Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Powers of This World--Redo

Usually, I wait until I'm finished writing a post to try to think of a title. Yesterday I was reminded why. I started out with a title for my post--"The Powers of This World"--because I wanted to contrast the Holy Family's flight into Egypt with Herod's expression of tyrannical violence. I ended up writing something about theodicy--why a God good allows/causes bad things to happen--which didn't really reflect the title. But I posted it anyway, knowing that today I would try again. So here goes.

Herod and Jesus. A despotic, illegitimate, Roman-sympathizing king and a gentle, authentic, God's-kingdom-bringing messiah. One rules from a palace while the other flees to Egypt. One displays immense earthly power, but the other seems largely powerless. One tries to solve his problem by killing all male children under the age of two, and the other runs and hides and waits until danger is past.

The question of true power is related to my post yesterday. Think about all of the ways this could have gone down. The sign of the birth of God's true king has been seen in the stars by some sages from the east, and, when Herod hears of it, he does whatever he can to undermine this event. But he's working against the powers of the universe. How can he stop a plan that has been revealed in the heavens? He tries to get the wise men to divulge to him the location of the baby, but they avoid Herod and his plot. So Herod does what he can and murders countless babies. Of course, God's power cannot be undone--even by this tremendous and terrible display. But how else might it have happened?

This battle between the forces of evil and the forces of God could have played out in a way worthy of a movie screen--one warrior dueling the other on the battlefield. It could have involved a long-running plot of near-misses and coincidental encounters. Jesus could have grown up, spending years training for the day when he would attack the heir of the evil king. Or Joseph could have put on armor and stood at the gate of the palace and called out the evil ruler. Or any number of other things could have happened, but they didn't. Instead, Jesus and his family tucked tail and ran.

God told them to run away, to flee, to hide. There was no confrontation. Instead, patience and confidence that God's rule would win out was all that carried them. Jesus and his parents aren't really the hero we expect. In fact, at the end of the story, Herod's heir isn't challenged. The rule of the despot's successor remains intact. Even more troubling, the hero dies in the end--and not a heroic death but a terrible and shameful crucifixion. Imagine going to a movie and watching a beloved character wait 30 years to avenge the death of thousands of his contemporaries only to fail in the end. Well, that's pretty much what happens...except for the whole Easter thing. Even still, it doesn't make for a very good movie. The only kind of audience this story can entertain are those who can accept the quiet, gentle, subtle power that comes with God's kingdom. It's not a blockbuster, but it's good news.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Powers of This World

This Sunday, according to the Episcopal Church lectionary, preachers have a choice of three gospel readings: the Holy Family's flight to Egypt (Matt. 2), the leaving behind of Jesus in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2), or the visitation of the wise men (Matt. 2). As far as I can tell, that same choice does not exist in the RCL, where preachers are directed to John 1 for the second part of the prologue. I guess the Episcopal Church preserves the old option because we want to be sure and tell the few childhood/adolescent stories of Jesus before we jump straight into the season after the Epiphany. To be honest, after the last General Convention, I'm not 100% sure which readings are authorized and which ones are not, but this Sunday I'm choosing the story of the Holy Family's flight to Egypt for several reasons.

First, I like how transparent Matthew seems to be when telling the story in terms of the fulfillment of prophecy. It was important to Matthew's tradition that these OT messianic expectations be accomplished. That's why he goes out of his way to say, "This was to fulfill what was spoken..." not once but twice! This invites the preacher to help the congregation see that sometimes the story follows the prophecy rather than the other way around. Did the family go to Egypt? It says so in the bible, but that seems a little strange. None of the other gospel writers mention this fact. I can't remember for sure, but I think I remember reading that there is no historical evidence of the massacre of male children under the rule of Herod, which was the reason for the family's flight to Egypt. This childhood story of Jesus is a great and safe way for a congregation to explore what it means for the tradition to incorporate non-historical events in order to paint a bigger, clearer picture in light of other revelations. In other words, the whole story of Jesus (specifically his death and resurrection), confirms his messianic identity in a way that makes stories like the Holy Family's flight to Egypt true. I think it's easier to hear that sermon when it's based on something like this rather than the walking on water or the feeding of the 5,000.

But that's not what I'm preaching about. Tempted though I am to break into historical-critical exegesis, I find another aspect of this passage even more enticing--the relationship between the powers of this world and the power of God's kingdom. Herod, enraged at having been tricked by the Wise Men, who failed to return and report the new king's location, orders the massacre of every male child two-years-old or younger. The lectionary option focuses on Joseph and his angel-filled dreams. First, he is warned to flee to Egypt to avoid this massacre. Then, he is instructed to return before being warned again to settle in a different part of Palestine because of Herod's son, the new ruler. That's interesting enough for a good sermon. I could preach on God speaking to Joseph and Joseph's obedience to God's call. But the theological nugget I'm interested in tackling this week is the whole question of God's plan in the face of genocide.

I'm choosing to expand the reading to include vv. 16-18:
"Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.'" (Matthew 2:16-18 ESV)
I want to hear what happened while Joseph and Mary and Jesus were away. I want to confront the "slaughter of the holy innocents," which we commemorate every year on 12/28. I want to be forced to deal with the fact that Jesus and Joseph and Mary escaped this terrible fate, which the Nativity itself inspired, while every other male child in that region was killed. I want to hear the painful wailing of every mother and father whose children weren't spared because their family wasn't warned in a dream to flee to another region. I want to bump up against the fact that God didn't save them and that that's ok to put in the bible. I want to know why tragedy happens and why some people can compartmentalize it as "part of God's plan" while the rest of us are left reeling, soul-searching, doubting, and grappling for faith.

Yeah, it's going to be one of those weeks. It's going to be one of those sermons. It's going to be a lot of question-asking without many answers. If you've got them, please share them because I've been looking for a long time and expect to be searching for them for the rest of my life.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Sermon: We Are God's Go-To People

December 24, 2014 – Christmas I
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When something big happens in your life, who is the first person you call to share that news with? When you land a big account or get an exciting promotion, when the publisher accepts your manuscript or the pregnancy test shows two pink lines instead of one, who is the first person you call? What about when something doesn’t go well—when you have a run-in with your boss or get bad news from your doctor, when you wreck your car or drop your cell phone into the toilet—who is the first person you call …or, well, not call since your phone is broken? In premarital counseling, I call that person your “go-to person,” and I explain to couples that your go-to person says a lot about you and about the important relationships in your life.

