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Monday, December 28, 2015

Clubbin' at Grandma's House

I gave my nieces and my nephew some light sticks as part of their Christmas gifts. Crank up the music, drop the bass; we're clubbin' at Grandma's house for Christmas.

Light Saber Christmas by Jeff Carter on 500px.com



light saber christmas by Jeff Carter on 500px.com




That’s Not How the Christmas Story Goes…


“We must hurry,” said Melchior. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible but the weather is getting worse.” The magi could hear distant, metallic thuds of strange thunder, and the wind that swept around them blew gales of cold, dry snow. “It can’t be much further. We must make no more delay!”

And with that the three men urged their camels forward through the blowing snow. Bethlehem lay just beyond one final hill. They’d travelled the hard roads from the far corner of the eastern table-lands of Di’ningoom. And now, after so many long days and worrisome nights, they’d almost reached their destination. They’d come so close, but…

“What is that?” shouted Gaspar! “I hear something in the wind.”

“More thunder?” asked Belshazzar. “This storm is strange beyond all accounting; never have I seen atmospheric conditions such as these.”

But it was not thunder. “No!” Gaspar exclaimed. “Dogs! The king has loosed his hounds upon us. We’re doomed. If the storm does not kill us, Herod’s dogs will. We are doomed, ill fated. This is a disaster.”

“Nonsense!” bellowed Melchior. “The star has not failed us, and even now its light pierces the raging storm. Look.” He pointed and, indeed, a shaft a glorious light illuminated the sleeping village of Bethlehem. “Fly faster now, my brothers. Ride! Ride on to find the king!” He thumped his camel in the side with his heels. The camel grunted and took off at a long-legged trot. The other magi pulled their scarves tighter around their faces to protect themselves from the wind and followed after him.

They arrived in Bethlehem, breathless and joyous but not yet fully relieved. They’d found the place where the newborn king of the Jews lay sleeping in a manger, but the danger had not yet passed. The barking dogs were closer, and the astrologers could hear the screams of little girls.

“It’s too late!” moaned Gaspar. “The king has found us, has found the child. We’re doomed. Doomed!”

Just then an angel swooped down from the sky and landed in front of them. He shook the snow from his wings, tossed back his curly, golden hair and said, “Fear not; a way has been prepared for you. Your flight to Egypt is now boarding. Please have your boarding passes ready.” 

A smiling stewardess guided Melchior, Belshazzar, Gaspar, and Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus (still sleeping unaware in the manger), along with two shepherds and a handful of sheep into a jumbo jetliner. Clearance for departure came to the pilot from the control tower, and they were off, escaping just ahead of the dogs sent by the murderous king. They were safe – all of them except for one sheep who fell out the window as the plane ascended into the night sky.

They fled from the dangerous king, but the winter storm had continued its pursuit. The wind blew stronger now. The snow obscured the skies.  “I can’t see anything through this storm,” gasped the pilot.

“We’re doomed!” wailed Gaspar from his seat in coach as he fumbled to fasten his seat belt and pulled down the overhead oxygen mask.

“Fear not” said the angel. “I will guide you through the storm.”

But angel flew too fast, and the pilot could not follow. The plane was buffeted by turbulence. Engine number one caught on fire and the plane began to spiral down towards the sands of Egypt.

“This is a disaster! We’re doomed!” screamed Gaspar. “Doooooooooooooooooooomed!”

***

“Cut it out, Jeff,” came a voice from the kitchen. “That’s not how the Christmas story goes.”

“It is when you’re playing on the floor with your nephew and his toys,” I said and picked up another figurine. “But not to worry; three Jedi knights were there in the desert with their lightsabers…”

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Self Portrait

I'm not ordinarily one for taking selfies, but I caught my reflection in a Christmas bauble this morning.

Christmas Self Portrait by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Surreal Christmas



Surreal Christmas by Jeff Carter on 500px.com


The Holly and the Ivy

My mother has had these Christmas glasses for forever. I used a macro attachment to shoot them.

The Holly and the Ivy by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Star Was a Sign (or I’m Going To Kick Your Aster)


The Star was an angel,
tumbling from the sky,
falling from Earth orbit
   in an uncontrolled burn
and landing in a well
in Bethlehem.

