Monday, December 17, 2018

Reflection on Luke 3:7-18

Who are you?

I do not know if you’ve seen it, but there is this ancestry.com commercial that shows a man dressed in lederhosen with German music playing in the background. The man mentions how, for years he believed he was of German descent causing him to partake in German foods and dance.

Well, he took a DNA test from ancestry.com and discovered that the majority of his DNA was Scottish. There was no trace of German. The scene then cuts to the man wearing a kilt. His life was changed because of his DNA.

The commercial is funny, exaggerating our culture’s obsession with DNA information. But, the DNA discovery of a friend’s wife caused all of these questions to hit closer to home.

For her entire life my friend’s wife did not know who her father was. Her mother refused to tell her saying that, “it was for the best.” Her mother might have been right.

Through some complicated and unlikely circumstances that I’m not going to worry about describing, the woman received an email detailing who her father was after-all. She stared at the name and did a quick Google search. She found out that her father had murdered one of his girlfriends.

The information was shocking, but it should not have bore any bearing on who she felt she was. But, it did.

Like an unwanted song that plays through your head and you cannot get it to stop; so her mind lingered on and on about the sins of her father and her own instances of anger. She did have a temper. Would she also attack the ones she loved? It was all ridiculous, she had never been in trouble her entire life, but the information that she contained bad DNA left her feeling dirty; and it gnawed away at her soul.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who believe that their DNA awards them privilege. And, maybe it does in some cases. Maybe, the fact that you were born into a rich family will mean that you will never really have to work.

It is easy to believe that your DNA can offer you inherent advantages. Being born in America allows us the privileges of American citizenship and the freedoms and relative economic well-being that citizenship can provide. Some people will hold that privilege tight, refusing to share.

In John the Baptist’s time, there were those to who clung to Abraham as their ancestor. You see, it is through Abraham that they and their ancestors became the people of God. Through the miracle of birth, these people were given their identity as God’s chosen people, and they clung to that for all it was worth.

To both those who cling to their DNA and those who are fearful of what their DNA reveals, John the Baptist has a clear message: “You are not your DNA.”

He says it like this: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

John calls those children of Abraham who ride on the privilege of their ancestors a “brood of vipers.” In other words, the children of Abraham who cling to their DNA are “children of snakes.” God can give a rock Abrahamic DNA. It means nothing.

Corporations make this mistake all the time. They will elect the child of the corporation’s founder as the next great CEO of the corporation even though evidence about corporate health clearly suggests that it is better to just give the job to the best candidate. Just because your father was a great person who built the company does not mean you will be.

John the Baptist is saying the same thing. Just because Abraham was obedient to God’s will does not mean anyone else will be. Do you want to show your obedience to God? Then do the things that show Godly obedience!

You are what you do.

The things that John suggests to those standing there out in the wilderness do are not unreasonable. What he says the people should do are not nearly at the “camel going through the eye of the needle” level of difficulty.

“If we are what we do, what should we do?” the crowds ask him.

"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." In other words, living in a Godly ways is not rocket science. If you have extra clothes, share with those who do not. If you have extra food in the pantry, share with those who do not. You can do this stuff. And, you should.

“Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

Again, this is not rocket science. Being who God created us to be is not some great mystery or impossible question to answer.

Are you a teacher? Then make certain the children are actually learning.

Are you a laborer? Then make certain that you do quality work and that you treat your co-workers with love.

Are you in law enforcement? Then protect and serve as you have been commissioned; do not use your power in selfish ways.

Are you a farmer? Then care for the creation that God has given into your care.

Are you a rocket scientist. Well, then I guess it is rocket science. Make certain you check and double check and triple check your calculations. People's lives literally depend on it.

You are what you do according to John.

Now, just so you do not get confused, this is not about your salvation. You are claimed by God as one of God’s children, and that is that. You do not do these things to earn any sort of heavenly reward. But, since you are one of God’s children, these things are what living in God’s family is about.

Remember, in your own family Uncle Chuck may not follow the family values...but he is still family. It is the same with God’s family.

But, since we are a part of God’s family, John urges us to change our ways. And, if we refuse to change our ways, Jesus has some nice winnowing techniques the get our wheat clean and to remove our chaff. God cares about the world God created, and God wants it to be treated with care. God will make that happen if need be, but would it not be better if we just go ahead and repent, turning to a new way of life without the painful process of winnowing?

You are a member of God’s family. You are a brother or sister of Christ. But, that alone does not make you a loving person. God can raise up rocks to be loving Christians. Only love makes you a loving person.

You are what you do. So, you ask John, “What should I do?” Whatever it is, it will have everything to do with loving God and your neighbor in all that you do because you have been placed in a holy family of love.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Reflection on Luke 3:1-6

It started with Boy’s Life magazine, but it certainly did not end there. In the back of the 1980s version of the scouting magazine was always the advertisements. And, in the advertisement section was a small ad that promised a secret solution to getting bulging biceps. For a small fee, you too could have huge, sculpted, 10 year old boy arms. I did not have any money, so their secret was safe with them. Apparently, huge, sculpted biceps were for the rich and powerful.

