Tag Archives: Jesus

O Root of Jesse — December 19

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

The last few years I lived in Illinois, I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands tallgrass prairie conservancy in Lee County, Illinois. I was part of a small crew that would walk through stands of prairie grass spotting and removing invasive plants, making room for the remarkable diversity of native prairie grasses and flowers. The steward that I worked with was an encyclopedia of mind-blowing information about the prairie plants that we were making room for. I learned that for most of the prairie plants, the root system is deep and substantial. In fact, most of the biomass of prairie plants is below the surface of the ground. The deep and substantial root system insures that the plants will have water even in the driest summers. They enrich the soil and for some plants provide the network for forming new plants. The deep and substantial root system allows the plants to survive the prairie fires that are so vital to the health of the prairie ecosystem. The root systems of grasses and plants in the silphium family go down as far as 20′-25′.

The roots of Jesus go deep. The O Antiphon for December 19 takes those roots all the way back to David, son of Jesse, shepherd boy who rose to become king. John 1 takes those roots back even further. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him not one thing was made.”

The One by whom all things were made, the One who spans the long reaches of time and space, the One whose existence lies far beneath the surface of the humble birth in Bethlehem comes to us, comes now, comes to save us.

O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!

Wednesday in Holy Week

With the gospel lesson for Wednesday in Holy Week, we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. The reading brings us the intrigue that takes place after what we will read tomorrow on Maundy Thursday, the account of the foot washing Jesus performed for his disciples and his teaching about their performing the same kind of loving service for one another.

Strikingly, the story begins by reporting that Jesus was “troubled in spirit”. That’s nothing new. He said the same thing in the story we read yesterday when he felt the burden of his coming hour of death. The reason for his present agony is the imminent betrayal by Judas. Announcing the approaching betrayal, Jesus wore his emotional pain on his proverbial sleeve while catching his disciples off guard.

When Judas left the room and went out, “it was night!” I suppose it’s possible that the gospel writer was indicating the time of day; but I think there’s something else going on here. Remember way back at the beginning of this gospel, when the author announced that light appeared when Jesus appeared? He even reported Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” In yesterday’s reading, after identifying himself as the light once again, Jesus promised his disciples they would become “children of light.” Now with the arrival of the Evil One in one of Jesus’ own disciples, “it was night.” Jesus, the light, was about to enter the darkest corners of human existence. Jesus would allow the prince of this world, the ruler of darkness, to have his moment, brief though it would be.

In fact, while the disciples were baffled that Judas would go shopping at this time of night, Jesus announced the moment for the Son of Man to be glorified and with him for God to be glorified as well. The hour has come for his death, his resurrection, and his ascension—all to the glory of God.

Our attention today is drawn to the plan and purpose of God in sending the eternal Word to become incarnate and live among us. The evangelist interprets the crucifixion of Jesus as God’s deliberate and purposeful act, not a divine resignation to the failure of humans to accept his Son. Jesus’ own motive was not a suicidal desire but a faithful commitment to ensuring that God be glorified.

Indeed, “it was a dark and stormy night.” There’s something deeply theological going on here. Jesus was entering the darkness of human evil, fallenness, and brokenness. We know what the night means — it is the evil, fallenness, and brokenness we experience in our own lives. When Jesus enters our darkness, we can be assured that we are never alone; in fact, it may be in those moments of our deepest darkness that we are closest to the crucified Christ.  In the darkness of the impending doom, Jesus is being glorified and God is being glorified in him. Night will have its moment, but God will have the day.

Tuesday in Holy Week

When I was a young associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida, at a large Missouri Synod church out in the western part of the city by the beaches, I got to know an older ELCA pastor who was at the historic church downtown. His name was Priit Rebane; I had the greatest respect for Priit; he was soft-spoken, theologically astute, and seemed to be full of pastoral wisdom. At one of our meetings, he told about coming out of the seminary, ready for ordination. He had learned all the theories about the virgin birth, about the resurrection and whether it happened or not, the various criticisms of scripture. A young theological hot shot, he was headed out into the parish ready to unleash all his learning on some unsuspecting parish. His mother sat him down and told him, “Priit, just tell them about Jesus.” 

