December 12, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suppose that one day you were reading a story in which an elderly woman is talking to her pregnant granddaughter. “Now listen, my dear,” the old woman says, “I would ask that you name this child after your grandfather and so give him the name Nelson.” Suppose the young woman agrees. “OK, Grandma, his name will be Nelson.” But what would you think if the narrator of the story then wrote, “And so this fulfilled a prediction once made by the pregnant woman’s father that her firstborn would be named ‘Wallace.’”
Well, which is it: Nelson or Wallace? And if it ends up being Nelson, then what does Wallace have to do with anything?
So also in Matthew 1: the angel says to name the baby Jesus, and Matthew turns right around and says, “That’s right: he’s little baby Immanuel.” And no sooner does Matthew write that and we are told that when the baby was born, Joseph did as he was told and named the little fellow “Jesus.”
Jesus. Immanuel. Immanuel. Jesus. Must we choose?
Apparently, you cannot speak the one without invoking the other. Jesus = Immanuel.
Jesus = God with us.
God with us in all our flesh-and-blood realities and messiness.
God with us in diapers.
God with us nursing at Mary’s breast.
God with us in learning to eat small pieces of bread and drinking from a cup without spilling milk all down his chin.
“Christ among the pots and pans” as Teresa of Avila put it. Christ among the barn animals and then those quirky magi astrologers and then all the rest of the Gospel’s curious cast of characters.
God with us.
God with the prostitutes and the lepers and the outcast in whose company Jesus would delight again and again. God at the dinner table with a chive stuck between his incisors. God lifting the cup of wine to his lips.
God with us.
God with the little children whose warm brows he touched and blessed. God smiling when a baby was shown to him by a proud new mother.
God with us in all our ordinary times and days. God with us, as Jesus would say to bookend Matthew’s gospel, even unto the end of the ages. Always. With us. Immanuel.
Immanuel is God-with-us in the cancer clinic and at the local nursing home where bodies slump pitifully in wheelchairs pushed up against the hallway walls.
Immanuel is God-with-us in the Hospice room and when life’s final breath slips past a dear one’s teeth and lips.
Immanuel is God-with-us when the pink slip comes and when the beloved child sneers, “I hate you!”
Immanuel is God-with-us when you pack the Christmas decorations away and, with an aching heart, you realize afresh that your one son never did call over the holidays. Not once.
Immanuel is God-with-us when your dear wife or mother stares at you with an Alzheimer’s glaze and absently asks, “What was your name again, dear?”
Ever and always Jesus stares straight into you with his two good eyes and he does so not only when you can smile back but most certainly also when your own eyes are full of tears. In fact, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with you” even in those times when you are so angry with God that you refuse to meet his eyes. But even when you feel like you can’t look at him, he never looks away from you.
His name says it all.
This is less a textual note and more of a general New Testament textual observation: but isn’t it curious that Joseph never speaks in the Bible? Even in Luke’s far more extended “Christmas” narrative in Luke 1-2, Joseph never utters a syllable. But perhaps that is because, as Matthew notes in this Year A lection from Matthew 1, Joseph was “a righteous man.” A righteous person lets his or her actions do the talking. A righteous person is the opposite of someone who is “all talk, no action.” Joseph in Matthew 1 acts swiftly on the messages he receives from God, even when those messages are counter-intuitive and difficult. (It’s difficult to imagine that Joseph’s decision to stick with Mary was universally hailed as a good idea. People no doubt talked behind his back, whispering about her pre-nuptial pregnancy and wondering if either Joseph was himself the too-eager paramour of Mary or if he was actually sticking with a woman who had been unfaithful to him even before they were married.) But a righteous man need not say much. His actions say it all.
As Frederick Buechner once mused (seeing as his own last name trips up many’a person trying to pronounce it), what is it about our names and how we identify with them? With a last name like mine—Hoezee—I, like Fred Buechner, more-or-less expect it to be mispronounced as often as not by restaurant maitre’d’s and telemarketers and even sometimes by the person introducing me when I am a guest preacher or speaker somewhere. That happens. But why is it that when that happens, I end up being the one to feel embarrassed about it? I’ve never once seen the person doing the mispronouncing blush but sometimes I do even as I just feel foolish for having been publicly addressed incorrectly.
