Seeing is Believing – “Doubting” Thomas

John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

I think this story is a testimony to the difficulty of faith – how hard it is to believe.  Merriam-Webster defines faith as a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”  Belief.  I think of the words from the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and so on…”  or from the praise song – “I believe in Jesus…I believe he is the son of God…that he died and he rose again…that he gave himself for me…”  All week as I’ve thought about this text, the old Steven Curtis Chapman song has rolled around in my head, “I do, I do, I do, I do believe, I know, I know, I know, I know it’s true, Lord, I believe in you.”  Firm belief – faith – is not only foundational, but transformational.  It can be life-changing as we mentally and verbally declare – this is what we believe.  This is who we are.  So what about the disciples – where was their belief, their faith?

The doors are locked in fear.  The disciples are meeting together not just behind closed doors, but locked doors.  Their fear is apparent.  As Jesus was betrayed, they scattered like ants and that initial fear has only been heightened as they believe that their friend, their leader, their rabbi has been crucified.

But wait, prior to this, didn’t Peter and John see the empty tomb and the discarded clothes of Jesus?  Haven’t we heard “Up from the Grave He Arose” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and celebrated the Resurrection with all of the Alleluia’s?  Didn’t Mary Magdalene see and speak with Jesus and then proclaim to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”?  It seems that Thomas has gotten a bad rap.  As much preachers like to use “Doubting Thomas” in our sermon illustrations, he wasn’t the only one that needed to see to believe.  They too needed a personal encounter or experience with the Risen Lord.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  I like that he just sort of appeared.  It doesn’t say exactly what the disciples were doing – maybe freaking out or worrying over what they would do next or what would happen to them – but all of a sudden, there was Jesus – Jesus that had been crucified and buried, Jesus that they had deserted, Jesus that they loved and had followed, saying, “Peace be with you.”

He doesn’t say, “Dude, where were you guys?” or “I told you so,” but peace.  Peace.  He showed them his hands and side to prove to them that he wasn’t a ghost, that he was the same Jesus they had known, had eaten with, walked with, learned from, the same Jesus that had been crucified just three days earlier.  The text says, “Then,” “Then” they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Not until he showed them did they rejoice.  Seeing was believing.

Again Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  And then he does an amazing thing – he empowers the disciples and gives them authority.  Not only does he react in compassion to their doubt, but he ordains them to bringing the Good News to the world.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  They have seen the journey that Jesus has taken – the ups and the downs and especially the persecution.  But he doesn’t ask them to walk this path alone – he gives them the Holy Spirit.  Actually it says, he breathed on them – just like God breathed life into Adam – He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The disciple’s faith, their firm belief, was restored.  They thought they would never see him again, and in he walks into the room.  They witnessed in person the Risen and Resurrected Lord.  They had a personal encounter with Jesus.

What does it take for us to believe?  The Gospel of John shows us that faith comes in different ways and with differing intensities to different people. It doesn’t all come in the same neatly wrapped package.  In verse 8 of this same chapter, the beloved disciple believes upon seeing the empty tomb. In verse 16, Mary believes when the Lord calls her name. The disciples here in verse 20 rejoice when they see his hand and side.  And then here comes Thomas.

He had missed out on the action, the unbelievable good news.  They had seen the Lord with their own eyes – but he had not.

Whether out of reaction to all of them seeing and now believing and a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) or whether he just needs tangible proof, he takes it a step further.  He not only wants to see Jesus to believe, but he says that he wants to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side.  That’s a pretty hardcore and definitive statement.

You see why he’s called Doubting Thomas?  He’s been singled out throughout the ages as someone with inferior faith because he actually expressed his doubt in the resurrection. He made his reservations known out-loud.  He used his outside voice not just wondering in his head. He absolutely refused to say that he understood what he didn’t understand, or that he believed what he didn’t.   He was honest and blunt.  As I said earlier – it’s not that the other disciples immediately believed or that they weren’t scared as well, but Thomas is the one who remains firm – No, I’m not going to believe unless…  And because of that he is the poster child for skepticism. Even those that don’t know the story, have heard of a “Doubting Thomas.”  His name is so synonymous with doubt that if you look in a Webster’s Dictionary you’ll find it in two places: under “d” for doubt and under “t” for Thomas. According to Webster the definition for a “doubting Thomas” is a habitually doubtful person.

