Friday, December 31, 2010

Venite Adoramus

2011! There’s a shocker. Not that we would make it to 2011, I’m not talking apocalypse here or anything. Just that it is time to make the switch. It catches us all by surprise, no matter how closely we watch the calendar. Bankers will tell you they get plenty of misdated checks in the first week of the new year. Kids will go back to school and write the wrong year at the top of their tests. We just have trouble making the shift.

We just need to pay attention more, I know that. But it is hard. There are so many things swirling around in our heads and before our eyes that we have trouble focusing. Add to that the frenzy we’ve gotten ourselves into at the end of the year, and its no wonder that we aren’t paying attention to the little detail of writing the correct year when we write the date.

In fact, our first Sunday of the new year is all about paying attention. Being aware of what is under your nose seems like a “duh” kind of message, and yet it is an appropriate one for the beginning of a new year. Now, for those who have been following along the past couple of weeks, you might wonder at the narrative flow. Last week’s passage began with the statement “after they left...” The they in question are the wisemen. But then this passage is about the wisemen arriving. Did they forget something and have to come back. No, we are jumping back in time.

The reason for this is simple. Uh. It’s Epiphany! Actually, it isn’t Epiphany this Sunday, Epiphany is the 6th of January. Which is 12 days after Christmas. Yeah, that’s right, those twelve days of Christmas. They were the countdown from Christmas to Epiphany. In the early church, it was Epiphany that was the big celebration. Yes, there was the Mass of Christ’s birth - or Christ’s Mass, but the big party took place twelve days later on Epiphany. That’s when the gifts were exchanged, that’s when the families gathered, that’s when the big meals were eaten.

Epiphany comes from two Greek words that translate as “the light shows forth” or “the light comes to.” In other words, Epiphany is when we figured it out, when we saw the light. In Matthew’s story, the Christ event is a pretty quiet affair. No multitude of heavenly hosts, no flocks of shepherds crowding into a barn out back of the inn. It’s just Mary and Joseph and a bunch of dreams.

At least until chapter two. In chapter two the doors get blown open. The wise men from the East show up. And turn everything upside down.

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

When word gets out, it gets way out. We don’t know where these guys come from, to be honest. The speculation looks at Persia (Iran) or Babylon (Iraq), or maybe further East, Asia or who knows. But Matthew’s point here is that those who are paying attention are the foreigners, the strangers. And those who are supposed to know - the ones who have heard the prophecy - didn’t know, almost missed it. It nearly just passed them by, if it hadn’t been for the kindness of strangers, they would never have known.
We have seen his star, they said. A star is not something hidden, but something evident. Have you ever tried to show someone a star, though? Right there, you say, and they look everywhere but where you are pointing. Right there, see that tree? The little one? No the big one over there. Over where? Right there, beside the house, next to the street light, its right above that tree? What tree? Never mind.

It is hard to get people to see what we see, and hear what we hear. And yet we keep trying. We want to share what we have seen. People often wonder why the wisemen showed up in Jerusalem anyway. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just keep following that star? Well, perhaps it was a political necessity, or diplomatic protocol. Or maybe they just wanted everyone to know. Go, tell it on a mountain. And there was no mountain higher that Jerusalem. Notice how the bible always says they went up to Jerusalem, no matter what direction they were going? That is partly a theological statement, but also geological - Jerusalem was a high spot in the nation of Israel. It is where you would go to make a proclamation you wanted everyone to know. Maybe they didn’t know Herod’s reputation. Or maybe they knew better than he did just what he needed.

This week, because of the kindness of Bill and Lynne Doctor, my whole family got to attend the Boars Head and Yule Log Festival at Plymouth Congregational Church. I’ve heard about it for years, but have never attended. We thoroughly enjoyed the program. There are two parts, one is a old English setting of the Christmas feast, the other is a Nativity pageant. And then at the end the blend together in one whole. It was simply beautiful.

At one point during the presentation of the Christ Child, and the various visitors made their way to the manger and the angels danced, I found myself with tears in my eyes. This time I was not in charge of the service and I was free to acknowledge that my heart longed to worship the child. We are created with this need to worship, or to pay homage as the wise men say in our passage. That is what brought the wise men so far, however far it was. That was why they went to Herod and anyone who might help them find their way. They longed to worship, as do we all.

