“When God Says, Run!” Matthew 2:13-23

How bad are things when even God says, “Run!”?  That’s the question I find myself asking as I read this story.  

The story of flight to Egypt and Herod’s intent towards the child comes at us like a dousing of cold water after the warm and glowing stillness of the strains of “Silent Night, Holy Night.”

Whatever happened to “All is calm?”   Here we read of Herod raging in anger.

Whatever happened to the “all is bright?”    Instead of confronting the powers of this world and bringing an end to the darkness, it looks like more dark times are still ahead.  The Holy Family is put to flight.  

Soldiers are given terrible orders and they are all too willing to carry them out without question!

Lives are disrupted and uncertainty enters the world even as the Christ child does, who must be whisked away from those in power.  The danger is real!

Herod the Great is not going tolerate a rival to his own power or legacy.  So, once again Joseph receives an angelic visitor in dream.

This time however, the message is not a reassuring, “do not be afraid.”

This time the message is “Run!”

            How bad is it when even God says, “Run!”?

This is part of the Christmas story too.   The part with which we perhaps have the most difficulty.

If Christ is born, and God is come down to earth, why do the nations rage still?

If the child born in the manger is the Prince of Peace, why do the prophecies of Isaiah not come to pass?   Why doesn’t war cease, and the lion lay down with the lamb?   Why doesn’t the venom stop flowing so the child could be safe?

Admit it, you wonder this as well.

We celebrate the birth of Christ and we expect the world to turn somehow, the magic to happen, and all to be set right again right away.

But here Matthew is reminding us of the deeper truth of Christmas, and that is that there is no such thing as magic.  

The powers of this world will not go quietly.   They will put up all the more of a fight when they feel threatened by God’s coming near.

Those who have accrued power, hoarded it, grasped for it and maneuvered long to have it, will not so easily let it go!

Did you really expect Herod to say, “oh, a new king is born, here, let me hand him my crown?”

Is it not all more typical for subterfuge to be employed.   “Tell me where you find him that I might worship him as well….”  

You can feel that dripping with malicious intent, and so could the wise men.

In this way God is much more of a realist than we are.

How bad do things have to be for even God to say “Run?”   

They have to be “humanly” bad.  

They have to be the kind of behavior that God has come to expect from a wayward and rebellious people since, well… since the Garden, since Cain and Abel, since the very beginning.

 Matthew insists in telling the story that the world was never really a safe place, and that is precisely why God must enter it in this fashion.

Transformation for this world will be real, and it will happen, but it does not do so “magically” as in a Hallmark movie of this season.

No, transforming lives and particularly this world will take time, and lifetimes, and so the groundwork is laid for transformations that will be 30 years and more in the making.  

God comes in the birth of Jesus, and Jesus receives an education, and the education is that the world is a dangerous place, and sometimes all you can do is run!

There is prophecy fulfilled in all of this (Matthew asserts), but more than prophecy, the events are also a way of pointing to experience.

Jesus will know what it is like to live in fear!  He will know (God will know!) what it is to be snatched away at a moment’s notice, to have to make your way to a new country and a new culture and to learn to adapt and feel what it is to be resented all along the way.

Jesus will be well acquainted with having to be on the move for one’s safety, one’s livelihood, and what it is like to live at the whims of the rich and the powerful.

Jesus will spend 30 years living under Roman occupation, and under Herod’s legacy, and he will get to know the way that this world works.   He will see its beauty yes, but also all of its injustices, and he will mark them as something to which he will have to speak. 

 When the time is fulfilled and John the Baptist points to him, Jesus will be ready.  He will be armed with a lifetime of experience of what it is to be human and what it is that humans can and will do to one another.  He will begin to teach and to talk about a new Kingdom, because he has seen and will dare to tell the truth about this broken one.

But the new Kingdom will not come in by magic.

It will come in by convincing, touching, and transforming — one disciple at a time.

The Kingdom will come in one gathering of the poor together, and those in sitting in mourning at a time.  They will hear him talk and make a promise about another possibility, where the poor are satisfied and no longer turned away, and the mourning have their joy and hope for the future restored.

The Kingdom Jesus proclaims will come in, but it will come in one teaching session, one interaction at a time, as people dare to ask what they too must do.  It will come in as one person hears what Jesus proposes, and idea that upends the way this world works and appeals as a better way.

Grudges are not held.

Payback is not given.

Counter-punches are not Jesus’ way, or the way of the Kingdom of God! 

Grace is the way of the Kingdom.

The asking of forgiveness is the way of the Kingdom of God.

