When God Lingers

Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. [Habakkuk 2:2-3]

Habakkuk, a prophet in Judah, begins his book by complaining to God about the violence and injustice that was rampant among his fellow-Israelites. God replies that he will raise up the nation of Babylon to punish Judah’s unfaithfulness. This is not quite the response that Habakkuk was looking for; it seems far too harsh, one form of injustice in place of another: “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? “(2:13)

I think we can relate to Habakkuk’s complaint. We too grieve over the violence and injustice around us. With him we can say that in our nation “there is strife, and conflict abounds.” (1:3) But we can also relate to his reaction to God’s plan: Wait, you’re going to use Babylon? That’s not what I had in mind! If I’d had known that was going to be your plan, I’d have never brought this up in the first place!

Like Habakkuk, we want God to act. We need him to intervene in our troubled lives. But we also presume to know how God should act. Our ideas for how God should rescue us usually involve a miraculous intervention from heaven, a divine mediation where the break with violence and injustice is absolute. We want the before and after shot, the dramatically told testimony of the ugly we were trapped in before and the beauty of our lives now.

But then God speaks up: “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.  I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” (1:5-6) We’re looking for legions of heavenly angels to rescue us and God counters with… Babylon.

Habakkuk will eventually come to embrace God’s unexpected plan: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” (3:2) The prophet comes to see that God’s merciful rescue will advance even through Babylonian captivity. And so despite the knowledge that conquest and occupation are around the corner, Habakkuk chooses to welcome God’s sovereign response to injustice and violence.  The reason his response to God’s Babylon-plan changes is what I want us to see on this third Sunday in Advent. What changed between Habakkuk’s first and second response to God’s Babylon-plan?

God says to his prophet: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” The revelation God speaks of is this: Though Babylon will conquer God’s wayward and sinful people; the Babylonians too sit under God’s judgment. Habakkuk learns that the foreign nation’s victory over Israel will be temporary, as violent victories always are. Though God will use Babylon’s power to chasten his people, his judgment will extend to them as well. Their destruction of both human and animal life as well as their desecration of the land will all come back to haunt them.

And through it all, God assures Habakkuk, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (2:14) The revelation that changes Habakkuk’s perspective is that there is no sin, injustice, or violence that is so great as to obscure the glory of the Lord. Whatever Babylon-shadow seems to be creeping over Judah, God’s glory – the brilliance of his perfect character – will not be overcome. And so, by implication, Judah’s future does not lay in Babylon’s hands, but the Lord’s. And despite what they see around them, there is a good future for God’s faithful people, a future that gives them meaning and purpose as they await their liberation. So rather than resisting God’s response to his people’s sins, Habakkuk can sing: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” (3:19)

Even now, surrounded by Judah’s wickedness and with Babylon’s violence knocking on the door, Habakkuk can sing of God’s strength and faithfulness. His hope has been reestablished; he is rooted in the unchanging God whose glory is beyond the reach of any conquering empire. He will wait on the Lord.

Generations later, a young woman would find herself at the fulfillment of Habakkuk’s faithful waiting. After Mary learns that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High, she responded in a joyful song about the God who keeps his promises.

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.” (Luke 1:49-55)

God had kept his promises to Mary’s ancestors, ancestors like Habakkuk. The revelation that the prophet could only hint at was now fully expressed in Jesus. The glory of the Lord that Habakkuk so longed for would be born in a Bethlehem barn.  God’s answer to the treachery, conflict, injustice, and violence of our hearts and our world would be found in Judah’s unlikely descendent. And one day Habakkuk’s hope and Mary’s son would stand before his countrymen and in the words of Isaiah, another prophet of exile, would proclaim:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19] 

Peter wrote to the early church about the return of Mary’s son in a way that reminds us of God’s words to Habakkuk. These Christians found themselves, like Habakkuk, wondering about their future. Wondering when God would act with finality at the ultimate revelation, the return of their King Jesus.

 With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:8-10) 

“Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” While we await the final revelation – the day of the Lord that will hearken the renewal of all things – while we wait we remember that though he may linger, God never delays. We remember that though God is patient, he is not slow.

In one week we will celebrate the fulfillment of God’s revelation to Habakkuk, Mary’s son born into circumstances that the prophet would have recognized from his own time: oppressive rulers, dominating empires, wickedness disguised as piety. This Advent, as we have fasted and prayed, we have remembered that we are a waiting people. We have experienced, I hope, the joy of knowing that our Lord’s glory cannot be overwhelmed by abusive men, deceptive presidents, or racist politicians. Neither can the glory of the Lord be obscured by our own wandering hearts; our sins, rebellions, and addictions pale when confronted with God’s all-encompassing glory, as waters cover the sea.

