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A sermon preached at Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church, 18 July 2021

If you’re following the teaching given here over these last few weeks, you’ll know that we’re immersed in a sermon series on the ‘one another’ passages of the New Testament. There are many of them and we’re able to touch on a few.

It’s important for us to take on board that these ‘one another ‘passages—do this to or for each other—are about forming and nourishing health and unity within a community that we as followers of Jesus have committed to. For most of us, that community is Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church.

I’ve chosen to speak this morning on the instruction we receive from two apostles to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’ or in one case ‘greet one another with a kiss of love’.

This may be the first sermon about kissing that you’ve ever heard. I assure you it’s the first one I’ve ever preached.

In fact, if you were to miss today’s sermon on kissing, it’s likely you’d have a thirty- or forty-year wait until the next one rolls around.

Here’s one of our five passages where this kissing instruction comes to us in the letters of the apostles who shaped and instructed the first Christian communities:

Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

2 Corinthians 13.11-14

Now the fact that you’ve probably never heard a sermon about kissing and the fact that I’ve never before preached one doesn’t mean that the apostles had little or nothing to say about kissing. On the contrary, the text I’ve just read is just one of five that are like it. Nearly word for word like it.

The Apostle Paul writes the same instruction at the end of four different letters, each one identical with the others: Greet one another with a holy kiss.

Peter also weighs in on the topic of kissing, although his expression is a little different. He says Greet one another with a kiss of love.

Each time, this summons to kissing comes near the end of a letter when the apostle is wrapping things up. Every single one of these Kiss Commands comes in the context of lots of other greetings. For example, have a listen of how absolutely social the apostle Paul is sounding as he makes his way to the end of his long letter to the Romans.

Rom. 16:3   Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia,3 my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers5 who are with them. 15Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

Romans 16.3-16

You get the picture, right? There is something very important for Paul in each community’s web of connections with other communities and other Christians and with Paul himself.

Whatever this Holy Kiss is about, it has something to do with being consciously connected with other Christians. This is not just about your spiritual health or mine.

We could put it another way: The order to greet each other with a Holy Kiss only makes sense if we are Jesus-People-in-Community.

So let’s start by recognizing that.

In fact, let’s stick a pin in that and give it a name. Let’s make it a first declaration this morning: 

Holy Kissing is for connected people. 

Here’s a second truth: Kissing is intimate.

I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to talk about this in public. It’s not a topic that’s natural to me. But I think I probably have to say one or two things about it, so here we go…

For starters … this could get awkward fast … there are a lot of ways to kiss somebody.

But every one of them is in some way intimate.

Just to declare the obvious, you can’t really kiss more than one person at a time. Faces aren’t big enough for that. So there’s already intimacy in the simple fact that kissing is a one-on-one enterprise. 

But we can say more about the intimacy that’s native to kissing. 

You can’t kiss from a distance.

You’re exposing your moist lips in close contact with another person’s similarly moist lips … or at least their face. Unless you’re blowing a kiss … which is really just a kind of theatrical imitation of a real kiss … you’re getting very close to the person you’re kissing. If they have a scent or a smell, it comes into your nose. It’s inevitable because you’re that close. You’re momentarily that intimate. If they’re sick, you’ll get what they have. If they sneeze at the wrong time, it’ll be all over you. Depending on the kind of kiss, you may even taste the other person as well as smell them. If they have hair, it may brush your eyes.

Do you see what I mean? Kissing is inevitably intimate, will you grant me that?

So Paul, who is distant from people he cares about, spends a lot of time sending greetings, because he’s not close enough to kiss them and sometimes he’s in prison. But when he turns to the inside of a community—whether at Corinth or Rome or Thessalonica—he says, ‘Look, you guys can get close. I don’t have that privilege. So, you guys, when you gather, greet each other with a kiss.

He’s commanding a kind of intimacy within the Christian community that he’s just spent a lot of ink instructing how to live together and how to live on mission. And he does it over and over again. Something about this practice … this social ritual … this discipline … this kiss … seems to be really important to Paul.

Holy Kissing is for connected people … 

…and….

Kissing is intimate.

But it would be a terrible thing to stop here.

Think about this with me: all kinds of wild and crazy communities could applaud this instruction if what we’ve looked at so far were all Paul was saying … and in some cases they’d be very far from being Christian communities.

There’s one very important … consistently recurring … feature of Paul’s instruction that we haven’t talked about yet. Can you sense what it is?

Paul says, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss.’

In recent weeks, I’ve worked hard to understand what Paul means by adding the adjective holy to the noun kiss. He does this in all four of his exhortations to community kissing, so it can’t be a casual or mindless move. He has something very important in mind. 

Otherwise, his command would be to greet each other by kissing instead of greet one another with a holy kiss.

I believe his point in consistently calling for a holy kiss is community-building restraint.

I did say, did I not, that this kiss is not about your or my pleasure or spiritual health?

holy kiss is intimacy within limits. There’s a time for kissing without limits, as there is a moment for intimacy without limits. Our own bodies and urges and passions, the way God created us to be, lead us in this direction. And if we need biblical guidance on this, the very sensual book called Song of Solomon makes clear that God values passionate love between a husband and a wife, even urges it, even delights in it. He created the thing, after all. He knows what he’s talking about.

But the holy kiss that communicates greeting … welcome … in a community of Jesus followers enacts intimacy within limits.

It welcomes. It is a way of ‘seeing’ the person who arrives at the door of the community or of the community’s gathering. It makes eye contact and then it makes lip contact or at least cheek contact (the ‘Air Kiss’) or at least feigned cheek contact (the ‘Air Kiss Plus’).

I remember the awkward thrill when I moved to Costa Rica with a young family in 1988 and learned that in that culture a man always greets a woman with a kiss. But I was instructed that you don’t actually let your lips touch a woman’s cheek unless you know her very well or are family with her.

Instead, you touch cheeks and you kiss the air, like this. 

Then—a little later I learned the shades and nuances of this kind of kissed greeting. I learned to do what I’m going to demonstrate here. In fact, I became quite an expert at it … I fancied myself the Rocky Balboa of the Air Kiss Plus.

[Demonstrate the Air Kiss +]

Do you see what I did there? I didn’t actually touch the woman’s cheek, nor did my hand actually touch her shoulder. Both of those things almost happened, but they didn’t really happen. It is the Goldilocks Moment in Costa Rican kissed greetings. And, among expats in Costa Rica, I considered myself a bit of a rock star for getting it just right.

I was an absolutely amazing Almost Kisser.

The woman felt properly greeted. I felt like the world’s best holy kisser. And no boundaries had been crossed.


