Comfort In, Dump Out

Inspired by Isaiah 40:1-11

The prophet Isaiah had a Herculean task before him. To quickly recap the overall narrative trajectory that we have been on in these Bible stories, God’s people have now been in exile for quite some time; taken from their Promised Land by a conquering neighbor, the Babylonians, who were now the top dog, having conquered the Assyrians since last week’s reading. There’s always a bigger fish, right? And speaking of bigger fish, the Babylonians are having their own problems with one of their neighboring nations, the Persians. So it’s probably safe to say that their attention is on the Persians at this point in the story and keeping the exiles under their thumb is less of a priority, which is good news for God’s people.

All this is to say that their exile is winding down a bit and so there is now some light at the end of the tunnel. The Herculean task before Isaiah that I mentioned, is to provide comfort to a suffering people. Why would that be so hard, you might ask? Well, because deep down in their theological psyche, they believed that their exile was due to their bad behavior, which we have talked about before. That belief was so ingrained in them, it was difficult for them to see life in any other way, with any other lens. The reality is, they didn’t need God to punish them, they had become their own source of punishment, their own jailors. They were convinced that they deserved the exile and no one was going to convince them otherwise.

One of the things that I love about these old stories from the Bible is just how relatable they are. This is a very human reaction for a lot of us when we know that we have done something wrong. Not everyone, to be sure, but a lot of us have a need to pay for our wrongs, to make things right, so we can move on. But that’s where we get hung up, moving on. Who determines when it’s time to stop punishing ourselves for our wrongs and move on? Is there a chart out there somewhere that I don’t know about. If there is please share it with me so I can see if it’s time to stop my self-inflicted punishment for my own wrongdoings! This practice of being so hard on ourselves was exemplified in our daughter Grace.

When she was little, Sara and I didn’t have to be that hard on her when she misbehaved because she was her own best punisher. No lie, she would put herself on timeout. She had this innate sense of right and wrong and nothing in between and she kept herself in check without anyone’s help. The trouble was, she was a bit too hard on herself. And that’s the state that God’s people were in when Isaiah became their prophet. So the question that he had to answer was this, how do you provide comfort and peace to a people who don’t know when to stop punishing themselves? Isaiah’s answer to this is nothing short of brilliant!

Instead of trying to convince them that their suffering was just a part of life and that God does not directly inflict pain and suffering on the world, he leans into it. He allows them to keep believing that, and actually uses it to provide a word of comfort for them. He tells them that God says that they’ve been punished enough, in fact, he goes even further and tells them that they’ve actually suffered twice as much as they should have! Brilliant! Instead of trying to change their well-ingrained belief system, he uses it to get them to move beyond their self-punishment—to get them to move forward beyond their pain and suffering—especially before it becomes part of their identity.

The passage then ends in a very curious way. Isaiah presents God in a way that a doorman announces the arrival of guests at a Victorian party. But the way that he does it, is as if they wouldn’t recognize God upon arrival, and I don’t think that’s far from the truth! If they have believed for centuries that God is someone who directly inflicts pain and suffering on the world to punish humans for bad behavior, then it only makes sense that when God shows up, God would be unrecognizable to them. So Isaiah, just to make sure that they recognize God and don’t miss God’s arrival, tells them what to expect. And his description is not what they’d expect.

It starts off quite normal, with Isaiah mentioning just how powerful and mighty God is, and how strong God’s arms are! But then he tells them what those strong arms are for, and they were probably stunned! Because those strong arms of God are not for punishing, not for forcing them into submission, not for killing, not for scaring them into behaving, no! Isaiah tells them that those strong arms are for feeding the flock, leading mother ewes with gentleness, gathering lambs, and holding them close, which is just the biblical way of saying “hugging them.” This description of God is so sugary sweet I was half expecting Isaiah to say that God was coming with a puppy under the other arm!

