What’s that in your hands?

A sermon I’ll be sharing at Pepperell United Methodist Church in Opelika, AL tomorrow morning (8.10.2014).

Exodus 4:1-20

I’m not sure how much y’all keep up with current events, but if you’re like me and you like to stay informed about what’s happening across the globe then you know that the news this week has been grim. There’s violence, injustice, degradation, and just plain brutality nearly everywhere you look. Some of these problems have just recently begun but others have been with us for years, decades in some cases. One website I found listed 11 active “wars” in the world today along with 8 “serious armed conflicts”. Untold thousands – millions even – have lost their lives in this violence. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the massive scale of human suffering occurring every single day; children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, neighbors – their lives filled with pain and sorrow. Along with all this violence, we hear about our brothers and sisters in West Africa facing a public health nightmare – the Ebola virus. I don’t mean to be all negative this morning – there’s a lot of good happening in the world that we don’t hear about. But goodness gracious, the news this week has just been heartbreaking.

These are big problems. But, for the most part, they’re all in distant places – or at least they seem distant. But we’ve got our own big problems closer to home too. In Tuskegee where ARM [Alabama Rural Ministry] is currently expanding its work, the community is struggling. The poverty rate has been over 35% and the unemployment rate over 16% for the past 30 years.

I’m not sure about you but when I hear about these kinds of big problems I tend to feel powerless, overwhelmed, paralyzed. Do you feel that way too? What causes our feelings of powerlessness, our inaction, in the face of big problems near and far? Why don’t we, followers of the risen Lord, do something? Why don’t we become people who make a difference? These are the questions I want us to consider briefly this morning in light of all the bad news in our world this week.

 Thankfully, we know and worship a God who is no stranger to suffering, who doesn’t ignore the big problems. As we turn to the story of Exodus, we find another big problem: God’s people, the Hebrews – millions of them – are brutally oppressed as slaves in Egypt. As you heard in last week’s sermon, when God’s people cried out God heard their groaning, God remembered His covenant, God saw what was happening to them, and God understood their pain (The Message, Exo 2:24-25). But God doesn’t stop there. We know what happens next: God calls out to Moses from the burning bush. God has chosen Moses to be the leader of God’s mission for the redemption and restoration of the Hebrew slave. But right away Moses is not interested: first he doubts himself and then he questions God’s own identity. God is open to Moses’ questions and patient with his doubts. God promises to be with Moses and then reveals His true name, I AM – Yahweh – the one who will redeem God’s people from their suffering and restore them in a good land “flowing with milk and honey.” In the face of massive suffering, God is present and acts to redeem and restore because Yahweh is a saving God who doesn’t ignore the cries of those who suffer. Our text this morning picks up the ongoing dialogue between God and Moses at the burning bush. So, Moses has just received God’s invitation to join God’s work of redemption and restoration for the Hebrew people. How does he respond?

It sounds something like this: but… but… but… (I can hear my mom saying, “No buts about it!”). As we heard in our text from Exodus 4:1-20, Moses is not on board with God’s plans. Three separate times, he tries to avoid God’s invitation. Moses is well-aware of Israel’s suffering; he saw it happening as a young man. He may be aware, but, much like us, he feels powerless to do anything. So let’s look at Moses’ three “buts” and see if they don’t offer us some insight into our own feelings of powerlessness:

  1. In v. 1, we find out that Moses lacks credibility and trustworthiness among his people. He fears they won’t listen to After all, he’s a runaway murderer turned shepherd. Why would they believe him? Don’t we feel the same way sometimes? I think we tend to feel like we need more before folks will listen to us – more money, skill, knowledge, training, degrees, expertise, experience, awards, more prestige, more authority? If only we had more we could make a difference because then people would listen. Like us, Moses is looking for that something more that will guarantee he won’t be ignored.
  2. In v. 10, we discover that Moses can only see his weakness. He’s afraid he’s just not cut out for this kind of work. Moses can’t be a spokesperson – he can barely speak! It’s just not his gift, his talent, his personality; God created him to be a shepherd, not a politician. Do we not make the same excuses? Are we not also blinded by our own weaknesses? We all have our lists of things we’d like to improve, right? Maybe someone who doesn’t have any weaknesses to worry about can solve the world’s problems but that’s not us. We’ve got our own issues. We’re not cut out for this kind of work. Like Moses, we struggle to see beyond our own weaknesses.
  3. Finally, in v. 13 we find Moses trying desperately to convince God that this plan is all wrong: “Please, my Lord, just send someone else!” Wow – at least he’s being honest. Moses is convinced he’s not the person for the job. But there’s a major flaw in his thinking: for some reason he thinks that he alone (or hopefully someone else) has to accomplish God’s work. Aren’t we sometimes paralyzed by this same kind of narrow, individualistic thinking? We think we have to solve the world’s problems alone, that we have to be the heroes and heroines, that the solution depends entirely on us. But no one person can handle that kind of pressure – not Moses, not us. It just leaves us powerless and stuck.