I said that it started then, but it certainly did not end. There was the local country club into which my struggling family could never hope to set foot. I did not really understand what golf even was, but it was obviously a game for doctors and business owners, and not people like my family.

Then there was the book called “The Secret.” It was right there in my local Barnes and Nobles Bookstore. Its price tag kept everything inside a safe secret from me. Oprah Winfrey and the likes obviously were able to crack it open, and look where she is today! The fact that it could be found a year later in bargain bookstores was, in fact, lost on me at the time.

But, do you see where I am going with this? So much of this world is about access. You need to know the right people and be in the right places and be around the right resources in order to accomplish anything grand in this mediocre life. My parents had no connections with Ivy League schools, so I did not even try applying. I was not a member of the powerful and well connected.

When writing about Jesus’ ministry, Luke begins the story with the powerful and well connected of the world.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah…”

Like the opening scene to a movie, the camera floats through the city streets of the rich, panning to reveal the faces of a Roman Emperor, moving to reveal a governor, a couple of kings, the High Priests, and even John, son of Zechariah. Remember that John’s father was once High Priest in God’s holy temple, so he comes from no small social pedigree.

The story on Jesus' ministry seems to start where all stories of the great start, in a place of inaccessibility…in a place of privilege where the lowly are nowhere to be found.

Unfortunately, I think that this image of inaccessibility often shapes our own beliefs in God.

Often, God is imagined to be like one of the rich, inaccessible, powerful figures of our world. We envision God on a throne, looking down upon us, an ant-sized and unimportant people. The god of our imagination can be distant, unmoved, and full of judgment.

Now, I am not saying that this image of God cannot be found in the Bible. It most certainly can. It is an image that has been imprinted on people for years and years, and will for years and years to come.

But, one day God decided that the world needed to see something different. God decided that we needed to see God in a way that was truer to who God really is.

So, yes, the camera pans over the great and powerful of the world in the start of Jesus’ ministry, but it moves low and focuses on John the Baptist who is ministering “in the wilderness.”

This is not the first time the camera has fallen on an unexpected low place or an unexpectedly low person. Previously, the camera moved over Zechariah and fell at the feet of a poor, teenage girl who gets an unexpected heavenly visitor.

It will make the same movement again as it moves into the fields on the edge of town and falls on the minimum wage earning shepherds.

The camera will then follow them to a stable where we first get to glimpse the savior of the world in a bed of hay. And, that savior will not favor the rich and powerful, but will eat with the sinner and heal the poor.

This is all because the greatness of God as described in the Christian scriptures is rarely found in the great people and places of the world. Instead, we will have to strain our eyes a little harder to see the Word of God at work.

We should not look to the national news to see God at work. As 1 Kings 19:11-12 describes Elijah’s interaction with God:

"Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence."

Other translations say that God can be found, not in the grand movements of the world but in the “still, small voice.” Do not be dismayed, God is at work in our world, but we will see God’s handiwork most easily in the unexpected and lowly places.

“In the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump, while Tom Wolf was governor of Pennsylvania, and Garret Miller mayor of Towanda, while the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton was bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Rev. Samuel Zeiser was bishop of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod, the Word of God came to a mentally challenged man on the main street of Towanda who saw a woman crying on the sidewalk. He stopped, and asked if she was OK. She did not answer, and he looked around, searching for a answer to this problem. Finally, he dug in his coat pocket and pulled out a Dum Dum Lollipop. He handed it to the woman and the offer put a smile on her face. The love of God, through this small act of care and sacrifice, immediately filled the street.”

Of course, it is not like he saved her life…unless he did. That is the way God works after-all.

Certainly, God can use kings and rulers to affect change in the world. We see it happening all the time in scripture. But, I think that Luke does not want the likes of 10 year old boys and the mentally challenged individuals to feel as if they are out of the club.

Quite to the contrary, surprising encounters with the Word of God happen all the time, as theologian David Lose says in his December 7th In The Meantime article. These encounters are “hidden in plain sight, appearing on the margins and in places you’d not normally expect because… because that’s just the way it is with God’s Word.”

When God encounters us, it is as if the insurmountable mountains have been made low and the canyons raised up; the roads made straight and the rough areas made smooth so that even someone in a wheelchair might be able to roll forward and greet God as God comes along the path.

Jesus is the savoir of the world, and he enlists the help of even you and me and the lowest of the low in his ministry. That is just the way it is with our God who loves our entire world.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Reflection on Luke 21:25-36

“You’re fired.”