That is one of the things we forget to pay attention to, our need to worship. And not just need, but a longing, a deep longing that nothing else will fill. We are incomplete without it, we are missing something of significance. Epiphany is an opportunity to fill that void, to make us whole.

Venite Adoramus – come and worship. That is the invitation of the wise men. That is the meaning of Epiphany. That is the gift of God. Come and worship. Come and meet your heart’s desire. Come and be made whole. Come.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

No Room

It is Christmas Eve Eve as I write this. The next few days are somewhat hectic, to say the least. What with Christmas Eve services tomorrow, and more family coming in, plus the celebrations of Christmas Day - which has the calendric bad form to appear on a Saturday this year. Which means that I will be doing final preparations for preaching on Sunday sometime on Christmas Day. Whew.

All of which means I was afraid that I wouldn’t get around to writing this bible study if I didn’t do it now. I was worried about everything else crowding it out. I was worried about it getting lost in the other excitement of the day. I was worried that I wouldn’t find room for it.

No room is, of course, a well known theme of Christmas. How many little bathrobed innkeepers over the years pronounced in a stern voice, there’s no room? How often have the holy couple gone door to door in the Las Posadas celebration only to hear “no room” again and again? We know that there was no room, we get it. It was a bad deal. A rough start for that little prince of peace.

But to be honest, I had moved on to other issues. Besides we are in Matthew this year. And that is Luke’s story. No trip to Bethlehem in Matthew, they are already there. No busy town with a lack of accommodations. No manger, no swaddling cloths (whatever that is), no “no room in the inn.” So, I hadn’t even thought of the no room motif.

Until I heard my new favorite song of the season. “No Room” by Todd Agnew. It isn’t a new song, came out on 2006, but I hadn’t heard it before. And it just gripped me this season. Here are some of the words:
There's no room in the inn, / If you were someone important we might try to fit you in, / but there's no room in here for you. / There's no room to lay your head, / If you were wealthy we might find you a bed, / but there's no room in here for you. / 'Cause I'm cold, and tired of working my whole life away, / Every hand, needing one thing more, comes knocking at my door, / I got a hundred people calling out my name today, and you come to my door, / And I can't care no more, unless you can save me.

The song is a duet, Joy Whitlock is the other singer - the innkeeper’s wife, I’m guessing. And they both just sound like two tired service industry workers who don’t have room in their busy lives for one more request, one more need to be filled. True to the legends though, they offer a stable and a manger, and that “should be fine for your little baby.” So, a little compassion works its way through their weariness.

A little compassion seems a rare thing these days. Oh, not among those we know and love. Compassion is all over for us. But on the world scene, on a global level, compassion seems lacking. It is all about security, all about advantage, all about debts and costs and power.

Matthew’s story is also about the lack of room for this Messiah. It is about a world that is hostile to a different way of being, a different set of priorities. From the beginning the world seeks to have its way with God’s plans for us.

Our Gospel for the Sunday after Christmas is a difficult one. I debated doing this bible study about the Christmas story, which will be the scripture for Friday night. But in the end decided to stick with the routine and prepare you for Sunday worship. But let me issue the parental advisory warning before inserting the text. Some scenes may be difficult for sensitive viewers. Read at your own risk.

Matthew 2:13-23 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."

Unlike Luke, Matthew never says outright “there was no room for them.” But it seems to be written in every verse. There was no room for them in a world of violence and corruption. There was no room for them in a hometown ruled by a bloodthirsty tyrant. There was no room for them in a land that was a daily reminder of slavery and suffering. There was no room for them in a new hometown that was out on the edge of where the “good people” they grew up with lived.

But God was determined to make room. At so many points in this event it all could have come crashing down. There were those who could have said no, there were those who could have taken life of God’s instruments, it seemed such a fragile house of cards. And yet it was how God chose to work. And this was - and is - the world God chose to work in. Thanks be to God.

To say it is a messy world is an enormous understatement. But it is also to acknowledge that it is a world in need of saving. There is a lot in this story we don’t understand, and that Matthew doesn’t explain as he tells it. Why not send all the families of children running for their lives? Why not throw a bubble of protection over the innocents who are slaughtered in this story? We can tie ourselves up in knots trying to explain, trying to answer for God’s actions. We can’t do it with the gospel story any more than we can do it with modern day tragedies - natural disasters or human inhumanity.

