Fourth Sunday of Advent

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Love is not in the Christmas story. Not the word, “love,” anyway. The word love is not typically included in those statements one gets from the Social Security Administration, either, and yet I once found love there. Curious, isn’t it? Let’s start with that bureaucratic document.

I was around 20 when I came across one of those statements the Social Security Administration sends out a month or two before a person’s birthday, listing income earned in each year worked. It was my mom’s statement, and though it was none of my business, I read it. I noticed a particular year had markedly more income than the years around it. I remembered that my mom had worked through the summer that year, in the run-up to opening a new school. Then I remembered Christmas that year. I remembered my jaw dropping that Christmas morning as I saw the gifts we received, including a go-kart that we used for years to dig ruts in the yard. I was old enough at the time to wonder how our family could afford the gifts we received that year. I felt a mixture of gratitude and a sense that we didn’t deserve what seemed like extravagance. (You can see in this picture that my only visible feeling was surliness. This is but one proof that there is more to middle schoolers than meets the eye.)

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When I found the social security statement years later, I felt those things all over again. I also felt loved. It was crystal clear: when my mom had gained extra resources, she used them to give. As with all love received, it had nothing to do with deserving, and all to do with the heart of the giver. And, though I felt the love in the form of a go-kart one Christmas morning, I didn’t really understand it until I saw that statement. The pieces came together when I looked backwards.

What does that have to do with love and the original Christmas story? Perhaps it illustrates how we simply don’t see the whole picture of any story as it is unfolding. Sometimes, there is a need to look backwards to discover the love.

I’ve been thinking this week about two people looking back on the story of Jesus: Mary, His mother, and John, His disciple.

Consider two statements about Mary found in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and childhood. After the shepherds visited, “Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often” (Luke 2:19, NLT). After losing Jesus in the shuffle of travel when He was 12, and then finding him engaged in earnest conversation with the rabbis, “…his mother stored all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51b, NLT). But if she stored all those things, and thought about them often, how do we know? How did Luke find out? We have a clue in John’s Gospel.

“Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, ‘Dear woman, here is your son.’ And he said to this disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from then on this disciple took her into his home”
(John 19:25-27, NLT).

Mary lived with John after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke interviewed the eyewitnesses and written accounts of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1-4). He alone included details that only Mary could have known. Though Catholic and Protestant, and Eastern and Western churches have different traditions about how long and where Mary lived after Jesus’ resurrection, the fact that she lived with John is clear in Scripture. So, either Luke interviewed Mary directly, or he interviewed John, who lived with Mary for at least some number of years. We know she cherished all those moments in the Christmas story because she told someone that she did. We know those details because she told the story in hindsight, after everything else in Jesus’ earthly ministry was accomplished. I wonder how often, in the years of Jesus’ ministry and afterwards, Mary caught her breath as she understood in some new way how all the pieces fit together. How did all the knowing and not yet knowing play out in the rest of her earthly life? I love to imagine her telling the story of her visit to Elizabeth, or Jesus’ birth, or what it could possibly have been like to watch Him hang on that cross when she had once held him as a baby in her arms.

I have thought about John this week, because he wrote the Gospel that shows the love in the Christmas story. To us, the four Gospels are finished works, parts of a whole, but that is not how they came to be. Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all written near the same time, almost certainly within 30 years of Jesus’ departure for Heaven. John wrote His Gospel around 90 AD. So, will you imagine that with me for a moment? For years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, His story was first passed on through the oral teachings of His disciples, and then recorded by eyewitnesses and Luke, who interviewed the eyewitnesses. But there was no Gospel of John. That means there was no love in the Christmas story for a really long time. John seems to have written purposely to supplement the original Gospels, and to tie all the pieces together with love. Matthew, Mark, and Luke mentioned the word love an average of 9 times each. John used the word love 39 times in His Gospel. Including these…

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).

If those things were true at the cross of Christ, they were also true at the manger. John looked back across time and saw love all through the story. What do you see?

Here is a thought experiment for this week. Slowly read each scene in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. At each one, ask yourself, “where do I see love in this story?” So, for example:

  • In the angelic announcements, where do I see love?
  • In Joseph’s decision not to leave Mary, where do I see love?
  • In Mary’s response to the angel, where do I see love?
  • In the shepherds, where do I see love?
  • In the magi, where do I see love?
  • In Zechariah and Elizabeth, where do I see love?

