Longing to Stay

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I should probably start by admitting something I’ve been having a difficult time admitting to myself recently: finding a home in the denomination that raised me is harder than it has ever been. I’m struggling; I’m trying really, really hard. But being a young person in a rapidly changing world situated in a denomination that doesn’t always do a great job at telling the truth about the changing world is no easy journey. But it’s a journey I haven’t quite given up on yet.

Many people my age write angry letters and vicious blog posts that list their grievances on shattered tablets of stone. I must confess that I have been tempted to do the same thing. “You could but change the rocks into bread.” But I think I’d rather just tell you my story – the story of an odd bunch of holiness people convinced that God has called them to be a blessing to the world, people convinced that the name “Church of the Nazarene” means something – that we are the church for the ones nobody thought anything good could come from. These are the people that raised me, and this story is why I’m longing to stay.

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I was raised in a little Church of the Nazarene in South Charleston, West Virginia. I learned the Beatitudes in that church long before I learned that growing up in West Virginia attending a small country church is supposed to somehow make your faith journey second-rate, like choosing a state college over a public university. I would learn that unfortunate perception later. To me it wasn’t “country,” “rural,” or “backwards.” To me it was just home.

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Starting at a young age, I began riding donkeys through Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Most people would call it a “live nativity.” Looking back, I call it walking through the story that shaped me with my own flesh and blood. I didn’t care if they were props or not. I didn’t care that the Roman soldiers took hot chocolate breaks when the snow poured. To me – I was in Bethlehem. I saw baby Jesus – sometimes real, sometimes fake – and there’s no way you’d convince me I wasn’t really seeing incarnation happen before my eyes. You still couldn’t convince me as a seminarian. Whatever it was we did, the whole village gathered every year for the thousands of cars that drove by. It was our mission. It was somehow a calling to us. It was an ecclesiological act of love for our community. Of course, we didn’t actually see the cars. They didn’t have cars in Bethlehem in 3 B.C. (or 0 A.D.). Duh.

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This is the church that surrounded me with love and encouragement the first time I squawked my first notes on a saxophone. I apologize to all of you. But you kept letting me play – and, if I may say so myself – after a couple years, it wasn’t so hard on the ears anymore. Many churches guard “special music” like the soldiers at the tomb – it’s reserved for the people that are actually good, that will make a beautiful sound. Everyone else gets the evening service. But the denomination I know has always said the most true and beautiful sound is a young person squawking as best they can in a joyful noise to their creator. It’s a kind of support and love that the Church of the Nazarene has always extended so dearly to children. And pretty soon, those children don’t play like children anymore.

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Most importantly, this little Church of the Nazarene was where I was baptized. I remember not thinking it would be a big deal as a middle schooler. And then I remember being wrong. I left my glasses on so I could see the faces of the people that were calling me as their own. Years later, I would visit the Jordan River with a group from my alma mater. Looking back, I see that the waters in the baptismal font in West Virginia were just as powerful as the waters that baptized Jesus. After I came up out of the water, the metaphoric Nazarene dove descended on me. The community gathered around and said, “Well, now you’re one of us.”

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Throughout the years at Davis Creek Church of the Nazarene, I had fun, I went to trunk or treat, I attended youth group, the choir director became my high school biology teacher. But the seeds were planted that would lead others to say that ministry was more than a habit to me – it was a vocational call that I had never seen before. I would have never sensed that calling without those people in West Virginia. I hope and pray they were right. Because if not – this is all your fault!