In the gospel lesson for Tuesday of Holy Week, some curious Greeks come looking for Jesus. Jesus is transparent about who he is and what is coming. The questions and answers of the dialogue don’t provide much new information. We’ve seen all this elsewhere; we know the story. This encounter is less about having the right answers from Jesus than about seeing Jesus as he makes his way gently, persistently toward the cross. All the dialogue  invites us to see Jesus.

In our bones, in our souls, to the depth of our being, we understand that what’s happening this week is at the center not only of the Christian faith, but of our own lives with God and of our life together as a community of faith. We want to see Jesus.

 But what what are we looking for? It’s not enough to say that he was a good man, a good teacher, a miracle worker, an example to follow or even the victim of politics and oppression.

We are invited in today’s gospel to see the glorification of Jesus, the culmination of his whole ministry, the work that he came to do. We are invited to see Jesus lifted up as king of the universe.

Most importantly, we are invited to see the enthronement of Jesus on the cross. We are invited to see that in his death life came to us, that his crucifixion removed the barrier of sin and brokenness that stood before a loving God and a fallen humanity.

We are invited this week to see Jesus in the humble foot-washing and eucharistic meal of Maundy Thursday, in the trial, death, and burial of Good Friday, and finally, in the triumphant resurrection of Holy Saturday.

Carry those images in your mind and in your heart. They are icons of God’s love.

A Little Writing in the Sand

In John’s gospel, it doesn’t take long for things to heat up. Blink an eye and Jesus is already getting into trouble. From the wedding at Cana (John 2), Jesus heads to the Temple in Jerusalem and drives out the moneychangers, snapping a whip and overturning their tables. See what I mean? From the get go, there’s tension with the religious leaders.

The tension continues and continues to intensify. Jesus heals the man at the Bethesda pool and pronounces him a forgiven man. “This was why the religious leaders were seeking all the more to kill him.” When he proclaims strange words about eating his body and drinking his blood to receive life, the leaders understandably take offense. When he goes to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkoth, the leaders are ready to arrest Jesus. And we haven’t even gotten to the end of chapter 7.

Then Jesus  shows his face again at the Temple. Ok, more than just shows his face. He sits down and holds a little bible study. Before long a crowd gathers.* The religious leaders catch wind of the impromptu meeting and with the snap of their fingers hatch an unassailable plan to catch Jesus red-handed. They will stretch him on the rack between his penchant for mercy and the requirements of the law.

So, they find a woman caught in the act of adultery, strong arm her into the midst of the outdoor lecture hall, and set their trap. Here are the facts, they say. This woman has been caught in the act. Her guilt is clear. The Law says she must be stoned. The Law of Moses. The highest authority in our tradition. Tell us what you would do.

The details of what happens next often go unnoticed. First, Jesus bends down and writes on the ground with his finger. Maybe the text of the commandment? Now he stands up and speaks. I think he was giving them conditional permission to begin the stoning. With one caveat. The one without sin can cast the first stone. I want to imagine that what he said was even juicier than that. I want to imagine that he was giving permission to begin the execution to anyone who was without THIS sin.

Because you notice what he does next? And you notice their reaction? He bends down again and starts writing in the dirt again. And “one by one” — did you notice how specific the text is about that? “One by one” the accusers walk away.

Here’s a thought. Admittedly a speculative thought. But there’s a certain logic to it. What he was writing in the sand — one by one — was the names of their girlfriends.

There’s a large lesson here about the magnanimous character of God’s grace and forgiveness. I am not deserving of the gift of grace and the forgiveness of sins, even the repeated sins I can’t seem to shake off. Yet, I am forgiven. Grace abounds!

And there’s a micro lesson for how I get around in the world.

I have a pretty strong sense of justice. Right and wrong matters to me. When I see someone gaming the system, I get angry. When I see another mistreated, my blood boils. And I often find that the faults I am so quick to notice in others are the ones I hate the most in myself. I’m irritated when others are late for meetings, rarely stopping to wonder what might have gone wrong. When I’m late, there’s always a good reason. It’s easy to notice my wife’s irritability and call her out on it. When I’m irritable, I have a good reason for it. Speeding down Roosevelt Road, cutting in and out of the traffic lanes? The other guy’s a jerk and a menace to all of us. I’m late for an appointment.

