What Hope Can You Offer?

girl looking out from behind door
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/royryap/2336782175/">Roy Yap</a>

Galatians 1:1-5

A letter from Paul (and the rest of God’s family here with me), an Apostle whose authority is not connected with any human certification process or any human organization, but comes from Jesus himself, and from God who brought him back to life, to the gatherings in Galatia.

May God, who is our parent, and Jesus, who gave himself for our wrongdoing so that we could be free from the current mess the world is in, grant you grace and peace. That’s what God wanted. May God be forever acclaimed. Yes, may it be so.

As we look at Paul’s difficulties, perhaps one of the most fruitful possibilities is to learn from his mistakes.

Galatians is one of the earliest letters we have from Paul. (1 Thessalonians may be earlier, but it’s really a toss-up.) Perhaps what’s so astonishing about it is how things have gone so quickly sour. Already, it’s to the point that there is a broadly held misgiving among the churches throughout an entire region that Paul isn’t really a bona fide apostle. And who could blame them for being a little suspicious? After all, he wasn’t one of the twelve. To make matters worse, he wasn’t even in agreement with the twelve about a great many things.

Right at the beginning of this letter, Paul has to legitimate his claim to be an apostle, and the only legitimation he can give is that he has a vision straight from God. It was a hard sell then, and it’s still a hard sell now.

What buys Paul an audience, though, is his promise to make a case that Jesus can somehow get us out of the mess the world is in. If he can make a convincing case for that – well, maybe we’ll be able to believe the part about his direct line to God. It’s a hard case to make in just six short chapters.

So, what can we take away from this? An offer of hope trumps a claim to authority. Every time.

Instead of standing on ceremony, or insisting on credentials, or pulling rank, what hope can you offer the world today?

Believe It or Not?

view from space of US east coast
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nasaearthobservatory/6389520921/">NASA</a>

Isaiah 40:21-31

You don’t know?
You haven’t heard?
Nobody’s ever told you the story from the beginning?
You haven’t understood the rudiments of creation?

It’s God who sits above the great circle of the earth,
From whose perspective people are like ants,
Who hangs the heavens like hanging curtains,
Who unfolds the sky like unfolding a tent,
Who makes even princes into nobodies,
And who nullifies the laws of kings.

They’re hardly planted,
Hardly have they hit the ground,
Hardly have they sprouted,
Hardly have they taken root,
When God blows on them
And they wither,
And the wind blows them away like grass clippings.

“Who will you compare me to?
Who is my equal?” God asks.
“Raise your eyes to the sky and see.
Who created all this?”

God brings out the whole panoply of stars
Numbers them,
Names them,
And because God is so powerful,
So awesome,
Not a single one goes missing.

How can you say, Jacob –
Israel, how can you talk like:
“God can’t see where I am,”
And “God has let my rights be ignored”?
You don’t know?
You haven’t heard?
God is forever,
The maker of everything that is.
God doesn’t get worn out or tired.
God knows more than you can even guess.
God empowers the worn out,
God revives the beat down.

Even teenagers get tired and pass out.
Even young people crash when they’re exhausted.
But those who live in God
Renew their strength,
They take off like eagles,
They run without tiring,
They walk without feinting.

This is Isaiah’s answer to the defeatist, “we can’t” attitude.

To put it into context, this is the opening scene of Israel’s return from exile. Permission has been granted to return home, but it’s going to be a long trip. Many of those who are contemplating making it are old. They’ve lived in exile most, if not all, their lives. They’ve been beat down all their lives. Now, though the way is open, some are saying, “Never mind. It’s too hard. It’s too far. We can’t. We just don’t have the energy.”

Against this tide of defeatism, the prophet reasserts that what they cannot do on their own can be done by God’s strength and help. Even the teenagers and the youngest people are going to get tired out on a trip of this magnitude. Never mind, God will provide strength for the journey.

Behind this particular story of one community’s grappling with whether they are ready to make a journey home is the story of everyone who ever had to consider taking on a task that seemed, before it began, too great a thing to even bother considering. The question for every person, and every community, behind this story is: am I (or are we) going to attempt the thing we’ve always dreamed of doing. Even for those who don’t believe in God, the question remains: Do we believe the world we dream of is worth the effort and risk and sacrifice to attempt bringing it about?

