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December 12, 2016, 12:00 AM

Celebrate Salvation

 

by Sandy Bach

"Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation." (Isaiah 12:2 NRSV)

Imagine a war-torn landscape.  Bombs have destroyed the city, leveling almost all of the homes and buildings.  At the center of it sits a church, miraculously still standing but in need of a roof.  The Christians gather to help those left behind.  They worship in each others' homes until they can afford to replace the roof.  It's dangerous to meet and worship God, but they do it anyway.

Somehow they manage to repair the roof and they're able to worship again in their church.  They could leave and move somewhere more hospitable.  But, they decide to remain.

Hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation in Syria.

In nearby Iraq, a church has taken in several families: about 70 men, women and children.  They help feed and clothe them and provide them with shelter.  Some of these refugees are Christian, some are Muslim.  The church is serving those who are hurt regardless of religious affiliation.  What's important to them is serving those in need.

Hope is found in the midst of hopelessness.

These Christians are light in the darkness of war and terrorism.

Perhaps they read this section of Isaiah in order to sustain their hope.

The exiled Jews in Babylon would understand hopeless situations.  They lost their homeland and they surely wonder if God is finished with them.  Living in a strange land with strange customs and multiple gods, they feel the hopelessness of their lot.

So Isaiah reminds them who they are and to whom they belong.  The first part of the passage is a personal message: God is my salvation.  God can be relied on.  God is strength and my might.  With joy I will draw strength from God.

But, Isaiah isn't finished.  He has a message for the community: to those in Babylon 2500 years ago and to you and me and people all over the world.  All of you will give thanks and call on God's name.  All of us can make God's mighty deeds known and we will proclaim that God's name is exalted.  Sing praises.  Even in the hard times, sing praises, because God is with us.

This scripture passage is a song.  It is a song that can be sung during both peaceful and traumatic events.  Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary suggests that Isaiah is helping the exiles find their faith by praising God.  But he warns us not to take the easy way out.  "Is it easier to say to a person who is struggling with their faith, 'You just have to believe,' Or is it easier to say, 'Let's pray.'"  (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2704)

The words they "sing" in this passage can be found in other parts of the Bible.  This is a reminder of the God to whom we belong and that this God is faithful.  By singing what is familiar, they find comfort and hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation.

We have our own familiar hymns:

"Bring peace, O Lord," we pray.  "O come, O come Immanuel," we sing.

"Carry me, Lord.  I haven't the strength to go it alone."  "Comfort, comfort, you my people," we sing.

When we can do nothing more but live in trauma, we sing or recite the 23rd Psalm.  "The Lord is my shepherd..."

These words from Isaiah are as important to us today as they've ever been to countless generations who come before us.  In Syria and Iraq; Paris and Mali and San Bernadino; in Ferguson, Baltimore or Charleston.  In times of terror and and times of fear and times of grief.

Will we allow these things to define us?  Will we put our trust in politicians and news media and uninformed people?  Or will we seek strength and comfort from God?  Will we huddle in fear and terror?  Or will we boldly state, "I WILL give thanks to you, O Lord!"  Can we live as if we truly believe that, "God is our salvation, our strength and our might."?

If so, then perhaps it's time to pause and sing:

"Give thanks to the Lord,
    call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
    proclaim that his name is exalted.

 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
    let this be known in all the earth.
 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
    for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel."  (Isaish 12:4b-6)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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December 11, 2016, 12:00 AM

Longing and Rejoicing

by Sandy Bach

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  (Isaiah 35:1-10 NRSV)

Two weeks ago, we re-tuned our listening skills. We wanted to hear hammers beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We listened carefully. I hope that you’ve heard the tapping, however faint it may have been.

Last week, we were challenged to adjust our vision: to look for signs of growth where all appears hopeless. We’re trying to see growth in a tree stump.

How have you managed to hear and see in new ways? Where have you discovered peace in the unexpected? Did you pause, if even for a moment, to watch a hopeful activity of green growth?

Today our text speaks to us poetically. I don’t think it could be stated any better. God’s creation comes alive in new ways: blooms and blossoms in dry deserts and wilderness places; Waters and springs sprout in the dry lands. A special highway for all of God’s people to journey. It provides for safe passage: no danger, no fear.

In this vision, the wilderness is no longer scary. It’s a place of joy and singing, revealing God’s majesty. A foretaste of the Great Messianic Banquet at the end of time.

Perhaps you’re tired of waiting. Perhaps you’ve had enough of Presidential elections, immigration arguments, and war. Perhaps you’re worn out by family troubles. Maybe you’ve had enough of social justice issues.

At this time of year, it’s easier to feel these tensions more than any other time of year. While we sing “Joy to the World” we fail to see much joy. Sure, you say, our pastor tells us to listen and look more carefully. But, what of it? There’s still bad stuff going on. People are still angry and politicians are still arguing. I can’t turn the volume up any louder to drown out the sounds of anger and verbal abuse.