And I believe this description of God is so sugary sweet because Isaiah is having to fight this millennia-old notion that God is this angry old bearded guy in the clouds waiting to throw a lightning bolt at anyone who looks at him funny! Like I said, a Herculean task indeed, but I think Isaiah is pretty effective here. If they can’t get past their “punishment” and be comforted by this, I don’t know what will. And that’s the bottom line in this passage of Isaiah. His job here is to provide comfort and will try anything to accomplish that, even allow them to believe things about God that aren’t necessarily true—whatever gets them past this pain and suffering they are in, and into a future of comfort and peace with God and with themselves, so they can, in turn, provide comfort for others in pain and suffering.

So, I’d like to end with something practical that we all can do to provide comfort to those around us, and it’s called the Ring Theory. A psychologist by the name of Susan Silk came up with this theory after hearing some rather strange, if not downright hurtful, remarks from colleagues, friends, and family, while she was battling breast cancer. The theory goes like this: draw a small circle and put the person who is at the center of the crisis at hand. Maybe it’s someone who just lost their spouse. Maybe it’s someone who has just lost a job. Maybe it’s someone who is having a health crisis. Maybe it’s you. Whoever it is, put that person in the center of that small circle.

Then you’re going to draw larger circles around that small circle and in each of those circles, you’re going to place people who are closest to that person in the center in the nearest circle to them, to those who are merely acquaintances on the outside circle, all based on how close they are to the actual center crisis circle. So, spouses, children, parents might be in the smaller circles, friends might be in the medium-sized circles, and so on. Ok, now here’s where it gets interesting. And instead of trying to paraphrase this I’m just going to read to you from Dr. Silk’s own words.

“Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants, to anyone, anywhere. She can…complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it.

Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a [meal]?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.” If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring. Comfort IN, dump OUT.”

Comfort in, dump out. Isaiah recognized that God’s people were in the center crisis circle and so he knew that his job now was to comfort, period. And so that’s what he did. This Ring Theory has played an important role in my own life, it has been invaluable to me, not just as a pastor but simply as a human being that crosses paths with lots of other human beings that are going through pain and suffering. I hope you find it helpful as well. I will link some interesting articles about it when I post this sermon online if you’d like to read more about it.

I can’t think of a higher calling than to bring comfort to those around us. And that’s one of the things I appreciate most about these old Bible stories, the ability they give us to give hope to others because we too have been through some tough times as well. May this season of Advent rekindle in us the desire to bring hope to a troubled world, with care and gentleness, gentle as a God holding lambs and hugging them. Thanks be to God. Amen.

A New Hope: Jeremiah and the Rebellious Nature of Advent

Inspired by Jeremiah 33:14-18

So, I can’t take credit for that, a youth director in New Mexico made that. And yes, she plans to make one for every Sunday in Advent. Whether I’ll use them all I’m not sure yet but I couldn’t help but use this one. I was downright giddy when she first posted it. I hope the rest are as good as this one. I love that way that she put our Bible story for today, which is rather short, in perfect context for us.

So, let’s dig in. Jeremiah is not known for being a hopeful prophet. I mean, prophets aren’t generally known as glass-half-full people. As my Hebrew professor always used to joke, when a prophet enters the scene, you know it’s already too late. But Jeremiah in particular, is known as being the prophet of doom and gloom. And it’s really hard to blame him. As we read last week, the northern kingdom of God’s people had fallen and the southern kingdom was just waiting for their turn to be conquered. And that’s exactly what happens.

The southern kingdom of God’s people falls to a neighboring kingdom, and so now they’re just waiting to be sent into exile, the ancient version of modern-day internment camps; where God’s people were sent, away from their homes, away from what was familiar, away from all that brought them comfort. And Jeremiah, the prophet of doom and gloom, and judgment, felt called to tell his people that this was all their fault, due to their bad behavior. And so his king, not the king of the conquering nation, but Jeremiah’s own king, throws him into prison for speaking out against his own people. And so there sits Jeremiah, in a prison cell, probably thinking, “Now what do I do? My own people won’t listen to me, we’re on the brink of being sent into exile now that we’ve been conquered. What’s left to say?”