But contrary to his bad press in Webster’s, he had not always doubted.  Thomas had believed in the Lord.  In verse 16 of John chapter 11 as Jesus prepared to go to Jerusalem, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  He had believed and he had followed, but his worst fears had been realized – in his mind, Jesus was dead and that was irreversible.  Any normal person would have that same reaction – because no one previously had been resurrected and no one ever since.  Thomas was speaking out of his grief, out of his fear, out of his anger, out of his despair.

Virginia was 19 years old and pregnant when she went to live with her 15th set of foster parents. Her case file read like a textbook example of neglect, abuse and bureaucratic failure. She sat silently in a chair, hands neatly clasped, staring into her lap. The foster parents, whose three children were in school, had been apprised of Virginia’s story and promised that this placement would be “temporary.” (Temporary was the story of Virginia’s life.)

Finally, the foster mother said, “Are you frightened, Virginia?”

“Kinda,” she replied without looking up. Then, “I’ve been in lots of homes.”

“Well,” the sympathetic woman tried to reassure the bewildered young mother-to-be, “Let’s hope this time turns out for the best.”

Virginia’s reply is one of those statements that sticks to your soul — it was flat, without change of tone and without Virginia even looking up, “Hurts too much to hope.”

Can you imagine?

Thomas could.  It hurt too much for him to hope.  In his mind, dead is dead.  His Lord was dead.  Jesus was dead.  It hurt too much to hope.

In some ways, it seems that Thomas has become a scapegoat – not only for a society who does not prize doubt, but certainty and confidence, but also a scapegoat for the church.  Somehow doubt has come to be seen as wrong, or that it is somehow less than faithful to need a sign, or a touch, or a vision, or a personal encounter.  We get the impression that we are not allowed to ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, or a skeptic, or a “liberal.” Since when are questions bad? Since when is it wrong to admit that we don’t understand everything? Since when is it wrong to ask God these things? Read the account of Job, the Prophets or the Psalms. All are filled with uncertainties, complaints, and questions of God. Even Jesus while hanging on the cross cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Thomas is just one in a long line of faithful people who have raised their voices to ask the hard yet faithful questions.  If one is asking God questions or seeking answers from God, there has to be some kind of faith that God exists and can respond.  When we cry out to God, know that God will answer.  Maybe not immediately or in some of the ways that we want or desire, but God always promises to work things together for good for those that love God.  Our God is a big God and can withstand our doubts, can withstand our fears and can withstand all that we throw at God, and “God with us” will respond.  Jesus doesn’t throw the book at Thomas because of his doubts.  He doesn’t say – welp, you missed out on seeing me, you’re permanently stuck in your unbelief.

A week later, this time the doors are shut, but not locked and Jesus comes and stands among them again saying, “Peace be with you.”  Part of me wonders if he leads off with the “Peace be with you” each time because it’s still probably pretty shocking to see him alive and in their midst.  Immediately he says to Thomas – do it.  Do what you need to do to remove your doubt and believe.  “Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas’s need to grasp, to touch for proof evaporates as he sees Jesus and he responds, “My Lord and my God!”  Thomas’ fears were removed – he was given all that he needed.

Reminding me very much of Thomas, Paul Tillich writes, “The old faith must die, eaten away by doubts, but only so that a new and deeper faith may be born.”

In France, they grow a lot of grapes, but in France they do not water the grapevines. In California there’s lots of irrigation, but not in France. The French believe that it’s better to have a bad harvest one year than to lose vines due to drought. If you don’t water your vines the roots of those vines go deep, deep, deep into the earth until they touch groundwater and become invulnerable to drought. The harvest may not be great one year but the vines will return the next year.

When we say I believe, when we have a real and personal encounter with our Risen Lord, we sink the roots of our faith deeper and deeper, so deep that these roots of our faith can handle the droughts. The times we feel God is silent.  We don’t know what kind of harsh weather our lives will face; we don’t know the twists and turns awaiting us on this journey, but we trust in the deep, eternal well of God’s faithfulness because we have seen and know. We send our roots deep into the waters of life with God, not because God removes all of our obstacles, all of the storms, but because God walks with us through them.

