Fleeing to Egypt

“Fleeing to Egypt”

Matthew 2:13-21 – December 29, 2019

Matt 2-12 Flucht_nach_Aegypten_Meuhlhausener_Altar_Bamberger_Dom

I have been puzzled by the week between Christmas and New Year for some years. Yes, it’s still the holiday season, and yes, lots of people are on reduced schedules, or even taking the whole week as a holiday. But, I realize some people need to keep working regular shifts, to do necessary things that keep the wheels of society rolling and things continuing to happen. As we all know, holidays do not last forever…or sometimes even for a few days.

Remember back to last Sunday? The fourth Sunday of Advent? I talked about the shepherds, and how they got ready to visit the Baby the Angel told them about. Only thing—the shepherds couldn’t afford to take a lot of time off to see the Baby. I doubt whether they could even take more than a few hours, at most a day, to go and see the Baby in Bethlehem. And, the angels in the angel chorus? The angels had gone back to heaven in an instant. They had already left before the shepherds even decided to check out this fantastic story.

Between last Sunday and today, Christmas happened. We sang “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and lit our candles around the Advent wreath. But, what does our Scripture reading say happened? How on earth did we get from shepherds adoring the Baby at the manger to the horrible reading we had just now, from Matthew chapter 2?

Thank goodness for the Angel, again! Thank God the Angel came to Joseph—again—in a dream, and told him to flee to a different country, with Mary and the Baby. The Holy Family was fleeing for their lives; or, at least, for their Baby’s life.

Today, when young couples here in the United States have a new baby, even a toddler, usually the extended family, good friends, and often the church family members gather around in a fond shower of gifts, sometimes bringing dinner or other good things to eat. Somehow, I doubt whether Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus had much of a baby shower before Mary went into labor. Our reading from Matthew 2 tells us a whole lot more serious than just not having a baby shower. Matthew describes an evil, manipulative king who was extremely jealous and anxious. He worried about attacks against his power structure.

From all accounts of Herod and his life and reign, he was a tyrant. Looking at writings from contemporary authors of that period, Herod was cruel and bloodthirsty. He was also two-faced, as we can see from a few verses before our lectionary passage today, from his response to the Magi. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, and requested that they come back after they find this “King of the Jews,” because Herod wished to “worship” this King as well.

I have a pretty good idea of exactly what Herod wished to do to the baby Jesus from what follows. What is even worse is King Herod has demanded that his soldiers go and slaughter all infant and toddler boys in and around Bethlehem. This reading of the slaughter of the innocents? Why this massive horror and carnage to happen? Why now? Isn’t it still the holidays? Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas? We just sang “O Little Child of Bethlehem” just a few days ago.

Sure, those soldiers were military men. I know those in the military have to do some really unpleasant things. But, ordered to kill babies and toddlers? Well. Just look who was giving that horrible order: the cruel, bloodthirsty King Herod.

We can see why the Holy Family left Judea. They fled. They became refugees.

As I have been thinking about this Scripture reading from Matthew 2 this past week, I wondered about the term “refugee.” I know many people use this term, not only in this country, but also internationally, and some of these people are misusing the term. What is the actual definition of the term “refugee?”

For this definition, I went to the United Nations website, where the UN describes and defines a great many words and terms that concern millions of people, worldwide. According to the migrant and refugee section of the official website, “Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” [1] From everything described in Matthew chapter 2, that definition of refugees describes the Holy Family all too well. Sadly, too well.

As one of my favorite commentators Carolyn Brown said, “It would be nice if everyone had gone happily home and watched Jesus grow up safe and secure with angels watching over him and no problems for anyone.  But it didn’t work that way.  It doesn’t work out that way for any of us.  We all have all sorts of problems to worry about and work on.” [2]

Here in the United States, people are sometimes forced to relocate or are made homeless because of natural disasters or floods or fires – which certainly are on the UN’s list in their definition of the term “refugee.” We know about these refugees, or migrants.

A young man was shot on the Howard St. El platform just a few weeks ago. He had moved from the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side to Rogers Park, because he did not want to be actively recruited by gangs. And—he was shot in the back, execution-style, by a rival gang member. He tried to migrate. He tried to get away from feared persecution, conflict and violence by moving to the relatively safer area of Rogers Park.

This is not the sweet story of Christmas we heard on Christmas Eve. This wasn’t the gentle story of a young woman giving birth to a Baby, and angels giving a birth announcement to shepherds, including the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all!” Where—we heard about God breaking into the world, coming to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The narrative from Matthew 2, though jarring and heart-breaking, helps us know that God is truly with us. Just look at the state of the world, and the sad—even violent situations people encounter all over. Day in and day out, the days are dark more often than not. People like this young man from Englewood get shot, and stabbed. So many feeling separations of race and class and religion and so many other dividing lines.

Yet—nothing surprises God. Yes, the Holy Family did need to run away to escape from Herod the King. “So God understands when we and our families have scary problems.  God is with us and loves us not just when things are Christmas Eve wonderful but also when nothing is going right.  Right now, on the Sunday after Christmas, that is really good to know.  Christmas is over for this year.  But, soon it’s back to school [and work] and all the old problems and people we will struggle with.  It’s a good time to remember that God was with Jesus and His family in the peaceful stable AND on the scary road to Egypt.” [3]
            He is able to not only help us through our times of trouble, but also to be God with us. Jesus is there with us, even though homes are destroyed and children are slaughtered. Jesus is there with us through all the pain and suffering, through all the wailing and lamentation. We have His word on it. Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” What a precious promise! What a wonderful Christmas gift! Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/definitions

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-first-sunday-after-christmas.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

While by My Sheep

“While by My Sheep”

 

Luke 2-10 angels, shepherds, Rembrandt 1635

Luke 2:15-20 – December 22, 2019

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, with all of its opportunities to acquaint ourselves with our Lord Jesus once more. Whether in church on an Advent Sunday, or experiencing the wonder of preparation with an Advent calendar, we have many opportunities to prepare our hearts for the arrival of Christmas during the Advent season.

But, now is two thousand years after the first Christmas. We have developed a great many rituals and observances surrounding the birth of a Baby in Bethlehem. The liturgical year has been instituted, with the season of Advent celebrated for four weeks before Christmas even happens; Advent being the time of preparation and waiting before the birthday of the King.

The shepherds around the village of Bethlehem did not even know anything special was happening, that first Christmas night. They were simply going about their normal nightly activities with the sheep. When—suddenly, as Luke tells us, the whole night sky was lit up, as bright as noonday.

