Universal and Particular

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 24, 2016)

 

Most of us who grew up in the United States probably had an image of Jesus’ birth that was something like this…

white

or maybe this…

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It’s important to be clear to say that Jesus didn’t glow as he laid in the manger…that’s not what it means that Jesus is the Light of the World! Jesus also was not white. He was born to a particular time and place, to Palestine in the 1st century, a Middle Eastern Jewish baby born into a world of color.

Nativity

Our faith hinges on this unique, miraculous act of God!

God went “all in” for us and with us, becoming a human being like us. This happened in this world, this world which is bound by time and culture and place. For the eternal, all-encompassing God to join with humanity, for that to happen in this world, it had to be defined by a time and a people and a culture and a place.

It really did happen! Jesus was born as an outcast with the shadow of illegitimacy over him, to people who were defeated and oppressed by an occupying foreign government. The unbound, universal God became particular and located, with a color and a language and a smell and a people. It is good for us to look at this picture, and remember that most of us with our color and language and smell and people would be outsiders in this scene.

But something beautifully miraculous happened in this cosmic act of love!

As particular and as specifically located as this was, there was never any doubt God was doing this for us all. When the angels lit up the sky to sing and shout his birth, peace was announced for the WHOLE earth. When Simeon blessed baby Jesus in the temple, he said: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of ALL nations; a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”

Magi arrived to honor him as King, Magi who lived so far away it may have taken them two years to travel all the way to find Jesus. This is good news of great joy for ALL the people! In this sense, none of us are outsiders. None of us are outside God’s act of drawing near, of God taking on human flesh.

Jesus did look something like this picture…maybe not with the cheesy costumes, but with this color skin on him and around him. Yet this cosmic act of love by our Creator God to join humanity is something people around the world see as a connection with THEM. It isn’t just Western culture that remakes baby Jesus into our own image. There’s something so powerful about God joining our human world that we all can’t help but feel like Jesus came to our people and looked like us.

We can make our way south from Palestine, through Congo…

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and Uganda.

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People there see Jesus as their own, too. There’s a wrong way to do this of course, to rip Jesus out of what truly was his Middle Eastern home and claim him as our own, erasing what was actually true.

But there’s a healthy way to do this: never forgetting that Jesus actually lived as a first century Jew, but realizing that it was news of “great joy for all people”…realizing that when God became human, there was a connection forged with us all.

And so you can head east…to India…

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to Thailand…

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to China…

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to Korea.

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You can cross the water to Japan…

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to the Philippines…

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to Australia.

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You can leap the vast Pacific and see Jesus in Bolivian garb…

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as if he came to Guatemala…

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or to the Crow Nation in Native North America.

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And while none of that is true in the literal sense, because Jesus was a first century Jew…the actual Jesus who walked Palestinian soil is truly “a light for revelation” to all us outsiders. God truly became one of us. God’s coming to a particular time and place and yet being the savior for us all reminds us of our common, equal humanity before God.

All these beautiful imaginations of the Holy Family remind us that God came to us all!

It truly is a great joy, joy to all the world! Tonight, we say thank you for the gift of Jesus. We say yes to God with our minds and hearts. Let’s continue our thanks and our worship by singing together.

Joy to the World, Hark the Herald

We’re coming to the main point of these “candlelight” Christmas Eve services.

This is my last year getting to lead this service, something I’ve missed only once since 2002. I was remembering that first Christmas Eve service in 2002-I was 34, 5 months into a job that was over my head. We also had a baby who was five and a half months old, so we were sleep deprived and trying to come to grips with life and work.

After the last Christmas Eve service, I was talking to someone up there in the balcony. I wish I could remember who it was. Anyway, he made me realize that many of you were still trying to come to grips with me in this role, too. He said something like, “I wasn’t really convinced you could pull this lead pastor thing off; I’ve been watching all fall. But when you came out here tonight with the sweater and everything went ok, I knew we were all going to make it!”

If only I’d known five months sooner! It just takes the sweater!

I bring that up tonight for one reason only: someone else is going to wear the sweater next year, and it’s going to be just fine for everybody. Because you and I both know that’s a great metaphor: being a pastor is first and foremost about what you put on. Are you covered with the calling and the empowerment of God’s Spirit? That’s what matters, and that’s from God.

The church isn’t a pastor. It’s a community of Spirit-empowered people who help each other gather around Jesus who is our center. Thanks be to God!

Just a few reminders before we share the light from these advent candles with each other.

Even these little flames are dangerous, so please be careful of papers and clothing and hair around you, not to set them on fire. It’s easier to pass the flame by having the lit candle straight up and down and tipping the unlit candle over the lit one.

Use the shield to keep the hot wax from burning your hand, and please do your best to keep it from dripping on the floor or the pews.

These words are ones I’ve been sharing on this night for many years.

May this act of lighting candles bring honor to Jesus, who on a silent night long ago entered our world and our frame of reference so that we would not be alone in the dark.

May our caring for the light of these candles remind us of the need to pay attention to what God is doing in our lives each and every day of the year.

May the ease with which we share the candle light with our neighbors remind us that Jesus lives to be shared with everyone!

And, may the light that will soon illuminate this entire room remind us that however dark it seems in our world, however dark it seems in our lives, there is NO darkness great enough to overcome God’s supreme and ultimate light, Jesus Christ.

