Saturday, December 22, 2018

Longing for Ephrathah

Micah 5:2-5a But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5 and he shall be the one of peace. 

Micah doesn’t like being a minor prophet.  He hates the designation, has a size complex, wishes he was earlier in the Old Testament, rubbing shoulders with the big boys, Isaiah and Jeremiah, the ones who wrote so much that people are convinced they were three or four guys, Isaiah and sons incorporated or something.  But instead Micah  has to hang out with Obadiah and Nahum and Habakkuk and that goofball Jonah, no wonder no one takes him seriously.  Just seven short chapters, verse counts in the teens instead of the twenties or thirties like those other guys.  It’s not that he didn’t have anything to say, it’s just that he got to the point.  He didn’t like beating around the bush, hinting at his subject.  He just told it like it is.  “The Lord’s coming and the mountains will melt” he said, “the valleys will burst open and run like wax near the fire, like waters poured down a steep place.”  A steep place?  Best you can do Micah?  Yeah, well, the mountains melted, remember?!  That’s just chapter one.  Goes downhill from there, pardon the pun.

And it’s not that he’s just an old curmudgeon either.  He’s got one of those beautiful images, Beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.  Beautiful, but wait, wasn’t that from Isaiah?  Micah swears under his breath, stole it from me, he mumbles.  And Isaiah left out the part about sitting under the vines and the fig trees and no one will make them afraid.  But no, everyone thinks it was that fancy schmanzy Isaiah who’s the real poet, the real songwriter, instead of him.  Micah wishes someone had invented plagiarism during his time. 

Then maybe he’d get credit for remembering that Bethlehem had two names.  He blamed that preacher, Philips Brooks, who couldn’t get the full name to fit in the song so just dropped off the Ephrathah part.  But at least he got the little town part right.  O little town of Bethlehem Ephrathah.  It could have worked.  Then everyone wouldn’t snicker at Micah, who they think got it wrong.  But no, it was real.  Oh, some think Ephrathah referred to the region, that’s why the translators wrote “Bethlehem of Ephrathah.”  But it was definitely, Micah mutters, the name of the town.  The little town.  The minor town.  The good for nothing much kind of town, like a prophet stuck away in the back of the Old Testament.  And yet, God can use you.  Even you.  Bethlehem - which everyone knows is translated as house of bread.  But did you know it was sometimes translated as house of war?  It’s like there’s a choice to be made.  Feed or kill.  Tend or destroy.  And Ephrathah translates as fruitful. Except that sometimes it meant barren or worthless.  The little town of worthless war or the little town of fruitful bread.  Think about that will ya!  Isaiah won’t tell you that, will he?  No indeed.  Isaiah won’t tell you that the One who comes, will stand strong like one who is going to war, but instead will feed His flock like a shepherd.  He’ll be more concerned with fruitfulness than with the emptiness of death and killing. And through Him we’ll know peace, and will sit secure.  

And because of that security, because of trusting in that peace, even in warlike times, even in unsettled time, being fed the bread of fruitfulness, we can do amazing things.  Incredible things, unimaginable things.  Like saying yes to a fruitfulness almost incomprehensible in our world.  Like when an angel appears in your living room and asks if you’d be willing to give birth to God.

Now that, smiles Micah to himself, is something for us little ones, us minor ones to celebrate.  God chooses a no place like Bethlehem Ephrathah to be a significant some place.   God chooses a nobody to be a significant somebody who the whole world knows.  A young woman, a little girl really from a backwater town like B-E.  Mary is her name.  Even her name is common.  How many Marys do you know?  Thousands.  Not a fancy name like Cleopatra or Jezebel, just plain old Mary.  Ordinary young Mary.  Except she isn’t.  Ordinary or plain.  She is as beautiful as all of creation.  She is as exceptional as each of those who are made in God’s image. And made even more exceptional, even more beautiful by her obedience to the invitation from God.  Her acceptance of the gift and the calling and the joy that is planted deep within her.  And so she runs through the hill country, the region of Ephrathah, the place of fruitfulness because she is a part of the fruitfulness of God.  She runs to share the joy.  She runs to be in relationship.  She runs.

