RCN Advent Reflection #18

Advent Reflection #18
Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph often gets overlooked. Next to the great sacrifice of Mary, wise men/kings traveling oh so far from the East, shepherds, and angels, Joseph seems downright ordinary. And yet Joseph is a big part of this. How might you react if your soon-to-be wife, who you have definitely not slept with turns up pregnant? What’s more, she claims that the was not unfaithful – that it’s actually God’s child! It might take more than the appearance of an angel to smooth things over, right?!

According to Matthew, when Mary told Joseph that she was pregnant, he responded well. He was determined to not humiliate her or make a fuss, but to instead simply dismiss her quietly. Such was not the custom. His friends and family would have likely encouraged him to lead in the humiliation, and ultimately in the stoning of Mary. You see society – even God’s people Israel – saw her as Joseph’s property, to be treated as he pleased. But Joseph saw something more. He saw a child of God.

It’s only then, after Joseph responds in grace, that the angel of the Lord interrupts his sleep and appears to him, explaining the full situation to him. “Your fiancé is to bear the long-awaited Messiah,” the angel says. “This is God’s doing.” “This baby is Emmanuel – God with us!” And so, Joseph took Mary as his own, took responsibility for the baby, and raised the baby.

A devotional I read says this, “there is a model here for making decisions and dealing with doubts. Pray about it, carry it as a question, pester God about it. This is the story of Joseph’s utterly unique vocation, as foster-father of the Son of God.”

What can you learn about Joseph’s kindness to Mary, and his willingness to respond slowly, in prayer, paying extra attention to the Lord? Joseph would not have been able to respond as he did, were he not truly open to God. The same is surely true of us.

Speak to us Lord God. Help us, like Joseph, to receive your Son Jesus.

RCN Advent Reflection #17

Advent Reflection #17
Matthew 1:1-11

We often skip over this tedious beginning to the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel. Or, if we read it, we focus in on verse 1 – and for understandable reasons. In verse 1 we read that Jesus is the Messiah, and that he is the son of David and the son of Abraham. As Messiah, Jesus is the long-expected One who will come to save God’s people. As the son of David he is or will be King, and not just any King, a King like David – the greatest of Israel’s Kings. And as the son of Abraham, Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant. He is not only heir to the promise, but he is promise come to fulfillment.

Clearly verse 1 is not chronological, but rather theological in nature. Beginning in verse 2, we receive a chronological and genealogical account of Jesus’s family tree. Do not think, though, that Matthew’s theological teaching stops with verse 1.

Notice that the genealogy is one that is traced through men, through fathers – though with some clear and intentional exceptions: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute in order to bear a child to Judah (who should not have slept with a prostitute in the first place!). Rehab, a prostitute who helped the spies of Israel, spy out the land and Jericho. Ruth, a gentile who was loyal to Naomi, and eventually married Boaz. And Bathsheba, a young beautiful peasant girl seduced and most likely raped by King David, and who’s husband was murdered by David in order to allow her to be with David. Shady characters, some, shady stories all. And yet, Matthew makes it a point to include these figures in Jesus’s patriarchal (male defined) genealogy.

It seems that God’s plan makes detours. It works with human errors, and accounts for sin and weakness. This short genealogy, yet again, demonstrates that God is adept in making good of our bad, of making a way when there seems to be no way. It’s only this sort of genealogy, after all, that could logically lead to the strange birth of the Messiah to a teenage, unwed, virgin, peasant girl in the filth and stench of an animal’s stable.

God’s story, you see, isn’t written with fixed type, but with crooked, loving, hand-written lines. Mistakes and all, your story can be made a part of God’s story too.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

One Reason (Among Many) Why Racism is Still an Issue

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Last week, amidst the recent tension of racially-driven violence, police brutality, and USA’s general inability to understand and tolerate civil disobedience – or any differing opinions, really – I had an interesting experience. Once a month I attend the Sr. Adults bible study at my church and then join them for lunch. On this particular week, they were wrapping up a study on Leviticus – a brave and difficult study to undertake! The final few chapters led us to discuss the year of Jubilee, slavery, and other similar issues. We discussed how wrongly some of these passages have been used over the years, including especially by the United States (the South in particular – though of course slavery existed well beyond the “South”). Even today, slavery is a booming industry, and is prominent in the USA – think human trafficking. I was encouraged and impressed by the things that these Sr. Adults discussed.