Do we remember what the social situation of the shepherds was, at the time Jesus was born? I mentioned it last week, in my sermon. I mentioned that shepherds were among the lowest of the low, as far as social class was concerned. Shepherds were on the outskirts of society, the same way they usually lived on the outskirts of a town or village. A shepherd was not highly regarded by common, decent Jews at that time, at all.

This narrative from Luke chapter 2 becomes all that much more valuable, that much more unusual, with the shepherds among the first to hear about the birthday of a newborn King.

We looked at the arrival of the angel of the Lord last week, delivering a heavenly birth announcement to these most unlikely recipients, the lowly shepherds. The shepherds were so astounded by the Good News of the angelic chorus that after the angels left they talked among themselves. After discussing the news, they determined to go check things out. Or, as Luke said, “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”

That is one thing our observance of Advent is supposed to heighten: just like small children, Christians are supposed to get more and more excited about the approach of Christmas. a whole month of Advent is supposed to make us look forward to the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem so much more.

Since we live in the northern hemisphere, the coming of Christmas means winter—cooler temperatures, shorter days and longer nights. This time of year is also known as the Winter Solstice; that is, the time of the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Do you think people were (and are) looking forward to the approach of more sunlight, of longer days and shorter nights? This is also an integral part of the Christmas celebration, a celebration of the return of sunlight and warmth, a harbinger of growth and green and all the things that light and life bring back into the world.

And, here we have the shepherds, stuck in the middle of all of this celebration, all this foretelling and forth-telling of God’s Good News. Isn’t that the message the angels brought to the shepherds? “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Good news, indeed!

Although the shepherds were not aware of the deeper meaning at the time, God’s angelic witness was first delivered to those of low station. These who were outcast, the lowest of the low by society’s standards formed for us a view of God’s redeeming love.

In the same way of His ancestor, the shepherd king David, our shepherd king Jesus would shepherd His people through the lineage of His earthly father Joseph and the Oneness with His heavenly Father. The lowly shepherds who were shunned by society, yet responsible for keeping the safety of temple’s sacrificial sheep in the area surrounding Jerusalem, were thus caused to be the first to see and hear God’s great Good News. [1]

As the shepherds excitedly discussed this angelic birth announcement, they did decide to go into Bethlehem and see this newborn Baby. And, as Luke tells us, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

Tell me, does anyone here want to get on a street corner and tell others about God’s Good News? That was exactly what the shepherds wanted to do! The people on the outside, on the outskirts of the town of Bethlehem, the outcasts of society were so very excited by the Good News and by the miraculous sights they had seen.

Does that make you want to go and tell? Getting so excited about the miraculous, and yet every-day?  At once, wanting to bow in worship at the manger, and at the same time wanting to jump up and go and tell the blessed truth about Jesus?

Yes, our dear Lord Jesus is creator of al that is dark and all that is light. He is the Light of the world and the Lord of the day, and all that is green and growing. He is the Lord of darkness, too. Lord of all that is scary and fear-filled, yet also Lord of the night and nocturnal creatures, and the warm, welcoming darkness of nurture and strength.

Let us go and tell others about the blessed truth of Christmas, about how Jesus is so much more than just a Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger. Our Lord Jesus is also Emmanuel, God with us.

Glory to God in the highest! Christ is born in Bethlehem. Our response? Go and tell!

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 4 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[1] http://beambiblebounty.blogspot.com/2015/12/shepherds-joy.html

“Shepherds Joy!” Thomas Beam, 2015.

Bringing Good News!

“Bringing Good News”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Luke 2:9-10 – December 15, 2019

Have you ever spent two hours in a dark movie theater, and come outside into the bright sunlight? When people are in the dark for some time, their eyes adjust and become used to the warm, friendly darkness. And, being in a movie theater can also transport people into a whole new world. Then, when the movie is over and they step into the real world, into sudden bright daylight, the stark difference in dark and light can be a shock to the system, can’t it?

That was a little what it was like for the shepherds, so long ago on the hills at night around Bethlehem. Not too far from Jerusalem, only eight or ten miles down the road. That was a much different time, and much different place. Electric light had never even been heard of! Sure, after night fell and the sun disappeared under the horizon, people had candles and oil lamps. Although, those were expensive. If people did not have much money to spare, they simply went to bed with the sun, and woke the next morning when the sun rose.

Our Gospel writer Luke tells us that “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”  I am certain the shepherds had some kind of night vision, especially if there was some moon shining and a clear night. I suspect they had grown comfortable with the darkness, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  

I wonder whether anyone here can remember back to a time when they were outside at night, far, far away from the city lights and civilization? Perhaps, far north in Wisconsin or Michigan? Or, maybe in the mountains of Colorado? Then, you might be familiar with that kind of night vision, being aware of all kinds of things happening around you in the dark.

Except – these shepherds had no understanding whatsoever about bright lights! I mean, like spotlights, flood lights, lighting up the whole sky! Suddenly, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” What on earth – or, outside of the earth – was this sudden appearance of the angel?

Some people in the 21st century probably are so accustomed to the Christmas story that their idea of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night is somehow associated with Christmas cards. But, it was life as usual for these working people. An everyday way of life in Palestine. What’s more, being a shepherd was not a particularly high class job. The lowly vocation of shepherd was on the outskirts of society. A possible comparison today is to think of a person selling “Streetwise,” the paper sold for $2.00 outside of grocery stores, drug stores and coffee shops here around the Chicago area.

And suddenly, the angel of the Lord came to these shepherds—came to people in homeless shelters, people selling “Streetwise,” people down on their luck, people on the edge, on the outs of society. The angel of the Lord came to them with good news. Good news. Lighting up the sky in a way the shepherds had never seen before. We can see God breaking through, in an unexpected way, to an unexpected group of people.

The message of God’s Good News certainly did not come to the people we might expect. Are they influential members of the community? Rich movers and shakers? Leaders of the local synagogues and teachers of the Law of Moses? Those would be the kinds of people who I might expect to have an angel sent to them. But God doesn’t work that way. Again, God does the unexpected, and chooses the most unlikely people to receive a hand-delivered angelic message from the Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings.

One of my favorite commentators, Carolyn Brown, is a retired Children’s Ministry educator and writer. It is her confirmed opinion that children and families need “To hear the story read or told in an important way on the ‘night it happened’ – Children like hearing the story of their birth on their birthday and celebrating other big events on ‘the very day it happened.’  So, the story which may have been acted out in a pageant and discussed in church school and read at home, feels more ‘real’ when read [at Christmas time] in the sanctuary.” [1]

Last Friday, I was so pleased to be able to welcome the families of the preschoolers here for their holiday program. The highlight of the program was a visit from Santa. Since there are children from such a variety of faith traditions at the preschool, and since this is a preschool that gets help and funding from the state of Illinois, they need to be careful not to make it all about Jesus. It’s fun to think about Santa, but how do we here in the church deal with the tales and legends about Santa?

