Sunday, December 18, 2016

Phil Kniss: The unpromising promise

Advent 4: God’s restoration is at hand
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

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If you’ve been here the last few Sundays,
you might be picking up on some slight repetition
in our scriptures and sermons.
It’s not an accident.
We’re not lazy.
We don’t lack creativity,
just because we don’t invent something
entirely new every week.

This is Advent . . . the season we are called to repeatedly ponder—
ponder again, and ponder anew—
the very good news that a saving and healing God
came into and lived in a very broken world years ago,
and continues to come and live among us today,
in our very broken world,
and will come again.
It was good news then.
It is good news now.
And it is news that bears repeating, a lot.
Because it is easy to forget.
So each Sunday we take this same bit of good news—
Emmanuel, God with us—
and hold it up to a slightly different light,
gaze at it from a slightly different angle.

Today, I invite us to look at this news
with a small but healthy dose of skepticism.
Yes, I invite you to be a skeptic.
To ask some probing questions.
Or rather, one particular question,
“How good is this news, really?”
Is this the news we actually want and need?
Is it enough of a promise,
to get us through dark times?

Immanuel. God with us.
When it all boils down,
does that promise turn out to feel a bit . . . un-promising?
a little inauspicious?
a tad underwhelming?

How do you suppose the promise felt to the first recipient of it?
And I’m not talking about Mary and Joseph,
when the angel delivered that message to them,
telling them Mary would bear a son,
who would be named Jesus,
who would be called Immanuel.

I’m talking about King Ahaz, over 700 years earlier,
one of the more wicked and corrupt kings of Judah.
He was the first one to hear this promise of Immanuel.

Here was the situation facing Ahaz,
King Ahaz and the nation of Judah
were on the verge of being annihilated,
by their own Hebrew brothers to the north—Israel,
who allied with Syria.
Together the armies of Israel and Syria marched on Jerusalem,
and set siege against it,
ready to beat down the city gates.
Ahaz was overpowered, to say the least . . . and terrified.
A few verses earlier in Isaiah, it says,
“the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people
shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

So God sent the prophet Isaiah to visit Ahaz,
to encourage him to trust God,
and not seek help from other nations.
Isaiah said, “Ask for a sign from God.”
Ahaz refused to ask.
Isaiah said, “Okay, the Lord will give you a sign anyway.
A young woman is pregnant, and will give birth to a son,
and will name him Immanuel.”

That’s the promise to Ahaz. A pregnant woman in their community.
Two vast armies, swords in hand, were outside the gates.
One could assume defeat, in a matter of days.
Ahaz and the people of Judah would be crushed.
And the prophet’s sign of hope,
is that some nine months down the road,
a baby would be born, named Immanuel,
as a reminder of God’s presence.
And in time, the child would grow up,
and by the time he reached a stage in life
where he had moral judgement,
the age of accountability, say 12-18 years,
by that time, Isaiah said,
“The kings outside your gates will be no more.
They will have lost their land and kingdoms.”
Oh, but don’t worry.
For right now, there is this pregnant woman in the city.
So be of good cheer.

As signs from God go, doesn’t that seem a little unremarkable?
God gave Noah a rainbow.
And Moses a talking burning bush.
And Elijah, fire from heaven that burned up water.
And Hezekiah, a sun that moved backward in the sky.

King Ahaz is right now in need of divine intervention.
He needs a miracle.
He needs God to step in and rescue, and save.

What he needs is not what he gets.
He gets a child named “Emmanuel”—
a symbolic gift only.
The name is to remind the people of something,
because the word “Emmanuel” means something.

It does not mean,
“Hold on tight, I’m coming in now.
I’ll get you out of your mess.”
No. Immanuel means, “I am with you . . . so trust me.”

Well, as the story unfolded, Jerusalem did not fall,
thanks, no doubt, to its strong walls and gates.
The armies eventually pulled back.
But King Ahaz ignored Isaiah and the promise of Emmanuel.
He went off and sold his soul to the king of Assyria,
became a weak puppet king, under the Assyrian Empire,
gave up on the worship of Yahweh,
sacrificed his own children as burnt offerings
to the Assyrian gods,
did all sorts of unspeakable things,
and died at age 36.