And so, he does something rather remarkable for him. He takes his doom and gloom hat off, and puts his hospice chaplain hat on. Jeremiah realizes that reminding his people of their bad behavior now is a moot point. Their end is nigh, and what they need now is not more judgment heaped upon them, but hope and comfort and promise—things a hospice chaplain brings, not your typical prophet. But here’s the thing, Jeremiah can’t help but be rebellious. But instead of rebelling against the behavior of his own people, he’s now rebelling against despair, and probably not just for the sake of his own people, but for the sake of his own heart as well, as he continues to sit in that prison cell, and fight his own despair. Like any good preacher, he knows that he can’t preach a sermon that he himself doesn’t also need to hear.

And so, Jeremiah should probably be known as the prophet of the rebellion and not the prophet of doom and gloom. Rebellion is in his blood and he, thankfully, can’t help that. And speaking of rebellions, Star Wars is full of them! From big rebellions against an entire Empire, to smaller rebellions against the human tendency to give in to the evil found deep within ourselves. Like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars has become a mythology that speaks truth to our modern reality, which is probably why it has such an enduring place in the hearts of so many. One of my favorite Star Wars quotes comes from my second favorite Star Wars movie, Rogue One, in which the main protagonist exclaims, “Rebellions are built on hope!” And so is Jeremiah sitting in that prison cell, and so is this season of Advent.

Jeremiah, seeing his people and his nation whom he loves so dearly, crumble to pieces right before his eyes, decides to give words of hope and comfort and promise—words that endured in the hearts of so many, for millennia. Jeremiah speaks of a future time when all of God’s promises will be fulfilled. He speaks of one who will come and put even the best of their kings to shame by his perfection. Jeremiah speaks of a time when they will be whole again. He speaks of a time when the disconnectedness that they are currently feeling between them and their God will be no more. And they hear all of this while they are watching their world being stripped away from them piece by piece. But in spite of all the hopelessness that they see around them, Jeremiah has the audacity to give them a word of hope.

And for the life of me, I can’t imagine how they took that. Because I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t take it well. Not when I see the world in the condition that it’s in. My gut reaction to Jeremiah is to say, “You’re joking right? How the hell can you be talking to us about hope when there’s so much hate in the world, when there’s so much poverty in the world, when there’s so much violence in the world, when there’s so much inequality in the world! How dare you come here and try to give us hope Jeremiah! Go back to being the prophet of doom and gloom, that’s what you’re best at!” But Jeremiah knows that if we fall into despair and hopelessness then we will truly be lost. And that is what Jeremiah wants us to rebel against first, because without hope, we won’t have it in us to rebel against all those other things in our world that need us to rebel against.

Today, our Christian eyes read this passage of Jeremiah and immediately think of the greatest rebel leader of them all, Jesus. And for those of you who’ve never thought of Jesus as a rebel, we’ll be reading through the Gospel of Mark starting in a few weeks and you’ll see just how much of a rebel Jesus was! Speaking of Jesus, there’s an interesting line in today’s reading. Jeremiah is talking about the one who is to come and fulfill all of God’s promises, and he says that he will be known by this phrase, “Our God is our righteousness.” Jeremiah had recognized, even way back then, centuries before Jesus, that they weren’t going to survive by their own righteousness, by their own perfection, but by another, whom we know today as Jesus, God incarnate, rebel of all rebels.

So rebellious, that when all the other gods of the world were making people sacrifice in order to be loved by God, our God just decided to love us. Period. That was a new kind of hope that the world had never seen before. That was a rebellion that had never been tried before by any other God. And that’s a rebellion that we don’t need to join, because God has already taken care of that one. So, before you join the many rebellions that are out there for you to join, fighting against racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, you name it, there’s a rebellion to join, but before you do, Jeremiah reminds us today, that the greatest rebellion is the fight against despair and hopelessness. And that’s a rebellion we can all get behind. For "rebellions are built on hope." And our God has a never-ending supply of it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Recovering a Lost Destiny

Inspired by 2 Kings 22:1-11, 23:2-3

For those of you who are tracking the path that God’s people are on in these stories that we’ve been reading this Fall, we are about a hundred years past last week’s story from Isaiah. In that story, the northern kingdom, Israel, was in danger of being conquered by the Assyrian empire. Well, since that story and this one from 2 Kings, that’s exactly what happened. The northern kingdom is no more. All that’s left of God’s people are now in the southern kingdom of Judah, which is where we get the modern name “Jew.”

