah today, we read of a time when all shall flock to Israel.  It will be lifted up truly as a city on a hill, and God will make all things right in light of the truth.  No longer will nation be lifted up against nation.  No longer will swords and guns, bombs and missiles, drones and flaming tires be raised against one another.  But rather, all our weapons of mass destruction will be repurposed into generative, life-sustaining, food-growing tools.

 

What hope.  In a land that has not known peace, there will be peace.

Can you imagine?

 

This passage from the Old Testament speaks of a time when Israel will fulfill its purpose and the Kingdom of God will reign in hearts and minds, families and communities, tribes and nations.  It is a wonderful vision, and what amazed me was how much of this has already begun.

People already stream to the holy land.  People come from far and wide to meet with God and be transformed in Israel and the Old City.  And the vast majority of these people of differing faiths and backgrounds, values and ways of life, somehow have learned a way to live in remarkable harmony, for all their diversity, rubbing of shoulders, and bumping into one another.

This prophecy has already begun coming true in Israel and in pockets all around the globe.

And yet, more than ever, we still cry out to God asking, “How long, O Lord!?!”  We still witness injustice and suffering.  We will watch as nation rises up against nation.

 

And so Isaiah’s words are also for us.

 

There will come a time when nation will no longer rise up against nation.  God will live among us and be our judge.  Swords and missiles, bombs and drones will be destructed to create tools for growing the food that sustains us all.

Can you imagine??

On a hill just outside the Old City of Jerusalem is a monument with the verse Isaiah 2:4 inscribed in Hebrew.  It reads,

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

And just below are old iron weapons of warfare that are being misshapen and made into wheels and plows for tilling the earth.

This is the photo featured above.

 

 

I want to leave you with a song.  It is by an American Jew raised in NY.  Though strictly raised, he rebelled against his upbringing and faith at a young age.  But his journey away also led him back, and his faith matured and became his own.  He sings a song with a vision much like Isaiah’s.

I invite you to look it up and listen, reading the words here.  Let us join together in praying for this day to comewhere we shall no longer make war anymore.

 

One Day
Matisyahu

Sometimes I lay
Under the moon
And thank God I’m breathing
Then I pray
Don’t take me soon
‘Cause I am here for a reason

Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know some day it’ll all turn around because…

All my life I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
There will be no more wars
And our children will play
One day [6x]

It’s not about
Win or lose
‘Cause we all lose
When they feed on the souls of the innocent
Blood-drenched pavement
Keep on moving though the waters stay raging

In this maze you can lose your way (your way)
It might drive you crazy but don’t let it faze you, no way (no way)

Sometimes in my tears I drown (I drown)
But I never let it get me down (get me down)
So when negativity surrounds (surrounds)
I know some day it’ll all turn around because…

All my life I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
There will be no more wars
And our children will play
One day [6x]

One day this all will change
Treat people the same
Stop with the violence
Down with the hate

One day we’ll all be free
And proud to be
Under the same sun
Singing songs of freedom like
One day [4x]

All my life I’ve been waiting for
I’ve been praying for
For the people to say
That we don’t wanna fight no more
There will be no more wars
And our children will play
One day [6x]