Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12:1-14 — Forgiveness

Reading:  Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12:1-14

Today in Sunday school, we discussed a prayer of repentance. This prayer is something that is familiar to most of us; I sang a few lines from this Psalm in my childhood in the fairly well known chorus “Create in me a clean heart.” Christians of course identify with repentance — we identify with it so much that anytime we look at a liturgy, we will find a prayer of repentance that everybody can pray. While this prayer was over a specific event in David’s life — it is that kind of prayer, all of us have had opportunities to pray for forgiveness, and to be made whole again.

One thing that Church does for me is serve as a “sinners anonymous” group. People go to church, and seek Christ’s help because they recognize that their sinful attitudes and behaviors are destroying their lives and relationships. We seek not only the help of our “higher power” to change our lives — but we also are here for each other, and encourage each other to get better. Church is, among other things, a community of people who are repenting of their sinfulness, and learning to live in a better way.

When Nathan approach David, David had much to repent. The whole mess started when the kings went to war in the spring, and David stayed behind — leaving the battle in the capable hands of Joab. David went up on the roof, saw a woman, and decided he wanted her. He sent inquires and found out that the woman’s husband was Uriah, and her father was Eliam. These names mean little to us unless we read 2 Samuel 23, which includes a list of men in David’s inner circle. Both of these men were among those who were closest to David. It is almost inconceivable that these names were not enough to change David’s behavior.

David summons the woman, rapes her, and when she gets pregnant he lets Uriah take some home leave (so that the baby might be seen as his), and then tells another person in the inner circle to make sure that Uriah dies in battle. For those who think rape is too strong of the word; my understanding is that if a person is unable to say `no’, the person is also unable to give meaningful consent. Bathsheba was in no place to say no, as David held too much power. We should also notice, no scripture passage speaks of Bathsheba needing to repent of committing adultery, nor seducing David — there is nothing that blames the victim, the blame for this sin falls square on David’s back.

The Psalm that was read today is a prayer of repentance from a man who raped a family member of two of his closest friends, and went on to have another one of his friends kill another one. It is no wonder that Nathan told David that the sword would never leave his house — it is no wonder that there was a civil war, and the main players were people in David’s own family. This passage tells us that God accepted the repentance of a rapist and a murderer who betrayed his closest friends: Many people would consider David’s actions unforgivable.

C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. “That sort of talk makes them sick,” they say. And half of you already want to ask me, “I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?”

This is the thing — we have a sense of what is fair, and sometimes ideas such as generosity and forgiveness do not seem fair at all. Scripture tells us that Jesus came to bring the good news of salvation — to save people from their sins: but, there are times when you hear people talking, and it sounds like the good news they are sharing is the good news of hell for other people.

Now, with David’s behavior, you can imagine that Nathan was not exaggerating when he told David that the sword would never leave his house. It seems that quickly after this incident there is a civil war, and David’s son Absalom takes up arms to overthrow his father. Before David was king, he was the nation’s favorite hero. If his actions were not so unforgivable, his popularity would prevent people from rallying behind Absalom. Forgiving a rapist and a murderer is unfair.

The good news for us is that God is merciful instead of fair. When Jesus tells us about the Kingdom of Heaven, he describes a kingdom where people get what they need, instead of what they deserve — the kingdom of Heaven is unfairly generous. I’m sure you all remember when Jesus told this story:

The kingdom of heaven is like a a vineyard. It was time to harvest and press the grapes, so the owner went out at sunrise to look for laborers, and he hired everybody he could find, offering to pay them standard wages for the work. A couple hours later, we went out to look for more workers and he offered to pay them a fair wage. Noon came, and he was able to find more people to hire. When it was mid-afternoon, he searched for even more workers — and he managed to find a few.

When the end of the day came, and the work for the day was finished, the owner paid the workers who started in the afternoon first. The owner gave them the same thing he offered to pay the people who worked since sunrise. Those who came in at noon got the same amount, as did those who came late in the morning. When he finally got to pay those who worked since sunrise, he payed them what he agreed to pay them in the first place.

