Sunday, January 13, 2019

God in Unlikely Places: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-15

It wasn't a day much like today. The sun overhead was warm, without much regard to the season. The streets of Pelusium, the 'city of silt,' were bustling – foot traffic from the quays and baths, the workshops and kilns, the temples and theaters, all mixed up together as Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews roamed the city. It was the gate of Egypt, Pelusium was – a fine city, dignified twenty-five years before by the Emperor Augustus when he entered as its conqueror, having bested the armies of Cleopatra and brought an end to centuries of rule by the Ptolemies. And now Pelusium – or, as some locals called it, Peremoun, the 'House of Amun' – enjoyed the benefits of the 'Roman peace,' prospering as a trading post, littered with customs offices, glassworks, brickworks, even tanks for raising fish for making fish sauce, the Romans' favorite condiment.

In the streets of Pelusium that day, a Jewish soldier patrols – as he always does – while a pair of bare-headed priests of Zeus Kassios walk by. They laugh as they suggest he enjoy some nice pork; he jokes back and tells them he'll share it with them if he can add some onions – for the priests of Zeus Kassios infamously avoid onion and garlic. The soldier walks on, and as he does, he picks up the familiar sounds of Aramaic – not a language he hears too often here in Pelusium, with most speaking Greek or Coptic. The soldier leans against a wall and, perhaps forgetting his better manners, eavesdrops for a while.

The speakers are a man and his wife, traveling with one donkey and a toddler in tow; the donkey loaded with a few parcels of supplies or goods, the toddler clinging to his mother. The pair seem a bit on edge, this Yosef and this Miriam – fleeing trouble in the homeland. Herod's doing, from the sounds of it. The soldier isn't surprised – he knows Herod's reputation, not just as a defender of Jewish rights abroad (though he was that) but as a power-hungry beast desperate to rule 'til death and willing to kill whomever necessary to keep his crown secure from threat, no matter the collateral damage; and these aren't the first fellow-Jews the soldier's seen pass through Pelusium looking for a life beyond Herod's grasp.

From the sounds of it, the soldier thinks, the man and his wife are deliberating where to go next. Do they stay in Pelusium? They could, of course – it's a fine trading town – though without too much of a Jewish cultural life for them, other than a few soldiers guarding the road. So a prolonged stay in Pelusium is probably out. So is Migdol – not much there. They'll have to cross the Nile River Delta, but do they then curve back and head south toward Leontopolis and Memphis? They could stay near Babylon Fortress – it's not far from the Temple of Onias, a religious shrine founded over a hundred years earlier by the overlooked son of a Jerusalem high priest, who packed his bags for Egypt with some friends and settled in. But, they seem to be saying, they aren't too convinced that this second temple is legitimate: There should be only one temple on earth, they say, to bear witness that the Lord our God, the Lord is one. So maybe the land of Onias isn't for them. They're still keeping their mind open about the Babylon Fortress, though – three Roman legions are headquartered there, but there's plenty of work for a Jewish craftsman in the area. Or maybe they'll go further south to Oxyrhynchus, 'city of the sharp-nosed fish,' the third-largest city in all Egypt; they've heard there's a Jewish quarter there, and they're sure they'd fit right in. But on the other hand, they say, there are Jewish enclaves in almost every town in Egypt – they could settle anywhere.

Maybe even, if they feel like migrating west for a couple weeks, they could reach Alexandria, the jewel above all Egypt, where two of the city's five massive districts are majority-Jewish, where synagogues abound through the streets, where the Jewish community was self-governing. They knew already of the Alexandrian Jewish community by reputation – after all, the current high priest in Jerusalem, Herod's father-in-law Simeon ben Boethus, grew up there. For any Jewish travelers, and especially those of means looking to thrive in intellectual and religious luxury, Alexandria was the place to be. As the soldier listened in, the couple didn't seem to make much headway on their deliberations, but they had time – just had to stop in Pelusium for the evening to rest, and figure out the rest on the way, secure in knowing that the prefecture of Gaius Turranius over Alexandria and all Egypt was far, far preferable to the terror of the tyrant Herod.

For his part, I wonder if the father of that family – Joseph – reflected scripturally on what was happening. He'd had to uproot his family in the dead of night from Bethlehem – woke up in a cold sweat after an angelic vision, shook Mary awake, insisted they pack up their things and leave within the hour. No one was happy – not him, not her, not the boy. But they'd crept out in the stillness of night, them and their donkey carrying all they had to survive on: the valuable gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, more than enough of a financial stockpile to see them through the next year and, when the coast was clear, to buy a lasting home (cf. Matthew 2:13-15).

It was ironic, this trip to Egypt. So many centuries ago – before Josiah, before Hezekiah, before David, before Moses – the children of Israel had gone into Egypt, seeking refuge from a famine in the land of their promise. And who had led the way? Joseph, the son of Jacob the patriarch – the Joseph who rose to grand stature in the kingdom. And now, all these centuries later, Israel's Messiah – that toddler named Jesus, who summed up all Israel's heritage and destiny in himself – was following their footsteps. And who was taking him into Egypt? His mother's husband – also named Joseph, son of Jacob. A fitting turn. And a few hundred years after Joseph led Israel into Egypt, in the days of Moses, Israel made ready in the dark of night – the night of the Passover and the slaughter of Egypt's firstborn – to flee a land of tyranny for a haven of refuge. And just so, Joseph and Mary now had to take Israel's Messiah in the dark of night – a night of slaughter, aimed at their firstborn son – to flee a land of tyranny for a haven of refuge. Only, in olden days, the land of tyranny had been Pharaoh's Egypt, and the haven of refuge had been the Promised Land. Now, the Promised Land itself had become a land of tyranny under Herod's deranged grip – leaving Egypt to offer itself as a haven of refuge for the oppressed yearning to breathe free. What a twist.

Where in Egypt did they settle, Joseph and Mary and the little boy named Jesus? Truth be told, we don't know. They surely had to pass through Pelusium – the main road from Judea into Egypt led there – but they had their share of options. Some traditions name a few places, but other possibilities are likely. Wherever they went, it may not have been for long. No more than a year at most, and maybe only a few months or even less. Herod most likely died the next March or April. Jesus' stay in Egypt, that sandy land of mystery and magic, was not a lengthy one.

And to onlookers, he was an insignificant boy led around by an ordinary Palestinian Jewish family fleeing for refuge in a strange land – another province under the power of the same empire, to be sure, but a strange land nonetheless – seeking a home and a people amidst a dizzying array of bizarre cults and dusty trails. To onlookers, this trio of travelers was a blip on the radar – one more hungry set of foreigners, hardly worth a second glance in a crowded street, hardly worth extra consideration at a booked guesthouse, hardly worth more than they could barter or trade – reduced to their economic value, judged on how poorly or well they fit in, viewed as one more sign of foreign admixture, a reason for native Egyptians not to feel quite at home in their old country anymore.

But in whatever town or city or district they settled, or down whatever street they walked or rode, there's a bold and dazzling truth no Copt or Greek or Roman or even Jew knew. And that truth was this: That, in the guise of a foreign toddler in the arms of a migrant couple searching for refuge, God had come to Egypt. No one in Pelusium or Memphis or Oxyrhynchus or Alexandria or in all the land of Egypt had the foggiest notion that, for however many months these insignificant strangers dwelt in the land, they had physically smuggled God into the country – the God of galaxies and gravity, of avalanches and atoms, actually present in such a way that any Egyptian could tousle God's hair or say to God, “Uh-oh, got your nose!” God had been smuggled, in the flesh, right into the streets and sands of Egypt. And no one was the wiser. No one in Egypt. No one in Rome. And no one in Judea, who assumed that, if you wanted to approach the presence of God on earth, the closest avenue was either the gleaming temple Herod expanded in Jerusalem, wherein the fragrant incense ascended alongside the smoke of many sacrifices, or else in the virtual temple entered by Jews studying scripture's sacred speech. But for that year, or a part of that year, the nearest approach to God wasn't where you'd expect. It was in a land of pagan mystery, among a scarcely noticed family of Jewish foreigners, in the eyes of a little boy.

The prophets had surely hinted. Isaiah had seen: “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt. … In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts. … In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border..., and the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them” (Isaiah 19:1-21). And Hosea, reflecting on the story of Israel, sang, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1b).

Still, no one would have expected. For the prophet Jeremiah, return to Egypt was forbidden: “As my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt: You shall become an execration, a horror, a curse, and a taunt” (Jeremiah 42:18). For the prophet Ezekiel, Egypt was a target of judgment: “I will set fire to Egypt; Pelusium shall be in great agony, Thebes shall be breached, and Memphis shall face enemies by day. … Thus I will execute judgments on Egypt; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 30:16-19). And even for the prophet Hosea, returning to Egypt was a punishment for sin – a “going away into destruction” (Hosea 9:6). Who would have expected that Egypt was the place to encounter God? It was, maybe, the unlikeliest place on earth. But in Jesus Christ, we have a God who tends to turn up in unlikely places. The Pharisees would never have guessed it. The scribes would never have guessed it. The priesthood would never have guessed it. Herod would never have guessed it. The Egyptians would never have guessed it. We would never have guessed it. But there he was – God in the flesh, living incognito in Egypt.

God doesn't always turn up where we expect him. Which can be frustrating. Sometimes we tend to assume that his presence is at our beck and call – we follow our religious duties, and he'll turn up in nice, predictable ways, in just the places we've made ready for him, the places we've duly cleaned and padded and reserved for him. He does, sometimes. But not as often as we can delude ourselves into thinking. We can so quickly figure that God will show up when and where we've prepared for him to, when and where we expect him to – and then become dismayed or discouraged when that's not where he is. He isn't always in the likely places.