As Carolyn Brown reminds us, “If Santa is all there is to Christmas Eve once children learn ‘the truth’ [about Santa], Christmas is just a greedy gift grab.  But, if Christmas Eve has always circled around the story of Jesus told in the sanctuary, the truth about Santa can be fit into that context and the Christmas celebration gets richer.” [2]

We can tell our children, our grandchildren, about the bright light seen by the shepherds. We can tell how the angels came to bring the shepherds the Good News that the Baby born in Bethlehem is indeed Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is the Light of the world, God born into this world as a Baby.

Alleluia, amen.

 

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/12/why-children-need-to-get-to-church-on.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas Eve/Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013. Why Children Need to Get To Church on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God with Us!

“God with Us!”

Matt 1-23 Emmanuel Greek

Matt 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38 – December 8, 2019

Have you ever had something unexpected happen? I mean, something huge. Something you never would have expected in a hundred years. Maybe, even a thousand. I know that, with statistics, we can figure out just what are the chances of having something happen. Like, a car accident, or a fall at home, or catching a rare disease. We can even figure out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it.

But—what about being visited by an angel? At night, when you are sleeping? Picture this—our Scripture reading from Matthew 1 tells us about Joseph receiving a visit from an angel of the Lord. Statistically, that angel probably would not even factor, because angels are not material, they are not able to be quantified by any earthly scale or system.

Regardless of whatever statistical system is used, I doubt very much whether Joseph would have been considered “the one most likely to see an angel.” And, especially when we consider what the angel had to say to him.

I wanted to focus on the sleeping part. The angel came to Joseph while he was asleep. That reminds me of someone creeping up on Joseph, trying to surprise him. Perhaps, even trying to scare him. I do not think the angel meant that at all, but the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!”

We are considering light and dark this Advent season. Last week, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

This week, we look at the angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream. But, before we even start with the angel, what was the background to this Scripture reading?

We know Joseph and Mary are engaged—or, pledged to be married. I suspect that it was more than just an engagement thought up by the two young people themselves, with no one else involved. No, at that time, in that part of the world, a marriage was much more. A marriage was an alliance between two families, a merger, a joining of one extended family with another.

When two people got married, it was a long, drawn-out affair. First, both families needed to talk and negotiate. Most times, money or other kinds of valuables changed hands—some kind of dowry or bride price. The man and woman were seen to be engaged, promised to each other. But the actual, official marriage ceremony had not taken place yet. From what I see in the Scripture passage today, this is the point we are at. This is what is going on. Joseph’s family and Mary’s family have arranged the marriage; Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married.

This is where the story starts getting sad, or weird, or surprising—maybe all three. Mary tells Joseph privately, confidentially, that she is pregnant. And, this pregnancy is special. Super extra special! Mary told Joseph that God was the father of her baby.

Now, what did she say? Wait just a minute. What did Mary say? Joseph could not believe this tall tale Mary tried to tell him. And, this certainly seemed to be a whopper, in Joseph’s eyes.

What do you and I do when we have something happen that is statistically unlikely? Even, impossible? What would you or I do if we had someone tell us that they had heard from an angel, and they were pregnant. And, all this had to be kept confidential?

I suspect Joseph had really unsettled sleep for the next few nights. (Wouldn’t you?)

The Gospel reading tells us “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Seriously, if Mary were tried under the law of Moses, and found pregnant before she went through with the marriage ceremony with Joseph, she could be stoned for adultery. Serious, indeed.

This Scripture reading focuses on light and darkness, too. Sailors and other travelers used the light of stars at night to find their way. The stars, of course, were made of light, but the night—the darkness—enabled the sailors to see stars clearly enough to navigate their path. Light and dark worked together to illuminate the way.

It was during one of these nights of agitation and discomfort that the angel of the Lord came to him. In both Joseph’s and Mary’s cases, darkness plays a significant role. Night tells our bodies it’s time to sleep, and sometimes, we can even have dreams. Light and dark can work together in surprising ways.

Do you remember how I started this sermon, and talked about figuring out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it? What are the statistical chances of two engaged people each getting visited by an angel?   

I want to remind us all about the words of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. “The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”

Mary and Joseph, both received word from the angel of the Lord, both at home, and both were scared out of their wits. In both angelic visits, the angels say not to be afraid.  We begin with two people who both did not understand—both were in darkness, except the angel brought light and understanding to both people.

The angelic message offers peace, even as Mary and Joseph face an unexpected future. Like the night sky for ancient sailors, these holy visits to Mary and Joseph point the way when they don’t know what to do. And we know, of course, their message is very good news.

What about us, then, today? Would we receive this same news in the same way?

Each one of us is encouraged to ponder our selves, our lives. Let me suggest that in this pondering, we have the opportunity to offer our thoughts, feelings and emotions to God. Each of us can think of times of regret and sorrow, the deep feelings, the difficult memories. And, what about those times of anxiety and deep sadness? Of desperate loneliness and fear.

Like Mary, like Joseph, each of us today has the ability to ask God to take away the distress and anxiety from us. Just like in Mary’s situation, where she accepted the angel’s news with joy. Just like Joseph, who was persuaded to continue with the engagement by the words of the angel. The angels spread light and life wherever they went.

The angels delivered important messages to Mary and Joseph. Another word for angel is “messenger,” and we can all be messengers of hope, light and life. How can you or your family deliver a message of good news today? Take a moment to think of someone who could use a message of love and hope. Then write a note, send a photo by Facebook or Instagram, draw a picture, or send a text to that person or family.

God willing, we can all be messengers of God’s light, life and hope to others.

Alleluia, amen.

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

David Triumphs over a Bully

“David Triumphs over a Bully “

1 Sam 17 david-goliath, Peter Boon

1 Samuel 17:1, 4, 8-11, 20-24, 31-32, 41-51 – July 28, 2019

Who has experience dealing with a bully? It could be on the playground, or in your neighborhood, or at work, or even in a local church. It does not matter where you or your siblings or children or grandchildren or parents happen to be, chances are that bullies can be found all over.

Our scripture reading features a big bully. Saul is king of Israel, and the perennial enemy of Israel, the Philistines, come to attack Israel yet again. Instead of fighting with the two armies coming up against each other, the Philistines send out their acknowledged champion, a huge man called Goliath, to challenge someone from Israel to fight. Did I mention he was a big bully?

