Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Christmas is a mixed bag season.

Fourth Advent. Dec. 18, 2016. Isaiah7:10-16, Psalm 80:-1-7, Matt 1:18-25, Romans 1:1-7

The Christmas season is a mixed bag for many people. While we look forward to festivities and family, often we dread the same things.

While we love to build memories and wax nostalgic, memories of the loss of loved ones and "the way we used to do it" can be painful. There is always a sense of past and future bound in the present. It is so obviously present when the elderly, middle aged, and the young gather for the exchange of thoughts, gifts, blessings and hopes. It is special and wonderful and sometimes totally not up to our expectations. I think the Christmas season is most meaningful, helpful, and truly joyful when it gets beyond the glitter and deals hopefully and realistically with the mixed bag of life.

Reading today, I am taken captive by the Isaiah piece. Usually we read the familiar; "...look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel" out of context. We take it as a happy prophecy and then quickly skip to "away in a manger no crying he makes." That keeps us in a false happy place and robs the chance for deeper meaning and real joy to surface.

There is so much more here. There is so much that mixes past, present, and future with the hopeful and the hellish. It's a mixed bag.

The passage begins with King Ahaz of Judah refusing to ask for a sign from God, and framing his refusal as an act of piety. It is, however, more of a refusal of what God is offering. He doesn't want to hear what God is going to say. He wants political answers, power and security, not faith and trust. Isaiah gives the sign anyway, and it is ambiguous, with both good and troublesome implications. Isaiah promises a child, not a warrior king, and maybe this is why Ahaz didn't want to hear it. Ahaz has his own ideas of what is best for Judah, and it certainly isn't trusting in a God that offers a king in diapers.

Judah is in a hard spot, Ahaz is truly up against a wall and acting like any government or powerful (and scared) ruler would act. Both Israel (Ephraim) and Egypt are hostile and Ahaz has (held his nose?)  and allied with the powerful Assyria. It seems to make sense, except that Judah is like a mouse accepting protection from a cat. For Ahaz it seems to be the only way, and right now the cat is preoccupied with Egypt and Israel so it appears to be the best short term choice. But what happens when the cat gets hungry and remembers the mouse? Read Isaiah 8:1-15, it spells out the Assyrian invasion.

The sign of the child promises that within the time it takes for this child to be weaned, (2-3 years), the problem of Israel and Egypt will disappear, a good thing. But then the cat, the king of Assyria, will turn and shave Judah bald and the rich vineyards will become thorny, only good for wandering cattle and sheep instead of a settled and civilized place. Isaiah calls for trust in God for sanctuary.

This kind of trust, trust in a non-warrior God within a warrior culture, is an incredibly difficult thing to accept. It's a wonderful promise, that God is in control, that we can trust our God, that the powers of mankind cannot last, but God can. It's a wonderful promise that God's people, both then and now, mostly struggle with understanding. If Ahaz had asked for a sign, had trusted God and not formed an alliance with Assyria, would anything have turned out better? Would Egypt, Israel, and Assyrian turned the other cheek, become good buddies, and all would be peace? I doubt it. The one thing that would be different, however, is that Judah would have been right with God. Squashed maybe, but faithful. (And if that isn't a mixed bag too...)

Fred Gaiser, (Luther Seminary, St. Paul Minn. OT professor emeritus), says that this text brilliantly reminds us that God's coming is both promise and judgement. He says there is always both continuity and surprise in how God's word comes to God's people.

Continuity and surprise. Promise and judgement. A mixed bag to take into our seasonal contemplation. I like this. I like that the promise is real, but so are the dangers of complacency or aligning with the powers of this world. This season of faith, with all it's promise, is not easy. It is, however, hopeful. We hope for new starts, for demonstrations of love, for hope that we will catch on to the signs God wants to give.

Answers to the mixed bag? I'm still looking, but I am doing that looking assured by the hope that God keeps on speaking then, now, and into the future.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Offensive PJs?

Isaiah 35:1-10, Ps 146:5-10, Luke 1:46-55, Matt. 11:2-11, James 5:7-10

The waiting during the Christmas season is full of delicious anticipation. The smells of the baking, the fresh piney tree, the waft of hot-chocolate that steams up your glasses.The whispers and shopping bags whisked into rooms.The scheduling for parties and guests. The advent calendar chocolates. The promise of holiday idleness.

Most of us love the build-up to the big reveal, the family feast, the office party, the opened present, the time off from work and school.

But what happens when the gift/event/promises don't live up to our expectations and the hype?

I remember back to a Christmas when we let our 5 year old open one present on Christmas Eve. (We open everything else Christmas morning). With great anticipation he ripped open the gift bag, reached in, and pulled out.....pajamas. He stared at them for a moment, then tossed them over his shoulder with a disgusted; "I DON'T WANT PAJAMAS!" It was quite hilarious-although we did try to muffle our humour. The gift did not live up to his hopes. He didn't want them, but he did need them.

These advent scriptures are all about the unexpected. They may not be at all what we want, but there is a lot of what the poor majority of the world hopes for and needs.

Mary's song in Luke is justice for the oppressed, a redistribution of power and wealth. That fits the "desperately needed, but not truly wanted"category. The implications of this fair distribution would make many of us unhappy with this gift.

Isaiah is a reversal of fortunes like Luke. James says to "have patience in suffering" as you wait for the Lord (and don't grumble about it). Both of these rank even lower as wanted gifts than Christmas PJs for a 5 year old!

Then there's the Matthew story. John the baptist finds himself in jail, questioning if Jesus is the "gift" Messiah they've waited for. I think he is disappointed that Jesus isn't a completely obvious Messiah. (Like looking in the bag and seeing pajamas. This is it? It's not what I was looking for!) It must have been a bit difficult for John to get his head around the fact that this Messiah, the one that he said he wouldn't feel worthy to tie sandals for, was walking through the countryside talking to the poor and healing the crippled, and offending the establishment. No wonder Jesus added the comment; "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

What do you (we) need for Christmas? While we wait with hope for what the world needs, we also have to be able to accept that what we need is likely quite different than what we want.

Endurance, restitution for the wronged, healing for the broken, help for the poor, pajamas for the kid who wants a toy.

How will we receive what God provides? How will we help Jesus in giving what is needed where it might cause offense?