Apparently grace is not just something to be received, it’s something I’m called to practice.

*You can find the story in John 7:53-8:11. I know it’s not in the most reliable manuscripts. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great story.

Wrestling in the Night, Blessing in the Morning


Today would have been the 8 month birthday of our granddaughter, Eliana. (Happy Birthday, Precious Little One!) She was born on February 17, 2016 and died 6 months ago yesterday, on April 16. In one of those not infrequent coincidences, the first lesson appointed for yesterday told the story of Jacob’s wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32). It’s a mysterious story, and one that has received a broad range of interpretations through the  centuries, both in Judaism and Christianity. As I taught through the lesson at two of our bible classes this past week, it touched me deeply and resonated with the wrestling I’ve gone through in the past year.  In yesterday’s sermon, my own story provided the launch point for thinking and talking about an elusive God, about questions that remain unanswered and griefs that remain unresolved, and the God revealed in Jesus. The reference to a parable of Jesus near the end is from the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 18:1-8.  You can also listen to the sermon on Faith’s YouTube channel .

Today marks the 6 month anniversary of the death of our granddaughter, Eliana. She was born on February 17 of this year with a genetic skin disorder called epidermolysis bullosa. Aside from the extraordinary pain that was a constant in her life, she was prone to infection. Her 3rd encounter with infection ravaged her little body and she could not overcome it. On April 16, she died. In these 6 months, I have been Jacob, wrestling with God in the darkness. Some of my fundamental assumptions about faith and about how God works in the world and in peoples’ lives have been called into question. There have been times when I didn’t want to pray, when I couldn’t pray. There have been times when I have wondered even about prayer itself, wondering if prayer works or what, exactly, it is. For all of my struggles and wrestling, I don’t feel like I know very much more now than I did in those first raw days after her death.

In our first lesson this morning, Jacob the conniver becomes Jacob who wrestles with God. The Conniver is going back home. Jacob is the one who decades earlier tricked his way into his brother Esau’s birthright, stealing it outright. Jacob posed as his brother and their aging, nearly blind father fell for the trick. To escape the wrath and vengeance of his brother Jacob left home. Life in a faraway land had been good to Jacob. He had become a wealthy man. But he yearned for home. He prayed for safe travels and he prayed that his brother might receive him in love. But frankly he was worried. Now just before the crucial time when he was to meet his brother Esau, he sent his large family and his servants and his cattle and his sheep and his goats and his donkeys across the River Jabbok onto his brother’s land. And he stayed one more night on the far side of the river. He will meet his brother tomorrow; tonight he must wrestle with God.

This image of Jacob wresting with God gives us a different picture of God. This God is an elusive God, one who comes in the dark of the night and will not let himself be fully known. This God throws Jacob to the ground and holds Jacob’s arm behind his back and puts him in a headlock. This God will not let Jacob get to tomorrow without a struggle. When morning comes and the wrestling is over, Jacob walks with a limp. His hip joint was injured in one of those moments when God threw him to the ground. His encounter with God left a mark.

In my own struggles of the past 6 months, I have never believed like God was not present. But I have felt more acutely the things I cannot know about God. I realize that what I thought I knew about God and about how God works in the world is clouded in ambiguity and mystery. My mind has been changed. My heart has changed. And my faith has changed. Wrestling with God leaves a mark. In fact, I don’t think we can ever have an encounter with the divine and remain the same. I think God is always with us in the middle of struggle and doubting and questioning and seeking; but that doesn’t imply that we remain unchanged in the encounter. The pain we experience in the hard things of life leave a scar, a limp, an empty space. I was talking with someone this week who is grieving and they said they feel like they need to move on. I don’t know if we move on as much as we just keep walking. Sometimes with a limp. Doing the best we can.

When Jacob and God get to morning, they have wrestled to a draw. God has not defeated Jacob, nor has Jacob overcome God’s divine power. For Jacob, wrestling with God to a draw feels like a win. At least he’s alive; to get to morning after struggling with God all night is saying something. So Jacob asks for a blessing. What I think he was asking for was more of the same — the material blessings of sons and cattle and sheep and goats.