This was the worst fear for the kingdom of Judah because now the Assyrians are on their doorstep. Over that last hundred years, the southern kingdom had been on a roller coaster of a ride with times of peace and long times of strife. They had a few good kings over the years, but the bad ones, were really bad. All of them though were descendants of David.

Their last two kings, before Josiah from today’s story, were particularly bad, especially King Manasseh. He was quite literally the worst of the worst! I mean, idol worship was just the beginning of his errors. He was so bad, he practiced child sacrifice! Even burned his own son alive. Like I said, the worst of the worst. Judah had to endure his reign for fifty-five years! When he died, his son Amon became king at the age of 22, was just as bad as his father, but was assassinated by his own officials two years later, which is why his son Josiah was so young when he took over the throne. King Josiah, however, was nothing like his father and grandfather. If Manasseh was the worst of the worst then Josiah was the best of the best. Biblical authors wrote very highly of him.

Of all the royal figures in the Bible, Jesus was probably the only one above Josiah. So, King Josiah returned to the worship of the God of Sarah and Abraham. And along with that, he decided to use the offerings of the people, their tithes, to repair God’s temple that had been neglected for many generations. While they are in the middle of those repairs and renovations, a scroll is discovered. They open it, read it, and weep. Why? Because, as scholars now believe, it was the book of Deuteronomy. The book that contained the promises of God for the people of God. As well as the warnings if they didn’t keep their end of the bargain.

They wept because they were lost, and even a good king like Josiah didn’t know how lost they really were, until someone showed him that scroll. This is really hard for us modern readers to comprehend, especially in the information age when nothing gets lost anymore, even stuff you’d like to get lost. But this would be like, ripping up this old carpet, and finding a Bible under there, and everyone looking at it and not knowing what it is! And then opening it and reading the story of Jesus for the first time and then looking around this room and saying, “Oh, so that’s why a cross is there! Oh, so that’s what that table is for! Oh, so water must go in that shell back there!” Can you even imagine that? It’s difficult I know, but that’s the state they were in when King Josiah came to the throne.

After generations of poor leadership, they had lost who they were. One of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, wrote a fantastic commentary on 1 & 2 Kings. About this particular passage, he writes, “The narrative presents Josiah’s act as an act of such profound importance that it parallels the founding act of Moses at Sinai...This act is nothing less than the recovery of a lost destiny.”

Not only had they lost who they were, they lost what they were created for in the world. They had lost their sense of purpose. That is a frightening place to be for anyone, let alone a whole nation of people. It’s one thing to ask, “Who am I?” Or “Who are we?” But something else entirely to ask, “Why am I here?” Or “Why are we here?” So, what can we learn from this story of King Josiah today? Because, at face value, it seems very far removed from anything we’ve experienced, but I’m not so sure about that.

Even we modern humans have a history of losing our way, losing our identity, losing our purpose, our destiny. We modern humans have a history of allowing things to get in the way of all that. Maybe they’re not as dramatic as idol worship or child sacrifice. Or, maybe they are. God knows that some of the world’s worst atrocities have been committed in our God’s name, in our God’s churches. All examples of times when we have lost who we are and what we were made for.

As I look at my own life, and the journey I’ve been on for the past forty-five years, I can see how I have changed, and grown, and transformed. And it wasn’t easy, let me tell you! I went kicking and screaming the whole way. This may surprise some of you but I haven’t always believed the way I do today. I think a lot of people think because I’m younger that I’ve always been a progressive thinker. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I once believed that Jews were going to hell, especially after an ELCA pastor affirmed that. I once believed that homosexuals were going to hell, because I thought that’s what the Bible said. I once believed that children shouldn’t take communion because that’s what my church always practiced. I once believed that every word of the Bible came out of the mouth of God and should be interpreted literally, because my church never taught me to do otherwise. I once believed that women should not be pastors because that’s what the Bible says!