Jesus knows our doubts just as he knew Thomas’s.  He knows our hearts and if we but ask him he is faithful and true and will answer our doubts.  The Bible says, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you – if we seek the Risen Lord, we will find him.  These encounters come in a variety of ways, they meet us where we are and speak to us in ways that only God can.

Father John Dear in Blessed are the Nonviolent, writes,

“In the summer of 1982, a few months before I entered the Jesuit order, I visited the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

On the day I left the United States, Israel invaded Lebanon. When I stepped off the plane in Jerusalem, soldiers carrying machine guns searched me. I had unwittingly walked into a full-scale war.

I visited the “Chapel of the Beatitudes,” a small, eight-sided stone church that stands on a hill overlooking the sea. I remember sitting there one afternoon, carefully reading the familiar words inscribed on the chapel walls:

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice, for Jesus. Love your enemies. Be as compassionate as God.

I walked onto the balcony and surveyed the magnificent Sea of Galilee. It suddenly dawned on me: I think Jesus is serious.

I turned to the sky and called out to God, “Are you trying to tell me something? Do you want me to hunger and thirst for justice? Do you want me to be a peacemaker? Do you want me to love even my enemies?

“All right,” I declared, “I’ll work for peace and justice for the rest of my life — but on one condition: if you give me a sign!”
Immediately, two Israeli jets swooped down at me from the sky above the Sea of Galilee. They roared over me, causing a sonic boom. Moments later, they dropped bombs along the Lebanon border.
Trembling, I made two decisions in that moment. I would devote the rest of my life to working for peace and justice. And I would never ask God for another sign.”

We serve a show and tell God.  I bet that if we thought about it, each of us would have stories to share about the ways that Jesus has met us where we are.  The signs and wonders, the little God things, the assurances, the encounters that strengthen our faith, that help us to believe when we’re down or all seems lost whether it be a word from a friend, that special passage we flip to in God’s Word, or the song that happens to come on the radio when we need to hear it most.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Blessed are you – who have not physically witnessed the Risen Lord – have not physically seen the nail prints and the scars, but who have come to believe, to know this Jesus.

The text says that this story was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  God knows our need for a first-hand encounter. That is why God came to us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel – God with us.  Jesus does not shrug away from our doubts and questions.  He wants us, he longs for us to believe.  God searches and finds us even when we don’t want to be or don’t think we need to be found.  Jesus breaks through the door of our hearts breathing his Spirit over us literally blowing away our mountains of doubt.  May we let Jesus speak to our hearts, just as he spoke to Thomas.  May Jesus take away our doubts.  Ask and you shall receive, seek and ye shall find.

It doesn’t end there though – After the Lord breaks into our hearts and we have declared “my Lord and my God,” there is a life that proceeds from that point. God calls us out of our locked rooms into the world.  The disciples knew – they had seen and believed, but they could not believe for Thomas.  We can’t believe for our friends and family.  Thomas had to make the decision for himself.  They didn’t ridicule him for his disbelief or kick him out of the fold.  May we also – welcome those that are seeking, that are questioning, those that have never heard the Good News or who have a Christianity that’s contorted beyond recognition. May they see Jesus Christ alive in our hearts and lives. The ways we love each other; the ways we respond to those in need; the ways we strive to live as Christ followers – the hands and feet of Christ.  May we go forth knowing in our hearts that we serve the Risen Lord and may we let that light, that truth be known to the world!  Thomas believed; may we believe also!

Give Thanks – Christus Victor

One of the doctrine and theology ordination interview questions is to ask about theories of atonement and which one you most liked.  There’s all sorts of theories of atonement that Dr. Thangaraj’s Images of Christ class taught me, like ransom theory ie. Jesus paying the ransom for us, or substatutionary atonement that Jesus’ substituted himself for each of us.  I answered that I really like the Christus Victor theory of at-one-ment.  They’re called theories of atonement because they make us one with Christ.  At-one-ment.  As in Christ is the Victor over all the powers of evil, which hold humanity in bondage. which always reminds me of Christ the King Sunday.  That no matter what crud is happening in life right now, that in the end – Christ is King.  Christ wins.  Christ is the final victor.  The Reign of Christ is unceasing and is perpetual.