Luke 1:39-45 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

“Blessed is the fruit,” says Elizabeth, from her own fecundity.  She who was called barren, worthless, that’s what the angelic visitor told Mary.  That’s how s/he described Elizabeth.  Ephrathah.  Fruitful and barren, opposites contained in one place, one being.  Elizabeth is one of the beautiful ones, one of the exceptional ones who said yes, who said thank God, who said let this joy be to me.  Just like Mary.  No wonder she ran to be with Elizabeth.  Luke says she stayed there three months.  Three months.  Long enough to see the impossible birth come to be possible.  Long enough to hear the naming.  Long enough to feel the blessing.  Long enough to breathe the fruitfulness of God.  
Do we sometimes give up too soon?  Despair too soon?  Feel inadequate, insignificant too long.  Unable to wait for blessing, for fruitfulness?  And you O Bethlehem Ephrathah one of the little clans, one of the nothing places, where the bypass passes by and the vibrancy wanes and the lights dim to shine on other towns far away.  And you O little person of your place who feels like life has passed you by and like no one knows or cares if you even are.  From you shall come ... what?  Something.  Something beautiful, something exceptional.  Maybe it already has taken root within you, maybe it is bursting forth from you even now.  Maybe it is a love that shines like a star that draws someone from a far place.  Maybe it is a grace that blesses those around you in ways that just might surprise you if you stopped long enough to see.  Maybe it is a wisdom that someone longs for, someone needs to work around an obstacle in their lives.  Maybe it is a friendship that saves, literally saves a life.  What’s within you that makes the children of God leap for joy upon hearing your voice?  What are you giving birth to even now as you make your way in the world of today?

The all too human tragedy is feeling that we are worthless, we are barren, when God has placed within us a fruitfulness that would stagger our own imagination, let alone the imagination of those around us.  Especially those who thought us small, insignificant.  The call of the prophets prefigures the call of the One who comes to love us with a fierce and frightening passion, a transforming Presence and healing grace.  The prophets rage because they carry the wounds of a hurting world.  Almost as profoundly as the One who felt the sharp tips of the straw in a manger as harshly as the nails on a cross.  

Micah stirs from under his fig tree and wipes away a non-existent tear from his eye, one he’ll gruffly deny ever shedding, even as he straightens his mantle and shuffles off to see what Obadiah and Nahum are up to.  He’ll let Habakkuk deal the next hand and pray that Jonah doesn’t serve sushi again.  Maybe it’s not so bad being a minor prophet.  When you’re not wrapped up in so much editing, there’s time to hope.  And maybe this time, he can get the gang to sing his rewrite of “O Little Town.”  Merry Christmas, he smiles to himself and to the world he still loves. 


Saturday, December 15, 2018

Drawing the Waters of Joy

It’s raining here.  Cold, damp, constant drizzle that turns into rain and then back again.  Not conducive to much production, though La Donna is puttering around putting the finishing touches to Christmas.  Ten days to go and we just might be kind of almost nearly ready.  No, wait, there is still the guest room, that will need to become Maddie’s room next weekend.  It still looks like a work in progress, not far enough along to tell what it is going to be yet, but clearly something major is happening in there.  

The gray skies and weeping clouds put a damper on the holiday busyness.  The lights seem swallowed up by the pale glare of the day, as if they can’t quite pierce the gloom.  The greenery festooned with red ribbon hanging on the fence is dull and dampened by the persistent rain.  And yet.  That’s the power of Christmas.  Of Incarnation.  Of God with us.  There is always an “and yet.”  

Dreary it may be, and yet there is joy.  Underneath and back behind, there is joy.  Persistent, transforming, sustaining joy.  Christmas isn’t really about seasonal joy.  It isn’t about extravagant commercial excesses either.  At it’s best it is a reminder of the joy that is ours always, a shot in the arm to our flagging spirits, or a kick in the pants to our bored complacency.  At least it would be a kick in the pants if John had his way.