And then I went to college and learned how the world has come to be the place it is, how people have become the people we are; the history behind it all, the science behind it all, the psychology, sociology, anthropology behind it all. And then I want to seminary. And had my world and my faith rocked to its very core! It was those two experiences that caused me to rediscover who I was, whose I was, and what I was here for.

And lo and behold, it was not to judge: other people for the religion they were born into, or for who they love, or for what they know or don’t know, or for how old they are, or for what genitalia they were born with; or who God can speak through or not, or who is in and who is out, or who is loved by God and who is not. All these things and more I thought was my purpose here on Earth. Only to find out I was dead wrong. That was not an easy road my friends. It was quite painful in fact. But worth it.

Worth it because as I have rediscovered who I was, and what my purpose here is, I now have the opportunity to share that new life with others, and more importantly, to bring life into this world, instead of the death I was bringing before. Because let’s be honest, we’re not just talking about our theologies and philosophies on life. People are dying, either at the hands of others or by their own hands, either literally or emotionally, because so many humans, particularly the followers-of-God variety, have lost who they are, whose they are, and what their purpose is.

What I love about this story of King Josiah making the necessary changes to realign themselves with God’s will for them is the fact that their world was crumbling all around them. The Assyrians were breathing down their necks, ready to pounce on them like a lioness. And yet, none of that mattered to King Josiah. He could have just as easily thought, “Why bother? What’s the point? We’re about to be conquered, so why even bother returning to God now?”

But for King Josiah, right was right and wrong was wrong. People were suffering because they had lost their way, lost their destiny, and it didn’t matter how much longer they had here on Earth, they were going to do their best to make things right. I love that about them! Like Martin Luther who is credited with saying, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would end, today I’d still plant an apple tree.” King Josiah held on to hope with his last breath. There is something counter-cultural, and bold, and in-your-face about it that is so inspiring.

So, as you ponder this story this coming week, think about the journey you’ve been on. In what ways have you rediscovered your identity, your purpose here? What changes has God lead you to and more importantly, why? I’m guessing that if you really think about it, those changes have not just been for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the world around you.

The challenging part of all of this, and, quite frankly, the scary part, is wondering what’s next for you! Wondering what God could possibly ask you to change next! Wondering what is left for you to discover about who you are, whose you are, and what your purpose here is. “Aren’t I done yet?” you may ask! We’re all a work in progress aren’t we? Thankfully, God is never done with us. Thankfully, we have each other to lean on, the next time we find that next scroll, and dust it off, and read it, and gasp, and start the whole process over again, of rediscovering a lost destiny. What an adventure! Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Love That Just Won't Die

Inspired by Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

Our reading for today out of Isaiah comes from the same time period as last week’s reading from Hosea. These two prophets were actually contemporaries but there’s no evidence that they knew each other personally. Hosea’s ministry was in the northern kingdom of Israel, and Isaiah’s was in the southern kingdom of Judah. Last week we talked about how bad things had gotten in the north, especially since the split of the two kingdoms, how bad their behavior was, but also how loving and forgiving God ended up being with them.

So, now we shift our focus to the south, where Isaiah’s ministry was. Things aren’t much better there. Isaiah’s got his hands full as well. But what’s interesting about this shift in focus is to see them keep an eye on what is going on in the north. The neighboring kingdom of Assyria is threatening the northern kingdom’s borders. And so, like any country would do, they are paying close attention to how things go with them, especially because, if Assyria invades the north, they might set their sights on the south! International relations were not all that different than they are today. The technology is different but people are people, no matter the time or place.

So, Isaiah has the responsibility to help get his people’s lives in order, particularly their spiritual lives. From Isaiah’s perspective, they need to get right with God because the future was tenuous at best. However, Isaiah takes a different approach that Hosea was taking with the people in the north. Isaiah’s approach is harsh, it’s direct, it’s raw, even quite brutal. Oh, it doesn’t start that way, it starts off very sweet in fact, “let me sing a love song about a vineyard,” Isaiah writes.