So to review,
at one of the lowest moments of the kingdom of Judah,
God gave a rather unpromising promise.
God did not promise rescue.
God did not promise immediate defeat of their enemy.
God promised to be present with them in their predicament.
And that wasn’t enough for Ahaz.
He went off to secure peace on his terms.

The whole situation, and the prophesy,
was repeated, in essence, 700 years later.
Again the Jews were in bondage,
being brutally oppressed,
burdened by a crushing sense of hopelessness.

This time it was Caesar and the Roman Empire.
But the same, underwhelming and unpromising promise was given.
It was Isaiah’s message to Ahaz . . . updated, version 2.
“A young pregnant woman will give birth to a baby,
named Emmanuel,
to remind you of God’s presence.”

The oppressed people in Jesus’ day
were looking for a rescuer.
They were looking for a rebel king to take charge . . . now.
They were looking for someone to overpower and unseat
the brutal Kings Herod and Caesar.
They asked for a savior, and got one.
But not the kind of savior they wanted,
and, shall we say, needed.

Thinking back over my childhood,
I can well remember some gifts that were . . . well, disappointing.
There’s nothing quite like expecting a new set of Matchbox cars,
and getting a new pair of underwear . . .
hand-made, no less . . .
by one’s mother trying out a new sewing skill!
My mother listens to all my sermons online after they get posted,
so let me just add, “Love ya, Mom! I’m not bitter . . . anymore.”

And I’m sure you know what I’m saying.
At one time or another, either you,
or some brutally honest child,
opened a gift, and blurted out, “Is this all I get?”

Surely, that was the reaction of King Ahaz to Isaiah.
It would have been the reaction of the oppressed Jews in Palestine,
when Joseph and Mary told them of the angel’s messages,
“Is this all we get?”
A helpless, vulnerable baby with an uncertain future?
You call this a gift of hope?

That is the skeptical question that I lay before us this morning.
It’s a question that surely comes to all our minds,
from time to time,
when we face a season of suffering,
or some terribly trying circumstance.
When the core promise is not rescue, but presence,
it’s only natural, it’s not heresy to be honest,
and ask of God, “Is this all we get?”
Is this what we need to embrace, and call it hope?

Now, I’m tempted to stop my sermon right there,
and let us all wrestle with that question in our own way,
for days to come . . .

I will have a little more to say, but let’s take a temporary stop,
and turn to HWB 172, the sermon response hymn.
172, “O Come, O come, Emmanuel,”
a beloved hymn of Advent and Christmas,
pleading for Emmanuel to come,
for God’s promised presence to be made known,
made manifest.

I love this hymn, especially with the uplifting refrain of “Rejoice!”
But before I finish my sermon,
let’s sing the first four verses only,
and eliminate the refrain completely.
Let’s feel the angst of this prayer.
Let’s sing the verses through, in a plaintive unison voice,
and hold out the final note on each verse.
There’s no time signature,
so we can sing a note as long as it needs to be sung.
So take the last note of each verse,
at the end of the third line,
and hold as long as I indicate.
As it resonates, reflect on what we’re praying for, in song.
And we’ll stop at the end of verse four.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny;From depths of hell thy people save, and give them vict’ry o’er the grave. 
O come, thou Day-spring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. 
O come, thou Key of David, come and open wide our heavenly home;Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.

Without knowing . . .
what darkness you are battling right now,
or what deep suffering leads you to beg for relief,
or what injustice prompts you to cry out for God’s intervention . . .
without diminishing any of the darkness we face,
I want to say I do have hope,
not in spite of
this seemingly underwhelming promise of presence,
but because of it.

I am deeply moved when I contemplate a God who—
rather than manipulate the world
and force us all, like puppets, into obedient submission—
would choose, out of pure love,
to join us in the middle of our mess,
to be with us in it,
to even take on that darkness with us,
to feel its weight,
to experience its gravity,
and sacrifice all, in order to redeem it.

Maybe “God-with-us” isn’t so un-promising after all.
Maybe there’s more to it, than saying,
“That’s as good as it gets in this life.”
Maybe . . . it’s what we really need, for fullness of life.
Maybe rescue is not the path to life we think it is.
Avoiding suffering may not take us where we need to go.

No, Emmanuel—“God-with-us”—does not mean an end to evil.
It does not mean we will be rescued from bad things that happen.
It does not mean we can always expect our circumstances
to change for the better.
But it does mean that God chooses incarnation.
God chose, God chooses, and God will keep choosing
to enter into our circumstances with us,
and then act to redeem those circumstances.
Emmanuel is God present with us.
God in-carnate . . . in flesh.