John was a pants kicker from the start.  He did a high kick in Elizabeth’s womb when he heard Mary’s voice through the waters in which he swam.  And he came out kicking, I’m sure.  Kicked himself out of the house as soon at it was possible.  Kicked it out in the desert, kicked over bee’s hives to get the wild honey, kicked a tree full of locusts for snacks to munch while he wandered around shouting at rocks and stones.  Kicked a camel’s carcass for a coat to wear.  Then decided it was time to kick some sense into the people of God down by the riverside.

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. 9 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." 10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" 13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." 14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." 15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

I don’t know about you, but I always smile a little bit at verse 18.  “With many other exhortation, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  Really?  There were more?  More exhortations?  What else did he say, what else did he kick?  And, good news?  This doesn’t sound like good news.  This sounds oppressive, finger pointing, name-calling, White House tweet level pain.  How in the world can we say he proclaimed the good news?  Except that he did.  

That’s the problem with good news.  For the good news to be good news it first has to be bad news.  John understood that.  John majored in that.  Was a PhD level intellect in that needing the bad news to hear the good news thing.  So, he let them have it.  Poured it over them, like the water he splashed into their faces, shouting at them to wake up.  Asked them to question their own motives.  “What brings you here? You snakelets, still sucking on your egg tooth used to crack your way out of your shell.  Still wet behind the ears, if snakes had ears.  You don’t know what you’re doing.  Mostly because you ain’t doing nuthing!  Except looking out for yourselves.  You think you’re special, you’re nothing, you’re rocks in my shoe, stones I stub my toe on!  You’re mulch, grass cuttings we leave to be picked up with the garbage!”

Chill out John.  Please?  Actually, they didn’t ask him to chill out.  They asked him, in a panic, “what then should we do?”  And the panic was because they were afraid he was going to say, “run like hell!”  Or he would say, “you’re out of luck, bucko, bend down and kiss the grass goodbye!”  So, they asked with fear and trembling.  But he didn’t.  He didn’t snarl or sneer.  He didn’t tell them it was too late.  So, when he answered in a way that made sense, then groups of them came forward.  What should we do, they asked in tag team fashion.  What about us?  Yeah, they echoed all along the river bank, what can we do?  Tax collectors and soldiers, asked him.  Athletes and film stars, politicians and truck drivers, biker gangs and refugees, they all came in ones or dozens and asked him: What then should we do?”  And he had an answer. 

Bear fruit.  No, not those kinds of bears.  Bear as in carry, as in show, as in live.  That was his answer live!  What should we do?  Live.  But live rightly.  Live, he told the soldiers, for justice.  Don’t abuse your power, don’t threaten to get your way, to scare or coerce.  And learn contentment, for heaven’s sake.  Don’t keep wanting more and more and more.  To the tax collectors, called by some the enemy of the people, he said live for mercy.  Don’t take more than the people can stand, more than you are supposed to take.  Don’t rob, don’t steal, don’t wound with the stroke of your red pen.  Care about the people over whom you have authority.  To the crowd thronging the banks of the water he said “Live!  Live in generosity, live in community, live as though you belonged to each other, because you do.  Live as though you are responsible for one another, because you are!”

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Worthy?  As in earning it?  If I do right I’ll get what I deserve?  No.  No, no, a thousand times no.  Bear fruit because you have repented.  Because you have turned around and are now walking a new direction.  Because you now know life and want to share it because this life you have claimed, this joy from which you have drunk, is not meant to be kept inside, to be kept quiet.  You’ve got to share it.  You’ve got to shout it.  You’ve got to sing it.  Isaiah says so.

Isaiah 12:2-6 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

With joy you will draw water.  A daily task, mundane, necessary, one of many.  Yet, there is a joy in it.  Drawing water is about life.  About living.  And sustaining.  About cleansing, and making new, dying and being reborn.  I baptize you with water John says.  So you can start over.  So you can repent.  So you can not be afraid and give thanks to the Lord.  For life.  For water.  For even a gray rainy and dreary day that vibrates with Christmas presence.  

But only if you pay attention.  That’s the key.  Only if you listen deeply.  Then you can hear the raindrops singing praise as they patter across the leaves in the yard.  Only if you look closely.  Then you can see the light that proclaims presence even on the palest of days.  Only if you live fully.  Then you can taste salvation in the sweetness of the water that flows so freely.  We are called, by John and Isaiah both, to be present in our worship and our living – even as we realize that worship is living and that to live is to worship.

