God is not dead

anna and simeon

http://concordpastor.blogspot.ca /2008/01 /presentation-of-lord-in-temple.html

We wait for Christmas and a baby. We wait for the baby that came more than 2000 years ago to transform and change the world. Simeon and Anna recognized that child.

Simeon was knew his scriptures well. He was waiting for the messiah to come in the future. And while he waited for the messiah he hoped and prayed and read scripture. Simeon knew that God was always active in the human world. Through his reading of scripture Simeon remembered the story of how God worked through Moses to bring the people out of Egypt. Simeon remembered that even during war and exile, during the destruction of the temple, God was present and somehow always managed to be a saving presence. Between the writing of the scriptures that Simeon is reading and the writing of Luke, the temple has been destroyed again. And yet Simeon hangs on to the belief that the Messiah will come in the future. In the midst of destruction, Simeon believed that God had not abandoned the people and that God would continue to provide salvation to the people. The writer of Luke would have been referencing the Hebrew Bible and in the Hebrew, salvation related to rescuing in a very real, physical sense—like rescuing from an enemy during war. So Simeon has this image of God as a rescuer as his reference point when he is looking for the Messiah. Simeon’s hope is for the future and the way in which God will continue to be at work.

The Christmas story so often seems stuck in time. It is a story that we turn to for warm fuzzies. At Christmas we pray for peace and hope that everyone will be fed, have a place to live, be surrounded by family and friends. But I’m not sure we really believe these things are possible. We donate to the food bank, say “it’s such a shame” and then everything carries on as it has before. We might remember the story from World War 1 where the fighting stopped for a few hours on Christmas Eve and then resumed. Life goes back to the norm of poverty and violence.

Simeon recognized that God was going to do something amazing through Jesus. He had a moment when he experienced God. That one moment of experience was enough to sustain his hope, to put into perspective everything he had longed for in his life and to recognize that God isn’t dead but living amongst the people.

We sometimes get caught in believing that God came in Jesus in history and forget that God continues to come among us in the present and the future. I sometimes look at the world and wonder where God is. I wonder whether God can exist in the midst of all the horror, pain and brokenness of the world. And then I see glimpses of God in the good things that happen around me. If we believe with all our heart and soul and mind that Jesus continues to be among us we might be able to sustain our love and compassion for the hurt and brokenness in the world.

God is not dead but alive in flesh and blood. I see the suffering and brokenness around me and at times it can be overwhelming. Part of what Simeon is reminding us is that it is not up to us to fix everything that is wrong in the world but that God continues to work through many people to mend the world.

Simeon says to Mary “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many. . . and to be a sign that will be opposed.” Later in the book of Luke we find Jesus speaking about the way in which the world will be transformed.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)

Those who struggle now will find abundant life. Those who have more than enough will find they no longer have the place of privilege. The world is transformed when God becomes embodied in human form. And that transformation will be opposed and resisted by many. It means that those of us who live with privilege will have to give up some of our privilege. We might have to let go of our power, let go of our excess. It is easier for us to simply say that the world is as it is and there is nothing to be done that can change it forever. But if we believe in God’s ability to transform the world throughout history then God must continue to be active in the present just as Simeon believed.

And just as Simeon told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart, we need a sword to pierce our own. We need to cut through all the ways in which we lie to ourselves, the facades that we present to the world, the ways in which we intentionally and unintentionally hurt others. We need to ask forgiveness of others when we have caused hurt. We need to let go of all the burdens we carry so that our hearts can be transformed. There needs to be a death in our way of life so that a new and abundant life can grow within us.

And from my own experience, the letting go of an old way can be painful and scary. When I had an experience of God that pierced my own heart, everything changed. The way in which I viewed the world, the way in which I interacted with other people, the way in which I viewed myself all changed. And in place of the heaviness I carried was a sense of abundance and God’s presence around me. That doesn’t mean that everything is life is always perfect. It doesn’t mean that I always feel like God is on my side. But on rough days I can go back in my mind to that experience and remind myself that I am not alone, that God works through me and others and that transformation of the world is possible.

Once Simeon has offered his blessing to Jesus and Mary and Joseph the story shifts to Anna. Anna was an 84 year old widow. She was only married for seven years and her presence in the temple where she fasts and prays is a sign that she is in mourning. Holly Hearon suggests that the mourning is not for her husband but for God’s people because as soon as she saw the baby Jesus she switched from mourning to praising God.