The acknowledging of having done wrong and asking for forgiveness for things done and left undone, that is the way of the Kingdom of God.

Counter-punching at every turn, raging, holding on,– those are the marks of this world, the actions that Herod and those who are like him know so well and are quick to employ, and such actions leave suffering in their wake.

The Kingdom Jesus proclaims is one where there is turning of the other cheek, where wrongs done to you are not the opportunity to inflict more pain.

The Kingdome Jesus proclaims defaults to speaking the truth in love – in love!

“You lack only one thing…”  he will say to that rich young man when he comes to him, and he will say it with a look of love.   

“Sell your possession and give to those in need and come follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

This is how the Kingdom of God comes in, not with a magical feeling, or a heart growing three sizes in an instance, but rather with something more Grinch-like than we care to admit, and that is allowing Jesus to “puzzle our puzzler.”   

Jesus makes us ask if the ways of this world are really the only ways available to us.

Or, is there the possibility… of the Kingdom of God, doing things differently?

And if so, then “what must we do to inherit this Kingdom?”

Herod is a part to the Christmas story too, because we look at Herod and are appalled that anyone could and would stoop so low, do such thing to keep his grasp on power and hold on to what he has.

We are appalled especially, when Jesus “puzzles our puzzler” and says, “Well, aren’t you doing the same?”

Herod, as one scholar put it, “seems to lack a properly functioning conscience” – and that description could be applied to leaders we see in the world today, on both sides of the aisle.

It could also be applied to us.

We sometimes find ourselves lacking a “properly functioning conscience” when it comes to issues or events in this world.

We like to see to black and white, all or nothing, drop descriptors of the opposition that dismiss them.

We are wont to appeal to rules and regulations, laws and decrees that hold us blameless, or that oppress in a perfectly “legal” manner.   So, we label the border a “problem” and we talk about “illegals” rather than humanizing the situation and talking about people, brothers and sisters in Christ.  It assuages the conscience to disparage the “other.”   We name call and lump together and make assumptions.

All those are signs of a malfunctioning conscience, because to categorize and to divide and to blame and to demean are all signs that we cannot empathize, and it is empathy that is the hallmark of what Christmas and the Kingdom of God is all about.

 The whole reason that God is born as an infant is to become vulnerable and to feel what it is like to be us… to walk in this world.

So, that is what Jesus does.  Jesus will run because God tells him to!

He will run from Herod to discover what a life like a refugee is all about.

Jesus will run out to the desert, driven by the Spirit to spar with the devil and to learn the true nature of temptation, which is all about doing what would be good for you, and taking into consideration no one else.

He will run all over the countryside of Judea preaching, and healing and forgiving sins and learning what it is like to poor, a leper, a pharisee, or a scribe – one interaction at a time. 

He will run at the invitation to a meal and run from the crowds when they try to crown him an earthly king.

He will run to Tyre and Sidon and find out what it is like to be a woman and in great need, willing to do anything for her child, even argue with Son of God,  and what it is like to be dismissed and called (in so many words) – a dog. 

He will run to the well in Samaria to tell a woman everything about her life, and to let her taste the living waters when no one else would speak to her or give her the time of day.

Jesus will run back down to the Jerusalem for the Passover, and to confront the leaders from whom he was forced to run so many years ago as a child, but this time he will not run away, but rather run toward a destiny, and a cross, and a resurrection.

Jesus will do all of this “running” because God tells him to, and in the midst of all the running he will spread the good news of a Kingdom that says, “the way the world is working right now is NOT the way it has to be!”

And in the running, there will be the meeting, one to one, and the transformation, little by little of a world that is so weary with the way things are currently running.

And that is how Christmas happens.

Not by magic, but by one to one — those who choose to follow Jesus and tell the truth to the ways of this world, “this is not the way it has to run!”   God has a better idea, a Kingdom that is not of this world.

Reflections on Joseph Matthew 1:18-25

What is it about those who bear the name of “Joseph” in the scriptures?    The name itself is not one of great consequence or weight.

            Some names in the scriptures signal greatness.

            “Moses” in Hebrew translates to “Deliverer” or “One who draws out.”   His name was well suited for the task given of leading Israel out of Egypt’s bondage.

            “David” translates out to mean “Beloved”, so the name befits the most beloved of kings and leaders.

            “Jesus” means “Yahweh will save”, a significant name given to the one whom God sends into this world not to condemn the world, but to save it.

            One might expect therefore Joseph to carry some special meaning, but it roughly translates into “increaser.” 