It was awesome.

This is not too far, I think, from what Paul means when he insists that in the communities that look to him for apostolic leadership, we greet each other with a holy kiss. I think Peter’s community, which is instructed to greet each other with a kiss of love, would have been practicing the same community-building intimacy with restraint.

Can you begin to imagine how this works?

When we come together as God’s New Israel, as his little flock, as Jesus’ community, we don’t just let people find their way in and take a seat, literally or figuratively. We notice them. We see them. In Paul’s and Peter’s day, we kiss them.

The holy kiss notices … offers intimacy … with the kind of restraint that builds community.

The intimacy is important. The restraint is important. And, together, both create and construct a community where Jesus is Lord and people are at home.

Let’s work towards some concrete take-aways:

As a dude, I wouldn’t welcome a new couple into my Community Group, discover that Mr. Smith works at Pratt and Mrs. Smith is a stay-at-home wife and mother, and then invite Mrs. Smith to go whale watching while Mr. Smith is at work. It wouldn’t be appropriate, mainly because it wouldn’t build community. It might be intimate. But it would be divisive. It would be weird. It wouldn’t be holy in the way that a holy kiss is holy. It would be intimacy without the community-nourishing limits.

holy kiss nourishes intimacy and builds community. It is both one-on-one and broadly social. It is both intimate and public (observable).

Let me take a little bit of a detour:

I’ve noticed over the years that guys, in particular, begin to do two things when they come into Christian faith and Christian community. They begin to sing. And they start to hug.

Both would have been awkward and alien for most guys before Jesus became their Lord. Both are a little bit out there. A little bit alien. Yet Christian guys begin to do both.

I think this is very close to what Paul is getting at with his instructions about greeting with a holy kiss. We are invited to get out there a little and sing … and hug. But we do so in ways that are public and restrained because we’re building community.

We hardly need to be asked to do this. We just do it. It’s natural. It’s good. It’s holy.

So … how come we don’t kiss each other today?

I don’t think it’s because we don’t see each other, although in a Western, individualistic culture, we must always be aware of that tendency. By default, we do make all things about my or your individual convenience or pleasure or spiritual health.

So why don’t we kiss?

Well, most of us are products of a culture that is not overly tactile … touch-oriented. We place a very high value on independence … on personal space.

Somehow, perhaps also in part because we live in an overly sexualized environment, we’ve decided (without really consciously deciding) that a kiss would not build community. It would be weird.

There’s some value in pausing to think about this. Contrary to what some Christians claim, we don’t just read our Bibles literally and go do what the Bible says. People who imagine that this kind of literal reading and implementation of what we’ve read is Christian obedience have not yet thought hard enough. We’re far more selective than that. We pass everything we find in the Bible through a couple of prisms before we act. And we should. We must.

One of those prisms is culture. Culture doesn’t get the final word, but it gets a word. I’m not sure God is concerned that we begin right now to flaunt our cultural norms and begin kissing each other as we gather together. 

But if we’re not going to start kissing each other as our standard greeting, how do we submit obediently to this apostolic instruction?

Here are some practical ways in which I think we practice this odd apostolic instruction.

  • We greet intentionally and verbally.
  • We touch.
  • We make unhurried eye contact.
  • We learn each other’s names and we use them.
  • We shake hands. (There’s more than one way to do this. Personally, I love the firm handshake with the forearm twist … or the shoulder-squeeze twist.)
  • We hug.
  • We ask questions and listen for the answer.

That is to say, we construct Christian community by practicing both intimacy and restraint.

What we do not do … what we must stop doing if it’s become our habit … is to wander in and out with our eyes down, our hands in our pockets, and our hearts playing defense.

We must not do that.

There is room for introverts and extroverts in this practice of Christian greeting. There is space both for the Natural Hugger and the Reserved. But there is no room for untended fear or enmity or distance.

We must open up. We must, figuratively if not literally, learn to kiss one another … in holiness and with all due restraint but also with an openness to the crazy-good new things that happen when we begin to pay attention … to make eye contact … to embrace the other … to become family … to get outside ourselves and care more for the interests of the other than for our own.

When we do this, we’re not merely being nice. We are practicing the same hospitality with which Jesus welcomes us into his company. Into his embrace.

So, if I may: Brothers and sisters … sons and daughters of the living God … servants of our Lord Jesus Christ … spiritual family … Greet one another. Greet one another with a kiss. Greet one another with a holy kiss.

Thus ends the first sermon on kissing that you have likely ever heard.

May our Lord make us family. 

 

Benediction

2 Corinthians 13:14   The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Questions for Community Groups

  1. How do you express appropriate intimacy when you greet someone in our Christian community?
  2. In the light of the instruction to greet one another with a holy kiss, how do we currently err on the side of being too reserved?
  3. Are you aware of any practices in our community or in another where we err on the side of unrestrainedintimacy in greeting or welcoming?
  4. What kind of welcome in our cultural context would communicate that ‘this is a place where Jesus is Lord and you are at home’?

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coyotes in snow

We sat differently at breakfast this morning in this new old house, this Connecticut experiment, this place in the woods.

Our muscles still ached just a bit from yesterday’s load of furniture moved in and pushed around, aided by generous friends as the snow came down in earnest. Now to reap the fruit of our labors.

We perched on a new bench stationed on the side of the table that allows us to peer out over our backyard and into the woods from the rectangle off the kitchen that has now become The Breakfast Room.

The trees are winter-resplendent in their uncomplaining bearing up of two inches of snow, a mere sprinkling for New Englanders but remarkable enough to draw grateful eyes to the beauty of it all. You can see through the woods this time of year, an unveiling of fauna that must have our animals on their toes, or should. I remarked that if any animals moved about in those woods this morning, we’d spot them easily against the white upturning on the other valleyside of our fair-weather stream.

No cameras were at hand, but if this ain’t the spittin’ image.

It was an observation, not an expectation.

Yet not a minute later something moved. I grabbed the nearby binoculars and spotted a nice-sized coyote making his way slowly, right to left across the woods just beyond our rock wall, unaware of our admiration. No, two! No, three coyotes shuffling along from somewhere to somewhere, wild and beautiful!

They looked like German Shepherds, and were about that size. If one didn’t know better, you might even hear ‘Wolves!’ ring out in our amazement. But we do know better.

These were the coyotes who made short work of poor Morris the Deer, cleaning up his body to leave a med-school laboratory’s worth of pristine skeleton, then days later leaving no trace even of bone, just scattered fur here and there as mute testimony to Morris’ majestic life and inglorious death.