These workers were angry: They were angry that they worked through the heat of the day, and they were paid the same as people who only worked a couple hours. These workers complained that this was unfair, because they worked all day, yet those who came in last were paid as if they also had worked all day.The owner pointed out that they had agreed to wages before they worked, and they were happy with them at the start of the day — they should have no complaint about this. He also reminded them that this was *his* money, and he had the right to do whatever he wants with it, including being generous.

Mercy, forgiveness and generosity are lovely things — but they are not fair. We are called to a model that breaks those rules of fairness, and gives people what they need most instead of those things that they deserve.

As a church, we are at the very least an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven — what that means is that we need to get used to God’s radical forgiveness. This in not an easy task, it never was an easy task: Let me give a couple examples. First, you likely remember that the first person mentioned who died a martyr was Stephen — Paul was there with the killers. Paul then became very active in persecuting the church, and God only knows how many deaths he was part of. After Jesus met Paul on the road to Damascus, and blinded Paul — Paul was sent to the church. The church was more than a little uneasy welcoming the man who was the cause of their suffering. Radical forgiveness is hard.

Radical forgiveness is so hard that one of the first church splits was about how much should be forgiven. If you remember, one of the reasons that Christians were put to death is that they refused to worship Caesar; a small token act of Caesar worship was enough to free them from torture and death. Those who saved their lives by saying “Caesar is lord” were called “lapsi” There were a large group of influential people who felt that bowing to Caesar was a big enough sin that lapsi should never be allowed to repent and rejoin church life. The side that won was the side that realized that Jesus taught a gospel of forgiveness; and that God’s grace and mercy was greater than the Lapsi’s sinfulness. Granted, nobody suggested that sin should be ignored — forgiveness isn’t ignoring sin, nor is it excusing an action. Forgiveness recognizes the offense for what it is, and then refuses to break relationships, or hold onto the offense. Christ taught the church to forgive — so, even Paul and the Lapsi were forgiven. Time and time again, people pray David’s prayer of repentance — and time and time again, God answers prayer.

Psalm 73: When good things happen to bad people

Sermon delivered at Raysville Friends Church

Reading: Psalm 73

Psalm 73 is labeled as a Psalm of Asaph, and it is the first psalm of a section of Psalms that are labeled the same way. Asaph was the cantor for the Tabernacle during the time of David — and the cantors in the Temple were male-line descendants of Asaph. The people who sung those things that were meant to be heard were the Asaphites.

I don’t know whether Asaph wrote or collected these Psalms — but, what I do know is that they were here for the purpose of being heard. Psalms is the hymnal of the people of Israel: some of the later copies have as many as 160 Psalms. As the Psalms is an anthology — a hymnal, if you like, we can be pretty sure that there was something before the Psalms were put together after the exile. I tend to think that the Psalms of Asaph were copied from that older hymnal.

We sing our theology — and this was obviously meant to be heard publicly. I find it remarkable that the Psalms of Asaph do not start with something that is easy — no, the Psalmist starts by asking one of the questions that bother people when they think of theology: “Is God fair?” There are two very similar questions that people have always struggled with: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, and as this Psalm asks, “Why do good things happen to bad people.”

To be fair this question is asked many times, and in many ways. I imagine all of us have opportunities to spend time with children. I know I remember being a child, and some of the things that seemed so important then. Fairness is a concept that it seems like all children get. There is a real feeling that things need to be fair, and a frustration when they are not. Eventually, we are forced to accept that often things are not fair, but, as an adult, I still don’t like this.

Psalm 73 is not the only part of scripture that talks about God and fairness. Job is a difficult passage to read, because it is clearly unfair — and God makes no attempt to apologize for this. One thing Job makes abundantly clear is that when we suggest that we get what we deserve, we are mistaken. Just because bad things happen, the person who suffers is not necessarily condemned… if only we could remember this lesson and have compassion! The converse is also mentioned — just because somebody is prospering does not mean that person is good. Lady luck is fickle, and she does not favor people based on how deserving they are.