Children often encounter bullies at school or on the playground. As adults, we often have thicker skins and are able to deal with the physical, psychological and verbal abuse bullies so often heap on the smaller and weaker ones around them. Bullies can and do seek out their victims, intimidate, and prey upon them, even if teachers, coaches, administrators and other adults are on the lookout for bullying behavior.

When my husband was growing up on the west side of Winnetka, a neighborhood bully named Adam lived just a couple of blocks away, to the east. You may even have seen him on television or on the big screen after he grew up.

According to common knowledge around the neighborhood, Adam had an unhappy home life, and I feel badly about that. That probably contributed to his negative attitude. Adam was antagonistic to other boys in his neighborhood. He was a sizeable kid, and would intimidate and beat up many other boys. My husband was fortunate, since he never tangled with Adam. I suspect Adam was well known at the local school, and not for a good reason.

Is this similar to Goliath’s backstory? A great question, and one we cannot answer.

1st Samuel 17 tells us for forty days the army of the Philistines were in attack formation, drawn up in battle gear across the valley from the army of Israel. For forty days the large man (some would call him a giant) Goliath would stride in front of the Philistine battle lines to challenge the army of Israel to send out a champion of theirs, to fight. As Ralph Klein, retired professor of Old Testament at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago tells us, “The idea that a combat between two champions could decide a battle is well known in ancient sources. Goliath was 9′ 9″ tall and extremely well armed. His armor would have weighed about 125 pounds.” [1]

Just think—a huge guy with impressive armor and weapons. Goliath was massive!  That alone would be disheartening. But, wait. When we add physical and verbal intimidation to what the Philistine army would be guilty of, we see what a horrible impression they made on the army of Israel. And not only the army of Israel, but for the whole nation of Israel by extension.

Does this sound familiar? Do we have bullies in our neighborhoods? Our schools or workplaces? When we examine and break down how Goliath used intimidation and fear, we can see that Goliath was a master intimidator. (Or, at least, how antagonistic and intimidating were the people who wrote the words for Goliath to say. He might have had great writers.)

What about the other side of this lopsided-looking match-up? We do know what David looked like, from this and other descriptions in 1 and 2 Samuel. At this point, while David is only a teenager, he has not become tall and broad-shouldered yet. He is described as ruddy and good looking. We can also see how full-grown warriors of Israel are afraid and intimidated by the insults and trash talk of Goliath and the Philistine army, and the teenaged David has a very different response. He is horrified at the blasphemies and trash talk Goliath spouts.

Let’s examine what Goliath said, more closely: “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.  If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”  And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

Goliath was a soldier by profession, and very good at what he did. He had probably honed and fine-tuned his scare tactics. We see classic manipulation and intimidation patterns.

I would like to highlight one type of person from our modern context. This can be an office manipulator, a neighborhood busybody, or an overbearing and mocking know-it-all. This type of person is not necessarily a huge menacing presence. They might not be physically intimidating, but their verbal browbeating and coercion can be just as terrorizing. This poisonous activity can induce just as much fear and demoralization in the attitudes and behavior of those surrounding this toxic person. This toxic person can be a virtual Goliath, and might come in many shapes or sizes. We need to be aware and on the lookout for mean bullies like this.

Let’s go back to David. He comes to the army camp with supplies for his older brothers, but the whole camp is away at the battle lines for Goliath’s daily intimidation. “There, David finds his brothers, and as he talks with them, Goliath steps forward to repeat his challenge for the 81st time (see 1 Samuel 17:16). Goliath says what he always does, but this is the first time David has heard him. David listens to this giant’s challenge and his cursing of Israel and her God. He watches the frightened Israelites (including his brothers) draw back, their courage shattered by this man’s words and appearance.” [2]

Wait, says David! Who is this Philistine, and why is the army of Israel cowering in fear?

Great question! We all know the rest of the story. David volunteers to challenge Goliath, comes at him with only a slingshot and smooth stones, and nails Goliath between the eyes with an Olympic-worthy shot from his sling. As the huge man falls to the ground, dead, David hews off Goliath’s head with his own sword, and thus becomes the darling of all of Israel for defeating Goliath. The original David vs. Goliath match-up.

The point of this bible story often displayed for children in Sunday school is that God is with us even when we are afraid, just like God was with David when he faced Goliath. However, from an adult understanding, we can go further. Yes, absolutely, God will be with us in all kinds of unequal, David-versus-Goliath battles. What is more, using God’s perspective can be lifechanging. From God’s point of view, David was the winner even before he used his slingshot. David was a teenager after God’s own heart. He kept his eyes on God and prevailed against a bully, against all human odds.

Are you facing a continuing battle today? Is there a mean bully in your workplace or neighborhood? Finding God’s perspective on the toxic problem is a great help. Continue doing what you know is right, in a winsome and positive way. And, God will continue to be with us, against all the Goliaths that come into our lives.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=331

Commentary, 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49, Ralph W. Klein, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2009.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/14-david-and-goliath-1-samuel-171-58

“David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Terrified? Astounded!

“Terrified? Astounded!”

Jesus Transfiguration_Russian icon

 

Luke 9:28-36 (9:34-35) – March 3, 2019

Have you ever been truly terrified? Not of a horror movie on the movie screen, or of a horrific news story on television, in the newspaper or on the computer, but something terrifying that happened in real life? A first-hand experience, when you were an eye-witness to something truly terrifying?

Both Scripture readings today feature people who were eye-witnesses, who were also absolutely terrified. Both situations are so extraordinary, so far out of the observers’ common, every-day experience that they are frightened almost to death.

Let’s take the three disciples, first. Peter, James, and John, his brother. Jesus asks them to climb with Him to the top of a mountain to pray. This was a regular thing that Jesus did—not the mountain part, but going away by Himself—or with a couple of other people—to pray and meditate in depth. (May I say that this practice of regular prayer is a wonderful practice! And, one we will talk more about as we journey with Jesus throughout Lent in the coming weeks.)

So, Jesus and the three disciples retreat up the mountain to pray, and Peter, James and John were pleased and proud to be singled out in this way by Jesus. I am sure Jesus had a regular practice of prayer and communion with God. He probably led the disciples in regular prayer, and His habit of prayer times were a normal, every-day activity to the disciples.

Let us look at the Scripture reading from Exodus, where the people of Israel are at the foot of the mountain while Moses is up on top, meeting with God and receiving the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them. I am sure the people of Israel were living their common, ordinary, every-day lives while Moses communicated with God for days at a time. Other than some thunder and lightning from the top of the mountain, nothing had really changed for the people of Israel.

