Sunday, December 20, 2015

Like New!

Psalm 80:1-7  Common English Bible (CEB)

 Shepherd of Israel, listen!
    You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
    You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
    Wake up your power!
    Come to save us!
3 Restore us, God!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
4 Lord God of heavenly forces,
    how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
5 You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
    you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
6 You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
    our enemies make fun of us.
7 Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
    Make your face shine so that we can be saved 

God, hear us, please.  Help us!  Restore us!  Make your face shine upon us!   You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors!  Relent and save us!

Did you notice what is different about this psalm?  Usually the people are crying out saying something like “God, save us, just this one time. Get us out of this and we promise we will NEVER EVER do that bad stuff again!”   The prophets spent a great deal of time begging God to relent and to forgive the people for the error of their ways.  They also spent a lot of time telling the people just where exactly they have gone wrong.  

But this passage blames God for their problems.  “You put us at odds with our neighbors.  Our enemies make fun of us [because you aren’t smiting them for us.]”  Strange, right?  

Because . . . listen.  You know that only some of the psalms are attributed to King David.  This isn’t one of them. David’s psalms always talk about how God had never abandoned him.  Even at the lowest points in his life, David always said “and You, my God, are always with me. You protect and embrace me.”  This psalm was written sometime after the death of King Solomon, after the tribes split, with most refusing to have anything to do with David’s family and the Temple in Jerusalem.  You can tell that because only the three tribes who stayed are the ones being named as being at odds with their neighbors.  This was written in the period when the Bible's writers said repeatedly of the kings in Jerusalem that they turned their backs on their people, lusted after foreign women and went up to the high places to worship other gods, and did what was evil in the sight of God. 

When Hezekiah came to the throne, he became known as a man who always did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God.  He had the priests clean and purify the Temple, for it had fallen into disuse and disrepair.  The priests came back to him with the Tablets of the Law, which had been found totally forgotten in a back storeroom.  He ordered a time of national mourning and fasting, put on sackcloth and ashes and had all the people do the same, and then read the Law out loud to all the nation.  The nation returned to the ways of Yahweh and all was good - until Hezekiah died.  And then the kings did what was evil in the sight of God again.  They appointed prophets who would say what they wanted to hear and ignored the words of the real prophets, the ones God appointed.  Those they tried to kill.  They did what they wanted, whenever they wanted, and let the Laws go back to that dusty storeroom.  And as the kings and other leaders did, so did the nation.  

And when things started to go really, really wrong . . .  they blamed God.  They said, “God, you keep telling us that you are in charge of everything.  Well, fix this, because obviously you are the one who caused all these bad things to happen.  We are completely innocent, mere victims of your bad temper and inconsistent moods.”  They went looking for powerful allies among their neighbors, and when that cure turned out to be worse than the original problem, they blamed God again.  “They’re laughing at us!  You’re supposed to be all that and a bag of chips - you sit enthroned on cherubim and seraphim, for Pete’s sake!  If you really are powerful, if you really are our God, then do something!  Prove yourself!”   

Frankly, they sounded a little bit like Janis Joplin, 
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town. 
I’m counting on you, Lord, Please don’t let me down. 
Prove that you love me, and buy the next round.  
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.”   

By the way, did you all know that Janis Joplin began her singing career in the choir of a Disciples congregation in Texas?  

Anyway, the leaders of Judah had the whole relationship with God thing seriously backwards.  God isn’t the one who broke the covenant.  God isn’t the one who stopped believing in them.  God isn’t the one who turned away.  God never promised to drop everything to save them every time they got themselves into trouble.  God never has to prove anything to anyone.  As a result of their bad behavior - as a result of generations of bad behavior - the people of Judah, the leaders, the wealthy and the powerful, were finally taken away to Babylon where they would languish in exile.  They were, as we know, eventually returned.  But frankly, things never got totally great for the people of Judah.  They would be independent for a bit, but then another powerful nation would defeat them.  And then that nation would be defeated by another, more powerful nation. At the time of Jesus’ birth Rome had been their overlord for about 60 years.  And the people kept remembering God’s promise to send someone to make their nation like new again.

Here is what God promised.
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.     (Isaiah 11:1-5)

And the people waited.  They assumed that God would send a powerful leader, a military genius, another David.  But what they got was exactly what God promised - a faithful follower of God.  A man of compassion and righteousness,  wisdom and understanding, whose words would defeat evil.  More like Hezekiah than David, really, because Hezekiah’s strength was in his faith, not in his military prowess.  His reign was one of reform and reconciliation. His greatest accomplishment was in bringing the nation back into covenant with God.  

They waited.  People aren’t very good at waiting.  We want everything to happen right now.  We want to go faster than the speed limit so we can get wherever we are going sooner.  We want the line we are standing in to move faster so we can go on to the next thing sooner.  If we apply for something, we want the answer by return email.   I’ve been seeing posts on Facebook lately of young people I know holding up college acceptance letters.  I know how long that wait seems.  Getting into the right school might very well determine how the rest of your life goes, so waiting for that letter is torturous.  And waiting for Christmas is . . . 

Well, you know what that’s like.  Everyone I meet asks me,”Are you ready for Christmas?”  I’m never quite sure how to answer that. I know that what they are thinking is, “Have you bought all your presents?  Is your Christmas dinner planned? Is your baking done?”  But what I am thinking is, “I have three worship services that week, none of which are quite completely ready.  I don’t have enough time to spend meditating and writing on Advent and the meaning of the birth of the Child.”  So I answer “Yes” to their real question and wander off wondering if I’ll ever really be ready for Christmas.

I’ve told you, I think, that I have to be reminded of events that fall outside of the liturgical calendar.  I was totally not kidding about that.  So the other day when Pat and Jennifer reminded me that this Sunday - today - is Christmas Sunday, I was truly surprised.  My immediate response was, “No, this is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.”  But yes, according to the Disciples Planning Calendar, it is also Christmas Sunday.  I’m not sure why, since it is before Christmas.  Maybe because Disciples don’t worship on Christmas unless it happens to fall on a Sunday.  The founders of the Disciples were serious about only doing what the Bible tells us to do, and Jesus never told us to celebrate his birth.  Baptism, yes.  The Lord’s Supper, yes.  The Resurrection, yes.   But Jesus never mentions remembering his birth. So we don’t.  The fact that we now observe Advent would probably have them spinning in their respective graves.  I suspect, however, that it might be because so many folks won’t be here the First Sunday after Christmas.  Some people don’t even realize that Christmas doesn’t end for another couple of weeks!  My first Christmas as a pastor I walked into the sanctuary the Sunday after Christmas to discover all the Christmas decorations had been taken down!  I was so disappointed!  I asked why, and was told that Christmas was over.  Not!  It’s only over in the stores.  Not in the church.  

God promised that he would send a Savior, a righteous, compassionate, wise man, whose words would have the power to defeat sin and evil.  God promised that the world would be made like new again when that Savior came.  What the waiting people didn’t realize is what we now know to be the Good News.  The world is made like new again, beginning with each individual heart.  As each of us embraces the love, peace, hope and joy that is brought into the world with the arrival of the Christ Child, each of us is made like new again . . .  and through us, through our actions, bringing God’s love, peace, hope and joy into the world, the entire world can be made like new again.   Go out, my sisters and brothers, and love the world.  Go out, and proclaim the birth of the Child, the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Savior, our All in All.

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