We Wait

So, I really did mean to leave everyone in the dark last Sunday.  How did it go?  Did you walk or sit in the dark?  What did you learn?  What did you let go of?  How is your Advent so far?

This week, we can still experience endarkenment as we wait.  Advent is all about waiting.  Waiting for God to act, waiting for word, waiting for the world to get a little less crazy, waiting for justice which seems like it will never come.  Especially, we wait for Good News.  At least we know where we are supposed to be able to find Good News.  All we need to do is turn to the Gospels.  Gospel means “good news.  Let’s see what we can find…

Each of the gospels begins in a different way, in a style all it's own.  Matthew begins with a family tree sure to please all the genealogists and aficionados.  In addition, Matthew's list of who's who provides a link of Bible big shots to connect the Hebrew and Christian scriptures through a most important royal lineage.  

Luke skips all that in favor of stating the purpose of his gospel to his dear friend Theophilus.  Luke makes clear that he is writing for the purpose of providing an orderly and true account of all the things that had been fulfilled regarding Jesus the Christ.  Luke then launches right in to the birth narrative beginning with Zechariah and Elizabeth and their inability to reproduce.  

John's gospel begins like a science fiction novel and appeals to those who prefer mystical and mysterious language.  It is as if John lays it all out and gives us a little time to start to put the puzzle together.  John does not name names nor put anything in historical context.  Instead, this gospel makes us ask questions and ponder the meaning of his cryptic message.

Finally, we look at Mark's gospel, our good news go to source for liturgical year B.  Mark does not bother to tell us any background material about the characters and story he is going to spin.  This is pretty characteristic of the gospel writer who likes his stories short, to the point, and filled with action to keep things moving along.  Mark calls it like he sees it and tells it like it is.  No mysteries to solve.  No puzzles to ponder. No endless waiting required. "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  BADA BING, BADA BAM.  You know everything you need to know.  Just in case, Mark backs up into the First Testament to show you Isaiah's prophecy which confirms that you now know everything you need to know.  A messenger is sent from God to prepare the way of the Lord.  Then, SHAZAAM!  Mark introduces us to this character named John.

But wait just a minute.  This story is supposed to be good news.  The messenger sent from God is supposed to bring comfort and healing and hope to a people who are stumbling around with the weight of the world crushing them.  I think there must be something wrong with this picture.

Let's look at what was going on in the lives of the people of Israel that brought about Isaiah's prophecy.  God's people were in exile in a foreign land.  Living in captivity was not an ideal situation, in fact they were longing for the day when God would rescue them and their misery would cease. The people wait for  what seems like forever.

According to Isaiah, the first words out of God's mouth are, "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins."

"The word 'comfort' is repeated to show that the matter of comfort is of great importance to God.  There is no prophecy of doom and gloom here...  just an assurance of God's mercy.  The mood is one of joyful anticipation for a new era that is about to dawn which the people have been waiting for.  The point of these words is not to talk about Israel's punishment, but to proclaim a new salvation to people unworthy of it.  God wants Israel to know that her suffering is at an end, her sins are forgiven.  The waiting is over.  This comfort that God gives proves that the God of the universe is family to us.  "My people", and "your God" are covenant words.  

The call God makes to the people is not a one-time statement.  The word of comfort from God is continuous.  Not only was this word spoken to the ancient Jews through the prophet Isaiah, but that word is still spoken to us by God today as we wait.  God is a personal God who is aware of our hurts, comforts us, and cares for us.  The kind of comfort God gives is not merely a healing balm, but God the comforter is one who stimulates, awakens, and makes us aware of our potential and possibilities.

Isaiah continues the prophecy, "A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."" The voice brings a message of great joy and a new decree to the Jews: you will be free!  You will return home!  The Jewish people have not been home for a long time.  The highway in the desert will lead from Babylon to Jerusalem.  It is the road that the Jews will take when they come marching home behind a triumphant God who will lead them to freedom.  So, for the waiting Israelites, someday their captivity will come to an end.  It was going to be quite a few more years, but at least they had this seed of hope planted in their hearts.  