It’s an astonishing gift.
God chooses not to look on us from afar.
But to join us.
To enter into the darkness with us.
It may not bring immediate relief.
But it is a marvelous thing to ponder.
It is a spiritual wonder.
It is an overwhelming expression
of the love of the Creator for the created.

God’s action to come be with us,
was an act of supreme love.
God’s deepest love for humanity
was embodied in that child in the manger.

Forget all the hokey seasonal nostalgia
of manger and stable and animals and starlit scenes of tranquility.
God wasn’t trying to create a mystical “feel-good” kind of love.
God wasn’t creating warm fuzzies that night in Bethlehem.

God’s love was a purposeful love.
It was love with a mission.
It was love that was bound to confront the evil of this world.
It was love that would bring healing to the broken
and salvation to the lost.
Through this child Jesus,
God intended to love the world into wholeness.
That’s more powerful than any weapon
we might be tempted to pick up
to confront the enemy on our enemy’s terms.
That’s more effective in bringing about God’s dream of shalom
than any wish-dream we might harbor,
to be rescued from our suffering
and lifted up and away into some imaginary utopia.

Life is hard.
Life is unpredictable.
Life is host to a lot of pain.
Life is sometimes horribly unjust.
But God is with us in it.
And even now, we are living under the rule of the
Kingdom of our God, and of his Christ,
and he shall reign forever and ever.
(but we have to wait till next Sunday to sing those lines).
Under God’s rule,
love and peace, with justice, will overcome.

That may not be the promise that we, in our natural human impatience,
are wishing for.
But it’s the promise we need.
And it’s the promise we have received from God.

It’s worth rejoicing over, even as we name our unfulfilled longing.

So let’s sing the rest of “O come, O come, Emmanuel,”
verses 5 and 6,
in full voice, with the refrain, with the organ!

—Phil Kniss, December 18, 2016

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Phil Kniss: Just healing

Advent 3: God’s healing is at hand
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; Matthew 11:2-11, Luke 1:46-55

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Another week has gone by
that highlights the horrible extent of human suffering in our world—
an earthquake in Indonesia,
the imminent fall of Aleppo,
and the horrific humanitarian crisis that keeps worsening,
a suicide bombing by Boko Haram in Nigeria,
two police officers shot and killed in Americus, GA,
chilling testimony of race-based hatred at the Dylan Roof trial,
and other acts of violence, public and private.

And in our own personal lives,
those of us here today, of this congregation, continue to face,
the raw pain of grief,
debilitating illness, physical or mental,
financial distress,
loss of employment,
broken and strained relationships in our family.

We need healing.
We each, personally, need it.
We as a church, need it.
We as a nation, need it.
We need the intervention of a healing God,
who will take what has been shattered,
and begin to put it back together.

That’s the kind of God today’s scriptures reveal:
a God of healing.
who makes the wilderness blossom,
the desert spring forth in water,
the blind see,
the deaf hear,
the mute sing,
the lame leap,
the hungry full,
the prisoner free,
the oppressed get justice,
the lepers cleansed,
the dead given life,
the poor cheered,
the lowly lifted up,
the proud deposed.

That’s just a sampling of what we heard this morning,
in our scripture readings from Isaiah, Psalms, Matthew, and Luke.
When God shows up, healing happens.

Now that quick list, a summary of God’s healing acts,
is enough to give us a picture of how large and broad
is God’s healing agenda.
It’s all we really need to make the point
that God’s healing work has a scope far beyond what we think;
that healing is more than making a sick person well again,
although . . . that’s clearly included.

But just to reinforce the point,
let’s take a closer look at a particular conversation with Jesus,
that we read about in Matthew this morning.

John the Baptist was wondering about Jesus.
Frankly, he was doubting.
Yes, John was the prophet who foretold Jesus’ coming.
Yes, John baptized Jesus.
Yes, they were cousins.
But, John, like every other Palestinian Jew of his day,
was expecting certain behaviors from a Messiah.
And he wasn’t seeing them in Jesus.
It made John second-guess himself.

Jesus did not seem to be setting up for a popular uprising against Rome.
He wasn’t developing strategy for a rebellion.
He was just acting like an itinerant rabbi,
a gentle country preacher, maybe, but not a Messiah.

