Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Dreams and Decisions: The Story of Joseph, Jesus, and the God Who Risks

As even the most casual readers of the Gospels know, Matthew’s story about the birth of Jesus differs from Luke’s, the only two Gospels that narrate Jesus' birth. While Luke focuses on Mary, the beginning chapters of Matthew’s Gospel focus on Joseph. What might we learn from what Matthew tells us about Joseph?

First, Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous/just (dikaios) man (Mt. 1:19), and he tells us this in the context of Joseph discovering that his betrothed is having a child that is not his. Joseph’s discovery of this leads him to believe that Mary has been unfaithful to him. But what makes him righteous?

Joseph is righteous because he is obedient to the law, and that law directs him to take one of two actions in regards to Mary. He can either have Mary stoned or he can divorce her. Joseph chooses to divorce Mary.

But notice that he chooses to do so quietly, not wanting to bring shame on Mary. His continual love for her and his just character causes him to decide that a quiet, non-public separation is best. Yet, he is still resolute to dissolve the marital contract.

All of this changes, however, through the visitation of an angel to Joseph in a dream. The dream that comes to Joseph, and the message delivered by the angel, speaks about God’s quickly approaching future. The angel says,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt. 1:20)
Joseph’s dream forces a decision. Does he continue his plans to divorce Mary in secret, or does he believe that God is doing something new, now that he has heard this unbelievable story from the angel? And for that matter, why must Joseph take Mary as his wife? The reason this plot line is important may be found in the way the angel addresses Joseph as “son of David.”

This title eventually becomes an important title for Jesus, but it becomes very important here in relation to Joseph and his role as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ future proxy father. To understand this, we need to back up to the opening of Matthew’s Gospel where the author begins with the genealogy of Jesus.

What is important in the genealogy for what the angel tells Joseph is the emphasis on David within the lineage of Jesus. Matthew is very concerned to narrate his story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, and particularly as it relates to the prophecies that the messiah will be in the line of David. But how is this possible if Joseph is not the father of Jesus, which, according to Matthew and Joseph, he is not?

It is possible because Joseph does take Mary as his wife and when she does give birth, Joseph names the baby just as the angel instructed him to do (Mt. 1:21). When Joseph names Jesus, he takes on the role of father and he becomes the one who cares for and protects Mary and the child.

Think about this for a moment. If Jesus is the messiah, the son of David, then it is imperative that Joseph take on the role of father of Jesus. If he does not, then Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus crumbles and Matthew’s whole narrative about Jesus falls apart. And if Joseph does not take Mary as his wife, this places God’s plan, at least according to Matthew, at risk and the promises of the past may not be fulfilled.

All that Matthew has said, all that the gospel promises, hinges not just on the providence of God, but on the decision of Joseph in response to that strange dream.

This story involving Joseph, a mere and unknown mortal, critiques our traditional and accepted understandings of God, causing us to consider God’s vulnerability. To me, this narrative tells of a God who risks.

We could even look at this whole story of Joseph and Mary and ask, “Why these two?” Why this unknown couple, about whom we still no very little, except that they were part of the lower class of Israel?

I’m not sure I have good answers to these questions, but perhaps the best answer is found in Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 as being fulfilled in the coming child.
“Look, the virgin (young woman) shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Mt. 1:23)
Perhaps in applying Isaiah's prophecy about a child to Jesus, especially the reference to the name, Emmanuel, God with us, Matthew is saying that God does not desire to intervene in our world like a master, but that God desires to interact with us in loving relationship.

Moreover, maybe God so desires to be with us that in choosing to come as one of us, God took on the most vulnerable existence. In being Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus would get his start in a pregnancy that carried great social stigma, in a home of an impoverished couple, and in the frailty of the first century Roman occupied Palestine. Not the start that any of us would want for any of our children, but God chooses this path of risk and vulnerability, and God chooses and takes a chance with this little known man named Joseph.