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Life changed when I went to college. And no, I did not start college at Trevecca. When I soon learned that the large public university I chose to attend wasn’t going to be a good fit, Trevecca called me and asked me to find a better story with them. Before I ever knew there was a Trevecca Nazarene University, Trevecca Nazarene University knew there was a me. And the love that I found in a small church in West Virginia, somehow I found on a college campus in Nashville. I never dreamed college would be a place where professors came alongside you as a mentor and friend to journey in the faith alongside you – but by the grace of God, I didn’t have to go looking for that fellowship. That fellowship came looking for me. And I’m so glad they did. I also didn’t know it was possible to have that much fun, especially with a bunch of Nazarenes. My first week on campus I ended up on the front porch of Dan Boone’s house with a group of friends while we held a contract for the return of a stuffed horse I had suggested to my roommates we steal from a girls’ dorm. (It’s a long story – trust me.) I expected that the college president would be infuriated. Instead, he just laughed and signed the document. (I’m not suggesting such a tactic to the current students of Trevecca, though. Definitely not.)

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More than being a family, though, my professors reminded me of a calling to ministry I had moved on from. I entered Trevecca as a music business major, but after taking the intro-level Gen Ed course for religion, some of the professors lovingly told me that I was in the wrong field of study. I didn’t really want to believe them, because I was worried about life as a pastor. Those professors encouraged me that college itself is a calling – that one goes to college to get an education, not a job. And then my philosophy professor asked me what the one thing was that I needed out of my education – did I want to learn a skill set, or did I want to find a new story? I changed my major the next day. All because Nazarene women and men cared.

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Trevecca gave me opportunities to lead, to explore and wrestle with my faith tradition, and to dance (scandalous!). I made lifelong friends that included me in a community that lived and breathed by the rule of its worship – but there was also plenty of times for play. Perhaps most impactful to me, though was the opportunity to preach. Trevecca has a knack for training its preachers by baptism through fire. I wobbled up to the front of a chapel service one morning on jelly legs and preached my first sermon in Boone Convocation Center. One sermon followed another, and then I stood in front of a group of students as the student body chaplain. A ministry was discovered because of a family of Nazarene students and teachers affirming me and my calling.

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These days my journey continues at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Seminary has blessed me with the opportunity to continue growing theologically and pastorally as I respond to a call I can’t seem to get away from. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a sort of Nazarene exile – except this time they’re not Babylonians, they’re just Methodists! (Don’t worry; I’m working for the good of my own country.) Candler has given me the extraordinary chance to engage in prison chaplaincy, to study under renown scholars, and to find a diverse and vibrant community of faith. Yet I still haven’t lost touch with my Nazarene roots. I still worship with Nazarenes, commune with Nazarenes, and minister with Nazarenes as we seek out those places of brokenness and helplessness and then “take on flesh and move into the neighborhood.”

Yet now is the time I must be deeply honest with you. As I have grown, I have seen far more of the world than I ever could have imagined I would see by age 23. And as I have seen more of the world, I have seen more of its people – its beautiful, variegated, and multifaceted people. And as I have grown, I have seen how the people I love, this Church of the Nazarene that I call home – I have seen how we have not always been faithful to our call to be called unto holiness to be a blessing to the world.

As I look at the world around me and see all the despair that permeates every square inch of the atmosphere on planet earth, I have been looking to my denomination for hope. I find that hope in who we are, yes – but sadly, I also see a people struggling with legalism (we still haven’t gotten past prohibition), a people afraid, stubborn, and unwilling to have necessary and bold conversations about human sexuality, and a people disconnected from their roots to seek out messiness. I see a people that proudly affirms women in ministry but does not always treat them well, nor peoples and minorities of all language and color. But most painfully, I see a people who, in the efforts of not becoming a stumbling block to those in need, have used doctrines and policies to hurt those in need – and in turn have become a stumbling block.

I want you to know that I’m really, really trying to make a difference. But I need you to know that it’s hard right now. It’s hard to see my people struggle to face the hard questions of the 21st Century. It’s hard to see my people systematically lose track of their young people, especially their young clergy. It’s hard to sit back and see so many companions flock to the UMC or other denominations that are having the conversations we tend to avoid.