The words were paralyzing words. They were unexpected words. He had worked in that position at the plant for 32 years. And, now, with just two words, his entire life had just changed. It happened in mere moments. As he was escorted with his box of belongings out to his car he was afraid.

It happened across town also when the young woman came home to see the broken window in the front of her apartment and the furniture overturned throughout the house. She had just started feeling comfortable in this new community, and now… Where was her cat? Her cat had never been outdoors before. Where was her cat? That night, with flimsy cardboard taped to the window, she sat awake in her bed, with a heavy flashlight held firmly in her grasp. Would she ever sleep again? Her life had changed that day. She was afraid.

Across the world, he ran from the smoke engulfed landscape behind. Just days before he, a Christian, and his Muslim neighbor were sharing a meal and good conversation in their backyard. But, now these friends were supposed to pretend to be at war as the government started shelling the neighborhood? “What kind of madness is this?” he thought. The smoke was rising from their houses. In a mere microsecond, someone else’s hatred destroyed the peace and the prosperity of their lives. His country would never be the same. His life would never be the same. Kids would now grow up to be enemies rather than friends, and the very thought of his country's culture being changed forever made him very afraid.

There are some truths in life that Jesus lays out quite plainly: There will be “distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…” (21:25-26).

All that we know in life will fall apart. That is a truth. That is a certainty. The life that we thought we had will change, and fear will linger with our struggle to confront our new way of life.

Fear.

Fear is that terrible feeling of uncertainty.

People are naturally uncertain about unfamiliar people, and they act out of fear. Just ask the Native Americans what happened to them when they saw fear in the eyes of those first Europeans.

People are naturally uncertain about the future, and they act out of character, making decisions and acting in ways that are foreign to who they are…all because of fear. Just ask those Germans who followed orders from the Nazi’s that stank of the threat of death.

Fear can drive us to flee or it can drive us to fight, but either way it will heap change upon change upon change upon change.

Do you know what is nice when caught in the grips of fear? Something stable is nice.

Seeing the stability of solid, high ground is nice when the seas rage. Seeing the stable vine and reaching for it is nice when falling off of the cliff. Seeing the stable, solid friend’s embrace coming near is nice when your life is crumbling apart on all sides.

In the exact same way, would it not be nice if you could look up to the sky, look up to God during the impossible times of life, and see that the crumbling of life is not the last word?

“Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (21:27-18).

In the ancient world, there was a literature that most of us no longer recognize or understand. It was called “apocalypse.” And, in this ancient literature the world was divided into two plains. There was the earthly plain where the struggles of the world occurred. Then, there was the heavenly plain where the gods resided. Remember, most ancient people believed in multiple gods. These two plains existed in parallel in that when there was a war between the gods in the heavens, then there was also a war between the nations below. In fact, the war in the heavens was the reason that a war on earth was taking place.

Given that, would not it be nice if someone on earth could somehow peer into heaven and see the reason that the horrors of the world were taking place? That opportunity is what happens in apocalyptic literature.
In other words, apocalyptic literature tells us that there is more to reality than we might see at first glance. Our world and our lives might be crumbling apart, but this literature reminds us of the possibility that there may be something bigger going on…maybe God is up to something that we just do not yet know.

It is similar to when someone you love dearly dies and an acquaintance comes up to you and says, “It is OK, it is all a part of God’s plan." However, this mini apocalypse in Luke is not as terribly dismissive as that. If fact, never say that. Never say that to someone who has just lost someone very close to them. The statement does more hurt than help. That is just a little piece of free grief advice for you today.

Instead, of saying “It is all a part of God’s plan,” this fragment of Apocalyptic image promises something that goes kind of like: “Even though things are all falling apart, do not worry, Jesus is coming with salvation in his heart and Jesus does not change.”

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (21:33).

Your world might fall apart, your plans may crumble, your world may change, but there is one thing that does not change. There is one piece of stable ground on which you can land. There is one vine to which you can grasp. Jesus and his love does not pass away. Jesus and his love does not fall apart. Jesus and his ability to make something new and glorious out of a crumpled mess never goes away. Though jobs are lost, homes are destroyed, and countries crumble away, nothing is able to touch the grace of God found in Jesus Christ.

Look up into the heavens and see the truth. Jesus comes riding on the clouds. His truth never passes away. Your salvation is near.

“Watch” (21:34). “Stay awake at all times” (21:36). Do not lose heart. Jesus is still our rock in a world of shifting sands.

Wait for the Lord. Watch for the Lord. Be aware and prepared. No matter what happens, do not lose heart. Do not lose yourself in despair. Do not lose yourself in drunkenness. Do not close yourself away from the world.

When the world crumbles apart, look up to see Jesus who never falls apart or fades away. Jesus is your true source of strength. He is your source of “wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (21:14-15).

When all is falling apart, remember that there is more going on than the pain of the world. God is forever, and Jesus is forever your hope.