And God has a penchant for turning up where we don't expect him. Where do we expect to find God? Where do we expect to not? And what do we do when we have those categories nicely delineated and differentiated, and then God goes messing everything up by getting our categories all confused? Maybe one place we seldom expect to meet God is in the dangerous darkness – out in the slick and heart-pounding roads, out in the sudden falls and shadowy valleys. We don't expect to find God when we can't so much as find our own hands and our own feet, after all. But there, as we grope blindly through the mysteries of life, as we spin beyond control and lose our way, we may just unexpectedly trip over God at the midnight of our souls.

Nor do we expect to find God in the midst of our suffering. Oh, when we suffer, we may call out to God, asking him to call us away from our suffering so that we can meet him. But finding God in the suffering – that's a very different thing. Not at all our preference. Diving into the wound, where it's most painful and messy, digging around in the rawness of it all – that's hardly where we expect to find God pitching his tent. And yet, as we face what hurts most, as we reach out and embrace the torment that dogs us, as we stretch for the breath we can't catch and brace ourselves for the hit – well, we hardly expect to find God there, any more than we would have expected to meet him in Egypt. But sometimes, just sometimes, the middle of the suffering, the break in the bone and the gore of the wound, is where he's hidden himself away, waiting incognito in the pain to meet us.

Nor do we expect to find God when we're caught in our shame. Those are the moments we feel furthest from God – when all our hypocrisies are exposed, when all our secrets are laid bare, when we've messed up and made fools of ourselves, when we're embarrassed and humiliated and can't bear to lean into it; when all we want to do is run away and hide. And yet, sometimes, unexpectedly, the closest approach to God is found in open shame – not in our dignity, but when our dignity is ripped away, when we have nothing to hold onto, then, unexpectedly, does God come bounding in, maybe when we feel least ready to see and be seen, but there he is, when we're caught in our shame.

Nor do we expect to find God in bread broken and shared with the hungry and alone. People who are different from us – they may tend to bother us. The language they speak or dialect they use, the habits they've developed, the hygiene they display, the shade of their skin or shape of their features, all the man-made markers that make up the organization of our society. What Egyptian, two thousand years ago, would have thought that, by tearing bread and passing some to an immigrant family from Judea, a man and woman and child, they'd thereby be having fellowship with the Lord God Omnipotent? And today, we seldom figure that, in reaching across the political aisle, God may show up; that, in singing songs with speakers of a language not our own, God may show up; that there may be no closer approach to God than, unexpectedly, by way of fellowship with the poor and poorly, the foreign and forlorn and forgotten, the hurting and heartbroken and homeless, as with brothers and sisters and beloved neighbors. We have all sorts of excuses – the fear, the distaste, the unpleasantness, the risk – all pointing, at root, to our lack of expectation of finding God in those encounters. And yet, for all our excuses, there might God be found where we least expect him – and more's the pity when we miss the meeting.

No, God doesn't always show up where we expect him, where we've made ready for him. Sometimes, God is best found in the unlikely places, where we least expect. Even Egypt. Even the inner city. Even the trailer park and the country hills. Even the graveyard and the hospice. Even the homeless shelter and the storefront. Even the crevices of a struggling soul beneath the skin-thin self-sufficiency we all wear. What will you do to avoid passing God by when he's so unexpected you don't recognize him? What will you do when he surprises you in a place you didn't think he'd go? For he's a God who ventures to unlikely places. Don't miss him. Meet him, not where you'd like him to be, not where you feel comfortable keeping him, but where he is. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Rootless Redwood's Jealousy: Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

Can you just imagine the look on the king's face? There in his stone palace, as the ailing monarch in his late sixties, beset by paranoia and a notorious temper, hears the words and struggles to keep his composure? I can hardly think it. It's a look few other than the Magi saw. They'd had a long and hard journey, those Magi did. I reckon they would've set out from Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire, with the blessings of their king Phraates IV. They'd seen intriguing omens in the twelve constellations above, promising beneficence and life in a king freshly born in Judea. So naturally, they'd traveled west – west to Mesopotamia first, no doubt, then I think up and around. If you were part of their caravan, where would you have expected to find an infant king? In the capital city, I figure. In the royal palace, I figure. So, after a long and tiring journey, their caravan had reached Jerusalem. They'd never been there before, gleaming Jerusalem. The palace wasn't hard to find – it was along the Upper City's northwestern wall, just look for the three giant towers looming high in the sky, and it's just south of 'em, sitting on a platform. A fine palace – not so grand as where they came from, but it'd do, they surely thought. Built from massive stones. Lots of magnificent rooms. Two wings, each with covered porches facing inward on a courtyard with tree groves and canals and, above 'em, plenty of tamed pigeons.

They'd arrived at the palace, the Magi had, and announced their desire for an audience with the king. I wonder what his royal reception room looked like. But surely he sat on a throne as he was informed some Magi from the east had come. They were notorious – astrologers, rumored (falsely) as sorcerers, known to predict the rise and fall of kings. This king on this throne – perhaps they could secure him many more years, he surely hoped. He was in his late sixties, Herod was, and very self-conscious about it. He'd taken to dyeing his hair in a bid to look younger – I doubt the Magi thought him successful in it. But he was chronically ill – troubled by fevers, pounding headaches, pervasive pain, even the onset of gangrene. For years it had been maddening him, as his self-consciousness bloomed into grim paranoia. As of the past year or two, he'd already taken to sentencing his own sons to prison or worse, if he thought for a moment they might rise up against him. But I doubt the Magi knew that. They just knew that their king's armies had fought Herod a few decades back, but now that Phraates had reached a sort of understanding with Rome, it was time to let bygones be bygones.

Surely, the Magi assumed, the signs they'd seen in the sky meant that a bloom of new life had sprouted in the family of the Jewish king. But what perhaps scarcely crossed their mind was that Herod, though king over the Jews, was barely a Jewish king. He was a descendant, not of Jacob, but of Esau – an Idumean, whose ancestors had been forced to convert to Judaism a century before. No matter the lies Herod put out, trying to convince everyone he descended from Jewish nobility, he couldn't paper over his lack of papers. The king loomed tall in Jerusalem like a mighty cedar or a redwood, but he couldn't escape the biggest problem with his legitimacy: he was rootless. And everyone knew it. And he hated that. And then the Magi had the gall to come and inquire about a bloom of new life who'd been born the king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2).

An innocent question, on their part. I'm sure Herod tried his best to put on a neutral face, betray no expression, as he dismissed them back to their lodging and said he'd look into the matter. Unbeknownst to them, Herod was so un-Jewish that he had to call in the experts to find out where the Messiah was supposed to be born. He had rather hoped against hope that he was the man, or at least that he could forever convince people he was – he handsomely rewarded folks who preached about him in almost-messianic terms, after all. But it took the chief priests and scribes to explain to him what Micah said: that, to find the Messiah at his birth, you'd look, not in great Jerusalem, but six miles south, in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3-6). The rootless redwood was jealous of this fresh new evergreen sprouting up in royal David's city.

Then the Magi got their summons, for another meeting with the king – a secret meeting, with little fanfare, no doubt bringing them in the back way, maybe quietly under cover of night. Too many leaks as it was. Rumor had already gotten out that the Magi were in town, asking after a new king who wasn't Herod, saying they'd seen proof in the stars. They'd said that they just wanted to come – they'd brought gifts after all – and worship this newborn king. They hoped he might be the promised one, the one they'd been waiting for their whole lives. And they wanted to worship him. They scarcely batted an eye when Herod directed them where to go, asked them to pinpoint his house and report back, so that he, too, could come and worship the newborn king. That's all he was after, he said, the aging and ailing king. Just like the Magi... to worship the King (Matthew 2:7-8).

And as for the rest of the story, don't we know it? Two claims to worship. On the one hand, the Magi had come to worship. And you'd never expect that. They were pagans. Astrologers from the east. But when they said they had come to worship Christ, they were sincere. They came with no agenda but to honor Christ with costly offerings. They had no ulterior motives. Sought to get nothing other than just to see him, meet him, encounter him, and hope he was the one. And then there was Herod. He said he would come to worship. He was not sincere. He made a pretense of worship, used the language of worship, but it was a cloak for ulterior motives – namely, power and paranoia, deceit and death. Two claims to worship. Only one of them true.

But then, what about us? We, too, make a claim to worship, when we come here on a Sunday morning to gather as the very church of God. But when we come here, are we more like the Magi... or are we, sometimes, more like Herod? When we say we're here to worship, whom do we say it like? Because there are a lot of reasons Herod might come to church, you see. Maybe we say we've come to worship, but we've really come to be seen – to have our religiosity boost our standing in the eyes of others, to court them to think well of us, to associate ourselves in public view with what the church stands for, or at least be understood as civic minded. Or maybe we've really come to eat and drink – to be nourished and satisfied, to get a material return in our bellies, like some of the crowds who followed Jesus, hoping for the next free lunch. Or maybe we've really come just to socialize – we label it 'fellowship,' but all we're after here is to see our church friends, mingle with them, catch up and chat and shoot the breeze, and that's why we're really here. Or maybe we've really come to appease our family – they'd harp on us if we didn't get here, and so we give in and come to reduce the friction, even though we'd rather be somewhere else. Or maybe we've really come to do a religious duty – we're here because we know we're supposed to be here, someone's told us to be here, the pastor expects us to be here, God expects us to be here, so here we are, keister in pew, and... a duty's a duty, we suppose. Or maybe we've really come to see what we can get out of it – we call it 'being fed,' or even 'being entertained,' but we want 'church' as a packaged product to consume for our own enjoyment or benefit, as if we could put it in a shopping cart and keep the receipt. Or maybe we've really come to sit in judgment – to say when the experience met our standards and when it hasn't, when the preaching or the singing or the praying gets our seal of approval and, on the other hand, when that seal of approval has to be withheld, and that's what we're here for. Or maybe we've really come to barter our attendance for heavenly IOUs – we're here, so God will do things for us, or so we hope.

In surely just about every church in America, there are people present who say they're there to worship. But in truth, one or more of those reasons is a better explanation of what they've really come for. I fear there are entire churches where that's the case, from the pulpit to the back pew, or from the stage and smoke machine to the last balcony. Maybe, in that list, you had a twinge of recognition – a sense that your motives for being here today fall somewhat in line with those. And friends, those are Herod's reasons for, as we call it, 'coming to church.' If that's us, we say we're here to worship, but that's more a mask for another and deeper intention altogether. And if that's true, God help you – literally.