(For the record, it’s pronounced like the Spanish name Jose or “Ho-Zay”).
A strange business, our names and how we identify with them. It probably tells us that names are important but also that we come to identify with our own names. We get caught up in them. We like it when people associate good things with our names and feel chagrined in case for whatever the reason the opposite happens. We like it when someone recognizes our name (“Say, are you the person who wrote that nice article in the newspaper a while back . . .?”) and feel oddly diminished when someone who should know full well who we are glances at our name but with nary a hint of recognition or recollection.
Forget my name and I have the odd feeling it is me, my entire person, whom you have forgotten (or dismissed as being unworthy of recollection).
Matthew 1 is all about names. We get a whole Family Tree’s worth of names right out of the chute but finally we narrow down the whole chapter to one very specific name—actually, to two very specific names—almost as a way to say that all of history has been leading up to this one point when Someone would finally come with a Name above all names, a Name that will never be forgotten, a Name that will spell Life itself.
And in this case, if ever we get the name wrong or forget it altogether, it really will not be Jesus/Immanuel who will do the blushing.
Author: Doug Bratt
Human life is full of signs. A number painted on metal rectangle indicates the legal speed limit on a road or highway. Twin golden arches are a sign of the culinary paradise that awaits you at the next exit.
Yet once you leave a highway, you find even more signs: A figure with pants on a restroom door indicates a men’s room; a skirted figure, a women’s room. A 4/4 on a staff of music means that each measure of the composition will have four beats, and quarter notes will be worth a beat each.
Signs indicate or point to something. A traffic arrow points which way to turn. An index finger pointed high in the air indicates that you’re a member or fan of a successful sports team.
Some signs have great power. Making the sign of the cross, for example, reminds Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians of Jesus Christ’s life’s central events. The straight-armed Nazi salute told millions of people that Hitler claimed to be god.
When God gives Ahaz a sign in our text, the king is like an aspen leaf in a windstorm. After all, he leads a Judah that’s under assault. Enemies threaten Judah from three sides. So it’s almost as if Canada and Mexico declared war on the United States, while Australia’s navy mounted an assault from the west.
National leaders generally look for political or military solutions to such problems. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Ahaz wants to make a military pact with the mighty Tigleth-Pilser. God, however, understands that military and political alliances offer only temporary solutions.
By contrast, the God who has specific solutions for specific problems has a lasting solution. So God tells Ahaz through Isaiah not to be afraid of Israel and Damascus’ assault. Their leaders are, after all, nothing more than a lit match that God can easily snuff out. God promises that Judah’s enemies won’t replace Ahaz with another king. After all, God has promised that one of David’s descendants will always sit on Israel’s throne.
But can David’s descendant Ahaz rely on God’s protection? Can the king count on something that seems as flimsy as God’s promises when enemy kings are already beginning to blockade Jerusalem?
It’s the kind of question we face every day. After all, we may not be facing military enemies the way Ahaz figuratively did. But advancing age, questionable health, shaky finances or job uncertainty may make us shake like trees in the wind. So can we count on God’s protection? Or must we make some alliance with some other powerful forces, counting on what they help us to do to save ourselves?
Isaiah insists Ahaz can trust the Lord who holds the future of nations in God’s hands. God is even willing to bolster Ahaz’s trust. In order to guarantee the truth of God’s promises to protect Ahaz, Isaiah promises to give the king a visible sign. After all, the Lord who created us knows that God often needs to reinforce our flimsy faith in God.
So it’s almost as if God is willing to sign a contract with King Ahaz guaranteeing that God will keep him in power. Isaiah says Ahaz can ask for anything possible or impossible.
The king, however, has perhaps already decided that God’s promises aren’t as reliable as military might. So Ahaz rejects God’s startlingly gracious offer to give him a sign.