In Mark's gospel, we are told right off the bat that we are going to be hearing some good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Then we get a snippet of prophecy from Isaiah 40 so the gospel writer can make sure we don't miss the connection between Old Testament prophecy and the good news that is about to be shared.  If you were listening closely, however, you may have noticed that the writer of the gospel did not quote Isaiah word for word, but did a mash up of some Isaiah mixed with a little Malachi.  Any way we look at it, the writer's intent is to introduce us to the character of John the Baptizer who is a link between the prophets of old and the new age of God.  John quotes Isaiah, well, in a loosy-goosey kind of way; he dresses like Elijah: a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist; and John eats like a prophet...consuming locusts and wild honey, abstaining from meat and wine.  At the time of John's coming, Judaism was longing for a revival of prophecy.  John's appearance and his message caused quite a stir.  Before we get to the Good News however, we have to wait and listen to the announcer of the One who is to come.  

John is the forerunner.  John is found in the wilderness.  The wilderness is a space for rites of passage, rebellion, sacred instruction, community building, for meeting God face to face and for waiting.  The wilderness is also the haunt of demons and therefore a good place for God to confront the powers of evil.  Salvation traditionally comes from the wilderness.  The people would know this based on the stories about Moses, Elijah, and David.

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.". So, just exactly where is the good news?  A wild man in the desert telling/yelling? at people to change their ways and making them go for a dunk in the river?   I'm not convinced that all this is leading to good news.  In fact, at this time of year, John the Baptizer seems like a first century Grinch sucking the life out of everyone's good time.  

In spite of what we might think, people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  Why did he have that affect on people?  John the Baptizer was a bizarre figure who shook the foundations of first-century Palestine because he stirred up the people's hopes for renewal and liberation.  The prophetic word of God's presence intends to shatter and disorient taken-for-granted everyday reality to transform despair into hope and praise.  Such figures are often a serious threat to the established order and those in authority often must "deal" with them.

But John came preaching a message of repentance, not to be a party pooper or some kind of Scrooge, but in order for people to be prepared to meet the Coming One.  John baptized in order to prepare folks for the Coming One.  John did not preach a message of judgment, but he came to lay the groundwork so that people would be receptive to the message and ministry of Jesus.  

John knew that the Coming One was greater than he.  John said that he was unworthy to untie the Coming One's sandals.  This implies a relationship of greater social distance than a master and a slave.  Whereas John baptized with water, the Coming One was to baptize the people with the Holy Spirit.  Just what that means in Mark's gospel is a question to ponder.

It doesn't sound like good news, at least not  to me, not yet.  Mark's gospel summons us to the wilderness, not to Bethlehem. The wilderness may be akin to the darkness we reflected upon last week.  Just as the darkness has been maligned by tradition, the wilderness also carries similar connotations. We’d rather meet a cute, cuddly newborn savior, but instead, we find ourselves in the wilderness where we are assaulted by a wild man prophet telling tales about some super hero and throwing water on everyone.  Is this where you expected to be on this second Sunday of Advent?

We, like those exiled Israelites, long for a comforter.  Pain and suffering, and oppression run rampant in our world, too.  With eagerness, we enter into the hope of this message that kindled the hearts of the ancients.  Along with entering the hope, we also wait and prepare for God's second coming.  We are baptized.  We are fed at this table.  We are the forerunners of Christ in the in-between time.  We must repent, so that we can be open to receive the forgiveness God has granted us. We must point the way to the Coming One.  We must declare God's good tidings and tell what glorious things God has done for us!

We are the messengers this time.  The voices in the wilderness belong to us.  But, we don't have to smell like a camel or eat bugs for lunch unless, of course, one chooses that lifestyle. Far be it from me to judge… We've read the end of all four gospels and there is no mistaking the good news.  We wait now, but we will get there eventually.  So, why not take the Good News which you know very well and run with it.  Go out into the world and tell it. Shout it from the rooftops.  Proclaim it from the highways and byways; in the town square and in Times Square. 

But through it all, don't lose that expectant hope of the first Christmas.  And never forget that you are called to Prepare the Way of the Lord.  It's not about you, it's about what God is doing for you, for us, for the world.  As we wait for God to come back, it’s our turn to  spread the gospel message, it's essential for us to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable.  We need to shake things up so that however God surprises us next time, we will be expecting something new and different.