So my want of justice and my warrior spirit really likes celebrating Christ the King Sunday.  The texts are usually very imperious with a global reckoning, but there’s a part of me that even though that was my answer in ordination interviews, I don’t really like any kind of king over me.  You know what I mean?  Maybe that’s an American thing.  I’m thinking of the popular musical Hamilton, would you like to have a King George?

Let’s think about some crazy kings – Herod, Henry the crazy 8th, there’s all sorts of them.  You bow down to kings.  You obey kings.  Kings are your Lord and Master.  So this isn’t a halfway commitment, it’s all or nothing.  You don’t just give a flimsy curtsy or you may be beheaded.  You don’t just disobey whenever you feel like it with no consequence.

I’m thinking the part of me that doesn’t like this whole kingship idea is because human kings fail every time.  These kings are not always just, are not always kind, are not always looking out for the best benefit for ALL of their people.

But the King that we celebrate is one that knows and loves each of us equally and unconditionally – not just the rich ones or the pretty ones or the smart ones or the most athletic ones, but all of us.  This theory – this idea of Christ as King – says that Christ is the Victor over all things that bind us or hold us back – sin, sickness, death, doubts, fears, past mistakes, old and new wounds, uncertainty, hopelessness – Christ is the victor over all of the darkness and evil in the world and shines his light perpetual into all the dark nooks and crannies of our hearts and our lives.

This kingship is not just over one people or one country, but over all the world.  This kingship doesn’t just bring hope and good news to one group, but to all people.  It’s a kingship that brings about more hope, joy, and peace than even Camelot could imagine.  That Spirit-breaking-in reality is what the entirety of the whole Jesus event was about, according to Luke’s Gospel.  In this passage, Zechariah’s song is not simply a way to announce the birth of John the Baptist, but rather to proclaim God’s faithfulness, God’s salvation, and God’s peace.

Luke 1:68-79

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

The coming of these two children is designed “to guide our feet into the way of peace.” It’s a gift of God. A divine gift. Charisma.

But peace doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It also requires the Human Factor.

Nothing is more essential to effective and inspirational leadership, and you know it when you see it. I watched recently, the movie, The Human Factor, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, and it tells a story that I think we need to hear today.

Eastwood’s new movie tells the story of how Mandela worked to unite his racially and economically divided country in the mid-1990s. Mandela had been elected the country’s first black president in 1994, after spending decades as a leading opponent of apartheid, the white government’s official policy of racial segregation. His opposition to apartheid resulted in 27 years in prison, but in 1990 he was released — and then elected president.

In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup Tournament. Rugby was a white man’s game, and the South African team was entirely white, representing a country that was 80 percent black. It also had a team symbol — a leaping gazelle called a “springbok” — that reminded most black South Africans of the country’s racist history.

Black president. White team. After 27 years in prison, you might think Mandela wouldn’t look favorably on these players.

But you’d be wrong.

Mandela showed up at a press conference wearing a rugby jersey and cap with a springbok on it. He said, “These are our boys now. They may all be white, but they’re our boys, and we must get behind them and support them in this tournament.”

The next day, the Springbok coach took his team to the prison where Mandela had spent nearly three decades of his life behind bars. The coach said, “This is the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. He was kept here for 27 years by the racist policies of our government. We tolerated his imprisonment for all those years, and yet he has backed us publicly. We can’t let him down.”

The tournament opened, and the Springboks played beyond everyone’s expectations. In fact, they made it into the final game. President Mandela was in the stands, wearing a Springbok jersey. During a timeout, he brought a South African children’s choir out of the stands, and they led 65,000 people in the singing of a black African miner’s song.

When the Springboks took the field, they were unstoppable, and they won the World Championship. And for the next 24 hours, whites danced with blacks in the streets of South Africa. For the first time, they saw each other as fellow citizens of a multiracial country.

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (vv. 78-79). This line from Zechariah’s prophecy came true in the 1995 Rugby World Cup Tournament. The way of peace appeared, in an inspiring and instructive way.

It required a gift of God — charisma. But also the Human Factor.