Had John made a fool of himself out in the wilderness,
predicting the Messiah was about to appear,
then sticking his neck out for Jesus,
declaring, “This is the one!
It’s Jesus who will save us!
It’s Jesus who will bring back David’s throne.”

So John sits in prison and wonders, and doubts, about cousin Jesus.
John sent messengers, his disciples, to ask Jesus point-blank.
“Are you or aren’t you?
Tell me if you’re the Messiah.”
That was not a theological question, like we imagine it.
It was a political one, with an agenda.
John’s own life . . . hung on how Jesus answered that question.
If Jesus did his Messiah thing,
and delivered his people,
John would be out of his Roman prison.
“When are you going to start your real work?” John asked.
“When will you deliver us all?”

Jesus’ reply was strangely simple—
The blind receive their sight.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cleansed.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The poor have good news brought to them.
Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Interesting . . .
that Jesus would even mention “taking offense”
as a possible outcome of doing all these good works,
of healing the blind, lame, and leprous.
How could anyone take offense at a kindly healer,
going about showing compassion?

Well, as it turnd out, a lot of people could.
People who had a stake in the status quo.
Simply because Jesus’ healing ministry was actually more
than a ministry of kindness and compassion to individuals.
If that’s all it was, he would not have been crucified.

Jesus went about doing deeds that brought healing and justice,
as if one was tied to the other.
He did not heal individuals in isolation.
He did not heal their physical condition, as if nothing else mattered.
Yes, yes! He healed lepers of their skin disease,
and then he helped them return
to the community that had ostracized them.
Yes, he cast demons out of people,
and then aided them in finding a circle of acceptance again.
Yes, he healed the physically lame,
and then forgave their sins.

Even moral and spiritual illness that Jesus encountered and healed,
he put into a larger context.
A woman was caught in adultery and sent to Jesus for judgement.
The common and socially accepted judgement
was stoning to death.
Jesus named and acknowledged her moral brokenness, her sin.
But when he put it in the larger social context,
her accusers slinked away, dropping their stones.
Her life was spared, and restored to her community,
and she was urged to walk a new path of righteousness.

Yes, Jesus was quite willing, even eager,
to address the presenting problem, the obvious illness—
crippling disease, blindness, personal sin—
but he didn’t stop there.
And as a result, sometimes . . . often . . .
people took offense.
Aiming at the root causes of brokenness and injustice,
often comes with a price.
Because there are powerful competing interests,
invested in keeping those root causes exactly as they are.

Jesus was equally moved to compassion,
whether what needed healing
was a man blind from birth,
a woman overtaken with a fever,
a person possessed by an evil spirit,
children being disregarded by grownups,
tax collectors overcharging their people,
temple money changers profiting
off poor people coming to worship,
scribes and Pharisees tending to religious trivia
while neglecting the widow and orphan,
or Roman soldiers exploiting the system.

In all these situations that Jesus came upon,
it was the same God-breathed impulse that moved him into action.
It was this impulse we saw repeatedly in today’s scripture readings,
Old and New Testament.

Our ever-loving God created a world
full of peace, beauty, wholeness, diversity, and harmony.
And when we, God’s own creatures,
damage God’s good work,
when we obscure the beauty God made,
when we inflict pain and suffering on children of God,
God is moved.
Sometimes . . . God is moved to compassion,
and heals the suffering individual.
Sometimes . . . God is moved to anger and judgement,
and acts against the oppressive system.

But always, God’s heart is moved toward
those who are broken, sick, oppressed, or suffering injustice.
God’s heart is moved, always,
toward healing and justice . . .
toward healing justice . . . and just healing.
toward putting things right.

For those of us who know and admit our suffering and brokenness,
God’s move toward just healing is good news indeed.
Because we experience, in full,
the compassion of God directed toward us,
and we can rest in it.

But for those of us who have a need to protect ourselves,
to protect what we think belongs to us,
to guard our privileged status,
who stand to benefit from systems
that oppress the poor,
or keep out the foreigner,
or separate us those different from ourselves . . .
then God’s move toward just healing
may cause us to take offense.

I don’t blame the Pharisees and scribes
for taking offense at the works of Jesus.
I don’t blame John the Baptist,
for wondering about, and questioning, the ways of Jesus.
I don’t blame the disciples,
for trying desperately to steer Jesus in a different direction.