Anna has spent her life mourning the state of the world around her, praying for redemption, praying that God will come and rescue the people and now she recognizes that God is alive and active in the world. And as soon as she recognizes God in the infant she tells everyone who crosses her path. She tells everyone that God is present and alive.

It seems to me that as Christians and people of faith, one of our tasks needs to be to remind people that God is not dead. God is alive and present among us. God continues to come amongst us every day. God’s work in the world is not finished nor relegated to ancient history but as both Simeon and Anna remind us, the God of history is the God of the present and the future. We can share that story in words and conversation. We can share that story in our actions and life. But it cannot be only a story of the past. It must be of the present and the future.

Choosing fear or abundance

Again, we prepare to wait. We wait for Christmas and for the Christ child to be born among us.

We hear the stories and it is tempting to leave them as a story all on their own but our scripture is only powerful for us if we can read our own story between the lines. Most of us will have heard the Christmas story and we know how it goes. We know about Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus. We know about the shepherds and we even know about the wise men or magi bringing Jesus gifts. And that’s where the story often ends but there is more to it than that.

This particular part of the story focuses on Herod and his response to the news of Jesus’ birth. We know from history books that Herod was a violent and absolute ruler. He ruled with a reign of terror. The people in his corner of the Roman Empire were afraid of him.

The magi arrive at Herod’s palace looking for the infant king. Perhaps they arrived making a common assumption that the new king would be born in the palace. But imagine their surprise when they realized that Jesus was not born in a palace. Imagine Herod’s surprise to have someone knocking on his door looking for an infant king. “Nobody told me there was a new king in town.”

Herod has to decide what to do. He begins by gathering information. First he calls all the priests, religious leaders, the educated people asks them what they know about a new king.

The story quite intentionally pits Jesus the infant king against Herod the ruthless ruler. The Magi just showed up on Herod’s doorstep and announced to the current king that they are looking for a new king. Now Herod sends them off on a mission to find the new king so that he can worship and honour this new king that is about to usurp his throne. And the magi have to choose where their allegiance lies. Does it lie with the ruthless king who is terrorizing the people or does it lie with the infant whose future is yet undetermined?

We are told that Herod was afraid of Jesus. His supporters were also afraid of him. The people of Jerusalem lived in fear of Herod.  When Herod ordered the killing of infants, he was obeyed. Everyone knew what life under Herod would be like. It would continue in much the same way that it always had. It would continue under the rule of the Roman Empire with the brutality and violence that kings and empires throughout history are known for.

Herod is afraid of losing his power. He is afraid that someone else is going to take over what has been his kingdom. Herod dealt with his fear of losing power through violence. He destroyed anyone who he thought was a threat. Herod was afraid and his rule created fear. It’s a bit of a vicious circle.

But Jesus, when he grew up, became a different kind of king. Jesus became a king where people were invited into abundant life. Jesus became a king that lived with love and compassion and expected love and compassion of his followers. Jesus did not force anyone to follow him. It was always by invitation. He did not rule by fear and he invited people to let go of their fear and step into God’s kingdom. And to follow Jesus, to be part of a faith community, to let go of our fear, to take risk continues to be an invitation extended to us.

We continue to choose which king we will follow. As people of faith, we choose to follow Jesus even though we still live in a world and a land ruled in a way that produces fear.

Our culture tells us that there are limited resources in the world. We will never have enough and so our default is often to fear there will not be enough. Our fear encourages to “batten down the hatches and hold on tight” to protect what we have. Ted Grimsrud suggests that Jesus’ way of being king created conflict because it required people to let go of their fear of scarcity. In our own community we have this tension between scarcity and abundance. This week the abundance was clear as people gave of their time, their finances, and other resources to help people displaced by fire. This is the kingdom that Jesus was trying to create where people help one another in times of crisis without thinking about their own sense of lack. In those moments there is abundance. As a congregation and individuals we need to choose whether we will live with fear or take a risk and be open to Jesus’ invitation to belong to his kingdom.

Fear suggests that there is something we need to be aware of and something we need to pay attention to. Our choice lies in how we respond to the fear. We can respond by trying to maintain the status quo and sometimes we want to do that because it is comfortable and familiar. Sometimes the status quo fits with cultural expectations of how the world should function. If we stay in the fear, we might feel like the future will continue in much the same way as the past and present.

