9th Day of Christmas: Unfolding – Luke 2:21-33

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon opened his eyes and all he saw was darkness. He woke up every morning at the same time for as long as he could remember. He unfolded his blanket away from his frail body and slowly made his way out of bed. Every morning, it took him longer to get to his feet than the one before. He wondered how many more mornings he had in left him. Simeon was now an old man who long ago made peace with God and with death. He had lived a long and full life, and now he was ready for it to come to an end.

Simeon was a patient man; faithful too. God’s Spirit had come to him and told him that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. God had told Simeon that the one who would come to redeem Israel was on the way. God would send a savior to the world who would deliver the people from their hardship and comfort their restlessness.

But God had told him this a while ago. Simeon had been waiting years.

Simeon wondered, just like he did every day, whether today would be the day. God’s window of opportunity was, frankly, getting smaller. Simeon was somewhere in his eighties, and his body never let him forget that. He slipped on his robes and stepped outside.  It was morning in Jerusalem, but the sun’s rays had not yet stretched over the hills.

Simeon breathed in deeply. Mornings were his favorite part of the day. He wrapped the scarf around his head just a little tighter, and he began his daily journey to the Temple. There was a chill in the air that Simeon loved. The cool air invigorated him and helped him forget his own weariness—this day-after-day vigilance. God had blessed Simeon with a great promise, one he was humbled to receive, but, to be honest, waiting this long for God to deliver on this promise was stressful for him. Plus, he wondered how he would know what to look for. Simeon had no idea what a messiah looked like. He had a hard time trusting that one day he would just stumble upon a messiah unwittingly. How would this unfold? What if he missed it? What if he already had?

Simeon had decided that God uses us in ways that surpass even our own understanding, but still God needs us to pay attention. “Simeon” was an old name that means “he who hears”. He was a vigilant man. His eyes and ears were wide open, so that he was better able to see and hear what God was doing right in front of him.

Simeon listened closely, he looked around.

A reflection by Pat Ryan.

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

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7th Day of Christmas: Show-Down – Matthew 25:31-46

I have heard of Messianic Jews who helped sneak supplies into Bethlehem during the second-Intifada siege. The only Messianic Jew I met was a shell-games tour-guide who was recruited as ‘balance’ for my boss’s speech in West Jerusalem. He kept insisting that my boss go first, who in-turn insisted that he go first until Zoughbi finally agreed to go first.

Z told my favorite story, about his daughter confronting the soldiers during the siege and how her older cousin yelled at her to stand-down and go inside. Later, as he apologized to the tearful little girl, she was heard to have said, “sorry is not enough: I need chocolate!” Z was making a point about gestures of restitution as part of the reconciliation process.

This gentleman began to talk about how his father came to be a Messianic Jew but gradually outlined an identity completely composed of persecutions, of being defined ‘other’, and claiming a salvation made of injuries. Our ‘balance’ decided to make a point of saying that life is about persevering through “suffering, not about chocolate”. Z glanced at me and smirked. I was sorry that I had doubted his suspicions earlier, when I wanted to believe this ‘balance’ would be gracious.

Like many, I have been so naive as to expect graciousness rather than being gratefully amazed when I do (at times) see it from these characters. “They usually want to go first,” said Z, “so that they can leave before they have to listen to me.” What our ‘counterpart’ got from Christ’s ministry was part of a greater narrative of masochism. If it isn’t about how much one can succeed it is about how much they can suffer: me, myself, I.

His Messiah was made of suffering, with the promise of redemption in proportion. There is the fore-taste of substitutional atonement but even that quickly fades to older notions, after-tastes, of particularism in suffering as much as in being chosen, so that I felt sorry for this man because it seems as if his belief in Christ was based on his ability to reject any grace or blessing. Even less, to give graces or blessings. Suffering is one part of The Way but it is not the end-goal of The Way.

During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience mentioned that they had visited a school and an orphanage earlier in the day and wondered what he thought they could do to benefit the children. Looking back, this was a perfect set-up. Our ‘balance’ offered that there was nothing to do but prepare them for the realities of a second-coming. I tapped Z on the elbow and asked him to let me rebut. I quoted the passage from Matthew, reminding them that they could
invest in ‘the least of these’, both financially and relationally, and continue their visits. For anyone who knows Christ as a teacher, not just a body bleeding on a piece of wood, it was obvious. If you have chocolate to give, share the chocolate together. Find Jesus in the way we heal and are healed.

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Paraphrased: I was pouty and you gave me chocolate. Grace.

If we look for our Messiah on a cross or in a manger, we will find only places he has been. He told us himself he would be in ‘the least of these’ whenever they were in need. As for those Jews who smuggled in supplies when my Palestinian friends needed them, I think they might find the same Lord I do. I wish the best chocolates upon them.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

1st Day of Christmas: A New Pledge of Allegiance – Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased their joy; they rejoice before you as with the joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

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. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his Kingdom.