I think we’re a lot like Moses: we know about the pain and suffering, we’ve heard the invitation to join in God’s mission of redemption and restoration, and we just don’t think we’re up to it – we don’t have what it takes, we’re not the right people.

But God disagrees… and ain’t that some good news! Every time Moses says “But… but… but…” God asks him a question. God’s not backing down; He pursues Moses patiently and passionately, wanting Moses to trust Him and His power working in and through Moses’ life. God wants Moses to see that what he already has and who he is are more than enough for God. How does God do it? Let’s look at those 3 questions:

  1. After Moses doubts his own credibility, God asks in v. 2, “What’s that in your hand?” Odd question. Surely God can see for Himself, right? God knows that Moses is a shepherd and every shepherd carries around a shepherd’s rod; a wooden staff for herding sheep and fending off predators. Of course Moses is holding a shepherd’s rod – that’s his job, his vocation, he’s a shepherd. For Moses, this rod is just an everyday tool, a piece of wood that represents his lowly profession. But when it’s used in God’s mission, this piece of wood is transformed into a sign of God’s awesome power to redeem and restore. God will take this marker of Moses’ low social status, his lack of credibility, and transform it into a marker of God’s calling and anointing. All Moses saw was his little ole staff; he had no idea what it would become and how God would use it once he joined God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
  2. After Moses doubts his ability to communicate, God asks a series of questions in v. 11: “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord?” Yahweh, God the Redeemer, is also God the Creator. The Creator God who fashioned Moses already knows Moses’ weaknesses even more than Moses does! And this Redeemer God is committed to seeing Moses overcome these weaknesses. God promises to help Moses, to be his Teacher and Guide. It turns out that God’s big plan for the restoration and redemption of Israel also includes Moses’ own personal healing. All Moses can see is who he is, but God sees who he will become when he trusts in God’s help and joins God’s work.
  3. Finally, after Moses tells God how he really feels, we see that God gets angry with Moses, but not in the way we might expect. God’s anger doesn’t lead to punishment or abandonment. God’s anger – God’s passion for seeing Moses take up his place in God’s mission – ultimately leads to a relationship of teamwork and shared responsibility between Moses and his brother, Aaron. As Moses pleads with God to just send someone else, I think God detects the overwhelming sense of pressure that Moses is putting on himself. What does God ask? “Moses, have you forgotten who you are? You’re not just a lone shepherd! You’re a brother! And your brother, Aaron, happens to be an excellent speaker! I never meant for you to do this alone, Moses. I’m not looking for a hero.” Moses refuses to look beyond himself, but God asks him a question that reminds Moses of the relationships he has that can help him accomplish God’s work. Moses doesn’t have to take this risk alone. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for Israel will not be accomplished by heroic feats of individual power. God wants a team, a new kind of family.

It seems that all Moses can do in this story is think of excuses. Benjamin Franklin once said that “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” Good thing Ben Franklin isn’t God! God doesn’t give up on Moses; God doesn’t give up on us. Maybe this morning you think you don’t have anything to offer God, nothing that can be of any use in God’s mission of redemption and restoration in Opelika, Lee County, Alabama, and the world. I think God may be asking us today, “What’s that in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff and that was enough for God – it wasn’t a sword or ruler’s scepter – just a simple staff. What do you have? A skill? A story? An experience? Maybe just free time and a listening ear? Each one of us here is a unique person that means we ALL have a unique role to play in God’s unfolding drama of redemption and restoration. Will you offer what you have to God?

Maybe all you can see this morning is your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your failures. God knows you – inside and out, backwards and forwards, past, present, and future. And guess what? God still wants you! God will be with you, your Teacher, your Guide. God’s mission of redemption and restoration for all people includes you and your personal healing. Will you trust God to be with you? To help you overcome your fears, your weaknesses, your doubts and to make you whole? Will you join God’s work knowing that you can’t accomplish it with your own strength?

