And on earth peace

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File:NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise.jpgThe Twenty-fifth Day of December

Luke 2:14

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

“Peace among those whom he favors.” So here is the question as we listen to this text; do the angels speak peace upon those who have earned favor in God’s sight or upon those whom God has chosen to bless wit his favor? And if the latter, are they certain people – the poor, the vulnerable, the faithful in Israel upon whom God has decided to show favor? Or is God declaring his favor upon all humanity?

The Greek won’t answer that question. We have to decide based upon everything else we have learned in the scriptures and in Jesus. Is God partisan? Or is God universal? And don’t get sidetracked by whether everyone will be “saved”, the question here is about God. Is the good news for all creation or only for some select few?

You can build a religious system based upon the privilege of a few, or your can build a faith and way of life based on God’s mercy to all.

Privilege is so seductive. Who doesn’t want to be one of the few who will merit the gates of heaven? Who doesn’t want to imagine that we are special? We are, indeed, special in God’s eyes – but if everyone is special, how can I feel morally or religiously superior? No, we want to be among the insiders. We want to know that we are better than.

This is why it is so important that the first to hear the song of the angels were shepherds. They were not “better than”. These are not noble shepherds caring for their sheep. These are poor people who must be away from their families. They are viewed suspiciously as cheats and thieves who graze on land that belongs to others or who will take advantage of a lone traveler passing by. These are people who are not home at night to protect the honor of their wives and daughters. These are people from the wrong side of the tracks. These are ‘those people’, undeserving people.

But it is to these that the angelic announcement comes. As it comes to Zechariah and Elizabeth. As it comes to Mary, a peasant girl in a backwater town. As it comes to Simeon and Anna in the temple. As it comes to the poor and outcast and stranger throughout the gospels.

The angels are bearing testimony to the God who shows grace to us all, who announces peace to the whole creation, who invites us to go to Bethlehem and see, who invites us to walk in the way of peace.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Fill our hearts with your Spirit,
and guide our steps in the way of that day
when Christ shall reign in every heart
and all creation shall dwell in your peace.

– The prayer for Week 4: A Journey towards Peace

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise.jpg NASA/Bill Anders [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The Journey towards Peace

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File:Abendstimmung-friedensmal.jpgThe Twenty-fourth Day of December

Isaiah 9:6

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

One of the congregations I served was named “Prince of Peace.” Though it was a happy congregation, we never really made much of our name. I regret that. It was simply the name of our congregation – easily abbreviated to PoP – rather than the shaping identity of our community and ministry.

What would it have meant for us to wear that name consciously? How would it have shaped our ministry if we focused on peace and peace-making? If we saw ourselves as agents of peace in a world where it is too often absent?

We tend to want to avoid conflict rather than be those commissioned to bring peace. And we tend to hope for peace to happen by itself (or by some miracle) rather than take up the hard work of making it.   We settle for the absence of open conflict and a polite “Hi, how are you?” And when trouble brews it’s far easier, we imagine, to walk away than to call it out and work it through.

So the idea of this child who is the prince of peace sounds wonderful – until he is grown and asks us to journey with him towards peace, until he asks us to forgive those who sin against us even seventy-seven times. Or to turn the other cheek. Or to welcome the stranger. Or to love our enemies.

The journey towards God is a journey towards neighbor is a journey towards joy is a journey into peace more enduring than the mountains. And the journey towards peace is a journey towards the neighbor and the gritty, cross-bearing, life-giving, joyful work of making peace. But it is the gift of the Christ child. And it is the future he brings.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Fill our hearts with your Spirit,
and guide our steps in the way of that day
when Christ shall reign in every heart
and all creation shall dwell in your peace.

– The prayer for Week 4: A Journey towards Peace

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abendstimmung-friedensmal.jpg Bluetom68 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

A covenant of peace

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File:Sunrise in Pieniny, Poland 01.jpgThe Twenty-third Day of December

Isaiah 54:10

For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD, who has compassion on you.

The prophet has spoken of the days of Noah when God made a covenant with humanity and with every living creaturepromising God would never again seek to destroy all life. Though the human heart is bent out of shape, though violence infests God’s good creation, God has hung up God’s archer’s bow. God made a solemn and abiding promise never again to make war on the world.