Come, let us adore Him.  Fully present as we do.  Fully alive, as we drink with joy the waters of salvation.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Who's Gonna Clean This Mess?

I’m just home from Jubilee Christmas at Southport UMC.  It is a glorious morning, involving a lot of work on the part of a lot of people.  Over twenty families from our wider community will have a Christmas to remember because of the generosity and care and hard work of the congregation at Southport.  But it wasn’t just a hand out gifts kind of exercise, it was a make relationships, get to know the folks, go shopping with them, and today the parents or grandparents or guardians were brought in to wrap all the gifts that they’ll be able to give to their children on Christmas morning.  And they carried it all out, along with baskets of food and household items to help enhance the season.  But more than all that, they go out with a new friend, a support, a community if they choose to lean into it, choose to hold on to it.  It’s a great day and I’m proud to be pastor of such caring and hardworking folk.  But truth be told.  It makes a mess.  

Wrapping paper, cookie napkins, boxes and bags and stuff everywhere.  It’s a mess.  Let’s be honest.  A good mess, a seasonal mess.  But still a mess. The mess we’ve made of our house pulling out the decorations as we get ready for another season of celebration.  Not the usual mess, not the hey we actually live here mess, but a new mess, a mess that sometimes makes you wonder if you should bother.  We’ll never get it clean enough, organized enough, oriented enough to satisfy the one who matters.  

 “Mom clean” was our phrase, our standard by which effectiveness of the cleaning moment will be judged.  When the kids would clean their room, they’d clean it to their own satisfaction.  Which is a long way from Mom’s satisfaction.  Truth be told, it is probably a long way from the Board of Health’s satisfaction, but we’ve never really called them in.  

“Mom clean” means that Mom will go in after the cleaning has been done and pass judgement.  Is it good enough?  Is it clean enough? They could spend hours, a whole day cleaning their rooms, but then when Mom says, I’m coming to check, they’ll scurry around, or barricade the door or come up with a hundred reasons why Mom shouldn’t come in.  Or with a hundred protestations as to why clean from their perspective is clean enough.  “No one needs it that clean!” they would claim.  “You’re unreasonable!  Look you can see the floor!”  Where, exactly?  “Right there, there’s some carpet! ...  I cleaned the middle. ... Nobody cares if it is clean under the bed anymore. ... You can see the top of the desk. ...  I found my bed!!”  (Actual statements from when there were teenagers in residence.)  And somewhere, Malachi is chuckling.

Malachi 3:1-4  See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.  2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;  3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.  4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 

Who can endure the day of his coming?  “You want it how clean?”  Malachi was writing in the post-exilic period, meaning that people had just returned home after being exiled in Babylonia.  The word “Malachi” means “my messenger” - so it might have been that the author was telling his own story.  He was the messenger who was coming before the Lord to call people into right living.  There are still expectations, he says, there are still standards.  God calls God’s people into clean living, whole and healing relationships, service that builds up rather than tears down.  God’s law is still a measure by which ethics, or behavior in community, is judged.  

It sounds like a threat.  Malachi has a supporting part in Handel’s Messiah.  Most of the text of that great choral work is Isaiah and the Psalms.  But there are a few other scriptures tossed in there.  Malachi appears early in the work, setting the stage for the coming of the Messiah.  “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple,” sings the bass in a recitative, “ev’n the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in, behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.”  A recitative is sort of a mixture of speaking and singing; a straightforward, but rhythmic presentation of the text with simpler musical accompaniment.  Sort of a “here it is” approach.  A “get ready” move from one idea to another.  But then, the bass continues in an aria singing “But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth?  For He is like a refiner’s fire.”   An aria is a longer exposition, with repetition and elaborate musical accompaniment.  And a bass voice.  A deep bass voice, Darth Vader deep.  Making it sound ... ominous.  Scary.  A warning or a threat.  “Who may abide?”  Not you, surely.  Not me.