It goes on about a friend who dug the vineyard, cleared away stones, planted the best vines, and built a tower and wine press. Granted, Isaiah was a prophet and not Paul McCartney. A love songwriter he was not. I’m glad he kept his day job. Regardless, just one and a half verses in is where the sweet, warm and fuzzy feelings end, and the “love song” takes a very dark turn indeed.

Apparently, the vineyard produced bad grapes instead of the good grapes that were expected. But that wasn’t the most tragic part. The song goes on to describe how the vintner reacts to the bad grapes. It’s not good. The vintner removes the hedges and walls of protection, and then abandons it—leaving it to the wilderness. Oh, and for added measure, commands the clouds not to rain on it, thereby starving it to a very slow death.

Maybe Isaiah should have been a horror filmmaker instead of trying his hand at love songs! I’m wondering if Isaiah had ever even heard a love song before! My guess is no. Now, even though it doesn’t say explicitly who the vintner is, we are lead by Isaiah to believe that it’s God. And I think that’s a safe assumption. What I think is not a safe assumption is Isaiah’s interpretation of events, namely, that this is really how God operates.

But before we get into that, the song ends with Isaiah singing, “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but all God heard were cries of suffering.” The good grapes that God was expecting from God’s people were justice and righteousness. And we don’t have to guess what Isaiah is referring to by “justice and righteousness.” Those are clearly laid out throughout the whole of the Hebrew scriptures. They include feeding the poor, caring for orphans, refugees, and widows, welcoming immigrants, attending to the sick.

Sound familiar? All the same things that Jesus sends us out to do. But just like today, God was watching the news reports then too. And what God was seeing on the news was not what God was calling people to do. Because just like today, the news was full of violence, like the recent school shooting in Santa Clarita; the news was full of people starving like they are in modern-day Yemen; the news was full of hatred just like it is today with stories of hatred toward people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community.

Again, not a lot has changed over the centuries. People are people no matter the time and place.  And it was this reality that caused Isaiah to take such a harsh stance against God’s people. Because Isaiah knew that if people would only strive for justice and righteousness the way that God had been calling them to for centuries, these world issues would not be issues. Even Isaiah and Hosea knew that there was enough food to go around for everyone, that caring for widows, orphans, immigrants, and the sick was within the realm of possibility if people cared enough. But people are people, no matter the time or place, and so Isaiah, like Hosea, was at his wits end. And so his harshness is understandable even if we don’t necessarily agree with it. So let’s address that now.

Isaiah was a man of his time. Like many ancient cultures, he believed that everything that happened around him was the work of God. Just about every ancient religion believed that when good things happened, it was time to thank God for it. And when bad things happened, it was time to ask for forgiveness because they believed that they must have done something for God to make that bad thing happen.

A drought? Who else controls the rain but God? They didn’t know about weather patterns and meteorology! So God caused droughts and since God is holy, God must have had a good reason to do it. We must have been really bad, they thought. Lose a battle? Who else could give them victory but God? So, every loss was chalked up to something they must have done wrong. How else could you explain God abandoning us on the battlefield?

These examples might seem kind of silly to our ears but this is the way they believed. You only have to take one ancient history or anthropology class to learn this. Every ancient religion began this way, including our own. What I continue to remind people is that just because we started that way doesn’t mean we have to stay that way! Because if I believed that God caused pain and suffering in the world through things like famine and plagues and war and, as in this case, the overthrow of a government, I wouldn’t be standing here as a pastor right now.

My faith just does not have room for a God like that. So, when I hear a prophet like Isaiah blame God for a calamity that has befallen them I just think to myself, well of course he did! He was a product of his era. But we are not. Today we know things like: plagues spread from unsanitary conditions, and droughts are caused by weather patterns, or pollution induced global warming but we don’t need to go there today, and battles are lost due to poor strategizing. We don’t need God to inflict these things on us. We do just fine on our own.

So, why do I continue to remind people of this? Because that type of ancient theology is still present today. Here’s an example: I was on internship in Alabama and my wife Sara was working for a hospice center. She had a family whose child had just died and when they were asked if they’d like a pastor they said yes. Only to have that pastor tell them that it was their lack of faith that caused their child to die.