One of my favorite books is Ecclesiastes — it also deals with the issue of unfairness, giving the rather simple answer that it does not matter whether we are rich, or poor, or successful, or if it is fair — because we are all going to die very soon anyways — and, we’re dead for a real long time; a long time where none of this stuff really matters. I guess I enjoy what Bible scholars call ‘Wisdom Literature” because I was one of those teenagers who wrote depressing poetry for fun.

The best advice, however, is that that came from Jesus. It is advice that I used with the children in my life. Sometimes the kids I spend time with seem to compete to see who can act the worst. When I scold one of them, he responds by telling me that one of the other boys was behaving even more badly — so I should ignore his behavior and focus on the worst kid. While I understand his sense of fairness, I am perfectly aware that he earned much more than a scolding with his own behavior.

What I tell him is that he shouldn’t be worried about the person who’s behaving worse than he is — he should be concerned with himself, and his own behavior. Just because his behavior is not the worst of his peer group does not excuse his bad behavior. Even if he were the best behaved kid in the room (which, if he were, he would not have been lectured) other people’s behavior does not excuse his own. The question: “what about him” is the wrong question.

When we study John, eventually we will get to the passage where Jesus and Peter have a heart to heart after the Resurrection. Peter, for some reason, keeps asking: `but what about him’. Jesus always gives the same answer — don’t worry about him, follow me.

This Psalm really gets to the heart of this matter. It begins with observing that God is good, then points to the real problem: I am envious of the person who seems to have everything even though he’s bad. When I see somebody who is less deserving than I am, yet that person seems to have everything, is it any surprise when I am envious? This feeling of envy ranges from envy for worthless bosses, who have no idea how to do any job they ever had with the company — but, are very skilled at playing politics to get promotions and using people… to envying colleagues in ministry who seem to have it ‘better’ than I do, in spite of, or even because of a lack of ethical integrity. Yes, I know the feeling behind this Psalm, I think all of us do.

But here is the point, when I am angry, and say it is not fair because somebody I judge as less deserving than I seems to be more blessed then I am — this is all on me: Ok — almost everybody has a functioning sociopath above them in a power structure. I have no intention of excusing them, or their behavior, nor advising people to enable their behavior… but instead to say I need to be responsible for myself — not to worry that somebody else gets more than his due, but instead follow Jesus.

If I am jealous of someone, and tell myself a story about how that someone does not deserve his or her recognition — I’m telling myself a story. Yes, I can know a few details, but most of the story is unknown to me. There is a big difference from saying: “That person throws people under the bus, I need to protect myself”, and saying: “I’m better than that person — I’ve produced more value than that person, it is unfair that he is more highly honored than I am.” The truth is, just as likely, that I am not aware of the whole story and I am justifying my envy. No matter whether I’m right or wrong, envy is a pernicious sin — especially if I’m making an opponent out of somebody who should be my ally.  Not only does envy damage relationships, but it also destroys joy.  Counting somebody else’s blessings out of envy is an effective way to feel miserable.

Of course, the Psalm itself reminds us that we have nothing to be envious of. The sociopaths among us have one very hard thing in their lives that we don’t have — they can never get away from themselves. The Psalmist says that he understood their end, entering God’s sanctuary — that God set them on a slippery path, cast down to destruction in a moment.

The poor manager who advanced by treating his co-workers as rungs on the ladder to success has nobody to stand up for him when he is held accountable. Eventually, throwing people under the bus isn’t good enough; he will need somebody to stand up for him. We all have times we fall, and need a friend to pick us up — and, when these times come, a person who has managed his life so that every relationship is about the value he can get out of it — that person will find that there is no friends left to help when help is needed. I know many readers of this Psalm see that there will be hell to pay; and they are very likely right, but even if that were not true, the wicked often create their own earthly downfall as they believe they are prospering.