Before I was in ministry, I had training is social work and worked with people with disabilities. There are a lot of similarities between social work and ministry—the ways in which we deal with people in crisis, the attempt to break down barriers and the ways in which we try to build up community are similar. What I found when I was doing social work was that I missed being able to connect my faith with my work.

One of my clients came to me asking whether or not his mom was in heaven with Jesus. We talked a bit about the ways in which we continue to be connected to people we love whether they are alive or dead. Shortly after that another client came to me saying that she was really angry with God about something that had happened in her life. We talked about the anger and how God can handle it even when it seems too much for us. My manager found out that these conversations were happening and I was told not to talk about faith at work. I was quite clear that I was not initiating the conversations and that I was not attempting to convert anyone but it didn’t matter. Faith was not allowed. There was a fear of offending someone. There was a fear I would be zealous in my faith and even though my faith might not be offensive someone else’s might be and therefore no faith was better. Shortly after this experience I started the discernment process towards becoming a minister. I could no longer live with a split between my faith and my vocation.

As I have grown into ministry and worked with many congregations I see this tension at work in congregations. My home congregation is closing even though they have lots of money in the bank. They were left a bequest, became afraid that they would close when the money was gone and so they focused on preserving their money. The fear of losing what they had became the thing that defined the congregation. They lost sight of how God could work through them.

One of the ways we can deal with fear is to try to control as many variables as possible. Our culture teaches us to be rational, to think clearly about any decision, to make sure we have answered all the possible questions. And that is what Herod does in the story. He goes looking for information because he is afraid. His response to fear is more control and our culture continues to teach this lesson. Herod wanted to hang on to the power he had and did so without consideration for violence and destruction of other lives. Life is never going to be good with Herod in power but it is what the people know. The fear feeds itself prevents positive change from happening.

But there is also another response to fear in this story. Imagine Mary and Joseph hearing that Herod was going to kill Jesus. Imagine the Magi’s fear that they have unintentionally put not just Jesus but many babies at risk by alerting Herod. They could try to hide in their houses. They could try to gather a group of townspeople and defend their community together. But they chose something else. They didn’t rationally think up a plan. Mary and Joseph responded to a dream and left everything and everyone they knew to live in another land. Not because it was particularly logical but because it had come to them in dream. They were drawn to the intuitive part of their faith, the part of their faith that spoke to them in dreams and visions.

We also need to be open to the part of our faith that speaks to us intuitively and that maybe isn’t as rational or concrete as we have been taught. This is the part of our faith that has the ability to transform lives and the world. It can be hard, even in a church community, to talk about God. In many cases our rationality trumps God. If we take God out of the equation then we are no different from the social work job I started with…One with good intentions but one that cuts us off from our source and our ability to dream. When we cut ourselves off from God we are no different from the culture around us.

I have been taught to value stability. In a world of constant change it might feel like we need a place of stability and the church should be that place. Stability does not equal abundance. Life under Herod was stable but not safe. Mary and Joseph setting off towards Egypt was neither safe nor stable and yet that journey allowed Jesus to live, to thrive and to become a gift to the world. We need to be able to risk the journey into the unknown.

We can choose only in the land ruled by fear or we can choose to follow Jesus even in the midst of that fear. Jesus invites us to live in two kingdoms at once: the kingdom that our culture creates around us and God’s kingdom. When you step into God’s kingdom things look different. No one requires you to be a part of the kingdom. It isn’t based on geography. You choose God’s kingdom because it is one of love and compassion and because in God’s kingdom we can imagine a world transformed into something better than what we have. Entering God’s kingdom allows us to let go of fear and open ourselves to the intuitive part of our faith. This is the part that we can’t necessarily explain.

This is an invitation that is open to all of us—from youngest to oldest. We are always welcome. When we choose God’s kingdom we often do it imperfectly. Even when we want to live in the kingdom Jesus creates we still hurt each other, we still respond with fear at particular moments, sometimes we can’t see the love and compassion that surrounds us and sometimes we do close ourselves off from the dreams and intuition that is necessary for faith.

We aren’t expected to get it right every moment. But as we come closer to Christmas and the birth of an infant king we are invited to choose whether we will live only by Herod’s rule of fear or whether we will live by Jesus’ way of compassion and love and fear transformed.