That should make us all pause and reflect on whether or not we are open to the improbable that God wants to do through us.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Advent is a Season for Repenting toward God

In following the Gospel of Mark’s opening, what I have called Mark’s Advent story, I have suggested that the story calls us to wait on God and listen for God; two disciplines we ought to practice during the Season of Advent.

But after a time of waiting, however long it might be, and after listening for God through the multiple and diverse ways God may speak, we are confronted with the choice of either ignoring or acting. If we ignore the messenger and message of God, then we cannot fully embrace the gospel of God. To enter God’s rule means that we must act in response to both the messenger and message of God. Such actions are defined by two simple, but interrelated terms: repent and believe.

Much like the term sin, the idea of repentance is often pushed aside as unnecessary. Because we are told we should never admit that we have failed, often intentionally and horribly, there seems to be no need to admit our sin, and thus we believe that there is no need for the successive action of repenting from our sin. But this way of thinking is foreign to the gospel’s message.

Indeed, at the very heart of the gospel is the idea, the command, and the action of repenting. In fact, a careful reading of Mark’s prologue shows that the call to repent is there from the beginning. The words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” spoken through the prophet, is a declaration from Isaiah 40 that God will come to God’s people and the people must respond by preparing their lives for the visitation of God.

Such preparation involves recognizing that we are finite humans who are in need of the love and grace of God. This recognition is indicated through the act of turning from our self-serving lives and turning to God and to others in service and love.

Mark follows this declaration with the introduction of God’s messenger, John, who preaches a baptism of repentance and to whom throngs of people come to confess their sins and be baptized in preparation for God’s coming.

But John is only the forerunner to the one who comes in the authority of God; the one who is proclaimed as the Beloved Son by God. In the coming of Jesus, we see again that at the core of the gospel is the idea of repentance. Jesus declares, “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe in the good news.”

Thus, at the heart of Israel’s ancient prophet’s preaching, the proclamation by the one sent as the messenger of God, and Jesus’ announcement that God’s rule was near is a call to repent.

But two important questions come to mind regarding the idea of repentance. What does it mean to repent and from what should we repent?

We can find assistance in answering these questions by looking at the Greek word behind this English rendering to garner a definition of the word repent. Simply put, the word means to turn around or to change one’s mind. But this dictionary meaning does not help us much.

We often think of repenting as telling God that we are sorry we committed this or that sinful act and we will never do it again. Yet, what we find is that we do those things again and again no matter how serious we are in our repentance. But is repentance simply a turning away from our private and favorite sins?

While we should continue to repent of those individual habits that afflict us, the idea and practice of repentance is much bigger.

Repentance is when we allow our lives to be bent continually away from our self-interests and toward the will and purposes of God, particularly as they relate to our intentions and actions towards others. It is not a magical formula we use to get in right relationship with God; it is a yielding of our lives to the will and purposes of God and God’s just rule on earth.

And this helps us answer the question concerning from what should we repent.

We are to repent from our sinful lives of selfish living in which we have failed to love our neighbors and our enemies, failed to practice justice and mercy, and failed to side with the weak and vulnerable.

We are to repent from our neglect to protect the most defenseless of our society, whether a child in poverty, a homeless adult who hungers, a person facing loneliness and depression, or a school full of innocent children who are gunned down.

We are to repent from allowing our politics to become divisive, from allowing our culture to have a love affair with violence, from allowing an ever intensifying disregard for human life, and from allowing bigotry, racism, religious intolerance, sexism, and homophobia to continue to exist.

But more than repenting from these evils and many more, we are also to repent and turn toward the rule of God. In doing so, we embrace a new life of love, justice, compassion, and mercy toward everyone. This is the heart of the gospel and the hope of Advent and Christmas.