And so on. Count on the fact that John was right, and look backwards to find God’s love in the story of His Son.

And then, in light of that story, look back over your own. Where do you find love? Where is it missing? The season of Advent calls us to savor the love and lament its absence. May we be faithful this week to do both.

Amen.

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Third Friday in Advent

Ruth in Advent

“I could just use a damn break!”

The exasperated mom of a middle school student made that exclamation in my friend’s office over a decade ago. The student was in trouble, and the mom already had as much as she could handle on her plate. It was a plaintive cry in the middle of too much. My friend and I have adopted it for when our lives are over-full, and when one more thing seems to be one thing too many. I wonder how people find themselves in a time like that today. If that’s you, perhaps consider the story of Ruth, one of Jesus’ ancestors, and the last of the women we’ll consider on these Fridays in Advent.

The book of Ruth comes as a welcome respite if one is reading the Old Testament straight through. After the violence and despair of Judges, and before the drama of Saul, David, and the other kings, Ruth’s story offers rest and hope. How perfect for Advent – rest and hope in the midst of anxiety and longing. How perfect on this Friday before Christmas – when our culture is ramped up at maximum speed, volume, and bitter division.

I encourage you to read the book of Ruth today and this weekend. It’s only about four pages long, and one can feel the movement from distress to peace as the story unfolds. Redemption comes to a young widow, and to a family, beautifully and unexpectedly.

There are many angles from which to consider Ruth’s story, but in the spirit of a break, a respite, let’s just consider one thing – the particular field in which Ruth ended up. Ruth lost everything in her homeland, and then she risked everything else by accompanying her mother-in-law back to Israel. Once they arrived, there was only one way for them to eat: Ruth went out into the fields and gathered the leftovers after the harvest. She had no guarantee that anything would ever be different. And yet, of all the fields around Bethlehem, she ended up in the one whose owner was noble and kind. She ended up in the one whose owner could legally and financially redeem her and her mother-in-law. She ended up in the one whose owner was raised by Salmon and Rahab (Matthew 1:5). What other man in Israel would have had the inclination to marry a foreign woman with nothing to offer him, except her courage and maybe her faith? Perhaps a man raised by a father who chose to marry a foreign prostitute with nothing to offer him except courage and faith. Ruth made the choices she made. And she ended up in the presence of the man who had both the power and kindness to redeem her life.

I would suggest to you today that we are all like Ruth. We have lost things that we can’t get back. We need things we can’t provide for ourselves. We have nothing to offer that our Redeemer needs. And yet He looks on us with kindness and delight. If you are in the middle of too much, He can give you rest and hope. Boaz is to Ruth as Jesus is to you. You can rest in His kindness today.

Amen.

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Third Sunday in Advent

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Scripture passage: Matthew 2:1-15

I don’t often jump for joy. I don’t often shout for joy, either.

In fact, years ago, after an important meeting went better than I could have imagined, I called a friend to talk about it as I drove back to the office.

“Are you excited?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, in about the same tone as if she had asked if I ate breakfast that morning.

“Where??? In your TOE?!!!”

We laughed about my lack of verbal enthusiasm then, but I have returned to that moment many times as I have found that I don’t quite know what to do with joy.

It’s not a new thing to me. Consider two of my favorite lines in two of my favorite books:

“…Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy, than felt herself to be so…” (from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen).

“’Anne Shirley!’” exclaimed Marilla. For once in her life she was surprised out of her reserve; she caught her girl in her arms and crushed her and her flowers against her heart, kissing the bright hair and sweet face warmly (from Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery).

When I first read that line about Elizabeth knowing she was happy more than feeling it, it felt as though someone had been following my heart around, taking notes. And, though I grew up wanting to be Anne, it has been some time since I realized that there is plenty of Marilla in me – feeling deeply, but not quite letting it show, especially if it’s good. During a counseling session not long ago, I hesitantly said, “I think…I’m happy.” Indeed. I might think it, and feel it, but it doesn’t often show up on my face or outwardly in my body.