With the prophet’s words, Israel’s exile is laid next to that primal flood that judged a world filled with violence, where every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” Israel’s failure to remain faithful to the God who delivered them from bondage, their abandonment of God’s command to show faithfulness and mercy to one another, their worship of power and wealth like the nations around them, could only be compared to the rampage of sin that nearly destroyed us all.

But, like the days of Noah, God turns back from judgment. God remains faithful. God announces peace.

Israel’s cataclysmic departure from God’s command to care for the earth and one another that led to the destruction of temple, king and priesthood and their eviction from the land at the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians is met with a promise: “my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed.”

A covenant of peace. A solemn binding vow. God is not and never will be our enemy. God’s purpose is healing. God’s purpose is reconciliation. God’s purpose is peace.

This the angels will sing at the birth of Jesus. This the shepherds will witness. Simeon and Anna will rejoice. Disciples will come, puzzled but compelled to leave their nets and live for a world made new. The poor will be lifted up. Outcasts will be gathered in. Gentiles will be received. Sinners will be forgiven. The broken will be healed. The hungry will be fed. The might of Rome will fail to stop the promise of peace. Death will lose its hold. The Spirit of God will be poured out. All nations will hear and rejoice.

A covenant of peace.

The journey towards God is a journey towards neighbor is a journey towards joy is a journey into peace more enduring than the mountains.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Fill our hearts with your Spirit,
and guide our steps in the way of that day
when Christ shall reign in every heart
and all creation shall dwell in your peace.

– The prayer for Week 4: A Journey towards Peace

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sunrise_in_Pieniny,_Poland_01.jpg Pudelek [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Like hinds’ feet

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File:Mule deer standing on a scenic hillside.jpgThe Twenty-second Day of December

Habakkuk 3:19

GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

I camped once, while backpacking, beneath a steep hillside near a streambed flowing to the ocean. It was a nice spot, sheltered from the ocean winds. In the early evening I heard a rustle in the brush above me and there, halfway up the not quite cliff, were a few small deer grazing peacefully. I think of them when I read this verse: “he makes my feet like the feet of a deer.” I couldn’t have stood where these deer stood, but they were on firm ground.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” says the prophet. In places others might fall, the Lord keeps him steady. Rooted. Grounded. Steadfast is the nice Biblical term. It doesn’t mean stubborn or recalcitrant, just unshaken by life’s fortunes and misfortunes.

I know what it is to have little,” writes Paul to the Philippians, “and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” He stood on firm ground – or better, the God upon whom he rested was firm ground. Paul was imprisoned multiple times. He survived beatings and earthquakes and shipwrecks. He knew what it was to be hated. He had been attacked by angry mobs and betrayed by sisters and brothers in Christ who feared he was destroying Israel’s faith. But the ground beneath him was firm. God made his feet like a hinds’ feet.

The prophet’s words aren’t meant to accuse us when we feel unsteady before life’s challenges – as if having feet like hind’s feet were a matter of will. The prophet’s words are about God making our feet steady, about God being stable ground on which to stand. It is an invitation to trust the journey that takes us towards God and neighbor, the journey that grounds us in joy.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you.

– The prayer for Week 3: A Journey towards Joy

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mule_deer_standing_on_a_scenic_hillside.jpg Ryan Hagerty [Public domain]

An ordinary abundance

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File:Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - Children in a Wheat Field.jpgThe Twenty-first Day of December

Micah 4:4

They shall all sit under their own vines
and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

“Under their own vines and under their own fig trees” is a three thousand year old way of saying “a chicken in every pot.” It is the promise of an ordinary abundance. It is the promise of a good life: vines for wine and a fig tree for sweetness. It is the adjunct to beating “swords into plowshares” and “spears into pruning-hooks.” It is a life without the sorrows of war or the distress of disease. No one is homeless. No one is hungry. No families are rent by tragedy. No violence mars the goodness God intended for us. No fear rends the community. Children laugh. Elders smile. Lovers delight. The lion lies down with the lamb. And it is all waiting for us in Christ Jesus. It is all born in the manger.