Of course, he makes his reasons for doing sound very religious. In verse 12 the king says, “I will not put the Lord to the test,” using the same words that Jesus uses when the devil tempts him. But, as Len Vander Zee notes, “While you may quote scripture to the devil, you don’t have to quote it to God.” God, after all, already knows that we may not put God to the test. This, however, is no test. God is graciously offering a guarantee of God’s protection that Ahaz simply needs to receive with his faith.
But because the king refuses to trust God, God’s offer turns ominous. Because he’s, in a sense, putting God to the test by trying God’s patience, God gives him a warning sign. “The virgin will be with child,” Isaiah promises in verse 14, “And will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Is the prophet is speaking of a “young woman,” as the text reads in its original language? Or does he refer to a “virgin,” as the Greek version of the Old Testament translates the word? The Hebrew word Isaiah uses, almah, describes a young woman of marriageable age who may or may not have already been intimate with a man. However, it’s not the Hebrew word for “virgin.”
Of course, Matthew sees this verse as a prophecy about Jesus. His young mother was, after all, not just too young to be married. Mary had also never been intimate with a man when the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus with her.
Yet while its choice of this text as an Advent lesson suggests the Lectionary thinks of this as a prophecy about Jesus, all biblical prophecy has an immediate as well as a long-term fulfillment. So Elizabeth Achtemeier suggests that Ahaz and Isaiah, in fact, probably know the young woman of whom the prophet writes. She may even be either the king or the prophet’s wife.
In any case, somewhere in Isaiah’s Israel, a child is born whose young mother gives him the name Immanuel. He’s God’s sign that God will keep God’s promise to stay with Judah.
Yet while the child’s name serves as a sign for Ahaz, it’s not necessarily a comforting one. Signs can, after all, have different meanings. Immanuel, the sign that God is with us, is a bit like that. It can, after all, signal either God’s judgment or salvation. In Isaiah 8:8, after all, the prophet promises that the flood that is Assyria will flood the land of Judah as God’s judgment on its injustices. Yet in verses 9-10 God also goes on to promise that Assyria will be defeated because God is with Judah.
Now we generally assume that “Immanuel, God with us,” is a comforting promise. You and I presume that it assures us of the child born at Bethlehem’s protective love, forgiveness and mercy. “God with us” is, after all, one of the chief messages of our Christmas celebrations. It’s the promise to which we cling when no one else seems with us, when, in fact, everything may seem against us.
Yet as Achtemeier notes, we sometimes wrongly assume that God is only on our side. Christians have claimed this promise to mean that that God allies himself with us whether we choose to obey or disobey the Lord. For example, one of Nazi Germany’s slogans, Gott mit uns, “God with us,” chills anyone who knows a bit about the sometimes-violent twentieth century.
So Advent invites us to consider what it really means that God is with us in Jesus Christ. It invites us to ask whether our lives can stand up to the scrutiny of a God who’s always there. Do we really want God to be with us when we go online, off to work or out to play?
What’s more, can our society that’s as full of injustice as Judah’s was stand up to such scrutiny? Do North Americans, for example, really want God closely examining not just our political and military machinations, but also our treatment of the poor?
Perhaps God’s adopted sons and daughters can only receive the birth of Immanuel with the plea, “Lord who is always with me, be merciful to me, a sinner.” While, after all, we don’t deserve the grace of forgiveness, our loving God offers it to us in abundance anyway.
Reformed Christians profess that baptism is a sign that “as surely as water washes away dirt from the body, so certainly Christ’s blood and his Spirit wash away … all” of our “sins.” Yet doesn’t believing that sometimes require the kind of faith to which Isaiah calls Ahaz in this morning’s text?
We naturally assume we must do something to save ourselves. It’s hard for us to imagine finding salvation in just quietly trusting that God will be present to us to give us everything we need.
Isaiah, however, reminds us that our confidence comes from God’s unfailing love. God graciously “establishes us,” providing everything needed to those who receive God’s grace with our trust in God’s promises.
Yet when Isaiah calls Ahaz to such trust, he’s dealing with political and military issues that still bedevil our own world. Like Judah’s king, we easily assume that politicians, multinational corporations and the military can end the clashes of armies, ideologies and cultures.
The God of the prophets, however, is far bigger than even the mightiest people, groups and nations. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is Lord over all empires, nations and peoples. God is in charge of history, all creation and the future.