If you go there,
   they say,
you can still see him,
waving up from the water.

The Star was a gold covered icon, carried
   with all proper reverence
through the incense of
the sanctuary of the sky
by the Hallelujah chanting
host of heaven.

A comet, a meteor, a planet,
a conjunction of planets,
a meteor shower,
exploding bolides and supernovae.

The Star was an alien craft
strange and unknown;
   the Magi were abducted
by its occupants.

The Star was a sign,
a symbol, a story
of something greater than these.

Another Christmas Bauble

A bauble is a trinket, a piece of inexpensive jewelry, some trifling thing, a spherical ornament, a fool's scepter - all of which may apply to Christmas decorations.

Bauble by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

(Not So) Biblical Limericks: Cold December


I’d like to remind each church member
as we celebrate, to remember:
our Lord’s nativity
in probability
didn’t happen in “cold December.”




B&W Nativity



B&W Nativity by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Biblical Limericks: Giving Offense



Have we become so strikingly dense?
Have we gone and lost all of our sense?
Christ’s words are inverted,
the message perverted
so it’s: Blessed is he who gives offense!

Matthew 11:6

(See my post from earlier today.)

Using the Nativity to Cause Offense

I saw the following image shared on the Facebook yesterday and I wanted to offer something of a corrective to it.

A nativity set depicting the birth of Jesus is not likely to offend Muslims. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are all highly revered in Islam. And the Quran repeatedly describes the virginal nature of Jesus' conception. In many ways Muslims are closer to a Christian understanding of Jesus than Jews (who those Christians who seem most upset by Muslims are likely to embrace).

Using the nativity stories of the Gospel to purposefully attempt to cause offense strikes me as counterproductive and anti-gospel.


Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East.
She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.
She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah."
He said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son.
She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"
He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us':It is a matter (so) decreed."
So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.

Maryam 19:16 – 22 (Abdullah Yusufali translation)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Holiday Baubles



Christmas  Baubles by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

This is not Christmas, but Armageddon


From the bright burning star of the east comes the fire that will burn the cities of earth, the Wormwood starfire that destroys Russian villages and all immorality along with the liberal press and its persuasive power. Spray gasoline on the flames, for Gogmagog! is almost entirely destroyed.

Scandalous as it seems, the scriptures are not specific on this point. Will the singing sons of morning or the dancing daughters of darkness prevail? Will we sit on the hillsides of winter, repeating the sound?

It is true apostasy, news of the mysterious: “Nowell.” How we marvel at the wonder of the age. “Nowell, nowell, nowell! Nowell sing we clear,” and the result is a rising tide of communists and socialists. “Holpen are the folk of earth” with their mob mentality. “Cast-a down the proud” indeed!

We would be free. We would be jolly, but our efforts are cut, ripped by the terrible claws of a perverted Santa Claus. Look how charming is this world dictator in red, the king of climate and coal and conflict. “Aye! and be merry,” they say, “put sorrow aside.” This is not Christmas, but Armageddon.

Millions of beleaguered fundamentalists and right wing supermen will mount a Christmas counter attack. No more holiday or season greetings, but a shout! Russian Bolsheviks pour across the border chanting “re, mi, fa, sol!” in accents coarse and thick, but we will greet them on this happy morning with a hail of potash and bullets. We will not allow them to destroy Christmas forever.


The Magi on their Way

They won't arrive till sometime in January, but the Magi are on their way...

The Magi on the Way by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Angel Gabriel’s Sexist Double Standard


The angel Gabriel from Heaven came, his wings as drifted snow, his eyes of flame–and told the old priest, Zechariah, that he and his wife, Elizabeth (also getting on in years) would soon have a son. Zechariah was incredulous–and, for his lack of faith, was struck mute, unable to speak until the baby was born.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came, to visit the young virgin Mary also. “All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary.”  He told her also that she would soon give birth to a son.  Mary was incredulous–but allowed to speak and sing without restraint.