After more than a month of rushing around like crazy people, buying gifts for our loved ones, our colleagues, our pets–after our marathon run to shopping centers, continuously investing ourselves in the world’s version of Christmas, sometimes we get to the end and wonder how we lost ourselves once again.

After the frenzy of the shopping season and the hustle and bustle of all the ways we celebrate Christmas, after opening our gifts on Christmas Day, we sometimes sit in silence and wonder why we worked ourselves up into a frenzy for something that ends so quickly.

At some point each year we realize all of the ways we got tricked once again by letting our culture tell us how to celebrate our Holy Days.

These words from Isaiah stun us into silence and make us feel a bit foolish.

This is no “Jesus is the reason for the season” message I’m bringing to you. I think that phrase is just as tired as the over-consumerism of Christmas. And dare I say, just as empty. These words from Isaiah teach us something different about our faith than any bullshit rhyming bumper sticker phrase out there.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

These words from the prophet Isaiah tell us about a new order among the people. They are a desperate shout through the ages, and they tell us about the real meaning of Christmas, that light will one day chase out darkness—that meaning will one day replace meaninglessness.

Christmas according to Isaiah is about the ever-present hope for a Messiah to come and invade the world with new purpose and direction—to come and occupy this world with the divine peace and justice it so desperately needs.

Isaiah hoped for a new order for our world, and his hope is one that echoes through the ages and still has the power to cut through the gift wrapping paper-thin veneer of an over-commercialized Christmas.

These words from the prophet Isaiah urge us to shift our perspective and to open our eyes. They are words that tell of a coming light—a light that chases out the dark, that show us the way out of our meaninglessness, that reveals to us the One who has come to teach us allegiance to a new order for our lives.

This Christmas, the coming of our King means that we are invited to turn away from the noisy promises and promise-makers that have invaded both our Christmas celebrations and the world in which we live, and instead pledge our allegiance to the One who offers us our greatest promise.

Merry Christmas to all!

A reflection by Pat Ryan

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

21st Day of Advent: Messiah II – Zephaniah 3:14-20

Ah, soiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God.

The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.

The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame. – Zephaniah 3:1-5

Zephaniah understands 21st century Jerusalem perfectly. Verse 2 hits with a special resonance. Cast against the backdrop of Advent, I cannot help but think about what Israel, past and present, wanted from a Messiah. That Messiah is the consummation of the power-cycle, where Israel dominates as it has been dominated. Do you feel me yet? That Messiah is the leather belt in the hand of the abused, becoming the abuser. Sometimes, I fear that those who speak triumphantly of the second-coming are tapping into the same perverse hope, bringing Christianity into the cycle: illusions of grandeur, by any means necessary. Christian Zionism, the self-fulfilling prophesy-effects, the inevitable fall.

I visited the Mount of Temptation this week and remembered Luke chapter 4. As much as I think the Messiah concept was a show of human perverseness, God’s prevenient grace was at work from the cave in Bethlehem to the one in Jericho where our teacher, Jesus, was raised to take over that prophesy and use it for God’s perfect purposes. The Adversary came from the depths of, perhaps, Christ’s own mind, and tempted him to be the Messiah that was wanted instead of the Messiah that was needed. Jesus refused to consummate the cycle: He broke the cycle! God redeemed our hopes with a better vision. He is immaculate.

3:18-19 remain a beautiful possibility to this day.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all of your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

God promises to deal harshly with the oppressors and to save the weak and helpless ones–I think we can lend a hand. Are not our oppressors, on some level, also weak and helpless? Here are promises to gather those who are chased away, giving glory and fame to the exiles, restoring the name of these people. It’s easy to fall into the trite interpretation that the nation of Israel is permanently in exile, in need of restoration, but what if Israel’s name could be restored by breaking free from the drunkenness of perpetual victimhood? What if Israel regained its honor not by expecting to be restored but by restoring those they have exiled?

Whether oppressed or oppressor, we do find a metaphor for ‘self’ in Israel. How can we free ourselves by freeing others? I know one Jew who dared to take collective responsibility and refused to continue the cycle–even under the condition of Roman occupation.

Jesus’s vision was not a campaign to end his oppressor but a ministry against oppression itself. When so many in his audience wanted their problems to be manifest in foreign armies who could be slain, Jesus was able to see beyond those misconceptions of ‘other’ and understand that the true adversary was within, to be defeated by self-death.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

16th Day of Advent: Advent According to Anna – Luke 2:36-38 and Isaiah 12:2-6

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on God’s name; make known God’s deeds among the nations; proclaim that God’s name is exalted. — Isaiah 12:4

Anna spent every day of her life in the Temple. She knew who came and who went, and her eyes were peeled. Along with Simeon, she was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Anna spent her days speaking, sometimes shouting at the top of her lungs, that God had not abandoned the people. But as Anna looked around, she mourned the direction that things were moving in.

The Caesars and the Herods ruled Jerusalem with an iron fist. Rome occupied the Holy city of Jerusalem. Even the King of the Jews, Herod, did everything Caesar wanted him to do. There were no princes, or kings, or rulers who had any concern for the well-being of the common people, and as long these cruel leaders were in control, there was no consolation for Israel and no redemption for Jerusalem.