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But you are my people. You walked through Bethlehem with me, taught me to love my neighbor, submerged me in water and then raised me again to new life, educated my mind, body, and soul, and sent me to preach the Gospel. You raised me. And you have my word that I am going to stick around as long as I can. I only pray that you can see the faces of so many young people you have raised that are walking in the same shoes as me right now – people that need the denomination to speak the truth in love about the progress we need to make. So, so many of us are longing to stay.

I and so many other young people in the Church of the Nazarene want to be a part of this thing God is doing to use a called out people to be an instrument of blessing to all creation. We want to partner in the work of God alongside a people that believes with everything in them that holiness is not a curse to live by, but an instrument of redemption which finds that the most abundant form of joy is the kind that sojourns with the world’s suffering. We’re ready and willing to take up that call.

Would you help us stay?

With Grace and Peace, and as one of your own,

Justin

Through the Barbed Gate

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[This sermon was delivered at Lee Arrendale Women’s State Prison on Palm Sunday,  4/9/17. The text is not grammatically precise but reflects the manner in which it was voiced.]

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that God needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 
“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
   “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
   “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
   “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

           

            Well, it was about that time. Jesus had been walking on the face of the earth for 33 years, his whole life pointing to this one moment. He preached, he prophesied, and he proclaimed the Kingdom of God. But now, the time was drawing near to finish what he started when he came to the earth. So he gathered his disciples around him and said to them, “It’s about that time. It’s time to go to Jerusalem where they will hand me over to be killed on a cross.” The disciples, of course, did not understand what he was talking about. But I have a feeling they could sense that something big was about to happen. So they gathered up their things and set out from Jericho towards Jerusalem – because it was about that time.

            They travelled 18 miles on foot to get to Jerusalem, and just before they got there, they stopped on the Mount of Olives at Bethphage, a small village where Jesus would sometimes stay overnight with relatives. This small village of Bethphage overlooks the entire city of Jerusalem – a magnificent view of the holy city. And Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and knew what was about to happen when he went in. But he knew he had to do it.

            Let me tell you something about ancient Jerusalem. The Jews had made their home there, but the Roman army had invaded the city to rule over them. The people were held captive by the soldiers who claimed they were there to protect them. The Roman army was ruled by tyrannical governors who did everything they could to oppress the unruly people of Jerusalem. God’s chosen people lived under the domination of an empire that wanted nothing more than to keep them under control. You can’t be too loud, you can’t voice your opinion, you can’t mess up a room inspection; and if you do, you’ll get rebuked. Jesus could see all of this from the Mount of Olives. He could look out and see the Holy Temple where God’s people worshiped – but he could also see the tall, towering, and terrifying outpost of the Roman army that sent a strong message of who was in control. Yes, God’s people lived in such captivity under the Romans that it was almost like Jerusalem was one giant jail cell.

            Jesus could see all of this going on from the Mount of Olives. He knew that his people were suffering inside of their jail cell of Jerusalem, that they were treated like they were less than human, that soldiers would do more to belittle them rather than to protect them, and that they couldn’t fully be who they were called to be without being put down by the Roman government. Jesus knew all of this. And Jesus loved his people so much that when they were held in captivity, Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to make his daughters and sons feel loved and cherished and cared for and worthy to be called God’s children. So he stood on the Mount of Olives and looked out over the jailed city of Jerusalem and saw the condition of his people, and said to his disciples, “Send out to get a donkey, because I’m going in, even if I have to go through a barbed wire gate.”

            In this passage that we have heard, Jesus is like the ultimate first responder at a tragedy – when everyone else runs away out of fear, Jesus runs in to save the people. He is the fireman who looks at the building going up in flames, and while everyone else is running away to avoid danger, he runs right into the fire. He is like the brave paramedics during 9/11 who look at the cloud of smoke in New York City, and while everyone else is running away, he runs right into the rubble. He is like the brave missionaries in Africa, who when everyone else is running away from the hunger and thirst and sickness, he runs right in. And let every woman in this room hear – when everyone else is running away from your life – your parole officer, your lawyer, your friends, your former employers, your hometown, your church, and even your family – when everyone else runs away, Jesus sees the disaster and runs right in. Jesus is willing to do whatever it takes to let his daughters know that they are loved and cherished and cared for and worthy to be called God’s children – even if he has to run through the barbed wire gate while everyone else runs out. And so he overlooks Jerusalem and tells his disciples, “I’m going in.”