Finally, maybe you’ve forgotten who you are this morning; thinking that you have to solve all of life’s problems on your own. Take a second to think about all the different roles you occupy. For me, I’m a son with a mom and dad, a brother to two other brothers, a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, a co-worker with other co-workers, a friend among other friends, etc… We all live as members of a larger network of relationships that sustain us and make us who we are. And remember that God is Trinity, a community of three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. When we join in this Trinitarian God’s mission of redemption and restoration, we’re invited into a deeper fellowship with God, each other and our neighbors. We’re in this together. Are we willing to join hands and be the people whose life together shows the world a different, more loving way?

I love how this text ends. In verse 18, Moses tells his father-in-law Jethro that he needs to return to Egypt to see if his family is still alive. Now, either Moses is too scared to tell Jethro the real reason he’s returning to Egypt or maybe he still just doesn’t believe it. Whatever the case, the important part is that he goes. He may not understand how God is going to use him or how he’ll be changed in the process, but he packs up his things, trusts God, and hits the road for Egypt to face his people’s suffering head on. We don’t have to all be Moses, but I think we can learn something from his faith.

God has called us into His mission of redemption and restoration for all creation – beginning right here in Opelika, in Pepperell village. The kingdom of God is at hand. In the face of all the suffering we see in the world today, God is asking us, “What’s in your hand? Don’t you know that I created you? Do you know who you are?” We may not be able to see the end result, but let’s say yes to God, pack our bags and head towards Egypt anyway. Amen.

[See also, Dr. Al Tizon’s related post of Walter Brueggemann’s prayer “Deliver Us from Amnesia”]

Trinity: A Credo

I believe that God is Trinity; the Parent, Child, and Spirit who exist as communion because they exist as persons. A person is an absolutely unique identity who cannot exist apart from relation to an-other person. Therefore, persons live as community because they are oriented towards distinct others who they freely celebrate, embrace, and love. This Triune community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Child and Spirit. Because God is Triune, God is relational and God is reaching out to be in relation with that which is not-God. Parent, Child, and Spirit are reaching out through creation, redemption, and consummation in order to gather all creatures together to share in the mystery of their perfect communion. Trinity means that God is Love eternal and unending; that God is none other than the God who has created us in love, who has come to redeem us in the grace of Jesus Christ, and who continues to reach out for us and draw us closer to Godself and each other by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that this story of Triune persons who live as saving communion is the story that comes before, mingles within, and goes beyond  all human stories and the story in which all other stories find their origin and meaning; that salvation is the comprehensive, holistic process of creatures being incorporated into and participating with the Parent, Child, and Spirit which brings healing, restoration, and transformation; that persons who participate with Trinity are liberating and embracing those who are suffering from evil and sin which divides, desecrates, and destroys that which belongs to the life of the Parent, Child, and Spirit. Trinity creates communities of “disciples” who welcome into their body of unity-in-diversity; who provide a place of refuge, peace, and healing that becomes a place of teaching, wisdom, and power as they gather to worship the Triune God; who are sent out as witnesses to this Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete; who are a community of hope in a world of despair because of their participation with the Parent, Child, and Spirit who together constitute life itself.

Home Is Where Hesed Is: Ruth 1:1-18

Naomi and Ruth“In the days when the Judges were governing,” an Israelite man named Elimelech lived with his wife Naomi in the little unassuming town of Bethlehem. But, there was a crisis in Bethlehem; a famine was ravaging the land. So, Elimelech and Naomi packed up their things, gathered their sons Mahlon and Chilion, and set off to find relief in a new land: Moab – a place no God-fearing Israelite would ever want to go. Once they settle down, Elimelech dies and Naomi is left alone in a foreign land with her two sons, who end up marrying two Moabite women – Orpah and Ruth. After ten years, Naomi’s sons die and her life seems to be in ruins. But then, some light shines through the darkness: God has visited Israel and given them food. The famine was over; Naomi could go home and she wastes no time. She hits the road back to Bethlehem, with her daughters-in-law by her side. Some time on the way, she stops, turns to Orpah and Ruth, and says:

‘Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. May Yahweh show you faithful love, as you have done to those who have died and to me. Yahweh grant that you may each find happiness with a husband!’ She then kissed them, but they began weeping loudly, and said, ‘No, we shall go back with you to your people.’ ‘Go home, daughters,’ Naomi replied. ‘Why come with me? Have I any more sons in my womb to make husbands for you? Go home, daughters, go, for I am now too old to marry again. Even if I said, “I still have a hope: I shall take a husband this very night and shall bear more sons,” would you be prepared to wait for them until they were grown up? Would you refuse to marry for their sake? No, daughters, I am bitterly sorry for your sakes that the hand of Yahweh should have been raised against me.’ They started weeping loudly all over again; Orpah then kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her people. But Ruth stayed with her. Naomi then said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Go home, too; follow your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you and to stop going with you, for wherever you go, I shall go, wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I shall die and there I shall be buried. Let Yahweh bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills, too, if anything but death should part me from you!’ Seeing that Ruth was determined to go with her, Naomi said no more.

We come this evening to one of the greatest stories told in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of Ruth. However, in this first chapter, we see that most of the speaking and most of the action belong to Naomi not Ruth. The story begins with Naomi and her family and the troubles they face. It tells of Naomi’s precipitous plunge into desperation. When the story comes to a close in chapter 4, Naomi is back in the spotlight. This book may be titled “Ruth,” but – make no mistake – this is a story about Naomi. So, I want to invite us to enter, if we dare, into Naomi’s reality and sit with her for a moment as her story unfolds.

It’s not a pretty story. It really couldn’t have gotten much worse for a woman in the ancient Near East: there’s famine, the death of a husband, foreign wives, and then the deaths of not one, but TWO, sons, leaving her childless. What we have here is every Israelite’s nightmare; “despair” would probably be the most appropriate word to describe Naomi’s reality. She’s at the wrong end of nearly every social and cultural spectrum: she’s old, she’s a widow, she’s childless, and she is living as a foreigner in the hostile, despised land of Moab. Now, she does have her two daughters-in-law, but, with both of her sons dead, these relationships have been severely weakened. Biblical scholars are actually at a loss to explain what the societal expectations would have been in this strange situation; we might call it “awkward.” What we do know is that Naomi feels hopeless and defeated. For her, all has been lost and she blames God. She has nothing to give to Orpah and Ruth and no hope of providing for their future. She has arrived at this moment of desperation when all she can think to do is to go home. Maybe she can figure something out when she gets back to Bethlehem? Naomi is lost; cut off from her family, her land, her community, and her God. She is homeless, without hope, and utterly alone – except for Orpah and Ruth, but she’d rather go it alone and not burden them with her problems.

For some in the room this evening, you may be immediately identifying with Naomi’s despair. Maybe you’ve been in that place before or you’re going through it now where the rug has just been pulled out from underneath your feet and you’ve fallen flat on your back and, once you pulled yourself up off the floor and looked around, you discovered that you’re all alone and your life, like Naomi’s, is in shambles. If that’s you, God is offering you hope this evening, so hang with me. However, I think many of us may have trouble putting ourselves in Naomi’s shoes. Sure, we’ve had some struggles, but life is going pretty well and we don’t feel homeless, hopeless, or alone. I want to suggest tonight that we all have more in common with Naomi than we think.

While we may all live in houses or apartments, we, like Naomi, are struggling to find our home. We live in a world racked with anxiety; built on our assumption of scarcity, of lack, of insufficiency[1]; we live in a land of perpetual famine – personally and socially. In this world, we fear that we’ll never have enough so we put our hope in getting more… and more… and more. We buy houses that own us; we buy cars that drive us; we consume things that only leave us empty – and wanting more. So, we work and work and work and we never find rest. Caught in this system, we have no time for others, no time for community, for relationship; so just like in Naomi’s time, “the time when the Judges were governing,” everyone does what is right in their own eyes because we all are just trying to break free from our slavery. In a way eerily similar to Israel’s experience under the judges, our society, and maybe our own lives too, are fragmented, divisive, and falling apart. We are constantly on the move looking for more, trying to find a place to settle down, a land “flowing with milk and honey” where we can find rest. Instead, like Naomi, we end up living in strange places where our relationships are always under stress and we’re not sure who is supporting us. We try to be at peace, at home, but it always seems just out of reach and, in the end, we are homeless.