Amy Grant-Round 2

Here in the warm belt of a Tennessee Christmas, I’ve discovered not just the Rogers clan; there are so many for whom Amy has brought peace and serenity (now) into 2016 Christmas. And lo and behold! I find that you voters are like me, and far prefer Amy’s first Christmas album…many of the upsets came from young Amy’s first Christmas recording. In fact, the only songs from the first recording that lost ended up being ones that lost to other recordings from the first cd…err, cassette. 🙂 Five of the final eight come from 1983.

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So let’s do this…let’s vote these 8 survivors down to 4 by Christmas Eve night, and then I’ll give a couple of days for the next round of voting so that you can spend time with your family without being distracted by voting! Deadline is Saturday night at 10 pm PST.

#1 Breath of Heaven vs. #9 Welcome to Our World

 

#4 Hark the Herald Angels vs. #12 Heirlooms

 

#11 Emmanuel vs. #14 Love Has Come

 

#2 Tennessee Christmas vs. #7 Agnus Dei

What Child-Round 4

The Amy Grant bracket stole all the interest! But for awhile today, I was worried for my favs. But by the end of the day, things look pretty good in my world.

Vote us down to the finals by Friday at 8 pm PST!

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#1 seed Andrea Bocelli and R&B power from Mary J. Blige vs. #4 seed Earth, Wind & Fire

 

#2 seed Bela Fleck and the Flecktones vs. #14 seed Mahalia Jackson

Emergency Contingency Plan!!!

With unprecedented voter interest in the matchup between #1 Andrea Bocelli & Mary J Blige against #17 Amy Grant, I would like to ask your opinion on a possible commissioner intervention. Clearly, I underseeded the power of Amy voters. Obviously the winner will advance. BUT-should the loser ALSO advance? In another spot on the bracket?

Here’s what to consider: #7 the Vince Guaraldi Trio vs #10 John Coltrane only has 45 votes. Andrea/Mary vs. Amy has 172. That many votes, even in a losing cause, maybe should be honored.

SO: Should the loser of Andrea/Mary vs. Amy replace the winner of Coltrane/Guaraldi? YOUR VOTES WILL DECIDE! VOTING ENDS AT 8pm PST.

Good King Wenceslas-Final Round

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Interesting! I wouldn’t have expected the original crooner to have so much staying power, after 67 years. But Bing Crosby prevailed by one vote over The Bills, while Colbert and Company had an easy time dispatching The Piano Guys.

So now we come to it, the last voting for this round, to name the best version of Good King Wenceslas. Get your votes in by Saturday at 9 pm PST. And keep submitting your favorite version of “What Child Is This?” Those are due by 6 pm PST on Saturday, and I hope to have that bracket out Sunday night for Christmas week cheer.

 

#2 Colbert, Stipe, Pantinkin vs. #5 Bing Crosby

Jesus Came as an Outcast

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 11, 2016)

For several weeks, we’ve looked at God’s regular habit of not doing things like we would think God would.

God shows up with the outsiders and the oppressed, and it is God showing up that brings hope for humanity. Let me do a recap by sharing a sentence or two from each message over the last several weeks. On October 30, we looked at Cain and Abel, at Elijah and Naboth, at many in the Old Testament. Here’s the line I’ll pull from that message:

“As dark as the world may get…for all the times we see power winning, might making right…there is this strong thread through the bible that reminds us God is not behind it. God is on the side of those trampled unjustly by power.”

On November 13, we looked at Jeremiah standing up to kings and power, we looked at the day of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples, who received power to immediately speak and reach out to people from all over the world. God’s presence with them, God’s presence with us is what makes a difference. I said:

“Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Jesus Christ. Give us your eyes to see the wounded and oppressed whom you love. Give us your patience when we feel wronged or misunderstood. Give us your boldness to speak your good news. Give us your strength and courage when we suffer.”

Then on the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at Isaiah’s promise to bring hope from a place that was already forsaken and beaten up. God’s action of redemption would begin in Galilee. I said:

“The hope for us all is in God’s love and presence. It is a gift when we are beyond our resources. It is grace. God’s hope isn’t found in the places of power and strength, but rather God’s hope and power and strength are built in us…we are transformed in and through our dark places. Our true faith lies in something outside ourselves…in the real Creator God who shows up in pain and struggle and fear.”

Last week, number 2 of Advent, it was the wonderful hope of Isaiah 40, a reminder of God’s faithfulness over our lives and over the centuries. I said:

“This is our God! The God who comes with power AND who gathers the lambs close, carries them close to God’s heart.

This is our God, the one I’ve trusted most of my life, the God I’ve always wanted everyone to know and love and experience.”

I hope that recap of our journey reminds us all how consistent this theme is throughout the bible.

God does not overwhelm with control and power. Instead, God consistently acts on behalf of humanity by identifying with, drawing close to the people and places where hope is most needed… with the lambs who are vulnerable.

This week, week three of Advent, turns our attention toward the coming of Jesus. We often say that Jesus is God in the flesh; Jesus is what God looks like in our world. So it is not in the least bit surprising that so many details of Jesus’ birth show this consistent God-theme: Jesus is born into difficulty, into the margins.

Turn with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 1. We will look today at Joseph’s side of the Nativity, and see just how unexpected and even subversive God’s salvation work is.