For most people, the process of falling in love and getting engaged and being married involves letting go of one go-to person in favor of another—typically one’s future spouse. And, in most relationships, that process is gradual and natural. As I get closer and closer to the one I love, the distance between me and whoever else I had relied on as the first person to whom I would turn when something substantial occurs begins to stretch and lengthen. Pretty soon, without even realizing it, when I have good news to share, I’m not calling my mom or dad or my sister or brother or my best friend anymore. I’m picking up the phone and calling my beloved. That is the person with whom I want to share the initial experience and celebration. She is the one to whom my heart belongs. Her joy is my joy. My tears are her tears. We walk through life together.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work like that. Sometimes the person we are letting go of isn’t happy about being replaced, and I tell couples that if that particular someone starts acting out in unhealthy ways—perhaps inviting herself to go on your honeymoon or redecorating your house without asking—you may need some professional help navigating that transition. There’s a Seinfeld episode about that very thing, one in which Jerry’s new girlfriend and her stepmother are fighting over who should be #1 on their respective speed dials, but that’s a struggle that shows up in real life, too, because, whether you’re the one sharing the news or you’re the one receiving the phone call, it feels good to be loved like that. It feels good to be someone else’s go-to person.

Tonight, we are here to celebrate God doing something really big in the history of the world. Tonight, we remember how God became flesh, how God sent his Son into the world, how, in the birth of Jesus, God offered salvation to us all. This is the birth of the King of Kings. This is the arrival of the Prince of Peace. This is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. And do you know with whom God chose to share that good news? A bunch of lowly shepherds, who were in a nearby field, keeping watch over their flock.

Think about that for a moment: God is bringing about the greatest moment in the history of the universe, and he chooses to tell some guys whose job it was to make sure that the sheep didn’t wander off too far. God didn’t inform the emperor or the governor or even the local magistrate. God didn’t send his angels to alert the priests or the Pharisees or the scribes. God didn’t share the good news with prophets or sages. In worldly terms, he didn’t tell anyone who counted for anything. Instead, the first people God told about the savior’s birth were some young, shabby, probably illiterate, certainly flea-ridden shepherds.

What sort of go-to group of people is that? By any reasonable standard, this was a backwards communication strategy. Why would God “waste” the good news of the most important moment in human history on a bunch of shepherds who had no status in their community and to whom no one would listen anyway? Why are they God’s go-to people? Why did God share this news with them? Because how else would God show the world that Christmas is about salvation coming to ordinary people like you and me?

In the birth of Jesus Christ, everything is backwards. God the infinite and almighty comes as a tiny, helpless infant. All that is holy and perfect is united to everything plain and broken. The king of all creation is born not in a palace but in a barn, where he is laid in a manger. And all of that upside-down strangeness represents the true transformation of Christmas. On this holy night, we celebrate how God has taken upon himself all that is ordinary and plain and simple and human in order to make it shine with the beautiful light of God’s glory. The gift that came down at Christmas means salvation not for the exceptional or for the deserving or for the rich or for the holy or for the powerful but for regular, normal, ordinary folk like us.

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’”

God entrusts the good news of this upside-down, earth-shattering event not to princely heralds but to poor shepherd boys. And why? Because they are ordinary people like you and me. They are God’s go-to people because we are God’s go-to people. We are God’s beloved. We are the ones with whom God yearns to share this good news. We are the ones to whom God’s heart belongs. In the birth of Jesus, we discover that God’s joy is our joy—that our tears are his tears. We are alone no more. God is with us. God is with all of us. And that good news is meant specifically for you. Amen.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Two Questions

This post originally appeared as the cover article in this week's newsletter from St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

For the past few weeks, I have heard two questions over and over: “Are your children excited about Christmas?” and “Are you ready for Christmas yet?” People ask them all the time—on the way out of church, in the aisle at the grocery store, before we hang up the phone, or as we say goodbye during a hospital visit. It seems that everyone wants to know whether my kids are overcome with Christmas excitement and whether I have done everything I need to do to get ready.

These two questions say a lot about the culture in which we live, and my reaction to them says even more about me. The first brings a smile to my face as I pause even for a moment to consider the joy that is growing exponentially each day in my children’s hearts. The second brings a thin layer of perspiration to my forehead as it reminds me of a growing weight that lives in my stomach this time of year. My children are more than ready. Each night, they ask me how many days are left until Christmas, and then they ask me to recalculate the total without including today or Christmas Day so that the countdown feels shorter. I, on the other hand, need every second of every day between now and Christmas Eve to get ready. I have presents to buy, a house to help decorate, parties to attend, a sermon to write, people to visit, and services to plan. I am not alone in feeling the pressure of this season. Most grownups I know are busy right now.

When was it that getting ready for Christmas became more of a challenge than a joy? How old was I when I grew up and exchanged unbridled enthusiasm for burdened responsibility? Was it the first year I was old enough to gather my allowance and walk into town to buy my mother a Christmas present all on my own? Did it happen when I started dating and had to figure out how to navigate the holidays within a relationship? Did it come with marriage or ordination or the birth of our first child? The answer, of course, is not found in one particular moment or in one particular Christmas. Instead, over time I have allowed the busyness of the holiday rush to squeeze the joy out of this magical season.

One day throngs of people were coming to Jesus and bringing little children to him so that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them for burdening their master with these pint-sized distractions. When Jesus saw what they were doing, he was filled with anger, and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not get in their way. The kingdom of God belongs to little ones like these. In fact, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as if he or she were a little child can never enter it” (Mark 10:13-15).