For Christians, the Season of Advent is a time when we are once again reminded of the coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In our celebration of this coming, we relive the story of God’s visitation with God’s people by preparing the way of the Lord in our own lives by repenting of our self-serving actions that neglect the needs of others, that degrade the humanity of others, and that wound the heart of God, and by turning toward the rule of God.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Advent is a Season of Listening for God

The fundamental statement of belief from ancient Israel’s history is found in Deuteronomy 6:4:  “Hear O’ Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Known as the Shema, the Hebrew word for 'hear', this confession begins with a command to hear; a command that Jesus often reiterated through his well known statement, “Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen.” Indeed, we find many references to the act of hearing throughout scripture, implying that God has something to say to God’s people.

But the act of hearing need not be limited to the physiological act of hearing a sound that enters the ear. Rather, the call to listen is a call to give full attention and adherence to the Word of God. When we are commanded in scripture to listen, it is a call to silence the noise of our self-interests and listen intently for the voice of God.

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s Advent narrative, we hear various voices speak. First, we hear the words of Israel‘s prophets echoed as a way of declaring that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises. Second, we hear the words of John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, who prepares the Way of the Lord.

We also hear the very voice of God, speaking through the rip of heaven to the Beloved Son; an event through which Jesus understands his mission as God’s envoy. And in the verses that close Mark’s prologue, 1:14-15, we hear that same Beloved Son speak with the authority of God, declaring that God’s rule was near. Indeed, in the very act of reading the narrative over and over, we continue to participate in hearing not only this story, but the various voices that proclaim the gospel to us.

Yet, despite the clear commands to listen, we face various obstacles that deafen our ears to God’s voice. One obstacle we face is the noise of life; noise that can drown out the voice of God to us.  Another challenge to our hearing God is the fear we have that God will call us to be different than we are. Not knowing what God may say to us if we were to enter a time of intense listening keeps us comfortable in our status quo relationship with God. We are safer if we do not hear.

But another significant problem is that we staunchly maintain assumptions about what we think God says. The catch phrase that captures this sentiment goes something like this; “The Bible says it, so that settles it.” The assumption behind this way of thinking is that our way of reading scripture is always correct, and the interpretations we have maintained can never be challenged or altered. 

While we must take scripture seriously in our act of hearing God, and the sacred text of the Bible should form a basis for the Christian's faith and life, clinging to our assumptions about what the Bible says can prevent our hearing God and can lead us to continue our cultural and political ideologies that ignore what God may actually be speaking to us.

Jesus himself faced such attitudes and he challenged them by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” While Jesus was not negating scripture, he was offering new meaning and understanding; a new way of understanding and hearing God in the here and the now. This way of listening embraces the past of God’s revelations, but also looks for what God is saying in the present. 

Thus, we must not treat scripture as a stagnant text that reiterates our culturally transmitted presuppositions about God. Rather, we must reverently approach the text with open ears, hearts, and minds, allowing God to challenge our way of thinking; even change our way of understanding scripture itself.

One significant way of allowing God to challenge our way of thinking is to listen to others. Listening to what others say about God and life, particularly those who are of a different faith, can help to test and shape our own way of thinking to the extent that though we may not change many of our ideas, we can at least value how others have heard God speak to them. Allowing the divine in someone else speak to the divine in us can help us hear God more fully.

A personal story may help clarify why I think listening to different people is necessary for our hearing God. Several years ago an African-American gentlemen came to my home asking to do some work around the house. He and I had many conversations. He could not read and he was often in and out of jail. He and I came from completely different worlds, and yet when we talked, I could not help but hear God speaking to me. Indeed, he represented the voice of God to me more than most sermons I have heard.

But this should not surprise me at all. A careful look at the life of Jesus shows us very clearly that he heard God in the voices of those forgotten by the world. While the religious establishment held onto their assumptions about what God had said, Jesus was hearing the new Word of God through the voices of those outside that establishment; those who struggled to live life as God intended. Thus, Jesus was not simply the bearer of God’s truth, he was also the receiver of God’s truth; a truth shaped by his listening to others.