The advice of this Psalm is to draw near to God, and put our trust in God. The declaration that this Psalm starts with is: “God is truly good to those who are pure in heart.” We all need to remember this advice. If I count my blessings, I see that somebody else might be able to envy me. I have blessings in my life that I could not imagine trading for anything. Why should I envy somebody that I would regret trading places with? I am clearly much happier if I count my blessings, as opposed to counting the apparent blessings that somebody else has, and I do not.

I will end with the final words of the Psalm — and a much better way than worrying about whether or not what everybody else gets is `fair’: “I have put my trust in the Lord, that I may declare all your works.”

David in a cave

When I read the story of David in I Samuel, I am struck at the narrative;  here is a man who goes from farm-boy working with livestock to suddenly the champion of Israel.  He starts off as a nobody, but ends up being seen as a rival to King Saul.  King Saul is not the only person who sees this; the Philistines at some point believe that David has become leader of Israel.

As David gained popularity, he became close friends with Saul’s son, and married Saul’s daughter.  as Saul decided that David must die, Saul’s children helped David escape Saul’s wrath, and communicated the danger of the situation — so David had to run for his life.  He ran, and hid in a cave.  This hiding must have been especially nerve-wracking, because Saul managed to wonder into the cave himself.

While David was in this situation, he wrote two Psalms:  Psalm 57 and Psalm 142.  I am not surprised that David wrote poetry while hiding in a cave — war is, from what I am told a mixture of traumatic experiences, and waiting for a traumatic experience.  David was being hunted, and was waiting to be found.  This waiting offers a lot of time for writing, to say the least.

While it is not that remarkable that David wrote, it is remarkable what he wrote.  David was outnumbered 10 to 1 and hiding in a cave with short supplies.  Those hunting David could receive supplies and reinforcements, while David was besieged.  David’s case looks hopeless.

In this environment of hopelessness, David writes two Psalms which, although they acknowledge that things look bad, are surprisingly optimistic.  These psalms recognize that God is able to save David from an apparently hopeless situation, and they expect salvation.  The cave is not a good enough hiding place, but David can write in Psalm 142: “You are my refuge”; and he can go on to speak of what will happen after God saves him from Saul writing: “the righteous will surround me, and you will deal bountifully with me.

I always find it remarkable how faith thrives in hopelessness. When I put myself in David’s position, I think I would be paralyzed with fear, rather than  expressing how God would save me, and surround me with good people.  I find the faith remarkable.

The truth is, however, I’ve seen this remarkable faith in people that I know.  The yearly meeting I grew up in started its biggest commitment to foreign missions during the great depression; and it was during a financial crisis that I remember the best examples of my faith community looking out for its members.

Places that were once our missions have grown beyond their parents, as they applied their faith to times of civil war.  African and Central American churches face poverty and violence in their own back yard, yet they are engaged in both foreign missions, and seeking ways to make their own communities better.

David was right — God surrounded him with good people.  David’s story was pretty messy, and it is fair to say that in terms of justice, he had many people in his life who were better than he was.  David’s faith was not misplaced — his experience and the experience of others with similar faith tells me that;  but it is still hard to be in the cave.

Psalm 145

Always, I will praise you Lord
Because you are worthy of praise
Continually I will sing Your praises
Daily I am overwhelmed by Your greatness

Every generation remembers your deeds
For you brought salvation to our people
Great and everlasting is your mercy
Happiness fills those who hear your voice

I will meditate on your glory
Justice is defined by your Law
King above all kings
LORD above all Lords

Merciful are your deeds
Nations praise you for them
Our salvation is from you Lord
Praise flows from every lip

Quickly your salvation comes
Rest comes for all who are weary
Sight comes for those once blind
Today is the day of our salvation

Undying is your mercy
Vast is your love
We thank you for your deeds
Xeric lands were made fruitful by your hands

You protect us as a fortress
Zealous is your love for us

Psalm 145: An Alphabet prayer

I enjoy reading the Psalms. I have long enjoyed poetry — in fact, I enjoy it so much that I have written it since I was young. Currently, I have a collection of a couple thousand attempts at poetry that I have produced. Sometimes I write a poem when I am trying to connect with a piece of scripture, sometimes when I am trying to better understand somebody else’s point of view, and sometimes just because I have a pen, some paper, and some time.