For now, we wait.  We wait for God.  We wait in darkness, but the darkness is pregnant with possibility.  We listen as we wait and take in what the darkness reveals to us of God’s love and justice. We then, venture out to all the dark places of this world where people wait without hope and are filled with despair.  We sit in the darkness with them and whisper God’s wonderful words of comfort in their ears.  Just as two little candles can make the darkness feel a little less lonely, may we all be messengers of joy and peace and shalom wherever people wait for something better

“Between Black Friday and CyberMonday” Advent 1B

Happy New Year!  Today is the first day of the new liturgical year.  Say “Hello” to Year B!  Unlike our secular New Year’s holiday, Advent does not come in with a bang, but with a whimper.  Advent is overshadowed because it falls between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the two giant orgies of consumer spending signaling the countdown of shopping days left until Christmas.

Where did the term Black Friday come from?  Most of us naturally assume that it comes from the world of retail because it is thought to be the day when store ledgers go from red to black insuring a great end of the year profit margin for stores and businesses.  Well, Black Friday may be connected to the shopping frenzy that occurs on the day after Thanksgiving, but its origin isn’t related to Christmas shoppers at all.  The term was first used in “a 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance, … an industry journal. And there's an article in (it) that begins like this - again, this is 1951 - quote: Friday after Thanksgiving-itis is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects. At least that's the feeling of those who have to get production out when the Black Friday comes along.”

So, instead of Black Friday being a day for shoppers to show up, it was originally a day when factory workers were absent!  But wait, there’s another reference from the 1960’s where the day after Thanksgiving was called Black Friday.  This time it was police in Philadelphia who used the term to refer to all the traffic snarls they had to sort out when everyone hit the roads to go shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  For the police, it was just the worst day imaginable to try and direct the city traffic.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the term Black Friday began to be associated with retailers and their profits.

Then we have cybermonday.  This is a relatively modern term, only in usage since 2005 when the people who track trends and patterns online noticed that there seemed to be a large uptick in the number of people shopping online.  They guessed there were a lot of people who didn’t have time to shop on Black Friday, or maybe they shopped but couldn't get their hands on the products they were looking for, so when everyone went back to work on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the computers were fired up and online sales skyrocketed because there were no crowds and lines to fight.  One needs only to sit in the comfy living room chair or at one’s desk in the privacy of one’s cubicle and surf-shop.

But, wait.  What about Small Business Saturday?  In the last few years I’ve noticed an emphasis on shopping local mom and pop stores on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Let’s see.  Thursday is the feeding frenzy, Friday, Saturday and Monday are the shop till you drop days.  What’s missing?  Oh yeah.  Sunday.  I guess Sunday is a travel day for all who need to come back home from their holiday happenings.  Maybe that’s what Sunday is for most people, but for us, it is the first Sunday of the season of Advent.  It is a day when we look darkness in the eye and admit our longing for something to make us feel whole and unafraid.  It is a day when we sit in the dark and let it envelop us.  If we are too quick to run into the light, we may miss out on some deep and significant mysteries about ourselves, our faith, and our relationship with God.

I read a fantastic book last week called “Learning to Walk in the Dark” written by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.  It was a perfect way to prepare for this Advent season of preparation.  The author studies “darkness” from many different perspectives and works from the thesis that our Christian theology has done a disservice to darkness.  We have been brought along to believe that darkness is bad, frightening, evil, and to be avoided at all costs.  Think back to the time when you were a small child.  Did you sleep with a nightlight?  Were you afraid of the dark?  Did you think monsters lurked in the shadows of your room or under your bed?  Were you allowed to play outside after dark?  When dusk came, was your house immediately flooded with artificial light to keep the dark at bay?

There are lots of stories in the Bible that reinforce the notion of binary thinking… that is when it comes to opposites one is somehow better than the other.  Think of it this way…. flesh and spirit, male and female, light and dark… we have somehow been led to believe that one of the pair is closer to God and the other is far away.  In actuality, flesh and spirit are two states of being.  One is not more holy than the other although we have been taught to seek spirit and deny the flesh.  Male and female were both created in God’s image, yet the male has been regarded as superior and the female subordinate.  So too, light and dark are part of a cycle of life yet we have been conditioned to be creatures of light and to shun the dark.  Well, I have news for you… in Genesis 1 when God created the world, darkness was there first.  It was out of the dark that everything was created.  God said, “Let there be light.”  God never said, “Let there be dark.”  God didn't have to.  Everything that was created came from the realm of the mysterious darkness.