But then there are the Magi. You see, the Magi didn't come in pretense. They said they came to worship, and they meant it. Why would the Magi 'come to church' this morning? Why would they have walked through the doors and sat in these pews? There's just one reason, they'd tell you. To worship. To encounter Jesus Christ and do him honor. Not for what they can get out of it, but what they can give to him when they behold him. It's not Herod but the Magi we should hope to be more like in that.

We open this year, as we do every year, at the table. The table, where the Lord gives us his body and his blood for our food and drink. Where he calls us to meet him, see him, taste him, encounter him. He invites us to the table, that we might come and worship, really worship. And for all of us, that's what we say we're doing. But what gets to the truth of the matter? Is it Herod in the mirror, or the Magi? Is there something else you're here for? Or is it just to see Jesus? Ponder in your hearts nothing else but this question today: Why are you here?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Evergreen: Our Immanuel: Sermon on Matthew 1:1-25

Pause your busy lives a moment, if you would. Take a trip with me. You're walking through the countryside. It isn't morning, nor even quite afternoon anymore; evening is starting to fall. You happen upon a village, one of the smallest you've ever glimpsed – just a few hundred people on ten acres. Less than half a mile across from east to west, and an eighth of a mile from north to south, from the looks of it. A cluster of not too many houses, none more than two stories, built of mud-brick. You pause at the gate to one and call out. A teen boy comes to the gate, sees you, invites you in, and so you step into the courtyard. They're just settling down to dinner under the awning. It isn't too hot a night, so they're sitting in a circle on the floor – a father, a mother, seven children. They rutsch aside to make a tenth spot for you, the lonely traveler. You sit down on the ground next to them.

Spread out in the center of the circle are some earthenware dishes. What looks like a congealed lentil stew at the heart of it, some cheese, olives, onions, a few fresh figs, a couple salted fish. Cups of water with a bit of wine added to kill the germs. The man of the house offers up a short prayer of blessing – you reverently bow your head – and then he lifts up a dried round of barley bread, a bit gritty-looking, in his rough, labor-hardened hands, and rips it with a crack. Says to you his wife ground and baked it herself; she casts her eyes downward in demur humility. He shares the bread with her, with you, with the older children; the younger have bowls of liquified bread like porridge. They dip pieces into little dishes of olive oil or vinegar, or in the stew, to moisten it enough to eat. Can you smell the food, taste a bit on your tongue? And then the dinner conversation begins.

A little boy – not the youngest, but not the oldest either – blurts out to his father, “Abba, tell me a story, a family story!” The others chime in. “Yeah, abba, tell us, tell us!” The man – you can scarcely believe he and his wife are old enough to have this many children – smiles, his kindly eyes gleaming, and says to them, “Now to that, I'll never say no! Which one would you like, little Joses? How about Father Abraham – how the Lord called him from his home to a land he never knew?”

No!” cries the boy, “I already know that one, we heard about it in synagogue just yesterday. You know we did, abba! Give me a different one, please?” “Yeah, please!” implored a slightly older boy, not as old as the one who let you in. “Fine, Joses, fine, Jacob,” says the father. “Well, then, maybe you'd like to hear about David, the boy who knocked down the giant and became a king and was a man after God's own heart?” “No!” cries Jacob, “I know that one real well. Can we have a different one, a never-we-heard one?”

Oh, so you want one I haven't told you much about yet, do you? Well, then, let's see...” And as they eat, their father tells them a story. A story from long before, about a man named Nahshon, who grows up a slave in Egypt and whose sister Elisheba marries a man named Aaron, whose brother is named Moses. How Nahshon goes out with Moses and all the people into the desert. How he went up on the mountain and ate a meal right under God's very own feet. How Nahshon leads the whole tribe of Judah, and gives gifts at the tabernacle. How Nahshon has to watch his nephews, the very first priests of Israel. Two of them make a mistake and die – those were Nadab and Abihu – but then the others, Eleazar and Ithamar, they live, and all the priests ever since had come from them. How Nahshon didn't live to make it into the promised land, but his son sure did. How Nahshon reminds them that, no matter how great the priests might seem, they should always remember that they're cousins to all Nahshon's kids – including those sitting in this poor village house.

One of the daughters pipes up. “Abba... may we have another?” “Of course, my shy Salome. Let me see, let me see...” And the family keeps eating as their father tells them a second story. He warns them it won't be a happy one. He tells them of an old man named Ahithophel, a counselor to the king. Ahithophel was very smart, so smart that it seemed like asking him a question was the next-best thing to asking God himself. Ahithophel stopped liking the king, though, after he married Ahithophel's granddaughter Bathsheba in some questionable circumstances. So Ahithophel waited until he could help the king's vain son Absalom rebel and chase his father David out of Jerusalem. But David prayed for God to confound Ahithophel's wisdom, and God made Absalom listen to the bad advice of a spy instead of the smart but mean advice of Ahithophel. And so Ahithophel knew he had lost, so he went home and made himself die. And from this we can see that it isn't enough to be smart; you have to put God first and honor what he chooses. But just the same, we also learn that God can use and redeem even the worst traitors – because God made Ahithophel an ancestor to a lot of very great people.

You're enjoying the stories, they all seem to hope. Another of the sons, little Judah, asks for another from his father. “Aren't you all just the story-hungry people today? I've barely eaten! But how can I say no to you when you ask for stories like these? Let me take just a few more bites while I think what to tell you next.” So he eats and he drinks from his cup, and then he tells another story. He tells of a king named Hezekiah, living and ruling in Jerusalem – a good king, who loved the Lord. A king who got sick, but when he prayed just once, God loved him so much, he healed him and made him live longer. A king who prayed, and God made a whole army fall outside the city to keep him safe. But a king who, when told his people would be taken into exile in Babylon, didn't care enough to pray. You see, this king didn't care what happened when he was gone. Even though, as a little boy, Hezekiah heard Isaiah tell his dad, “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” And Hezekiah heard Isaiah say, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” And he heard Isaiah say, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” And when the Assyrians came and ravaged the land of Judah, he even heard news that Micah was saying, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me One who is to be Ruler in Israel.” Hezekiah didn't care about the future even when he heard these things! “Now, children,” says the father, “you must be like Hezekiah in his love for God, but you must not be like him in this. You must care about these things, which are coming to pass in our days, and you must take care to pray always and never give up.”

One of the older sons promises, “Yes, abba, I promise, I'll always pray! But may we please have another story, too?” His father, though visibly tired of talking, relents. “Yes, Jacob, another for you. Let me take a few more bites, and...” With that, he launched into a fourth story. A man born in Babylon, called 'Seed of Babylon' by his name Zerubbabel. A young man when the Persians conquer Babylon and let the people go free. Zerubbabel and his uncle lead the Jews back home, Zerubbabel becomes governor after his uncle, but years went by and no temple was rebuilt, even with the foundation laid. They were too poor, too small, too weak; Zerubbabel felt so discouraged. So God raised up prophets like Haggai and Zechariah to encourage him – telling him to put God first, to work on God's great house and not all the little houses of the people. The prophets promise Zerubbabel that he'll be like a signet ring on God's finger, that he'll finish the temple no matter how bad the odds seem, no matter how big the mountain of obstacles looms. He struggled with self-doubt, felt small and hemmed in, and wondered if God could bring any glory to this work he was doing. But by trusting in God, he did it. Just so, the father tells his children, when you wonder if any good can come from our little family or our little village, think of our ancestor Zerubbabel, who built the temple in Jerusalem.

The circle falls into silence for a while. You and the children alike try to absorb the lessons of the four stories while the gentle father gets to eat his food. As you reflect, maybe those stories sound familiar. If you've been here faithfully during the Advent season this year, you've heard three or even all four of them yourself already – they're the stories we've told and the lessons we've learned on the last four Sunday mornings. Maybe that's been challenging – so many names and dates and places. But it's no wonder, when you consider that those four little-heard stories cover essentially the entire sweep of the Old Testament. And God loves to teach us with stories.

At any rate, dinner is done, eaten. You can't say you feel full, but it isn't like they have terribly much to their name, this family – nor were they expecting you. You think to go, but the oldest son looks at you and then turns to the father and asks for one more story – a recent one, the one where he was born. The man of the house looks surprised. But he looks at you out of the corner of his eye, and says, “Alright, that one.” Some of the other children sigh. You have a feeling they might be tired of their parents' story. But the mother laughs – she rather likes it. And so the father begins.

It all started, you see, in this village. I was a young man when I met your mother and asked her parents if I could marry her. I had to pay a handsome bride-price – I'd been saving up for years. But they gave me her hand – and I thanked the Lord for it! Oh, so beautiful was your mother – is, is!,” he corrected himself as she gave him a wry, questioning smile. “Still is, always is, always and forever is,” he whispered to her. He continued his tale. “Not too long after that, she went to Hebron to go tend to an older relative – you remember Elizabeth – for three months in her own pregnancy. Well, your mother came back, and I was astonished to see that she was going to have a child herself. Oh, sons, can you imagine how hurt I felt? I thought she had betrayed me; that she wasn't the kind of woman I'd hoped she was.

Well, I knew I couldn't marry your mother. Laws don't let a man keep a wife who's unfaithful to him – he'd be seen as aiding and abetting adultery. But, betrothed as we were, it was a legal arrangement. I could have taken her to court, made sure everyone knew what kind of a woman she was – or, at least, I thought she was – and, for that matter, gotten not only my bride-price back, but even her dowry, to which I was legally entitled. But then I thought about it, and wrestled with it. Hurt as I was, I couldn't bear the thought of her shame. I knew I had the option of a private ceremony, with a few witnesses to cover the break of the engagement. She'd leave the village quietly – go live elsewhere. I'd be out my life savings, of course. She'd probably never have married, and I'd have had to save up for years again before I could. But I felt I had to protect her, no matter what. Even from the consequences – or so I thought – of her own actions.