But, as we look back on Naomi’s story, we can have hope because God is working redemption in Naomi’s life – even when Naomi can’t see it. Now, Naomi’s story has a very happy ending: Ruth becomes the source of Naomi’s complete restoration to a place in community amongst her people and her God. Naomi is blessed by God with a new home. However, when we find her at the story’s beginning, Naomi is overwhelmed by her despair and sees little hope for the future. She looks at Ruth and Orpah, the only two people who actually still know her, and demands that they go home. Four times she gives the command: “Go back,” “Go home,” “Go home, daughters go,” and then she says directly to Ruth “Go home too; follow your sister-in-law.” But God was working in a most unexpected place; deep in the heart of a foreign, Moabite woman. In the way her promise to Naomi is worded, Ruth reveals a prior commitment to Naomi’s family and her God. Ruth says that Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God will be her people and her God because they already are. She’s saying, “What is true for me now will continue to be true for me in the future.” In this promise to Naomi, we discover that Ruth knows Yahweh, the God who is “true to his covenant and his faithful love.”[2] In Ruth, we see what the Old Testament authors call hesed – God’s unashamed, faithful, relation restoring, community-keeping love – in order to redeem Naomi. But, Naomi was having none of it. She was ready to send Ruth right on home; in her despair, her homelessness, she couldn’t see how God was leading her to a new home. Through Ruth, God reveals that there is no home, no redemption, apart from communal relationships of faithful, selfless, and unrelenting love and mutual care. Some say “home is where the heart is” but I think Ruth is telling us tonight: “Home is where hesed is.”

The story of Ruth is like a parable; it holds up a mirror and invites us to identify ourselves with its characters. More often than not, we look in this mirror and see who we ought to be, which, for this particular parable, means we see ourselves as Ruth. The message is usually: “Be like Ruth!” Guess what? If we look honestly into this mirror and see ourselves for who we really are, we don’t see Ruth – we see Naomi. We are the ones in need of redemption this evening. We long for community. We long for home. Like Naomi, we are lost in our homelessness, our despair, and we think the only option is to go it alone, to pull up on our bootstraps one more time and see what happens. If all these people around us would just leave us alone we might have a chance! We’d rather just pull up our tent stakes, say our goodbyes, and strike out alone in search of a new “home” whenever things get rough. But church, I wonder tonight, and I worry, that maybe we’re leaving Ruth behind. Could it be that God’s redemption is waiting for us in the very relationships we have chosen to abandon? Could it be that God is creating a new home for us through the very people we would least expect? I wonder tonight if you can’t see God’s redemption because you keep ignoring Ruth. Who is it that you are “sending home,” just trying to avoid so you can get away? God redeemed Naomi and God will redeem us. But our redemption, our home, is only found in community with others, in relationships of faithful love. God is still working through Ruth today… have you turned your back on her?

[1] I have relied on Walter Brueggemann’s thoughts in chapter 1 of Journey to the Common Good (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) for much of this cultural exegesis.

[2] Deuteronomy 7:9 , New Jerusalem Bible.

Mary’s Salvation Song: Luke 1:46-55


Today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season of waiting & anticipating the birth of Jesus; a season of hope, love, joy, and peace: preparing to celebrate God’s coming. It’s sorta like Lent for Christmas. We like to celebrate Christmas, but, just as Easter isn’t really Easter without Lent, Christmas isn’t really Christmas without Advent.

We all have something which stirs up the Christmas spirit and gets us excited. One of those things for me is certain Christmas music. But, I’m a bit picky about this; “Jingle Bells” and “Rockin around the Christmas Tree” don’t cut it. There’s one song which never fails to stir up the Spirit of Christ in me: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The quintessential Advent song. If I don’t sing this, Advent just doesn’t happen for me. Listen:

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear.  Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to you, O Israel!

Nothing says “Christmas!” quite like a nation of captured people mourning in lonely exile, right?

You probably have a favorite Christmas/Advent song too. Turns out Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke, did too. As we celebrate Advent over the next four weeks, we’ll be looking at four songs in the narrative of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Luke’s Gospel – songs of revolution. The first song is one you’ve heard before, probably the most revolutionary one of all (and, of course, Jason asks the intern preach). Let’s listen together as Mary’s sings in Luke 1:46-55:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever

Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat; what’s she singing about? She’s just arrived at her relative Elizabeth’s house after being visited by the angel Gabriel who’s told her of God’s awesome work through the baby now growing in her womb. Elizabeth is also miraculously pregnant. Her own baby leaps for joy when Mary arrives. Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, begins shouting praises to God for Mary and her baby. Mary too breaks out in joyous song. Is this how your family gatherings at Christmas usually go? …Didn’t think so. Something big is happening and it makes me want to sing along.