Barbara Brown Taylor names many Bible stories in which the dark is the medium for divine encounters between people and God.  Jacob and his son Joseph dreamed big dreams in the dark.  Jacob wrestled with the angel all night.  God took Abraham outside at night to look at the stars and to make a covenant.  In the psalms we learn that the darkness is not dark to God and there is nowhere we can go where God cannot find us even if we are in the deepest darkness… God is there with us.  Jesus was born at night in a cave and the resurrection happened in the darkness of a different cave.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.  Jesus walked on the water at night.  

There are many examples where dark and night called forth creative powers and transformation.  What if we began to develop our night vision?  What things would we see?  How many fears could we come to terms with?  How many monsters could we slay?  One thing I learned from Barbara’s book was the term “endarkenment.”  We know sages and mystics and religious seekers all search for enlightenment, but the other side of that is just as important.  Yes, it is essential for spiritual growth to learn of light but how much deeper could our spirituality go if we also discovered the secrets the dark can teach us?

When we come across strange passages in the scriptures such as our gospel reading for this morning, instead of responding with fear and confusion, why not dig in and walk in the darkness to befriend the mystery?  Mark tells us about some unusual events that would be taking place accompanied by strange natural phenomena… darkened sun and moon, falling stars, shaking heavens.  These are the signs that signal the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds with angels who will gather the elect from the four winds and from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

These are all Old Testament images from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah and Daniel.  Perhaps this section was inserted in the gospel of Mark at this point because it prepares the readers for what comes next… namely Jesus’ passion and crucifixion.  Perhaps, Jesus is trying to tell the disciples to pay attention to what is going on around them.  Things were about to become very strange and the disciples, especially, needed to be clued in lest they fall into despair and depression and disappear before God’s grand finale… the resurrection.

Jesus continues his discourse by reminding the disciples that the only way they can understand what is going on is by learning to walk in the dark… that is by keeping alert and keeping awake.  Since God is the one in control of these events, the disciples must watch and wait without falling asleep.  But we know they did fall asleep when Jesus asked them to watch and pray with him in the garden.

The disciples were alerted to the hard times ahead, but they did not remember to watch and wait.  They let their fear and confusion of the dark distract them from understanding the signs that signaled the triumph of God over the powers of sin and death.

If you really want to grow in your spiritual life, perhaps you can try walking in the dark.  If you don’t like the idea of perhaps stumbling around or stubbing your toe, maybe just sitting in the dark would work.  If you sit quietly in the dark you will notice that your other senses turn up the volume.  Your hearing becomes more acute, you may notice more smells, you may feel more sensations on your skin.  If you sit in the dark and try to talk to the darkness you may find a whole host of treasure that is available for the taking… courage, curiosity, creativity, self-awareness, emptiness, openness, adventure, humility, a loving spirit.

Walking in the dark between Black Friday and CyberMonday, we must try and resist the temptation to turn the lights on too quickly.  Advent is sometimes referred to as a “little Lent.”  Advent is similar to lent because it can be a time to fast and pray, to clean the house, and to prepare for Christ’s return.  Forget about counting down the shopping days until Christmas and instead count the ways you have been a voice for justice in a world of suffering.  We can fast from singing Christmas carols, putting up all the decorations before Halloween, and opening our presents.  If we do all of these things today then Christmas comes too early and Advent becomes a travel day… an irritation and annoyance that must be endured.  We can clean our spiritual house of negativity and cynicism and freshen things up with hope and expectancy for the new thing God is doing in our lives.  We can prepare for the return of Christ by replacing fear with the certainty that God has the final say over the destiny of creation.

Learning to walk in the dark is not easy but neither is Advent.  I will let the author have the last word.  She writes: (Why not) “become more curious about your own darkness.  What can you learn about your fear of it by staying with it for a moment before turning on the lights?  Where can you feel the fear in your body?  When have you felt that way before?  What are you afraid is going to happen to you, and what is your mind telling you to do about it?  What stories do you tell yourself to keep your fear in place?  What helps you stay conscious even when you are afraid?  What have you learned in the dark that you could never have learned in the light?”  (p. 184 Kindle edition)

I encourage you then to go out and seize the dark!  Befriend it.  Live in it.  Learn from it.  Listen to it.  For in so doing you may find God in places you never imagined.  This Advent, become endarkened!