Even in seasons of wilderness we will find, like so many who’ve gone before us, that the Sovereign Lord is our strength; he makes our feet like the feet of a deer, he enables us to tread on the heights. The end of our waiting is our Lord’s return, so we wait with joy. And we are sustained in our waiting by the glory of the Lord, so we wait with joy.

So often it feels to me that God is delayed, that something has slowed him down. Sickness steals those we love. Inertia exerts its pull on our visions and dreams. Relationships spin wildly out of control.  We need to hear again and again what Habakkuk first heard so long ago: Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.

Babylon will lose. Sickness will die. Sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions, old men will dream dreams. And the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

So wait on the Lord. Wait in the depression. Wait in the sickness. Wait in the unemployment. Though God may linger, he will not delay! Wait through the political turmoil. Wait through the racial inequity. Wait through the crass consumption that defines our days. Though God may linger, he will not delay!

Wait on the Lord. But let our waiting be courageous. The Psalmist exhorts us to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” [Psalm 27:14] As God lingers, as he is patient with his rebellious people, we wait with courage.

Our waiting is not passive and it is not weak. Waiting for the on-time God looks like resistance to Babylon’s violence and lies. Waiting for the on-time God looks like solidarity with those who’ve been exploited by Babylon’s arrogance and greed. Waiting for the lingering-but-not-delayed-God looks like spending our lives on behalf of abused land and divested communities.

Wait for the Lord, but do not be passive. Wait for the Lord, but do not retreat. Wait for the Lord, but do not despair. Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. Though God lingers in patience he will never delay.

Photo credit: Eden Brackstone.

Advent: Hope

Advent has become one of the most important seasons of the year for me. My recognition of this ancient Christian season – beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas – was born out of my frustration with the hyper-consumerism associated with the holidays. The discovery, as one who’d not grown up with an awareness of the church calendar, was a means to reclaim the weeks leading up to Christmas as a time for reflection and practices that prepared me to celebrates Christ’s birth.

More recently I’ve come to rely on the themes of waiting that are a part of Advent. These weeks remind me of those like Mary, who anticipated the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. Each year I’m reminded that Christians are also a waiting people, longing for the day of our Savior’s return when all is made well and new, when justice and mercy are expressed with a perfection beyond our comprehension.

michael-washingtonI have found certain Advent devotionals to be helpful during the season, so I was thrilled when my very good friend Michael Washington decided to turn a series of beautiful Advent reflections into his first book. Hope: Meditations Before, During and After Advent is a gift for the church, especially in these days where hope can seem hard to grasp.

Michael’s book is unique among the devotionals focusing on Advent with which I’m acquainted. First, he chooses to focus solely on the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel. He moves slowly and meditatively through these verses, often lingering for a few entries on one verse. Second, he includes 90 reflections with the assumption that the reader may begin before Advent or end a few weeks after. I’ll make another suggestion: Given the shortness of these meditations, it would be easy to read one in the morning and another before bed. Or a third could be added at midday. Third, Michael chooses to be brief in each mediation. This economy doesn’t hinder the depth or insight of the mediations, but it does make the book exceedingly accessible, including for those who have no experience with Advent.

I’ll say a final thing to commend the book to you. Michael is a good writer and an even better observer of the human experience, particularly as it stumbles about the encounter with God. What he considers in these pages reveals this gift and  because of it we are better prepared for Advent and to the longed-for event to which the season points.

A Christmas Sermon: Humility or Humiliation

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. [Luke 1:46-56]

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Photo credit: CJ Matulewicz

There are things that happen every single year: birthdays, taxes, the collapse of the Chicago Bears. These are normal things that will happen every year whether or not we’re paying attention. Christmas is one of those things that happen each year and, like anything else that occurs regularly, it can become normal.

It’s so normal that we can forget that there were once people who were the first to respond to Jesus’ birth. Of course there were plenty who knew the infant Jesus as simply that, the infant with a rather common name, born to a seemingly normal couple. But there were some who had more information, who knew that this infant’s birth was different, that in the birth of this baby they were seeing God’s long-awaited salvation. For them, this particular birth was in no way normal.