It’s amazing to me that from the inside warmth of this house, we become spectators of a wildness that moves the soul on a winter’s morning, hinting at other and deeper wildnesses that haunt this neighborhood, this state, this planet.

Who would have thought it when we said our tearful goodbyes to that other old house out in Indiana and came to this old house in New England’s generous woods?

Coyotes in the snow.

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Claramente una reflexión sobre la narrativa de la creación del Génesis 1, el ‘salmo del aleluya’ que está enumerado como el 148 del salterio trae toda la creación en su vórtice doxológico.

Tal como es costumbre en la alabanza bíblica, el salmo deconstruye las mitologías reinantes que se muestran como representaciones incuestionables de la realidad. El sol, la luna y las estrellas, por ejemplo, no están simplemente despojados de su presunto poder sobre los seres humanos. Eso ya se ha logrado en Génesis 1. Aquí, el asunto va un paso más allá: se unen en la alabanza a YHWH, y esto debido a un motivo interesante: “porque él mandó y fueron creados”.

Ya no hay poderes que temer, escudriñar y manipular, ahora los cuerpos celestiales ocupan su lugar en la congregación de los adoradores, junto a los hijos e hijas de Israel.


¡Aleluya! ¡Alabado sea el Señor!

Alaben al Señor desde los cielos,
    alábenlo desde las alturas.
Alábenlo, todos sus ángeles,
    alábenlo, todos sus ejércitos.
Alábenlo, sol y luna,
    alábenlo, estrellas luminosas.
Alábenlo ustedes, altísimos cielos,
    y ustedes, las aguas que están sobre los cielos.
Sea alabado el nombre del Señor,
    porque él dio una orden y todo fue creado.
Todo quedó afirmado para siempre;
    emitió un decreto que no será abolido.

(Salmo 148:1-6 NVI)

Desconozco alguna construcción similar, en la que los seres y objetos creados más potentes se entreguen a la doxología agradecida por el simple hecho de haber sido creados soberanamente. Es un acto supremo de reconfiguración, aunque no de humillación. Los cuerpos celestiales se unen a la “hueste celestial” angélica más personal, al ser ubicados firmemente en el lado creado de la bifurcación de la creación del Creador. No representan para YHWH ninguna competencia en el departamento de la soberanía. Por el contrario, lo alaban tan fuerte como cualquier otro de la multitud reunida.

El punto de la unicidad de YHWH es nuevamente traído a colación cerca de la conclusión del salmo. Tomando un lenguaje que es común tanto a Isaías como a los salmos, el poema se complace explícitamente en el dialecto monoteísta:

Alaben el nombre del Señor,
porque solo su nombre es excelso;
su esplendor está por encima de la tierra y de los cielos.

¡Él ha dado poder a su pueblo!
¡A él sea la alabanza de todos sus fieles,
de los hijos de Israel, su pueblo cercano!
¡Aleluya! ¡Alabado sea el Señor!

(Salmo 148:13-14 NVI)

Así que el monoteísmo bíblico toma forma en el contexto de la adoración. Rara vez se expresa prosaicamente o incluso teóricamente. Más bien la poesía y la alabanza reconocen el lugar único de YHWH como el único ser digno de adoración, el único poder al que todos los demás voluntariamente se inclinan, el único que se contrapone a la creación.

El aleluya, en un mundo así, se convierte en la palabra más digna. Sólo ella es capaz de ordenar a la creación con precisión. Se convierte en el contexto doxológico en el que el ser encuentra su significado.

Incluso el sol, la luna y las estrellas lo dicen, y con alegría.

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(Genesis 12.1-3)

A sermon preached at the Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church
22 November 2022

We don’t often think of hope as a thing to be endured.

Received, maybe. You can receive hope from the hands of an encourager.

Exercised, yes, I can see that. You can rise up on your hind legs in the midst of difficulty and exercise hope even when circumstances aren’t making much of a contribution to fostering it.

But endured? Is hope really a thing to be endured.

Well, somehow, hope endured has come to be the title of our Missions Emphasis Month here at Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church in this Year of Covid-19. Although it’s the first half of this sermon’s title, I didn’t invent the phrase … hope endured. Pastor Scott tells me he had nothing to do with it either. Frankly, I don’t know where it comes from. Yet hope endured fits what God has laid on my heart for this morning. It fits like a glove.

When I saw it I thought to myself that It’s a Festivus miracle, as some of you old Seinfelders might also be tempted to intone.

And, in fact, I think it is a small but precious miracle. Because, as one of your missionaries and maybe even on behalf of others of us, I want to talk to you about hope that we endure.

I’m not talking about hope that is always happy hope … not mindless optimism. But rather an empowering, resilient hope that brings with it a whole package of pain, brings with it the challenge to endure what our Maker is doing when we might have preferred a different path, hope that unmakes us and then recreates us as we submit to it. Hope endured.

It may or may not surprise you that there are not many missionaries in the story I want us to consider this morning. On a Missions Emphasis month, with a missionary speaker, aren’t there supposed to be lots of missionaries? Well, we’re in this story, but it’s not a story about us.

Yet there is a mission. It’s not our mission. It’s what many today are capturing with the expression the mission of God. Or if you want to dress it up a little, you might call it, as some do, the missio Dei. The mission of God.

Now, to be specific, I want to talk this morning about three things under the umbrella of hope endured:

First of all, I want to talk about our Creator’s end game: God blesses. That might sound like bumper-sticker frothiness, but I have in mind something much more sober and purposeful and redemptive than that.

Second, we’ll see where a human being is for the first time drawn explicitly into the mission of God to bless all nations in spite of the chaos that reigned even in his remote moment in the ancient world. At the beginning of the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis—the Bible’s very first book—a total nothingburger of a man named Abram is called to initiate humankind’s conscious participation in the mission of God. We know that man as Abraham, and it’s right to think of him as our father. 

Finally, I want to make what might sound to you like the absurd claim that history—even the tiny fragment of it we call ‘2020’—is right on track … that the mission of God is right on track. That’s a case that won’t be easy for me to make.

In all of this, I hope that we’ll end up with a clarified vision of hope endured. And be prepared to lean into that hope, no matter the personal cost it might ask of us.

The Creator’s End Game: God Blesses

Do you understand that God is on a mission to see all the peoples of the earth enjoy the deep blessing that comes from knowing and serving him … from living gratefully under his care? The Bible has a word for that … it calls that blessing shalom. It’s a word that prods at the joy and satisfaction that human beings experience when things are as they should be, when everyone has enough, when people live transparently in life-giving relationship with God and with each other, when hands cannot keep themselves from lifting up in gratitude for all that has been received.