Isaiah offers a suggestion:

Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!” (Isaiah 35:3-4 The Message)

That’s our part in this relationship with God. Reaching out to those who can’t take care of themselves; to those who are too worn out, too scared, too discouraged, to know strength and comfort. Real strength and comfort.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure to join up with the Hospitality Committee in the congregation that I serve to visit those who can’t come to church. Those with a heart for visiting, meet up at the local McDonald’s. Someone has made some phone calls and we go out in twos to visit. It’s been a good way for me to get to know them. But, more than that, I’ve watched our folks visit, really visit with them.

They share news of the church; listen to what’s happening in their lives; talk about anything. The conversation isn’t forced: it’s comfortable and real. The members of this committee have a deacon’s heart and they’re using it to serve others.

What bugs you? What gifts do you have to offer that might be a part of the solution? What bothers you? What do you need to know about this issue?

Write it down. Pray about it. Talk to someone about it. Ask that teacher-friend about volunteering in the local school; join (or start) a discussion group on the topic of poverty; get involved in local politics; do something to strengthen others.

We live in “the meantime.” We live in the yet-not-yet, waiting for the journey on that Holy Highway to begin. So, while we wait, while we call out to our Lord, “Come, Lord Jesus”, while we sing “O Come, o come, Emmanuel,” we can serve God by serving others.

There are so many ministries that you are doing right now. Those ministries in the community are what we do because our heart drives us to use our skills and talents.

But, if you’re feeling like you want to do more or know more and be more, I encourage you to use this as your prayer during your journey to the manger. What do you want to tell this child, born in a stable and crucified on a cross?

Share it with him. Then listen and look around. You just might hear the tapping of hammer on metal; you just might see a tiny green shoot coming out of a dried up tree stump.

You may discover a new way to strengthen the limp hands and rubbery knees.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 4, 2016, 9:17 AM

Peace-filled Kingdom

by Sandy Bach

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout from his roots.
2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
4 He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.
A signal to the peoples

10 On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.  (Isaiah 11:1-10 CEB)

Sometimes the promises in scripture stagger belief.

Isaiah has spent a good part of his writings chastising, reprimanding, criticizing, pointing a finger and otherwise telling the people of his day to shape up or they’ll lose everything. They didn’t shape up. Israel ended up in exile in Assyria and now Judah hangs on by a thread.

Isaiah suddenly changes direction. He preaches to Judah and to us about a coming peaceful kingdom. Out of King David’s withering family tree will come a shoot. A new leader who will receive God’s spirit. He will rule with wisdom and insight. He’ll be powerful and intelligent. Most of all, he’ll be reverent.

This shoot of Jesse’s stump will be no ordinary king. His insight will see beneath the surface of what people say and do. He’ll deal mercifully and equitably with the poor. For the wicked, bad news: judgement.

Once the justice of God’s desiring is moving across the earth, to all nations, then and only then will we know real peace. That peace that Adam and Eve knew for a short time in Eden: wolves and lambs and leopards and young goats all grazing together in harmony; the most vulnerable of human beings plays near dangerous snakes.

And still we wait.

We wait for a leader who will rule like this one from Jesse’s stump. We wait and hope for a peace-filled kingdom.

But, lions and bears and snakes still abound. Both the animal and human. Predator nations. People and institutions that destroy the vulnerable and the weak for their own agendas. And while these lions and bears and snakes bare their fangs, roar and coil, we wonder what good prayer is against the toxic in our world.

A beloved painting created by the Quaker artist, Edward Hicks, is named “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Actually, he painted it more than 60 times. I’m told that after 40 years of painting, the animals steadily became ferocious, again. Hicks had seen too many conflicts in his day and even within his religious community.

Perhaps you have had personal experience with lions who have damaged, perhaps even ruined your life? What snakes lie coiled, ready to strike without warning?

We can’t give up hope. God isn’t finished. And Isaiah assures us that God is still at work.

Take the shoot from the stump. A tiny green shoot shall spring from a lifeless stump. It promises to grow. Life and hope are God’s vision for Isaiah. David’s family line, almost dead, will bear yet another child who will become a good and righteous king.

There are many stumps and shoots in scripture. In Eden’s Garden, where rebellion led to failure; Noah and his family and all those animals; the childless Abram and Sarai who miraculously bore Isaac.
Shoots from stumps seem to be where we find God at work.

And the tender shoot of Jesus. Born to an unwed woman in poverty; raised in a climate of injustice and cruelty; killed on a cross. And that tiny shoot of resurrection conquered everything.

Peace may seem allusive. It may seem hidden, but look around for those shoots.

When I was a teaching assistant in a Pre-K class, I saw shoots on the playground. African American children played with Latino-Latina and white kids. They were color-blind. And I saw Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream thriving amongst 4-year-olds.