When Sara heard this she was devastated for them, as well as angry, but when she apologized and asked if they’d like to see a different pastor, thinking me this time, they understandably refused. If that’s the kind of theology that the church is going to spread out into the world, then it’s no wonder that people are giving up on faith throughout the country! People aren’t stupid! They can see right through that bad theology, to the rotten grapes within. And it’s a misinterpretation of bible passages like today’s that perpetuate that bad theology, and quite frankly, destroys people’s spiritual lives.

However, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet by New Testament authors, and for good reason. We may not agree with all of Isaiah’s theology but one of the reasons why Isaiah was quoted so often is because of the many seeds of hope that he planted that were allowed to sprout and bloom and flourish in our Christian scriptures. Today we read from two chapters, we’ve talked about the doom and gloom chapter, but the reading from the other chapter is much more hopeful. Isaiah writes about a stump, a stump with roots. Normally when you think of a stump you think death! But Isaiah’s stump, in spite of its death, sprouts a shoot from that stump! And the authors of our Christian scriptures identified that shoot as referring to Jesus.

In spite of all that had befallen God’s people, and all that was about to happen to them, Isaiah knew, in his heart of hearts, that all was not lost. That even God could help them overcome death. And I couldn’t help but think of those darn rose bushes that we dug up in my new backyard/wilderness. They were not easy to dig up, and we tried to get as much of the roots up as we could. And all was good for a while, all except for this one rose bush. It has come back twice so far. It just does not want to die.

And who does? All it wants to do is live, and grow, and flower. I almost feel sorry for it. Almost. Third times the charm. The next hymn we will sing is Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming. I did not pick it which made its selection all the more serendipitous. It was first printed in 1599 in Germany but the original author is unknown. As you will see in a moment the author clearly had this passage from Isaiah about a sprout from a stump in mind but why it’s interpreted as a rose I have no idea. I’ll give extra credit points to anyone who can find that out!

Whatever the reason may be, I know firsthand how difficult it is to kill a rose bush. And so, when you sing this song, my prayer for you is this; that you remember just how difficult it is to destroy God’s love for you, that no matter your circumstances God will never abandon you, that no matter how much pain and suffering you may endure, none of it comes from God, that no matter how hopeless things may be, God will always get the last word, and that word, will be life to you, in abundance. Thanks be to God. Amen.

God, Hosea, and The Runaway Bunny

Inspired by Hosea 11:1-9 and The Runaway Bunny

[After reading The Runaway Bunny...]

I did some pretty dumb things as a kid. Well, dumb doesn’t quite describe some of my behavior. It would be more accurate to say I did some very wrong things as a kid. When I look back on those years, my misbehavior is quite embarrassing. Like that time I stole money from my parents just to have a good time in San Francisco. Or that time that my best friend and I thought it would be a good idea to climb the roof and shoot neighborhood kids with a BB gun. Or that time I snuck out with my dad’s 67’ Camaro so that I could see just how fast it really went. Or that time…well, I’ll stop there. No one who knew me back then would have ever believed that someday I would be standing in a pulpit, wearing a stole, sharing my wisdom.

Looking back on those years also makes me respect and love my parents all the more. I’m not quite sure how they resisted the urge to strangle me in my sleep. But resist they did. In fact, in spite of their tendency to overreact over small misbehaviors, those times when I really screwed up, like the examples that I just gave you and more, they were surprisingly quite calm.

Those were the times when even I knew I deserved to get my butt beat with my dad’s belt but no, they merely handed out a consequence, like having to paint the house, or apologizing to the neighbor kid’s parents face to face. But when I expected them to go off the rails in anger, or yell and scream at me, or get the belt, they didn’t. I knew I deserved it. I don’t think I would have even protested if they had. But they didn’t. Though they had every right to, they resisted.

Our Bible story for today comes from the book of Hosea, one of the twelve minor prophets. They are referred to as minor, not because of their lack of importance or influence, far from as we will see, but they are called minor simply due to their short length. These twelve books range between only one to fourteen chapters each. In fact, they are so short that they were originally all printed on one scroll, making one Book of the Twelve, as it was known.