 Luke 1: 8 - 20; 26 - 38
(with quotations from "Gabriel's Message")


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Singing Christmas Carols for the Revolution - An Advent Sermon


For someone who every year around this time says to anyone who will listen, “I don’t like Christmas!” I have a lot of Christmas music in my collection. It’s almost embarrassing. I have Christmas music of nearly every imaginary style and variety: classical, folk, rock, dance, swing, punk, country, rap, hip-hop, blues, bluegrass, gospel... I have Christmas music sung in English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and …I have sentimental Christmas music, humorous Christmas music, and angry Christmas music. Lullabies, symphonies, chants, hymns, ballads… Christmas music played on guitars, pianos, hand bells, computers … One might begin to suspect that my professed disdain for the holiday is a bit of hyperbolic affectation – an exaggeration.

And maybe it is. Maybe there is somewhere in my two-sizes-two-small heart, hiding behind the piles of unwashed socks a warm and glowing appreciation, a fondness, even, for the holiday. Especially for the music. But before we get all lovey-dovey and start standing around “heart to heart, and hand in hand” to sing down in Whoville (Geisel), let make this very clear. Even if I do have an extensive collection of Christmas music, I think that most Christmas music is meaningless fluff at best–and garbage at worst.

Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon used to say that 90% of science fiction is crap. But, he continued, that doesn’t really tell us much about science fiction as a genre because 90% of everything is crap. The same is true of Christmas music. There’s a lot fluff, and noise, and silliness, and–yes- crap that could be forgotten and we’d all be better off.

If those winter songs–like “Jingle Bells” and “Over the River and through the Woods” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland," which are not specifically about the Christmas holiday–were to disappear, I wouldn’t miss them. I don’t dislike them, exactly, but they don’t add anything meaningful to my appreciation of the Christmas holiday. I wouldn’t miss them if they were gone.

If I never heard another song about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and magic snowmen ever again I wouldn’t feel the slightest twinge of sadness. “Up on the Rooftop,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and "Frosty the Snowman,” are all but unnecessary. Throw them out.

And if those overly sentimental, sappy, saccharine, emotionally manipulative songs like “Christmas Shoes,” and “Billy’s Christmas Wish,” were miraculously removed from humanity's collective conscience and memory, I would give eternal praises to God Most High.

I’d cut out all the wassailing songs, and the biblically inaccurate songs – “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” would be on the chopping block. How exactly are those thee ships going to come sailing into Bethlehem which is not on any body of water? I’d toss out that beloved carol, “Away in a Manger” because I’ve always disliked the line “no crying he makes.” Seriously? A newborn baby in a room crowded with people and animals awakened in the middle of the night and he’s not bawling? Out it goes.

“But, but, but…” I can see the objections forming, I can already hear the complaints. You’ll say I’ve gone too far. That I’m throwing out the baby (the baby Jesus!) with the bathwater. Maybe I’m exaggerating again. Maybe I am speaking in hyperbole, because even if I were allowed to scissor out all those songs that I don’t like or appreciate, there are Advent / Christmas songs that I would fight – fight – to keep. I would keep the profound carols, the True-with-a-capital-T songs, the revolutionary and subversive Christmas songs.

We don’t often recognize the transformative power of Christmas music, or the subversive nature of some our carols – probably because we’ve buried them under an avalanche of songs about curly head dolls ("Santa Claus Is Coming to Town") and Christmas Hippopotamuses. But these are powerful songs that deserve our attention; they are Christmas carols of the revolution.

Music, done right, is potent and dangerous. Music makes people in positions of power and authority nervous. The American supported military dictator of Chile from 1973 – 1990, Augusto Pinochet, had the folk singer Víctor Jara arrested because of his music. Jara was one of the first of many, many thousands who were arrested, tortured, and imprisoned by Pinochet’s government. Jara was arrested and tortured–his hands were crushed so that he couldn’t play the guitar any more. He was finally executed, shot and killed–because his songs were subversive. His music threatened those in power.

One of the last songs he wrote and recorded was “Vientos del Pueblo” (Winds of the People):

“Now I want to live
together with my child and brother,
in the new world that all of us
are building day by day.
Your threats do not intimidate me,
you masters of misery.
The star of hope
will continue to be ours.” (Jara)

Last week I quoted from the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”  with those striking lines: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail and right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men!”  (Longfellow)

This is powerful stuff. This is revolutionary, if we will hear it.