            But, thanks be to God, Jesus can’t seem to do anything quietly. He and the disciples could have easily walked right into Jerusalem on foot. There were thousands of pilgrims pouring into the city for Passover. He could have blended right in with the crowd. But that’s not what Jesus does. Why? Because it was about that time. It was time for Jesus to finish what he started, to go to the cross for the redemption of God’s people. And knowing that his time was coming, Jesus remembered a prophecy from long ago. It came from the prophet Zechariah in the ninth chapter: “Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” You see, it was prophesied from long ago that Israel’s true king wouldn’t come with power and might on a war horse, but would come with love and humility on the back of a humble and meek donkey. So he told two of his disciples to go out to a nearby village and untie a donkey and its colt and bring them back. And Jesus instructs them that if anyone says to them, “man, what are you tryna do with my donkey?” all they had to say was, “God needs them.” It’s like Jesus had supernatural control of the situation. Nothing was going to stop him from accomplishing God’s plan for salvation.

            In the same way people may try to question you when you are being obedient to God. But God knows this, and God is whispering in the ears of those who try to oppose God’s plan, “don’t worry; this is all happening to fulfill my purposes.” God had complete control of the situation, just like he knows everything about ours. And the disciples trusted that Jesus knew what he was doing, and were therefore obedient to him. So they brought back the donkey and its colt to Jesus. They immediately laid their garments on them for Jesus to sit on. You see, Jesus could have just walked right into the jail cell of Jerusalem, but he knew that it was about that time, that the prophecy was being fulfilled. So he decided to do something big! Riding in on the donkey wasn’t just a flashy performance; it wasn’t just Jesus saying, “Hey, look how humble and meek I am.” NO! It was a bold announcement in which Jesus said to Israel, “Do you remember that humble king prophesied from so long ago? Well I am that king! – and I am riding through the barbed wire gate to get to my people.

            But isn’t it amazing that, in Matthew, Jesus didn’t want any old donkey? Did you hear it back in verse 2? Jesus doesn’t send for just any old donkey; Jesus sends for a mother and her child. He says, “Go get me a donkey and her colt.” Isn’t that amazing? I just want to point out two things here. Number one: it was the Passover in Jerusalem, which means there were thousands of pilgrims coming to the city that would need a donkey to ride on. Somebody out there would have eventually bought this momma donkey to ride on. But – this momma donkey wasn’t just bought by any random person; this momma donkey was specifically chosen by Jesus. She was going to have to go into the jail cell of Jerusalem anyways, but now she’s not going in alone; now she’s carrying Jesus with her. And Jesus takes special care to bring the momma’s child along with him. In the Kingdom of God, momma’s children don’t get left behind – even if they may be separated from their mother some day. That brings me to the second thing – not only does this momma donkey need Jesus; Jesus needs this momma donkey. He is entering the barbed wire gate to be handed over to the cross. He is afraid. But he takes strength in the loving and caring faithfulness of this mother. She is carrying a heavy burden, but Jesus can see that it’s God’s burden she’s carrying, and he is strengthened and encouraged because of it. Yes, Jesus needs this momma donkey for strength along the painful journey he was about to endure.

            It was about that time. So Jesus mounted the donkey and began riding to Jerusalem, headed straight for the barbed wire gate to get to his people. He was prepared to suffer with them if that’s what it took. He was prepared to spend the rest of his life in the jail cell if that’s what it took. Because Jesus is intimately aware of our sorrows, and is willing to meet us in the middle of them. Jesus feels our pain with us, and isn’t afraid to suffer with us. It’s like that old African American spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows my sorrows. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; glory hallelujah.” But in the second verse the words change and it makes a huge difference: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows but Jesus. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; glory hallelujah.” Jesus knows the troubles and sorrows of his daughters, thanks be to God.