What will it take to leave our burdens behind and embrace this season as if we were little children? What can we do to recapture the fairy-tale Christmases of our youth? What can set us free from the challenges of getting ready for Christmas and instead tune our hearts to the uncontainable joy that bursts from every child’s heart? Whatever it is, we must search for it and find it. Much is at stake—far more than a few days of fun. Our ability to greet our savior’s birth with childlike wonder is the difference between beholding the kingdom of God and missing it altogether.

Monday, December 22, 2014

St. Thomas Comes to Bethlehem

St. Thomas’ feast day was yesterday, but, since it fell on a Sunday, it gets transferred to today. At first, I wondered whether I should pause long enough in my pre-Christmas-sermon-writing routine to reflect on the over-familiar story of Thomas and his moment of doubt, but, as I prepare to make the trip to Bethlehem and hear the story of Mary and Joseph and the no-room inn and the angels and the shepherds, I realize that today is the perfect day to remember Thomas.

Thomas’ story (John 20:24-29) is read every year on the second Sunday of Easter, which means that while our ears are still burning with the news of the empty tomb, we stop to consider just how unlikely the story is. Thomas embodies our own doubts. He plays the role of the post-enlightenment skeptic. He reveals that such doubt and disbelief isn’t just a modern reaction to a supernatural text. His doubts were first-century doubts, and they are reasonable in any generation.

In John’s gospel account, Thomas’ doubts are overcome by Jesus’ invitation to put his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ gaping side. We notice, however, that Thomas stops short of taking that step. Instead, the mere invitation to encounter the physicality of the resurrection is enough to overcome his doubts: “My Lord and my God!” In other words, John brings his reader to the moment of potential touch but asserts that the confidence that comes from the testimony of those who were in that room is enough to bring us to faith: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And so we find ourselves hearing again the unbelievable story of the Virgin’s birth. We wonder again whether it was possible for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon Mary so that the child she would bear could be holy. Is it possible that God himself could take on human nature in the Incarnation? Could it be that God’s own son was brought into the world in such a lowly birth? We cannot go and see the manger ourselves. Instead, we must hear the testimony of others and discover whether faith can take hold in our hearts.

This time, Jesus doesn’t ask us to place our finger or hand in the marks of the nails or in his side. This time, we aren’t invited to hold the infant Jesus or hear him coo. Instead, we must ask ourselves whether it is possible for God to be with us in our moments of need. Do we feel that God has taken upon himself our very brokenness? Can we feel that we are not alone in our times of suffering? Yes, our doubts are real and reasonable. But the overwhelming witness of two-thousand years confirms that God is not only above us but among us and with us and even within us.

Thomas teaches us that God is more powerful than our doubts. That is as true at Christmas as it is at Easter. Even if we doubt that God is with us in our moments of deepest need, God is able to break through and come beside us. Hear the invitation not to come to the manger and see the baby Jesus with your own eyes. Instead, hear the story from long ago as an invitation to search for God’s real presence in your own life. How does the truth of the Incarnation overcome even your most persistent doubts?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

David's Sunday

By the time we get to the fourth Sunday in Advent, it’s finally time to talk about Mary. The gospel lesson is the Annunciation, and the canticle is the Magnificat. On the surface, everything seems to be focused on Mary’s story, but, if you dig a little deeper, you discover there’s another important figure being celebrated this week.

Maybe we should call this David’s Sunday. King David is the focus of the Old Testament lesson (2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16). If we were to read the psalm instead of the canticle, we would hear echoes of the first lesson throughout. And, if you take another look at the Annunciation story, you can see that David and the promises made to him are central to the angel’s prophetic announcement to Mary. This late in Advent, it’s easy to jump ahead to the birth story and focus on Mary’s role (important, yes), but I don’t think we’re supposed to leave behind the Advent theme of promise and expectation quite yet, so I encourage you to take another look at David.

In the OT reading, David announces to Nathan that he will build a house for God and the Ark. Nathan agrees that it is a good idea, and he invites the king to proceed. That night, however, God appears to Nathan in a dream and tells him otherwise. Instead of David building a house for God, God will establish an everlasting house for David. There’s a great double-meaning of “house” here, so, when you hear it, think “House of Tudor” or “House of Stewart”—the kinds of lineages and families that were once described as a “house.” In other words, God is promising David a lineage, and, through it, God is promising his people the safety and security of a good king. For some reason I do not understand, the lectionary skips over the verses that talk about the offspring promised to David: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” The prophet probably had Solomon in mind or maybe another earthly king that would come someday, but, as Christians, we like to think of Jesus in those terms.

Read the gospel lesson for Sunday and listen for that Davidic focus: “of the house of David” and “the throne of his ancestor David” and “will reign over the house of Jacob forever” and “his kingdom there will be no end.” It is quintessentially important to Luke (also Matthew) that Jesus is identified as David’s offspring. Of all the messianic expectations that permeated first-century Judaism, the reestablishment of David’s line and throne was at the top of the list. David represented leadership at the pinnacle of Israel’s success. During his reign, the kingdom was as big as it would ever get. There was a united monarchy. Israel was the biggest and strongest geopolitical player in the area. Those were the glory days, and the reestablishment of David’s throne was the easiest way of envisioning the fulfillment of the hopes of God’s people.

Of course, the story of David’s heir unfolded differently than we might expect. I think Mary’s question of the angel points to some of these disconnects. “How can this be?” she asks. Partly that was a biological question, as her reference to her virginity makes clear. But I think it was also a cultural question. The angel was promising that her offspring would be David’s heir, but how can a peasant girl give birth to a king—virginity aside? Perhaps Mary knew that her betrothed was of David’s line, but, still, I think she needed some help connecting the dots. And the odd arrangement for Jesus’ birth (peasant girl, born in a stable, adored by shepherds) is mirrored in the unusual acclimation he receives as king (hosanna in the highest! but killed on the cross).

All of that leaves me wondering what role David plays in our own understanding of messiah. How is Jesus’ the son of David? How is he the fulfillment of the promises made in 2 Sam 7? Is the Davidic line still important to us? How does David’s legacy represent that for which God’s people still wait? What sort of throne are we expecting? Yes, we’re waiting for Jesus to come back, but what does that mean? If we’re still waiting for the gilded throne of power, I think we’ll be disappointed. The cross wasn’t an accident, nor was it a failure. It was the perfect expression of God’s power. So what sort of king are we waiting for?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Is Repentance Good News?