Mary sings of God’s mercy, and remembrance of promises made to her ancestors, all the way back to Abraham. A long time coming. There’s some history we need to know here if we want to sing Mary’s song… and we definitely want to sing Mary’s song. So, let’s put ourselves in Mary’s story, the story of God’s chosen people Israel, which has become our story too.

Mary grounds her song in God’s promises to Abraham in the book of Genesis. God chose Abram to be the founder of a great nation, one that would be chosen and blessed by God to be the channel of God’s blessing for all the earth. God would be their God; they, God’s people. They would be a holy people because the Holy One would be present at the center of their lives. But Israel struggled to be God’s people. Eventually, prophets arose and cried out for Israel to return to God. When they refused to listen, their promised land was pillaged and their nation was captured. Israel “mourned in lonely exile” and wondered if God’s promises were still true. In this darkness, new prophets rose up and proclaimed the coming light. God desired redemption. God was still faithful to the promises. Israel would be restored and God would permanently reside among the people. Everything would be set right. God’s presence in Israel would be a signal of God’s intention to renew all creation. Hope. Israel rescued from exile; the world made new. It happened… mostly. Israel was delivered from exile but they still struggled to be faithful and God seemed to be moving slower than expected. The Old Testament ends with Malachi prophesying about a time when Israel would be God’s “treasured possession,” when “the sun of righteousness [would] rise with healing in its wings.” After this prophecy, Israel waited 400 years for God to fulfill their hope for salvation.

Mary’s song embodies Israel’s hope hundreds of years in the making. Notice her words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in,” who? In “God my Savior.” She calls God “Savior”; she was hoping for salvation. We talk of Jesus & salvation a lot don’t we?  Does our talk about salvation sound like Mary’s? Do we talk of bringing down oppressive rulers, lifting up the poor and powerless, satisfying the needs of the hungry, or sending the rich away empty handed? Not so much. We like to talk about sins being forgiven, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and how that event made us right with God, bringing eternal life. We sing about salvation and justification – the teaching of how our relationship to God as sinners is made right – as if they were the same. In other words, salvation just takes care of my sin and your sin and gives us eternal life. This doctrine is essential to God’s work of salvation, but our picture of salvation is woefully incomplete if all we see is justification, our individual reconciliation with God. It’s like saying that all you really need to know about a car is the steering wheel. Salvation is SO much bigger – big enough for the redemption and restoration of all people, places, and created things. We need a bigger vision of salvation and Mary’s song gives us a glimpse.

Mary’s salvation song was rooted in God’s promised presence with the people of Israel, a presence the prophets spoke of being renewed in a special way. When Mary walked through Elizabeth’s door, they both knew: God is coming, the time is now, and salvation is here! All she could do was sing. But what does she sing about?

In a word: reversal. For Mary, salvation is a great reversal in two dimensions – personal and social. In Jesus, God would set everything right by turning it all upside down – sounds like a revolution. Mary describes herself as God’s humble, lowly servant. She had very little power as a young virgin in the world she inhabited. Vulnerable, poor, and no children to bring her honor or status. When Mary says she’s “lowly,” she’s not just making a pretty metaphor – she is actually low. It’s ridiculous, completely preposterous, for someone like to her to even imagine singing a song like this. But God had remembered her – the lowly, humble servant. God was coming through her baby boy. Salvation was coming through her child. The “Mighty One” of Israel, the Creator King, has done great, wonderful things for whom? For Mary. Holy God, ruler of all, looked upon Mary with loving care. She sings recognizing God’s work in her as infinite grace. This first dimension of salvation’s great reversal was as personal as personal gets. The world refused to see her, God did! And Mary’s life changed forever. Her personal hope in God’s salvation was being realized right then and there. God was here… IN HER!

But it doesn’t stop there. The great reversal of salvation goes beyond Mary and fills the whole earth. When God’s mercy is shown in salvation, the proud are scattered, the mighty are humbled, the rich are sent away empty-handed. Reversal; the powerless exalted, the hungry satisfied. What God is doing in and for Mary, God will do in and for the world. Salvation will tear down sinful structures of injustice that cause all people to suffer. She sings for a world where the powerless aren’t oppressed, the poor don’t go hungry. It’s coming. For Mary, God’s approaching salvation in Jesus had personal consequences, but it also had social consequences. God’s saving Mary, and God’s saving Israel, but that’s not all – in Jesus, God is taking it all back; all would be restored, all would be made new, salvation would be for all creation!