It is joy in its sweetness, joy in its majesty, joy in its perfection. “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you.

– The prayer for Week 3: A Journey towards Joy

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Government_Press_Office_(GPO)_-_Children_in_a_Wheat_Field.jpg Government Press Office (Israel) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

As the waters cover the sea

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File:Caribbean Sea - Long Exposure.jpgThe Twentieth Day of December

Isaiah 11:9

They will not hurt or destroy
….on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
….as the waters cover the sea.

One of the most tragic notes in scripture is the judgment at the time of Noah: Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” And the flood doesn’t change the world. When Noah has come out of the ark and the blessing at the dawn of time is spoken anew: Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,” then comes the shadow of a world still deeply broken: The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered.” Where once we had walked together in the garden; now God’s creatures live in fear of us. Where humans and the creatures once ate only the produce of the earth, now we kill and eat one another.

The rainbow stands. God will not destroy us. God will not make war against all living things. But there are wounds in his hands and side.

Isaiah lived in a time when the faith of the nation seemed lost and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were spiraling towards their destruction. But the prophet saw more than the coming judgment at the brutal hand of Assyria. The prophet saw the purpose of God to heal this wounded and fearful world. A king shall come to reign in righteousness. “And the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” It will no longer be violence that fills the earth – from the big violence of wars and terrors to the tragic violence that poisons the land and its people, to the little everyday violences of cruel and thoughtless words – it will no longer be violence that fills the earth. Now the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD: the knowledge of grace, the knowledge of compassion, the knowledge of generosity and courage, the knowledge of joy – like the waters cover the sea.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you.

– The prayer for Week 3: A Journey towards Joy

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caribbean_Sea_-_Long_Exposure.jpg Martin Falbisoner [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Come and see

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File:A woman and her child look through a bamboo fence.jpgThe Nineteenth Day of December

Isaiah 33:17

Your eyes will see the king in his beauty;
….they will behold a land that stretches far away.

I love the poetry of this verse, especially the line: “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty”. The prophet’s message most likely comes twenty years after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, in 701 BCE when King Hezekiah joined an alliance at Egypt’s instigation to rebel against their Assyrian overlord. Sennacherib invaded Judah, stripped away forty-six fortified cities and besieged Jerusalem. The king looted the temple to pay tribute to stop the campaign, stripping even the temple doors of its gold leaf.

But the prophet says, “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty”. Not the troubled and frightened kings with rent robes and sackcloth, not the idolatrous kings praying to gods of wealth and power, not the fallen kings led away in chains into exile, “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty”. Your eyes will see the king clothed in royal array, faithful and steadfast, reigning in peace over a land that has not been cut down and carved off in pieces to other nations, but “a land that stretches far away.”

And as this verse echoes through the ages full of hope for that day when all things are made new, it alights on the child of Bethlehem. Here is “the king in his beauty.” Here is the silent and holy night. Here is the peace that endures. Here are open arms extended to poor and outcast shepherds. Here the heavens shine brightly and angels sing. Here is the dawn of grace. Here is our joy.

When told about Jesus, Nathanael asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Philip answered simply, Come and see.”

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you.

– The prayer for Week 3: A Journey towards Joy

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_woman_and_her_child_look_through_a_bamboo_fence.jpg MONUSCO Photos [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Your everlasting light

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File:Loojangu värvid 2.jpgThe Eighteenth Day of December

Isaiah 60:19

The sun shall no longer be your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night;
but the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.

Winters were hard in Detroit, not because of the snow and ice, but because the sun was a rare visitor. The skies were overcast for months. I remember one January day when the sun broke through the clouds for fifteen minutes and everyone rushed to the windows to bask in its warmth.

In a world with electricity we are not so dependent on the sun for light (or, at least, that’s the illusion. The sun is the source of energy to the plants that became our oil and coal, remember). A flick of the switch and we are able to read, cook, wash, play, love. When camping we get a taste of the reality of darkness. There is not much to do once the sun goes down. Stories around the fire and a few smores last a while, but then we go to bed to wait for the sun.