Except—in both situations—something suddenly crashed into their every-day lives and ordinary experiences and made all of these people terrified. What was it? They were all eye-witnesses, but what could possibly make them so terror-stricken?

Has anything suddenly crashed into your lives, and upended everything normal and ordinary? Something fearsome and terrifying?

C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books for children that featured a mysterious lion, Aslan. Aslan is the Great King of Narnia, who we later see as a Christ-figure. There are talking beasts—animals, in the Narnia books. When the children from this world speak with some talking beavers in Narnia, Mr. Beaver mentions Aslan: “He’ll be coming and going. One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down – and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” [1] The character of Aslan shows himself in Narnia as a large and terrifying, but also magnificent and wise, lion with warm, kind eyes.

Aslan is dangerous! His roar is both fearsome and magnificent. People in Narnia say “He’s not a tame lion.” Aslan embodies all that is good, and yet is terrifying at the same time. Can you see how something awfully good and magnificent can also be fearsome and terrifying? Both, at the same time?

I suspect that was what the disciples experienced, on top of the mount of Transfiguration as well as the people of Israel, when Moses came down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Good and magnificent, but fearsome and terrifying at the same time.

The disciples were familiar with the figure of their Rabbi Jesus in prayer. They knew that common sight; it was comforting, even. But, listen to what Luke says: “29 As Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.”

In other words, Peter, James and John were astounded and terrified. Jesus was manifesting the presence of God, the divine glory, so His face shone and His clothes became brighter than bright. Fearsome, indeed!

In the case of the people of Israel, when Moses came close to them after being in the presence of God for days and days, his face shone brighter than bright. All of the people of Israel were terrified! What’s more, they begged Moses to cover his face, so that they did not have to see the divine glory reflected in the face of Moses.

Have we ever been eye-witnesses to the presence of God? To the divine glory? In all honesty, I have heard God’s voice on two occasions, but I have not seen the divine glory. Yet, in both readings today, all the people seeing the divine glory were terrified. By all accounts, what a fearsome sight, to be sure!

The three disciples saw the transformed Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, discussing His departure, His crucifixion and what would come next. Except, they did not understand all that, yet. The point that fascinates me is that God manifested divine glory in Jesus—made His face all shiny and magnificent—not for Jesus’s benefit. No! God did this for the disciples! They were the ones who needed to see the glory of the transfigured Christ! Not their Rabbi Jesus, who they had been living with for the past few years. They sort of knew He was special, but they did not realize how special! “By wrapping Jesus in a shiny cloud and incredible clothes, God was telling the disciples, ‘Jesus is more than a special person. Jesus is God-with-you.’” [2]

Praise God! Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us! Jesus has great power, magnificence and divine glory. Yet, Jesus is kind and gentle, loving and caring. Astounding, terrifying, and God-with-us in His majesty and power.

Moses and Elijah came to talk with Jesus while He was transfigured with the divine glory. In Communion today, we can imagine ourselves coming to the Lord’s table with Moses and Elijah and a host of others. A traditional phrase from the Communion liturgy is “with the angels and archangels and all the heavenly host.” That is exactly who we are joining as we come to the Communion table today.

Who are you joining at the Communion table today? We are connected to God, our heavenly Parent, to our Lord Jesus, as well as to a whole host of others, both those living today as well as those with the Lord. Yes, a terrifying thought! But, also welcoming. Not either/or, but both/and.

The divine glory surrounding Jesus is terrifying! Yet, also magnificent, and welcoming, with God’s glorious transformative power. Can we be drawn closer to God today? God willing, we can.

Alleluia, Amen.

[1] Lewis, C.S., The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1950), 180.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/01/year-c-transfiguration-of-lord-february.html

Worshiping with Children, Transfiguration, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

In A Manger

“In A Manger”

international Nativity

Luke 2:1-7 (2:6) – December 16, 2018

Nativity scenes are so sweet. You see them frequently at this time of year. Either lit up, like the one outside of our church, or carved in olive wood, similar to the figure I am holding up right now. They can be ceramic, plaster, or painted. Little, small enough to fit under a Christmas tree, or almost life-sized, like the one I saw outside of a big Catholic church in the suburbs.

I suspect we all could mention the cast of characters we might find in a nativity scene. Besides Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, we find shepherds, animals, kings, and sometimes an angel. The nativity pictures look so gentle and perfect, just like a Christmas card.

Mary and Joseph did not have a picture-perfect time of it. As an adult male living under Roman occupation, Joseph was ordered to go to his ancestral town of Bethlehem and register, just as the Roman rulers said. Dr. Luke records it: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.”

There must have been a great deal of coming and going throughout Israel, as every adult went to their ancestral town. Complicating matters was Mary, Joseph’s betrothed, who was greatly pregnant. “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”

I wonder how Joseph and Mary felt about being uprooted from their small town of Nazareth and forced to travel—that is, walk—dozens of miles through semi-arid, sometimes hilly country. I wonder what Mary and Joseph thought about coming to the very crowded town of Bethlehem, a near suburb of Jerusalem, chock full of extended relatives of King David. And, I have only an inkling of an idea of what Mary thought, being great with child, having to make the long, difficult journey. The forced timing of this whole trip must have been simply awful.

I want us to step back from Mary and Joseph for a moment. Let us leave them in Bethlehem. As one commentator mentioned, “We all see the Bible through an interpretive lens, and many Western Christians tend to read it through a European/American one. We often bypass the culture and customs that were prevalent during biblical times. We even interject our own bias and prejudice. This is a common error that causes misinterpretation to ensue.” [1]

But, isn’t that human nature? Each of us, all of us, relate to biblical narrative through the lenses of our own personal experiences, through our own separate upbringings. How else do we begin to understand some other person’s story, if not through familiar ideas, surroundings, characters, and narratives?

I was privileged to have the opportunity to get to know the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey. I have attended the New Wilmington Mission Conference in western Pennsylvania the last week of July for almost twenty years, where Ken and his wife Mickey also attended. Except, they went to New Wilmington for some decades. The Baileys served as Presbyterian missionaries in the Middle East for decades, too, coming back to the United States each summer before returning to their work as teachers. Ken as a seminary professor, and his wife as a high school teacher.

Ken Bailey knew a vast amount about Middle Eastern culture and customs, both modern and ancient. He also knew a whole bunch of languages fluently, both modern and ancient. He was a man of great knowledge, stature, and influence, and yet also a humble and unassuming person. He wrote a number of biblical commentaries and scholarly discussions which included first-century Palestinian culture, and how it informs our reading of the Bible today.