            And as he started getting closer to the barbed wire gate, the crowds start gathering around him and praising him. They instantly remembered that prophecy of Zechariah that declared that the king would come humbly on a donkey. They instantly recognized that this Jesus is that humble king come to save us. So what did they do? Did they stand there and watch? No, they prepared the way for the king! This is the king who is coming not with weapons or armor or a horse. This king isn’t coming to whip Jerusalem into shape. He’s not coming with a loud voice telling you to walk in a single file line. This king is coming with mercy and forgiveness to let his daughters know how much they are loved and cherished and cared for and worthy to be called God’s children. So the crowds prepare the way for the king. This king deserves a royal procession. So they start cutting down the branches so the king can have a red carpet. But this red carpet isn’t soft and smooth; it’s made of branches. It’s rough and messy and leads straight to the barbed wire gate.

         I don’t know if you’re able to see it – but do you know that Jesus is riding through the barbed wire gate of this place? Just like Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives and looked out over the jail cell of Jerusalem, Jesus also stands on the Mount of Georgia and looks out over Arrendale State Prison. He sees the hurt and pain of his daughters, and he sends out for mother and child and says, “I’m going in.” My only question for you this evening is this: are you willing to prepare the way? Verse 8 tells us that the crowds went out before Jesus and made a path clear with palm branches. They started singing praises to God. They shouted out, “Hosanna!” which means, “save us!” Hosanna in the highest heaven. More than that, they called Jesus the “Son of David.” The recognized that this is the one prophesied from long ago, the descendant of David, the humble king that has come to redeem God’s people. And so let me ask you – As Jesus walks through the barbed wire gate, are you preparing the way? Are you crying out, “Hosanna!” and laying down a red carpet, or are you watching from the sidelines as Jesus rides on by? Jesus has come through the barbed wire gate to reach you. He has come to tell each person in this room how much you are loved and cherished and cared for and worthy of being God’s daughter. So prepare the way! Make a path clear for him to ride in to this place this evening! Lay down branches of praise for the Lord and palm leaves of thanksgiving!

            I’ve gotta wrap up or they’re gonna throw me out. Verse 10: “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus’ little display caused quite the spectacle. The people in Jerusalem saw what was going on and then got a little anxious. This man was causing quite the ruckus. Remember, the people in Jerusalem had to be quiet and submissive or else the Romans would come and teach them a lesson. They had to stay silent. So they started coming up to the disciples that were following Jesus on the donkey and asking them, “Who is this man that’s causing such a stir? (We’re supposed to keep quiet or we’ll get in trouble!)”

            Isn’t it amazing that, even inside the jail cell of Jerusalem, there were some who didn’t recognize that Jesus had come to reach them? They couldn’t see that this man had come to let them know how much God loves them. Do you know what I’m talking about, Arrendale? Do you know people that have yet to recognize that Jesus has come through this barbed wire gate to reach them? They see you praising and worshiping and crying out “Hosanna!” They even see you causing a little bit of a ruckus when you worship the Lord with gladness and throw down your branches to prepare the way for the humble king coming on a donkey. So they come up to you and say, “Who is this?” ….

            What are you going to tell them, Arrendale? “Who is this?” This is God in the flesh come to save us, this is the humble king of kings come to reign over us with justice and mercy, this is the innocent Son of God come to die on a cross to forgive us, this is Jesus Christ the Lord who has come through the barbed wire gate into the jail cell to tell us how much he loves us and cherishes us and cares for us and tells us we are worthy to be called God’s children. Hosanna, thanks be to God, it’s about that time! Amen.

