Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.

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The Greatest Travelogue Ever!!

1st Sunday of Advent

Dec. 4, 2018, Beginning of liturical year C

This year I thought we would take a little different approach to Advent. From the 1st Sunday of Advent, today, thru the Christmas season, we will highlight each week specific characters or events in the Christmas story.  The goals are to make parts of the story come to life a little more, to better see the intent of the Gospel writers, and discover deeper meaning.

This week we start with the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  We start with a reminder that the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Lands at that time.  A call for a census could not be ignored.  This story begins in a time and place of bondage, of fear, and oppression.  It was a time that religion demanded that people make blood offerings to appease God.

Let us follow the journey of Mary and Joseph to see what it tells us. We start in the hill country of Nazareth, about ¾ the way up a map of Biblical Palestine.  They have two choices to get to Bethlehem.  The is to travel east and cross the Jordan River, then follow the heavily traveled caravan road south, cross back at Jericho, and climb the steep grade to Jerusalem, and go south to Bethlehem.  This was the longer of the 2 routes, and the busiest.  The 2nd route is an ancient road called the “Way of the Patriarchs”.  It is less traveled, shorter (20+miles), but you must pass through Samaria. It is about 95 miles, ten days on foot; for us, a drive of 2 ¼ hours.

You remember the prejudice against the Samaritans. They were considered “unclean” and even “dangerous”.  But you also remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in Sychar.  It is interesting to consider that Jesus used a Samaritan to teach the command to love our neighbors; he may have first learned that love from Mary and Joseph.

But much of what is called the “West Bank” today was Samaria in the day of Jesus; the Palestinians there now are the “Samaritans” of our day.  Many tours have stopped going there because of the “danger.” We don’t know for fact that Mary and Joseph took this 2nd road, but Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor and author of “The Journey”, and noted archaeologist Avner Goren agree that this road makes sense.

As Mary and Joseph traveled south out of Nazareth, they traveled around beautiful Mount Tabor, mentioned in the Psalms, an ancient site of worship, and said to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Then they moved into the plain of the Jezreel Valley, which is now the most fertile farmland in Israel.  There were hundreds of olives trees there then, and trees still remain that are believed to be from that time.  Our anointing rites are based in the use of sacred oils, olive oils.

The Jezreel Valley was the site many ancient battles, including the battle between King Saul and the Philistines (think David and Goliath) , where evil Queen Jezebel killed a man to get his vineyards, Gideon defeated the Midianites, and prophesized to be the site of the final battle in the end times (Armageddon/ in Megiddo).

So Mary and Joseph have begun a trip of Biblical history covering a period of some 16 centuries. Abraham came from the north, from Haran, thru Shechem, Beth El, and down to Hebron.  The tombs of Abraham and Sarah are in Beer-sheva.  Jacob, their grandson, was given land in Samaria, and Jacob’s well is the Well in Sychar, where the “Woman” met Jesus. No doubt Mary and Joseph made camp near that well.   Jacob’s son Joseph was buried near Shechem also.  As they moved south, they went through Shiloh, where Joshua set up the tent of the Ark of the Covenant after entering the Promised Land.  This is where Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were prophets.

The Assyrian and Babylonian armies entered Israel on this road – and left on it taking the people as exiles and all the gold and silver from the Temple.  It is also how the exiles re-entered their homeland some 40 years later, to rebuild their nation.  It is amazing to think that God walked with those exiles as they returned, and now, almost 550 years later, Mary carries a child who is called the Prince of Peace over this same route.  It feels like a point of closure to thousands of years of history.

Luke begins his Gospel this way: “Inasmuch as many have… set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account,… that you might know the certainty of those things…” (Luke 1:1;3-4)  

There certainly are those who dismiss Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph’s journey as a fictional story. But we have historical sources concerning the Governor Quirinius, like the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). New Testament historian Jack Finegan says, “Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.” (From web site: Cross examined. Org.) So, on the factual level, it is entirely possible it did happen.

But all of the Gospels should be read on three levels – the simple reading of the event itself, the meaning intended by the author, and the application to our lives. The simple meaning (the storyline): In extraordinary love, how God came to earth as a fragile and vulnerable baby, in humility, meager circumstances, and with all the normal inconveniences of life.

What about the intent of Luke’s story?  Luke is certainly placing Jesus in the spotlight of salvation history. Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One, and his entry into the world is straight down the main aisle of the Cathedral of what is the “Holy Land”, as if he is on the last, most awaited and most important float in the parade of all parades. All the main characters of the ancient faith line the side of the road, waiting for hundreds of years just to have a glimpse of him, to be able to say, “I was there that day.” Luke has taken the story from the very beginning, so that you might know, even before you read about the teaching, the miracles, the rising from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God.