“A Problematic Parable” Pentecost 22A

When I began to prepare for this morning’s worship service I was surprised to find that I had never preached on the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  How could that be?, I wondered.  Then I read the text carefully and I began to figure out why I had never chosen this lectionary passage.  

Honestly, I was shocked and dismayed by the story Jesus told.  This parable doesn’t seem to fit with the whole rest of the gospel’s teachings.  Did Matthew make a mistake?  Is this really a lesson Jesus meant to teach us?  Is Jesus even talking to us in this parable?  Who do I identify with most in this story?  Certainly not the bridegroom.  And while I want to think I am a wise bridesmaid, the truth of the matter is, I am probably more like the foolish bridesmaids.  So, where does that leave me in the end?  Banging on the door begging to be let in to the feast.

Does that sound like the gospel to you?

What can we do with this problematic parable so that it makes sense in light of everything we know about the kingdom of heaven?  The first thing that bothers me about this parable is the fact that the so-called “wise” bridesmaids wouldn't share their oil.  I’d rather call them the selfish bridesmaids.

Looking to all the other stories about the haves and the have nots in the whole Bible, where is it written that we must hoard our oil or anything else for that matter?  Isn’t everything about sharing what you have? taking care of the widow and orphan?helping those in need? feeding the hungry? clothing the naked? comforting the afflicted? giving away all that you have for the sake of the kingdom? not storing up for yourself treasures on earth? gathering just enough manna for one day so that no one lacks for anything? sharing all things in common?

I could go on and on citing example after example.  You probably could too.  Doesn’t it make you wonder about those selfish bridesmaids who were hogging all the oil?  The second thing that bothers me a little is why would the bridegroom come so late to his wedding feast?  Isn’t that rude? not to mention anxiety-producing for the bride and her family.  By the way, in this parable about weddings and bridesmaids and bridegrooms, why is there no mention of a bride?  Was she so insignificant and peripheral to this story that she didn’t even rate a passing reference?  Isn’t it her family who is throwing this big feast that will last for several days?  Think of all the preparation that has been going on behind the scenes to get ready for the sumptuous banquet and the special ceremony.  I am thinking about food, decorations, clothes, making sure there is enough wine and stewards to serve it, the cleaning of the house, the setting up of the tables and cushions for each guest to recline on.  Well, I’m sure I don’t have to convince you that it takes a ton of work to pull off a celebration of this magnitude.

So, why was the groom late and why did he get away without so much as a “sorry, I was delayed due to train traffic ahead… thanks for your patience everyone.”  He gives no apology or explanation when he arrives.  He just walks right in to the feast as if he owns the place.  He gets a free pass, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, the ten bridesmaids have been waiting so long they all fall asleep.  When they are awakened with the news that the bridegroom is near, it is no wonder that their lamps were almost out of oil.  Those with extra oil could refill their lamps but the ones who brought just enough were told to go to the bodega and buy some more oil… as if ancient Palestine had 24-hour convenience stores…  If the bridegroom had been on time, there would not be a problem with lamps going out in the first place.  And then when the five bridesmaids, who somehow were resourceful enough to go out and find some extra oil, came knocking at the door they were not allowed into the feast.  In fact, it was the bridegroom who said, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

So, does this sound like Jesus to you?  This parable goes against the grain of Jesus’ other parables because according to one commentator (who seems to have as much trouble with this text as I do)

“• it does not cut against social or religious expectations;

it does not surprise or shock his first listeners - instead it would confirm their conventional wisdom that the foolish are punished and the prepared are rewarded;

there is no unexpected twist in the story;

the story lacks humor, paradox, new insight;

it is unimaginative and easy to figure out what "the moral" is.

it concludes with a closed, impenetrable boundary - clearly separating insiders from outsiders.”

So what is to be done with this problematic parable where people are either in or out depending on how much oil they managed to have with them at a given time?  I’m sure if Jesus really did tell this parable there would have been a surprise ending like after the foolish bridesmaids were turned away at the door the wise bridesmaids, overcome by compassion for their left-out sisters, unlocked the door and invited the others in.  Or maybe this is the time the bride would make an appearance and she would insist that the groom open the door to the shut-out members of the wedding party.  Or maybe the bridegroom himself would say, “Just kidding, come on in to the feast.  I’m playing with you.”