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, TNIV)

Here is the beginning of our good news…the beginning of what is God’s biggest act of transforming, redemptive hope.

This was scandalous hope to the world at that time, the scandal of pregnancy before it should have happened according to Jewish law. But this is God doing what God has always done! The Holy Spirit bringing about Mary’s pregnancy is our God joining humanity like never before or since. When God does the decisive act for our salvation, it is consistent with the theme we’ve been tracing: God’s presence shows up in a marginalized situation.

Yet there’s a layer here I haven’t really wrestled with before: God creates a situation of cultural and religious scandal by causing a pregnancy when it would be problematic for righteous Jews. The pledge of marriage, the engagement, was as binding as a marriage was; but Jewish law did not allow sexual contact until the marriage was fully accomplished.

Pregnancy was evidence to Joseph and the world that something had not gone as it was supposed to go. Mary was the one who would bear the brunt of societal pressure because of how God chose to act. The marginalization followed Mary and Jesus throughout their lives. People clearly viewed this pregnancy as out of wedlock, and there are hints throughout the gospels that these whispers followed Jesus his whole life.

In John 8, in one of the many arguments between Jesus and the religious establishment, the teachers reply to Jesus: “WE are not illegitimate children,” as if they are slandering him as the illegitimate one; as if they are picking up on the whispers that are already all around Jesus. In Mark 6, there is a reference to Jesus as “son of Mary”; it’s further evidence that people didn’t view Jesus as having a legitimate father.

This mattered at that time! Craig Evans reminds us of the consequences: “A person of suspect birth was called a mamzer, a status no one wanted.” Then he quotes Deuteronomy 23:2: “Those born of an illicit union [mamzer] shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

God bought hope through something that was excluded by Jewish law.

Look with me at verse 19, because this week I realized I’ve been making a false assumption when I’ve read this verse before. 

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

In essence, before this week, I’ve read my own cultural understanding onto this verse. “Because Joseph was a ‘righteous’ man”…which I interpret through my lens: Joseph is noble, Joseph is honorable, Joseph is caring for Mary’s predicament. THAT is why he didn’t want to “expose her to public disgrace” and wanted to make the divorce quiet; he was noble, he was righteous.

But scholars tell me I’m not understanding “righteous” correctly here. “Righteous” in that culture was solely defined by adherence to Torah, obedience to the Law of Moses. The righteous and just response, the obedient response for Joseph to make is to divorce. Douglas Hare writes:

“It is not out of anger that he resolves to terminate the relationship but out of deep religious conviction. No matter how much he still loves Mary, it is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract… Although he must divorce her to demonstrate that his love for God is stronger than his love for Mary, he determines to do it secretly, so as not to cause her public humiliation.”

So it isn’t his righteousness that wants to keep Mary from public disgrace. Quite the opposite. Righteousness seems to demand a disgrace that Joseph’s love wants to lessen by divorcing her quietly. Righteousness isn’t what is leading to the “quietly” part. Righteousness and obedience are demanding the divorce; mercy and love are Joseph’s sort of rebellion against the demands of the law.

Then God intervenes in Joseph’s life with more confusing controversy! 

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

I am going to name the scandal that is right here in this text as clearly as I possibly can, because it has rocked my world a bit this week to realize this. I’m still learning things about Jesus’ birth after years of studying the bible. I’ll name it like this:

God had made it clear through the law of Moses that righteousness demanded Joseph divorce in a situation like this. Yet in verse 20, Joseph was given expressed permission by God through an angel to NOT follow God’s law to divorce. Joseph is told: “Don’t be afraid to marry the woman you love; break my righteousness law and stand in scandal and disobedience with your fiancee. Mary looks guilty, but she is not. I did this. My Holy Spirit did this.”

I really have never grasped this before, in all the years of reading the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. 

Joseph wasn’t “righteous” because he desired to help Mary avoid public disgrace and divorce quietly. No, the righteousness of the law demanded the divorce, and Joseph’s mercy and love were fighting against righteousness by trying to divorce quietly.

And then God goes even further and gets more radical by sending an angel to tell Joseph to disobey what righteousness seemed to demand. “Marry the woman you love. Bring Mary home, risk the scandal and choose to be marginalized because this is how I work.” This is God’s love and hope and redemption written into the broken, scandalized margins of the world.

See if your brain starts exploding with this thought like mine has been doing this week!

God didn’t just draw near to marginalized people to bring salvation…God created marginalization and scandal for Mary and Joseph by the Holy Spirit-conceived child. God’s hope for the nations, God’s drawing near to humanity in Immanuel comes outside the proper and prescribed ways, and the angel actually gives explicit permission to break the law of Moses.

God is going to redeem us all by becoming a mamzer, by becoming an excluded human…God’s presence once and for all living among us on the margins!

As we close, look at our hope in these verses!

Jesus is the one who saves us from our sins! God became Immanuel, God’s very presence with us! This is how hope became real, took on flesh and breath in our broken, messy world.

This is how we received redemption! A scandal of a baby born to save us. Thanks be to God.

Hope Rewind

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 4, 2016)

2016

Yesterday we got our Christmas tree. 

