Saturday, December 14, 2013

Four Christmas Passages in the Bible You Rarely Hear About

If you were raised in a Christian background, you have probably heard the traditional Christmas story dozens of times in your life. Most likely these tellings were replete with the typical characters: Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the three wise men, the little town of Bethlehem, etc. And that’s good! Because that traditional story has a lot of meaning in it: God choosing to come to humanity in the form of a powerless baby, and revealing himself first to the humble Mary, the lowly shepherds, and the pagan Magi. The Omnipotent one becoming the weakest of all, and in so doing raising up the meek and the outcast.

Yet, there are at least four sections to the Christmas story that I do not think I have ever heard a sermon preached on. They’re all right there in Luke chapters 1 and 2, but for whatever reason (lack of time; difficulty?) they are glossed over in a lot churches. And that’s too bad, because they are powerful. Here are the four parts; please take a few minutes to reflect on each and what they would mean for you this Christmas. (I have also provided some of my own thoughts, but please ignore them if they distract you. I think the text speaks for itself.)

1. The story of Anna.

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

Anna. Married at …16? 17? Seven years married. Then sixty years alone. Widows in Jesus’ day were devoid of legal status and often powerless, unless they managed to remarry. Anna never did. Instead, she focused all her attention on worship, prayer, and fasting. What faith! While she could be on the Temple Mount, she, as a woman, could not go far inside: past the Court of the Gentiles, but not into the Court of Israel (where men could enter). Anna was caught in the middle, tasting the glory but always wanting more. Like many, she looked forward to the liberation of Jerusalem from the greedy, idolatrous Roman Empire. Unlike many, she put all her energy into praying for God’s kingdom to appear on Earth. And then! Finally! The one of whom the prophets had spoken: Meshiach. What rapturous joy must have consumed her tiny frame. No wonder she spoke about it to all around her! The first evangelist.

What are you thankful for this Christmas? What are you still longing to see?

Oh Lord, grant that we would have the faith to worship, fast, and pray for your Kingdom to come…and the strength to persist in doing so all the days of our life. Amen.

2. The story of Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist)

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:67-80)

Temple Priest. Righteous. Blameless. Infertile?
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth join the legion of characters from the Bible that are unable to conceive. A mark of shame in ancient Jewish society, childlessness drove these characters to desperately seek God, year after year. And then! An angel appears! Zechariah and Elizabeth are to have a child—but not only that, the child who will prepare the way for the Meshiach.
Zechariah prophesies about Jesus and John, despite the fact that neither has even been born yet. Two children, brought into the world through miracle, linked in a common destiny to change history. John would prepare the way for Jesus, to teach about the tender mercy of God, about the forgiveness of sins, and that the dawn is coming in a land of darkness. Jesus would come to bring that dawn, to bring that salvation, to guide his people out from the shadow of death---death! No longer would that specter haunt humanity. It would be banished forever in the light of God’s infinite love and glory!
And Zechariah gets to be there at the very first glimpse of the dawn.

What are you longing for? Where do you need God’s light to shine in your life?

Oh Lord, grant that you would enable us to serve you without fear. Guide our feet into the path of peace. And rescue us out from the shadow of death. Amen.

3. The story of Simeon.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be spoken against,
so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:25-35)

Simeon’s prophecy is striking in a few aspects. We see the first understanding that Jesus was coming not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. This would probably have struck Simeon’s listeners as surprising. The Meshiach was supposed to crush the Gentiles in battle, not grant life-giving revelation to them! Secondly, we see that this child, Jesus, is destined to “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Jesus would cause many to fall out of favor (the rich, the powerful, those who thought themselves close to God) by revealing their true nature and exposing their “whitewashed tombs” for all to see the dead bones within. But those who were downtrodden and downcast would be lifted up: the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the sinners.

But Jesus, this “light of revelation,” would not be welcomed by everyone. Radical change has many enemies. Jesus would “be a sign that will be spoken against.” And the persecution would harm those closest to him: his mother’s heart would be broken too. But all of this was part of God’s salvation.

What inner thoughts of your heart does Jesus’ message reveal?

Oh Lord, thank you for your Meshiach, and for the light of revelation he has given us. Amen.

4. The story of Mary

And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
(Luke 1:46-56)

Perhaps the most radical speech of the Christmas story, Mary’s song (the “Magnificat”) is a pronouncement of God’s kingdom and a denunciation of the existing order. To put the spotlight on a woman in the patriarchal 1st century was remarkable in itself; for Luke to write out her stridently prophetic words—even more so. Mary speaks in the present tense, anticipating and trusting that God will do all that he has promised: to life up the humble, fill the hungry, and be merciful. Those phrases are beautiful. In the Pax Americana, we would much prefer to skip over the other phrases, where God brings down rulers, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away empty. “Isn’t that a bit harsh, God?” we might ask. But like the humans in the Tower of Babel, or the rich young man who asked Jesus for the secret to life from above, perhaps the best thing God can do for the powerful is to humble them and take away their things. Only then can they be empty-handed and contrite, ready to receive his blessings. 