That’s not the stellar, pregnant with meaning name one might expect.

            Still, those who bear the name of Joseph in the scriptures are called upon to do significant things without an awful lot of recognition for what they do.

            Joseph is the son of Jacob who has big dreams about who is to be, and is the favorite of his father, the recipient of the coveted “Coat.”   For his dreams and sharing them he is betrayed by his own brothers, sold into slavery, imprisoned, and every time it looks like things are looking up for him, he has his dreams dashed again.

            In the end all of that hardship turns out to be preparation a he is called upon to lead Egypt through plenty and time of want. 

            It is hard to imagine during which time it was harder to be a leader.

            Was it more difficult to lead in time of plenty, when the pressure was, such that the land was rich, abundance was everywhere, and instead of being able to enjoy it you had to tell people to squirrel away and be austere for leaner days?

            Or, was it harder to keep the spirits of people who were in want and famine up, metering out the stores laid up?

            I can’t imagine that either were easy, nor the mantle of leadership easily born. 

            Joseph must endure separation from family.

            Joseph must battle his own inclination to get back at brothers.

            Joseph must set the example of forgiveness, and naming that what others meant for evil, God was able to turn into good.

            It’s a remarkable thing to take the hardships delivered to you and to rise above them. 

            That’s Joseph in the Old Testament, a name that is soon forgotten we are told, by the very ones that he worked so hard to help.

            “There arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who no longer remembered Joseph.” The book of Exodus recounts, and so the stage is set for suffering, and bondage, and the need for a deliverer.

            Now in the New Testament the one who bears the name of Joseph is betrothed to Mary.  It was (in other words) an arranged marriage. 

            Perhaps there is love and courtship involved here.

            Perhaps it is simply the convenience of merging families, households, and properties.

            We do not know the details of any of that.

We only know that the one who bears the name of Joseph finds himself in a dilemma.   He discovers that his betrothed is with child already, and now, what to do about that?

            It is a burden he does not have to bear, and a complication he does not need or want. 

We are told by the Gospel writer Matthew that he has already quietly decided that the best course of action would be to send her away, let the baby be born, and then sort all this out away from the prying eyes and muttered whispers of neighbors.

There is always the temptation to keep things under wraps if at all possible, avoid the scandal, the embarrassment.

One named Joseph who is in no way remarkable, a carpenter by trade and not one who seeks the limelight would be expected to be discreet, and that would normally have been blessing enough, but the one who bears the name of Joseph is instead called upon by Angelic visitor to do more than the honorable thing.

He is called upon to do the difficult thing.

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

            There it is, ‘son of the beloved’ do not be afraid, rather embrace the difficult.

            Take Mary as you wife.

            Name this child as your own son, with the name that is significant.  Not your own name as would be customary, but rather with the name that befits the God who has sent him.

            It is a remarkable thing, when you think about it, to be called upon to take on the responsibility that is not really yours, to endure the looks and whispers that will undoubtedly come as people do simple math about when the child is born. 

            He had the Angels’ visitation, to be sure, but that was in the state of dream, and who has not heard or seen things in dreams that were not later questioned?

            That’s the Joseph of this story, an unremarkable person who does remarkable things will little more to go on than a dream and a sense of honor and duty.

            And that would be probably enough to admire about the one named Joseph, if the scriptures had not given us another one who bears that name to look at and remember.

            Joseph of Arimathea.

            Maybe you are having a hard time remembering this Joseph, for his part is small, almost an afterthought.   The Gospels of Mark and John both speak of him.

            Mark tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a respected member of the Council in Jerusalem, who became a follower of Jesus in secret.   He was attracted to the message, to the man, to the teachings, but while Jesus walked and taught he chose to remain in the background timidly.

            I suppose we relate well to this Joseph ourselves.

            We believe in Jesus’ teachings; we just don’t feel the need to put ourselves out there for them.

            We find comfort in the words of Jesus but are satisfied to be an admirer from a distance.  No need to get all fanatical, after all.

            It is safer from a distance.  We can set our level of commitment, how much we are involved.

            Joseph of Arimathea would likely have gone unnoticed if the story of Jesus had played out differently, if Jesus had been a wisdom teacher who had lived to a ripe old age.

            But Jesus was crucified, and it is that event that transforms this Joseph from a quiet, background follower to one who thrust himself into the world of risk and vulnerability.

            It is Joseph of Arimathea, this tepid background follower who screws up his courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus after the crucifixion.

            The Gospels in the resurrection accounts will record the actions of the women who attended, who waited and watched, and who came to the tomb with spices to anoint the body and to be the first witnesses to the resurrection.