And that brings me to the Wise Men, or Magi, who visited Jesus and His family. Last week, I asked you to move the wise men in your nativity scenes across the room, if you could. That’s because the wise men weren’t there on the night Jesus was born! Matthew tells us that this group of scholars, or priests, or astrologers, arrived in Jerusalem sometime after Jesus was born. As the story unfolds, we learn that they first saw a star about two years before, and they took it to mean that a great king had been born in the nation of Israel. At some point, they decided to come and see this king, to worship Him and bring Him gifts. They stopped in Jerusalem to find out from King Herod where this new king had been born. King Herod and his own scholars and priests sent them on to Bethlehem, which had been identified as the Messiah’s birthplace by one of the prophets centuries earlier.

As they approached Bethlehem, they saw the star again, right over the place where Jesus was. Matthew 2:10 says that, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (NASB). This is one of those places where English does a poor job of conveying what actually happened. I consulted my own (language) scholars about this verse, and they told me that an adverb follows the Greek for “rejoice,” telling the extent of the action of rejoicing. My scholar reports: “The effect in the Greek is to communicate that their rejoicing was very visually physical and loud.”

Very visually physical and loud. What springs to mind when you consider that description? My guess is that it doesn’t look like the figurines in your nativity set.

Let’s look at the whole scene. A group of men from a foreign country, presumably speaking another language, showed up at the house. When they realized they were in the right place, and had found the right child, they rejoiced in a way that was probably more like My Big Fat Greek Wedding than the average American nativity scene. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way, “They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!”

Also in the scene were Mary and Joseph, parents of a toddler, and Jesus, the toddler. Obviously, there were cultural and technological differences from our own time, but to a great extent, parents are parents and toddlers are toddlers. What do you suppose that scene was like? Can you hear the shouts and see the gestures, and maybe the jumping, from the visiting magi? Can you imagine the looks on Mary and Joseph’s faces? Do you think Jesus hid behind His parents’ legs or went about His toddler business, ignoring the guests? How about when the guests fell to the ground and worshiped that toddler? Can you imagine Jesus tugging on one of their hats in curiosity?

How did Joseph and Mary receive the gold, frankincense, and myrrh from these men? They were a carpenter’s family who had had to move to Bethlehem just before Jesus’ birth. They almost certainly didn’t have gold, frankincense, and myrrh lying around in abundance. And, they couldn’t know it then, but those gifts would soon finance their escape to Egypt, as refugees fleeing violence. Can you imagine their eyes meeting as they packed up those gifts before they fled?

Taking the time to imagine that scene, according to what’s written in Scripture, stirs my wonder and awe at the story of Jesus. This week, it also causes me to stop and think about joy, and rejoicing. The magi’s joy showed up in their bodies. If we saw a photo of them, there would be no doubt in our minds that they were thrilled. If we had video and audio footage of them, it would be loud and exuberant. It would be different from how joy most often shows up in me.

Though Scripture does not direct us to imitate the wise men, it does command us to rejoice (Philippians 4). If we would be more like Jesus, that toddler who was also the Savior, we must learn to rejoice, even in the face of suffering (Hebrews 12). What do you suppose that might look like, for you, this week? Will you join me in considering joy in these next days?

What if we think about these questions?

  • When have I visibly and audibly been unable to contain my joy? What was it, in those moments, that was different from other moments? (I’m making a timeline of moments.)
  • What would it be like if I didn’t try to contain my joy? What would it look like, sound like, and feel like?
  • What about people who don’t struggle to express their joy? What could I learn from them this week? What could they learn from me?
  • How could this kind of joy move me on to worship?

 

No matter how the week turns out, may we know we’re in the right place, may we know we’re here at precisely the right time, and may we be unable to contain the joy that wells up in us.

Amen.

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Second Friday of Advent

Christmas is for Idiots…and for the Women They Harm

I didn’t understand sexual harassment until I experienced it. I started my career in a public school system in the 1990’s, and I sat through multiple trainings about how to spot sexual harassment and what to do if it happened. At the time, I shook my head and thought a bunch of rules weren’t going to stop truly harmful behavior. And they didn’t. But I came to see that they were needed.