I hesitate to break this to everyone, but according to current understandings of Palestinian customs and culture of the first century, Jesus was most probably not born in a stable. Where did this idea of a stable come from? It is difficult to tell. People elaborate, of course. You’ve all played “telephone” as young people, sitting in a big circle around a room, one person whispering in the ear of the next, each whispering what they heard in turn, and everyone laughing when the initial message ends up being all garbled at the end of the “telephone” chain.

We know the biblical text of the Gospel of Luke has remained constant, even through many translations over the centuries. However, as generations of people verbally relate the Nativity story, people tend to elaborate. It gets even more complicated when the message of the Gospel crosses the boundaries of different cultures, and crosses lines into different continents.

For example, considering the manger in a stable: “The mention of a ‘manger’ in Luke’s nativity story, suggesting animals, led mediaeval illustrators to depict the ox and the ass recognising the baby Jesus, so the natural setting was a stable—after all, isn’t that where animals are kept?” [2]  That stable is from a European point of view. But not necessarily, although Luke certainly mentions a manger.

Let’s go back to Mary and Joseph. We left this poor, exhausted couple on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The common modern understanding of an “inn” was another elaboration, since the Greek word kataluma is exactly the same word used to describe the upper room of the Passion Week. Its definition: “‘the spare or upper room in a private house or in a village […] where travelers received hospitality and where no payment was expected’ (ISBE 2004). A private lodging which is distinct from that in a public inn, i.e. caravanserai, or khan.” [3]

Mary and Joseph were probably bedded down in an upper room, dormitory-style, with a number of other extended relatives of the great King David. No private room, like they might have at an inn. As Luke said “she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

Not wonderful accommodations, but at least they were not freezing outside with no place to sleep. There was a communal area where the family’s animals were kept, at one end of the large open room, on the ground floor. I suspect there were animals, too—all watching the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and the newborn baby Jesus. “Once Jesus was born, I envision the two of them tiredly improvising with a manger and some spare cloth, seeking the chance to rest before their newborn inevitably begins his new routine of squalling every 3 or 4 hours to be fed.” [4]

Where does that leave us, with our pretty nativity scenes under our Christmas trees, in front of our houses, and on our Christmas cards? What is the message we receive each Christmas? The holy God of all the universe became a human baby, born to an unmarried teenager, in uncomfortable, awkward circumstances. Not the best of beginnings from a human point of view, but certainly God-ordained beginnings.

What does all that mean for us? It means that we do not have to have neat, tidy lives, that our situations can be uncomfortable, awkward, sad, lonely, anxious, fearful, traumatic, with a whole host of other “negative” circumstances. None of that matters. What does matter is God is with us. Emmanuel, the God-become-human, God with us, is here in the middle of all those awkward, unfamiliar, even ugly situations. Have you lost a job? Jesus is with us. Have you lost a loved one? Jesus is with us. Have you lost a home, or changed neighborhoods, or are feeling lonely, depressed, or especially anxious? Jesus is still with us.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.ashleyeaster.com/blog/yes-mary-knew

Guest post by: Pastor Gricel Medina, Leadership/Community Developer

[2] https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/once-more-jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable/

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://modernmetanoia.org/2016/12/09/756/

“Twas the Night Before Birthing”, Emily S. Kahm, Modern Metanoia, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Mary and Joseph, Unafraid

“Mary and Joseph, Unafraid”

angel with trumpet

Luke 1:26-31, Matthew 1:19-21 – August 5, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When a woman is pregnant and expecting a baby, it can be a marvelous experience. However, an unexpected pregnancy can be surprising, even worrisome. I know I have heard of several unplanned pregnancies over the years, and I suspect many of you have, too. An added complication can occur when the parents of the unexpected baby are not married.

That was exactly Mary and Joseph’s situation. Both were unmarried, only engaged. Both were very much involved with the birth of this unexpected baby. And, both had angels appear to them, telling them “Be not afraid!”

Just imagine: Mary and Joseph, considering the exact same unexpected situation, with two very different reactions and quite separate expectations. We are not told, but I cannot help but wonder whether Mary’s fear and Joseph’s fear of the unknown was compounded by fear for the other. How were their fears for the other encountered, and addressed? [1]

Both Mary and Joseph have angels suddenly come upon them. Both angels immediately say, “Be not afraid!” This occurrence is starting to become familiar to us by now, after two months of this summer sermon series. The sight of angels must be terrifying, since the first words out of their mouths is almost always, “Be not afraid!”

Mary must have been completely flabbergasted at the appearance of the angel. Even though she had heard about miraculous and angelic appearances in synagogue on the Sabbath for years, it’s a quite different thing to have it actually happen to her. Mary probably was interrupted while she went about her usual routine at home.

In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel—God’s special messenger angel—comes to Mary and reassures her with the words “Be not afraid!” In this longer narrative of the birth of Jesus, the angels come to several people (and one group of people). What is more, according to commentator Shively Smith, “the simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 24-25); miracles to those not looking for miracles, as in the case of Mary (Luke 1:26-27); and even disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds (Luke 2:8).” [2]

Matthew tells us that Joseph was interrupted by the angel of the Lord in a dream. From the short, spare account of Matthew—only a verse and a half!—we do find out that Joseph was called a righteous man. Joseph certainly was considering the unexpected news that Mary had brought to him. Both Joseph and Mary considering the same situation, but in different circumstances.

We all realize that today’s cultural references are different from those of first-century Palestine. The cultural marriage practices of the Jews of that time were patriarchal and highlighted the joining together of two families, not of two individuals, as marriage is seen today here in the United States. Nevertheless, we can see how God breaks apart first-century cultural practices and societal expectations through this miraculous birth narrative.

Joseph was, indeed, a righteous man. When his fiancée Mary first came to him with this unexpected news, he first thought she had been unfaithful. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that the first thing anyone would think of? Either that, or that Mary had been raped, which is even more unpleasant and shocking. (But, the Gospel doesn’t go there.) Joseph does not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. So, how to deal with this unexpected situation?  

I suspect the situation was looking pretty desperate to Joseph. That is where the angel of the Lord steps in—or, flies in—to the situation.  The angel reassures Joseph that the baby within Mary’s uterus is indeed holy, conceived of the Holy Spirit. What is more, that the baby will be the Messiah! The words of the angel: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is quite similar to other appearances of supernatural wonder in the Gospel of Luke. Commentator Shively Smith tells us “each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel (Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:32).” [3]

Let us come back to Mary and Joseph, two individuals going through a difficult, even traumatic time, in terms of society’s expectations as well as cultural norms. This is a different way of thinking about the birth of Jesus than that we are used to, every Christmas. Commentator David Lose tells us “let’s not forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced, or the fear and hurt that Mary would likely have also felt as they sorted out their divinely complex relationship.” [4]

On one hand, Mary has this assurance of supernatural power and presence within her from the angel. On the other, Joseph gets a reassurance of supernatural power and presence concerning Mary from the angel. We might presume from all this that there is some far greater plan that neither Mary nor Joseph has any clear idea about. The injunction “Be not afraid!” is a part of this greater plan.