            The book of Acts will be filled with the bold actions of the other disciples and the apostles who carried the message to the ends of the earth.  We will hear of Peter preaching, James  and John leading, Philip baptizing, Stephen serving tables and preaching, Paul confronting and teaching.   We will read of their exploits and marvel at the courage they displayed to spread the word.

            But the first act of courage, that is reserved for the one named Joseph, who could not simply let the body hang exposed.

            The first act of courage in the face of public opinion and opposition to the state, that is reserved for the one named Joseph who goes to Pilate and makes a request.

            The first act of compassion toward the crucified is reserved for the one named Joseph, who takes the body down from the cross and puts it into his own tomb, a remarkable act of generosity and devotion, and it comes from someone who spent his life previously not wanting to be seen too close to Jesus.

            So, what is our take away this Advent from reflecting on those named Joseph?

            Maybe it is this.  Whatever your name, whatever your dream, whatever your sense of duty or your reluctance, God is wound into your name too.

            There is nothing special about the name of Joseph, but those who bore that name were called upon to do extraordinary things.

            No matter who common or of no consequence you may think you are, God is able to weave into your name and into your story and empower you as well.

            To bring good to of what was intended for evil.

            To act with integrity and steadfastness, when common sense would dictate other options.

            To step up to the powers and authorities that bluster and bully, doing what it right even if you’ve been timid up to this point.

            Today we remember the other Christmas story, where things do not appear so magical or miraculous, but where with eyes to see we behold God at working, with and under decisions made and actions taken.

            It’s another Christmas story, not told with stars or shepherds or angelic voices, but rather the one we can connect with.

            God coming to sustain us in the weariness, to give us courage in the difficulties, and to help us simply do what is decent and right with little fanfare or reward.

            It’s not the Christmas story we’re used to.

            But in these days, it very well may be the Christmas story we need.

Repent?? Is That Even Possible? Matthew 3:1-12

What to do with John?  

          We hear from him every Advent season as he comes to us, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

          I don’t think it is the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” part that befuddles us.  

          We get that part all too well, for the world seems to us a vast wilderness these days, and it is filled with people crying out in it.

          There are climate scientists crying out warning that something must be done!   Carbon levels must be reduced, the ice caps are melting, the climate is changing, and the oceans are dying!

          There are others who cry that climate change is all a hoax.  The earth has warmed and cooled in the past, and it will again.  We need not be reactionary or alarmist.  What is more important, and what must be paid attention to is economic growth and maintaining the quality of life and the standard of living!

          There are voices that call for impeachment because of abuse of power and conduct unbecoming a President of the United States, and on the other side there are voices that defend the President’s actions.  They cry “witch hunt” and “hoax” and point to what appears to be an obsession with the opposition to undo lawful elections.

          There are voices in the wilderness of this world that cry out for justice, and others that cry out for a keeping of the status quo, –a cry to not upset the order of things as they are and have always been.

          We hear voices that decry the policies on immigration that separate families, build useless walls, and ignore the suffering of neighbors.   ‘

At the same time, we hear counter voices that speak of securing borders and maintaining sovereignty, and the right of every nation to determine their population.

          We hear voices that cry out about racial inequality, and voices that respond that they are tired of hearing the “race card” being played for what appears to be every societal ill.

          We hear voices crying out about income inequality, and voices that respond that the stock market has never been higher!

          No, there are no shortage of voices crying out in the wilderness of this wide and wild world! 

          We cringe at the cacophony.  We shudder at the sheer number of voices crying for our attention and even cringe a bit when we hear this story read again, for it is a story of dividing and judging.

John asserts that a time is coming when accounts will be called for, an axe is already laid at the roots of the tree, a time for fire, and winnowing and sorting out of things. 

We feel the polarizing echoes of his words, recognize them in our own time.

So, when John shows up “crying in the wilderness” once again in our Advent journey, we are tempted to just tune him out and turn him off just as we are tempted to do with all such cries that are confusing to us these days.

Who is one to listen to?  

What to do with John?

          “He is just one more inciter of controversy.   I really don’t need John in my life, another person stirring up the water right before Christmas.” 

          All of Judea and Jerusalem are going out to see John, (so we are told). 

It might have been because he was a bit of a curiosity, what with his strange dress and diet and all.   

Or it might have been because when someone cries in the wilderness, you can’t help but wonder a little bit about what it is they have to say.

We will, (after all) watch people, listen to them, follow their tweets and posts just to see what it is that they come up with next.