I think also of the French carol, “O Holy Night” usually reserved for the soloist to make it a ‘special’ performance piece. But it is a song of social justice and revolution:

“Truly he taught us to love one another,
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother
and in his name all oppression shall cease.”
(Cappeau)

This is an insurrectionary song. This is a song of protest and power. Or how about this all but forgotten song – “Masters in This Hall”?

“Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we clear,
holpen are all the folk on earth,
born is God’s son so dear.
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell sing we loud,
God today hath poor folk raised
and cast a-down the proud.”
(Morris)

This is revolutionary. This is dangerous. And political! But it’s absolutely biblical.

Earlier we read Mary’s song from the gospel of Luke (1: 46 – 55) and we sang two different versions of it: “Canticle of the Turning” (Cooney) and “My Soul Gives Glory (Magnificat)” (Mueller). It is (in nearly any version) my favorite of all Christmas songs.

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
(Luke 1: 46 – 55 NRSV)

In her song, Mary celebrates not just (not even primarily) the spiritual aspects of the salvation that came to the world in that first Christmas. Her song is an exuberant celebration of the material salvation of the poor and lowly ones – it is a celebration of political revolution where tyrant kings are overthrown the wealth of the richest citizens is redistributed to the poor.

This song, if it were really being read, and sung, and heard, would spark outrage in our churches. Wealth redistribution? Political revolution? These are not the Christian Christmas values we’re accustomed to singing about. Give us Silent Night lullabies and songs about shepherds in the fields (though those songs would unsettle us as well, if we paid attention to them.) Give us songs about Santa and going home for Christmas. We are uncomfortable with Christmas protest songs.

Mary’s Magnificat (so called because of the first line in the Latin translation, “Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum.”) is a rejection of the very things our culture, our country, our world desires: her song is a rejection of wealth and power. It is a rejection of war and empire and conquest. It is a rejection of political rule by sword, and rifle, and jet fighter. It is the overthrow of economic systems guided by principles of greed and self-interest. Mary’s Magnificat is a revolutionary Christmas carol.

Ernest Cardenal, in his collection of comments on Gospel passages by members of the peasant community in Solentiname, Nicaragua, records the following exchange during a discussion of Mary’s Magnificat:

“I asked what they thought Herod would have said if he had known that a woman of the people had song that God had pulled down the mighty and raised up the humble, filed the hungry with good things and let the rich with nothing.

“Natalia laughed and said: ‘He’d say she was crazy.’

Rosita: ‘That she was a communist.’”
(Brown 85)

God’s inclination towards the poor, expressed in Mary’s song, is not isolated to this particular passage; a divine preference for the poor and oppressed runs through the entirety of scripture. (Guitierrez 275) But we very often soften this focus. We hide this message under a pile of worn Christmas platitudes and warm nostalgic feelings. But Mary’s song snaps us back to the biblical message. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

“I will bless the Lord at all times.
His praise ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the Lord
for he hears the cry of the poor.”
(Foley)

If our Christmas is centered in Santa Claus, and gifts, and nostalgia, if we are singing only of beautiful snow falls, and wassailing, and precocious little drummer boys, if we are not singing songs of revolution and justice for the poor and the oppressed, then we have completely missed the reason for the season. Do we want to, as the slogan says, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Then our Christmas should be about lifting up the poor and feeding the hungry. Our Christmas should be about bringing down tyrannical powers and toppling corrupt economic structures. Our Christmas should be about making peace and putting an end to war.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first, the lowly lifted up and the high and mighty brought down. The poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty.  

This is Christmas! Merry Christmas, and Viva la revolución!

 


Brown, Robert McAfee. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes.
Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press. 1984.

Cappeau, Placide. “Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night)” Translated John S. Dwight.

Cooney, Rory. “Canticle of the Turning.”

Foley, John B. “The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor.”

Geisel, Theodore, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Random House. 1957.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 1977.