But then one night, I had a dream. In the dream, I was on my way to gather my witnesses, but then a man in white robes stood in my way, and he started to shine, and I knew he was an angel of the Lord! And he told me to not be afraid – he reminded me what family I came from, how noble our heritage. He told me to drop my misgivings about your mother. He said she hadn't done what I thought she'd done, but rather that it was a pure act of God. He said she was going to have a little boy, and he told me what his name would be and what great things he would grow up to do. All the hope Nahshon had in the desert – this boy was the boy he needed. All the sins of Ahithophel – this was the boy who could unwrite that story. All those words Hezekiah heard from Isaiah and Micah – this would be the boy they were about! All the promises Haggai and Zechariah gave to Zerubbabel – down through the years they'd fall onto the shoulders of this boy. I heard that in my dream.

I've heard the books of the prophets before, read them myself in the synagogue. I remember what Isaiah said. How Israel's enemies were like axe in the hands of a lumberjack, hacking Israel down like a dried-up tree. Our family tree was like that, maybe you'd say – cut down, over and over again, in judgment. What are those words in Isaiah? I've tried to learn them all by heart. I think it went like this: 'Behold, the Lord GOD of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe.' And our family tree was like that – brought low from the days of princes and counselors and kings and governors to this little village and the labor of my shop.

But then, didn't Isaiah go on? He said, 'There shall come forth a shoot out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.' And that's the boy the angel was talking to me about – the shoot out of the stump of Jesse, growing to be a great big evergreen!

Well, back to my story. As soon as I woke up, I rushed over to her parents' house – I needed to see her right away! She knew I'd been upset since she'd come back to town, but as soon as she saw my eyes, she wasn't worried anymore. I remember how gently I touched her belly as I told her my dream. And then she'd told me how, months before, she'd met the angel, too – not in a dream, but one quiet day by the village well. I could hardly believe my ears, but it just went to show me that my dream was real. I knew just then that I had to marry her, like the angel said. And I had to do it quick, before the village gossips got out of hand. It wasn't too many more days 'til I got to bring her back here to this house, children,” the father told them. “People talked, of course, when they realized she was already going to have a baby. They figured either I was supporting her in sin, or else had been rather indiscreet myself. Well, let them talk. I know what the angel said. I know what I see in your mother's eyes.

A few months later, we heard the news about the census. I had to go back home to Bethlehem, where my folks were from, where our ancestor David was from. Didn't take more than a few days to get there, your mother and I. Knew we could stay with family, but when we arrived, my cousin had already received relatives into the guest room, so we were put on the lower level where the animals got brought in at night – speaking of which,” he noted as an aside to his wife, “dear, don't let me forget to bring them in after I finish this story.” She nodded and smiled quietly.

He went on. “We'd been there a while 'til she went into labor. Those were a challenging few hours, the village midwife in there, me pacing outside with the other men of the house. Not really allowed in. But then, they called me back in – and handed me the most beautiful baby boy. I held him in my arms for a while, she held him in hers. When they got tired, we looked around, and I wiped out the feed-trough in the floor – it's just like ours, kids – and wrapped up that baby boy nice and tight and laid him in there. And we sat together, your tired mother and I, watching the baby, when there came a knock at the gate, late into the night as we were drifting off to sleep. Some shepherds, telling of angels in the sky, news that the Messiah had been born in a house in town, so they asked around for where the midwife had been, and here they were to see the baby. I remember how tough it was to keep from yawning as I told them our own story, too. And then they went away, leaving me and your mom, kids, alone with our thoughts – and the baby.”

He clapped his hand on the shoulder of the oldest boy in the circle, the young teen who'd invited you in. “And that's where this marvelous boy Jesus was born. Great things he'll do, the angel said. Save all us people from our sins, rule on David's throne forever. Can't say I understand it all myself, everything the angel said. But I trust the God who sent him. We'll see. But that's the story. Now, visitor, I hope you won't be needing lodging for the night – I'd really invite you to stay, but we scarcely have a few mats to fit ourselves and our children. I hope you won't forget our humble village of Nazareth. Come drop in any day you like!”

After those words, you bid Joseph and Mary goodbye, thank them for their hospitality, and step back out by way of the gate. You're halfway out of the village when you hear a voice behind you, the voice of that oldest boy, the one Joseph called Jesus. A knowing voice. And he says, “See you again real soon!” And with those words on your heart, you venture out into the cool Galilean night. And step back to your own time, back to the sixth day of Christmas in 2018, back here to this sanctuary.

What a remarkable journey you've been on today. There must have been many meals like that, in that house in Nazareth. Many times when the story was told and re-told, and Jesus grew up learning the scriptures, he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40), he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). And he heard the stories, and loved the stories. Maybe he remembered them in his dreams – what it was like to guide Israel from within the pillar of cloud and fire; what it was like to thwart the counsel of Ahithophel at David's request; what it was like to inspire the prophets and answer the prayers of King Hezekiah; what it was like to look down from above at the first sacrifice Zerubbabel had the high priest Jeshua offer on the foundations of the temple. I've often wondered what Jesus dreamed about. I can't say we know.

But what we do know is this. No matter how many times his family tree seemed like it was chopped down, they were never without the promise of that “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Never without the promise that one day, God would be present with and among them in a new way – “Immanuel.” And then Jesus came. And on the stump of his family tree, he's an evergreen. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3). He's an evergreen tree of life, and “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). So it's written. So we therefore believe.

You see, Jesus, our Immanuel here, is our evergreen. Nothing can chop him down. Not even the cross and the tomb could prohibit his produce. He's fruitful in his season, and his season never ends, it just changes from time to time. There's a lot of variety in his fruit. It's life-giving fruit, a source of nourishment forever. And in his foliage ever-green is healing for every nation, every kind of people under God's sun. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what ethnicity or class or gender or whatever subdivision of human you are, there's healing in his leaves for you. And no matter what you do, it will never make his leaves wither away. It will never make them inefficacious. Jesus is our Immanuel, the Evergreen of God. Come to him. Go to him. Didn't he say he'd see you again real soon? Don't start your new year in a barren place, with leafless trees or lifeless stumps. Sit in the shade of the Evergreen of God. Eat of his fruit. Be healed by his leaves. They'll never go away from you. Just sit beneath him, taste of his goodness, trust him. There's no better way to end a year – or begin one. Grace to you. Amen.

Monday, December 24, 2018

God (the Son) Is With Us: A Christmas Eve Homily, 2018

[N.B.: Two other preachers addressed the theme of 'God With Us' in terms of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.]

I bring you good tidings of great joy! There is a grand truth that in one master-stroke sets Christianity apart from every philosophy and religion of all the world. And it's this: that the God whose whisper gives electrons their energy didn't think it was satisfactory to interact with us from above. He didn't consider it good enough to talk with us from a distance, to save us from a distance. He wanted, not just to be over us, but to be with us. Of course, throughout the Old Testament, we were told already that God was with us. Pagans confessed to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do” (Genesis 21:22). Balaam the pagan prophet chanted against his will about Israel in the desert, “The LORD their God is with them” (Numbers 23:21). David the great king said to his son Solomon, “Do not be afraid, for the LORD God, even my God, is with you” (1 Chronicles 28:20). All this we, were we treading the dusty roads of Judea in the days of Herod's power, would already have learned.

But when we get to Bethlehem, we find a new story. Do you know what we find when we stand beside or kneel before the manger? For the first time, God is with us on our level. For the first time, God is with us as one of us. God is with us from inside human nature, with us to experience human life from an insider view, to see our faces through human eyes, to hear our prayers with human ears, to smell our aromas with a human nose and taste our cooking with human taste-buds. In the Son, God is with us in a touching and touchable way.

You see, the stunning truth is, God the Son found no resentment in being carried nine months in a human womb, bound to a human woman by an umbilical cord; God the Son didn't resent being born amidst human blood and human tears, cradled vulnerably in human arms, fed and reared on human milk, dressed in clothes of human manufacture like yours ad mine. God was content with nothing less than solidarity, even intimacy, from human infancy to human maturity. God the Son is with us and doesn't feel the slightest discomfort in calling you his brother or his sister (Hebrews 1:12). And so he had to be made like his human brothers and human sisters “in every respect” (Hebrews 1:17).

Which means that God the Son is with us in our temptations and our struggles, in our griefs and our joys, in our pleasures and in our pains. God the Son is with us, taking up our tools to craft our redemption, raising up our arms to fight alongside us, winning with us as one of us (cf. Hebrews 4:15). Because God the Son is really and truly Immanuel, 'God-with-us' in human flesh and human blood, then the victory of God on the cross, the victory of God in the resurrection, the victorious reign of God the Son in heaven right now at his Father's right hand – it's the divine victory of humanity itself. What we are, at our very core, is crowned on heaven's throne in the person of Jesus, son of Mary.

In our Immanuel, our Jesus, God the Son is forever with us. Forever bound to us by everything it means to be human. Forever making angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, dominions and powers drop their jaws in astonishment and awe at what you are, because what you are is something God the Son chose also to be, so that he could make you his brother or his sister. So that the Eternal Word could see what you see, smell what you smell, taste what you taste, feel your touch – and have you feel his. That's something radically new. It raises questions no angel ever asked in the age of Abraham. Behold, in Bethlehem has God done a new thing!