If John wasn’t baptizing the repentant, he was cussing out the unrepentant. 

          “You brood of Vipers” is not the standard greeting that one is supposed to give the otherwise respectable leaders and Temple authorities.

I suppose if it were the modern day and the President of the United States had gone out to see John, the Secret Service would have been quickly dispatched to assess John’s threat level.   

Certainly, that is what Herod did.   

He found John to be a high enough credible threat that he had him arrested, bringing an end to all of this “crying in the wilderness” business once and for all.

          And truth be told, we’d likely be in favor of that ourselves.

          We’d like someone to shut up the talking heads.

          We’d like someone to cut through the controversy, to give us a definitive answer to things, and to lift us once and for all out of this fog of competing voices and shouts.

          I imagine that at least half of all Jerusalem and Judea were relieved when Herod arrested John and imprisoned him.  

          “There.  That puts an end to that nonsense!”

          Except, it didn’t, and it doesn’t.

          Jesus comes in the wake of John’s preparation, and it is the same set of controversies and the same players all over again. 

          It appears that you don’t silence the voices crying out by stifling them, one side or the other.

          That’s why the “voice of one crying” part of this gospel reading doesn’t baffle us.  We are quite confident that those who shout (whatever it is they happen to be shouting) will keep on doing just that….shouting!

          No, what baffles us is what John calls for, and what we find hardest to believe in this story, and in our own wilderness experiences these days.

          That is the matter of repentance.

          For, if John is crying out, he is not doing so for his own health and well-being.  John cries out to call people to repentance in advance of the coming Kingdom, and he is doing so because he firmly believes in the promise that God can transform people’s lives.

          The baptism he provides is one that leads to repentance, which is all about people changing their minds, or their direction.

John firmly believes that the changing of hearts and minds is possible as the Kingdom of God draws near.

          Do we believe that?

          I think that this is the question for Advent with which we struggle, the question that we’re not so sure about in the cacophony of shouts in our own world and wilderness today.

          Can people truly change, or be changed?

          Is repentance even possible anymore?

          Do we believe that of others?

          More importantly, do we believe it of ourselves?   Do we think that we can change, or do we just write others and ourselves off as lost causes in the wilderness of this world?

          This is the Advent question that John comes to address.

          In dramatic fashion, with the plunging of people down into the waters of the river Jordan, John says, “you CAN be transformed!”

          In dramatic fashion, with wild cries in the wilderness, John proclaims “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven as come near!”  

          God is getting close, cozying up to this world again, and that will bring change, and you are invited into that change.  It’s already coming close, look hills are going to be leveled, paths are going to be made straight, nothing gets in the way of God… not even you!

          Not you, you brood of vipers, who come out here so smug and self-assured in your power and your own authority.  Who warned you?   Bear fruit that befits repentance!

          Not you, people of Judea and Jerusalem who come out here amidst the shouting inquiring about curiosities.

          If all God wanted was children of Abraham?   Well, heck, God could make those from the rocks littering the ground.

No, what God wants is you!   Which means, that repentance is possible!  

          If God could do the impossible (turning stones into children) then don’t you think God could also help you change your mind?  Change your neighbor’s mind?  Change the direction of this world from incessant shouting to one voice, one people, one Kingdom?

          This is the message that John wants us to hear, the one we aren’t so sure we believe in ourselves.

          Transformation is real!

          God can take the dead and make them live again!   He will do so through Jesus, show us that.

          God can change the heart of the most recalcitrant cynic!

God can give hope to the most despondent of individuals!

God can bring in a Kingdom based not on the noise of this world but rather on the harmonies of heaven, and it starts right here, right now, with a call to repentance!

No, not just a call… an invitation.

          You can change!

          You can be changed!

          The world can be changed, transformed, every valley lifted up, every hill brought low, and all of it so that God can come near and transform — you!

          Even you, you brood of vipers, the ones who weren’t supposed to hear the warning, you come down here and be baptized and God can transform you from those who will oppose to those who will follow. 

          We will see that in Nicodemus, and in Joseph of Arimithea, and in countless others who are cut to the quick when Peter preaches after Jesus’ ascension and pleads with him, “What must we do?”

          What to do with John?

          Listen to him, not so much for the words he says as for the message he brings. 

          God is not done with this world, and you can be redeemed.

          Take the plunge!

          Turn the heart!

          Look for the coming!

          Judgment has already been made about you, and the judgment is this:  “You are worth God sending his only Son for….”

          Get ready for it.  The Kingdom of heaven has come near, and this Kingdom is for you.