So, if there aren’t answers here in this story in Matthew, what is there? Hope. Promise. A Savior. That is what Matthew offers here. Not answers, not explanations. Just hope.

Did you hear a thread in the song “No Room” I quoted earlier? A small opening, a grasping for hope. The innkeeper’s song powerfully depicts the burdens of living, but also a cry for help. Maybe it is offhand, maybe it is done with a sneer, or worldly cynicism. But it is there. “'Cause I'm cold, and tired of working my whole life away, / Every hand, needing one thing more, comes knocking at my door, / I got a hundred people screaming out my name, and I can't care no more, / You come, needing more when I got nothing, / What can you give me? Can you save me?”

To that plea Christmas comes and answers “Yes!”


Saturday, December 18, 2010

What's In a Name?

“A Rose by any other name...” “Lo, How a Rose ere blooming.” See, it fits! Actually, I’m pretty sure you didn’t need me to make that connection. Everyone knows where the title phrase comes from. One of the most famous, most quoted Shakespearean quotes. Actually, it is one of the most commonly misquoted Shakespearean quotes. At least the first part of the soliloquy.

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” It sounds sort of like a question of location. Where are you, Romeo? But in fact Juliet is not trying to find him, she is wondering why he is who he is. Why does he belong to the wrong family, the enemy. Why did you have to be named Romeo? Although it was more the family name that troubled her. It was the connections, the relationships that were upsetting her, not the fact that she didn’t know where he was. Why couldn’t he have been a Smith or a Jones or a Moskowitz?

It sounds like a throw away question, “what’s in a name,” like she wanted the response to be “nothing! No big deal, a name is a name, don’t worry about it!” In fact, it was that name that carried the tragedy of the story. Had Romeo not been named Romeo Montague there would have been no story, no conflict, no tragedy.

Now, you’re wondering what this fascinating literary excursion has to do with the scripture on the Sunday before Christmas. At least you should be. Because I am. I had a point in all of that, but it seems to be slipping away. Naming, hmm, what’s in a name? You shall name him. ... Ah, that was it. Take a look at our scripture for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, and I’ll gather up all my scattered wits and come back in a moment.

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The first thing to notice here is that the story begins at verse 18. OK, big deal, we jump from verse to verse and passage to passage all the time. Granted. But I point it because this one sounds like the beinning of the story. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way...” Sounds like a “once upon a time” kind of intro to the tale. And it is. But it is verse 18! Which means that there is a seventeen verse prologue, there is an overture to this symphony. And that overture is the intoning of name after name. Like bells that are tolled, like a drum beat of history, there is this list of unpronounceable names to launch the Gospel according to Matthew. OK, we skip over it, as though it weren’t even there. But it serves a purpose for Matthew. A theological purpose.

Matthew is defining Incarnation for us in this first Chapter of his Gospel. And Providence. And he presents both of these complex theological essays with a list of names. And what a list. I know it isn’t the passage we have assigned for this week, but I can’t help but look at it for a moment. Partly because it helps us understanding what is going on in the verses that we are assigned.

The Gospel begins with names, and the two names it begins with are David and Jesus. OK, Abraham appears there pretty quickly, too. But it is David and Jesus that Matthew wants us to focus on. He backs up to Abraham, primarily to establish David’s credentials. David is the first hinge point of the history of the people of God - that’s the 14 generation thing there in verse 17 (you are interested enough to dig out a bible, aren’t you?) Fourteen generations before David (from the establishment of God’s people in Abraham, that is) and fourteen generations after David (OK, scholars will tell you Matthew left out some folks for the sake of symmetry - but just hush, Matthew’s on a roll!) David, Matthew argues was the first big hinge and now Jesus is the ultimate hinge, the culmination of history.

That’s Providence - the ultimate plan of God, from the foundations of the people of God, Jesus was in the works. But Incarnation? Well, look at the names on the list. It is a very human list. Oh, heroes a plenty, indeed. But also some shady characters. And many who were a little bit of both. This is the mix out of which Jesus arises. Or the mess, we should say. Luke has a stable, Matthew talks about the mess of human existence. Incarnation is diving into the messiness of that human existence, our human existence. Are any of our family trees any purer? Yet, this was the method God chose to enter into our reality.

God could have stayed aloof and apart. Gone halfway, but still untouched by the mess. There is even that possibility in the story. Our passage depicts a mystery – “she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” Wait, what? Explanation, please! But no explanations are forthcoming. It just is. Mystery.