Solomon, Charlemagne, and Donald Trump: Inauguration Days Across the Millennia

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It was inauguration day about 970BC. The people of God were hungry for a new king. David had been just what they needed to make Israel relevant, but everyone knew he lost strength and competency at the end of his days. How would Israel keep up their newfound might and glory? When he died, they anticipated Solomon would make them great again – and keep them that way. They needed to compete on the world scene and start winning, just like the good old days when Joshua killed every adversary in his path. So Solomon stood in front of all the people on inauguration day. “Listen,” he said. “We’re going to build a temple, a great temple.” The people applauded. “We’ll show the nations how much wealth we have.” The Israelites were eager to be wealthy with the spoils of other nations which they did not earn. “And then we’ll build an army, a great army.” Thunderous applause came from the young men who didn’t realize he was talking about them. “We’ll put Israel’s protection first. Sure, we’ll be friendly with other nations, but Israel comes first. We’ll have so much power no one will mess with us. If they do, we’ll show them God is on our side.” Solomon was crowned the king. He built that temple. It was opulent. Israel became powerful and wealthy. Israel was happy. Israel was great again. Israel didn’t realize their leader’s quest for power would be their downfall and the end of united Israel. They were too happy with their lifestyles and putting themselves first that they didn’t even seem to care when the prophets told them that the other great nations they were trying to emulate were coming to give them a taste of their own medicine. They claimed to be the people of God, nonetheless.

It was inauguration day about 800AD. Charlemagne was a historic king-crowned-emperor by Pope Leo III. In exchange for is new power, he was to become the defender of the faith in Rome from the evil Germanic Lombards. He stood in front of his throne that Christmas day with the pope and his council and gave his inauguration speech. “Listen, we’re going to have such a great military again. God will be on our side once more. God needs us to protect the right religion, and we’re going to make sure it gets protected.” Charlemagne protected Rome. He put Rome, and his own people, the Franks, first. “Building walls around us is part of our story,” he said. Charlemagne put together a great army and protected the faith from the evil pagans, even slaughtering 4,000 Saxons in the name of Jesus, a “holy war” that won the loyalties and praise of his people. He built a cathedral in Aachen, adorning it with gold and jewels to show other nations that God was on their side. He even likened himself to that other temple-builder, Solomon, and gave his architect, who would design the Palatine Chapel, the nickname Bazaleel, the great designer of Moses’ tabernacle. The people were wealthy and powerful once more, but most importantly, Charlemagne kept his promise to make Western Europe safe again. They loved Charlemagne. Charlemagne loved his power and money. Charlemagne’s quest to protect their security distracted him from the Vikings and the bitter rivalries between his own sons. His lust for power-keeping crippled the Roman Empire and left thousands dead. The people didn’t even notice what was happening at first. They were too busy enjoying wealth they didn’t earn, putting their own interests first, and keeping the “outsiders” who didn’t believe like they did outside. They claimed to be the people of God, nonetheless.

It was inauguration day in 2017. The people were hungry for a new president. The last one had been okay, but he had done too much to look out for the interests of other nations rather than putting America first, they said. So the people elected Donald Trump. He got up in front of the crowd and gave his inauguration speech. “We’re going to start winning again,” he said. The people went wild. “America is going to be safe. We’re going to put ourselves first. We’re going to be wealthy again. We’ll have comfortable jobs, and we won’t let the outsiders have any of our stuff. God will bless us, you’ll see.” The people loved Donald Trump. He made them feel safe. He told them the Bible says America will prosper if they do the right thing. He said, “We’ll get money and be happy, and certainly won’t let the refugees drain our resources. We’ll have so much power. God will protect us, even make us an example for the world.” American Christians just couldn’t learn from their own story of temple-builders and power-seekers. They were too distracted thinking about all the money they’ll be privileged with while the rest of the world starves and dies outside the wall Americans will build to protect themselves. They were too distracted by that age-old disease of seeking power, putting our own interests first, and lusting after survival in the name of God rather than trusting in the God who calls the alien amongst God’s people worthy to sit at the table. They claimed to be the people of God, nonetheless.