During the summer before I started my last year of seminary, I had the privilege of serving as an intern at St. James Episcopal Church in Fairhope. That summer, I got to see the ins and outs of parish life. I visited people in the hospital. I went to staff meetings and Vestry meetings. I taught a short Sunday-school series, and I also had the chance to preach. A lot of rectors are reluctant to share their pulpit with anyone—especially a green, still-learning-the-craft seminarian. But not Mark Wilson. Without hesitation, he put me on the schedule and said, “Go for it.”

I preached my heart out. I don’t remember which scripture lessons were assigned for that day, but I do remember that I wove the Prayer of Humble Access into the sermon because the texts were about sin and repentance. I remember hitting the congregation with a heavy dose of sin before wrapping it up with a hopeful word about returning to the Lord. Looking back, I recall that it wasn’t a very good sermon. In fact, it wasn’t good at all. I made plenty of rookie mistakes. I used too many different images instead of focusing on a consistent theme. I didn’t draw the congregation into the sermon with a story or analogy that they could relate to. I went too long on some unnecessary points and skipped over some important transitions. In short, it was the kind of sermon you would expect a seminarian to give. But they loved it.

If you count my time in seminary, I have been preaching sermons for eleven years, and, still, it never fails to amaze me how well received even mediocre sermons are if they are about sin. People love hearing sermons about sin. They come out of church and say the most positive things. Any preacher knows to read between the lines when he hears something like, “Beautiful day we’re having today. I thought it might be colder. Maybe I’ll go home and sweep the back patio. Oh, and nice sermon, too.” But, when I preach about sin, there are long, lingering looks on the way out of church, nods of affirmation, hushed tones of appreciation, and almost confessional compliments. Why is that?

Usually, when I think of preachers who are likely to talk about sin, I picture the kind to whom I cannot stand listening—the kind who stand on the corner and hand out flyers about “turning or burning” while they are yelling the “good news” at everyone who walks by. When the gospel of Jesus Christ is presented in those terms—in the “you’d-better-do-this-or-else-you’ll-burn-in-hell” terms—I feel a strong urge to run in the opposite direction. I feel repulsed by the message. I feel shame that I share the same occupation as such an angry preacher. And I feel a deep sadness that such a misguided proclamation of what should be the good news is actually pushing people away from God. But, when I preach about sin and when I hear other preachers in churches like ours preach about sin, it has the opposite effect. Somehow, it draws us in. Instead of pushing us away, it draws us closer to God. Why is that? I think it’s because repentance is good news.

As we heard in today’s reading from Mark (1:1-8), “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.’” And what did that messenger say? “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Come and be baptized and await the coming of God’s kingdom.” It is remarkable to me that Mark begins his account of the “good news” with a message of repentance. For him, this is where the gospel starts—not with a lengthy genealogy or with a touching birth narrative or with a theologically sophisticated prologue but with a call to repent.

Repentance is good news. When given its full and proper richness, repentance is very good news because it is the beginning of a new relationship with God. The word “repentance” has its roots in words that mean “to turn around.” When we repent, we turn our hearts around, and the process of turning has two essential pieces to it—that from which we turn away and that to which we now turn. Yes, repentance is about turning away from sin. It is about forsaking all that impairs our ability to know who God is and what God’s will is for our lives. It is about leaving the old behind. It is about turning our backs on evil. But repentance is also a turning toward something even more wonderful than we can image—God’s love. As we turn toward God, we turn toward the one who forgives us. We turn toward his acceptance of even a wayward child. We embrace what it means to be redeemed. We look forward to the full and rich and wonderful life that God has in store for us.

Why do people like it when they hear sermons about sin? Because I don’t know how to preach about sin without preaching about forgiveness. Because God is a God of love and forgiveness and redemption. Because we believe in a gospel of truly good news. If you’ve heard a message of repentance but didn’t like what you heard, there’s a good chance you only heard half of the story. Hear, instead, the good news of Jesus Christ: God invites you to leave your old self behind and embrace the new, forgiven, redeemed self that God loves without limit. Repent, for God’s wonderful, loving kingdom is at hand.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Holiday Message for Rotary

For the second year in a row, I've been asked to speak at Rotary about "what Christmas means to me." Since Rotary represents a plurality of faith traditions and includes members of no faith at all, I choose to speak from a broad perspective. Here are my thoughts, which I shared at today's meeting of the Decatur Rotary Club.

One year at about this time—maybe a week and a half before Christmas—I found the place where my parents were hiding my presents. Up in the attic, in the top cabinet of a discarded armoire, were stuffed most of the presents by brothers and I would get under the tree. This was huge! It was the mother-load! It was the stash I had been dreaming about finding for years. And it was, as you can imagine, the death of my Christmas joy.

On Christmas morning, when I ran into the living room to see what was under the tree, I looked to discover that I already knew what was under the tree. And, once the whole family was awake and we began opening presents, I unwrapped each one to find that I had gotten precisely the thing I already knew I would get. There may have been one or two little things that my mother bought at the last minute that I had not seen up in the attic, but, for the most part, that Christmas was a bust. It’s pretty easy to tell when an eight-year-old isn’t his usual thrilled self on Christmas morning, and my parents asked me what was wrong.

“You didn’t like your presents?”

“No, they’re great. They’re just what I wanted.”

“Then what’s wrong? Why aren’t you happy?”

I didn’t want to tell them what I had done. And I didn’t really need to. I had punished myself. I had learned my lesson.

Christmas is for surprises. Whatever your tradition, the holiday season is meant for surprises.