But notice how little attention Matthew pays to this mystery. We tie ourselves up in knots over this. For centuries the church has torn itself apart, battling over the virgin birth - did it happen, how did it happen, what does it mean, are we supposed to hold it as foundational to our faith, what do we do with it? All these questions and more have choked the church and the people of faith for centuries. But Matthew merely mentions it in passing. That’s God’s work, he announces. And your belief or disbelief doesn’t matter one iota to the activity of God in human history. Let it go, Matthew says, you’ll never be able to explain God to your own or anyone else’s satisfaction anyway. Let’s get on to what is really important.

And what might that be? “You shall name him Jesus.” God wanted adoption papers. God could have been aloof, in the world but not of the world, but instead chose to be immersed fully into the mess of human existence. But, and this is the incredible part, God chose to do so by the faithful response of the people of God. God depended, chose to depend on us to complete the job. Matthew says Jesus would not have been a Son of David if Joseph had said no, if he had walked away from an unacceptable situation, an illegal situation. In the eyes of the law, Mary was guilty as sin and should have been put away. In the eyes of righteousness – because Joseph was a righteous man, Matthew tells us that right away – she was an instrument of an incredible act of God.

Joseph got to decide, with a little angelic assistance, whether to participate in this plan or not. Whether to legitimize the little Son of David. When he claimed him, when he named him, Joseph sealed God’s plan. The genealogy was true, it was real. Adoption, you have to understand, makes the relationship as real as if there was shared DNA. It never ceases to amaze me when people ask, “what happened to their real parents” or are they “really brother and sister” when talking about my own children. Just live with them for a little while and you will know they are really brother and sister, and as the real parents we are doing just fine thanks for asking. Joseph made Jesus a real Son of David when he named him.

And I wonder, since he had no doubt heard the story many times, whether Jesus had this event in mind when he asked his disciples 15 chapters later, “Who do you say that I am?”

What’s in a name? A relationship, a family, the presence of God. Everything.


Saturday, December 11, 2010


What? Gaudete. It’s Latin. Pronounced “Gow-dah-tay.” Gaudete. It means “rejoice.” It is an imperative. “Rejoice!” It comes from a 16th Century Christmas carol, published in a Finnish/Swedish collection of sacred songs in 1582. “Gaudete, Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria virgine, Gaudete.” (And, mind you, my spell check is throwing a wobbly right now.) Which translates as “Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary - rejoice!” There are verses, but my Latin typing skills are rusty, to say the least, so we’ll leave it at that. Besides it is only in the chorus that the word “Gaudete” appears anyway.

The other fascinating thing about this old carol (and aren’t you just fascinated? I know I am) is that this song was released in the 70's by the British folk group Steeleye Span (No, not Steely Dan, that’s someone else - Boomers! Sheesh!) And to this day it remains only one of three Latin songs that made the top ten on the British pop charts. The other two being two versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu from his Requiem back in the late 80's.

Now, aren’t you just amazed? I love Wikipedia. Anyway, what’s all this about, you’re wondering, I’m sure. Well, this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday. The Third Sunday of Advent is always set apart. It is the one that has the pink or rose colored candle. In some traditions, it is called Mary’s Sunday, and is filled with the story from Mary’s point of view, or is designed to help us honor and celebrate Mary. But in others, it is simply Gaudete Sunday – a reminder, a call, a command to rejoice.

Yeah, it’s that imperative that gets me. Maybe it should be gaudeo, the infinitive - to rejoice. Maybe it should be presented as an invitation, rather than as a command. Rejoicing isn’t really something one does on command. I went to rehearsal for the Cantata which is being presented this Sunday afternoon (no, no, stop worrying, I’m the narrator) and while I was waiting for it all to begin and sitting in the middle of the sanctuary, one of the choir members passed by me and said “If you’re going to be here, then you have to smile!” I said, I’d have to look at the contract, since I didn’t know that was a part of the deal.

You have to smile. Rejoice, exclamation point. It’s not an easy thing to do. Press it too hard with someone who doesn’t want to be happy and you’re likely to get a poke in the snoot! Or enduring someone trying to cheer you up when you don’t want to be cheered can one of those uncomfortable moments they make tv sitcoms about. Except it doesn’t feel very funny.