In hearing again the story of Advent and Christmas, may we silence the noise of our lives, turn away from our fear of what God has to say to us, and hear God, not through listening to our own assumptions about what the story says and means, but through the voices of pain and suffering that God continues to hear.

“Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen.”

Friday, December 1, 2017

Advent is a Season of Waiting on God

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of the Christian calendar with the start of Advent. The word Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come”, and the season that bears this title consists of the four Sundays before Christmas that look with anticipation to the coming of Christ. While we observe this season as a time of looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas, the practice of Advent each year is also focused on our faith and hope in what God is preparing for our future: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

As we enter into this holy season, I want to focus my next four columns on four particular words that capture the essence of the season of Advent. While Christians have traditionally focused on the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, important themes as they are, I would like to glean another set of ideas from the opening of the first Gospel to be written, the Gospel of Mark.

Although Mark does not say anything about the birth of Jesus, as do Matthew and Luke, this does not mean that Mark is without an Advent theme. Moreover, a careful look at Mark’s prologue produces some very important spiritual practices for our renewal during this season of Advent. These practices are: waiting, hearing, repenting, and believing. We will consider the practice of waiting first.

The opening of Mark’s narrative situates the story of Jesus in the context of the past; Israel’s history of exile, and God’s promise of redemption and liberation. Although all the statements that Mark attributes to the prophet Isaiah cannot be found in Isaiah, the intention of the Gospel narrator is to pick up God’s promises of the past spoken through Isaiah in order to declare the new work that God was doing in the present as the fulfillment of those promises. In the thought of the Gospel’s author, the theme of a New Exodus, which was prevalent in Isaiah’s prophecies, was now being realized in the coming of God in the person of Jesus.

But the fulfillment of this promise comes only after God’s people had experienced a long period of waiting. Indeed, a remnant of God’s faithful continued to wait and believe, hoping to experience the realization of God’s promise of redemption. In their minds, God was the only one who could act to accomplish God’s promises, and the waiting of God’s people was an act of faith and hope in the God who they believed would affect that which they had not experienced, but which God had surely promised.

In our nanosecond oriented world, we find it difficult to wait. We are extremely uncomfortable with delayed satisfaction, and we make every effort to achieve and obtain quick, but often fleeting, ways of gratifying our lives. We realize we hunger, but we fail to realize that our deepest hunger cannot be satisfied by those momentary pleasures. Our deepest longings will only be satisfied by the renewal of God, who is continually making things new, but perhaps not at the speed we would desire. And, thus we must wait.

Yet, waiting on God is not like waiting in line at the store or waiting for an appointment. Waiting on God is like a child waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. There is hope and expectation, along with the assurance that though she may not know what is wrapped in the Christmas paper, she does know the one who gives the gift and she knows that the gift is the expression of the giver’s love. While we wait on God, we do not wait in fear and anxiety of what might come in the future; we wait with faith and hope in the God who holds the future.

In our waiting, however, we do not separate ourselves from the reality of a creation under chaos. Rather, we wait with creation, and we suffer with those who suffer, proclaiming the gospel through service and healing until God’s final redemption. In doing so, we do not deny the reality of suffering and injustice, nor do are we complacent about suffering and injustice, but we work as a means of confronting the suffering and injustice of our world with the realization that they hold no eternal reign over us.

But more than anything, waiting on God is a time of preparation. Just as Jesus commanded his disciples to watch and pray in the garden as a time of preparation, so too God demands that we watch and pray while we wait. Through our time of waiting, we are preparing to experience God’s renewal as our lives of disorientation are continually oriented toward God’s future hope. And through our time of preparation, as we wait with faithfulness, we can learn to perceive and embrace God’s work in the present as we continue to look for the horizon of God’s blessings.

The period of Advent is a season in which we celebrate what God has done in the incarnation of Jesus. But it is also a time in which we wait on God to do something new in our lives, something we have yet to experience. Advent is a time of hope, anticipation and waiting. Yet, through our waiting we work, watch, and pray as we prepare for the coming God, the one who is making all things new.