I was an earnest, even zealous, young teacher. I cared about making a difference and doing the right thing no matter what. I expected the people around me to care about the same things. I was naive. Into that naiveté stepped an idiot. A young, aspiring administrator, he stopped me in the office one day to “ask my opinion” about a particular student behavior. I remember how seriously I took his question, and how carefully I began to listen so I could help. It was a setup. His next line revealed the whole thing to be a crude, sexually-oriented joke. I remember freezing, feeling foolish that I had let him trick me, and feeling disgusted. I did nothing and I said nothing in the moment. He suffered no consequences. He took advantage of what he knew of my character and personality and spoke words that, looking back, were a violation. How I wish I would have slugged him, or marched straight to the principal’s office, or told him off right there in the teacher mailroom. But I didn’t. And I can feel the sting of it nearly 20 years later.

That sting gives me the smallest of windows into the wounds of women who have suffered sexually at the hands of men. As both a friend and a therapist, I have listened to women tell their stories of abuse, rape, and incest. I have heard the shame and powerlessness with which they struggle for years. I have watched them wrestle through what it means to both hold the perpetrators accountable, and forgive for the sake of their own souls. If ever there were an area in which the darkness of our world was clear, the terrible realm of sexual violence is it.

That realm includes women in the genealogy of Jesus. I summarize them here, but I urge you to read their stories in Scripture. What they suffered should be remembered.

Tamar (Genesis 38) was married to an evil man. He died, and, by the custom and law of that time, she was then married to his brother, a self-serving man. He died, too. The next brother was not old enough to marry, so her father-in-law, Judah, sent her back to her parents with no means of supporting herself beyond their care. Years went by, and nothing changed. Finally, Tamar posed as a prostitute and slept with Judah, though he didn’t know who she was. When she became pregnant, he declared she should be burned for being unfaithful.  She revealed to him that he was the father, and, finally, he understood: “She is more righteous than I…” (38:26). The greater treachery, the greater betrayal, was on the part of the man who had power and responsibility enough to provide for her. Her children, born from this complicated and fraught union, carried on the line that led to Jesus.

Further along that line, Bathsheba also suffered at the hands of a powerful man. She was married, and her husband was away at war. King David, who should have been away at war (2 Samuel 11-12) saw her bathing and commanded that she be brought to him so he could have sex with her. In that culture, in that time, Bathsheba’s choice was to comply or die – the king’s word was law. That is not really a choice. Can you imagine what that was like for her? Can you imagine what is what like as she walked back to her house afterwards? Or when she discovered she was pregnant? The consequences she suffered because of David’s wicked choice were dire: she lost her husband and mourned for him (2 Samuel 11:26); she became David’s wife whether she wanted to or not (11:27); she lost the baby born of that disastrous encounter (12:15-24). The writer of 2 Samuel is clear about the responsibility for all of this: “But the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the LORD” (11:27b). Bathsheba’s next child was Solomon, a great king and also part of the lineage of Jesus Christ. She was also presumably present for the ongoing wreckage that David’s sin caused in his family as the years went by. Incestuous rape, fratricidal revenge, civil war (2 Samuel 13-19). I struggle to imagine a life more acquainted with darkness than Bathsheba’s.

Tamar and Bathsheba are part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. So are Judah and David. The family tree of Jesus Christ includes some people one might describe as, “good,” and those one might call, “bad.” It includes perpetrators and victims. In many ways, it is a jumbled mess, full of darkness. I believe that is because the genealogy is a mirror of every individual human heart. King David is described in Scripture as, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), as well as one who did what was, “evil in the sight of the LORD.” How can that be? The idiot who told me that dirty joke in the office was created in the image of God. That wasn’t exactly what I was thinking about him in that moment.

I think it is because the darkness of our world is also the darkness of our hearts, whether in this realm or any other. And there is the longing of Advent and the wonder of Christmas again. Isaiah prophesied, about Jesus’ birth,

“The people who walk in darkness

will see a great light.

For those who live in a land of deep darkness,

a light will shine” (9:2, NLT).

John, writing of the first Advent of Jesus, said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (1:5, NLT).

There is hope, and warning, there for everyone.

If you’ve been an idiot, or done evil, in the realm of sexual violence, you have contributed to the deep darkness. If you want to turn back, the light shines at Christmas for you.