Never again can God not be with us. For God the Son is become one of us. One of you. Go now, in your spirit. Go to Judah. Go to Bethlehem in the still and silent night. Go see a human infant, crying in a man-made trough under a man-made roof, wrapped up in rags of human weaving. He is one of us. Thus is he God-with-us. He is our Immanuel here. Glory to him! Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Governor and His Labor: Sermon on Matthew 1:12 (Fallen Leaves from the Family Tree of Jesus)

It was about this time of year. Warmer – about fifty degrees out. It wasn't too uncomfortable for the prophet to walk, his cloak pulled round him, through the streets of rebuilt Jerusalem over twenty-five hundred years ago. December 18. He called out at the gates of the governor's residence. It's late in the afternoon, and he's just come from delivering a message to the priests clustered around the altar at the construction site where the temple used to stand and would again. He'd scolded them on God's behalf: The people in this land are unclean, so every work of their hands is unclean, and what they offer on the altar is mere desecration. And yet, in spite of it all, for just starting work the Lord would at last begin blessing them – would they'd live into it! When the prophet Haggai finished there, he figured he'd call it a day. But then the word of God had grabbed him again – this fresh-faced prophet, new to the job – and given him one last message for the governor.

For the governor's part, he was lost in thought when the prophet came a-callin'. Good news he'd gotten, a copy of a letter from the king Darius to the governor over him, Tattenai. The way was clear. Tax funding from the broader province Eber-Nari would be funneled toward the project. Rebuild the house of God. The governor was pleased. But he couldn't shake some questions. Seventy-eight years and nine days before, his grandfather Jeconiah, as an eighteen-year-old, had been raised to the throne of Judah. And a little over three months later, Jeconiah had been ripped from the throne by the same man, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who'd taken Jeconiah, his mom Nehushta, his wives, and his friends prisoner to Babylon. All to fulfill the words of Jeremiah – who'd told Jeconiah that even if he were a signet-ring on God's own finger, God would rip him off and throw him away, and his children would never be king. And now that deposed king's grandson paced his house in the same city, wondering if all this time he labored under God's curse, if he'd ever really amount to anything. His very name meant 'seed of Babylon.' Child of exile and oppression. Son of the foreign land where God had thrown his family away. Could he ever escape and grow into something else?

The prophet's appearance in the doorway jarred him from his melancholy. The governor heard Haggai say he had a message from God for him. Just like Jeremiah had for Grandpa, he wondered? Words of rejection, exile, futility? The governor gulped, that cool December afternoon, and steeled himself for Haggai's words. “I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.” The governor wondered if he should feel relieved or afraid. But the prophet went on. “On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, and make you like the signet ring – for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:21-23). What elation! What relief! What hope! The signet-ring God had chosen, not thrown away! Not on the discard pile of life, but cherished, a living emblem of God's authority!

Zerubbabel, governor of Yehud Medinata, the Persian mini-province built from the scraps that used to be Judah, heard the message that brought tears to his eyes. And he thought back to where it all began. He'd been born, say, fifty years before. Grew up in Babylon. It was all he'd ever known. Him, his uncles, and his grandfather – living like prisoners. But one of Zerubbabel's first memories – he must've been eight or nine, he figured – was the year Nebuchadnezzar finally kicked the bucket. Because it was in those last months of the year – forty-two years ago, for Governor Zerubbabel – that young Zerubbabel had heard the news. Nebuchadnezzar's son, the new king, Amel-Marduk, had taken a liking to Jeconiah. Changed his clothes, set him free, gave him a seat at the royal table to eat with Amel-Marduk daily. New dignity for the whole family. And young Zerubbabel's life had changed. From that point on, he'd played with the children of Babylonian nobles and royals.

Which may have been more trouble than it was worth. Two years later, Zerubbabel was about ten when Amel-Marduk, well-meaning but not terribly effective, was put out of his misery – murdered by his sister's husband Nergal-shar-usur. Who became the new king. Nergal-shar-usur built some things, went on a campaign into the mountains of southern Turkey. But died after four years on the throne of Babylon. His son Labashi-Marduk had taken his place, only to be murdered after a couple months by a court conspiracy. Zerubbabel grew up in the midst of that, his most formative years. Maybe not all his family members survived the chaos.

Well, the conspirators put an old man, 70-something Nabu-na'id, on the throne. A religious zealot, still under his 92-year-old mom's influence. She was an elderly high-priestess of the moon-god Sin, and Nabu-na'id had an undying devotion to Sin. Not so much to Babylon's patron deity Marduk (or Bel, as some called him), nor even Nabu, the god of wisdom his name invoked. In Nabu-na'id's third year, Zerubbabel was about seventeen when the king went campaigning our west, captured Haran where Abraham used to live, and rebuilt the moon-god's temple Ehulhul there. Over the next years, it became apparent to the people of Babylon that their new overlord planned to replace their god Marduk with his god Sin. They thought him a blasphemer and tyrant. Zerubbabel thought it was a bit funny – the whole city in an uproar over which demon fraud they liked best. He was about twenty when Nabu-na'id, a bit out of his mind, left for ten years at an oasis in Arabia and handed the keys to the city over to his eldest son Bel-shar-usur, less of a zealot but still hardly a popular man. For ten years, Babylon's New Year festival was neglected.

During all this time, Zerubbabel began to form a family, under his uncle Shenazzar's guidance. Zerubbabel took a wife. Started having kids. Two sons, Meshullam and Hananiah. And a feisty little girl, Shelomith. And in those days, he often got visits from an elderly prophet named Daniel, who'd served as an administrator amidst the chaos. Daniel it was who kept Zerubbabel sane! Nurtured his faith, too. Set an example of daily prayer, no matter the social cost. Reminded Zerubbabel that, before he was ever the 'seed of Babylon,' he was, and would always be, born of the seed of Abraham, like one of the unnumbered stars dotting the skies above.

Zerubbabel was about thirty when King Nabu-na'id returned to Babylon in a panic. His long neglect had let a former ally, the Persian king Cyrus to the east, amass so much power beyond his walls. And now his kingdom was at risk of being eaten away. So he began frequenting the temples, celebrating the New Year ceremony, putting the people to work in forced-labor projects – Zerubbabel had some hands-on work to do, building walls that year, I reckon – and Nabu-na'id even started stealing the idols from all the towns around. He figured if he could just pack Babylon full of hundreds and thousands of gods, surely they'd protect Babylon, keep him safe!

It didn't work. On October 10 that year, when Nabu-na'id had gone out to defend Sippar, it fell and he fled. He wouldn't make his way back to Babylon until it was all over. The next night, his son Bel-shar-usur was in the middle of a Babylonian alcohol-soaked feast – using the vessels from God's demolished temple in Jerusalem – when a ghostly hand scrawled judgment on his walls. Daniel had been called in to interpret, and exalted to the third place in Babylon after Nabu-na'id and Bel-shar-usur – but to no avail. On October 12, a disaffected Gutian governor named Ugbaru led Persian troops up the river during low season, right into the city, and took it with nary a fight. Put Bel-shar-usur to death, but banished Nabu-na'id to the hinterlands. Seventeen days later, the Persian king Cyrus entered himself, hailed as a political and religious liberator by the Babylonians. Zerubbabel was about thirty-one when he saw the great king, whose governor Gubaru kept Daniel in a high post.

Cyrus didn't think like the Babylonians thought. The Babylonians liked to steal talent from conquered countries and import it for themselves. Cyrus liked to spread the joy. So early the next year, he gave an astounding order – that captives could go rebuild their homelands. The Jews could go back to Judah! Cyrus even told his chief treasurer Mithredath to turn the temple treasures over to Zerubbabel's uncle Shenazzar, whom the Babylonians called Sheshbazzar – the late King Jeconiah's son, the prince of Judah. Zerubbabel and his family were thrilled – the home he'd never known, the land of promise, of the days of David! He and his uncle tried to urge all the Jews to make the trip. Most, though, said they were perfectly comfortable in Persian Babylon. Even Daniel said he had to stay behind and advise the Jews of Babylon – though he no doubt assured Zerubbabel that God would raise up others back in the homeland to speak words of truth.

It took a few months before they were ready to set out. But the caravan traveled up around the Fertile Crescent and down to the scorched ruins of Jerusalem. With them came the elderly priest Jeshua, son of the high priest Jehozadak who was taken away alongside King Jeconiah. And thousands of others. Still not the majority. The first thing they did, under Governor Sheshbazzar, was celebrate the Festival of Booths – making little huts to live in. They celebrated alongside the Jews already living in the land, descendants of the lowest classes who had never gone into exile in the first place. And where the temple used to be, the returnees built an altar and, for the first time in decades, offered a sacrifice to their God. A bright day.

As the Festival of Booths ended, they started settling in. It was hard times. They reached out to Tyre and Sidon – both subunits of the same Persian district – for supplies. They started laying a foundation for the temple. But Sheshbazzar died. Zerubbabel carried out the project and went to go get official confirmation of himself as his late uncle's replacement. Zerubbabel, grandson of the old king, descendant of King David, was now governor of the poor little Persian province where David's grand kingdom once stood. Zerubbabel managed to get the foundations for the temple in order – most celebrated and sang, but the oldest people cried nostalgic tears, said it would never live up to the old one they remembered as kids. Zerubbabel felt rather discouraged. But he felt he needed to press on. An embassy came down from the north, from Samaria. They said they, too, worshipped Zerubbabel's God – sort of – and wanted a hand in building the temple. But they'd only mix it up with idolatry and pagan rubbish and conflict, he thought. So after consultation, Zerubbabel and the elders turned them down. They were furious. They started a campaign of harassment. Interrupted shipments of supplies. Vandalism. It was madness. And Zerubbabel found himself overwhelmed with civil strife, economic woes, and the need to run a government when two or three other levels of government were demanding taxes on top of it all.

So they left the temple foundations alone. Rationalized that the seventy years of exile weren't up yet. Besides, their fiscal situation wasn't ripe for... 'special projects.' Better to build up the basics of society, just what they'd need for bare survival. Surely God would send blessings of prosperity to cue them when the time was ripe to get back to the temple work... someday. And so years passed. Cyrus died in battle, and his mess of a son took over. Cambyses killed his own brother Bardiya, then passed down around Yehud to go subdue the one region the Persians didn't rule yet: Egypt. Zerubbabel was about forty-five years old when Egypt fell to Persian rule. Three years later, Cambyses' secret murder of his brother came back to bite him when a man named Gaumata, one of the Magi, said he was Bardiya and seized the throne – few people knew Bardiya was dead, after all! And Cambyses died before he could get back and retake power. A few months later, though, a conspiracy of nobles assassinated Gaumata, and put one of their number, Darius, on the Persian throne. It was late September, Zerubbabel remembered, when Darius – only a distant cousin to Cyrus and Cambyses – grabbed the kingship.