We’ve been going to the same place over in Sherwood since 2005, just a little red house with a field of trees behind it. We found it randomly, and now it’s our tradition. One of the things I love is the little walk along a tree-lined lane to get to the field of Christmas trees; each year, that walk is where Christmas seems to begin for me.

The same people have owned it the whole time we’ve been going. We started bringing our dog Jack in 2007, and one of the daughters at the house loves animals… and loves Jack. One year Elaine left her gloves at the tree farm, and Kari, the daughter, saved the gloves with a little note that said “Jack’s mom”! And then she remembered to give it to us the next year!

That’s when we really started bonding. We emailed back and forth the year Hayley was in India to share blog posts, and last year I gathered all our years of tree pictures and sent them to her. We got our pictures on their wall when I did that! She was so excited to see how much their little tree farm had been part of our family life.

You can see Hayley wasn’t with us again this year, as she’s staying in Scotland for Christmas, where she’s attending St. Andrews University. But since I’ve collected all those pictures, this morning I can just start clicking the little button, and you can watch the Koskela family go backward in time…

Time is truly an amazing thing.

Look at the changes in our daughters! Think of all the changes in our world during these years. I’m always a bit nostalgic at Christmas time, and this year being my last Christmas as pastor here is more so.

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Here we all are in 2002, the first Christmas here after you hired me. Look at us! Look at me, 34 years old, clueless about how to serve this church. Seriously, what were you people thinking taking a risk on that kid?

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So much has changed, for us, for the church, for the Yearly Meeting, for the world. I’m so grateful for all the ways you’ve shaped the five of us.

Think with me about some of the differences between 2016 and 2002. No Facebook, no Twitter, no smartphones. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy wasn’t even finished, and neither were the Star Wars prequels! We were only on The Two Towers and Attack of the Clones.

American Idol was a brand new show. Pierce Brosnan was still James Bond. Beyonce was still in Destiny’s Child with no solo records to her credit. Here at NFC, we printed all the lyrics on paper instead of having a projector. Only Steve Fawver and I from the current staff were on staff in 2002. Nolan had never even played a bass in 2002!

On the scale of a normal human life, 14 years is a good chunk of time. 

It’s almost a generation. It’s 30% of my life so far. If you take just the adult years of the average American’s life, 14 years is about a quarter of it.

But on the scale of history, it’s just a blip, isn’t it? In the span of God’s eternal existence, 14 years doesn’t make much difference at all. In fact, I’ll go out on a crazy limb here and say the good news of God in Jesus Christ hasn’t changed at all in those 14 years.

I changed my plan for what to share today. 

I went back 14 years ago, to my first year here, and looked at what I preached on the 2nd Sunday of Advent. It was from Isaiah chapter 40. Turn with me there, would you? I’ll read the first 8 verses, and then we’ll read together verses 9-11.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out.’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
‘All people are like grass,
and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.’ (Isaiah 40:1-8, TNIV)

Let’s read together.

Leader: You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.

All: You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout,

Women: lift it up, do not be afraid!

Leader: Say to the towns of Judah,

All: Here is your God!

Leader: See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him.

Men: See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

All: He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:9-11, TNIV)

Here’s how I set the scene back in 2002:

“Israel was at a place of complete emptiness, complete hopelessness. Their nation had ended. Many people had been exiled. Their temple had been desecrated, and the new world powers viewed Palestine simply as “spoil” for their own use. There was no hope for renewal. They had sunk so low, it was impossible to envision any possible way toward becoming a nation again. Their hopes and dreams had been crushed so much that they weren’t even sure that God could do anything for them.

Isaiah 40 is a major shift in the book of Isaiah. After words of judgment and punishment, this chapter is a new word of hope, a sign of God’s healing. Something new was coming! God’s arrival would make new ways in the desert, straight paths that would shine forth God’s glory, so that everyone could see.”

Today, just like at many times in human history, we need these words of hope.

We need to hear God speak comfort to us, speak tenderly to us. We need God to come with power to make a straight path through our wilderness, to level the rough ground, to plow down the mountains in our way!

We need something greater than human promises, something more lasting than our fleeting lifetimes. This is the promise of Isaiah 40, that reminds us in verses 6-8 that God isn’t like us frail and fleeting human beings. God’s word, God’s love, God’s promises endure forever!

14 years ago, I said this promise was for all of us. I said:

“[Maybe you think that] your life is in too much turmoil to imagine God making things better. This passage may be true for others, but not for you. If that is how you are feeling, you are in exactly the same place that Israel was. Everything they had from God had been taken away-their power, their king, their land, their place of worship, their special relationship with God. It was all gone, it was hopeless. But still this hope of God’s power comes through.”

I believe more strongly than I did then that God’s grace and love, God’s forgiveness and healing power, are available to every person on this planet!

Our circumstances and our actions, no matter how bad they are, have no ability to scale back the loving power of God. One of the reasons people keep reading the book of Isaiah is to remind ourselves of God’s love, forgiveness, and power. One of the reasons we still gather as the church of Jesus Christ is to share with each other how God is working in us.

I like how I said it in 2002:

“We all have different experiences of God. One of the most important things we do as a church is to tell each other our stories. We tell each other what God has done, where God has shown God’s power in our lives. It helps to hear that from others. We need to have evidence from people that we know that if we turn our lives over to God, God has power to act.