Maybe we’ve missed the most important one, though:

It was inauguration day in  30AD. The people were hungry for a king. They wanted to be freed. Then some imposter-peasant came along and claimed to be that king. He didn’t have a good policy, though. “Blessed are the poor,” he said. The message comforted the weak but angered the powerful. “The Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the one lost.” They didn’t know what to do with such inefficient techniques. “The good Samaritan helped the man in need. Oh yeah, and do you see this temple? I’m tearing it down.” But most importantly: “The slaves are free, debts are forgiven, and the year of Jubilee is fulfilled in me. And, not to mention, you should love your enemies, even serve them.” So they inaugurated him to be their “king.” They put him on a wooden crossbeam-throne and lifted him high and exalted him. They even put a crown on him and put a nice sign above his bleeding and trembling head while his mouth leaked saliva: “This is the King of the Jews.” He finally gave his inauguration speech: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” People cried out and the crowd went crazy, but most of them ran away.That Roman centurion tried to mock him like the rest, but he was just too confounded at how such a display could be any model of “kingship.” He was kind, he was gentle, he was bold and audacious; he was righteous and just, he loved his enemies, he forgave every sinner in his path. That’s no way to be an effective king. Even so… “Surely this man was the Son of God,” the centurion claimed, nonetheless.

He certainly didn’t win. He certainly did not make Jerusalem great again. And he did not consider equality with God something to hold on to, but emptied himself. He did not keep power, but gave every bit of it – every bit of it – away. He didn’t try to find salvation by protecting himself from his enemies; he died for those that tried to kill him. “And therefore,” Paul says, “he is exalted above every name,” King of the Jews, crucified on his inauguration tree, Lord of Lords seated at the right hand of the Father.

Hope That We Cannot See

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In The Hunger Games, President Snow said that hope “is the only thing stronger than fear.” I really want to believe that. I’m sure you’d really like to believe that. However, it seems like fear is so much easier to find these days than hope. If hope is a trickling stream, fear often feels like a mighty river. For every kind person you meet in the market, there is another one driving a truck into the market crowd.

This season of my life, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about hope. Hope is a hard “thing” to put your finger on. Is it an emotion? Is it a state of mind? Can you buy it on Amazon, and does it come with free shipping with a Prime subscription? I’m not really sure I have an answer. But I do know that whenever I think I’m getting closer to understanding what it is, it escapes me just a little bit further. How am I supposed to hope in the midst of this messed up world? How are all those children in Aleppo supposed to hope in this world? I know hope is something we all hold on to, but if any of you know exactly what it is, write me letter.

Now Christmas is upon us, and all the familiar songs are playing in the stores and coffee shops. Some of them even say “He rules the world!” or say that this is the season to proclaim “Christ is the hope of the Earth!” I think we all like those songs. We believe in them to an extent. But right now I wonder if anyone else out there bites their tongue just a little bit when those words come out, like I do. I sing about hope in Church. I watch the news. But when I hear myself say the words… Do I really believe it? Do I really believe it?

And then there’s St. Paul. He wrote about hope more than anyone. He had such hope in Christ. He had such hope that God was in control, and that nothing – no market killers nor bombs in Aleppo – could separate us from the love of God. Do you know that is so frustrating to me? Why can’t I have that kind of hope? Why did it come so easy to Paul? What am I doing wrong? What are we doing wrong? For Heaven’s sake, the man was probably repeating words of hope in Christ to himself as he was being crucified upside down, as church tradition holds.

You know, there’s this phrase in Romans 8 that has really been messing with me recently. Paul writes, “In this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what we already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” I suppose that verse has challenged me because it points to something so fundamental about hope that I missed it altogether. Maybe you did, too. You ready for it?

By definition, we cannot “see” hope. If we could, it wouldn’t be hope anymore.