I don’t have any good answers but what may be going on here in this problematic parable is more about how to wait rather than keeping awake or being well-prepared as many have interpreted this story.  What are we waiting for?  We wait for Jesus, sometimes referred to as the bridegroom, to return.  We don’t know when or where or how, but we are supposed to have some idea that Jesus is coming soon.  

We know all too well that God’s time is not our time and so this waiting may seem inconsequential.  While it is true that we may fall asleep waiting for the second coming or run out of supplies and have to go get more, the important thing to recognize is “that opportunities for waiting on Jesus’ presence are all around us. Each time we work for justice we testify to the presence of Jesus. Each time we bear each other’s burdens, we testify to Jesus’ presence. Each time we advocate for the poor, or reach out to the friendless, or work to make this world God loves a better place, we testify to the presence of the Risen Christ…” (

The church, of all places, should take the lead and demonstrate how to wait effectively for the things that are not yet.  Those things which God sees and dreams for us can be easily missed in the midst of all the obligations our busy lives demand of us on a daily basis.  We are too easily discouraged and run out of patience when we don’t get the results we desire or the outcomes we expect.  When we come to church on  Sunday morning  all battered and beaten by the world’s demands and injustices, it is here that we should find help and support.  It is in this place where we hear messages of hope to help us wait a little longer, to remain steadfast and persevere in the midst of adversity, to continue to trust God’s promises and to long for the day when God’s rule is established on earth.  The Apostle Paul tells the church to encourage one another through times of waiting.  

In the words of one wise theologian, “As the church we must wait for each other- wise and foolish alike. We are those who sit vigil for each other at times of pain, loss or bereavement. We are those who celebrate achievements and console after disappointment. We are those who give hope when hope is scarce, comfort when it is needed, and courage when we are afraid. We are, in short, those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers, then and now. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of our Lord.” (

When we as the church fulfill this role for one another and for the world we become filled with light.  It’s not so much about the oil, after all, is it?  It’s about being light-filled and illuminating the darkness for others.  We are the lamps who guide others to God’s love.

In closing, I leave you with a story from the desert fathers:

“Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?"

You can practice all manner of spiritual disciplines, pray without ceasing, seek God first, and be holy and devout, yet at some point you have to realize that it is not enough unless you become fire.  Becoming fire can mean different things for each one of us.  The best way to describe becoming fire is to tap into your passion and let it guide you in all you do.  As you go through life with your passion showing, the world will see your fire.  Maybe you have a passion for dance or organizing or cooking or math or relationships or comforting others or teaching… you fill in your own blank.  Whatever it is that drives you and urges you to get up in the morning, that makes you feel most alive … that is the passion that sets you on fire.  That is God’s gift to you for you to shine.

“Many of the mystics talk about God as the living flame within each of us: we each contain a spark of the divine.  Fire is a symbol of purification and passion, warmth and raging power, destruction and rising up like the Phoenix from the ashes.  Becoming fire means holding these tensions and saying yes to life by the very way we live. It means unleashing the tremendous power of love into the world and, as Teilhard de Chardin says so poetically , Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves and gravity, we shall harness for God energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world we will have discovered fire.” (

What holy fire is within you?  Use it to set the world ablaze with love.

Pentecost 19A: “GDSNWHR"

This morning I am going to give you a basic Hebrew lesson in order to illustrate a theological concept that plagued the people of Israel and still plagues us today.  The third take away from all of this will be an insight into the difficult task of translating the Bible from its original language into a totally different tongue. Let’s begin with the basic Hebrew lesson.

One of the first things students have to understand about Hebrew is that it is a language of consonants.  Vowels exist, but to the novice, it isn’t always apparent where to place them when reading or speaking the language.  In fact, one can learn the vowels but they are rarely written down.  In the Israel of today, there are no vowels written on road signs or instructions or packaging so it really confused me on my trip there.  And I thought I was going to get to practice my knowledge of Hebrew but all I could do was give it my best guess.  

OK.  Now I will show you what I mean.  There is a series of letters on the cover of your bulletin.  Not coincidentally, this strange configuration of letters is also the title of this sermon.  Who thinks they can say the word?  Yeah, without vowels, it’s too tough to pronounce.

So, think for a moment with me.  If this is what English characters look like without vowels, then you can imagine what Hebrew looks like… just a string of Hebrew consonants.  It’s up to you to know how to place the vowels to form words and sentences that create a context.  Let’s see what we can do with our English version.