Are you proud? Let God humble you. Are you humble? Let God lift you up.

Oh Lord, extend your mercy to me, a sinner. Fill me with good things, and help me to release those things that keep me from embracing you. I love you. Amen. 

Snow in Bethlehem last week? Miracles can happen. Merry Christmas!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Four Modern-Day Parables

Here are four modern-day parables I wrote to try to explain the Kingdom of God. Three have previously been featured on facebook, but the princess one is brand new. I hope they are all thought-provoking and enjoyable!


1. “What is the Kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it?

There once was a princess who lived in Jerusalem. One day, a prince from a faraway, powerful kingdom came to her city. He lived in Jerusalem for three years, and soon fell in love with the princess. The princess loved him back, and after the third year the prince proposed to her. He then told her that he had to first return to his own country to settle accounts with his father, but that he would return soon. The princess hated to see him go, but trusted in his promise.
As the months passed, many of the princess’ courtiers began to mutter that the prince had left for good, never to return. Others advised the princess to stop thinking about the prince as a person who was engaged to her, but rather a beautiful ideal to strive towards. But the princess ignored them all, and waited patiently for her fiancĂ©.
Eventually, after two years, the prince returned, explaining that he had been delayed because his father had wanted to invite as many people as possible to attend the wedding. The next day, the two were married and their kingdoms united.
However, all the courtiers who had expressed doubt in the prince were forbidden from attending the massive wedding feast. They were locked outside in the darkness, where they groaned and gritted their teeth in hunger. 

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

2. “Who is my neighbor?”

In reply, he said: “An aid worker from a Christian charity was going down the road from Kabul to Kandahar, when he was attacked by smugglers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A military convoy happened to be going down the same road, and when the lead driver saw the man, passed by on the other side. (The driver feared it was a set-up for an ambush). So too, a humvee carrying the US ambassador also passed by on the other side (the ambassador had an important meeting with the district governor). Soon, a member of the Taliban, as he traveled with his donkey, came where the man lay; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on an antiseptic and giving him some morphine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out three hundred American dollars and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Then the member of the Taliban went on his way. Two hours later, an American drone fired a missile at the inn, thinking it was a Taliban base. The missile killed all inside: the innkeeper, his wife, their children, and the aid worker.

Now tell me: which of these characters acted as a neighbor to the aid worker?”

“…the one who took care of him.”

“Then go and do likewise. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

3. “What is the Kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it?

A small community of humans lived among the Vulcans. Every Friday night, the humans would cook dinners and invite the Vulcans to join them to eat, sing songs, and tell stories. And every Friday night, the Vulcans would politely decline. The humans’ music and laughter would echo long into the night. Eventually the Vulcans became angry at the disturbances, and deported the humans back to Earth. There, the humans continued their weekly gatherings—but now, so many people would join them, they scarcely had room enough to stand!

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

“A young Jedi Knight once sent a request for a meeting with Master Yoda. Master Yoda sent back a message- "Meditating, I am, in the Room of a Thousand Fountains." Not wishing to disturb, the young Jedi waited. The next day, he sent the same request. This time, Yoda replied: "In the training room, I am." The next day, the young Jedi sent his request a third time. This time, Yoda wrote: "Eating in the cafeteria, I am." Annoyed at Master Yoda for dodging his request, the young Jedi Knight gave up.
Weeks later, the same young Jedi ran into Yoda in the Main Atrium. Yoda asked him why they had never had a meeting. Exasperated, the young man cried out, "Because you always had an excuse! You never made time for me." Yoda slowly shook his head. "My son, sadly mistaken you are. My heart was to see you, and I told you where to find me. Wanted you to join me, I did. Sad was I, when you never showed."

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Where Feet May Fail

I can relate certain periods of my recent life to the Hillsong albums I was listening to as I experienced them. What would my experience of Jerusalem be without the knowledge that he meets us like springs in the desert (“Desert Song”), and that he longs to “Tear Down the Walls” and welcome us into his “Arms Open Wide”? What would sophomore year of F&M be without the realization that God wants to break our hearts for what breaks his, and wants to raise up a new generation that seeks his face (“Hosanna”)? What about my flight back from Ghana, flying above the clouds as the bass of “Father” merged with the hum of the engines, as if everything around me were groaning for the heavens to be rent, for God come back to his children?

Now, 7 months into TFA, a new Hillsong album, new realizations, and new glories to be experienced.

“Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”   A year ago, my InterVarsity staff worker gave me a “hope”, a picture frame with an artistic revelation of what she felt God was telling her about me. It had a picture of a wasteland, and a caption: “The desert is God’s means for building his saints.” I had no idea that 6 months later, I would indeed be entering into the harshest desert of my life, of teaching in inner-city Baltimore. I hated it at first. But I’m starting to see that, like Jesus, like Israel, I too must go through trials and temptations to prepare me for the hard work that lies for me later in life.
The song “Oceans” sings, “Sprit lead me where my trust is without borders/let me walk about the waters/wherever you would call me/take me deeper than my feet could ever wander/and my faith would be made stronger/in the presence of my Savior.”  The words come from an occasion where Jesus walked on water towards the disciples, who were struggling to row against a fierce thunderstorm. Peter cries out, “Lord, if it is you (if you are the one who saves, if you do love me, if you can truly deliver us!) then call me to come to you on the water!” Come, Jesus says. And so Peter walks upon the waters, his faith is made stronger. But then his eyes doubt, and his feet fail, and he starts to sink! Oh God, but you called me here! Why are you letting me drown! So Peter calls upon the Name of Jesus, and immediately, Jesus takes his hand and pulls him up.
I know God led me to teach in Baltimore. I know he led me here to plant seeds. I know that, as the psalmist promised, “he who sows in tears will harvest with shouts of joy.” I know my faith will be made stronger. But then I sink! My feet may fail, and I sink beneath the waves! But every time I have called out, Jesus has reached out his hand and caught me. Saved from self-doubt, from self-condemnation, from sin. This experience has been harder than anything I’ve ever done. Yet I have grown so much. Some things can only be learned by stepping into the desert, by walking out onto the waters.
Last Friday, at 6am, there was a men’s prayer gathering at my church that I had decided to skip. Until God helped me get all my work done quickly and I found that I would have enough time to make it there and to school on time. At the prayer gathering, I met a twin: a guy from upstate NY, went to a small liberal arts college, and had a PA girlfriend. We prayed together, encouraged each other—and perhaps our paths will never cross again! All I know is that for that day, God gave me what I so desperately needed, and the day was so much better for it. I had cried out for help, and God answered.

Northwest Baltimore
An Orwellian phrase, who can believe? Yet I tell you this has grown truer every day—when the anger against my students rises up, when they refuse to stop talking, when they deliberately do that which I told them not to do—Love is War. To love my students is to war against myself, to war against fear, to refuse to let apathy or anger get in the way of my mission. A war that must be constantly fought, never given up.
The alternative to love could be anger, or it could be indifference. When a student was having a panic attack yesterday, I could have sat back, and at first I did. Other students were already working to comfort him, and the nurse had sent him back to sit in class. But instead I felt the smallest whisper urging me forward. So I asked him if he wanted prayer, and he nodded a small yes as he bent over wheezing. The other student and I laid hands and I prayed calmly, asking God to give him peace and full breath. Before I had said amen, his wheezing had ceased and he sat peacefully. I then gave him something to eat. This student, who I have at times previously been angry and frustrated with, was able to experience love because I fought against laziness, apathy, and anger.
Tomorrow, I want to make sure I show love to another two of my students, Destiny and Diamond Barnes, who had an older brother who was shot dead last week. They expressed almost no emotion when they told me (death is all-too-common in the inner city). But that does not excuse me from an obligation to love, and to mourn with them.
I also want to make sure I continue my conversations with Micah. Poor, sweet Micah is small and suffers many health problems. Poor Micah is not so sweet as he insults others, picks fights, and blows up tiny insults into major issues. I knew Micah was a Christian, so I asked him if he had ever heard that Christians were supposed to “love their enemies.” He said he had. I asked him if he had heard that Christians were supposed to “pray for those who persecute you.” He said he had. I asked him if he had heard that he was supposed to “forgive others so that you might be forgiven.” He said he had. I then told him that if he called himself a follower of Jesus, he would need to do the things that Jesus did. I challenged him to pray for those who bullied him, to bless those who were his enemies, and to forgive them in his heart. Micah then took my green dry-erase marker and made believe it was a microphone, and pretended to be a pastor!  He gave a “sermon” on the very topic of loving one’s enemies, while I played devil’s advocate: “But Pastor, what if they call my mother a b?” “You still must love them, just as our Lord and Savior Jesus did!” Micah wants to be a pastor when he grows up. So I’m going to keep on challenging him to join in this war of love.

“Oh to be like you/ give all I have just to know you/ Jesus there is no one beside you/ forever the hope in my heart.”
The scandal of grace is this: that God actually loves us, while we were still sinners, and even knowing that we would keep on sinning after he died for us! Why?
I had a revelation last Friday. Here’s what I wrote as I sat outside Panera, with a bright sky as snow flurries scattered around: “This moment is glorious. The sun of your pleasure shines bright, your snow of mercies and favor alight upon my face, and your sparrows keep me company—for you provide for them. You love the least of these. And you take care of them.” The sparrows sat around me, hoping for a crumb I did not have. So I went inside and bought a French baguette.
As I sat and journaled and worshipped, I felt God’s heart for the sparrows—I loved them, as I scattered crumbs. I longed for them to come close, to eat from my hand—but they were afraid. So much like humans! And yet I still loved them, and cherished them, and wished them well—sparrows! If I, an imperfect human, can love and care for sparrows, how much greater must God’s love be for humans, for the people made in his own image. I am still learning that God loves me for who I am, instead of the things I do. May we all learn to accept this scandal, and to run to his arms, open wide just for us.