We can take this Scripture and story to heart as we prepare for Christ’s coming during this Advent season. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, it’s this time of year to reflect on the rich mixture of divinity and humanity that came to earth in Jesus. It’s also the time to discover what his life can teach us about the way that God can work through each of us.

Jesus shows charisma, the gift of God — but also humanity. After all, he was fully God and fully human. Both are essential for walking in the way of peace. And both can be present in us, as well.

Notice, first of all, that Jesus honors the Human Factor in everyone he meets.  He honors each person’s humanity – all over faults and failures.  “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,” says the letter to the Hebrews. “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (2:11, 17). Jesus does not despise the humanity of the people he meets but honors everyone as a fellow child of God.

So did Mandela, when he said of the Springboks, “They may be all white, but they’re our boys, and we must get behind them.” So did the coach of the South African rugby team, who said that because President Mandela backed them publicly, “We can’t let him down.”

Jesus also knows that divine gifts such as charisma require community. Jesus himself needed John the Baptist to be “the prophet of the Most High” and to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). Zechariah needed a community to hear his Spirit-filled prophecy and respond in faith. President Mandela needed the Springbok coach, the Springbok coach needed Mandela, and both needed a nation of blacks and whites willing to support the team together.

Finally, the combination of charisma and the Human Factor leads us to a new way of living together in the world — what Zechariah calls “the way of peace” (v. 79). Peace isn’t simply escape from the hands of those who hate us, or rescue from our enemies or a period of time in which we’re free from violence. No, peace is a way of life in which we serve God without fear, “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (v. 73).

The way of peace isn’t simply the absence of conflict. Instead, it’s the presence of holiness and righteousness and justice. This means being devoted to God and in a right relationship with God and with each other. Holiness and righteousness and justice — these are the qualities of a life of peace, one marked by harmonious relationships, both human and divine.

Zechariah never made it all the way to the manger, but after baby John was born, after he wrote the name down and made it official, after his experience of the here-and-now promise of God, from where he stood, he started to sing. It wasn’t “Silent Night” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” But Zechariah sang of the love of God, and the breaking in of God’s light, the coming of God’s peace and a mighty Savior born to the house of David. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He sang of the promise of a God who makes a difference.

Clearly, the way of peace isn’t easy to achieve, and life in South Africa has had its share of violence and turmoil since the day of celebration that followed the Springbok victory. But we Christians continue to pursue this way of life. We do it best by following Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

In his honoring of the Human Factor in everyone, we discover how to love and respect each other. In his commitment to community, we learn that our gifts from God are most powerful when they’re shared. And in Jesus’ life of holiness and righteousness and justice, we see an example of what it means to live in right relationship with God and with each other.

Jesus is our mighty Savior, the one and only Son of God. But as unique as he is, he reaches out to us and makes a connection through the Human Factor, which he shares with everyone on earth — young and old, male and female, black and white, American and South African.  He loves us all.  He’s reaching for us all.  He has grace for us all.  Jesus is behind us and supporting us, as we walk the way of peace.

Three older ladies were discussing the travails of getting older.

One said, “Sometimes I catch myself with a jar of mayonnaise in my hand in front of the refrigerator and can’t remember whether I need to put it away, or start making a sandwich.”

The second lady chimed in, “Yes, sometimes I find myself on the landing of the stairs and can’t remember whether I was on my way up or on my way down.”

The third one responded, “Well, I’m glad I don’t have that problem; knock on wood,” as she rapped her knuckles on the table, then told them, “That must be the door, I’ll get it!”

You know some of the ways that make for peace.  At least some.  So when you’re with your family, choose peace.  When the topic of football comes up with rivalry Saturday around the corner, choose peace.  When any politics comes up, choose peace.  The Holy Spirit will be with you as we walk the way of peace.

  • Preached at Point Hope UMC on Christ the King Sunday November 20th, 2016

Brilliant! They won’t be expecting that!