In fact, Jesus Christ himself is a sign that earth’s powers don’t get the last word. He was, after all, born when tyrants like Caesar Augustus and Herod could make people shake like trees in the forest. But while those bullies died almost two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ lives.
Bruce Watson’s remarkable book, Freedom Summer, describes the summer of 1964 when hundreds of volunteers went to Mississippi to work for civil rights. With the state’s oppressed black people, they endured ghastly harassment, intimidation and persecution.
Among other things, Watson emphasizes the ambiguous meaning of signs in the Mississippi in which they worked. For white citizens, signs at the state line meant they were finally coming home. But for black people and freedom workers, the signs at the Mississippi state line meant they were entering a land of discrimination, hatred and lynchings.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Author: Stan Mast
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, just a week away from Christmas, it is easy to imagine those shepherds already in the fields keeping watch over their sheep, completely unaware of what is going to happen to them in just a few days. But we can’t go there yet. It is not Christmas yet; it’s still Advent, this season of waiting, expectation, hope, and, often, more than a little desperation. That is certainly the mood of Psalm 80, where the people of Israel turn to their Shepherd King and beg him to “awaken, come, and save” his flock.
The passionate tone of this Advent Psalm is clearly out of touch with my favorite little secular carols that bounces “over the valley and through the woods” to grandmother’s house. This desperate prayer for revival will prepare us for the coming of the Son of Man, so that we can have a much deeper and more joyful celebration of the Father’s gift to the human race. I call this a prayer for revival because of its thrice repeated refrain. With growing urgency (note the additional names for God in each successive petition), God’s waiting people pray, “Restore us, O God, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved (verses 3, 7, 19).” Verse 18 in the NIV even uses the word revive; “revive us, and we will call on your name.” On this last Sunday before the Big Event, the lectionary leads us to pray for revival.
Now I am well aware that “revival” is a bad word in some circles. We have this Elmer Gantry picture of revivals—you know, big tents with sawdust floors, organs on full tremolo playing “Just As I Am,” large florid evangelists in full tropical sweat. When we hear the word revival, some of us imagine emotional, manipulative, often dishonest and money-grubbing displays of the worst in fundamentalist Christianity.
Others of us will hear that word and recall John Calvin’s teaching that the entire Christian life is to be a daily renewal, a constant revival of our walk with God, a continual conversion. Those of us who know that understanding of the Christian life are theologically uncomfortable with the big one-time revival events.
Well, I share all of that discomfort with the word “revival,” but I want to suggest to you that we should nevertheless put this prayer before our people not only in this season of Advent, but all year long. Let us pray regularly for personal revival, church-wide renewal, spiritual restoration, using this thrice repeated prayer. “Restore us, O God, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.”
The fact that it is repeated three times in this short Psalm tells us that the ancient people of God had no question about their need for revival. They had been wonderfully blessed by God. He had rescued them by miraculous force from bondage in Egypt, led them through the howling wilderness of Sinai giving them bread from heaven and water from the rock, and then planted them like a vine in the rich soil of Palestine. By the blessing of God, they had overrun that land, until they filled it from the north to the south, from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River (verses 8-11). That had been the Golden Age of Israel.
But now the gold had faded, as verses 12-13 so painfully describe. A great nation from the north was plucking their grapes, conquering this city and then that village, taking away this tribe and then threatening another, so that the whole Kingdom of God was in mortal danger. Refugees clogged the streets of Jerusalem, reports of further enemy invasions filled the air, the sound of weeping was everywhere, and the future of God’s chosen people, his Old Testament church, was very much in doubt. Many scholars think the reference here is to the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom.
The worst thing about their situation was their knowledge that God was behind all the trouble, as verses 4-6 and 16 so clearly say. For part of their history, Israel had the crazy thought that they were a self-made nation, that they didn’t really need God, or at least that God wasn’t as important as the prophets said he was. Well, we don’t hear any of that kind of talk in Psalm 80. By now they knew that the God who uprooted them from Egypt and planted them in Canaan had now ripped them up and exposed them to the power of the enemy from the north. They sensed that God’s frown glowered behind the clouds of invasion and war that loomed off there in the north. They even felt that God was angry with their prayers (verse 4), or at least that God’s anger wasn’t swayed by their prayers.
