Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas cancelled

I imagine this bothers Jesus less than it does me.

I'm sure they just want their members and visitors to be safe. But for Christ's sake! It's like they put up a sign saying "It's not that important."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Praise and Creation

The First Sunday After Christmas
Psalm 148

This is one of my favorite psalms. I love its exuberant, over-the-top, unabashed joy in praising the Lord of all creation. In one sense it is very simple to exegete: it is a hymn and a prayer for all creation to join in praising the Lord.

It does so in fairly simple fashion. In parallel structures of Hebrew poetry, it pulls in all parts of the universe by listing the "alphas" and "omegas," the boundaries which define the created world. The reader will note its similarities to the creation story in Genesis 1, the same cosmology of the three-tiered universe, a rough correspondence to the order of creation, the same varieties of living creatures. Everything, everything, is praising God!

This psalm only appears in the lectionary the first Sunday after Christmas every year. It is appropriate here, given the way the church has retrospectively and exuberantly glorified its Messiah’s birth. How natural that all creation sings in praise!

Yet praise does not come easy to everyone. In fact, some of us are natural born critics! But some part of this comes to us honestly. Praise for attributes we do not have or honors we have not earned is deceit or mockery. While praise may be spontaneous, and it may be genuine, it cannot be automatic. Real praise involves an assessment that something is worthy to be praised.

There is a godly model for having this evaluative eye. After many of the creative acts of Genesis 1, we hear that "God saw that it was good." But the Hebrew "ki tov," might be more literally translated as either "How good!", or "How good?" It might be read as God expressing approval – and it might also be an assessment of the divine handiwork.*

Sometimes one may gain the impression (perhaps even from this psalm, or from the throne scene in the book of Revelation), that creation is created to give praise, and that the natural, automatic response of creation is to praise God. Maybe so...

But we misunderstand Biblical creation if we think it is a story about how the universe was made. In the whole scope of Biblical theology, creation is the act of God making the world godly, finding chaos and bringing about a good, productive, life-generating, fruitful order. God is the God of creation because God is also the God of redemption, giving the breath of life and giving the holy breath of new life, righteous, just, peaceful, and loving. Creation and eschaton are more than kissing cousins – they are the seemless garment of God bringing goodness into being.

In this way, the psalmist is pointing the way for creation to follow. It is an invitation. Praise the Lord, because the Lord is worthy of praise! Yes, ALL creation, in all its variety, sings praise because it has asked "ki tov," "How good"?, and found God’s eternal YES. "Praise the LORD from the earth... [for] God has raised up a horn for God’s people" (Ps 148:7,14). God has always been in the incarnation business, taking the humble stuff of the material world, and spinning it into holiness. Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

* Phyllis Trible pointed this out to me in her 1998 seminar on Genesis 1-11. I think that God’s final look at the end of day six ("God saw all that he had made, and it was very good," Gen 1:31) has definitely turned to pure "it's good!" One might consider that this final statement should then be guide the translation of the prior ones. I prefer to think that is the capstone. The prior "how goods" contain the flavor both of a question and its answer, and the final exclamation in 1:31 is the culmination of previous judgments, seen at the end of this mighty work. Even this declaration is not a final statement, but one suited to its moment. Creation is not over on day seven. It is ongoing, and Genesis 1's account lays out the framework in which God's further actions will take place.

"Creation According to Genesis 1", by Judy Racz, 9 oil on canvas panels.
Mandelbrot Set by Peter Alfeld.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The grace of God has appeared

Christmas Eve
Titus 2:11-14

Christmas! It's a time we celebrate. The harvest festivals have edged into a "last hurrah," in the face of the long cold nights of winter. The season's images (in the north at least) include a warm hearth, lights decorating home and streets, rich foods, and gifts wrapped up brightly to be even more special.

The church, too, is decorated with pine boughs and bright red poinsettias, with elaborate manger scenes, Christmas pageants, white and gold paraments. And Christmas Eve services are often a "dress up" occasion.

The Feast of the Incarnation is justly celebrated with the best we have to offer, with gold and exotic spices.

Yet sometimes I think that we might instead put out tattered altar cloths, and light only the barest stub of a candle. When I think of the Christmas stories that affect me the most, they're not tales of glory and bright shiny things under the tree – but of the glory and radiance that shine forth when love comes to dwell in seemingly unlikely places.

They may be sentimental images. When adversity throws strangers together and they discover in it a blessing. When an unexpected kindness becomes a saving moment of grace. When the rich and powerful are humbled at receiving a gift from one who is poor or outcast. When generosity breaks down barriers and food and stories are shared. When a long-lost soul finds their way home. Perhaps you have been part of moments like this in your life.

These are stories of Presence, when the holy breaks into the ordinary.

The New Testament icon of the season is the Word made flesh, the living God come among us, as One of us. As the apostle marvels to Titus, "the grace of God has appeared" (Titus 2:11, NRSV). And this is not simply a good show, but God showing up, "bringing salvation to all." God's appearance changes the world. Grace changes the situation we're in. It schools us in new ways of seeing, believing, and being. And these appearances of holiness in our lives become "the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (2:13).

Jesus came into the world not at the top, but at the bottom, and while you may justly see the glory of God in the immensity of creation and the grand things of human artistry, we do better to look in the forgotten corners of the earth and of human community. For God has always been in the redemption business: bringing light from darkness, calling unlikely people to remarkable things, hearing the prayer of slaves and foreigners, leading captives homeward.

Like us. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that all our finery is fleeting. No one is that far from being told there is no room for us. We all have our manger moments. But by the grace of God, the blessing appears not only in the "best" place or to the "best" people – but in the right places and to the right people, the very ones ripe for redemption.

May the grace of God dwell in you this day, and shine forth forevermore.