Are you catching a glimpse of Mary’s hope for salvation? It’s a complete restoration to wholeness and peace. Physical, spiritual, and social healing comes personally to all the world has forgotten. Community is restored as all people humble themselves before God. Sin is forgiven and lives are transformed in the newness of God’s presence. Persons and communities are liberated from evil, oppressive structures. All are invited to know God and join in the work of the present-yet-future kingdom. Reconciliation between God and humanity overflows into reconciliation between neighbors; love for God and love for neighbor, the beloved community. Peace and justice rule the day as God’s original intent for creation is restored and God’s image is reflected in community once again. This is Mary’s song; this is Mary’s hope. When her Savior comes, all creation is made new!

Mary sings unable to contain her joy at the hope of God’s salvation being fulfilled in her and the world. As an Israelite, she had been waiting hundreds of years for God’s arrival. When God came again salvation would break forth, people and societies overturned. All creation renewed as a community flourishing under God’s peace. This is Mary’s hope, but is it our hope? Is it your hope?

Mary holds up a mirror to us and our world: what stands in need of reversal this morning? How is God overturning us? How is God overturning the world? Mary surrendered to God as a humble, lowly servant and God lifted her up. But, we struggle to surrender to God like that. We want God to lift us up, to fulfill our needs, but we struggle with placing our hope in the wrong things: ourselves, others, or objects. At the core of our beings, we struggle with certain personal tendencies towards sin. The outward sinful behaviors tearing us apart, breaking down our community, and eroding our relationships are mere symptoms of this core sin tendency. Like Mary, God will lift us up! But I wonder if our core sin is keeping us from offering our whole selves to God this morning like Mary did. We all have something inside of us that stands in need of salvation, in need of a great reversal, this morning. What’s denying God’s work of salvation in you?

Maybe something comes to mind right away, but if not, I want to offer a guide. It’s a tool known as the Enneagram and I offer it simply as a model to assist in identifying your core sin tendency. However, the Enneagram won’t heal you – that belongs to God’s gracious work of salvation in you and to you through your faith community. So, the Enneagram identifies 9 types of people based on their core needs and their corresponding core sin tendencies:

  • Ones need to be perfect and are tempted with self-righteous anger
  • Twos need to be loved and needed and show pride with how they use others to satisfy these needs
  • Threes need success and are tempted to be deceitful in order to avoid failure
  • Fours need to be special and are tempted towards envy, escapism, and loss of integrity
  • Fives need knowledge and are tempted by greed, stinginess, and critical detachment
  • Sixes need security and are tempted by fear, self-doubt, and cowardice
  • Sevens avoid pain and are tempted by gluttony and intemperance
  • Eights need power, self-reliance, and something to criticize and are tempted to lust, arrogance, and the desire to control and possess
  • Nines need emotional peace and avoid initiative and are tempted by laziness, comfortable illusions, and being overly accommodating[1]

Is one of these types resonating with you? In Mary’s song we hear of God’s desire for the reversal and healing of our core sins, so that we are transformed into the likeness of Christ for the sake of the world.

We can’t forget the rest of Mary’s song though. God’s work of salvation did not stop with Mary and it does not stop with us. The same sin that God is reversing in us is being reversed in the world. Why? Because it’s all the same. We’re conveniently deceived when we fail to see the connection between our personal sin and oppressive structures of sin in our world. What do I mean? Here’s one example. The sex industry – pornography – in the US generates about $12 billion annually, $57 billion globally. In August 2006, a survey reported 50% of all Christian men and 20% of all Christian women were addicted to pornography.[2] Viewing pornography dehumanizes you, it objectifies the human beings on the screen, and it destroys intimacy in your relationships. It’s a horrible addiction, but it’s just a personal thing right? No. Here’s the other side of our personal obsessions with sex: 1.2 million children are trafficked for sex every year at an average age of 12-14 years old. Nearly 30 million children – the population of 20 Philadelphia’s – have lost their childhood through sexual exploitation in the past 30 years.[3] This is just one example of the suffering that comes when the sin in us is reproduced in global structures of sin and evil.

How big is your hope for salvation this morning? Is it as big as Mary’s? Does it include a vision for a renewed family, for restoration of our community? Do you long to walk down peaceful streets in Philadelphia? Are you waiting in expectant anticipation for life together in community across all boundaries of race, class, age, and gender? Is the end of extreme poverty in our world beyond your vision? Will you dare to believe God’s promise that children are too valuable to be sold as sex slaves? Can we dream of a life that is lived in mutual care and respect for the land and animals which sustain us? God is coming with salvation, with healing, with reversal, for the whole world. Do we believe it this morning?