I might love Psalms as a reader, but as an interpreter, and a lecturer, Psalms is a special challenge. When I study other passages, they are generally set in a time and place. There is a traditional author, and a traditional audience; in many cases, there are a few alternative theories on who wrote the Biblical book, to whom, and why — but, the theories tend to be easy enough to follow for me to keep everything in my head. The Psalms are different — they are clearly an anthology. This anthology was apparently put together after the Judah was resettled, and the temple was rebuilt, but each Psalm has its own history, with its own author and its own original audience. In addition, the whole has an editor, and an intended audience.

Not only is there all this complexity, but this is an anthology of poetry, written in a foreign language. Poetry is, generally, extremely difficult to translate. Poetry tends to play with language in ways that are unique to the language it is written in. While we can enjoy the metaphoric language, and the images play off of each other, we completely miss how the writer plays with the language. We can all see that Psalm 145 is a Psalm of praise, but we need a bit more information.

The best way I can describe the structure of Psalm 145 is that it is like an alphabet book. Each line begins with another letter of the Hebrew Alphabet — but, that’s not quite right: An alphabet book is for teaching a child about letters and reading; It is a mnemonic — it is something that one is supposed to remember — and memory is very important. This Psalm is part of an observant Jew’s daily prayers; if an observant Jew knows his prayers, he knows the psalm. He knows this one, because the next line starts with the next letter of the Alphabet.

As I like poetry, and I enjoy attempting to make new poems, I will try to create an example, in the same theme, and idea of this Psalm:

Always, I will praise you Lord
Because you are worthy of praise
Continually I will sing Your praises
Daily I am overwhelmed by Your greatness

Every generation remembers your deeds
For you brought salvation to our people
Great and everlasting is your mercy
Happiness fills those who hear your voice

I will meditate on your glory
Justice is defined by your Law
King above all kings
LORD above all Lords

Merciful are your deeds
Nations praise you for them
Our salvation is from you Lord
Praise flows from every lip

Quickly your salvation comes
Rest comes for all who are weary
Sight comes for those once blind
Today is the day of our salvation

Undying is your mercy
Vast is your love
We thank you for your deeds
Xeric lands were made fruitful by your hands

You protect us as a fortress
Zealous is your love for us

While I’m not completely happy with the last few lines, and I’m sure nobody will be memorizing these words, nor reciting them on a daily basis, this is something that can give you an idea of what was going on. Because every line starts with the next letter of the Alphabet, the person reciting the prayer knows exactly where he or she is. Remembering which line is next is like remembering how the Alphabet goes.

Psalm 145 is a prayer giving praise to God. It is somewhat repetitive, emphasizing that praise is eternal — but it does praise God for several things: This psalm starts by praising God for being great and powerful. The very concept of God being God is the concept of greatness. Along with the greatness of being, God is created for the greatness of God’s actions.

I know the Old Testament can be hard on the Jews for not remembering all the things that God has done — but, I have to say that these days it is hard to accuse them of forgetting. There is a song associated with the Passover meal, Dayenu which does just this — it lists the things that God did, and goes on to say that if that were all God did, it would be enough. This song covers God freeing Israel from Egypt, restoring Israel as a nation, sustaining them miraculously, and giving them the Sabbath, the Torah, and the Temple.

After celebrating what God has done, there is a praise of God’s Justice, love and mercy. Americans don’t often think about how such things are connected, but it is difficult for me to imagine a system of Biblical Justice that did not speak of God’s love for humanity, nor God’s sense of mercy. When we talk about justice, we often talk about punishment for crimes. When the Old Testament talks about justice, it talks about the type of justice that returns what is lost. Not only does God’s justice return what was lost, but it is merciful and in many cases gives more than there was to begin with.