God gives him a blessing, but a blessing of God’s choosing, not of Jacob’s choosing. Instead of more material wealth, God gives Jacob a new life, a new name, a new identity. No longer will he be Jacob; he will be Israel. As the father of a people, he will be given a measure of that divine power and will be instructed to put to use for the good of all. 

At the heart of our own life with God is the new name and new identity that God has given us. You are Christian. You are marked on your forehead with the cross of Christ. Somehow, mysteriously, in the waters of baptism we participate in the life-giving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Joined to Christ in the baptismal waters, you have a new identity and a new life. That new life is given brand new every day. We wake up in the morning, remember our baptism, make the sign of the cross as a reminder of our new identity, receive the forgiveness of sins. We are given a measure of divine power and instructed to put it to use for the good of all.  It may not always be the blessing we seek, but it is the blessing that gives us life and sustains our life.

Feeling pretty good about this encounter with God, Jacob goes one step further. He wants to know intimately this God with whom he has wrestled. “What’s your name?” Jacob asks. In that question, Jacob wants to bridge the distance between himself and God.  Jacob wants to remove the mystery, Jacob wants all the answers. Just like the couple in the Garden of Eden, Jacob wants to know God on his terms, not on God’s terms. In response to that question, God changes the subject and then turns and walks away. It’s the question that God will not answer.

Though we may wish it be otherwise, God is still God, and we are still creatures. Much of what we would like to know about God and about our place in the world and why things happen and what God is doing about the pain in our own lives and the evil in the world, lies behind the veil. Not every question will be answered. Not every struggle will be resolved. Not every grief will be healed. Not every problem will be solved. Most of the answers to the questions that begin with “Why. . .” will not be answered this side of eternity.  God is still God and we are not. There is still much about God and God’s ways that remains a mystery.

And still somehow we go on. Somehow, still, by God’s grace we trust in God’s goodness. Somehow, in the midst of all we don’t know about God, we do know this about God. That God has come to us in Jesus. What we need to know about God, we know in Jesus. In the God we know in Jesus, there is grace and mercy and peace and hope.

In the gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable that is supposed to teach his followers to pray always and not lose heart. A widow keeps asking a corrupt judge for justice until he grants her request, just to get rid of her. When we talked about this story in confirmation class on Wednesday, one of the students asked, “Does praying more increase the chances that your prayers will be answered?” I think it’s a pretty logical question, but one that we know from our experience is not true. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus is getting at in this story. I think Jesus knows that things will sometimes be hard. And for whatever reason, the answers we seek are not available to us. The story ends with Jesus asking if he will find faith when he comes back to bring all things to fullness. Maybe that’s a key to living faithfully in the wrestling. To know and to trust that in the midst of things that are hard, things that we cannot fully understand, things which bring pain and sorrow, God is at work, God is good, and God will carry us through.

When daylight had come and Jacob’s combatant had left,  Jacob took a moment for worship. He sang a song, said a prayer, and built an altar to mark the spot where he had wrestled with God. Peniel he called it, literally, the face of God. “I have seen the face of God.” It was time to get across the river, and get on with the business of meeting his brother, and whatever the coming days had in store for him. This morning, we sing a song, say a prayer, come to this altar. And then we go, confident that whatever limp we walk away with, whatever grief or pain we carry, whatever questions and doubts still linger, we have seen the face of God. And we will walk across that River Jabbok facing our own tomorrows in hope, secure in the love of God.

In a Moment in Time

redwoodsIn a moment in time, early on this Christmas Eve, I crawled out of bed to greet this new day. In a moment in time, in the morning darkness of my kitchen, I ground beans, boiled water, and made a cup of coffee with an ancient Melitta pour over coffee cone. In a moment in time, I sit in a quiet room watching out the window as the sun peeks over the horizon. Moments of time stacked one upon another in a progression compose an individual life.