To consider that kind of question, the prophet suggests that what we really need to take stock of is whether we really believe in the viability of the worldview we say we believe in. For the Israelites (and for people who believe in their God), the question is: Do we really believe what we say we do when it comes to our God’s ability to get us through this? We’ve heard the stories of God’s deliverance and power. Do we really believe them, or are they just stories? Because if we believe them, then we are responsible to act on that belief. Whatever you believe in, it’s time to put your effort where your faith is.

Believe it, or not?

Find that Child

the boy Jesus?
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/emeryjl/511063411/">James Emery</a>

Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) while Herod was king, diplomats from somewhere in the “-stans” came to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where are you hiding the new Israeli king? A rogue satellite signal suggests that he’s here, and we’ve come to establish diplomatic relations.”

When King Herod heard this, he was outraged, and not just Herod, but all Jerusalem. He gathered his top advisors and asked, “What’s this about a new king? And where is he?”

They told him, “Probably in Bethlehem. That’s where the truth-tellers are saying: ‘Bethlehem in the West Bank, you’re not as insignificant as you think! That’s where the leader of the uprising will come from.'”

So Herod called for the diplomats, and found out what their intelligence said. And then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and find this prodigy, and then let me know, too, so I can also establish relations with him.”

Hearing this, they set out, following their satellite signal until its coordinates lined up with where the child was. And when they saw they were in the right place, trembling with excitement, they went in and found the child, with his mother, Mary. They followed their protocol for meeting with a great leader, and then presented gifts: money, medicine, and medical supplies. And, being warned in a secret cable, not to return to Herod, they left for their own country in secret.

The situation in the West Bank today is every bit as charged as it was when Jesus was growing up there. Imagine what kind of international chaos would break out if diplomats from the Taliban approached Prime Minister Netanyahu wanting to know where to find the new Palestinian rebel leader – because they had “reliable intelligence” unavailable to Israel.

That’s this story. And whose to say the Israelis wouldn’t send in the crack troops to take out all the Palestinian kids in Bethlehem if they thought it was a matter of national security?

Never mind that historians of that day, Josephus and the rest, never mention these actual events taking place. The story Matthew tells sets the stage for us to understand the issues Jesus came to address, and to help us understand why the movement Jesus started was so different from the regimes in power.

And why it was so feared by them. And why they used such brutal and excessive force to put it down.

Understand this story, and you’ll understand everything from the police response to OWS, to the pictures coming out of Egypt, to the modern Chinese response to dissidents.

Find that child, and you’ll have found the key to a whole new world.

[Hint: Which child in your neighborhood is the one they don’t want to make it to adulthood? That’s the one you’re looking for.]

God’s Children… Are Everywhere

Photo credit: Riza Nugraha

Luke 1:5-7

Once upon a time, when Herod was the king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zack who belonged to the Order of God’s Children. He lived with his wife, Liz, who was descended from Aaron. Both of them lived godly lives, and had clean records so far as the religious rules and regulations were concerned. But they were childless. Liz had been unable to get pregnant, and by now they were both very old.

After setting the reader up to expect a well-documented history, the story opens with lines reminiscent of a fairy tale. In fact, the story of the virtuous aging childless couple has been told many times before. It’s in the Bible. It’s Abraham and Sarah’s story (Genesis 15:1-3). It’s Ramathaim and Hannah’s story (1 Samuel 1:1-2). But it goes beyond the Bible.

It is told as far away from the Bible’s ancient near east as the native Hawaiians in the story of Lau-Ka-Ieie, complete with the promised child delivered to transform sadness into joy. (A beautiful modern re-telling of it is here.)

Why? Because childlessness is a common human condition. And so is the universal human hope that a future is possible, even when all efforts at playing by the rules have failed and it’s getting near the end.

As such children born to childless couples are signs of that hope fulfilled. They come as gifts from God. They are cherished. Great things are expected of them.

But from there it’s only a small step to realize that really every child is a child of promise. Every child is born of a childless couple. Every child is, according to the name of Zack’s priestly order, God’s child.

So, when every child is cherished as the divine sign of a promise fulfilled, and when every child is expected to achieve great things, the promised future really is born into the world.

Even when all the other attempts have failed.
Even when it’s getting near the end.