God will have that outcome. He’ll have that shalom for all nations. He’ll never sacrifice that divine purpose.

He has a name, this God. He invites us to call him Yahweh, which means ‘the One who makes himself powerfully present’ or, more informally, ‘the One who keeps showing up’. 

Before we even know his name, we find him in the Bible’s account of beginnings, of first things. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but those early chapters of our book of Genesis, where we learn about beginnings … the why and the who and the what for of them in particular… were not written in a vacuum. No, those first pages of our Bible were inked in a time when all peoples had their own stories of beginnings. 

In those stories, the gods create in order to exploit … in order to employ … in order to use … in order to abuse. In a context like that, the Bible’s story of beginnings is a minority report. It is a version of events that is best described in a phrase I’ll borrow from my late father, who would sometimes say: ‘Them’s fightin’ words’.

The Bible’s account of beginnings gets up in the face of those existing tales of how the world came to be and says to the custodians of all other origins stories, ‘No, that’s just wrong!’ For starters, there is only one God. He made everything noble and good and beautiful, if you want to know more.

And you know what he does as soon as he makes … as soon as he creates

He blesses!

Gen. 1:20   And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”

Gen. 1:27     So God created man in his own image,

                  in the image of God he created him;

                  male and female he created them.

Gen. 1:28   And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Gen. 2:1   Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

This is the first thing the Bible teaches us about the God it labors to present to us. And this determination to bless lines up with everything else we learn about him in its pages. This is who he is! The other gods, this Genesis story cries out, are not like this God. When they act, they do so for their own selfish and corrupt reasons. When this God creates, he does so in order to bless.

That’s a whole different universe.

Them’s fightin’ words … They’re a way of declaring that the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not like other gods. He is good and generous and purposeful. He blesses. This is the first thing we learn about God in Scripture. It may be the most important thing we can know about him.

Genesis rumbles on, as you know, and soon we learn that …

God is on a mission … so, therefore is Abraham … and, in consequence, so are we.

But as we learn this, we also learn that blessing is never easy. Nor is the hope that believes and insists and proclaims that God is like this. Hope, which in a shattered world leads to eventual blessing, is always something to be endured.

The Lord’s intention to bless eventually drew his gaze to this Abram guy, who would in the most outrageous way imaginable become the father of all who would put their trust in Yahweh, in the God who showed up when Abram had no reason to expect Him.

In those first verses of Genesis 12, Yahweh brings Abraham into his own mission to bless the nations. Yahweh asks Abraham to abandon all that he knew and all that he was and to follow the direction of Yahweh’s invasion of his life into a place and a future and a mission that would only become clear in time:

Gen. 12:1   Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Do you see how the Lord’s command peels the layers of Abram’s identity as though peeling an onion? ESV: your country … your kindred … your father’s house. These are the three primary loyalties… primal identify markers of a man in the ancient world. You didn’t carry a passport back then. But you knew where you belonged.

It’s an order that some of us who have been called to be missionaries can understand a little bit from the inside.

More importantly, and for all of us, it was for Abraham and it is for all his sons and daughters a blessing to be endured.

Don’t miss the effect that Abraham’s obedience will have on the world as he joins himself to the mission of God:

3. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Scholars puzzle over that last phrase … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. They ask themselves, how is that to happen? What is the role of those families who find blessing in Abraham?

The best of them, in my judgment, see in this promise the active and conscious identification of those families of the earth with Abraham and his offspring. That is, these families of the earth opt in to Abraham’s chosenness in some way. They join with Abraham in participating in what Yahweh is doing in his world and so find the Lord’s blessing.

In this first book of the Bible, we begin to glimpse a Creator who is passionately committed to blessing his world. In fact, blessing his world is the God of the Bible’s end game. The Bible begins on this note. If you know the New Testament book of Revelation, you know that it ends on this note as well.

Simply put, it is the Creator’s end game.

And, at the same time, this God who keeps showing up is mysteriously committed to the fact that the spread of such blessing will require sacrifice … trust … a measure of pain … and supernatural endurance. The hope of this blessing is in fact a hope to be endured.

Think about Jesus. 

Jesus is the person in whom we see the face of our Maker most clearly. It is in Jesus that the God of Abraham, intent on blessing all nations, becomes one of us and invites us to come closer than human beings have ever been allowed to approach a Holy God.

Yet Jesus instructs us that ‘in this world you will have lots of tribulation’. He himself dies the most shameful imaginable death before being raised as the one who has overcome death and gives us the sure hope of accomplishing the same.

Jesus invites us to walk with him in the path of a hope endured.

We’re right on track.

Now this is where I’ll lose some of you. Especially because it’s 2020…

That’s understandable. We who have for several generations grown accustomed to a life that is safe and reasonably secure have been yanked in with the rest of humanity to a place where things do not feel safe. Life does not seem secure.

In the shock of it all, we’ve not only been rattled. We’ve become pessimists

We lose our grip on a hope that is to be endured. This is natural, I think, when an historical moment goes a little thin on the reasons for hope that it’s offering up. Natural, perhaps. But not necessary. And not obedient.

To become a pessimist about God’s purpose with his world is one way of abandoning the faith. It’s the most common way that self-defined ‘practical people’ say ‘I’m done.’

I think our problem is one of timing. The mission of God rolls along its path on a different schedule than the one we follow in our short, little, fragile lives. A thousand years for us is for the mission of God a mere moment. Its stately pace feels to us like a total stall. Or a failed project. Or a pious dream that once animated us, but now not so much.

You see, no single generation, no lifetime, no portion of our customary timetable lasts long enough for us to gain accurate perspective on what is really happening.

Let me put it a different way: if our Maker had not disclosed to us orientation … instruction that flows from a different time frame, we’d have no idea of what is actually going on. We’d see little evidence of God’s determination to bless. We’d hunker down. We’d act as if this moment is the most important moment, the only moment, the determinative moment. We’d take our clues exclusively from right now. We’d conclude that the sky is falling. In our despair, we’d turn against each other over matters that are important, but not of first importance. We’d divide.

We’d be like a family on a long camping trip that pitches one of those big, sturdy, family tents to spend the night. In the middle of that night, a windstorm come ups and buffets that tent with what feels like unendurable violence.

In the panic of the moment, some would yell ‘Lean right!’ while others would scream ‘No, lean left!’. Some would order, ‘Everybody out of the tent!’, Others would say ‘Every stay right where you are!’, while others would run around in circles crying ‘We’re all gonna’ die!’

We’d have no perspective and very little way of knowing who was right and who was wrong and what is happening to us.