Yes, it’s daunting work, it will require our complete surrender, a coordinated effort of the entire Body of Christ, and we may never see it complete, but this is our vision – this is God’s vision; a vision of hope for all creation. Will we sing Mary’s revolutionary song of hope in God’s community-restoring, world-renewing, peace-creating work of salvation coming to life in Jesus Christ? What needs reversal in our own hearts? How is God convicting us to join the work of reversal in this community and beyond? I don’t know where you’ve placed your hope this morning, but I want you to know that the cause of Jesus Christ is the only cause that has a future today. Hope in anything else is no hope at all.

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by your drawing nigh, Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind  in one the hearts of all mankind;  Oh, bid our sad divisions cease, And be yourself our King of Peace. Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free! Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring!

[1] David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2004), 69-70.

Truth in the inward being; wisdom in the secret heart

Psalm 51 is one of those psalms that I come back to often. It’s not a very pretty psalm; nothing like Psalm 23. It is written by the great king of Israel – David – the man after God’s own heart. However, I don’t think David was feeling much like a great king at all when he wrote this psalm. It is a psalm of confession. David has just been confronted by the prophet Nathan, who was calling him out for ordering the murder of Bathsheeba’s husband so he could marry her – the woman whom he had watched bathing from the top of his palace in Jerusalem. Coming to grips with his sin, he cries out to God:

1  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

You may be aware that a new season of the Christian calendar began this past Wednesday – Lent. It gets a bad rap these days; some people abuse it with pettiness and others just ignore it altogether. I happen to think its really important. I also agree with my good friend Josh Walters – Lent is all about sin and coming to terms with our sin just like David does in Psalm 51.

I’ve been trying to follow the Revised Common Lectionary in my devotional reading and the Psalm for this week was, of course, Psalm 51. As I read Psalm 51 earlier this week, and especially as I reflected on it this morning, one part of it spoke to me more than it ever has before. In verses 5 & 6, King David declares:

5  Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

6  Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

What is David saying here? First, I noticed the symmetry of the two “Behold” statements and something jumped out at me. Verse 5 seems to be David’s admission that he is just sinful to the core. There is so much sin and brokenness in him that he cannot imagine the depths of it. This doctrine is known as original sin and is picked up by the apostle Paul big time in his letter to the Romans. So, David is just blown away by the pervasiveness of his sin disease. Then, he throws a counter punch. Notice the language in verse 6: inward being  and secret heart. It’s like he saying, “Damn, I’m sinful to the core!” and then “Damn, God wants to redeem me to the core!” David acknowledges both the depth of his sin and the depth of God’s love and mercy and His redemptive power in our lives. We must hold these truths together as we face our sin.

Last semester I took a course called Spiritual Formation that is all about God’s transformative work in our hearts to make us more like Him. In one of the books we read, the author said that we all are driven by a core sin tendency – that all the “sins” we commit during the day are really just symptoms of this underlying sinful drive. If we want to be like Christ, we must come to terms with this inner sin tendency. One of the tools he suggests for helping us in this task is called the Enneagram. It’s basically a personality test that identifies our core identity, which points us to our core sin. Now, its not magical or anything. It’s just a tool. I think it can be helpful to propel and give guidance to our reflection. It is not a substitute for the prayerful reflection that must occur in order to come to grips with the reality of sin in our lives.

I took the free, sampler version of the Enneagram test last semester and found out that I was a type 3 – the Achiever. To cut to the chase, that pretty much means that my core sin tendency is deception – both self-deception and presenting a false self to others – in order to always appear successful. The biblical character that fits this type is Jacob.

The reality of this sin and how it drives me hit me hard this morning. I was right there with David in Psalm 51: “Damn, I’m sinful to the core!” But then I came to verse 6: “O God, you delight in truth in my inward being! You teach me wisdom in my secret heart!” Yes, I struggle with this sin of deception at the core of who I am, but I know that is not all there is. God wants to replace that deception with truth. He wants the truth about who I really am in Him to sink into the deepest parts of my identity. This truth is there already. God has made me, and you, as good. He already loves us. The struggle is in fighting through all the junk, all the constructions and adaptations we’ve made in our lives, to get to that truth and to then live our lives out of that truth.

So, be encouraged sinners! Yes, you are sinful to the core, but God is faithful and He redeems us to the core!