At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. In that birth, they recognize the fulfillment of many of God’s ancient promises: God’s promise to shepherd his people into a time and place of safety and security, God’s promise to lift up the downtrodden and champion the cause of the oppressed, and God’s promise to comfort those who have suffered for generations. But what sort of fulfillment did God send? God did not send a mighty prince or a military power. God did not show up in a force strong enough to overthrow the enemies of God’s people. Instead, God arrived as a little baby—a fragile, weak, and helpless infant. And that holy child was not born in a palace or near the Jerusalem temple but in a drafty barn. He was attended not by priests and princes but by shepherds and sheep.

Likewise, during Hanukkah, Jews remember another moment when God surprised his people. About 165 before the first Christmas, the Jerusalem temple was in peril. Antiochus, the leader of the Seleucid Empire, had desecrated the temple by stripping it of its Jewish treasures and building in its place an altar to Zeus. He forbade the practice of Judaism, and insisted that pigs be sacrificed in the temple instead—an unabashed affront to the laws and customs of the Jewish people. In response to these unholiest of practices, a revolt arose among the Jewish people. Led by “Judah the Hammer,” and his brothers and their father, the Maccabees overthrew Antiochus and the Seleucid occupation of Jerusalem. After regaining control of the temple, Judah ordered that it be cleansed and rededicated for the worship of Israel’s God. But there was a problem. The lampstand, which held a flame that was never to go out, could only be filled with pure, unfiltered, undefiled olive oil, which took over a week to prepare. They only had enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one night, but, as you know, God has a way of surprising his people, and God made it possible for that one night’s oil to keep the lamp burning for eight nights, until more had been made. And God’s people celebrate the fact that God has the power to show up and surprise us even when we think there is no hope.

You don’t need to be a person of faith to enjoy the surprises of the holidays. Whether it’s opening a present under the tree or being reunited with a loved one who has been stationed overseas or making amends with someone you thought you’d never speak to again, the holidays have the power to surprise us in the most amazing ways. The only danger is approaching this time of year as if everything will happen exactly as we expect it to. This is a magical time of year, and the beauty of this season is its ability to surprise us. Look for surprises this year. Approach the holidays like a little child. Expect the unexpected. Imagine the possibilities. And trust that the best part of this season is its ability to catch us unawares.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Waiting on God Means Sharing the Spotlight

December 14, 2014 – Advent 3A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Zim zala bim.

Earlier this year, I was on a Cursillo staff with Robert Wisnewski, my old boss. A few days before the weekend began, I asked Robert if we were going to do his famous skit, and he told me that he had been thinking about it. He asked me if I was up for it, and I told him, “Absolutely.” I had been watching old YouTube videos of the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for weeks, just hoping I’d have the chance.

Who here remembers Carnac the Magnificent? That was Johnny Carson’s character who wore the gigantic turban and kept the audience laughing with his deadpan humor. He was a “visitor from the east” who, through his “divine powers,” could give the answer to a question inside a sealed envelope even before it had been opened. I knew by reputation that Robert Wisnewski could do a very good impersonation of Carnac. My worry was whether I would be an adequate Ed McMahon.

I vaguely—very vaguely—remember when Johnny Carson was on the Tonight Show. I was only eleven years old when Carson retired, so, even though I was casually familiar with Carnac, I knew I needed to do some homework before going on stage with Robert. So I watched a lot of YouTube videos, and the more I watched the more I realized that Ed McMahon’s role was a hard one to play—maybe even harder than Carson’s. I learned all of the lines—“Since eleven o’clock this morning, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed and kept in a mayonnaise jar on a porch at Funk and Wagnall’s. No one—NO ONE—has seen the contents of these envelopes, yet you, O Great One, with your amazing powers will divine the answers to the questions even before the envelopes are opened…” But that’s the easy part. The hard part wasn’t knowing what to say. It was knowing what not to say.

For thirty years, McMahon was Carson’s sidekick. For thirty years, he played second fiddle. For thirty years, he had to bite his tongue to keep himself from jumping to the humorous ad lib before Carson got there himself. As McMahon wrote in his autobiography, “I had to support him, I had to help him get to the punch line, but while doing it I had to make it look as if I wasn't doing anything at all. The better I did it, the less it appeared as if I was doing it.”[1] It’s hard work making someone else look good, and McMahon was masterful at it. You have to laugh obsequiously when the boss’ joke isn’t really funny to let the audience know that you’re teasing him a little bit, but you can’t take it too far or else you make him look like an idiot. There’s an art to being a co-host or a vice-chair or a sidekick or a curate. And mastering the art of playing second fiddle starts by remembering who you are and, more importantly, who you aren’t.

In today’s reading from John, we meet the Ed McMahon of the gospel: John the Baptist, the man sent from God, who came as a witness to testify to the light. As the gospel writer tells us, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to it.” Two thousand years later, we take it for granted that John the Baptist wasn’t the messiah because we know the whole story. We know that he played the role of the forerunner, the herald, the set-up man. But, back then, to those who were watching John the Baptist’s following grow, to those who were leaving their homes to go out into the countryside to hear him preach and to watch him baptize, that wasn’t clear at all.

“Who are you?” the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist. “Who are you? Are you the messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? Who are you? What do you represent? What should we make of you and your ministry?” For a while, the religious leaders in Jerusalem had been watching him. They had noticed how more and more people were going out to hear what he had to say. People seemed caught up in his message. They were willing to leave their jobs and their homes and their families to go and follow him in the desert places. The authorities could not deny his charismatic gifts. So many people had been drawn to him and his message of repentance. The religious leaders wanted to know what they were dealing with, so they sent representatives to go and ask him who he was. And they were shocked at what they heard.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,’” he told them. “I am not the messiah, nor am I Elijah, nor am I the prophet. I am none of those things. I am just a voice—the voice of God’s servant crying out in the barren places that the time to prepare for the coming of God and his kingdom is now.” But that didn’t make sense to them. He was acting like the main attraction. He was drawing headliner crowds, but he was telling those crowds that he was just a sidekick, a set-up guy, a voice reminding the people to look for something else. The priests and Levites didn’t understand how that could be. John the Baptist was too popular, too gifted, too impressive not to take center stage. He deserved a show of his own, but he didn’t want it. Instead, he wanted to be the person he was made to be and to fill the role God was calling him to fill.