You see, we’re stuck in a dilemma: Without orientation, without instruction, no generation, no lifetime lasts long enough to get us up to a vantage point where we can see the whole story … the entire woods beyond the trees … the big picture.

So may I ask you for a special favor this morning?

Will you lower your defenses this morning and allow me to speak to you from the heart as a missionary whose particular calling has been to spend most of his growed-up years (again, as my Dad would have put it) in places where life has not been safe and not been secure…

May I?

May I not talk about missionaries today, opting instead to speak to you as one of your missionaries?

This is where we are. We’re stuck in that tent in this windstorm that has come upon us. And, you know what? This particular storm may give way to a beautiful, bright, calm, life-giving dawn. Or it may end very, very badly.

I don’t know.

But, like you, I have access to orientation from outside this moment … from outside this disturbing bubble in which we find ourselves. That orientation … that instruction … tells me that hope is to be endured. It informs me that the God who made this world and loves it more than we do is on a mission. It assures me that he will bring that mission to its conclusion in the blessing of all nations … all the families of the earth.

And, as one of your missionaries, I have a map inside my head. It spread itself out in there many years ago and it won’t go away. I see that map nearly every day. I can’t help myself.

It’s one of those maps that walks you through history in a visual way.

I see Abraham under his little tree, unpromising as any man or woman who ever lived (‘Our father worshiped idols beyond the river…’[Joshua 24.2]). I see Israel on its little sliver of land, promised … then occupied … then lost … then restored … then lost…

I see a little knot of Jesus-followers, mostly confined to an otherwise unimportant city called Jerusalem. They are meaningless, almost too few to count.

But I also see the spreading boundaries of their hope as it invades and eventually conquers the empire in which their hope was born. Because I am a child of the Western world, I see the blessing of the gospel they carry—their apostles carry it, their merchants bear it, their refugees encourage each other with the truth of it as they go—I see that blessing spread up through pagan Europe and into the British Isles.

As it goes—and, to be candid, it goes very slowly—it not only brings people into joyous relationship with their Maker. It also undermines and then reconstructs pagan societies into nations where the widow, the orphan, the slave, the poor, the sick have some hope of rescue and restoration. Places where there are hospitals and schools, places where infanticide becomes frowned on, places where the aged are not sent out into the cold to die alone, places where human beings are considered to manifest the very image and likeness of God and so not   be expendable when they’re no longer economic producers. 

My map keeps speaking to me. It shows me this blessing spreading across the Atlantic to this land that has given many of us birth and which all of us love. It is not an unmixed blessing. In the process, Native Americans lose their land and cotton fields become filled with African-born slaves. 

But somehow hope endures, and even those slaves sing of Zion. They give us their negro spirituals and teach us that hope endures longer than the slaveowner’s whip.

My map won’t stop.

I entered a Zoom teleconference the Thursday before last, one in which I’d been asked to speak about the mission of God in and from the Old Testament. As I obediently logged on as I’d been instructed a quarter of an hour before our start time, my screen filled with fifteen faces of my Colombian students whose lives the blessing of God has joined to my own. They represent the leadership of something called the Medellín Ministerial Institute, a service of our Seminary to Christian leaders across our South American city of four million souls. Then, as the top of the hour approached, dozens and dozens of Latin American participants—all of them agents of God’s blessing in a country that has known unending political violence—clicked on to spend the evening savoring the wisdom of the God of Israel, known to us in Jesus Christ.

I thought to myself, that map still in my head, still speaking…

  • This is a scene of blessing endured.
  • This is a scene about which Israel’s prophets could only dream and Israel’s worshippers could only sing in hope.

This is the evidence that God remains on mission, determined to bless all nations and to bring history to its climax not in ashes but in glory.

None of this is easy. My beloved Colombian friends will likely not in their lifetimes see the end of the widow’s cry or the murder of the innocent by power-hungry men and women. Yet they will endure. They will be participants in the mission of God. The Lord’s blessing, through them, will triumph. Andrés Bedoya, one of my favorite students, was five years old when the paramilitaries who ruled his neighborhood murdered his father in front of the Seminary and threw his body against its gates to demonstrate what happens when uppity pastors instruct their people to follow God’s ways rather than man’s. Now Andrés is one of those pastors.

 My map won’t stop speaking.

I see you this morning, bringing your fears and your grief and your troubled spirits and your hope into this place to learn, as the ancient prophets said that we non-Jews would, from the word of Israel’s God. This is all impossible unless God has done it, you see. There is no other explanation for why a little tribe of Hebrews and their crucified messiah should still command our attention today, still capture our hearts, still welcome us—like grafted-in branches—into their life under God.

This is insurmountable evidence that God has been here … still is here … abides with us and we with him.

It is evidence of hope endured. 

It’s also testimony to another reality, one that I think is impossible to deny: The mission of God is right on track, his determination to bless undiminished, his presence among us as powerful and life-giving as ever, even in this awful year when we struggle to see beyond our fears of what is happening to us with COVID and with political differences that shout that they are more basic, more fundamental, more defining than our shared identity in Christ.

I hope that you can see that I’m not making some mindless, utopian claim here that things cannot lurch in horrible directions in any given historical moment. Indeed, they can. And they may.

Rather, as a missionary sent to Colombia from this church and a handful of others like it, I want to speak to you, our sending church, in Jesus’ name and by the authority of his gospel:

Take courage. Be at peace. Dare to find your primal identity in Christ. Taste and see that the Lord is good. No matter what happens to us in this unsettling moment of time in which it is our calling to live, find his grace to be sufficient.

Then love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength … and your neighbor as yourself.

Endure in hope.

May it be so. Amen.

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Si Paul Simon solo pudo encontrar cinco formas para dejar a su amante, el escritor de Salmos 119 claramente le supera. Versículo tras versículo de este poema acróstico –significa que la primera letra de cada línea sigue al alfabeto en un patrón claramente identificable– enaltece la palabra, la ley y la promesa del Señor con un lenguaje usualmente utilizado solo para elogiar el amor romántico.

Me regocijo en tu palabra como quien halla un gran botín.

(Salmo 119:162 LBLA)

Aunque las líneas específicas de este salmo audazmente enfocado han encontrado su camino a la espiritualidad judía y cristiana, para muchos lectores modernos el salmo mismo parece ser tedioso y—me atrevo a decirlo—un poco obsesivo. Un poema como este da primacía a la forma y luego a su contenido. Incluso un lector compresivo tiende a concluir, cuando ve al escritor llegar a la quinta línea que empieza con la letra “ayin”, que debe darse un descanso.  