Four days later, chaos broke loose. One by one, it seemed like every province rose up and rejected the power of Persia. Babylon was first – a nobleman named Nidintu-Bel claimed to be Nabu-na'id's other son, and led a revolt. It took a couple months for Darius to get there, retake Babylon, execute Nidintu-Bel. The next year, an Armenian imposter named Arakha crept into Babylon and claimed to be the same guy; Darius had to send a general to go take the city again and crucify the imposter. Darius himself was busy putting out the fires of rebellion everywhere he went – but not in Yehud. Tempting, Zerubbabel had to admit. But with so many stronger, richer, hostile provinces around, Zerubbabel knew Persian imperial power was the safest course. So he waited. And sure enough, by the November when Arakha was crucified, things had started to quiet down.

The next year was a tough year. Zerubbabel was in his late forties. The land had been challenging to cultivate for years, but this... this was a drought and a blight, all at the same time. Scarcely anything was growing, and what was growing, you had to look hard to find much without disease. Zerubbabel felt very small – governor of a pitiful pittance of land that wasn't even working, people struggling all around to tend their sickly crops, and the rate of inflation outpaced job growth so that no matter how hard anybody worked, nobody could get ahead. Zerubbabel felt like a failure as a leader.

And then, on August 29 – it was the start of a disappointing harvest – a man rose up with a sudden word from a long-quiet God. Only, this man – Haggai – said God hadn't been quiet. He'd been shouting through the drought and the blight and the bad economy. And he was scolding them for making excuses – “the time isn't right to go rebuild God's house” – while they'd used their imported cedar to build fancy paneled houses for their own private dwellings. They were content to focus on their own livelihoods but leave God homeless! All the woes they faced – it wasn't that they should wait for God to bless them before they got to work, but God was waiting for them to get to work before he'd bless them. “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? … Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house” (Haggai 1:9). That's what the prophet had said, right to Zerubbabel's face. That was the lapse in his leadership – letting the people focus on their own houses, their own personal projects, while God's work sat on the back-burner. “Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD (Haggai 1:8).

It was just the kick in the pants Zerubbabel needed. He sent out the order through the land – it didn't take long. And by September 21, when what little had grown and survived had been harvested, the people all flocked to Jerusalem, stunningly ready to refocus their lives. With stone and timber on hand, that last week of September saw the resumption of work on the house of God – the temple, the temple. Of course, some weren't happy, least of all the Samaritans. And they took advantage of the fact that Zerubbabel had to answer to Tattenai, who had jurisdiction of Yehud and Samaria and a few other provinces; and Tattenai had to answer to the satrap Ushtannu in Babylon; and Ushtannu had to answer to King Darius, who called himself “king of the universe.” So at their behest, Tattenai came down to interview Zerubbabel and the elders on who authorized them to do what they had started doing. Zerubbabel gently informed Tattenai that Cyrus had sent them back to their homeland to do that very thing. But when Tattenai wanted to see paperwork, documentation... Well, they didn't exactly have any. So he said he and his investigator Shethar-Bozenai would write to the king, see what the Persian archives had.

The next month was the Festival of Booths again. They all moved out of their paneled private houses into these makeshift huts. It was the 440th anniversary of when Solomon had built the First Temple, but progress was slow on replacing it, and morale was low. Everyone had heard of the old prophet Ezekiel's vision of the temple to come, and this... this looked nothing like it. Zerubbabel, in his hut, was sad. But as the feast was underway, Haggai stood in their midst and encouraged them with another word from God. “Be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD! Be strong, O Jeshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest! Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD! Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. … I will fill this house with glory … Mine is the silver, mine is the gold … and in this place I will give peace” (Haggai 2:4-9). And so, renewed in his conviction, as soon as the feast was done, Zerubbabel ordered work to start again.

A couple weeks later, a young priest stood amidst the people, saying God had spoken to him, given him a vision – and called him to preach repentance. “Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you” – that's what the priest Zechariah said God wanted to tell them. They needed to recommit themselves, not even just to a project, but to the God whose house they were building – needed to be all-in for him, loyal and trusting in the God whose word outlived every prophet and every elder (Zechariah 1:1-6). Zerubbabel, unlike most of the masses, took it to heart. And a little over a month later – then came the December afternoon when Zerubbabel, doubting himself once again, heard Haggai come a-callin' to tell him he'd be like God's signet-ring of authority in a crazy, mixed-up world. That was Haggai's final message. Zechariah had more visions to come – he said to Zerubbabel the next year, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts! Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of 'Grace, grace to it!' … The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. … For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel” (Zechariah 4:6-10).

The word of God came true. In March of 515 BC, about four years after Zechariah spoke it, Zerubbabel lived to see the Second Temple dedicated. He overcome the mountain of obstacles and became the first Jewish leader since Solomon to build God a temple. When Zerubbabel died, his son-in-law Elnathan, Shelomith's husband, stepped in as the new governor. After him, the family of Zerubbabel stayed out of politics during the later days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and on down through the centuries after them. But then there came a child, born to descendants of Zerubbabel. Great Zerubbabel's greater Son – Jesus Christ. Seated – unlike Zerubbabel – on David's throne; and, more than David's, on God's. The fulfillment of every promise the LORD ever made to Zerubbabel found its fuller, louder 'Yes!' in Christ crucified and risen. It was among stones laid by Zerubbabel's command that Jesus taught and gave life to a new temple built from living stones. Zerubbabel paved the way.

In the days of great Zerubbabel's greater Son, I'm sure that we can still sometimes identify with the worry and self-doubt that plagued Zerubbabel even that December afternoon in 520 BC before Haggai spoke to him. Like Zerubbabel, sometimes we feel small and hemmed in. We wonder if any glory can really come from what we're doing. It seems like our problems mount high up like a mountain we can't see past or get around. Have you felt that way, ever? And maybe, like Zerubbabel, your upbringing was so tumultuous, you've scarcely got memories of stability to fall back on. We may now be the seed of Abraham in Christ, but we, too, were once the seed of Babylon (cf. Galatians 3:29).

Or maybe, as a church, we know what it was like in the days of Zerubbabel. Maybe we feel small in the distant shadow of glory-days past. Maybe we feel hemmed in by our resources and a changing culture that leaves us high and dry. Maybe we wonder if what we're doing matters at all, if it could ever really be a glorious thing, if God has a purpose for us to be here now, if the time is right to act. Zerubbabel knew how that felt! He knew what it was like to face a mountain of problems, to wade his way through a bad economy and the ruins of days gone by, to celebrate a holiday and know it isn't quite the way they used to do it in the good old days.

So maybe what we need to hear is what Zerubbabel heard – the words that gave him encouragement. Because today, too, a temple needs to be built up. Only, it isn't confined to a hill in a petty Persian province. It's built from living stones all around us, has no limitation in earthly geography. It's the church. Not the church walls and windows and roof around us, but the church itself, the living temple of God built of living-stone believers. When Zerubbabel despaired that everything was going wrong amidst the drought and blight and inflation, he heard Haggai scold him. The people had put so much emphasis on their own personal private lives, tending to them first, investing resources in their own houses, that God's house was an afterthought.

Perhaps, Haggai says to us as he said to Zerubbabel, we need to make God's living house the center of our work; perhaps other things would start falling into place if church became less of a Sunday morning event and more of the thing we work to build up throughout the week – as we gather living stones in evangelism, polish living stones in fellowship, assemble living stones through edifying each other with our gifts. Perhaps what we need is to return to the Lord – and he'll return to us. And perhaps, faced with all the challenges of limited resources and distractions and fear and problems – perhaps what this church needs to hear is, “Be strong! Work, for I am with you! My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not! I will fill this house with glory. And in this place, I will give peace.” God said that to Zerubbabel through Haggai. In two days, we'll celebrate the birth of great Zerubbabel's greater Son – Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, our Lord and Glory. On what words of priorities and perseverance and hope of glory might we need to think? What lessons Zerubbabel learned do we need to bring into this church and into our lives this season? That question, I leave between you and God's Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The King and His Blunder: A Sermon on Matthew 1:9 (Fallen Leaves from the Family Tree of Jesus)

Over twenty-seven thousand years ago, in the great house in Jerusalem, a king waited, drumming his fingers on the arm of his throne. He needed news, news, good news. Then, the messengers came, bowing low. The king reminded himself to be patient. He asked what news they brought. His heart thrilled as he saw a tired smile on a messenger's face. “Long live the king! Sire... they're leaving. They're gone. It's over. The siege is over.” The king hardly waited for the messengers to withdraw. He leapt to his feet and, just as suddenly, sank to his knees. Stretching out his hands toward heaven, he whisper-shouted praises to his God who had delivered him – as the king knew his Heavenly King would. It had been a long journey. It had been a hard fight. It would take a few years to rebuild, but they would get by. The God of all mercy would give them a new day at last.

In his joys, maybe the king took the opportunity to think back over the story of his life. It all began just under forty years before. A little baby was born in the palace to a teenage prince and his slightly older bride. That prince – a junior-partner king, really – was 15-year-old King Jehoahaz, the son of 35-year-old King Jotham. That bride was Abiya, the daughter of Zechariah. And the little baby, on the eighth day, they named 'Hezekiah' – “Yahweh strengthens.” A good, fine name. The year of his birth, a major change came over the kingdom of Judah. Baby Hezekiah's great-grandfather Uzziah was still technically the senior king, but an invasion by a rising empire called Assyria forced Uzziah – already weakened by leprosy – to pledge tribute and make Judah a vassal-state to the Assyrians. A bit of an ignominious end to his glorious reign. King Uzziah couldn't bear it – he died later that year, in his late sixties, leaving his son Jotham and teen grandson Ahaz in charge, with a baby.