 Prince of Peace

Isaiah 9:2-7

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

These are familiar words that we often hear at a Christmas Eve service.  These are some of my favorite words of the Advent season.  You see, because we all have walked in deep darkness, the color of ink, and we have felt the light of Christ pierce that darkness.  Our darkness.  The world’s darkness.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas to me.  Christmas is supposed to be cold.  Evy, my 5 year old, is really expecting it to snow on Christmas Eve.  I don’t know where she’s gotten that information, whether from a book or a song or a movie, but she’s convinced of this.  Guess where we’re spending Christmas?  In lovely Gainesville, Florida.  The likelihood that she’ll see snow on Christmas Eve is slim to none.  Mike didn’t feel like it was Christmas yet with the 80 degree whether that we’ve been having so he started playing Christmas music in the house, much like the radio stations that try to cram Christmas music down our throats until we’re being sufficiently festive.  But I have to admit, in my Grinch-like heart, to feeling slightly in the Christmas spirit, on Friday and Saturday as we finally had a chance to decorate and as Amy Grant’s Christmas albums played on the itunes.

You see, Advent is that time of preparation.  Of preparing our hearts, whatever way that gets us to turn the world off for a second, whatever hook we need to expect the unexpected.  This is a preparation that’s not just about the everyday hustle and bustle but also about getting ready for something completely out of this world—something revolutionary, new, an in-breaking of the kingdom of God.  We get ready for the coming of God in the form of a baby—a God who dwells among us and with us.  But we also get ready for the second coming of our savior—a time when there is good news and great joy for ALL people.  This is good news not just for the pretty ones or smart ones or the ones lucky enough to be born on the right side of the tracks or in the wealthy country, but for all of God’s children.

I think of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wisemen, the angels – a mix of folks.  I think of the words of the prophet—to look to the star and that there is One who is coming who is beyond our imagining.  This story is not just one of familiar and beautiful manger scenes and it’s certainly not just a good children’s story.  These were trying times and people were being taxed and children lost lives as Herod began his search for the Christ child.

How many of you have seen Catching Fire?  This is the second movie in The Hunger Games trilogy.  I’ve still not seen it yet.  Suzanne Collins does an amazing job bringing this post-apocalyptic world to life.  She got the idea from flipping through channels on her television and seeing on one channel a reality tv competition and on the next channel footage of the Iraq war.  Her stories are not for the faint of heart.  They are violent and graphic and terrifying.  It’s people being forced to send their children off to fight to the death.  Mike and I looked forward to the first movie, but we both felt uneasy after watching that being portrayed on screen.  And you’re supposed to be uneasy with it.

But that’s not much different from the context Jesus arrived in.  Here these people were under Roman control, not knowing what was going to be demanded of them next—their money, their children, their lives.  The thing about the books—there’s no savior at the end.  For some of us, we relate to some of these horrors.  There are hard things that we see every day whether it be children going without food or the loss of a friend or loved one or the loss of one’s job or home.  For some this isn’t just a hustling and bustling time of year, but it’s a painful time.  That’s there.  That’s part of the story.  Pain and hurt and fear are there.  For so many their Christmas traditions have a missing void as new traditions are made and a new normal is established.

We take comfort in that we are told very clearly, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people.  For unto you is born this day a savior who is Christ the Lord and has name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace…”  This Prince of Peace can give us that peace that transcends all understanding whether it be as we are awaiting that class exam that is for our particularly hard class, grades or exam results, health questions, job changes, life decisions or larger questions like what are we going to be when we grow up and what’s my purpose and what is the meaning of life.

This kind of peace can transform the world.  Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday, said “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”  We give others the courage to do the same.  Mandela lived his life in a way that inspired others to let their light shine.  Not just people in this place, in this community, or in this land—but all the world.  My hope over this Christmas break is that in the midst of everything as students are catching up on sleep and connecting with family and friends and as all of us frantically try to make it through, that we can find time to stop and breathe and take in what it means to be a people who believe in this Emmanuel, a people who believe and live out this peace.

Alex Miller sent me this video this past week.

“I feel so far away from my kids down there.”

God almighty, God the creator of the universe, God that was, and is, and is to come – came to earth as a tiny baby.  The most vulnerable thing on Earth.

I LOVE it when the kid says, “Brilliant!  They won’t be expecting that!”

I also love the little girl’s question to God, “Lord, how will people know he’s there, what if they don’t notice?”  God answers, “Those who are looking will find him and his mission will bring all people closer to me, even if they do something really wrong.  When the Prince (of Peace) is done, nothing will get between them and my love.”