The next theme that it has (along with repeating what is already here) is talk about how God is faithful, and eternal. Paul wrote to Timothy saying that even if we are faithless, God remains faithful. This is an issue of faith: God is great, all the time. God is just, all the time. God is loving, all the time. God is merciful all the time. God’s love and mercy is not dependent upon our merit, but simply dependent upon God being God.

Here is a prayer which was prescribed for daily prayer. These words are not something that many American Christians would think to Pray. There is nothing in here that makes a request for God to work in our lives, help us with what we need, nor even to forgive us. When God is called merciful, just, and loving, it is not to ask for mercy but to describe God. This daily prayer is not like the prayers we are accustomed to.

Of course, the reason one would pray such a prayer isn’t to make God aware of God’s power, nor what God has done, nor how God has behaved. God knows these things better than any of us do. We cannot form the words to describe God, because our imagination is finite. Our finite minds cannot comprehend what it means to be infinite. If God is God, God must be far greater than the god that we imagine — and, any description we make cannot be especially helpful to God in understanding who God is.

What I do notice is that this is part of a prayer that the Jews pray every day. I don’t know when this custom started, but I do know that it seems to have been in effect during the Babylonian captivity. When Daniel prayed three times a day, this Psalm would have been part of those prayers. When King Darius threatened to put those who prayed to any God in the lions den, Daniel continued to pray, praising God for his mercy, great power, and faithfulness. When it looked like God turned his back on Israel, the children of Israel prayed — praising God for his love and faithfulness.

Every day, those in captivity reminded themselves of exactly who God was. When Judah was a province in the Persian empire, they reminded themselves of God’s eternal power. When the Greeks took over the temple, and turned it into a temple of Zeus, they remembered that God would destroy all of God’s enemies.

The prayer that was recited, day after day often didn’t seem to match up with what was happening in the world. They praised God, even when the world seemed to fall apart. They praised God for God’s faithfulness, love, and mercy when it seemed that God forgot them, and abandoned them to their enemies.

I believe that this is an example of a prayer that one prays, because prayer changes us. These prayers are sustaining prayers, reminding God’s people that even when things looked hopeless, that God was still bigger than their problems. This prayer is a prayer of faith: It is naming a truth that is easy to forget when the hard things of the world are overwhelming. May we all praise God, and remember.

Matthew 1: Advent for Joseph, the dreamer

Reading:  Matthew 1

I know when we read the Bible, it is easy to see a name list, and skip it as not important. I understand this completely, lists are information dense, but without context they don’t communicate very well. If you are in the know, they tell us something very important however, and in the case of the Genealogy in Matthew 1, there is something significant that we should notice; something that sets the tone for the start of Matthew.

At risk of stating the obvious — the name list that opens Matthew 1 includes all but one of the Kings of Judah. The only king of Judah that is missing is the one put on the throne by Pharaoh Necho II. Not only does it include the kings, but it also includes the pretenders to the throne during the Babylonian captivity, and Zerubbabel, the prince that the Persians appointed to govern the province of Judea.

Joseph might not have been the next in line to David’s throne, but he had a direct male blood line to the last Davidic leader. While the head of the family of David was likely not a close cousin, it was a cousin and the people keeping track of such things would have Joseph’s name on a list, along with any legitimate sons that he might have. Needless to say, Mary’s pregnancy was the type of thing that would lead to a scandal.

The passage tells us that Joseph responded to Mary’s news just as we might expect: he didn’t believe that she was pregnant by the “Holy Spirit.” The passage is rather euphemistic when it says that he decided to divorce her quietly, and not subject her to public disgrace — as, the form that public disgrace might take would likely be fatal.

When Joseph was resolved to do this (and I’ve no doubt Mary knew about this plan), an angel appears to him to tell him to not be afraid to stay with Mary, that the child was actually from the Holy Spirit, that he would “save the people from their sins,” and that he would be called “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”

I like Matthew’s depiction of Jesus. From the very beginning it offers a juxtaposition of the messiah that was wanted, and who God sent. Matthew 1 starts by giving a genealogy that would be perfect for a restored monarchy — but this is the genealogy of Joseph not of Jesus. When the angel appears to Joseph, he tells him that the boy will be “God with us.” The very start of Matthew is a hint that Jesus will be something different than what was expected. Matthew 22:21 is the passage where Jesus instructs people to pay their taxes to Rome, observing his image is on the coins that they use. The king who would win independence would not accept these taxes!