So with a sense of desperation they cry out to God, “O God, let your hand rest upon us, revive us, restore us, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” They knew that they needed revival more than anything. But do we? That is the biggest question for your sermon on Psalm 80. Is this a prayer we need to take on our lips? Do we need revival? I hear very different answers to that in the church today.
On the one side are those who believe that the church is in terrible shape, in mortal danger of being overrun by the enemy. Some think it’s because the church has torn loose from its historical biblical/doctrinal roots, while others believe it’s because the church has gotten stuck in a rut and refuses to follow the new leading of God’s Spirit. But all of these people think the church is in trouble and that something needs to be done about it. There are myriad opinions about exactly what that “something” might be.
On the other side of this revival question are those who think the church is just fine. Folks in my last church often said, “Look, we’re gaining members, we have wonderful worship, we offer a wide variety of programs, we support missions enthusiastically, our people are engaged in works of justice and mercy and witness all over the city, we raise our children to follow Jesus, etc., etc.” Such people say, “The church has never been better. Don’t beat up on us again just because you have a bee in your bonnet.” We don’t need revival; we’re just fine.
So, there’s the question. Do we need to pray for revival? I’ve been thinking and praying about this for some time now, and I’d like to share some thoughts I’ve gleaned from here and there to stimulate your thinking and preaching. In a book entitled Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do about It, John Cobb (himself a mainliner) charges the mainline church with lukewarmness. That, of course, is a reference to Rev. 3:16, where Jesus said to the church at Laodicea, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot not cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
What does lukewarmness amount to? Cobb says it is a “low intensity of shared feelings… a low degree of passionate interest and a low valuation of faith and church.” Ask him what that means and he answers that a truly alive church is one that is culturally engaged, a church in touch with its world, speaking and listening to it and ministering to the needs of the world. The church needs to be revived, says Cobb, because it is so lukewarm that it isn’t passionately involved with the world.
Others suggest that the trouble with the church is precisely that it has gotten so involved with the world that it has become just like the world. Louis Dupre, a professor at Yale, says, “We have all become atheists, not in the hostile, antireligious sense of an earlier age, but in the sense that God no longer matters absolutely…, if God matters at all.” He says it is harder to be a Christian in our secular age than it has ever been in the history of the world, because Christianity has become simply one element of civilization among many others, and by no means the most important. So we can be Christians in the same way that we are Republicans, and stamp collectors, and Cubs’ fans, and golfers. Rather than being the very center of life, God has become one small part. We don’t love him with heart and soul and mind and strength.
And that, for me, is the greatest sign that we need revival, and need it desperately. Do you remember the final words of Mother Theresa, that frail little woman who had wrestled with many a dark night of the soul as she went about doing good in Jesus’ name. As she breathed her last, she said, “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you.” Would those be your last words? Are they the constant prayer of your heart right now? In Rev. 2:4, Jesus said to the church at Ephesus, “I hold this against you. You have forsaken your first love.”
That was Israel’s first sin and great sin, and it may well be ours. Alas, it is a sin of which we are scarcely aware. Here’s how Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and statesman, put it in his classic devotional, Near Unto God. “Let’s face it, heinous public sin—adultery, murder, theft—prompts its own regret. We know we’ve done wrong. Shame tells us as much. But who among us really feels himself or herself in violation of the command to love God with everything. Very, very few.” And that is the heart of the problem—why we don’t put God at the very center, why we aren’t passionately involved in saving God’s world, why we need revival. We have lost our first love, and we don’t even know it.
What are we going to do about it? What can we do about what’s wrong with the church? How can we make people, including ourselves, love God more? How can we put God back at the center? How can we get rid of this damnable lukewarmness that dulls the passion of God’s people for God and God’s world? There are many things we can do; many people are doing them. We can feel bad about it all and get depressed and weep. We can talk to each other and to our allies and to our leaders. We can complain and caucus and lobby and protest and picket. We can re-tool, re-engineer, re-program, re-vision. Or we can withhold our funds from the church and simply leave the whole mess behind. But will any of those things create love for God, or committed faith, or passion for the lost, or any of the things we think of when we talk about revival?