I know, I know, you can choose your attitude. The only thing you have control over in this life is how you respond to stuff that happens. I know all that, and I even believe all of that. But sometimes the dark clouds of despair are beyond our own capacity to break through. The weight of circumstances, the burden of events, the feelings of abandonment, the shattered heart, the leaden stomach ... shall I go on? Sometimes an internal attitude adjustment is not what we need, not what will work. Sometimes pasting on a smile is a means to get our “comforters” to leave us alone, and is only skin deep.

Gaudete Sunday seems a hollow exercise in those moments, on those days. Can we command joy? It seems unlikely, an exercise in futility. And yet, here it is. So, what do we do with it? Light the pink candle and pretend? Or is there something more?

Isaiah seems to think so. Three Sundays in a row is a heavy diet of this prophet, sorry about that. But listen again, maybe there is something here after all.

Isaiah 35:1-10 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 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. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 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." 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 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; 7 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. 8 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. 9 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. 10 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.

Isaiah’s hearers weren’t just having a bad day, they were broken into little pieces. They were exiled, they were impoverished, they were homeless, families torn apart, abused ... it was not something to be solved with a command to rejoice. So, Isaiah drew them a picture.

I could take a side track into a little discussion of art therapy, but instead I’ll remind you of the power of vision. Sometimes dead ends occur because of a lack of imagination. There are no options, because you can’t think of any, you can’t see any. An experience of despair, of hopelessness is a dark experience. And the best counter to darkness is to bring a little light. Because in the light you can see what was hidden before. Isaiah wanted his people to see another possibility, different from the one they were living. As a desert people, the dream is always lush, fruitful. As a broken people, the dream is about wholeness and strength. As a hunted people, the dream is about safety and protection. As a oppressed people, the dream is about joy.

But, pay attention, it is not a “smile things could be worse” kind of message. There is full acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation. The rejoicing comes from the land itself first. It comes from creation at the beginning of the chapter. Sort of like Jesus telling the Pharisees who were banging on the ceiling of the Palm Sunday party, “If these were silent, the stones would cry out.” God knows, Isaiah knows that the people don’t have the breath for shouting for joy, so God will take care of it. Meanwhile, words of encouragement will be given. Words that lift up, that give strength, that give hope. Words about a presence. In the midst of abandonment, the dream is about community, about relationship. Behold, he will come and save you.

And what will that salvation feel like? Like having your feet put back on the road. Like finally you just might be getting somewhere. And that somewhere is home. Home, where hope resides, and where joy is available. They shall obtain joy, promises Isaiah. You might not have it now, it might be out of reach now, he agrees, but someday joy will be available. That’s the promise.

And how strong is that promise? Ah, my favorite verse in the whole chapter tells us how powerful this promise is. Go back to verse 8, about the highway, the holy way. Take a look at the last part. “No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” What great comfort to fools like me. Even when it looks like we’re lost, we’re not lost. When our feet have been set on the road, we stay on the road. All the way to joy.

Gaudete, everybody!


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I love listening to Christmas songs, new ones and old ones. And I will usually find a favorite one of each season to focus on and listen to so many times that the rest of my family will plead for a change. This year that song is “No Room” by Todd Agnew. But it actually fits in better later in Advent. So, I’m not going to talk about that one just yet. ... That’s called a “teaser,” in case you’re wondering. Instead I’m going to talk about an old classic, given away by the title of this Bible Study. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I’ll pause for a moment while you sing it to yourself for a moment. I’ll even get you started: “Said the night wind to the little lamb, Do you see what I see? Way up in the sky little lamb...”

OK, now that you are all humming away, I’ll continue. One of the things that fascinates me is that the song is called “Do you HEAR what I hear?” But the first verse says “Do you SEE what I see?” Isn’t that interesting? Yes, hear is the second verse, but it only appears once, because the next one is “Do you KNOW what I know?” Which is followed by “Listen to what I say!” Isn’t that odd? Give me one other song where the title line doesn’t appear until the second verse and then is only repeated once!

Never mind, there probably is one. Suffice it to say that seems odd to me. Of course we could argue as to whether there is any substantive difference between seeing and hearing and knowing, the three modes of experience in the song. And in fact, in the Greek, the word “to see” when it is in the perfect tense is translated as “to know.” Which is why, I believe, that when you finally come to understanding, when the penny drops, when you get it at last, the “aha” moment comes, you are just as likely to say “Now, I see!” as anything else.