Even more striking is when the Pharisees and Jesus discuss the nature of the Messiah, and Jesus asks them: “who’s son is the Messiah?” The Pharisees say that he is to be the son of David, to which Jesus asks: “Then why did David call him ‘my Lord?'” indicating that the person to come, Jesus, was more than David’s son.

Matthew is the book that tells us about the different kind of king, and the different kind of kingdom. Matthew is full of parables that begin with the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like…” These parables tell of a kingdom that has very different priorities than the nations that they live in. The most striking part of Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount, which is likely the most well known 3 chapters in the New Testament. I love how Matthew begins by showing that Jesus isn’t the messiah that people were looking for, but instead is the messiah that they need. Nobody was seeking the kingdom of heaven, but it is the kingdom that everybody needs as well.
When the angel appears to Joseph, he gets somewhat more information than Mary did. Mary knew Jesus would reign on David’s throne, with the guess that this would be a renewed dynastic reign; Joseph gets the name Emmanuel, and the detail that the destiny of Jesus would be to save the people from their sin. Saving people from their sin, and being “God with us” is something bigger than establishing a political entity. Joseph was told that Jesus was something much greater than a renewed king: Jesus was somebody who would change the relationship between God and God’s people.

Joseph’s call was simply to accept the woman he loved and a baby with a destiny. This is a calling that has some risk — but, the risk was much less obvious than that to Mary. Really, he had to take the same risk we all have to take — he had to risk living life, loving, and believing that the adventure that he would face would be worthwhile.

I know, I’m getting ahead of myself, but I thought I’d give a summary of the adventure that Joseph shared. Joseph and family ran away to Egypt to escape king Herod — because Joseph and his family were more ‘legitimate’ to be the ‘king of the Jews’ than Herod was, and Herod wanted to keep his position. The very idea that a descendant of David had a child who was something special — a prophesied Messiah was a dangerous idea.

Then again, Duke New Testament teacher suggests that Joseph dreamed dangerous dreams. He goes through the names of the children in this family; Jacob, Simon, Joseph, Joshua, Judah and observes that these are all names of strong influential people. These names included the ancestors of the entire Jewish community; Joshua, who ruled when Israel carved a place for themselves out of the land of Canaan; Judah and Simon who just a century and a half earlier were leaders in a successful war of independence against the Greek empire.

I like the idea that an angel appears to Joseph to tell him not to be afraid to love, to believe, and to keep dreaming big dreams. It is so easy for us to stop dreaming. Even when things look different than the dream, the angel tells Joseph that the son will be even greater than the biggest of dreams. Joseph is called to live believing that God has great things in store.

We know Joseph was there for Jesus’ childhood. Luke mentions that Joseph and Mary were there when Jesus was 12, and the family was in Jerusalem for the Passover. When the story picks up again, Joseph is not there. While Joseph was given a pretty clear picture of who Jesus was, he apparently did not live long enough to see the promise fulfilled.

There is something about this that I connect with. One of the themes we find in scripture is that there are promises that are far bigger than a single person, or even a single generation. Very often, the person with the clearest vision of this promise die not long before the promise is realized. Moses lead the people out of Egypt, but never saw the promised land. David planned to build the temple, but David didn’t build the temple he wished to build It seems that the people with the most vision might have started something, but they leave somebody else to finish.

I live in a world that loves to build up individuals and their vision. We want to give a single person credit for everything, and tell how one person was responsible for something big. We often don’t give credit to the vast number of people who share a vision, and work on it. If somebody starts, and another finishes, very often it seems that only one person gets the credit. We want to be the person who gets credit, we forget that the dreams that are most worth dreaming are bigger than one person or one generation.