Given how ordinary – almost mundane – Christmas is for us, it is helpful to notice how these women and men responded to Jesus’ birth. What can the different responses by those who had some idea of the significance of this baby show us about our own predictable, ordinary, and tame responses?

Matthew and Luke tell the longest, most detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth and so from them we can quickly survey some of the responses. Right away we notice that some receive Jesus with joy, while others respond with doubt and rejection. This is not a simplistic observation; there are a variety of dynamic experiences within these two kinds of responses. For example, the joy Mary expresses in her song can’t be confused with temporary, superficial happiness. Her experience with the announcement of Jesus’ birth contains mystery, fear, and the promise of suffering. Or, to take an example from the other kind of response, Mary’s relative Zechariah the priest, when told of the birth of his own son who would prepare the way for Jesus, responds initially with cynical doubt. But later, at the birth of his son, he bursts into joyful song: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [Luke 1:68]

So there are two primary responses to the birth of Jesus: joy & rejection. And the question for those of us who have become too accustomed to the Christmas story is this: What is the difference between those who receive Jesus with joy and those who reject him?

We hear the answer in Mary’s song. Here it is the humble whom God is gracious to: For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant; His mercy extends to those who fear him; He has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things. On the other hand, in Mary’s song God opposes the proud: He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; He has brought down rulers from their thrones; He has sent the rich away empty.

This is what matters. Those who are humble receive God’s salvation with joy. Those who are proud reject God’s plan of salvation, especially when it comes in the form of a helpless baby. The logic behind these responses isn’t complicated and both Mathew and Luke give us a few opportunities to see it play out.

While Zechariah is humbled and changes his response, another prideful rejecter goes to his grave. King Herod, whose massive building campaigns and paranoid murders take pride to another level, opposes the news of the infant king. His violent response forces Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt as refugees. Matthew records his eventual death in passing, evidence that God’s plan will move forward despite a megalomaniac like Herod. Luke, in the book of Acts, similarly records the death of Herod’s son as mere passing background to the Gospel’s spread throughout the world.

Thankfully there are many more examples of humble women and men who received Jesus with joy. There is Anna and Simeon, faithful warriors of prayer who knew their God’s salvation when they encountered the just-born Jesus in the temple. There are the shepherds – young, ostracized, and barely visible in their society – who were granted pride of place at the stable in Bethlehem. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. [Luke 2:15] And there are the Magi – possibly astronomers from Babylon – who, despite their wealth and status, traveled a vast distance to worship this new king. Their great humility overcame the temptations of their wealth and station; it overcame cultural and religious differences; their humility even overcame what must have been the great surprise that this new king was not at the palace in Jerusalem but in a small home in Galilee.

In these opposite responses we see why the humble receive the Lord: they know their great need. In their humility they know that it must be God who acts on their behalf. So Mary sings: For the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. And because they know their great and terrible need, these humble men and women receive their Savior with joy and so they are rescued by him. They are filled by him. They are lifted up by him.

But the proud oppose this infant king because his birth threatens to unseat their own authority and agendas. They see no need for a Savior. Not this kind at least. They would be ok with a bit of spirituality added to their lives, maybe some religious practices to legitimize their selfishness. But not a king whose birth is announced by angelic warriors, whose agenda is articulated as a cosmic reversal of the rich and the poor; whose mandate is the completion of Israel’s agenda to rescue the world. No, for the proud this is too much by far. This king will require too much and so must be ignored, discredited, and opposed.

How do you respond to birth of God’s son?

Here we have a helpless infant, born into poverty and imperial occupation. Despite the soft-focus filter we put onto the nativity, this child will grow into the one who calls our allegiance into sharp contrast: Follow me; Sell everything; Let the dead bury the dead; If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

Given the surprising and almost embarrassing way God enters our world, and given the completely alternative kingdom-of-heaven life that Jesus invites us into, it should be clear that only the humble could receive Jesus with joy. Only those who by experience or choice can see through this proud world’s lies can welcome the infant king. The proud will, of course, reject him. His arrival is undignified and his call is too costly. Mary’s song shows us who will welcome her son and why; who will reject her son and why. But her song also reveals what happens to the humble who accept their Savior with joy and the proud who reject him.

The humble find that their hope and faith have been well placed. They are lifted up. They are saved. Their lives are given meaning and dignity that cannot be coopted or stolen by this world. The proud, on the other hand, because they do not receive their Lord humbly will finally be humiliated by him. Zechariah is humiliated when is speech is taken from him; he’s left in silence to consider God’s surprising way of salvation. The Herods, despite all of their accomplishments, are remembered for their neurotic egos; they become the examples of all that is wrong in the world.