For me, the very fact that my family is here in Newberg is a testimony to the power of God. One year ago, as we were considering coming back to NFC, I didn’t think it would be possible. God’s activity through the process of discernment is for me a testimony of God’s power to act.

I trust God. I trust God to be able to truly be in charge of all the world. I believe in a very tangible way that God has power to act. And I’m just one voice with one experience of God. We’re sitting in a room FULL of people, many who have had powerful experiences of God’s activity in their own lives. God can and does work in our world today. God is not finished yet.

God wasn’t finished with Israel, and these words gave them hope, hope that led them to wait expectantly for hundreds of years to see this messiah, this promised one from God who would flatten the hills, raise the valleys, and smooth the plains with his coming.

We celebrate Jesus’ birth as God’s act of mighty power in our world.”

God is not finished yet!

However dark the world looks, it’s tough to measure up to a destroyed kingdom with people exiled to foreign lands. But God wasn’t finished then. God promised Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Shepherd. We celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas because we believe it to be God’s demonstration that God can and does act in this world. God is not finished yet!

I remember how much I trusted how God had led us to NFC in 2002. We knew God had led us, and that secure knowledge has been a bedrock, a foundation for us in these 14 years. It’s good for me to remember how that sustained me through so many times that I’ve been scared and confused and unsure since then.

I can rest in the confidence that now that I sense God’s release from the call to be here, God is not finished yet! God is not finished bringing hope and a strong foundation in my life.

God is not finished yet! Not with all of you either…my goodness there’s no way!

Here is our God, friends!

Look at these words from thousands of years ago: “the Sovereign LORD comes with power…reward is with him.” For thousands of years, God has shown that intervening power.

Here is our God, friends! “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

Me back in 2002:

“The image is a powerful one-a loving shepherd, caring for the flock. A picture of God hugging us, carrying us, leading us to places where we will be safe and well-fed.The image of God here in Isaiah is of a God who holds us safely and warmly in the palm of God’s hand.

God does act. God does have the power to do something in the world and in our lives. And God uses power gently. Like a loving shepherd caring for lambs, God uses power in ways that keep us safe.”

This is our God. 

This is who I’ve always wanted to point people to. The God who speaks tenderly, but can tear down mountains and level the rough ground of our lives.

This is our God…The God who doesn’t fade or wither, but who endures forever and ever and ever, the God who is not finished yet!

This is our God! The God who comes with power AND who gathers the lambs close, carries them close to God’s heart.

This is our God, the one I’ve trusted most of my life, the God I’ve always wanted everyone to know and love and experience. Friends, our God has not gone anywhere. God has watched empires rise and fall, people love and hate, cultures oppress and liberate. This is our God, and God isn’t finished yet!

If there’s one thing that 48 year old me is drawn to more than 34 year old me, it is to be drawn back to the majesty of our Creator.

There’s always this difficulty with our finite human minds, the inability to grasp all the paradoxes and tensions God holds together. 34 year old me always gravitated toward the tender God, as a sort of correction of the harsh, far away, powerful God I was taught in my youth.

But as I get older, I am able to see more of the picture…and I’m sure I still have much more to grasp. Today, 48 year old me will finish by reading further than verse 11, and remind us of just how incomprehensible our Great Creator is. Look with me, beginning in verse 12.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD,
or instruct the LORD as his counselor?
Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him,
and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge,
or showed him the path of understanding?
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. (Isaiah 40:12-15, TNIV)

And then these famously beautiful words of hope and strength, beginning down in verse 28.

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31, TNIV)

Friends, this is our God!

The everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God will not grow tired or weary!

And God is not finished yet! God gives strength to the weary, increases the power of the weak. And we who hope in the Lord will renew our strength. We will soar on wings like eagles; we will run and not grow weary; we will walk and not be faint.

Take heart! Have hope! This is our God, now and forever.

Rescue Will Come…Humbly

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on November 27, 2016)

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” 

Those words from Psalm 121 have often been an encouragement to me when I need them. And yet…they do sort of beg some questions: what will God’s help look like, and how will I recognize it when I see it?

We’ve been working our way through the Old Testament, looking at how God’s heart has always had a connection with those on the outside, those who are oppressed, those who are hurting. Two weeks ago, after looking at Micah and Amos, Jeremiah and Pentecost, I said we needed to listen to those who are angry and scared, because people on the margins are the ones whom God draws close to, who see God’s perspective in ways we at the center sometimes miss.

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, we join the prophet Isaiah with the first turn toward looking for the Savior, the one we believe to be incarnated in Jesus Christ. Isaiah tells us where to look for help, for salvation. He tells us it will come on the margins, in the hinterlands, in the place you will not expect: Galilee of the nations, Galilee the defeated… Galilee, the place at ground zero of clashing empires.

Turn with me to Isaiah 9.

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as soldiers rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:1-7, TNIV)

Isaiah was speaking to people in Jerusalem, people at the center, people who were seeing their threat for the first time.

Isaiah tells them where to look for their hope. And he tells them to look toward the place that’s already ravaged, already defeated, that you already look down on. Look to Galilee of the nations. We need to get a picture, a visual for what Galilee was like on a world scale at that time.

map-04-assyrian-and-babylonian-kingdoms-9th-to-6th-centuries-b-c

The major empires of the world at that time (and actually, for a long time before and after) seemed to constantly be clashing around Galilee. It was the hot spot of conflict for world empires. When David and Solomon ruled the united kingdom of Israel, they held all this area in peace. But that was a short 80 year period, and as Israel divided into northern Israel and southern Judah, Galilee was at risk up at the northern tip of the northern kingdom.