Cognition is an interesting science. How do we come to understanding? How does knowing work? What goes on in that brain of yours? And what does all of this have to do with our bible study for this week? Good question, and thank you for getting us back on track. What does knowing have to do with our text for this week? Simply this, Isaiah introduces us to a whole new way of knowing. Well, that’s not exactly true, I suppose. It isn’t new. It can’t be new, since he was writing some 800 years before Jesus. And yet it seems new, in this day and age. Take a look.

Isaiah 11:1-10 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 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. 3 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; 4 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. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 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. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9 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. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

First of all Isaiah is miffed. He was an advisor to King Ahaz and his advice wasn’t taken. Some prophets, as you know, were outsider kind of guys. They would wander around making pronouncements and were generally considered kooks and nutcases, when anyone noticed them at all. Others, however, were very much a part of the establishment, had the ear of those in power, and were pretty much royal advisors. Isaiah was one of the latter. Ahaz would consult with Isaiah before making policy decisions and would frequently take his advice.

Well, there was at least one major case where Ahaz did the exact opposite of what Isaiah advised. This was during the period of the divided kingdom, when Israel and Judah were two separate nations and often at odds with each other. Ahaz was king of the southern kingdom of Judah, and there were threats from the northern kingdom, Israel, who had made an alliance with Damascus and were making noises like they were going to try to occupy Judah. Isaiah told Ahaz not to fear the alliance, but to trust in the Lord for protection. Well, Ahaz decided he wanted more than the Lord’s help, so he got on the hotline to Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III and asked for help. Good old Tiglath willingly offered to help. And then he helped himself to Judah, to the temple, to the treasury, to the labor pool, to the homes and farms of the people of God. Judah became a vassal state and eventually was decimated by a bad political decision. Isaiah was miffed.

But rather than pouting, or complaining, or organizing a hot drink based political movement, Isaiah turned instead to hope. He turned to the source of all his understanding. He turned back to the one who sent him. In the midst of a horrible situation, in the midst of slavery and death, of exile and destruction, Isaiah saw a vision of a better tomorrow. When stronger nations wouldn’t devour weaker ones, Isaiah described the Peaceable Kingdom, where predators would lie down with prey and be satisfied with what was freely available without the rending of flesh, the shedding of blood.

More than that, however, and what could possibly be more than a vision of paradise? More than that, Isaiah knows, sees, hears how such a thing just might possibly come to pass. Wait, what? Yes, he not only describes the “wouldn’t it be great if” scenario of all scenarios, but he gives a road map that just might get us there one day.

“A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” The tree that was the Davidic line has been cut off by Ahaz and his foolish alliance with the poison adder of Assyria. But what looks gone, isn’t gone in God’s eyes. God sees more than we see. And this shoot, this branch from the very root, the foundation of what God intended all along, shall grow and shall show us what it means to really live as the people of God. And it is in that living as God’s people that the peaceable kingdom becomes possible.

But, and this is crucial, it is not by our own efforts that this will happen. It is only as we become vessels of the Spirit of God that we will find our way to the Kingdom. The Spirit of the Lord that rests on any and all, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding - which is the ability to how to use the knowledge, the information that we are able to uncover; the Spirit that brings counsel and might - which is the ability to work together, to actually do what we long to do as a part of the community that we are called to be; the Spirit that brings the knowledge and fear of the Lord - which is the constant reminder that it isn’t us, it isn’t our power or our glory that helps us lean into the Kingdom, but that Spirit that keeps our egos in check. And when we let that Spirit work in and through us, then we too can hear what others don’t hear, we can see what few can see, and we can know what not enough in this world know. Our decisions are based more on God’s values than on ours - “with righteousness he shall judge.” He, we, you shall be belted by righteousness and faithfulness - those traits will keep you tucked in and secure in a world looking for a weak spot, a failing to exploit. And he, we, you shall be about the business of bringing the world to a new respect for the ways of the Lord. The new way of knowing, then, is not one based on senses but on Spirit.

The amazing part of this story, this vision, this song is that there was one who sang it, who saw it and shared it with us. That one, of course, is Jesus called the Christ. The one we long to see this Advent season, the one we hope to hear in the sighing of the wind and singing of our songs. Which may be why the title of the song is what it is. It is the word from the king in the last verse: “Listen to what I say!”

Do you hear what I hear?