If you are subjecting others to that realm of sexual violence, you will not be able to extinguish the light. It is stronger than you, and it will shine into the tiniest crevices of your soul, exposing you for who you are.

If you have been harmed in this realm of sexual violence, the light shines at Christmas for you. What happened to you was not your fault. The darkness it caused was not your fault. Bring the harm, and the wreckage, and the fear, to Jesus this Advent. He will be the gentlest of lights for you. And the darkness can never extinguish Him.

Amen.

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Second Sunday in Advent

 

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Mary Did Know

Bible passages: Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:21-35

I ran across a Twitter fight last week. One side complained about the song, Mary Did You Know? The argument went something like, “Hello, have you ever read the book of Luke? Of course she knew!” The other side seemed to suggest lightening up a bit, and letting the song speak to the emotional side of Mary’s story. The whole thing took me back to Luke, wondering, “What did Mary know and when did she know it?”

Mary received information about Jesus from the angel Gabriel before she became pregnant. She also received information about Jesus from Simeon, a devout and elderly man who prophesied about Jesus when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be circumcised at 8 days old. So, when she received that information from the angel and from the old man, what was it? What did she know before and just after Jesus came? Let’s take a look.

Gabriel’s announcement (Lk. 1:26-38) Simeon’s prophecy (Lk. 2:21-35)
Mary had God’s favor. In Jesus, Simeon saw God’s salvation, promised to all people.
God was with Mary. Jesus was appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel.
Mary would have a son, though she was a virgin, and she was to name Him Jesus. Jesus would be opposed.
Jesus would be great. A sword would pierce Mary’s soul.
Jesus would be called Son of the Most High.
Jesus would have the throne of King David and reign over Israel.
Jesus’ kingdom would have no end.
Because of His miraculous conception, Jesus would be the Son of God.
Elizabeth was already pregnant.
Nothing would be impossible with God.

 

For the sake of our reflection today, what if we consider just the last thing on each list: Nothing would be impossible with God, and a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul. Mary knew that she would be blessed among women, that she would be the mother of the Messiah, though she was a virgin, because nothing would impossible for God. She also knew that a sword was going to pierce her own soul, whatever that might have meant. Think about all the times those words might have echoed in her mind and heart, about how the liturgy of Mary’s life might have taken shape:

When she caught the eye rolls and pitying glances of her relatives and neighbors. “Right, she didn’t cheat on Joseph. That’s God’s boy.”

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When strangers from a foreign country showed up with gifts and worshiped her toddler son.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she had to leave her home in the middle of the night to escape violence.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she heard that, after she left, all her neighbors’ toddlers had been slaughtered.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she told her son to do something about the wedding party running out of wine.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she thought her son had lost his mind.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she saw the body she had once carried and sheltered stripped naked and brutally beaten, hanging on a cross, and she was powerless to stop it.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When she first saw her son after His resurrection.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

When years, and maybe decades, passed, and she was left here to live without this son, whom she loved.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

My guess is that sometimes she forgot both sentences in the everyday matters of life. Perhaps she was jolted with the memories whenever a new astounding thing happened, or when some new suffering came. She knew what was to come because of the announcement of Gabriel and the prophecy of Simeon. She could not possibly have known all the ways those things would play out, how she would be astounded by God’s goodness and power, or how she would suffer.

And that brings us to us. Though Mary was, of course, uniquely set apart in history, she was also a human woman, living after the corruption of the world and before the world is made right again. So then, we are like her. We live in the tension. We know, and we don’t know. We, too, can affirm that nothing is impossible with God. We, too, are bound to suffer. Are you aware of the tension?

I knew what I was getting into when I adopted a son from foster care. I also had no idea how that would play out, in joy or in desperate exhaustion.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

I held my friend’s hand and felt the final pulse in her wrist as she died. I knew what was coming. I could not possibly have known the pain of the grief that would come next.

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

How would you write your liturgy of knowing and not knowing? When have you been astounded? When have you suffered? What would it mean to believe both sentences right now, today, on whichever side you find yourself? Will you take a few moments to fill in these blanks, as many times as you can?

I knew that                                                    .

I had no idea that                                                                                                                     .