A supernatural plan, a plan that overarches all time and space, whereby the Savior of the world is going to enter in to our everyday lives, and blow apart every cultural norm and societal expectation. It blows our minds, just thinking about the birth of Jesus, two thousand years later. The encouragement “Be not afraid?” Don’t be afraid to step forward with TRUST, as part of a larger plan that comes from above.

You think the situations we find ourselves in today are complex? God understands the complexity and the ins and outs of every situation, every predicament, every sadness and trauma and difficulty each of us might find ourselves in. As we take a closer look at Mary and Joseph, we see that they are not just figures from some stained glass window, but instead flesh and blood people with the same emotions and fears and family difficulties we might have today.

“And the more we can imagine them as people like us — with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance — the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them — that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, and yet whom God uses nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.” [5]

The angel’s words, “Be not afraid!” We can take them to heart, too, and be encouraged, reassured, that God is with us, today, just as much as God was with people in bible times, just as much as God was with Mary and Joseph, all the way through their wonderful and frightening and even shocking experiences. Even though we may go through all kinds of things, God will never leave us, nor forsake us. Be not afraid!

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 97.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

“The Lord Our God Helps Us”

“The Lord Our God Helps Us”

2 Chron 32 be strong, fight battles

2 Chronicles 32:14-18 (32:1-3, 6-8, 10-14, 17-22) – July 29, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Making comparisons can be devastating. It’s so human, isn’t it, for me to compare me and my stuff with someone else’s. In the magazine Psychology Today, I saw an online article on comparisons many people make. I know, from this article, that many of these comparisons are not about life-or-death matters. However, especially in the case of young people, mental comparisons can be extremely damaging, both psychologically and emotionally.

“You know those people who have more than you—money, acclaim, looks, whatever? The spike of envy they trigger is natural, and social media is primed to amp it up. But in a world where followers and likes can seem like rock-solid proof of a person’s worth, you don’t have to take the bait.” [1] How true, isn’t it, for us to make mental comparisons between us and them, whoever “they” are?

This isn’t just a 21st century type of problem. Comparisons have been going on for centuries, even millenia. Take our scripture reading today, where the army and people of Judah were comparing themselves with the army of Assyria. One really big problem: the Assyrian army had conquered many of the surrounding tribes and countries around Israel. The Assyrians not only said they were the biggest, baddest military power in the Middle East in this time period, but they had the battles and victories to prove it.

The country and army of Assyria felt confident they were on top. Listen again to 2 Chronicles 32:1 – “Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified cities, thinking to conquer them for himself.” The Chronicler is not telling us the complete story here. He does not include what we learn from 2 Kings 18:13-16. King Hezekiah unwisely and unsuccessfully tried to satisfy the Assyrian king Sennacherib with gold and treasures from the temple. That blatant bribery didn’t work. [2]

From what it sounds like, the Assyrian king was strutting his stuff, surrounding and besieging the fortified cities of Judah, and even Jerusalem itself. The Assyrian army had been successful and victorious in many battles over the past one hundred years. King Sennacherib had every reason to believe they would continue to be victorious. So much so that he began to get too big for his britches. He started to boast, and even trash talk to the nation of Judah.

Let’s sample some of that ridicule and boasting, from the modern translation The Message. “You poor people—do you think you’re safe in that so-called fortress of Jerusalem? You’re sitting ducks. Do you think Hezekiah will save you? Don’t be stupid—Hezekiah has fed you a pack of lies. When he says, ‘God will save us from the power of the king of Assyria,’ he’s lying—you’re all going to end up dead.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Assyrian king trash talks some more: “Do you have any idea what I and my ancestors have done to all the countries around here? Has there been a single god anywhere strong enough to stand up against me? Can you name one god among all the nations that either I or my ancestors have ravaged that so much as lifted a finger against me? So what makes you think you’ll make out any better with your god? Don’t let Hezekiah fool you; don’t let him get by with his barefaced lies; don’t trust him.”

Any confidence the officers and the army of Judah had had would have been completely undermined. They must have been feeling really small and dispirited after all of this. I mean, the Assyrian army was the biggest, baddest army in the whole known world, and they were besieging Jerusalem! So much so that the Assyrians were playing tremendous psychological mind games with the people of Judah

This unhealthy practice might be similar to comparing so much we feel a constant sense of inadequacy and helplessness. The author of this magazine article from Psychology Today has a sense of inadequacy that “flares especially when she compares herself to friends, colleagues, and people from her past—many of whom linger in her awareness because of social media. There’s the college buddy who achieved her dream of becoming a performer and lives in a gorgeous home in a tony suburb. There’s the junior high rival, now a globetrotting public health specialist. “He’ll post, ‘Leaving today for Liberia to help with the Ebola crisis,’ and get dozens of comments like ‘You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met!'” [3]

Sure, the king of Judah had been previously unwise in trying to bribe the Assyrians, and he hoped they would just pack up and go home if the nation of Judah gave them a big enough payment or tribute. King Hezekiah’s army and officers are down in the dumps and really anxious and fearful about the Assyrian army outside the fortified walls of Jerusalem. What would you do in a similar situation, with intense anxiety and fear freezing your heart and mind?

The people and army of Judah fell into this trap so easily. And, frankly, I would agree with them. According to all reports, the Assyrian armies sure looked like the biggest, baddest army around. Listen: “18 Then they called out in Hebrew to the people of Jerusalem who were on the wall, to terrify them and make them afraid in order to capture the city. 19 They spoke about the God of Jerusalem as they did about the gods of the other peoples of the world—the work of human hands.” I really would half-expect to hear the Assyrians at a rally chanting “We’re number one! We’re number one!”

But, God says, “NO!” Here in this example of Hezekiah saying “Be Not Afraid!” in 2 Chronicles 32, we can surely find a prescription for the comparison trap. Here’s what King Hezekiah did. He held a rally of his own with all the army officers and government officials. He said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged because of the king of Assyria and the vast army with him, for there is a greater power with us than with him. With him is only the arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people gained confidence from what Hezekiah the king of Judah said.”