Hezekiah, in later years, couldn't remember Uzziah, of course. He just knew he was sorely missed. Because in the eyes of many, neither Jotham nor Ahaz could live up to Uzziah's legacy, and Hezekiah struggled to himself. Well, Grandpa Jotham continued Great-grandpa Uzziah's work on the towers, gates, and walls of the capital city – and, when Hezekiah was about five, Grandpa made his Dad a real equal, not a junior partner anymore. They were the two kings. Hezekiah didn't really remember that. Some of his early memories were about the next year, a dreadful year. Hezekiah was six when his dad got in some pretty hot water. Two nearby countries were desperate to get free from Assyrian influence, and their kings – Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel – were none too thrilled that Ahaz didn't want to join. So Rezin and Pekah attacked Judah, hoping to replace Ahaz with another king unrelated to the line of David. Dangerous days. Prisoners were taken. Even members of the royal family died. In desperation, Ahaz sacrified Hezekiah's little brother in the fire. Dark days indeed.

Those were some of Hezekiah's first memories – not so much of that, of the killing, of the fear, as of a man who would be hugely influential in his life. Isaiah – a few years older than Hezekiah's dad – came to visit. Hezekiah grew up alongside Isaiah's kids – he was younger than Shear-jashub, but this happened when Maher-shalal-hash-baz wasn't even born yet. Isaiah came to Ahaz and told him it'd all be fine, that he needed to trust, that God was willing to give him a sign. And Ahaz said no – no, he'd already made up his mind what to do. Still, Isaiah talked about a day to come, a sign for the whole House of David, that a baby would be born. Immanuel. The real, honest-to-God Immanuel – “God with us.” Hezekiah never forgot, as a six-year-old boy, hearing that.

Well, Hezekiah's dad didn't trust God. Instead, he reached out to the distant Assyrians, bribing them with gold and silver to come trounce his enemies for him. And they did. Tiglath-pileser, a former general who'd seized the Assyrian throne five years before Hezekiah was born, made ready to march. Isaiah warned Ahaz that there was no containing Assyrian – like a flood, they'd eventually surge against Judah, too; but Jerusalem shouldn't fear them, since God would keep the Assyrian flood on a short leash and punish them the same.

Hezekiah was eight by the time his dad left on a trip, to go meet Tiglath-pileser in conquered Damascus. He'd sent a letter back from there, with instructions for the high priest Uriah to build an Assyrian altar and rearrange the temple courtyard to accommodate it. And he did. Dark days. The next year, Hezekiah's grandpa Jotham died, just forty-four. His dad Ahaz was in his mid-twenties and left in charge. Two years later – Hezekiah was about eleven, he reckoned – Ahaz appointed him junior king, ruling alongside his dad. By this time, a friendly tie to Assyria was bringing economic benefits for the grain merchants, at least. Prosperity for all the land.

Hezekiah was eighteen when he heard the news. Up to the north, Pekah's successor Hoshea had rebelled against Assyria. And in retaliation, Tiglath-pileser's successor Shalmaneser had come and laid siege to Samaria. And it fell – the capital of Israel fell. The country was no more. Over 27,000 Israelites deported, and foreigners were settled in their place. And refugees streamed over Judah's borders, swelling the population of land and city. The whole affair reaffirmed Ahaz's desire to never get on Assyria's bad side. But for teenage Hezekiah, it awakened a rather different attitude. The next year, Shalmaneser's brother Sargon had Shalmaneser killed and took the throne for himself; he finished the attack on Samaria and then defeated Hanno, king of Gaza. Hezekiah was by now paying attention to every news report from the region. During Hezekiah's early twenties, Sargon went on campaigns in the area, but saw no reason to bother Judah so long as docile, cowardly Ahaz held power. It was maybe around this time Hezekiah married his wife Hephzibah.

Hezekiah was twenty-five when his dad died. King Ahaz was no more. Leaving Hezekiah in charge, so very early in the year. And he wasted no time. For years he'd been heartsick over his father's idolatry and promotion of Assyrian worship. No more! Hezekiah had heard Isaiah's messages loud and clear. He immediately ordered the temple reopened – had the doors fixed, the priests reconsecrated, the temple purged of all the pagan misuse his dad Ahaz left behind. On the sixteenth day, it was rededicated with great ceremony. And he urged Levites to take up their instruments again, and play and compose and sing to the Lord. The Assyrian altar was gone. In the next month, Hezekiah invited the whole country to break its silence and celebrate Passover, like in the good old days. He even invited the people of what used to be Israel, though not many came. Hezekiah's missionaries did their best, though, and those who did come celebrated a double-feast for sixteen days. When it was done, Hezekiah sent everyone out with his blessing to tear down any pagan cult shrine they came across. Down came the high places, down came the standing stones, down came the Asherah poles, down came the bronze serpent Moses made but Ahaz perverted! Hezekiah spent his days with the priests, planning worship, organizing them into twenty-four efficient divisions. He sent word to all the people to start tithing again – to collect their grain, their resources, and send them to Jerusalem. So much came in, Hezekiah had to build storehouses to hold it all! The landed gentry weren't happy, to see wealth flowing from their estates toward the capital city, centralizing power with the king. But Jerusalem swelled with stockpiles.

The next year or two, Hezekiah began work on building a secret network of anti-Assyrian alliances. Isaiah in his prophecies warned local nations that Hezekiah would be rougher on them than Ahaz had been, and Hezekiah lived up to the prophecy. He annexed portions of Philistia and compelled Gaza to submit, and he expanded his influence over Edom and the Negev desert, resettling some of the tribe of Simeon there. It inspired the Philistine king of Ashdod, a man named Azuri, to withhold tribute from the Assyrians. So when the Assyrians replaced him with his brother Ahimiti, Ashdod's citizens rebelled and replaced him with a foreigner, Yamani. That was when Sargon marched down from the north and laid siege to Ashdod and Gath, resettling them and forcing various local powers – even Hezekiah's Judah – to submit and send him horses and tribute. Hezekiah was... well, rather chagrined. As for Yamani, he ran away to Egypt for refuge but was extradited to fearsome Assyrian custody. What happened to him then, Hezekiah preferred not to guess. That was the year, though – Hezekiah remembered this – when Isaiah began walking unclothed around Jerusalem, a sign that the Ethiopian rulers of Egypt would be exposed as naked and defenseless to Assyrian power.

Hezekiah's thirtieth birthday came and saw him biding his time, waiting for Assyria to get distracted. By the time he was thirty-one, his wife Hephzibah was giving birth to their son Manasseh. It was during these years that Hezekiah made the tough call to demote his palace manager Shebna, who'd been wasting royal money on a private tomb for himself and his family. Hezekiah made Shebna the chief scribe – no fiscal responsibility there – and raised up Eliakim as palace manager instead. Hezekiah was thirty-five when he heard Sargon had died, leaving the throne of Assyria to his son Sennacherib, a man Hezekiah's own age. At last, a fair fight.

Over the next few years, throughout his later thirties, Hezekiah wasted no time getting ready to square off with Assyria once and for all. As he faithfully worshipped God, he began reaching out to the kings of other small local countries to form alliances. Hezekiah traded letters with Chemosh-nadab, the king of Moab. He traded letters with Melek-ram, the king of Edom. Meanwhile, he kept stockpiling food in his city, and as years passed he sent it in ration jars to strategic points around the country. He ordered his teams to cut a tunnel 1,748 feet long under Jerusalem, to redirect the Gihon Spring's waters into a big reservoir in the city itself. He repaired Jerusalem's walls and ordered a thicker extra wall built around Jerusalem and around the other big fortress town of Lachish. A new style of wall, designed to withstand Assyrian battering-rams. Jerusalem's was twenty-three feet thick, stretching around the temple, the palace, the western residential suburbs, and the reservoir; but some houses had to be torn down to make room, and Isaiah was quick to report his dissatisfaction with that. Still, Hezekiah went ahead. It formally tripled the size of the city to 150 acres – more than enough room for all the Israelite refugees and earlier residents of Jerusalem, too. Hezekiah finally worked on getting an alliance with Sidqa, the king of the Philistine town of Ashkelon. Together, Hezekiah and Sidqa cornered another Philistine city, Ekron, into surrendering their king Padi and replacing him with someone friendlier. Hezekiah took Padi to Jerusalem as a hostage, and then made alliances with the Phoenician king Luli from Sidon and Pharaoh Shabaka from Egypt. And now, Hezekiah thought... now, we're ready. Best of all, he told the people: “With [Assyria] is an arm of flesh, but with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles” (2 Chronicles 32:8).

Hezekiah got sick around this time, but recovered through prophecy. He even formed ties of alliance with some to the distant east, a rebel king Marduk-ipla-iddina in Babylon – about which Isaiah had some choice words. But then, all in unison, Hezekiah and his allies withheld their yearly tribute – and waited for the Assyrian king Sennacherib to react. React he did. Eager to punish Hezekiah and friends, he swept up around the Fertile Crescent, descending from the north on the western coast. He attacked Phoenician first, forcing their cities into submission. King Luli, not so brave after all, ran away to Cyprus where he died, and Sennacherib replaced him with a more Assyrian-friendly king named Ethba'al. Seeing that, Moab and Ammon and Edom all gave up the fight in terror and submitted. Sennacherib gave credit to his god, Ashur.

Sennacherib moved against the Philistines next. Hezekiah's ally Sidqa in Ashkelon didn't stand a chance; the Assyrians took Ashkelon and deported Sidqa and his whole family network, never to be heard from again, and replaced him with the old king's son Sharru-lu-dari. Sennacherib laid siege to other Philistine cities, but when he got to Ekron, they called down to Egypt for help. So did Hezekiah, even though Isaiah warned him not to. “Stubborn children, who carry out a plan but not mine, who weave a web but not of my Spirit..., who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction! … Egypt's help is worthless and empty,” he prophesied (Isaiah 30:1-7). It would only end with Jerusalem cold and alone, he warned. Hezekiah didn't listen.