And there is where we come in. Have you ever sat down and read Luke? I mean all of it, the 24 chapters.   It would take you 3 weeks if you read a little each day. It is one of the most documented, literary, and polished Gospels. You have just about (coincidentally) that much time before Christmas. Stop! Picture the scenes! Think about the message! You will find the Holy Spirit there, waiting for you, waiting to stir your heart. Warning: it will make 1 hour on Sunday too little for you. It will make you want more. It will take your “comfortable ignorance” as one Catholic put it, and turn it into thirst and hunger. When that happens, I will tell you about the sequel to Luke’s story.

What does Salvation mean, anyway ?

Holy Family, 12-31-17

Genesis 15: 1-6; 21: 1-3; Psalm 105: 1-9, Hebrews 11: 8, 11,12,17-19; Luke 2: 22-40

We read today from the 2nd chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Luke makes Jesus the focal point to explain the loving and generous ways of God. Luke frequently uses the title “Lord” for Jesus. “Lord” is the same name used for God in the Greek Old Testament. Jesus, Luke tells us, is God come to earth. Jesus came to all people. Luke takes great effort to relate how Jesus brought salvation to the poor, women, children, “sinners”, and outcasts (like the Samaritans).

In fact, two of Luke’s favorite expressions are “preach the gospel” and “salvation.” “Preaching the Gospel” includes the entire ministry of Jesus- his teaching, healing, and compassion were all part of the good news that God has come to His people. “Salvation” is defined in Luke 19:10 this way: “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Too often Christians use this word but aren’t so sure what it means. The words salvation and “Savior” both come from the same Latin word (salvare), which means to save. The basic idea of being saved or salvation is that God will “find and free” us from any kind of evil, just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God frees us to fully participate in all the goodness of life and in all the blessings of God. It makes sense then that God wishes to save us from sin as well as the evils that are the consequences of sin. Jesus acts as the “middle man” or mediator who suffers and dies to bring us this salvation both now and in eternal life.

So, with that long introduction, we begin with the Jewish ritual purification of Mary, when a sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons was offered 40 days after the birth of a child, as required by the Law of Moses in Leviticus 12. The mother is welcomed back into the community after the birth.

A second ritual was also completed, that being the “redeeming” of a first born child. All first born children – and animals, for that matter – were presumed to belong to God. Children were “bought back” with a small offering of money. You can find that Law in Exodus 13:13. God-fearing parents of every century feel the need to thank God for the miracle of a child. It’s a tradition that makes great sense. The parents publically proclaim the child is theirs, as a gift from God, and they will support, nurture, teach, and raise the child in the faith. These traditions introduce the infant to the worship of God in the community of believers, not unlike Christian infant baptism.

This scene with the infant Jesus also underlines the larger idea of redemption. For Christians, redemption is closely tied to salvation. Marie Monville wrote this: “To redeem means to exchange one thing for another, to buy back, to recover the value of something by exchanging it for another. God replaces…weakness with his strength, the ugliness of sin with the beauty of forgiveness, the blackest darkness with his brilliant light.”  It is sort of like redeeming something in a pawn shop!  In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, St. Paul wrote, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price”. That is the Catholic view of the crucifixion – that the price Jesus paid for us to be redeemed and freed from sin was his own life.

Two significant messages are then delivered by Simeon and Anna. Simeon, a “righteous and devout man” was looking for the “consolation of Israel” – meaning the salvation which the Messiah was to bring. Messiah is an Aramaic word meaning “liberator”, which means the same as “Savior”. Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah, and now he proclaims that he has seen the Messiah who will bring salvation to all people, not only the Jews. Simeon says, “…my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” God has kept his promise to Simeon, to the prophets (Isaiah 49:6), and to King David.

Simeon offers a blessing of thanksgiving to God and a blessing of prophecy to Mary and Joseph. Out of Simeon’s mouth comes a very precise statement of the miracle of Jesus: the child brings peace and the promise of a Messiah has been fulfilled. In addition, Jesus is the entrance of God into the world for all people; he is a revelation and light (new understanding). Jesus will bring salvation and judgment; he will bring lasting changes to the world, and the changes will result in a strong push-back from the darkness in the world.

One of the unique traits of Luke’s Gospel is that he often introduces a strong man counterbalanced by a woman. Luke names this woman, which is highly unusual in writings of the day; we actually have more information about Anna than Simeon. We know her age, her father’s name and her tribe. Luke tells us that Anna, like Simeon, was very devout, “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” She too said a prayer of thanksgiving for the child Jesus and, like the shepherds, immediately “spoke of (Jesus) to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna’s waiting is over, her patience has been rewarded, and then she participates in the preaching of the Gospel.

As always, God chooses us (all) and provides what we need to be in a personal relationship with our Creator. We are offered freedom from slavery to sin and darkness, the price has been paid, and we must act on our choice. That is one reason we have all those Bible characters who are flawed and foolish; we read about them stumble and fall, then ask for forgiveness and return to right relationship (what Christians call righteousness) with God. And people who experience this freedom want to share it with others. Amazing – all this from just a portion of the 2nd chapter of Luke!