Sin embargo, vale la pena sujetar la impaciencia moderna con forma, repetición y ley, lo suficiente como para preguntar qué tipo de alma genera una celebración épica de la instrucción divina. ¿Quién, por ejemplo, podría decir esto sin una sonrisa burlona?

Tus testimonios he tomado como herencia para siempre, porque son el gozo de mi corazón.

¿Quién, sin ironía, afirma esto? 

Quebrantada está mi alma anhelando tus ordenanzas en todo tiempo.

Algunos aspectos de dicho perfil vienen a mi mente.

Primero, el escritor está profundamente consciente de su propia fragilidad. Él habita en un mundo donde abundan la amenaza y la traición, uno donde sus pies parecen resbalar al menos que pueda situarlos firmemente en los cimientos de la instrucción divina. 

En segundo lugar, él cree que YHWH crea y sostiene el mundo. La palabra del Señor para él es un subconjunto de su proyecto de sustento del mundo. El caos y el orden no son teóricos para él, sino más bien las articulaciones de su existencia diaria. 

Tercero, él encuentra en la instrucción de YHWH como dadora de vida. Una y otra vez, contrapone una petición por la instrucción vivificante del Señor ante la desintegración de la vida y la esperanza.

Cuarto, él ha encontrado rica recompensa al dedicar una energía formidable al dominio de los prefectos de YHWH. Su enfoque a ese conjunto de aprendizaje que él cataloga como preceptos, ley(es), promesa y palabra(s) es todo menos pasivo. Él enérgicamente busca su recompensa y las anhela cuando parecen distantes.

El erudito bíblico Walter Brueggemann nos ha enseñado que los salmos hablan a nuestras vidas al grado que hemos sido destrozados o desorientados por los eventos. Uno no esperaría que un salmo nomistico como este—con su concentración inflexible sobre lo que está establecido y verdadero—encaje muy bien en la observación de Brueggemann. Sin embargo, sorprendentemente, parece ser así.

En toda su artificialidad sintética, el salmo 119 nos pide que consideremos si los seres humanos más destruidos o amenazados podrían necesitar, más que nada, una palabra. 

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El poeta que está detrás de nuestro salmo 104 contribuye a un compendio que añade a la acción de YHWH en la historia una celebración a su obra en creación. Es una bella rareza.

Curiosamente, dos características de la participación divina en la creación entretejen la celebración del salmista. 

Primeramente, el salmista observa la acción divina no solo en la creación original, sino en el continuo sustento de las criaturas de YHWH. Cuando se toca esta nota, vemos también la colaboración de las criaturas. YHWH provee los recursos necesarios, y las criaturas responden reuniéndose si son animales, y en la labor del campo y del hogar si son humanos. 

Él hace brotar la hierba para el ganado,
y las plantas para el servicio del hombre,
para que él saque alimento de la tierra,
y vino que alegra el corazón del hombre,
para que haga brillar con aceite su rostro,
y alimento que fortalece el corazón del hombre
.

Los árboles del Señor se sacian,
los cedros del Líbano que Él plantó,
donde hacen sus nidos las aves,
y la cigüeña, cuya morada está en los cipreses.

Los montes altos son para las cabras monteses;
las peñas son refugio para los tejones…

Todos ellos esperan en ti,
para que les des su comida a su tiempo.
Tú les das, ellos recogen;
abres tu mano, se sacian de bienes.

(Salmo 104:14–15 … 27-28 LBLA)

En segundo lugar, no es solo el salmista el que se regocija en esta colaboración modelada y de sustento. YHWH mismo se alegra por esto, tal como el poeta en su contemplación.

¡Sea para siempre la gloria del Señor!
¡Alégrese el Señor en sus obras!
Él mira a la tierra, y ella tiembla;
toca los montes, y humean.
Al Señor cantaré mientras yo viva;
cantaré alabanzas a mi Dios mientras yo exista.
Séale agradable mi meditación;
yo me alegraré en el Señor.

Aquí la creación no es objetivada de ninguna forma impersonal o mecánica. Es una comunidad viva y con aliento, diseñada por YHWH, poblada por seres que son totalmente dependientes de su provisión y encargada, en el caso de los seres humanos, de convertirla en una provisión ampliada y extendida para los demás. 

El ciclo de vida y muerte se reconoce, un asentimiento dado a las temporadas de fulminante escasez. Nada de esto nubla o limita el regocijo del salmista, ni presumiblemente, el del Creador.

Los esfuerzos humanos sobre la vastedad del mar y en el desafío del suelo contribuye a una visión doxológica. 

Hay sinergia, colaboración, e incluso una cierta imitación de Dios en todo esto.

Solo al final los “pecadores” y “los malvados” manchan sus glorias. Estos quedan encomendados al justo poder de YHWH. 

El mundo como lo vemos no es, podríamos pausar para considerarlo, inevitable. Tampoco es ordinario. Es la obra de manos divinas. Todo se inclina al regocijo. Es una invitación incluso ahora a la risa apreciativa, a un corazón que se alegre al considerarla. 

¡Bendice al Señor, Oh, alma mía!

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En los Salmos, así como en la vida, el enemigo está a menudo escondido y es un maquinador implacablemente. Aquí como en tantas otras observaciones, el libro de los Salmos muestra su característico realismo.

Somos más sentimentales y románticos con nuestros adversarios, al menos en los momentos en que podemos admitir su existencia. Nos va más o menos bien con el mal, pues es abstracto y remoto. Pero nos resistimos a la noción de gente malvada. Son muy concretos para nuestra estética postmoderna, en donde todos se mueven en la misma línea moral y casi cualquier acción se tolera si encontramos el ángulo correcto para entender sus causas.

El Salmo 21, aparte de un contexto bíblico más amplio que restringe radicalmente la autoridad del rey, podría ser visto como un fragmento de tiranía, una tosca porción ideológica que enmarca todo lo que el rey quiere a manera la voluntad y el camino de Dios. Pero ese contexto más amplio obstinadamente existe, por ejemplo, en la exhortación del Salmo 146 de no “poner tu confianza en los príncipes, en los mortales, en aquellos en los que no hay salvación”.

Algo fuerte, pero no tosco, está pasando aquí. El salmista ora para que su rey pueda ver a través de los siniestros designios de sus, y por lo tanto de nuestros, adversarios.

Hallará tu mano a todos tus enemigos;

tu diestra hallará a aquellos que te odian.