In the plains at Eltekeh, the remaining Philistines joined the Egyptian advance force and a contingent of Judah's soldiers. And lost badly. Sennacherib conquered Ekron and brutalized it. Then he turned his eyes on Judah, devastating the countryside. Over forty walled cities were besieged and destroyed. All the villages near them, all but wiped out. The Assyrians killed unnumbered Jews and deported tens of thousands. A prophet rose up in the countryside. His name was Micah, and he had some hard things to say: “Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height” (Micah 3:12). Hezekiah was, needless to say, demoralized. Everyone was so afraid, they stayed trapped in their walled cities when they should've been planting crops – and then what's to eat next year, even if they live through this?

Hezekiah watched from a distance as Lachish – the big fortress city near Micah's village, the big city with the double-wall and a chariot training facility and mighty defenses – was next on Sennacherib's hit list. Assyrian soldiers, square of beard and pointy of hat, built a massive siege ramp southwest of the city; they used two or four battering-rams on the walls, and although the people of Lachish built their own ramp to reinforce the wall, though their defenders stood on the walls and hurled boulders and flaming torches down at the Assyrians... still the city fell. Over 1,500 were tortured to death, and the rest deported.

Hezekiah's heart sank when he heard Lachish had fallen. Lachish controlled the main road into the heart of Judah. It was the one city he'd aimed to make Assyria-proof. By now his attempts to rebel – which Isaiah had warned him against – had cost thousands and thousands of Jews their lives, and even more their homes, sent off into exile. The guilt was crushing for a king not quite yet at his fortieth birthday. In desperation, he tried to buy off Sennacherib, sending toward Nineveh over a ton of gold and over eleven tons of silver, and more, even releasing Padi from custody. But Sennacherib was unappeased. Staying at Lachish with his main camp, he sent part of his army to surround Jerusalem, trapping Hezekiah and the people there like panicked birds cooped in a little cage. It was around this time Micah, walking forlornly through desolate countryside, preached that God would one day replace Hezekiah's failures with a stronger king from David's hometown roots in Bethlehem.

Three Assyrian officials – the commander-in-chief, or turtannu; the chief cupbearer and advisor, or rabshaq; the chief eunuch, or rabsaris – made their way toward Jerusalem's walls to talk. (Sennacherib, for his part, wanted to end this quick, without the delay of a long siege.) Hezekiah sent three officials of his own: his palace steward Eliakim, his ex-steward and now-scribe Shebna, his royal recorder Joah. Despite his best efforts, the people crowded atop Jerusalem's walls to watch and listen. Hezekiah heard the report when his officials returned. The Assyrians had taunted them, tried to belittle them, had spoken plain Hebrew so as to sway the hearts of the people away from Hezekiah, urged that Judah's God was no match for Assyrian power that had throttled so many gods, so many kings and lands. The rabshaq said Egypt couldn't be trusted; that God had deserted Jerusalem as punishment for Hezekiah's reforms; that Hezekiah was too weak to compete. Better give in now, let the people of Jerusalem be resettled in a better land far away.

Hearing this, Hezekiah tore his robes at the Assyrian blasphemy, put on sackcloth, and rushed to the temple to worship. He sent Eliakim and Shebna to go find Isaiah, beg him to pray to God. And Hezekiah waited. As they came back to him at the temple, they relayed Isaiah's message: Don't be afraid; God will make Sennacherib hear a rumor and run back home to die there. And, hearing this, Hezekiah worshipped God. By this time, Sennacherib had already started retreating, moving north from Lachish to Libnah to gain distance from rumors of the pharaoh's brother Tirhaqa. Hezekiah soon found Assyrian messengers approaching his palace, bringing a letter from Sennacherib himself. Now Sennacherib exposed his real thought: Given how many gods Assyria had overcome, “don't let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria” (2 Kings 19:10). And Hezekiah thought to himself, Sennacherib's right about one thing: Now, the Lord is indeed Hezekiah's God in whom he trusts. Dismissing the messengers without a return message, he took the letter to the temple and unrolled it there. And Hezekiah prayed. “O Lord, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God – you alone – of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear … the words of Sennacherib that he sent to mock the living God. … Save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone” (2 Kings 19:15-19).

Hezekiah spent hours in the temple, praying, worshipping as the enemy forces swelled outside the city walls. In time, there came a sound. A messenger, sent by Isaiah, to tell a prophecy. God had heard Hezekiah's prayer, and would answer it. Sennacherib would never enter the city. He'd never even raise a siege ramp or shoot an arrow at it. He'd be sent home the way he came. And Hezekiah, with relief, went home and slept. The next morning, he woke up to the news. In the stillness of night, an angel spread a plague through the Assyrian camp beyond the walls, devastating the enemy army. Sennacherib sent messengers, offering to withdraw in exchange for just a little more tribute. Hezekiah indulged him. He knew how remarkable this was. No king withstood the siege engines of Assyria, no king rebelled and stayed on his throne. But Hezekiah had. Not because he was mighty or wise, but because God heard his prayer and kept him safe. No wonder Hezekiah rejoiced.

But rewind the clock, to before the siege. The Bible tells us one more story, about a not-yet-fully-sanctified Hezekiah. The one sick with a fatal disease, warned by Isaiah in the palace that he'd die. Immediately the king turned to the wall and started praying, praying with single-minded desperation of heart: “Now, O LORD, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight” (2 Kings 20:3). And he broke down in tears, the king did – not yet forty and terminally ill. He cried out to God. And before Isaiah had even left the palace, God made him turn around and reverse the prophecy – just because Hezekiah had asked it! And then, when Hezekiah was flustered by the quick response, Isaiah offered a sign, shifting the shadows on the staircase of Ahaz back and promising another fifteen years for Hezekiah's lifespan. And sure enough, by following Dr. Isaiah's prescription, Hezekiah got better, and he wrote a weary poem: “Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back” (Isaiah 38:17).

Those were then the days that Marduk-ipla-iddina, the Babylonian rebel, saw Hezekiah's recovery as the perfect pretext to smuggle a message to him. He sent messengers with gifts to Jerusalem, but also with a letter offering a secret alliance. Hezekiah was astounded – the thought that he'd become so great, even distant Babylon wished for his friendship! Proud that they'd come all that way, he gave the Babylonian diplomats a grand tour – all the treasure, all the storehouses, the entire armory, he showed them everything, aiming to impress them. And Isaiah was not happy. Once they'd left, the prophet confronted the king, warned the days were coming when Babylon would take everything from Hezekiah's house, even his own descendants, captive in chains.

And we'd expect Hezekiah to object here. We'd expect him to pray for God to undo the prophecy, just like he'd undone the prophecy about Hezekiah's death. If there's anything Hezekiah had seen in his life, it's this: When he prays, things change. His dad had been given the chance for a sign, but refused. He himself had prayed about his own sickness, and it changed. Later in the year, he'd pray for an end to the Assyrian siege, and God would act on it, just that one humble prayer. When Hezekiah prays, things happen, so we'd expect him to pray here... but he doesn't. He accepts the prophecy. “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good,” he says (2 Kings 20:19). He doesn't care what happens after he's gone; he's only focused on peace and security in his days. For all he was learning about faithfulness, about trusting in the God of the prophets, he was intentionally shortsighted – selfish, even – in not caring beyond the moment. And so Hezekiah, whose prayers God heeded and cherished, didn't bother praying. And a hundred years after his death, almost to the year, Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled, and the people of Jerusalem – Hezekiah's descendants among them – were carried to Babylon.

It stuns me that Hezekiah – the man whose story we've heard – could be that shortsighted about the future. He was there, as a little boy, to hear the prophecy about Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14)! He was probably a bit older when Isaiah spoke of Hezekiah's descendant who'd be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Hezekiah would, after this point, hear the contrast between his reign and the much greater reign of a new king born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And yet he chose to neglect the future so far as it didn't seem to affect him personally. It's Hezekiah at his worst. A great king, but a great blunder, too.

Are we like that? Or do we keep a perspective beyond the needs and concerns of the moment? How far do we care to see? Do we care beyond our days, beyond our reach? And if we do... do we pray? Brothers and sisters, our prayers are by no means ineffective! Hezekiah wasn't the only one who could pray and see things happen. So, if we're faithful, can we. Because the one Hezekiah had been hearing about all his life – Immanuel, Prince of Peace, Ruler from Bethlehem – well, that descendant of Hezekiah came and lived among us. And now we live in him, in Jesus Christ, who gives us greater access to God than we ever dreamed. But somehow, we can still be just as prone as Hezekiah was to not care much beyond what we think will personally affect us. We hold back from the needy, we don't plan for the future, we don't soak the world in prayer, even when we can.

But we're told to pray. Oh, how we're told to pray! But will we listen better than Hezekiah did, and will we trust God like Hezekiah learned to? This Advent, reflecting on the story of King Hezekiah, a story Hezekiah's descendant Jesus knew so well and learned from, I'd invite you to purify your lives like Hezekiah purified the temple. I'd invite you to invite people to God the way Hezekiah invited people to the Passover. I'd invite you to grow in faith in Jesus Christ, the living face of the God Hezekiah knew. And I'd invite you, most surely, to pray. 
 
This Advent, care, pray for things beyond the moment. Not just illnesses or present threats, but things too far in space and time to see. Pray for rulers in authority – presidents and leaders of every nation. Pray for the church in distant lands. Pray for the well-being of your great-great-great-great-grandkids. Pray for the return of our Immanuel to earth, bringing with him a New Jerusalem that can never be breached or conquered. Don't be led astray by the Assyrias of the moment, those pressing concerns that dominate our view. Pray, to be sure, for God can and will deal with them. But pray farther. Look centuries beyond, eternally beyond, and pray for what will in those days have now mattered most. Pray. Pray for distant, far-off things. Pray in love for what you could easily dismiss as another age's problems. Pray in faith. And trust that, in Immanuel's hands, our days – and days beyond us – are secure in him. Amen.