I invite you to study the letters for a minute.  Think of this as a word puzzle.  If you could add vowels in between some of these letters, you could probably form a phrase or a sentence.  In fact, if you try, you could probably come up with twenty or thirty possible sentences or phrases.  The rule is this:  you may not change the order of the consonants, however you can use vowels as you choose.  You may use one vowel in between letters, or you may use double vowels and you can choose where to stop and start your words.  You can try this at home if you enjoy word play.

I am going to give you some vowels to place in and among the string of consonants.  If you have access to a pencil or pen, now is the time to get it ready.

OK?  Put an ‘O’ in between the G and D.  Put an ‘I” in between the D and S.  Put an ‘O’ between the N and the W.  Put an ‘E’ before and after the R.  What’s it spell?

God Is Now Here

God Is Nowhere

Do you see the conundrum that we are faced with?  God is now here is a complete contradiction to God is nowhere.  In the words of the Israelites a few weeks ago, “Is God among us, or not?”  In fact that is the question they are asking all through their journey.  In fact, that is the question we all ask time and again.

The theological discussion centering around this issue is defined as the immanence and transcendence of God.  The immanent God is the “with-us God”, the one we connect with when we ask for help or comfort and feel like we received it.  This is the God we sense walking with us when we are afraid or doing a happy dance with us when something wonderful happens.  This is the God who is as close as our very breath.  It is no coincidence that we sing O Come O Come Immanuel during Advent to express our longing for a with-us God .  The spelling of the word Emmanuel has been Latinized and that’s why we are used to it beginning with the letter “E”.  Actually, going back to the original Hebrew, Immanuel is a compound word meaning, literally, the “with-us God.”  If we break it down, the Hebrew word ‘im’ means ‘with’, the ‘anu’ means ‘us’ and ‘el’ means God and it is spelled  “I-m-m-a-n-u-el”.  See the similarity between Immanuel and immanent?  A little mnemonic device to help you remember.

The transcendent God is the far-away God; the out-there-somewhere God.  At times, when we perceive God’s absence, we lament that God is nowhere.  We may feel that God doesn’t care for us or pay attention to us or listen to us.  While that may seem to be the case, we must keep in mind that the transcendent God has a big job to do.  This is the God who keeps the stars aligned and planets in their orbits and the sun hot and the seasons turning.  This is the awesome God who takes care of all the goings on in the universe that we can’t even begin to comprehend.  We may recognize the transcendent God when we see something majestic in nature like a mountain peak with the northern lights dancing around it, or a sensational sunrise over the vast expanse of the sea… anything that takes our breath away and makes us feel tiny and insignificant in the face of such glory.

So, which is it?  Is God here now or is God nowhere?  Perhaps how you are feeling will determine how you answer that question or maybe the particular set of life circumstances you are experiencing will point to one over the other.  However, in all honesty, you have to understand that God is both immanent and transcendent.  

We’ve had our Hebrew lesson.  We have learned the theological concepts of immanence and transcendence.  We have touched on the problem of translating texts from one language to another.  Let’s look at God’s presence as experienced by Moses and the people of Israel in today’s text.

We know the Israelites wanted an immanent God… one whose presence they could see and feel.  When Moses didn’t come down from the mountain for such a long time and the people got impatient, they took matters into their own hands and demanded that Aaron make an idol for them.  Picture the scene.  The people are having an orgy around this golden calf… sacrificing and worshiping and who knows what else.  Moses comes down from the mountain with the stone tablets… a real symbol of the presence of God with the people.  He can’t believe what he sees and in his anger he throws down the stone tablets and they break into a thousand little pebbles.

After Moses dealt with the calf (he burned it, ground it into powder, mixed it with water and made the people drink it!), expressed his disgust with his brother’s leadership during Moses’ absence, and had the loyal sons of Levi slaughter 3000 disobedient Israelites.  As if this wasn’t enough, God sent a plague on the Israelites as punishment for their sin. 

This may sound harsh, but the alternative was worse.  God was mad enough to kill these people and begin again, but instead, God did a little punishing and said the people would continue their journey with an angel instead of with God.  God wasn’t going with the people from now on because every time the people sinned, God would want to destroy them.  And as a final act of contrition, God asked for the people to remove all their ornamentation which they did.