Honestly, there’s a very good chance
I would have been right there with them all.
Questioning, wondering, steering . . .
and maybe taking offense.
See, when people encounter God’s healing and justice,
they never have the privilege of staying in the same place.
They are changed.
And the change can be painful and hard to accept.

I think it’s fair to say that “just healing”—
that is, healing integrated with acts of justice-making—
is at the very core of Jesus’ mission and ministry.

His message, from beginning to end,
was “the Kingdom of God is near.”
And as the Advent texts from Isaiah proclaim,
God’s Reign is a reign of justice with healing—
where God’s creation is in harmony,
where the wolf lies down with the kid,
where nations live in peace,
where individuals enjoy abundant life,
where prisoners are set free,
where the desert blooms,
where the lame leap like deer,
where the tongue of the speechless sing out loud.

Proclaiming healing with justice
was the work of God as Jesus of Nazareth understood it.
Now . . . if the church is called to carry on the work of Jesus,
then healing with justice is also at the top of our agenda.

This world of ours, and the people in it, need healing.
We need justice.
We need restoration.
And God wants us to collaborate toward that end.

Do you suppose,
if we undertake that mission as seriously, and as boldly,
as Jesus did,
that we will be received any better than he was?

Do we think that we should be immune
from being misunderstood,
and taken offense at?

Every time someone is healed, with justice,
it’s a blow to the powers of this world.
In a very real sense,
a holistic healing ministry is subversive.

Feeding the hungry is an act of provocation,
when we also try to address the causes of hunger.
Serving the poor is revolutionary,
when we also confront the sinful powers of this world,
responsible for poverty and hunger and disease.

Neither disease nor oppression was God’s idea.
The brokenness of this world is the result of human sin,
the result of God’s own creatures rejecting their creator.
I’m talking about the big picture, here.
I’m not saying I get sick because I sin.
Or that you will get well,
if you confess your sins and live right.
No, I’m saying that in the big picture,
God is on the side of health and wholeness,
of abundance and joy,
of justice and freedom.

When we collaborate with God
to work on God’s just healing agenda,
we are confronting the powers.
And we’re likely to feel that sometimes.

Every disease healed,
every empty stomach filled,
every person in bondage freed,
is a blow to the oppressive powers of this world.

Our mission, brothers and sisters at Park View,
is to collaborate with God to make whole what is broken—
to save the lost,
free the captive,
heal the sick,
feed the hungry,
give joy to the poor,
see things return to their original, created state.

And from the looks of the world around us,
we . . . and God . . . have a lot of work to do.
We should get to it.

So I invite us into a space of reflection,
of prayer,
of commitment . . . leading to action.

This is not going to be a typical sermon response,
inviting individuals to come up for healing prayer—
although that’s certainly good and important,
and we will do that again, as we have in the past.
But today’s response seeks to put healing in a larger context.

Pull out the narrow slip of paper in your bulletin.

At the top it says,
“Among my hopes and prayers for healing and justice,
is the following . . .”

Then there is space to identify something weighing on your mind,
your heart,
your experiences,
that you recognize as a place
where God’s healing and justice is needed.

During a brief period of meditation,
think about what that is for you today, and write it down.

Then . . . to ensure this need doesn’t get completely privatized,
and spiritualized, and protected from its larger context,
you are specifically invited to commit to one or more actions,
that brings this need into the context of a healing community.

Put a simple check mark beside the actions you choose,
beside as many actions as you are seriously committing to take.

Bringing it to God and to the church,
by carrying it forward, and placing it in the basket at the front
Pledging to share it with your own circle of support
Asking the church staff to remember it
in one of our daily morning prayers at the office
Asking a pastor or elder to contact you to arrange for
a special service of prayer and/or anointing.
Or, some other action that you want to identify.

Then write your name, and prepare to follow through.

If you don’t have your own pen or pencil,
borrow one from a neighbor.

For a couple minutes, you are invited to reflect and write,
then we will sing together HWB 372, O healing river.
As soon as we start singing,
you may start bringing your slips of paper forward,
and dropping them into one of the baskets here.
We pastors and elders will read them later,
as respond as needed.

“O, healing river, send down your waters upon this land.”

—Phil Kniss, December 11, 2016

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