Darkness also meant danger: from wild animals, from violence, from things that go bump in the night. Moonlight may be bright, but it is full of shadows. There is a reason ancient cities closed their gates at night, just as we lock our doors.

To think of God as our everlasting light is to imagine the radiance of God filling all creation with light and life. It is a world without shadows, without fear, without cold. It is a world of freedom and grace, of abundance and peace, of love and joy.

The journey to God, to neighbor, to Bethlehem is a journey towards such joy.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you.

– The prayer for Week 3: A Journey towards Joy

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loojangu_v%C3%A4rvid_2.jpg Kristoffer Vaikla [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

God will come; God is come

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File:LA2 juleljus.jpgThe Seventeenth Day of December

Zechariah 2:10

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion!
For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst,
says the Lord.

The temple remained in ruins for a long time after the first exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. The altar was restored. The foundations of the temple were laid with great joy. But zeal faded in the face of political opposition from their neighbors and the hard realities of life in the land. The temple that had once been the preeminent sign of God’s presence now cast a pall over the people. Its ruins spoke of a divine favor lost; God’s glory had departed from them.

The world ran on. Cambyses succeeded Cyrus as king of Persia. Darius I followed Cambyses. Armies marched. Schemes were hatched. Royal officials demanded tribute. People plowed the ground and hoped for rain. They fed their flocks on the hillsides. They made marriage alliances to protect themselves against the predations of local lords and raiders. Sorrows visited and occasional joys. Life was what it was.

And then God calls them to sing. The prophet announces that God is coming to dwell in their midst.

It is the message spoken by the prophets. It is the message given by Gabriel to Mary. It is the message given to shepherds on the hillside. It is the reason magi travel from afar. It is the reason John writes “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

God will come. God is come. Into every sorrow God will come; God is come. Into every fear God will come. Into every shadow the light will shine. Into every fear peace will speak. Into ever hunger bread is broken. Into every troubled heart grace will dawn. God will come. God is come. There is a child. There is an empty tomb. There is a risen Lord breathing out his Spirit and declaring “I am with you always.”

The journey towards God that is a journey towards neighbor is a journey towards joy.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you.

– The prayer for Week 3: A Journey towards Joy

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LA2_juleljus.jpg LA2 [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

We journey towards joy

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File:Syrian Desert (5079756828).jpgThe Sixteenth Day of December

Isaiah 35:3-4

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!’

Between Babylon and Jerusalem lies the Syrian Desert. The journey is some 750 milesif you tried to go straight across. For some clue to this distance and landscape, picture yourself walking US 50, the loneliest road in America, from Carson City across Nevada to the Utah border – and then back.

The exiles in Babylon were far from home, captives among those who had desecrated and destroyed their temple and city. The city of promise had become a “haunt of jackals.” Are the weak hands and fearful hearts the reality of a broken people? Are they resigned to a brutal world and afraid to hope? Or is it the journey itself across that desert that makes their knees weak?

Yes, there is another path, north and west along the Euphrates and then down, kind of like the path of I-80 near the Humboldt River, but the danger and difficulty of the pilgrimage remains.

It is a daring message in Isaiah 35, promising the flowering of the wilderness, the nighty arm of God, and a ransomed people returning with singing. Yet Babylon fell and the way opened for a new beginning.

It was a daring message for Moses to give the people to pack their bags and eat their Passover meal with shoes on. But the path through the sea was opened.

It is a daring message that the child of Bethlehem is the face of the eternal, that his outstretched arms are the measure of divine love, and that the might of Rome and the power of the grave could not hold him. But it did not.

It is a daring message that our destiny is not tears but life. It is a daring message that it is not power that triumphs but love. It is a daring message that we journey towards joy. But we journey towards joy.

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Bring the desert to full bloom,
and fill with joy our path to you.

– The prayer for Week 3: A Journey towards Joy

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Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syrian_Desert_(5079756828).jpg yeowatzup [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%DA%AF%D9%84%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%8A_%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%B4%D9%8A_%D9%86%D8%B2%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%83_%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%A8_%D8%B3%D9%88%D9%84%DA%AF%D8%A7%D9%86_-_panoramio.jpg Farid Atar [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D