John the Baptist shows us that we cannot know what it means to wait for God and for his kingdom until we know who we are and, more importantly, who we are not. So who are you? And who aren’t you? Are you the star of your life, or are you the co-host? Do you want the spotlight, or are you willing to yield it to someone else? Do you take credit for the successes in your life, or do you use them to point others to the one who has given you those successes? John the Baptist had everything, but he gave it all away because he knew that the only thing that mattered was the one who would come after him. What about you? Can you say the same? Do you draw people to yourself, or do you point people to Jesus?

There is a God, and you are not him. That might sound like a simple, obvious statement, but it is a profound truth, and it is the true origin of faith. Nothing can begin until we understand that—that there is a God and that we are not him. From our first parents—as long as there have been human beings on the earth—we have wanted to be like God. And, as long as we are striving to be that which we are not—as long as we indulge in the illusion that we are our own master—we cannot know what it means to need God in our lives. That is the first sin. God is waiting to come into our hearts and minds, but that can’t happen until we accept what it means to be human, which is what repentance is all about.

Repentance is how we wait on God. Repentance is how we make space in our hearts for the one who made us. Repentance is how we embrace our true identity—by acknowledging who we are not and seeking that which we need more than anything else. That is John the Baptist’s voice, crying out in the wilderness. That is what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. Repentance is good news because repentance is the only way we can ever be ready to meet God. Amen.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tonight_Show_Starring_Johnny_Carson#Ed_McMahon

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Very Denying Denial

The dog that barks usually bit.
Whoever smelt it dealt it.
Whoever denied it supplied it.

Do you remember the childish back-and-forth over which kid it was who passed gas? Maybe I’m the only one who grew up in such puerile circles, but I suspect others are familiar with the logic of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Ever suspect a child of causing trouble and then have your suspicions confirmed by an overly denying culprit? One of my favorite Nooma videos by Rob Bell is “Lump,” and it starts with a story about one of Bell’s sons denying the theft of a small white ball in a weird, Urkel-like refutation. We can tell when someone goes so far out of his or her way to claim innocence that that person ends up suggesting his or her guilt.

So what’s the deal with John the Baptist? In John 1, the Jewish authorities send priests and Levites to go and investigate what was behind John’s ministry. They arrive at the Jordan River, where John was baptizing, and they ask, “Who are you?” Perhaps they forgot the pleasantries that are normally associated with such an encounter—like “Hello, there. We’ve heard about you.” Regardless, their question seems innocent enough. “Who are you?” It’s open-ended. It isn’t accusatory. It gives John the ability to say as much or as little as he wants.

But what is his reply? “I am not the Messiah.” John the Gospeller, the editor who is bringing all of this together, introduces John the Baptist’s comment with some even stranger language: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’” Seems pretty suspicious to me.

Now, before we go any further, let’s stop for a moment and derail all of the conspiracy-theory hijinks and say that John the Baptist wasn’t pretending to be the Messiah. This isn’t him denying something so firmly that we discover his guilt. But the nature of the denial—both by John the Gospeller and by John the Baptist—suggest that others in the crowd were a little suspicious. Think of this overt, over-the-top, triple denial as both Johns’ way of saying, “This might be an exciting prophet who has grabbed the attention of a multitude with his sharp message of repentance, but he isn’t who you might suspect he is.”

So what’s the point of this passage? That’s the real question for the preacher. This series of questions for John the Baptist by the Jewish authorities (the priests and their kinfolk, no less!) is intended to show us what it means to wait for the coming Christ. After the long list of denials, John’s eventual self-identification as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” lets the reader know that John and his ministry are about making the way between God and his people straight. God comes to his people not in the person of John but in the person of Jesus. But God’s people have some “work” to do to get ready for the coming Messiah, namely be baptized.

It is remarkable to me that the priests and Levites associate baptism with the work of the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. They seem surprised that John, although not one of these, is still baptizing. Their surprise lets us know that their expectation for the Messiah or one of the prophets of old includes a call to a purification ritual. But John’s understanding of baptism is different. He knows that baptism isn’t the end—it’s just the beginning. Baptism is in preparation for what else will come. “I baptize with water,” he says. “Someone standing among you who is more powerful than I is coming, and he is holy to the point that I am not even worthy to untie his sandals in order to wash his feet. He’s the one we are getting ready for.”

Yes, this story is about repentance, but it’s also about so much more. It’s about repentance that points us to the coming of the Messiah. It’s about repentance so that the path between God and his people will be straight. It’s about repentance that points not to itself but to the good news of what is coming.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Salvation Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

By Sunday, the church will have made quite a journey during the first three weeks of Advent. The “good news” has been expressed first as a promise of God’s coming judgment, then as a confirmation that out of judgment will come relief, and finally this Sunday as a message that God’s salvation has indeed come. We can see this transition in the Old Testament progression from Isaiah 64’s “O that you would tear the heavens down…” to Isaiah 40’s “Comfort, O comfort my people…” to Isaiah 61’s “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…to bring good news to the oppressed.” As I read these OT lessons, I feel that we’ve journeyed through wilderness and trial and are emerging into that place of promise.

As I read the gospel lessons, though, it’s easy for me to miss that transition. Sure, it’s pretty clear that judgment is the theme of Mark 13 and the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds with great power and glory, but last Sunday’s Mark 1 and this Sunday’s John 1 both portray John the Baptist who is making the way straight by baptizing penitent sinners in the Jordan River. Because the text is so similar last week and this week, it would be easy for me to hear it as a reiterated message with no growth or development, but the OT lessons remind me to search for that progress as the church walks its way through Advent and towards the Nativity.

It might be overplaying it, but today in John’s version my eyes fall to John the Baptist’s description of the messiah as “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” Contrast that with Mark’s version, in which John proclaims, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” In last week’s account, the focus is on the one who is yet to come, but this week we hear of the one who has already come yet whom we have not fully recognized yet. To me, that sounds like the message of Advent.