There was a major road east of Israel and Judah, and from time to time Egypt would come north, skirting around Judah and Israel, and clashing with Assyria or Persia right in the Galilee region. Long before Israel as a whole was conquered, Galilee was ravaged by competing empires who left their “foreign” people there in charge…that’s why Isaiah calls it “Galilee of the nations.”

kingdoms_of_the_levant_map_830

This map makes it more clear how precarious Galilee is. Isaiah is speaking to Jerusalem and Judah down there after Israel has been conquered. Look how Galilee is surrounded by empires and kingdoms. They are ground zero for conflict.

Isaiah reminds everyone this area was once part of the people of Israel-two of the twelve tribes of Israel were given land around the Sea of Galilee, which Isaiah brings to mind when he names those tribes: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were, long before, God’s people. But they’ve been conquered over and over again, and they are now broken, the first ones defeated, losing their heritage by the foreign settlers who’ve taken over.

Isaiah tells people at the center–the people of Jerusalem and the still somewhat faithful kingdom of Judah–he tells the people at the center to look for their hope to come in the area on the margin, the area that was first conquered and first compromised.

When the Psalmist encourages us to lift our eyes to the mountains and see God’s help, it’s a symbol of looking to the strong places for God’s help. But Isaiah, in this consistent prophetic message, points us not to the strong places but to the weak. It’s there that God’s hope and help will come from.

There are other clear places in Isaiah’s words of hope that point us to God’s work through weakness and the margins. In verse 4, there’s this phrase with a reference: “For as in the days of Midian’s defeat…” What is this Midian defeat? Isaiah is reminding them of Gideon, who overcame all odds with only 300 people defeating Midian’s far larger army.

THIS IS WHAT GOD DOES!

God finds the overmatched and beat up ones, and figures out how to turn it into a win. It’s the beat up ones who know their need. Gideon knew he didn’t stand a chance. Galilee knew how dangerous the world was. God, Isaiah reminds, doesn’t forget about those who are facing defeat and destruction…that’s where God’s hope shows up.

But it’s so counter to how most of us usually look for hope. One of the kings of Judah who lived at the same time as Isaiah was King Hezekiah. Assyria was the obvious threat to Judah’s existence, and Hezekiah tried a couple of power moves to try to make his own hope: he bribed the King of Assyria; he trusted in the power of Egypt to protect Judah, or at least to distract Assyria.

I think these examples from Judah’s history demonstrate something we still see today. When people at the center of power finally realize the threat that those on the margins have known for awhile, people at the center tend to look toward power and control to fix things. God through the prophets, God through history, God in Jesus shows us a different way.

John Oswalt, writing about the Isaiah 9 passage we are looking at today, clearly articulates this different way:

“This…underlies the central paradox in Isaiah’s conception of Yahweh’s deliverance of his people. How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression and coercion? By being MORE arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble-the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.”

When we are afraid…when we are at risk…when even being at the center of things still seems scary and brings gloom…God is offering risky hope.

For Isaiah, it was a future hope. He told people to look for it where they least expected it, to the already conquered, overwhelmed, occupied territory of Galilee. Look for hope where it is most oppressed, most invaded, most diverse… and even Gentile. That’s where I’m going to bring hope.

For us who believe in Jesus, we see that when God became a human being, God went right to this at-risk area. God’s presence showed up where it seems God always is, with the oppressed and overlooked. Jesus is there in Galilee, born in poverty, born into the scandal of illegitimacy, born on the margins in an area where world empires kept overrunning.

Why wouldn’t God still be acting the same way today? When we are afraid, at risk…when things seem scary and bring gloom, why wouldn’t we assume God is still doing the same: avoiding the power places, the control places, and instead bringing God’s presence right where it has always been, with the overwhelmed people on the margins?

I think that is exactly where God’s presence still shows up. God’s hope is to come live in the people and places that are the most beat up, and show up there with beautiful life. God is with people of color who are afraid. God is with people in small town middle America with no jobs and no hope. God is with the war-torn people of Syria, with refugees around the world. God still shows up in the pain!

What does this look like in a practical way?

I want to give a few examples from people I’ve walked with over the last few weeks. I’ll have to be a bit vague, because I haven’t asked their permission to share, but I think it can still be helpful for us to see how this kind of God-hope might show up in our places of struggle today.

I had the chance to listen to one person’s severe doubts…doubts about things they had always been taught growing up in the church, doubts even about God’s very existence, doubts that were causing much struggle and fear. This person asked me to share my own experience of doubts and how I wrestle with some of these questions. I think the hope was that I would have the magic words, the power to control and suppress those doubts once and for all.

But that isn’t how it has worked in my life, so I couldn’t share that. I could identify with the fear of realizing there’s no way to be absolutely sure that what I had always believed was true beyond a shadow of a doubt. I could identify with looking for some undoubtable answer.

But what I had to share was that my questions and doubts are at times overwhelming…and what has held me together is the realization that God’s presence at certain times in my life has been undeniable. Peter’s words in the book of John are ones that I cling to: “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life”. In my scariest and darkest moments, the presence of God has been the real thing.