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

As I look back over these words, I’m aware of more tension than peace. And yet, here we are in the second week of Advent, considering God’s peace in the midst of this often-dark world. Perhaps we can add some more words from Mary to our liturgies this week. Do you remember what she said to Gabriel?

I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true. (Luke 1:38, NLT)

It will take courage to add those words, but I believe we will find peace in the tension if we do. Let’s try. May God bless us as we do.

I knew that                                                    .

I had no idea that                                                                                                                     .

Nothing is impossible with God. A sword will pierce my own soul.

I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.

Amen.

 

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First Friday of Advent

Copy of Rahab in Advent

Matthew begins his record of the life of Christ with Jesus’ genealogy. In a long list of men, he names five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the mother of Jesus. I decided to read each woman’s story in the Bible from the perspective of Advent, looking for waiting, longing, what needed to be put right but wasn’t yet, and perhaps where each found hope, if the Bible records that she did. These stories fit well with the themes of Advent. There is much darkness to them. Let’s take the Fridays in Advent to think about the lives of these women, and then our own lives, as we wait for glimpses of light.

I have always liked Rahab’s story (see Joshua 2 and 6) because it has a happy ending. The prostitute helps the Israelite spies. In return they protect her when they invade the city. She becomes part of the nation and culture of Israel, marries an Israelite man, and gives birth to the great-grandfather of King David. It even has that great, seemingly symbolic element, of the spies instructing Rahab to tie a scarlet cord in the window of her house, so the Israelite army knows not to harm her. Scarlet, like the blood on the doorposts at Passover, like the blood of Jesus on the cross. Rahab, redeemed from a life of sexual sin and likely violence, to a life of marriage and children among God’s people.

Do you see what I did there? As I told Rahab’s story, I re-made it in the image of that modern Christian-American idol of Hallmark-romance marriage, dressed in church clothes. Bad girl turns good, and is rewarded with a husband, at least one child, and lives happily ever after in the lineage of Jesus. I didn’t even realize I was doing that over all those years. But I was. Some of it may even be true. Who’s to say that Rahab didn’t find a much happier life with the Israelites? The thing is, I don’t know. It would be better to just read what the Bible says about her and name all the rest for what it is: speculation and perhaps some cultural debris that could be discarded.

When I read Rahab’s story this week, I was struck by the terror and the decision in it. Look what she says to the spies as she helps them hide:

“I know the Lord has given you this land,” she told them. “We are all afraid of you. Everyone in the land is living in terror. For we have heard how the Lord made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt. And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River, whose people you completely destroyed. No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! No one has the courage to fight after hearing such things. (Joshua 2:9-11a, NLT)

To the people of Jericho, probably a small city-state in the ancient world, the mass of Israelites approaching was terrifying. Rahab seems to have looked at that fear, and the information available to her about Egypt, Sihon, and Og, and made a shrewd evaluation:

For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below. (Joshua 2:11b, NLT).

The New Testament labels that evaluation as faith, showing itself in actions:

It was by faith that Rahab the prostitute was not destroyed with the people in her city who refused to obey God. For she had given a friendly welcome to the spies (Hebrews 11:31, NLT).

Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road (James 2:25, NLT).

As I have sat still with Rahab’s story for several days, I’ve kept coming back to her fear, her shrewd calculation, her faithful decision, and then her actions. There is some speculation in this re-telling of her story, too. I imagine that a prostitute in the ancient world had to be shrewd, or calculating, to survive. Surely not everyone who came to visit her was a physically safe person. Like any other person in Jericho, she had others she loved and for whom she feared (see Joshua 2:12-13). Seen in that light, her decision to help the spies could be seen as a logical decision after a risk-benefit analysis. Maybe it was. Maybe she looked at the data available to her and decided, “This God is the real God. He is able to save all those Israelites. He must be able to save me, too.” But the logical explanation forgets the terror. Rahab was in a life or death situation, and she knew it, and she decided to place her faith in God in the middle of all of that. Once she made that decision, she had to wait weeks, perhaps months, before anything at all happened. It took the Israelites a while to get there, and then there was the week of very odd siege tactics, and then the battle. Rahab had no guarantee except the scarlet rope that they would keep their word and protect her. She had no guarantee except her belief that this God of the Israelites was the real God, able to save her and her family. She helped the spies, she tied the cord to her window, and she waited.