Here’s what Psalm 80 tells us about revival. First, it begins with repentance. The word translated “restore us” has the deep sense of “cause us to turn.” The only way we can be revived is if we turn from our sins back to God, back from our secondary loves to our first Love.
But second, that very prayer acknowledges that we cannot make that turn on our own. “Cause us to turn.” That means revival ultimately comes from God. We can’t manufacture it or program it. That’s why Psalm 80 focuses from first to last on God, the Shepherd of Israel. Revival will come when he once again becomes the focus of our lives.
Verse 18 suggests that our focus must be on Jesus. I know, the reference there to “the man at your right hand, the son of man whom you have raised up” was first of all about Israel. But later Judaism came to see that verse as Messianic. And we Christians know the Jesus is the Son of Man, who is now at God’s right hand. Revival comes when the church once again makes Jesus the center of its life.
How can we make such a dramatic shift in our attention, our commitments, our loves? Psalm 80 tells us that we need to pray. “Restore us, O God, make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” Yes, I see the great problem there. How can we pray such a prayer if we are lukewarm? How can we pray for revival if we are so spiritually lifeless that we don’t even know we are? Maybe the three fold repetition of this prayer gives a clue. You’ve already seen how it grows in intensity. We begin simply, with a modicum of faith, hope and love. God is simply “God (verse 3).” Then as the Spirit begins a deeper work in us, God becomes “God Almighty (verse 7).” Our awareness of God’s power grows as we pray for revival. And then by God’s grace, God becomes “O Lord God Almighty (verse 19).” “Lord” is Yahweh, the covenant name of God, the name we use when we are keenly aware of our unshakeable relationship with God.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, let us commit ourselves to pray for revival, wherever we are on the scale of spiritual vitality. Whether God is simply “God,” God as an idea or a distant person, or “God Almighty,” God as a force to be reckoned with, the One whose almighty hand and outstretched arm have redeemed his people, or “Lord God Almighty,” God as the Shepherd of his people who laid down his own life for his flock—wherever we are with God, we can pray for revival and by his grace he will “awaken, come, and save us.” He did it on Christmas Day long ago. He can do it again in our lives in this season of Advent.
What can we do to be revived? Consider this quote from Simone Weil. “There are people who try to raise their souls like the man continually taking standing jumps in the hopes that, if he jumps higher every day, a time will come when he no longer falls back but will go right up to the sky. Thus occupied he cannot look at the sky. We cannot take a single step upward toward heaven. It is not in our power to travel in a vertical direction. If however we look heavenward for a long time, God comes and takes us up. He raises us easily.”
Or here’s another way to look at it. Revival cannot begin until we realize our need, our desperate condition, our distance from the God we supposedly love. Consider this story told by Kierkegaard. “In a certain village the school bell rang at 8:30 AM to call the children to class. The boys and girls left their homes and toys reluctantly, creeping like snails into their school, not late but not a second early. The bells rang at 3:30 PM, releasing the children to homes and toys, to which they rushed at the very moment of the tolling of the bell. This is how is was every day, with every child, except one.
She came early to help the teacher prepare the room and the materials for the day. She stayed late to help the teacher clean the board, dust erasers, and put away materials. And during the day she sat close to the teacher, all eyes and ears, for the lessons being taught.
One day when the noise and inattention were worse than usual, the teacher called the class to order. Pointing to the little girl in the front row, the teacher said, ’Why can’t you be as she is? She comes early to help, she stays late to help, and all day long she is attentive and courteous.’