Sometimes the realization of God’s presence comes with a thought from outside myself. Sometimes it comes in a tangible prayer for sleep or peace that is answered. Sometimes it comes in the strength and courage to do what God asks no matter what the response or the result. Those are all ways that God has showed up for me, and it’s in the midst of my struggle and fear and doubts.

What I’m praying for this person (and what I told them I’m praying) is for God to show up in their doubts and fears and struggles, show up in a tangible way that makes sense to them. I’m not praying for God to overwhelm or convince them; I’m not looking for a power that can kill all doubt.

I’m praying for God to show up in their struggle. Show up in a tangible way, because that seems to be the very thing God does best. God shows up on the margins and in the struggle and brings hope.

With someone else, I’m praying the same thing in their struggle with self-doubt and failure, praying regularly for God to show up in a way they can understand.

With another friend, there’s a need for me to listen and validate how much pain my friend has experienced.

As we stop minimizing that pain, but acknowledge the healing that is needed, we together pray for God to bring healing and hope there. The solution isn’t found in ignoring it, or trying to “medicate” the pain through distractions or abusing substances.

Just like Isaiah promised that hope would show up in broken Galilee, just like Jesus showed up in a manger and not a palace, God’s hope and God’s presence and God’s Spirit today come in our broken places.

I’m reading a book my friend Jeremy Huwe bought me.

It’s called The Road to Character by David Brooks. The book looks at people from history, and shows how difficult circumstances shaped character in powerful ways. Reading the book has reminded me of this characteristic of God, how God shows up and transforms us in those times and places where we feel broken, oppressed, overwhelmed.

I’ve been reminded of Romans 5, verses 3-5, a section that shows us God’s hope has always come not through power and everything going great…God’s hope comes to people in times and places of struggle:

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5, TNIV)

The hope for us all is in God’s love and presence. It is a gift when we are beyond our resources. It is grace. God’s hope isn’t found in the places of power and strength, but rather God’s hope and power and strength are built in us, transform us in and through our dark places. Our true faith lies in something outside ourselves…in the real Creator God who shows up in pain and struggle and fear.

This is our hope! This is the advent we still wait for, for God’s hope and presence to be found in us. Come, Lord Jesus!

The Mother Bear Place in God’s Heart

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on November 13, 2016)

I made a commitment long ago to be as honest and transparent as I can be as pastor of this church.

Not that I had a whole lot of choice, I’m not really the best at putting up a false front. It’s one of the reasons I don’t play poker.

This past week has been full of really big and difficult things. We prayed a prayer of blessing for Cindy Johnson earlier, as she made the decision to resign this week. The tensions and differences we face as a church and Yearly Meeting play a part in her decision to resign, and there have been other things this week that have shown me we have more difficulties ahead of us as a church. We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.

Our church was on the front page of the Newberg Graphic again, in a damaging way. I would like to clarify that to the best of our knowledge, there were no allegations that sexual abuse occurred at our church; rather, the conduct was alleged to have taken place at other locations. I give you my word that I have worked very hard behind the scenes this year to make sure we do all we can to make our church and Yearly Meeting safe places. We are setting practices that show zero tolerance for abuse, because we want to be safe and transparent. We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.

We had an election that emphasized how divided we are as a nation. It’s incredibly difficult to figure out how to think about moving forward, what our priorities should be as followers of Jesus. We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.

I’ve struggled mightily to decide what to say today.

We need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help. What words or thoughts will help us get there?

Two weeks ago I asked us to look at the soft place in God’s heart for the poor and oppressed, those on the outside, those who are on the margins. We saw that the unjust deaths of Abel and Naboth had a claim on God’s heart. I said two weeks ago, “As dark as the world may get…for all the times we see power winning, might making right…there is this strong thread through the bible that reminds us God is not behind it. God is on the side of those trampled unjustly by power.”

Today we had planned to look at the prophets Amos and Micah, who saw oppression coming not just from evil Kings like Ahab, but saw oppression from a group of people that selfishly pursued wealth at the expense of bankrupting others. These prophets were some of the first to say the oppression had so worked its way through God’s people, that God was going to act in a mighty way. They were going to lose their kingdom, lose the promised land, lose everything and be forced into exile.

For the prophets, the exile was a sign of what was the original title: “The Mother Bear Place in God’s Heart.” God doesn’t just weep with the oppressed, God rises up to break the power of the oppressors in a shocking way. I thought of Walter Brueggemann, and his book that radically changed me, called “The Prophetic Imagination”. He shows how the prophets didn’t just confront kings of their wrong, but confronted the way that the system of kings, whether individually good or bad, valued wealth and power more than equality and submission to God.

That’s when I started to get some clarity about what to say today.

Whether a good king or a bad king ruled, God’s true prophets reminded us of God’s heart for the poor and oppressed, the ones wounded and taken advantage of. Bad rulers could not ultimately stand against God, and good rulers were not excused from treating people justly.

Whether a good king or a bad king ruled, God’s true prophets reminded that God was not aligned with the power system, with the ones in charge who were bringing oppression. God would not give approval to whatever the king said, even if the king was doing it for a good goal.