One older white gentleman in particular, who did a good deal of traveling with his job before retiring, told us of an incident he experienced that made an impact upon him.

He told of growing up in the Northwest and having race not be much of a big deal. He remembers having black teammates in sports and that they were fully accepted to the best of his recollection. It was a shock, then, to travel to Georgia in the mid-1960’s where he experienced segregation. He told us of eating in a diner where black folks were not allowed to come inside, and yet the wait staff was made up of black women. (He didn’t like this experience.) He remembers seeing a building across the street form the diner that was burnt down – still smoking actually. It was a dance hall. He asked about what had happened and one of the waitresses told him that recently a young black man had taken a young white woman to a dance. He had been lynched for his actions: murdered, tied up, and then burned along with the dance hall itself to send a message to the black community.

So why is race still an issue? Why is racism still worth talking about? One simple argument would be that this message was heard, loud and clear. Hundreds and thousands of similar messages were heard all across the country. Individuals, families, and entire communities received these messages and remember them still to this day. If this was the mid-1960’s, then it is conceivable that this young man’s parents might still be alive. Certainly brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, and friends would all still be around. Multiply this by the thousands of similar, and even more horrific cases of lynching that occurred  in the US and are forced to understand that there are many, many people alive today that still bear with them the personal scars and memories of burned buildings, bodies, and smells. With these memories, are the sounds of upheaval, hatred, and the constant threat of violence. Is the world, the USA, different today? Sure. But that doesn’t change the fact that these realities happened and linger not only in the collective consciousness of society, but in individual memories as well.

Racism still occurs. And yes, folks, racism can also happen to white people. Truth is, black lives matter, brown lives matter, white lives matter – all lives matter. But events like those experienced above, which rear their ugly heads still in places and situations like recent events, should move us to affirm, in particular, that the lives of those who look different than us (I’m white) truly matter. (Events like that above, after all, seem to indicate something different.) Affirming that black lives matter does not exclude the reality that white lives matter after all.

Finally, there is a tendency for some to read stories like this and say, “fine, I’m sorry that happened, but it’s time to move on.” I understand that sentiment, and yet I wonder how realistic this is. White people telling the black community to simply “move on” is dangerously close to Germany telling Jews to “move on,” to white South Africans telling black South Africans to “move on,” or perhaps to the Middle East telling the USA to “move on” from 9/11. In the USA we are told constantly to never forget 9/11. OK. I understand why that is espoused. If this sentiment is allowed, though, we must understand that the realities of apartheid, lynching, racial violence, and the many years of the enslavement of African people will also not be forgotten. These events directly affected far more people than, say, 9/11, for example.

We need to move on, but we must do so together. Moving on together means we bring our stories with us, we don’t leave them behind. Reconciliation cannot be achieved apart from our stories. We can’t be selective about which stories are included and which must be abandoned. Embracing our stories, as painful and difficult as they might be, is the only way to ensure that these heinous events are not repeated. Think the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Moving on will take time – a LONG time. With each new generation there is more and more hope of leaving our mistakes behind us and living into a world free of racism. That world is not here, but though things seem seem tragic at the moment, I’m hopeful that we’re headed there.

The photo above was taken at the entrance to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.

RCN Advent Reflection #16

Advent Reflection #16
Matthew 21:28-32

The parable in today’s passage, though short, is incredibly challenging. Jesus tells of a man who asks his two sons to go and work in the vineyard. One son says, “no,” but later decides to show up and work. The other says, “yes,” but does not show up at all. “Who did the will of the Father,” Jesus asks. The first one, of course – better late than never.

Your words matter little, if your actions do not back them up.