Aunque intentaron el mal contra ti,

y fraguaron una conspiración,

no prevalecerán. (Salmo 21:8, 11 LBLA)

Hace sólo una generación atrás, todo el mundo sabía que la gente y los pueblos tenían enemigos reales. Tal vez el avance relámpago de las últimas dos décadas nos ha hecho avanzar más allá de la sabiduría común de la historia humana y hacia un alumbramiento moral. O quizás hemos perdido el gusto por la realidad, con sus inconvenientes insistentes.

En los rincones más sórdidos y brutales de la humanidad, donde el giro de los acontecimientos no permite ningún lujo para excusar el mal y mucho menos a las personas malvadas, es algo común orar para que nuestros enemigos sean descubiertos antes de que se lleven a nuestro hijo o al de nuestro vecino. La conspiración y la maquinación no parecen proyecciones ilusorias cuando el carro bomba de la semana pasada fue colocado precisamente donde nuestras mujeres compran sus verduras los martes por la mañana.

Esos rincones oscuros pueden ser donde  nosotros vivamos algún día, Dios no lo quiera. Si es así, la oración de Israel para que la mano derecha de su rey encuentre a tiempo a sus enemigos saldrá de forma más natural de nuestros, alguna vez refinados, labios.

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La espiritualidad bíblica comprende esa crisis extrema del cuerpo y del alma, dentro de la cual el ser humano se encuentra aterrorizado, angustiado, y deshecho en la presencia de YHWH. A veces, la calamidad del alma experimenta el silencio acusador de YHWH como su única e impía comunicación:

Señor, no me reprendas en tu ira,

ni me castigues en tu furor.

Ten piedad de mí, Señor, pues languidezco;

sáname, Señor, porque mis huesos se estremecen.

Mi alma también está muy angustiada;

y tú, oh Señor, ¿hasta cuándo? (Salmo 6:1-3 LBLA)

El vigor audaz y desafiante del miedo nos llega en dichas oraciones. Ellas proporcionan palabras para ese momento cuando pocos parecen capaces de asumir la angustia que parece suficiente para matarnos, pero en vez de eso escoge la determinación menos soportable para prolongar nuestro sufrimiento mientras los cielos permanecen en silencio.

Tampoco el placer catártico eleva el valor de esta pena, porque no hay ninguna. Sólo existe, así les parece a los que la conocen, la enfermadad degenerativa del alma que no tiene fin:

Cansado estoy de mis gemidos;

todas las noches inundo de llanto mi lecho,

con mis lágrimas riego mi cama.

Se consumen de sufrir mis ojos;

han envejecido a causa de todos mis adversarios. (Salmo 6:6-7 LBLA)

Hay un giro, incluso en una oración llena de frustración como esta, hacia la confianza de que YHWH es, de hecho, mejor de lo que parece, una esperanza de que responderá incluso después de su muro de indiferencia divina. Sin embargo, parece un último intento arrojarse a la esperanza porque la alternativa es más desagradable para ser soportada que una declaración de fe llena de emociones.

El Señor ha escuchado mi súplica;

el Señor recibe mi oración.

Todos mis enemigos serán avergonzados y se turbarán en gran manera;

se volverán, y de repente serán avergonzados. (Salmo 6:9-10 LBLA)

El lector que se apresura demasiado a la confianza que se esconde en esta conclusión lee incorrectamente. Más aun los amigos de los que sufren y que sólo pueden orar así, ofenden además a la espiritualidad bíblica cuando insisten que el que sufre debe soltar solamente palabras de esperanza.

Esta oración debe ser leída y vivida lentamente. Requiere un énfasis constante en la necesidad de escuchar sus palabras incluso en aquellas líneas donde parece que sólo un supuesto interlocutor tiene ganas de hablar en este presunto diálogo, cuando parece que YHWH no tiene lo suficiente para unírsele.

Sólo después de eso se puede hablar dignamente de la confianza en YHWH quien—Dios sea alabado—escucha y actúa. Antes de eso es un mero halago divino.

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A chapel message delivered to the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary

27 January 2020

Probably the words ‘He is risen!’ best capture the explosive good news of the New Testament. If this is true, then the announcement of the end of Israel’s Babylonian captivity in Isaiah 40 may be the finest announcement of the Lord’s undying love in the Old Testament.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1–2 ESV)

عَزُّوا، عَزُّوا شَعْبِي، يَقُولُ إِلهُكُمْ.طَيِّبُوا قَلْبَ أُورُشَلِيمَ وَنَادُوهَا بِأَنَّ جِهَادَهَا قَدْ كَمُلَ، أَنَّ إِثْمَهَاقَدْ عُفِيَ عَنْهُ، أَنَّهَا قَدْ قَبِلَتْ مِنْ يَدِ ٱلرَّبِّ ضِعْفَيْنِ عَنْ كُلِّ خَطَايَاهَا.

We don’t know for sure to whom God speaks in this new commissioning of a message of comfort for Isaiah rather than the news of judgment that she has known previously. The Lord may be speaking to his Seraphim, as he does in Isaiah 6 when he first commissions his prophet Isaiah after asking ‘Who will go for us?’

Or he may be speaking to a new generation of prophets who have carefully digested both Isaiah’s message of sure judgement for Israel and his assurance that new mercy and a new beginning would follow after Israel’s term of captivity had been served.

Regardless, we read that some plural group of people is being summoned to deliver very good news to Jerusalem and to those in Babylon who must now find the courage to follow the Lord back home to Jerusalem to begin again in that promised city.

We need to pause now and listen as Rabih reads our entire passage for today, Isaiah 40.1-11. Because I am not the only English speaker in chapel today, I’ll read it first and then Rabih will follow in Arabic.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:1–11 ESV)

عَزُّوا، عَزُّوا شَعْبِي، يَقُولُ إِلهُكُمْ.طَيِّبُوا قَلْبَ أُورُشَلِيمَ وَنَادُوهَا بِأَنَّ جِهَادَهَا قَدْ كَمُلَ، أَنَّ إِثْمَهَاقَدْ عُفِيَ عَنْهُ، أَنَّهَا قَدْ قَبِلَتْ مِنْ يَدِ ٱلرَّبِّ ضِعْفَيْنِ عَنْ كُلِّ خَطَايَاهَا.

صَوْتُ صَارِخٍ فِي ٱلْبَرِّيَّةِ: «أَعِدُّوا طَرِيقَ ٱلرَّبِّ. قَوِّمُوا فِي ٱلْقَفْرِ سَبِيلاً لإِلَهِنَا.كُلُّ وَطَاءٍيَرْتَفِعُ، وَكُلُّ جَبَل وَأَكَمَةٍ يَنْخَفِضُ، وَيَصِيرُ ٱلْمُعْوَجُّ مُسْتَقِيمًا، وَٱلْعَرَاقِيبُ سَهْلاً.فَيُعْلَنُ مَجْدُٱلرَّبِّ وَيَرَاهُ كُلُّ بَشَرٍ جَمِيعًا، لأَنَّ فَمَ ٱلرَّبِّ تَكَلَّمَ».