Jeremiah is a great example of this. He went right to the temple, during the time of a good king, and he challenged all the people not to rest on their history, their signs of religion like the temple.

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!’ If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. (Jeremiah 7:3-8, TNIV)

Whoever is President of our nation, God’s challenging word to you and me remains. The prophetic truth is loud and clear. We must change our ways and our actions, and deal with each other justly. We must stand up for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.

Our allegiance is clear. It is to God. 

And what the bible shows, what history shows, is that power rarely submits to God. Power tries to use God for its own ends, to maintain the ones who are in power. But God stays apart from power, and with those who are wounded by it.

Brueggemann writes about Jeremiah’s grief. Jeremiah was sounding the alarm, and no one listened, no one would hear his grief. Brueggemann writes:

“The second dimension of his grief, more intense, was because no one would listen and no one would see what was so transparent to him. So his grief was kept sharp and painful because he had to face regularly the royal consciousness, which [kept saying] ‘peace, peace’ when apparently only [Jeremiah] knew there was no peace.” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 47)

A temptation for us in this season is to join the ones who say ‘peace, peace’. A temptation is to speak only of hope, to be a glass half full person and say “maybe things won’t be so bad”.

Yet speaking only hope ignores the reality of the pain of our differences as a church. It ignores the pain of victims of abuse. It runs the risk of silencing those who have legitimate fears about what will happen to them as outsiders in this new presidential administration. Hope without lament for the injustice of the world is not God’s hope!

Everything in me says this: the church must listen right now to those angry and in pain.

I am in this role, where I am pastor of a church with widely divergent political and theological views. There is huge pressure to not take sides. I get that. I feel the weight of it.

But I feel the same Spirit who prompted Elijah and Amos, Micah and Jeremiah moving in me. I hear the Spirit of God, God who lets injustice have a claim on God’s heart, I hear the Spirit of God asking me to listen and not dismiss the cries of those who are angry and scared right now.

This is more than sour grapes over losing an election. The outcry is not being created by media coverage. Foreigners, and Muslims, and people of color, and women are saying that the poor treatment they have received over and over in their lives is now being legitimized and emboldened by people in places of power.

I believe we as the people of God have only one proper response. We must not legitimize those injustices ourselves. We must speak and act against them whenever we see them. The powers of Evangelical Christianity have aligned with this new administration, yet we must remember that our allegiance is clear: it is to God and God alone. And the bible teaches us that God stands with and for the oppressed and the outcasts. We must as well.

We have teachers in our church who have been on the front lines of caring.

I’ve been praying for you this week. I’ve been proud of you this week. We haven’t had things here like the headlines from Silverton, where students were suspended for yelling threats at Latino students. Our teachers have been listening with, crying with, standing for all students. I’m sure it’s been exhausting, but thank you.

Where do we all find the strength to move forward? 

How do we avoid lashing out at those we disagree with, whether it’s politics or church disagreements? Is there a place for lament and for hope?

Of course Jesus is always the best place for us to look. Look at Jesus. He gathered followers who were Roman insider fat cats like Matthew the tax collector, as well as radical outsiders like Simon the zealot. Jesus sent such mixed messages: how could you be friends with a sell-out to Roman power, and also with someone who wanted to kill in order to end Roman oppression? How could you call people to faithfulness to God, but criticize the most righteous ones in that society, the Pharisees?

It led to his death on the cross. His humility and obedience, Philippians 2 says, led to his death at the hands of human power. Yet God’s resurrection power got the final word. For 40 days, resurrected Jesus walked and talked and ate with the disciples. The book of Acts, chapter 1 describes the last time he was with them.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  (Acts 1:4-5, TNIV)

Something new is coming. Something you need, a gift, a promise. This makes them wonder if Simon the Zealot’s way is finally going to win:

So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. (Acts 1:6-9, TNIV)

The promised gift of the Holy Spirit was going to give them power!

They had no idea how much they were going to need it. They had no idea how much it was going to cost them to be witnesses, to be ones who point to Jesus Christ in every part of the earth.

They needed the gift of the Holy Spirit to give boldness to speak about Jesus, to stand up to persecution, to endure stoning, to be chased from their homes and exiled all over the known world.  Power and love and hope is exactly what they needed.

I find it powerful to realize that while they waited in the very center of Jewish power…they were in Jerusalem when the Spirit came, and it helped them speak in other languages to give hope and truth to the foreigners and outcasts who were there. The day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and formed the new church of Jesus Christ, is just another in a long line of examples of how God’s heart is always for the outsiders.

“No, I am not at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel. I’m serious about building a new, diverse, worldwide kingdom of God.” Peter preaches it on that first Pentecost: it is the message of the prophets, the message of the prophet Joel. God’s Spirit is going to be poured out on everyone: men and women, young and old, Jew and foreigner.

God is making an inclusive community, because God’s heart is always for the unincluded, the outcast, the outsider.

I began today with a refrain: we need courage, love, and strength. We need God’s help.

I’ve been drawn to Pentecost in the book of Acts as a reminder of what we need in these divided times in our nation and in our church. God, we need your Holy Spirit to fill us! We need your love, life and power to live in us!

Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Jesus Christ. Give us your eyes to see the wounded and oppressed whom you love. Give us your patience when we feel wronged or misunderstood. Give us your boldness to speak your good news. Give us your strength and courage when we suffer.