Love came down on Christmas.  Amen and amen.

“Peace On Earth” – Casting Crowns

Extended Version of the Christmas Story

 

What Makes for Peace

One of my favorite places to worship and reflect is Tillman Chapel in the Church Center Building across the street from the United Nations.  I like so many things about it from the stained glass, to the religious symbols, and the beautiful words inscribed from the Gospel of Luke chapter 19:42, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”  It’s appropriate across the street from the United Nations and it’s appropriate as we take students on UM seminars to learn about people other themselves from places other than their homes facing circumstances that they may never face.  It’s also appropriate for us as we go about the tug and pull of the life of Christ in light of recent events.

While I was in ethics class in seminary, my brother Josh was living with us at the time and offered me great food for thought as we went back and forth over issue after issue.  We’re both pretty stubborn and because I love and respect him, I could hear things that challenged me and that I didn’t entirely agree with, that I would chew on for awhile.  Josh fits in well with the belief that The United Methodist Church is a peace church.  He does and we need people like him.  Even as he walked in a few minutes ago and I’m telling him about so many people posting on this, he has no hesitation in saying not just that we shouldn’t rejoice, but that we shouldn’t kill.  Violence does not solve violence.  I’m the one when watching the horror movie or drama on tv or when someone I love is hurt violently or tragically, that jumps to the let’s take action – go get ’em! – shoot the person already, etc.  When watching it in the movies of course you want the person being stalked by the killer to get away and the killer to be brought to justice, and we cry for justice just as much in “real life” as well.  It’s such a fine line between justice and wanting people to answer for what they have done and for the pain they have caused, and letting yourself be swept away by the hate that knows no bounds and just seems to be spraying everywhere.

I was a senior in college when 9-11 happened.  I got engaged the night before the attack and it was a beautiful September morning as I left for class.  In my first class of the day, English with Dr. Jones, we talked a little bit about someone having heard on the radio that a plane had accidentally flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  We continued on with class thinking that it was just an accident.  By the time I went to my 9:30 class, History with Dr. Silverman, he had turned on the television in the classroom and as we watched, we saw the towers fall.  I remember girls in my class holding up my hand to look at my engagement ring as we watched all of this from the classroom.  That class was then cancelled and I made my way over to The Wesley Foundation where my then fiancee Mike and my campus minister Jerry were sitting in the living room watching everything on the television.  I remember our silence and our disbelief, our fear and our sadness, our uncertainty and our anger.  I remember having class that afternoon in Plowden Auditorium and our education professors led by Dr. Dockery and Dr. Vawter saying that we were not going to let terrorists disturb our day to day lives.  We were not going to give them the satisfaction and we were going to have class anyway.  I remember talking to the junior high youth group that I led and trying to answer their questions in youth and Sunday school about what had happened and where was God in the midst.

Over the years, as the anniversaries have come up, I’ve talked more and more to students and heard their stories from that day.  Many of them were between 8 and13 or so.  Hearing their perspectives and how this event has shaped their lives has been illuminating and fascinating to see how such a big event has shaped so much.  I try to think back to what I would have remembered at that age and I think about the Oliver North trials or for me, pivotal was the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  It was the first bit of big news I actually remember.  When I think about our 9 year olds today and how they perceived the news Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I wonder what their stories will be.  Was their family elated, throwing a spur of the moment party, as many of our students on campuses were doing?  Did their family solemnly watch the news, thankful that it was over and that justice had been done?  What did they think about the reactions of the press, of facebook, of their classmates or teachers?  What did their friends say?

Over the past days watching facebook light up the first night with so much passion and excitement about someone’s death and then over the last few days with scripture and sayings in response to that fervor, it’s been a study to watch the polarity.  I admit my own feelings are pretty mixed.  As Mike and I were watching the Celebrity Apprentice Sunday night (yay Lil John won $40,000 more of the United Methodist Children’s Home in GA) we saw the interruption bulletin and we thought it was about Kadafi.  When they then said that it was about bin Laden we were floored.  We, the United States, finally got him.  All of the families who lost loved ones in 9-11 finally get at least that much closure.  Yep, I was happy that that part of the story was over.  I watched families talk about their loss of loved ones and the pain that they still feel on the morning news.  I saw all of the commentators and military personnel talk about this as a shot in the arm for our military.  I’m not speaking at all against any of that.  We do need to support our military – the actual people – the ones that are suffering and fighting for us – whether we agree with the military action or not.  We do need to support these families and all of those affected by 9-11.  We as pastors do need to journey with our congregations and the mix of emotions they feel.  We do need to be mindful and intentional and praying for wisdom and discernment as we offer words in the days and weeks ahead.