In a moment in time Mary and Joseph came to the difficult conclusion that there was no other place to bed down for the night. In moment in time the labor pains could no longer be ignored.  In a moment in time Mary gave birth, not in her mother’s home surrounded by matriarchs and a midwife, but in a cattle stall surrounded by beasts. In a moment in time, a moment marked not by the idyllic tranquility of O Little Town of Bethlehem, but by the terror of giving birth in such a place and the wonder of giving birth in such a place.

In a moment in time the Eternal put on the limiting cloak of chronos.  The Infinite became finite. In a moment in time God entered our world in an utterly dependent baby. In doing so, that moment in time would become the pivot point of all human history. In that moment in time, God took on all that it meant to be human, our tears, our sprains, our sniffles, our disappointments, our dashed dreams, and eventually our death.

The splinters of that crude manger would one day become the splinters of a cruel cross.  The One who entered time would endure death for our sakes. All of this in a moment in time.

God entered our times and our places and our flesh so that we could know God. In the baby of the manger and the crucified man on the cross, we discover God’s true disposition towards us, indeed towards all creation. God entered our world in a moment of time so that we could live in the confidence of divine grace and mercy.

God entered our time so that there are no moments of time in which we are abandoned to our own self destructive ways, to the evil of our lashing out at on another, to the ways of death we seem so determined to follow. We live trusting that even now, God is bringing all things to fullness in Christ.

Regardless of what any particular moments of time may bring, of this we can be sure:  they are embraced and redeemed by a loving and gracious God who at Christmas became one of us. In a moment in time.

Merry Christmas.


The Fabric Is Fraying

EthansblanketThe fabric is fraying.

Maybe it always has been.

Today, I am feeling it acutely.

It’s still too early to know the details of the shooting in San Bernadino, California, but the news outlets are calling it a mass shooting.

These days in Chicago have been tense. The video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald has been public for a week, and it still haunts me. Every day something else dribbles out that ramps up the righteous outrage. Today it was the news that another video has been suppressed, a video of yet another young black man being shot as he’s moving away from police. Another case in which damages were paid, charges were not brought, and the offending police officer is still on the job, over 400 days after the incident.

Arrests were made in Belgium, men allegedly connected to the terrorist incidents in Paris a few short weeks ago.

Since 2011, some estimate that a quarter of a million Syrians have died in the civil war; that’s a bit more than 1% of the 2011 population of 23 million. Close to 12 million — that’s 50% — have been forced from their homes, and more than 4 million have fled.

The fabric is fraying.

Most disheartening to me is the way too many of our national leaders advocate the kind of action that has gotten us here — bombs, boots on the ground, no fly zones, suspicion of the stranger, close our gates, prop up the fiction of our security, change the subject.

The picture looks awful lot like the picture painted in our sanctuary on Sunday morning as the preacher read the gospel lesson from Luke.

Then there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars; and there will be anguish in the earth month nations bewildered buy the roaring sea and waves. People will faint from fear and the expectation of things that are coming in the world because celestial powers will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.

Though I don’t expect to see the Son of Man coming on the clouds, I feel the apocalyptic character of these times.

What would it mean for Christ to come in the midst of this mess?

The truth is that he does. The One who came to this mess centuries ago comes again now in the midst of our own mess. He still comes the same way, with the power of his gentle love. He walked among us, healed our diseases, calmed our fears, and rode into the Holy City as a king, though his noble steed was an ass and his eventual crown was woven of thorns. When we lift up our heads, we see his crucified body, broken so that we and this messed up world might be made whole again.

When that One who came as God among us spoke of apocalyptic times, he said — quite curiously, it seems to me — that in the midst of the turmoil, the preferred posture is not hunkering down or cowering in the corner. The preferred posture is to be standing, head lifted up. That’s a posture of confidence and action. It’s a posture of defiance in the face of evil and fear.

It’s the posture of those who know they don’t have to save the world; rather they are the ones who get to do God’s work of healing this broken world.

So, stand up.

Lift up your head.

Carry on.

Be open and vulnerable and generous.

Work with joy in your heart.

Refuse to close yourself off to other people.

Refuse fear and violence.

And live with the hopeful expectation that together, we can actually address humanity’s big challenges. Standing together with our heads lifted up.

I wrote this because I need to read it.