What is the manner of our waiting? Are we waiting for a salvation that has not come yet? Are we still in that place of Isaiah 64 and Mark 13, which describe the triumphant action of God as a perhaps distant reality? Have we moved to Isaiah 40 and Mark 1, which proclaim a message of hope that is coming soon? Or have we made it to Isaiah 61 and John 1, which show that God’s salvation is already hear and that we need to work on recognizing it?

By the time we get to 4 Advent, the church needs to realize that salvation is both here already and not yet. Our readings next week propel us very clearly into the Nativity story, which is, of course, good and right. We need to prepare to hear again the story of our savior’s birth. Before we do, however, we need to internalize that truth that the salvation for which we wait has come, and is here, and will come again. We need Advent 3 to help bridge the gap between salvation in the past and salvation in the future. We need to hear that the one who is coming is already standing in our midst. We need to open our eyes and look for that salvation, which is right here right now.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Being a Good Ed McMahon

Before Advent started, our organist and I sat down and picked all of the hymns for the season. Unlike Steve Pankey, I think Advent hymns are wonderful. I can’t get enough of them, and the organist and I have to work hard to get every one of our favorites in before the short four weeks are up. In our first attempt, we finished the music for the second Sunday of Advent and suddenly realized to our horror that, even though the gospel lesson was Mark 1, we had neglected to include the organist’s wife’s favorite hymn, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry,” in our line up for that week. If we made it to Christmas without singing it, she wouldn’t let either of us live it down.

But then, to our relief, we discovered that the third Sunday of Advent basically gives us the same gospel story from a different perspective—John’s version instead of Mark’s.

So, again, this Sunday, we will hear, “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” I didn’t preach yesterday—Seth gave a great sermon on the inner wilderness—but this gives me a chance to say all of the things I wanted to say yesterday but didn’t have the chance.

Mainly, I’m thinking about John the Baptist’s role in pointing forward to something else: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” The baptizer's entire identity—especially as expressed in the Gospel according to John—is about pointing to another. Unlike Mark’s version, where the details are scant, this encounter involves John identifying himself to the religious authorities of his day. “Who are you?” they ask. And, with an awkward triple-denial that says a lot about what he himself is thinking, he replies, “I am not the Messiah.”

“Well, then, who are you? Elijah?” they ask. “Wrong again,” John answers.

“Are you the prophet?” they ask. “Nope.” John says.

Finally, exasperated and running out of ideas, they say, “Then tell us who you are. Give us an answer for those who sent us.” And John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness…”

John is the voice. He is one who cries out. He makes ready the path of the Lord. He isn't the main attraction. He's just Ed McMahon.

There is something to be said for knowing who one is and for living fully into that identity. The question of identity is brought up again by the religious authorities, who ask why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the messiah or Elijah or the prophet. When asked, John simply said, “I baptize with water. I’m trying to get us ready for the one who is coming.”

It’s a hard life always pointing to someone else—being the Chief of Staff but never the President, being the bridesmaid but never the bride, being the understudy but never the lead. There’s something faithful about that. There’s something faithful and inviting about John’s witness—about losing our sense of self for the sake of one mightier than we.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Repent from Sin but to What?

Here’s what we will hear on Sunday:

  • “The beginning of the good news…”
  • “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…”
  • “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…”
  • “He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming…”

I think that model is important: Good News à Messenger to Prepare à Proclamation of Repentance à One More Powerful is Coming.

These days, I think repentance gets a bad rap. We’ve spent the last fifty-five years developing a philosophy of I’m OK – You’re OK (thanks, Thomas Harris), and it seems uncouth for anyone to say, “You know what? You’re not OK. You need to fall down on your knees, repent, and beg for mercy.” Do you remember that scene near the beginning of The Blues Brothers when Cab Calloway says to John Belushi, “Jake, you get wise; you get to church!” Who gets to say that anymore?

Regardless of what contemporary society might prefer, the bedrock of the Christian faith is repentance. Repentance is where we begin. It’s the hinge upon which “conversion” happens (to use another unpopular word). Repentance is how the way is made straight. Repentance is the leveling of the mountains and the smoothing out of the rough places. Repentance is the highway by which God returns to his people, which is to say it is how God’s people rediscover God.

But what sort of messenger has those words today? What sort of prophet can proclaim a theology of repentance without getting doors slammed in his face or preaching to an empty church? Who wants to listen to someone talking about how bad we all are?

I think repentance has fallen out of vogue because most modern prophets have kept crying at people to forsake their sins without inviting them where to turn. As so many preachers have noted, “repentance” comes from the Greek word “metanoia,” which means a “changing of the mind” or loosely a “turning around of the heart.” Repentance isn’t just a letting go of the bad stuff. It’s a turning around to embrace the good stuff. And that’s what’s so great about this gospel passage. John isn’t just baptizing people because they’re wicked sinners. He’s preparing them for the coming of one more powerful than he. Repentance, in other words, is just one step along the journey.

“Repent!” the prophet cries. “But why?” the suspicious crowd responds. Exactly. But why? Why repent? As a colleague once said about a church conference, “They say it will change my life. Why would I want to do that? I like my life just the way it is.” Repentance is central, but we need to do a better job of articulating the life to which people are invited to turn.

Where I live, the Christians with the cultural microphone are the ones who make people feel bad about themselves and don’t seem interested in more than that. They’re the guys (and, yes, they are all guys) on the radio and television and elsewhere in our public view who talk about a gospel of getting your life in order so you won’t go to hell. But that isn’t gospel. It isn’t “good news.” No wonder when anyone else uses the word “repentance” everyone tunes out. If we want to invite people into transformation that begins with repentance, we must stop emphasizing that from which we are turning (hell) and start talking about that which we are embracing (abundant life).

Repent so that you can be embraced by one more powerful than any prophet who ever lived. Repent so that God can use you and your life as an unencumbered resource. Repent so that you can find the peace that is missing. Repent so that the path between you and God may be straight and smooth.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Black-and-White or Gray?

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

When we speak of God, we speak in ultimates. God is good to the ultra-extreme. God is holy even beyond our imagination of holy. God is loving to the point of becoming the definition of love. How could any of that not be true? And, if God is all of those wonderful-beyond-wonderful things, that influences the way we talk about our relationship with God.