God and Moses still met regularly in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp but no one else was allowed to go in.  The people saw the pillar of cloud descend on the tent when Moses and God had their talks but that was as close as they got to God.

The people of Israel were in an ambiguous position.  Just because God decided not to destroy them did not mean that everything was back to normal.  There was still the matter of renewing the covenant that had been broken.  There was also the problem of God’s absence on the journey.  In Moses’ mind, the angel was no substitute for God’s presence.  Without God’s merciful presence, Israel is not a nation.  So, Moses decided to ask God what the deal was.

He says, “Come clean with me, God.  Explain yourself.  If you will not go with the people, then just leave us here.  After all, You put Israel in the land of Egypt where they learned all about idolatry in the first place.”  God answered, “I will go with you and I will give you rest.”  God recognized the truth in Moses’ words.  Israel was indeed nothing special without God.  In order to seal the deal with Moses, God offers another theophany when Moses asks to see God’s glory.

Nowhere in the text does it say that this theophany occurred, but if it did it was supposed to happen like this:  God told Moses that he had found favor in God’s sight.  God knew Moses by name.  God was going to let Moses get a glimpse of God’s glory…only a glimpse, because no one who looked God in the face could live and God wanted Moses to be safe.

God put Moses in the cleft of a rock.  As God’s glory passed over Moses, he heard once more the Divine Name.  Moses was shielded by God’s hand as the glory passed by.  Moses snuck a peek, but all he saw was God’s backside.  Now, before you go and make Moses the butt of God’s joke, consider this.  When you are doing your best to follow the leader and you’re trying with all your might to keep up, all you ever see is the leader’s back, right?  If the leader was not out in front, they wouldn’t be the leader, would they?  

Admittedly, this is a linear example of Follow the Leader, but if you remember the kids’ game, that’s how it works.  You have to be a follower first.  Following leads to all kinds of skills necessary to become an effective leader.  Following the leader  when the leader is God, means you imitate the leader’s physical movements but also their actions, their examples, their words, and their vision.

In order to follow God, it is necessary to long for God’s presence and also to stand back and admire and appreciate God’s handiwork.  Like Moses, we need to have regular meetings with God so we can discern the vision and direction God has for us.  We don’t have to leave the camp and go outside to the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, we can do that whenever and wherever we choose.  We can also gather in community with one another as the church to worship, confess, pray, study, commune, and fellowship together. These activities and practices and rituals can strike a balance for us between experiencing the immanent God and the transcendent God.  Whichever aspect of God we feel in the moment, these are the times when we will know without a doubt that God Is Now Here.

Even with all of these opportunities we have for staying connected to God and one another there will likely be days when we grow impatient like the Israelites and say to ourselves God Is No Where.  Usually this will happen during the times when things aren’t going well…when we have setbacks, experience loss, are grieving, are angry, are afraid, or feel hopeless.  

During those difficult and stressful times we may have a conversation with God that goes something like this:

Me: God, can I ask You a question?

God: Sure

Me: Promise You won't get mad

God: I promise

Me: Why did You let so much stuff happen to me today?

God: What do u mean?

Me: Well, I woke up late.  My car took forever to start.  at lunch they made my sandwich wrong & I had to wait. On the way home, my phone went DEAD, just as I picked up a call, And on top of it all, when I got home ~I just wanted to soak my feet in my new foot massager & relax. BUT it wouldn't work!!! Nothing went right today! Why did You do that?

God: Let me see, the death angel was at your bed this morning & I had to send one of My Angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep through that

Me (humbled): OH

GOD: I didn't let your car start because there was a drunk driver on your route that would have hit you if you were on the road.  The first person who made your sandwich today was sick & I didn't want you to catch what they have, I knew you couldn't afford to miss work. Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was going to give false witness about what you said on that call, I didn't even let you talk to them so you would be covered.

Me (softly): I see God

God: Oh and that foot massager, it had a short that was going to throw out all of the power in your house tonight. I didn't think you wanted to be in the dark.

Me: I'm Sorry God

God: Don't be sorry, just learn to Trust Me.... in All things , the Good & the bad.  And don't doubt that My plan for your day is Always Better than your plan.

Me:  Thank you God, for everything.

God: You're welcome child. It was just another day being your God and I Love looking after My Children…  (adapted from Facebook cartoon)

And all the people said…  Amen.

 © Victoria Moss 2020