He goes on to say, “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

God will populate His Kingdom. Those who accept and believe in the Lord Jesus will be saved. This is not dependent upon race, gender, social position, or even whether or not one is a part of Israel. This isn’t even dependent upon whether or not one lives a truly holy life. Instead, belief that is backed up with good and loving actions towards others is the criterion upon which salvation rests. Here, the tax collectors and prostitutes – despite being the lowest of the low – are lifted up by Jesus as going first into the Kingdom of Heaven because they accepted John and they accept him. The religious elite, on the other hand, despite all their wisdom and holiness neither accepted John or Jesus.

God will populate His Kingdom no matter what. Who you are and what you’ve done does not matter. That you believe in Him and love others as a result does.

Give us faith to follow you in love, Lord Jesus.

RCN Advent Reflection #15

Advent Reflection #15
Matthew 21:23-27

In our passage today, Jesus enters the temple and immediately is scrutinized by all the temple folks about his authority. “By what authority to you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus was upsetting the order of things that the religious elite had worked so hard to establish and they weren’t happy about this. In typical fashion, Jesus responds to their question with a question. He asks them about John the Baptist’s authority – was it from heaven or earth. We’re told they balk at an answer, knowing that if they attribute his authority to heaven, they will look bad for not believing in him, whereas if they say it was earthly authority, then the crowds around them will be angered due to their acceptance of him. Not knowing the smartest answer, they give Jesus no answer. Jesus says that he will not, then, give them an answer either.

It’s understandable that they would question his authority. This passage, though, shows that they weren’t really interested in his answer. They had already decided that he was not who he claimed to be (they thought the same of John the Baptist). Jesus presented a headache for them, an interruption in the status quo. Jesus was a problem. They had been praying and hoping for change for so long, you see, that they failed to see the change before their eyes. In reality, they had given up hope for something different. It’s one thing to pray for change. It’s another thing altogether to accept and embrace it.

Finally, their refusal to give an answer at all betrays how little faith they had. They weren’t really interested in John the Baptist at all, or Jesus for that matter. Instead, they simply wanted to maintain the status quo, to preserve their positions, and to make the people happy. This is very poor leadership at best.

Lord Jesus, may we risk our positions, our status, our power on believing in you, and may we accept the change that we pray for when it arrives.

Come Lord Jesus.

RCN Advent Reflection #14

Advent Reflection #14
John 1:6-8, 19-28

John testified to the light. His words, actions, indeed his entire life, testified to the light. People took notice. They were either drawn to him or repulsed by him.

What does your life testify to?

Unfortunately recent news has been focused upon racial tension and violence, the USA’s use of torture, and other violent negative topics. Such tragic realities testify to anything but the light. These issues are morally repugnant and should force us to take a critical look at ourselves as well as the country we live in. We must constantly scrutinize our words and deeds and ask ourselves: “do our words and actions testify to the light, or to darkness?”

John’s words and deeds were stark and even offensive because of how radically different he was than the society around him. He was a part of God’s chosen people, and yet he had no trouble recognizing just how wrong they were about so many things, and thus how different God was calling him to be. Because he was committed to being different, God was able to use him to truly prepare the way for the coming Messiah, for the true light of the world.

The light needed John – it needs you too. In all that you do, live for the light, testify to it – you won’t regret it.

Come Lord Jesus

RCN Advent Reflection #13

Advent Reflection #13
Matthew 17:10-13

Sorry, for those following along at home, the devotional schedule listed chapter 7 rather than 17 today. My apologies.

So why all this constant talk of preparation? Why must Elijah come before Jesus? Why the prophets? Why John the Baptist?

The answer is simple: because we’re not ready. Elijah was not always treated well. John the Baptist was not treated well. Jesus was not treated well. This is true of the religious elite, in particular. Those who were supposed to treat these figures well, those who were supposed to already be ready, were not.

When the disciples ask Jesus why there’s a new for a second Elijah, or for John the Baptist, his answer is basically, “if you don’t get the one who is to prepare, how will you get the one being prepared for?” These preparatory figures, then, serve as a trial for us, an opportunity to learn the ways and customs of the Messiah. They show us the things that are important to the Lord, and those things that are not. These preparatory figures increase our odds, even slightly, of recognizing and following Jesus.

It simply cannot be stressed enough – we need preparation if we are to recognize and follow Jesus.

Thank God for Elijah and for John the Baptist.

Help us not to miss you Lord Jesus.