It was only much later that they were separated into 12 distinct books. But maybe the most important detail about this book is the fact that it’s one of the oldest books of the entire Bible, predating even most of the book of Genesis! So, being one of the first books written by God’s people, one cannot overstate its importance or influence on that new religion of our Judeo-Christian faith.

Hosea was a prophet to the Northern Kingdom, remember the kingdom split in two a couple weeks ago, and as I mentioned last week they were in almost constant turmoil. The Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, found a short period of peace with King Jeroboam but once he was gone things really fell apart and this is the time that Hosea was prophet there. He did his best to guide them, correct them, admonish them, as prophets do, but to no avail. Israel as a whole was just as misbehaved as I was as a kid. And what was one of its chief sins? You could probably guess by now, idolatry. They just could not kick the habit of worshipping other gods. And there’s good reason for that.

You may remember from about a month ago, when we read about God’s people first entering the Promised Land, there were people already living there and though they were ordered to kill them all, they usually didn’t and ended up living with them, even marrying the native inhabitants. And this meant, infusing their gods with our God. It just seemed like the natural thing to do and for the most part it was allowed, even encouraged at times. And then you had prophets like Hosea who claimed that this idolatry was the reason for all their troubles and tried to get them to stop, again, to no avail. They continue in their misbehavior regardless of the warnings.

So, in this chapter that we read from Hosea, we are given the image of God as parent. And now that we know this to be one of the first books of the Bible written, it’s interesting to know that this image of God as parent was foundational to our faith. Just as interesting, is the fact that nowhere in this imagery is the word “father” used. In fact, you could make a case that it describes a stereotypical mother more than it does a father, with God teaching them to walk and picking them up in God’s arms and lifting them as an infant to God’s cheek.

But for the purpose of this sermon, it’s enough to just focus on God as parent, and specifically a parent in ancient Israel. Sometimes we too easily take these stories out of their ancient context and force them into our own. Sometimes that’s ok but sometimes we lose something when we do that and this is one of those times. The parent/child relationship in ancient Israel was very different than in this time and location. And one only has to look at the Bible for clues.

In ancient Israel, children were thought of as less than, as inferior, as voiceless, and sometimes even as property. And one thing that was expected of them was total and complete obedience. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, we expect our kids to obey us!” Well, yes but they took it to an extreme, this was obedience on steroids! In the book of Deuteronomy, it clearly states that any parent who has a child that misbehaves has the right to execute that child by stoning. Like I said, obedience on steroids.

This is what was expected of them. That’s the kind of obedience that was expected of children. And more importantly, that was the kind of punishment that was expected of parents to hand out. So, in this chapter of Hosea, when God starts speaking about God’s relationship with Israel as a parent to a child, everyone of that time would have begun to shake in their boots! They would have known where this was headed! And they would have figured, “Well, goodbye world! We had a good run.”

But! God, as always, is full of surprises! God does not do what is expected of God to do. Why? As God put it, because “I am God, and not a human being.” But before God comes to that conclusion you can hear the turmoil within God’s own heart as God recounts God’s journey with them over the years, as God remembers raising them, guiding them, teaching them to walk, holding them, cuddling with them cheek to cheek, loving them as good parents love their children. And so God asks Godself, “How can I give them up? How can I hand them over?” And God says, “My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” I love that image of God’s heart wincing! Because at the end of the day, God cannot do what is expected of God to do, by the world’s standards, by human standards.

So God makes a decision right then and there. “I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy [them]; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; and I will not come in wrath,” says God. You see God isn’t held by the same standards that we hold ourselves to. God doesn’t play our petty games of fairness and revenge and jealousy and obedience and respect that we play. God is God, and so God does as God wants, and what God wants, according to Hosea, is to love, unconditionally.

No matter what we may do or not do, no matter what we may believe or not believe, no matter which gods we allow to be infused into our own lives, no matter what we may say or not say, no matter what we may pray or not pray, no matter what, God, like Mother Bunny, will not let us go or give us up for death. It’s just not in God’s nature. Thanks be to God. Amen.