‘It isn’t fair to ask us to be as she is,’ said one boy from the rear of the room. ‘Why?’ ‘Because she has an advantage,’ he replied. ‘I don’t understand. What is her advantage?’ asked the puzzled teacher. ‘She’s an orphan,’ he almost whispered as he sat down.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
“To God’s beloved ones in Rome.” Such a simple, such a commonplace way to open a letter. We read such a salutation in all of the New Testament’s many epistles. And it’s easy to breeze right past it, hurry on by to get to the meat of the letter, the real important stuff about the Gospel and God’s wrath and suppressing the truth and all that other juicy stuff in what we now call Romans 1. It’s like just glancing at the return address on an envelope but then immediately flipping it over so you can tear the envelope open and get to the good stuff inside.
But this time we cannot do that. Not with this salutation. Oh, granted, it’s still just a standard greeting but this one packs a punch. Because it turns out that God has beloved children in Rome. And in the letter Paul wrote, God has many words of encouragement and love for those beloved ones in Rome.
In Rome, you notice. The place, the time, make all the difference in the world. If you don’t believe that, try on these acoustics that I think get at the dynamic I want us to spy here.
It is the darkest days of World War II. People are dying. Bombs are falling regularly from the skies. Jews have been rounded up, herded like cattle, and never seen again. Then:
“To God’s beloved ones in . . . London. To God’s beloved ones in . . . Berlin.”
It is a time of state oppression of all things religious and holy. God has been declared dead, religion illegal or frowned on. Then:
“To God’s beloved ones in . . . Moscow. To God’s beloved ones in . . . Wittenberg. To God’s beloved ones in . . . Beijing.”
To God’s beloved ones in South Sudan and Darfur, to God’s beloved ones in Aleppo and in Karachi, to God’s beloved ones in southside Chicago and in Port-au-Prince, to God’s beloved ones in Havana and in Pyongyang.
To God’s beloved ones wherever God’s people feel the love of God seems far away, wherever God’s people feel exiled even if they are still living in the same place they’ve always been, wherever there is fear and suffering and doubt and worry that, frankly, God seems many days disinterested in addressing: to all God’s beloved ones wherever they may be: grace to you, and, oh yes, also peace to you through God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s no small thing to offer. To remind people in bad places and in bad times and in frightening places and in uncertain times that, first off, they ARE beloved and that, second off, on account of that prior love of God they can have a measure of grace and peace right now. This is not cheap grace and it is not some easy, breezy, lightly slapped-into-place peace. This is the grace of God that led the Son of God to a bloody cross and this is a peace that comes only when you know what Paul wrote here in also verse 4: namely, we know Jesus is God because God put his stamp of powerful approval on him by raising him up from the dead.
This is a grace that goes beyond our deserving and that can endure, therefore, straight through our sorrows. This is a peace that came FROM death and so it is not undone by a world shot through with death. It’s not an empty grace and it’s not an easy peace—both come freighted with the love of God—the terrible, awful, awesome, fierce love of God. The whole burden of history comes along with this grace and peace. But that’s a good thing because we need a tough grace and a sturdy peace if they are going to hold up for one blessed second in this sometimes dreadful world.
In the secular world our holy season of Advent/Christmas has gotten turned into a would-be magical season. It’s a time to let children’s eyes sparkle in wonder over twinkling trees and for all of us to get misty-eyed over saccharine little tales of magical transformation that are supposed to put a skip in our step and flutter our hearts with, if not the real-deal article of joy, at least some faint echoes of a silly giddiness that might have some distant relationship to the joy we seek (see the Illustration Idea below for an example).
But this magical season is not the Christian holy season. You cannot beam Currier & Ives portraits of good cheer and warm hearths into Aleppo and expect them to do one lick of good. Ah, but the grace and peace of Jesus Christ beamed to people who can be reminded that despite all hell’s having broken loose here and there, they really are still the beloved of God . . . that message might just do something.
Indeed, we believe it will. We believe it has. Grace to you, and peace.
The good folks at H&M department store have produced a little Wes Anderson video clip that has been making the rounds on Facebook and YouTube this season. It’s cute, it’s charming, it’s “magical” in the sense people seem to hanker for. But you could not send this ditty to the beloved ones in Rome or Beijing or Pyongyang or Aleppo and expect any magic to come. To riff on C.S. Lewis, we don’t need magic in this season or ever, we need the “deep magic” of God that in Christ unmade death in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. THAT is what leads to, not magic, but to grace and to peace.