But wait… Paul had seen the Lord. It was probably easy for him to say that, right? He probably wouldn’t understand the world today. In fact, you may even find it slightly offensive that he said that. “Hope that is seen is no hope at all? But Paul! You saw Jesus! That’s not fair!” And besides, he had to deal with persecutions and killings, but not on the terrifying scale that it’s happening today. Right? How are we supposed to have hope in God  today when we cannot see, nor have we ever seen, God?

These are all questions I’ve been asking recently. But the more I read Paul, the more Paul is convincing me that I’m asking the wrong questions. For, as we search for hope, I believe that Paul is pleading with us not to fixate on the character of our broken world, but rather on the character of God. If we look at the character of our world, no matter what day and age we are in, whether it be Paul’s day or our own, we will always come to the same conclusion: there is no hope for this place. Even if you and I had just seen the Resurrected Lord like Paul did, I am certain that we would still look at our surroundings and say there is no hope here. I get it, I really do. It is hard to hope for what we cannot see.

“But hope that is seen is no hope at all.” Perhaps what Paul is trying to tell us is that hope is not so much something we do; hope is something God is. God is the God of hope. As N.T. Wright says in “After You Believe”,

Because I believe that the God we know in Jesus is the God of utterly generous, outflowing love, I believe that there will be no end to the new creation of this God, and that within the new age itself there will always be more to hope for… Learning to hope in the present time is learning not to just hope for a better place than we currently find ourselves in, but learning to trust the God who is and will remain the God of the future.

God is hope. But, as we saw earlier, hope, by definition, means that we cannot see the object of our hope! Instead, we must wait for it patiently.

Isn’t that what advent means? Advent is the Church’s recognition that it is okay for us acknowledge our deepest feelings of fear. It means that it is okay for us to voice to one another that God feels absent from this place, and that seeing those bombs explode in hospitals and gunmen opening fire on innocent crowds makes us feel like God has hidden from us and will not speak. It is okay to feel that way. But Advent also means that we have hope in the God who we cannot see, for this God is so covenanted with humanity that we never have reason to despair. We voice our feelings of fear. We recognize that our fears seem stronger than our hope sometimes, like a river overtaking a stream. But, most importantly, we wait with patience for the Christ child who was so unexpected and so unseen by the world around him. We wait with patience because, in the manger, Hope became a person.

I was in a cemetery recently. I noticed something I had never seen before: several grave markers were planted at the base of a tree. It was cloudy out, and being in the middle of winter, the whole scene appeared to be full of death. However, I found it to be a potent reminder of the hope we have as people of God. The tree looked dead. The tree wasdead. But in four months, there will be leaves. Yet right now, we cannot see leaves or new life. So we hope for it.

I can’t help but think that the Jewish people were feeling the same thing in the long time between our Old and New Testaments. They were under Roman rule. The Maccabean revolt had failed. There was no hope for freedom, for being the people called them to be in the world. They were being killed at every turn. Nothing about what they saw led them to believe they had anything to hope in. So they waited and waited, voicing their frustration at God. “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (Psalm 44:22-24). They hoped in something they could not see, despite their circumstances, until they could do so no longer. Hundreds of years went by. It all looked dead to them. It all was dead to them.

…But look! A child is born. Go and see.

When you look around at the world today, with all the violence, oppression, and banalities, it probably looks so dead to you. You probably sing the Christmas carols about hope, even though you can’t really see it. You probably watch the news, deal with death in your family, and everything else that comes with this season. What is there to hope in? Why must God remain hidden?

You probably feel like those women in the tomb. Their hopes were shattered, and fear had won the day. They wore their grief on their garments as their headpieces soaked in the waters of their weeping. Had they anything to hope in now? If they did, the certainly couldn’t see it. Mary, his mother, was there. All she could do was put spices on her son’s bloody body. He looked so dead. He was so dead. How could this get any better?