But, that is not all. God steps in, and sovereignly takes over. After Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah cry out to heaven on behalf of Jerusalem and the people of Judah, “21 the Lord sent an angel, who annihilated all the fighting men and the commanders and officers in the camp of the Assyrian king.” God’s angel kills everyone in the enemy camp! The Assyrian king is so cowed and dispirited himself that he slinks off to Assyria, his tail between his legs. Listen to our bible reading: “the king withdrew to his own land in disgrace. And when he went into the temple of his god, some of his sons, his own flesh and blood, cut him down with the sword. 22 So the Lord saved Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all others. God took care of them on every side.”

This special kind of situation doesn’t happen a lot, where God’s angel kills all the enemy army, but it’s recorded here to show that God took care of the people! God will always be with us, even when we are walking through the bad guys, or in the middle of the dark valley, or during a raging storm. We are told to Be Not Afraid! God will be with us, even to the end of the age. Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201711/the-comparison-trap  By Rebecca Webber, published November 7, 2017

[2] https://www.blueletterbible.org/comm/guzik_david/studyguide2017-2ch/2ch-32.cfm David Guzik :: Study Guide for 2 Chronicles 32

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201711/the-comparison-trap  By Rebecca Webber, published November 7, 2017

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

In the Middle of Fear

“In the Middle of Fear”

Isa 43-2 redeemed

Isaiah 43:1-3, 10-13 (43:2) – July 15, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

If you were ever in the middle of a fearsome, hair-raising experience, you might be able to relate to my sermon today. Even if you have not been personally involved in a terrifying experience like being trapped in a dangerous house fire or caught in the middle of a raging storm in deep water while on a small boat, you probably know someone who has. Or, at least heard first-person accounts of those terrifying experiences.

What does the prophet say in this morning’s scripture reading? It is really difficult to hear what anyone is saying when you or I are in the middle of a fearful predicament. Even if the words are really important, or even if they come from a particularly significant person.

We might have the words coming at us, but we are still in the horrible situation of being in the middle of a devastating fire, or a terrifying flood, or other traumatic experience. We still have situations as if we are lost in deep water, or caught up in the middle of fear-inducing flames. What will we do? How will we cope? Will the wild flames overwhelm us? Will the raging waters close over our heads? Dear Lord, answer me! Gracious God, help!

Take the nation of Judah, who the prophet of God is talking to. The nation has been conquered. The best and brightest of the people of Judah have been captured and taken captive, far away in Babylon. “By outward circumstances, the people of Judah had [good] reason to be afraid of Babylon’s army and exile. God points them past the present circumstances to both this command and promise.” [1]

Did you hear? These verses have good news! They have within them both a command and a promise. These words are a proclamation, from the Lord, no less! “But now, this is what the Lord says—God who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.”
In the paragraphs just before our reading today, in Isaiah 42, God is called not only the creator of the heavens and the earth, but also creator of all the people on the earth. God is the “source of breath and life for humankind (42:5). Now God reveals the divine self strictly in relationship to God’s chosen ones. The God who speaks the new word of freedom, life, return, and redemption is “the creator-of-you, Jacob,” “the shaper-of-you, Israel” (verse 1). This is the transcendent God whose word created all that is good (Genesis 1).” [2]

So, God not only created the heavens and the earth, and is the creator of all that is vast and unending in this universe, but God is also the Lord of the small and the personal. The prophet proclaims God as the Lord of all, of that which is large and small, the creatures and people of this world, too.

Israel was—and is a country with desert regions and vast wilderness places. Israel was—and is also a country where sudden storms come up, and flash floods suddenly happen. That can be extremely scary, to be caught in a sudden flash flood where the water starts to rise all around you without any warning. We hear on the news today about flash floods that overwhelm people and stall out their vehicles. And sometimes, those individuals even die.

What fear! What anxiety! And, what threatening troubles!

What can we do, in the face of all of this difficulty and challenge? The prophet gives us the answer. God has redeemed us.

But—what does “redeemed” mean, anyway? Isn’t that a religious word? We certainly hear it in religious contexts. According to the dictionary, “redeem” means to buy back, to recover, as by a mortgage or pledge.

So, we are kept captive by our fear and anxiety. The nation of Israel is similarly kept captive by their fear and anxiety, too. Here in the United States, in the 21st century, we do not have debtors’ prisons any longer. However, centuries ago, when people became bankrupt and could not pay their debts, they were often either were thrown into prison or made slaves until the debt was paid.

God does not magically erase all difficulty. “God does not manipulate the created order and introduce entirely new categories: fireless existence. Rather, God redeems what God has made, and redemption involves an exchange within the created realm. A price is paid in order to set things back the way they were.” [3]
This act of redemption is not the end of things. No, the Lord does not stop there. As the prophet says in today’s reading, “I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” God speaks our name. That is what the prophet says!

In this act of speaking their name, God takes ownership. The Lord God claims Israel as God’s own and sets them free. “In these verses God speaks to God’s people not like a king on a throne pronouncing an edict, but like a lover whose heart is bursting, who has waited an eternity just to say their name. In this act of speaking their name, You are mine” means also “I have ransomed you” (43:1) [or, redeemed you]. Maker, lover, and redeemer, God will pay any price and overcome every obstacle to be reunited with God’s own. [4]

We can take heart. We can claim these precious verses as our own, as we go through fiery trials. God has called us by name, too. The Lord says “You are mine.”

Bible study teacher David Guzik states plainly “God twice owns His people. God has right of ownership both as Creator and Redeemer. God’s ownership is personal, because He says I have called you by your name. His ownership is certain, because He seals it by saying You are mine.” [5]

We have the Lord’s assurance that we are God’s creation, we are redeemed, and we have been called by God’s name. What is more, we have been bought with a price, with the precious blood of our Savior.

Knowing we belong to God is a wonderful response to fear and anxiety. So, “Be Not Afraid!” No matter the trial or difficulty, God will be with us. The Lord is right by our side. We have God’s word on it, from right here in Isaiah 43.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.blueletterbible.org/comm/guzik_david/studyguide2017-isa/isa-43.cfm

Study Guide for Isaiah 43 by David Guzik – Blue Letter Bible

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=494

Commentary, Isaiah 43:1-7  Anathea Portier-Young, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[3] Seitz, Christopher R., The Book of Isaiah 40-66, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 6 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 381.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=494

Commentary, Isaiah 43:1-7  Anathea Portier-Young, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[5] https://www.blueletterbible.org/comm/guzik_david/studyguide2017-isa/isa-43.cfm

Study Guide for Isaiah 43 by David Guzik – Blue Letter Bible

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)