صَوْتُ قَائِل: «نَادِ». فَقَالَ: «بِمَاذَا أُنَادِي؟» «كُلُّ جَسَدٍ عُشْبٌ، وَكُلُّ جَمَالِهِ كَزَهْرِ ٱلْحَقْلِ.يَبِسَٱلْعُشْبُ، ذَبُلَ ٱلزَّهْرُ، لأَنَّ نَفْخَةَ ٱلرَّبِّ هَبَّتْ عَلَيْهِ. حَقًّا ٱلشَّعْبُ عُشْبٌ!يَبِسَ ٱلْعُشْبُ، ذَبُلَٱلزَّهْرُ. وَأَمَّا كَلِمَةُ إِلهِنَا فَتَثْبُتُ إِلَى ٱلْأَبَدِ».

عَلَى جَبَل عَال ٱصْعَدِي، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ صِهْيَوْنَ. ٱرْفَعِي صَوْتَكِ بِقُوَّةٍ، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ أُورُشَلِيمَ. ٱرْفَعِيلاَ تَخَافِي. قُولِي لِمُدُنِ يَهُوذَا: «هُوَذَا إِلهُكِ.هُوَذَا ٱلسَّيِّدُ ٱلرَّبُّ بِقُوَّةٍ يَأْتِي وَذِرَاعُهُ تَحْكُمُ لَهُ. هُوَذَاأُجْرَتُهُ مَعَهُ وَعُمْلَتُهُ قُدَّامَهُ.كَرَاعٍ يَرْعَى قَطِيعَهُ. بِذِرَاعِهِ يَجْمَعُ ٱلْحُمْلاَنَ، وَفِي حِضْنِهِ يَحْمِلُهَا،وَيَقُودُ ٱلْمُرْضِعَاتِ».

I don’t know if you heard it while Rabih read, but in those last three verses, there is contagion. Jerusalem—or Zion—begins this chapter as the one who receives the astonishing news of her soon redemption. But then, in verses 9-11, she becomes the messenger—the communicator—of that same news beyond her boundaries to the ‘cities of Judah’.

Good news is contagious.

When we hear the word contagion these days, our minds may run to a different kind of contagion, the kind that has the world on edge as the corona virus sweeps through China and across her borders into countries like yours and mine. When I return to America on Saturday, I expect to be greeted in airports in London and in America by new measures that attempt to stop the spread of this mysterious and fearsome virus.

Contagion is mysterious and, sometimes, unstoppable. It moves from person to person in its own quiet and invisible way, spreading what I have to you and then on to your family members and your neighbors and so on …

It is quiet and it is invisible, but it is most real.

Happily, the contagion we glimpse in Isaiah 40 is a contagion that transmits life rather than death. It is a contagion that announces and creates a new beginning and a new future rather than taking that future away. It is a contagion that begins in the merciful and restorative heart of God himself, rather than in some broken corner of his twisted and suffering creation.

It is the announcement that a terrible thing has come to its end … has run its course … has expired. In its place, a profound comforting of Israel has come, for Israel shall be born again … this nation will start over … will now experience the right hand of the Lord’s restoration rather than the left hand of his judgment.

It is simply spectacular to me that this first announcement of comfort already anticipates that, when Jerusalem has received this good news and begun to live in it, she will become the herald of that same news to others who must hear it, live it, and in time become announcers of that news to still others.

This kind of contagion is natural. It is often both quiet and invisible, yet is it powerful and world-changing. It is God’s work and yet it is ours.

  • Have you received comfort? Let it flow to those who are afflicted.
  • Have your sins been forgiven? Forgive those who sin against you.
  • Has someone shared with you the news that Christ is for us? Share it with others.
  • Has someone loved you when you hated them or were still indifferent to them? Love those who hate or ignore you.
  • Have you been fed when you were hungry, sheltered when you were exposed? Feed someone else.
  • Was your heart once anxious and yet now has become calm? Share that peace with someone whose heart still races, who is still consumed by his fears, by her anxiety.
  • Has this seminary community been a shelter to you, a challenging school of personal transformation? Have you learned here how to live in community? Has God’s Word been opened to you here in fresh and new ways? Have you learned to love reconciliation, to believe that enemies can become friends, and that this too is God’s work?

Then return to Sudan, to Morocco, to Palestine, to Egypt, to Syria, to Iraq, to the cities and villages of Lebanon, to countries that I will not name here.

There be the living proof that God’s word is still ‘Comfort, comfort my people.’

Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:9–11 ESV)

عَلَى جَبَل عَال ٱصْعَدِي، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ صِهْيَوْنَ. ٱرْفَعِي صَوْتَكِ بِقُوَّةٍ، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ أُورُشَلِيمَ. ٱرْفَعِيلاَ تَخَافِي. قُولِي لِمُدُنِ يَهُوذَا: «هُوَذَا إِلهُكِ.هُوَذَا ٱلسَّيِّدُ ٱلرَّبُّ بِقُوَّةٍ يَأْتِي وَذِرَاعُهُ تَحْكُمُ لَهُ. هُوَذَاأُجْرَتُهُ مَعَهُ وَعُمْلَتُهُ قُدَّامَهُ.كَرَاعٍ يَرْعَى قَطِيعَهُ. بِذِرَاعِهِ يَجْمَعُ ٱلْحُمْلاَنَ، وَفِي حِضْنِهِ يَحْمِلُهَا،وَيَقُودُ ٱلْمُرْضِعَاتِ».

Be contagious!

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Isaiah’s 37th chapter puts on display the subtle interplay that is prayer in the moment of crisis.

The threatening king of Assyria may be a cartoonish villain. Nevertheless his shadow casts over little Judah the power of extermination. The Assyrian tyrant is, in a word, invincible. The carcasses of nations that once were, lying with their scorched gods by the side of empire’s highway, bear mute testimony that Assyria and its king are unstoppable.

Judah trembles for good reason, for it would seem that its final hour has come.

As soon as King Hezekiah heard (the threat of the Assyrian emissary), he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the LORD. And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. They said to him, ‘Thus says Hezekiah, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the LORD your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”‘

The vestige of King Hezekiah’s scrawny hope lies in two realties. First, the prophet may know what to do. There are, as they say, no atheists in foxholes. (more…)

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