When we talk about religion, we usually talk in extremes: sheep and goats, righteous and wicked, right and wrong, heaven and hell, saint and sinner. That’s the nature of religion because that’s human nature. Our instinct is to seek the comfort of clear distinctions and a black-and-white framework. If our faith revolves around obvious lines of who’s in and who’s out, we can convince ourselves that we belong on the inside, and we do so by unequivocally naming those who are on the outside.

But what happens when God shows us that it doesn’t quite work that way?

Jesus’ authority as a religious teacher had been challenged by the chief priests and the scribes—the religious leaders of his day (Luke 20:1-2). In response, he told them the parable of the wicked tenants—those to whom a vineyard had been entrusted by an owner who had gone away into a distant country. When the owner sent his servants to collect his share of the produce, they were beaten and sent away empty. In the parable’s climax, the owner decided instead to send his son, whom he presumed they would respect, but they killed him, seeking to keep his inheritance for themselves. Of course, the parable ends as the owner comes and destroys the tenants, giving the vineyard to others. When the elites realized that Jesus was telling this parable against them, they were furious, and they sought to trap him in a controversial, illegitimate teaching (Luke 20:19-20).

“Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one,” the spies said when they approached Jesus, revealing their intent by their ridiculous show of flattery. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they asked, leaning in to hear every word of what would surely be either a religious heresy or an illegal anti-Roman teaching. In those days, of course, the Roman Empire occupied Palestine. The Jews lived in the precarious place of maintaining their religious purity while living amongst their pagan occupiers. Taxes were a sore subject since the coins used to pay them bore the image of the emperor—a graven image of a pretend-god prohibited by the Jewish law. To pay the tax was an unholy acceptance of the Empire’s religion, but to not pay the tax was a direct defiance of the Empire’s authority. What was a faithful Jew to do?

We know Jesus’ answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s one of the most famous retorts Jesus ever gave to his opponents. But what does it mean for us? Perhaps you could argue that there are tensions between our religious life and our civic life, but I don’t think we face the same sort of rock-and-hard-place circumstance that first-century Palestinian Jews like Jesus felt. Instead, I think the teaching for us has less to do with being faithful in the face of oppressors and more to do with learning to live in a world of gray.

How often do we portray our faith in black-and-white terms? How quickly do we categorize people or behaviors as right or wrong, good or bad, saintly or sinful? In other words, how often do we ask questions like the one the religious elites used to test Jesus? We do it all the time.

Did you hear? They’re getting a divorce.
Can you believe that her daughter got pregnant? I thought they were good people.
I noticed that she hasn’t been to church in a while. I think she’s in rehab.
They don’t believe in the bible; they’re Catholic.
How can someone love God if they’re Muslim?

The religious authorities came to Jesus expecting to trap him by forcing him to take sides in a black-and-white controversy between religion and politics. But he refused to give them what they want because he was willing to live in that place of gray. And that’s the attitude that got him in so much trouble with the authorities. In a culture that cared deeply about who was in and who was out, Jesus spent much of his time with prostitutes and sinners. In a religion that insisted on outward signs of holiness, Jesus sought those whose holiness was hidden from public view. When he taught about God, he invited his hearers to imagine a God who cared not only for those on the inside but also those who had been excluded from the faith. What should that teach us?

Monday, December 1, 2014

God's HOV Lane

I love to walk places, but I don’t do it very often. When my family and I go on a trip, I tease them about needing to build up their stamina in the weeks before we get there because I have a tendency to walk everyone to death. If I have an appointment near my office, I try to walk to get there, but most of my meetings and visits occur far enough away that driving seems to be the only reasonable means of transportation. When I was first ordained, I dreamt of walking or riding a bike to church. I did that for a while, but I quickly found that, while getting from my house to the church wasn’t too big a challenge, getting from the church to my house to get in my car and drive to the hospital on the other side of town was. Plus, there were several substantial hills between our house and the church, and it wasn’t a lot of fun to show up at work all sweaty. (It gets pretty hot and muggy by 8am in Montgomery, Alabama, on a summer day.)

Even though I enjoy walking when I can, my car-focused lifestyle robs me of the real meaning behind the image used in Isaiah 40 andquoted in Mark 1:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
     make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
     and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
       and the rough places a plain."

When I travel from Decatur to Birmingham for a diocesan meeting, I do not consider anything other than distance: “How long will it take me to get there?” Except for those of us who live or work in extremely rural areas where dirt roads are the principle thoroughfares, I doubt many of us consider the nature of the roads on which we travel. Perhaps in the snow or ice those of us who live at the top of a steep hill might consider it. And, perhaps, there are stretches of interstate that you wish you could avoid because of all the pot holes and uneven pavement. But, for the most part, we get to point our car in the direction we want to travel and trust that we’ll be able to get there without any trouble.

Imagine, therefore, what it is like to be a part of a pedestrian culture. Imagine having to walk from your house to your work every day. Imagine having to walk to the grocery store. Imagine going on vacation by walking there. Imagine having to walk from one part of the country to another—like the Native Americans who were forced to walk the infamous “Trail of Tears.” How do you think the roads would feel then? Do you think you would notice when the road is rocky or broken up by uneven terrain? Would you give more than a passing thought to each incline?

In this passage from Isaiah, God’s promise of relief to his people is expressed in the leveling of the terrain so that God can make his way back to his people without delay. For a people that had been waiting for the Lord, this was good news that’s hard for me to understand. We have interstates. We have expressways. We take them for granted. The prophet was declaring that a highway was being established that would bring the Lord right back to his people. In contemporary language, maybe it’s a new HOV lane just for cars with God inside. Or perhaps it’s the opening up of a new checkout line at the grocery store so that God can speed his way through and get back to his people.

Advent is a season of waiting, and waiting can be hard. The good news to those who wait is that God is speeding his arrival. Nothing will get in his way. His journey will be easy and straightforward—no detours, no construction zones, no rubbernecking. Although we wait, we can see that the waiting will be over soon.