Anna saw what was happening in the Temple, too. The signs of power and greed that were overtaking the region had begun to overtake the Temple itself. Money changers overcrowded the corridors of the Temple, each of them profiting off of every transaction. Exploiting poor peasants like Mary and Joseph was an everyday practice for the Temple money changers. Merchants were selling animals for sacrifice at unfair prices.

Anna spoke against this type of sin. This was God’s Temple and God was never interested in these kinds of riches. Anna was concerned that wealth was becoming the peoples’ new salvation and greed their new God.  But Anna knew that real salvation never involved collecting more and more. Salvation was about how God’s love frees us to give more and more of ourselves to one another.

Anna hoped for a new type of power, one that changed people’s hearts—one that brought princes to their knees and made the rulers of the earth into nothing. The only kind of power mighty enough to bring down princes, kings, and the occupying Roman authorities would have to come from God. What Anna hoped for was a Messiah.

The Messiah would be someone who would come from among the people and speak for the people, who would give them a voice, and a new way to see how God works among God’s people. The Messiah, Anna hoped, would usher in a new kingdom.  One stronger and more meaningful than any that had ever existed before.  Not one that exploited the people, but one that raised them up and freed them.

Anna waited in the temple for the one who would come to redeem us all.

Anna listened closely, she looked around. The promises of God were about to unfold before her.

A reflection by Pat Ryan.

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

13th Day of Advent: Malachi’s Messiah

I believe that prophesies are frameworks–outlines that could reach their fullness in a number of different ways. The Creator makes different choices than we would, even with our own ideas. As time passes, the unwelcome words of prophets ferment into wishful thinking. The bias is in the hearer: we are only human.

Malachi’s Messiah is a force apart, purifying Israel. The Golden Gate, next to Al-Aqsa mosque, is bricked-over as if to symbolically preclude Malachi’s messiah. But Malachi was not the only prophet talking about the need for a Messiah. Yet by the time Jesus came, and even in the centuries since, he was rejected by so many. The Messiah had turned from a force for accountability to a virtual super-hero: Captain Israel. I’m not joking… there is a Captain Israel comic book. It’s just as silly as it sounds, by the way.

Jesus has no laser vision but his gaze will burn our faults. Christ’s arms had no super-human strength to break the cross that he hung upon, but his divine heart kept them pinned there as a testimony to his commitment. Indeed, Malachi’s description is directly in-step with the Jesus we know: a refining fire for all those whose pride has bound them. He is a force of justice for widows, the cheated, and the foreigner.

However, now more than ever, we are enamored with instant solutions. Perhaps this lust for ease undergirds the myths of redemptive violence that permeate our country–the idea that we could explode and shoot our way to a solution. We might also delude ourselves that grace works automatically, without our need to actively accept and live through grace each day. We should be older and wiser by now: nothing of quality was ever achieved quickly.

The refinement Jesus brings to us is challenging, sometimes even ugly, and requires our commitment. Jesus offered to share a yoke with us, not pull us in a wagon. We have to daily undertake the work of realizing what it means to have a Messiah like Jesus and how we are going to be the body of Christ that day. The fruits of our sweaty labor are beautiful, though, beyond what can be portrayed in books.

In the mean time, Christmas is a good time to remember that everyone begins as a child. Christ reminds us again and again throughout the Gospel how important it is to understand ourselves as children of this Kingdom.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from@Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

12th Day of Advent: A Very Mumford Advent – Luke 4:18-19

In Advent we reflect on two realities. We remember the anticipation of the first coming of the Messiah and the birth of Jesus. However, at the same time, we also anticipate the second coming of Jesus and the fulfillment of his Kingdom here on earth. When Jesus began his ministry, he began with these words from Luke, chapter 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

This is what Christmas is! It’s not about a cute baby in a wooden manger, or tinsel trimmed-trees, or eggnog and Christmas cookies. It is the God of love breaking into our world–breaking into our humanity–and living among us. It is about this God of love coming to set us free. Jesus was born to die. Jesus was born to set us free.

And when I hear Mumford and Sons sing in their song “Sigh No More”,

Love–it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
it will set you free, be more like the man you were made to be.

I think to myself, this is what the Christian life is really about. This is what Jesus’ life here on earth is about. This is what Christmas is really about. When we invite Christ into our lives–when we allow him to work–we become all that God made us to be. We are set free from our sins and from the things that ensnare us and hold us in bondage. And that only happens through the love of God at work in our lives.

But it does not stop there.

This love. This God living among us. This freedom.

It is not meant to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to be shared. And Mumford and Sons sings of this eloquently in Awake My Soul:

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.
Where you invest your love, you invest your life

So where will you invest your love this Christmas?

Will you invest it in the rush of the season, the giving of gifts, the baking of yet another dozen cookies?

Or will you invest it in something more–in something that lasts? Will you share with others the real joy and meaning of Christmas?

Will you take time to experience this for yourself, once again?

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com