In an earlier part of Isaiah, he wrote about a day when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4) We learn to listen carefully for the sound of hammer beating on metal. It’s around us, but easily hidden.

We need this scripture passage to help us adjust our vision. We tend to look at the rotting stump. And when we do, miss that little green shoot. They’re out there; keep looking for them.

God is at work, doing what God does best: creating green shoots as a grace-filled way of showing God’s love and desire for peace. It’s a reminder that God hasn’t given up on us or the world he loves so much. And he won’t ever give up.

God is at work.

The question is: how are we working out God’s plan?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen




November 29, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home

Fulfilling Promises

by Sandy Bach

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promises I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteious Branch to sprint up for David;" (Jeremiah 33:14-15a NRSV)

What if we read this scripture passage through the eyes of a Syrian immigrant?  or a victim of the Paris attack?  or a citizen of Mali?  What if we read this passage through the eyes of an unwelcome immigrant to the U.S.? or a woman chained to a wheel chair and an oxygen bottle? or a child abandoned by her parent?  What if we read this passage through the eyes of our own lives when we've known disappointment, hurt, illness, death, even terror.  How does this passage speak to us when we read, "The days are surely coming..."

It was difficult for the people Jeremiah wrote to.  Israel had been captured and exiled to Assyria.  Now Judah has been captured and exiled to Babylon.  Their land lays fallow.  Their temple utterly destroyed.  Where is God?  Is God dead?

"No!" says Jeremiah in a loud voice.  God is with each of us and God hasn't forgotten any of us.  God remembers the covenant God made with David that his house would rule.  This crisis is temporary.  God's rule of love is forever.

Today begins the Advent season.  Advent is the beginning of the Christian year: the four weeks that lead up to the birth of Jesus.  Culturally it's a joyful and joy-filled season with shopping and parties and caroling.  There's a damper on the season this year.  Terrorist activity has occurred and we're supposed to wonder where it will hit again.  Nations are working together to guard against attacks, but what is our response?

Will we sing a little louder to block out the news casts?  Will we party a little harder to try and forget?  Will Christmas shopping turn into "retail therapy" as we search for that ever-elusive peace?

Or will we dare to step outside of the cultural Christmas season and seek something different?  As we journey to the manger to meet our Lord, once again, we also look to the future to the time when Jesus will return and make things right.  While we celebrate our King being born in a stable and growing up in the poorest of conditions, we'll also look forward to the time when he will meet us in the future.

These are birth pangs that we're experiencing.  So, what is waiting to be born in your life?  As you journey to that manger what will find along the way?

What do you long for?  What do you hope for?

For some, the answer is a clear and resounding, "Come, Lord Jesus."  For others it's a sense of looking for that day that will surely come.  What will your season of Advent look like?

Once you decide, remember that God is present with you and God meets you there.  God meets you today and everyday and waits for you in the future.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.



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November 22, 2016, 12:00 AM

Church at Home

God’s Life-Giving Truth

by Sandy Bach

"Pilate asked [Jesus], "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38 NRSV)

Good question, Pilate.  What is truth?

Perhaps truth is relative.  It depends on the circumstances that surround the issue.

Perhaps truth is provisional.  This is true only if that is true.

When is truth eternal?  Is it when we're told the truth in loud and angry tones?  Or when we listen to only one human voice and take it in no matter what is said?  Or is truth what we personally believe with no discussion from outside forces, especially those with whom we may disagree.

Maybe the answer to the question, what is truth?, lies in how we look for truth.  For me, there is only one way to search and that is through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus reveals truth, proclaims truth, belongs to truth.  Jesus is truth.

It's a nice statement, isn't it?  Yet, it explains very little.  How do I find truth?

John's gospel is a good place to begin.  In this gospel we read descriptions of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God calls us into a new status, out of the darkness and into the light.  It breaks down barriers between us and our enemies and challenges us to quit building walls between us and those who don't look and act like us.

Jesus gives us a new identity in the waters of Baptism, calling us to choose life, even grab it for all it's worth.  Look at life through a fresh vision that cannot be contained by others.

This takes courage.  It means listening to the media and your friends and even your pastor through the lens of scripture.  It means pushing yourself to understand the views you don't agree with.  It means changing your mind because you're older and wiser now and the old beliefs just don't fit anymore.

It seems the more I study and read scripture, the more deeply I see Jesus calling me to see the world through his eyes.  I'm challenged to break out of my place of so-called security to get to know and understand those with whom I disagree; those I fear because I don't know them; those I don't like because they aren't like me.

And, most difficult of all, when I believe that what I hold to be true and self-evident, I can't hate my neighbor for believing the very op0ostie even when it hurts my feelings.

Because though I may have truth, sometimes I realize that it's my truth that I hold to be self-evident, not God's.

And then it's back to the Good Book and a long talk with Jesus.  He went to the cross for the truth of the kingdom of God.  I can do no less.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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