Which is one reason why we choose to skip over Advent and get right to Christmas.  This getting ready thing can be difficult.  Painful.  We don’t like the idea of being washed up with fuller’s soap, whatever that is.  Reminds of me of Lava Soap.  Remember that?  You knew you were dirty if it took Lava to get you clean.  

While we might be able to wriggle out of the fuller’s soap reference due to cultural ignorance, we all know what fire is.  Refiner’s fire - means even hotter.  Burning away impurities.  OK, we might come out better, stronger, cleaner, but still ... Who would choose such a process?  Who can endure the day of his coming?

We can.  That’s the message here.  That’s Advent in a nutshell.  Who can endure?  We can.  No, really.  We can.  Because we are not alone.  Because the one who calls, the one who brings the soap and stokes the fire, is the one who walks with us.  Emmanuel means God-with-us.  

Someone once asked why Malachi talks more about silver than about gold.  Gold is more valuable, isn’t it?  Gold is the best, the top of the line, the ... uh, gold standard.  Yet, silver appears twice.  Well, they argued, silver is more labor intensive in the refining process.  In refining silver, the smith has to stay close.  You can’t put silver in the fire and leave it alone, it has to be attended, you have to stay close enough to watch.  The silversmith has to lean in, risking the heat, wary of the impurities spitting hot molten silver onto exposed flesh.  Jewelers say you can always spot a silversmith by the scars.    

God-with-us.  That is the promise hidden within the threat.  Or what sounds like a threat anyway.  Who can endure?  We can, because God is with us.  In the struggle and in the joy, in the pain and in the celebration, God is with us.  The birth we celebrate at Christmas time is not an ancient remembrance of a long ago event, but a daily promise and a constant presence.  Be born in us we pray.  And fit us for heaven.  Fit us for heaven.

“Mom clean” is the clean that will pass the inspection, pass the judgement of Mom.  That’s the definition.  In practice around here, however, what it really means is the clean that happens when Mom joins in.  Who can endure the day of his coming?  We can, because He rolls up his sleeves and reaches into the corners of our lives where we’ve let the clutter of our brokenness accumulate, convincing ourselves that we were clean enough.  But it doesn’t measure up to His standards.  So, together we set about the business of cleaning, of healing, of repairing.  So that we can present to the Lord in righteousness.  So, that our very lives can be Mom clean, Emmanuel clean.

It isn’t easy, this cleaning process.  It takes time and effort, and blood and sweat and even tears sometimes.  And then you wonder if you’ll ever be clean, if the task of shoveling out the detritus of living in this world will ever be done.  How will we know?  What will be the sign that we are Mom clean?  

The silversmith will tell you that the metal is ready to be worked into shape, to be used for the jewelers purpose when he can see his face reflected.  When all the world gives back the song, that now that angels sing.  That’s when we’ll know.  When our lives shine with the presence of Emmanuel.

Sixteen more days to get Mom Clean.  Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.


Saturday, December 1, 2018

Look at the Trees

A dreary start to our December here in 2018.  Pale gray skies, and a drizzle that turns into rain in earnest every now and then.  It’s supposed to be sixty degrees out today.  Yet wet and drippy all day.  Dreich is the Scots term for days like this.  Which pretty much sums it up, don’t you think?  Dreich.  Dree-xch (you have the gargle the last sound in the back of your throat -- "ahch")  Just saying it, you feel it.  Dreich.

I’m sitting here in our study looking out on the lawn where not too long ago we spent hours picking up all the leaves.  But you can’t tell.  It doesn’t look like it.  As the next carpet of crunchy brown has fallen covering the green grass almost completely.  Which means I have to do it all again.  Sometime soon.  If not now, before the snow falls, then in the spring when it’s time to start mowing again.  The problem is that while the trees in our yard are bare, I’m looking across the street at the trees over there.  And there are still millions of the little brown crunchy dudes hanging on the branches.  And I know they won’t fall straight down into my neighbor’s yard, but will waft across the street into my yard.  I wonder if that loving your neighbor thing applies to trees in the fall?  Surely Jesus will give us a pass on grumbling about yard work.  Don’t you think? No, in fact He tells us to look at the trees.  Fig trees and all the trees, He says.  Look at all those leaves, He says to me, you’re gonna have to pick them up.  Yours and your neighbors both!  Look at the trees, indeed.