Luke 1:26-55 – Puddleglum the Marshwiggle and the Advent of Mary

It is difficult for me to know what to say about Mary: First, I grew up very protestant, and we never really talked much about Mary. Second, the whole thing of pregnancy is somewhat outside of my experience. I do know that Advent was very real for Mary. The passage that we read was that of an angel telling her about the child she was carrying. I cannot imagine advent being more real and immediate than it was for her.

One thing that I do know is that Mary was very brave. She was promised to be married; and her fiance knew that the child was not his. By accepting what the Angel Gabriel said to her, she was accepting real danger. When a girl, engaged to be married, was pregnant, by somebody else, the man has every right to have her stoned. It would take an act of God to convince Joseph not to break off the engagement. Mary had to accept becoming a single mom, or, more likely, for a mob of people to throw rocks at her, without stopping until she was dead.  I would be terrified, but Mary praises God for this blessing.

One thing about God’s calling in scripture is that God never seems to promise that the person being given a word (or in Mary’s case the Word) that he or she will be O.K. You might remember, in the case of Isaiah, God was pretty clear that he wouldn’t live long enough to see people listening to his prophecies. Jesus told his disciples that they could expect persecution. When God calls people, there are no promises, only a call to be obedient.

The way I connect with this knowledge is through the C.S. Lewis children’s book The Silver Chair. This is the 4th of the Narnia stories, and In this story, there is this character named Puddleglum, the Marsh Wiggle. Aslan the lion gives instructions for the children to follow; four signs that will bring them where they are supposed to go and tell them what to do when they get there — they are to do what they are asked to do when somebody makes a request in the name of Aslan. Pudleglum offers to help them. Now, at first it seems like Puddleglum isn’t going to be much help, because he’s so incredibly pessimistic. He seems to expect unpleasantness and death, even from the ordinary.
When they went on the adventure, things did turn out unpleasant. They faced terrible weather which kept them from noticing an important sign. They accepted an invitation to dinner from a city of giants, not realizing that they were on the menu — but they escape underground into a greater danger; They find themselves underground, captured by the Green Lady, a sorceress who rules the underworld. She enchanted the children, and through enchantment convinced them that there was no sun, no such thing as lions, no stars, no over-world; that they made everything up. Puddleglum was the only one who managed to keep his head and he rejected that Narnia was made up saying:

We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the playworld. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia

Now, they had made friends with a young knight who lived in the underworld. He told them that for an hour each day, he is under some sort of spell that renders him violently insane. During that hour, he is to be tied to the silver chair. He asks for company during this hour, but also warns the children not to loose his bonds for anything — because if they do, he will surely kill them in his madness.

The knight does go crazy — he begs, he fights, and he threatens to kill them all. He strains the bonds to the point that the children fear he might break free; and they are sure that if he breaks free that they will all die. They were warned, so they hold back and watch and wait. Finally, he begs them to release him in Aslan’s name. This kids recognize what Aslan asked them to do — but, they are not ready to believe; they know that they cannot expect to survive the encounter. Again, the Marshwiggle is clear: Obedience is loosing the violent crazy knight. Puddleglum lets them know that he fully expects that they all will be slaughtered, but it does not matter because this is what obedience looks like. Aslan never promised that things would go well — he only gave instructions for them to follow.

For me, this is the picture of faith and courage: to trust and obey or to do what is right even when it has negative consequences. When Mary answered the Angel, saying “let it be as you said:” she surely had some idea what the consequences of obedience might be. Gabriel never promised to make everything OK with Joseph. Even though everything was made OK with Joseph, people still talked: People talked enough that people remembered that Jesus was of unknown paternity: when somebody says to Jesus “I know who my father is”, that person is speaking about the scandal behind his birth.

The faith of Mary is the same as the faith of the prophets, and the faith of Puddleglum. The faith of Mary is a faith that says: “let it be as you say,” even though obedience has consequences.  It if the faith to obey, even when obedience is punished instead of rewarded.