The humiliation experienced by those who reject Jesus is not the result of a petty, vindictive, and insecure God. It is, rather, the natural consequence experienced by those who oppose the very essence of God’s redemption in this world. Because, you see, it’s not that humility is some arbitrary perquisite for salvation. No, our humility places us within the very heart of God’s presence in this world. As Paul writes, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:8] Author Brennan Manning, in keeping with this season, puts it this way: On a wintry night, in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.

Our humility in response to the birth of Jesus is an imperfect but essential reflection of the humility of our God. The only one with the rationale for pride instead chose humility so that we could know and be known by God; that we could love and be loved by God. Do not let the birth of the world’s Savior be normal to you this year. Remember your great and desperate need for a Savior. Humble yourself with Mary, with the shepherds, and with the Magi. And if you find humiliating this old, strange, somewhat embarrassing story of God enfleshed as helpless, dependent infant… let even this turn you to the humble God, who for us and our salvation chose the humiliation of our humanity.

Oscar Romero: A Genuine Christmas

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas
without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient,
the proud,
those who, because they have everything,
look down on others,
those who have no need even of God –
for them there will be no Christmas.
Only the poor,
the hungry,
those who need someone to come on their behalf,
will have that someone.
That someone is God,
Emmanuel,
God-with-us.
Without poverty of spirit
there can be no abundance of God.

– Óscar Romero; December 24, 1978

Endurance in Christmastime

Advent, the weeks leading to Christmas, is a time of anticipation- remembering the Israelites awaiting the Messiah and acknowledging our own waiting for his return.  It’s a season with enough heft and depth to evoke and hold our grief.  We remember the Israelits waiting and waiting for their deliverance.  We remember the massacre of the innocents when word reached Herod of the infant King’s birth.  And, in days such as these, we can’t ignore the incompleteness, the waiting-to-be-restored nature of our world. We also wait.

Most of what passes for Christmas music sounds vapid to my ears after the news from Connecticut.  Instead, I’ve been listening to the beautiful and sad album from Hymns from NinevehEndurance in Christmastime.  This is Advent music.  Here’s the title track, with lyrics that seem tragically prescient .

We’ve lost our fathers. We’ve lost our mothers. We didn’t quite think it would be this hard to endure the christmas time. We’ve lost our siblings. We’ve lost our children. We didn’t quite think it would be this hard to endure the christmas time.

Who can defeat the time we live in? Who can defeat the time we die in? Where shall we go with all the memories of you in the christmastime?

We’ve lost our story and we’ve lost our glory. We didn’t quite think it would be this hard to endure the christmas time. So we carry our heavy load-lights and hang them on the tree and we didn’t quite think they could shine so bright so bright in this christmas time…

Three Months Until Christmas

We’ve scaled back our Christmas gift giving over the past few years.  I’m not sure who in my extended family first had the idea, but at some point we began making donations to favorite charities in lieu of presents.  At Christmastime we can count on a few greetings cards letting us know which organization or cause received a gift in our name.  It’s nice, though for me not altogether altruistic.

For starters, the idea of shopping for gifts near the holidays nearly turns my stomach.  At some point we noticed that a time of year that ought to have time for reflection and celebration was instead marked with stress and too much time at the mall and Amazon.com.  Eliminating much of our shopping has been one way to reclaim Advent for its more noble possibilities.

We’ve not completely given up Christmas gifts.  I look forward to opening a gift or two from Maggie on Christmas morning almost as much as I enjoy picking out something she’ll enjoy (typically a kitchen gadget of some kind).  Maggie exchanges small gifts with a couple of friends and Eliot will surely have something to open from his parents this year.  That’s about it.  We send a letter and photo to our out-of-town friends and family and call it good.

Last year my mom suggested that the extended family direct our Christmas donations to The Water Project, an organization that brings “relief to communities around the world who suffer needlessly from a lack of access to clean water.”  Enough folks chipped in and a well in rural Sierra Leone was repaired and now provides predictable water for the community of Yams Farm.  Not bad.

Any other tired Christmas shoppers out there? You’ve got three months from today to introduce your family and friends to a new holiday tradition, one that could benefit some of your local or global neighbors.  Not to mention the satisfaction of some extra time to receive Christmas for the gift it is.