But is that really why we’re called to be arborists this Advent season?  Watching the leaves fall, being at the ready like Ed Crankshaft come to life from the comic pages, ready to pounce on the single leaf that would dare to litter our lawns?  Or does He have something else in mind?

Luke 21:25-36  "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.  28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."  29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;  30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.  33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,  35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.  36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." 

I’m not sure how you receive this sort of thing on the First Sunday of Advent.  Sometimes, I think that folks are expecting to hear the preliminaries of the Christmas story.  Maybe an angel announcement, maybe a song of transformation, maybe a dream or a journey or a royal decree.  But certainly not people fainting with fear and foreboding.  I’m not sure I’m up to foreboding.  We just don’t forebode any more.  Do we?

Heck, we’ve got movies about the end of the world that are pretty impressive in their special effects.  And we go to see that for entertainment.   So, if Jesus is trying to scare us, He’d better start doing a better job of it.  

But then, a second look at those verses imply something different.  Maybe it isn’t fear that Jesus is trying to instill.  Maybe it is something altogether different.  Maybe it is the opposite.  And what is the opposite of fear?  Hope.  Look at the trees, He says.  Look for signs of growth even in a dying season.  Look for signs of life even in a dreary landscape.  “Stand up and raise your heads” He says to us.  When it is our natural instinct that when things are going badly, when it is a difficult moment, we want to keep our heads down.  But Jesus tells us to raise our heads.  To look up.  To trust, to have confidence.  To pay attention.

Oh, that’s a tricky one at any time of the year, but with all the distractions of the holidays it is even more difficult.  Pay attention, He says.  But I’ve all these things to accomplish.  I’ve got my lists to fulfill.  Places to go and things to do.  Pay attention, He says.  But to what?  To the end times?  No thanks, the folks all wrapped up in that kind of thing seem a little bit ... odd.  A little bit out of touch.  And frankly seem to have their priorities all messed up.  If the message is take care of yourself, stay clean so that you come out well in the end, I’m not really that interested.

Pay attention, He says.  Advent is a multi-layered time.  There is the remembrance and the desire to recapture the birth of that baby again.  We really want to hear that angel song and believe that if even for a moment, Peace on Earth is within the realm of possibility.  We look back to what has been done for us.  But at the same time the scriptures remind us that there is still a coming on our horizon.  We do look for the coming of the Kingdom, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, when we will beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hook, when we will study war no more.  There is a Someday out there toward which we lean and for which we hope.  Advent is a looking forward as well as a looking back.

Pay attention, He says.  Look at the trees, He says.  What if there is one more layer?  One more direction, in addition to back and forward.  What if there is an around.  Look around.  Look up, look down, or just look.  “Be on guard  so that your hearts aren’t weighed down...”  So that you don’t miss it.  So that you don’t miss Him.  That’s the amazing thing about this season, there glimpses of the Kingdom that appear when you least expect it.  There are sightings of the Savior in the twinkling of the eyes, in the hesitant thank yous and the gasps of wonder.  In the late night conversations of scattered family members trying to figure out what might be next, there are prayers of hope and of love, an embrace of peace that brings tears to our eyes.  If we pay attention.

Jeremiah says it simply.   Jeremiah 33:14-16   The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness." 

For a branch.  No, a Branch.  Not just any branch.  Not the branches that fall with the leaves that cover the lawn.  The branches from a tree too old to sustain all of them any more, not those dead things.  The branches higher up are still growing, still producing, still reaching for a heaven only trees know how to hope for.  It’s not the dead branch of the past we cling to, we hope in.  It is the new growth.  God will cause - will cause - a Branch to spring up.  There is more to come, more hope to be revealed, more justice to be executed, more righteousness to cover the land.  Like leaves on the lawn.  

Yeah, when you pay attention you see a mess you need to clean up, and that can be tiring.  But you also see life, dying and rising life, enough to give you hope in a dreary season.  Blessed Advent to you.