As I have thought about Rahab’s story this week, three questions have floated to the surface of my heart.

  • What do I see approaching that stirs my fear or anxiety?
  • What do I believe Jesus can do about that?
  • If I really believe that, what is the next thing for me to do?

If you’re reading this, you’re not a prostitute in a little ancient city-state. Me, neither. While it is possible that you face a life or death kind of fear today, it is more likely that we both face fears or anxieties that return again and again, maybe ones we have known since we were kids, ones that sometimes catch us off guard and cause us to panic, inwardly or outwardly. The God who saved Rahab can also save us. Even today.

May we wait for Him with hope. May we be like Rahab.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Elizabeth, Part II

“When (Zechariah’s) time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.’” Luke 1:23-25, NIV

 

Elizabeth was from a family of priests. She married a priest. Earlier in the story, Luke told us that she was, “righteous,” and, “blameless.” Here was a woman who seemed to have lived well her whole life. And yet, to this point she had never experienced what her culture defined as proof of that rightness – offspring to continue her family. Her response to her pregnancy tells us that she had suffered disgrace, reproach, or shame among the people in her life and community. We don’t know exactly how those people expressed it, but I imagine in that way they were not very different from the people you and I will see today, in our workplaces, in our kitchens, or in our mirrors.

 

As I thought about it just now, it occurred to me that Elizabeth’s situation, like ours, is one small re-telling of the story of humans from the beginning. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God told people how to live a good life and gave them what they needed to live it. They looked around and decided that there was another way, that they could determine what was good. That didn’t work out. Shortly thereafter, they experienced the first shame (Genesis 3:7). That story has played out in every life and every culture since then. In Elizabeth’s culture, perhaps it was nice to be righteous, but a “good life” meant plenty of children, or at least one child. Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t fit the mold. So they experienced shame.

 

One rather amazing thing about them is that they apparently kept on being righteous in the midst of that shame from other people. What would make someone do that? In that way, they are the exact opposite of the Genesis account: when God’s definition of “good” didn’t line up with the culture’s definition, and when they suffered because of it, they still turned to God as the source of goodness. I suspect that, in all those years, they had experienced the goodness of God, and they somehow knew that all other substitutes were no longer options.

 

I wonder where we have experienced shame or reproach from other people, or from ourselves. Where have we done everything, “right,” only to receive none of what we or others expected that would bring?

 

For me, that kind of reproach or shame has often shown up in how I think about being single. I bought into the lie of the American Christian sub-culture in the 1990’s and early 2000’s as it idolized marriage. The thinking seemed to go that if one followed Jesus, and behaved oneself sexually, one was promised – even owed – a loving spouse and cute children. I exaggerate, but not much. Perhaps it would have been good for us to examine whether God ever owes humans anything. In any case, I really did love Jesus and try to follow Him. I really did, outwardly, behave myself sexually. And no husband appeared. In the condescending comments of well-meaning others, in the gradual disappearance of a “plus one” listed on wedding invitations, and in what I sometimes believed about myself, I experienced the shame of believing all of that was because I wasn’t doing life right, or maybe because I was just too pathetic. The story is a lot more complicated than that, of course, but the feeling of shame, based on those lies, was real and often present.

 

Do you see how something like that might have gone for Elizabeth? Or maybe how it has gone for you, in some area of your life?

 

Both Elizabeth’s years of “rightness” and her response to her pregnancy offer a beautiful way through, and out of, the shame we may have experienced. Elizabeth, over decades, chose the goodness of God, and the good life God offered, over what she and her culture had defined as “good” results. She kept on practicing righteousness, without the tangible result for which she hoped. She doesn’t seem to have thought that God owed her anything. When she became pregnant, after all hope was lost, she attributed that gift to the kindness of God. It wasn’t the delivery of something she had earned. “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children” (Luke 1:25, NLT). In the cosmic story being played out inside of her and around her, with the birth of John, she could see the goodness of God for her. God did not have take away her reproach among people. But He did.

 

In what sphere of life can you and I turn away from our culture’s, or our own, preconceived notions of what “good” is? What would that look like today?

 

Whatever it looks like, may God, in His kindness, make us like Elizabeth.

 

Amen.

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