But even as my most patriotic go get em’ self, I pause at all of the fervor surrounding this.  As Mike and I sat on the bed and watched this unfold, he looked at me and said, if you ever wanted to know what a lynch mob looks like, look at facebook.  There’s something about band wagons that make me pause whether it be jubilation expressed or scripture expressed or even the sayings of MLK that end up not being entirely true.  Some say we shouldn’t post anything at all to facebook because it’s not a real place of dialogue, you don’t know what people really mean, or can’t hear the emotion in their voice, etc.  But I feel like it is a place for us to engage and can be meaningful and insightful if we let it be.  It’s definitely interesting to see the wide diversity of some of our thoughts and opinions especially within the Christian faith.

Several of my students posted scripture yesterday and sayings and I was glad that they were in the mix.  The lovely Ashlee Warren posted the quote, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”  They were participating in the discussion.  They weren’t just sitting back, but were speaking up.  I was sitting back.  I didn’t even want to check facebook to see what was being bantered about.  But then I began to see that there were other people struggling to figure out how to feel or how to articulate a Christ who turns the other cheek and shows us the way of the cross.  This is a Christ who challenges us in Matthew 5 verse 43 (also echoed in Luke 6), “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  It’s hard to argue with that.  It’s hard to reconcile that to some of our feelings.  You can’t make that statement easy.   As much as I’m relieved that bin Laden is gone and that his reign of terror is over, I know that there are more stepping up to the plate.  I hope that his death will affect this “war” on terror in profound ways in turning terrorists away from their intentions and that they are discouraged and are brought to new life and peace in real, just and deep ways. I also hope it helps us in thinking about “what makes for peace” as Jesus cries in Luke.

What makes for peace?  Does demonizing someone (a country, faith, race, person, gender, sexuality, region, political party, education, or skill) make for peace?  Does killing innocent people as was done in 9-11 make for peace?  Does making blanket statements and assumptions about people without actually trying to engage in real dialogue and not just bullying people into buying in, make for peace?  Does hanging out with like minded people that always agree with us and being comfortable in our recliners with either our beer or our hot tea or our fair-trade coffee, make for peace?  Does throwing out scripture or quotes or opinions without being ready to stand up for them, apologize for them, or at least engage with others on them, make for peace?  If we continue down this road, it’s hard to know what we do that makes for peace in this world, where are we culpable and where we accept responsibility.

And yet, I find Christians wrestling with these things and struggling to find integrity in the midst of this event, as something that gives me hope.  I have been proud of my fellow United Methodist and other clergy as they have posted on both sides of this issue, as they have challenged each other and their parishioners, as they have stood up as sometimes a still small voice articulating and being a voice in the midst.  To me, us being in dialogue and engaging in the world showing that as Christians we sometimes disagree, we sometimes struggle with how to respond, we sometimes are counter cultural and other times struggle with a voice – this, this engagement has been breathtaking to see.  It has gotten our blood flowing and our brains firing and our hearts hopefully turned to what it means to have peace and justice and hope and grief and remembering and rejoicing and what it will be in a time and a place where war will be no more.

I can’t help but think of 1 Corinthians 13 and the love described there.  I hope that in the days and weeks ahead that we as clergy offer not fuel for hate, but fuel for love.  I don’t mean a love in a sunshine, flowers and rainbows, pansy type of love.  I mean a full, robust, no holes barred, Jesus is all in and extending grace to each of us, kind of love.  I hope that the scriptures that challenge us or our own feelings that make us a little uncomfortable will spur us on for more study and for more discovery and journey.  My prayer is that we will continue to search and act and live the ways that make for peace in our hearts, in our homes, in our church, in our country, and in our world.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

13If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.