Jara, Joan. "Without Knowing the End." Victor:An Unfinished Song. History Is a Weapon. Web. 

Longfellow, Henry Wordsworth. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Morris, William. “Masters in this Hall” ca. 1860.




Friday, December 18, 2015

Crystalline

Looking very closely at something - even a broken Christmas ornament - can often reveal something interesting - more interesting than the original subject, even.

Crystalline by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Bright Christmas Lights

I, like a good many people, have a smart phone, and said smart phone is equipped with a camera. And I, like a good many people, enjoy photography; it is a challenging and rewarding hobby. Yet, to date, I have taken relatively few photos with my smart phone's camera. Here is an attempt to correct that lack and to improve my smart phone photography skills.

Bright Christmas Lights by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Saint Nicolas

Saint Nicolas by Jeff Carter on 500px.comIf we're going to have Santa figurines up as decorations during this extended holiday season, let's have one that at least resembles the historical Bishop from Turkey.

And You, O Bethlehem - A Prophecy without Context


I should begin by saying that I like the book attributed to the 8th century BC prophet, Micah; some of the passages that I find most inspiring come from his writings. His vision of a time when people will “hammer their swords into plowshares” and give up warring (4: 3), along with his description of what it means to truly follow God: “to do justice, and to love kindness” (6:8) – these words continue to motivate me.
But the more I explore the words of the prophet Micah, the more difficulty I have. It is easy to appreciate these words in an abstract sense, removed from their context, but a text stripped of its context is all but meaningless. Without context a passage is malleable, and can be beaten into the shape of any argument, without regard for the original intent.

And for the prophet Micah, context is difficult to demonstrate. The opinion of biblical scholars on what parts of the book are from the mouth of the prophet, and which parts may be from later editors and redactors is divided. Most scholars agree that chapters 1 – 3 are from the prophet, but very little of chapters 4 -7 are attributed to him. (Simundson 535) The difficulty, then, is to locate a historical period in which to find context for the chapters in question. And there, too, opinion is divided; suggestions range from the time of Hezekiah (and the prophet Micah) to the Maccabean period.

And if the difficulties of locating a historical context weren’t difficult enough alone, the Hebrew text of Micah is a mess. “Although many of the passages present no textual difficulties or only trifling problems, others are badly, perhaps hopelessly, corrupt” (Hillers 809).

Reading Micah is much more difficult than is usually appreciated, especially during this Advent / Christmas season. 

One of the lectionary readings for this Sunday is that famous passage from Micah 5: 2 (or 5:1 depending on which translation you use, another source of difficulty in this book).

“And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath,
least among the clans of Judah,
from you one shall come forth
to rule Israel for Me -
one whose origin is from old,
from ancient times.”
(Micah 5:1 JPS)

This verse has become a treasured verse for Christians at Christmastime because of its quotation by chief priests and scribes in response to the magi’s question in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2: 2 – 6). But Matthew’s citation of this verse does just what we don’t want to do: it strips the words from their context. And, even though it is a treasured verse, part of a beloved story, we should ask-does Matthew’s use of the verse from Micah fit the context of the original passage? If we are willing to read carefully and critically we’ll probably conclude that, no, Matthew has not followed the context of Micah’s words (whether these are from Micah himself or from a later redactor or editor).

“No other chapter in scripture has been more abused by its friends than this. It is one of the scriptural sources of the Messianic hope that was to loom so large in post exilic Judaism. The tradition that Jesus came in fulfillment of this and other prophecies was so early and so deep a part of Christian tradition that it wrote itself into the Gospels…It is hard to believe that anyone who had actually read this chapter carefully could think it had any reference at all to the coming of Jesus Christ. There is little or nothing in common between its central theme and anything he did or said. Actually the gospel records claim only that Bethlehem was the ordained birthplace of the one who was to be ruler in Israel. Once they have ‘established’ that by referencing vs. 2, they walk straight away from everything else in the chapter” (Bosley 930-1).

To put the passage back into context somewhat, we should go back and read through chapter 4. This long expected ruler would come during a time of great calamity and distress, during desecration and destruction, during a great siege by the Assyrians. And during this time the ruler of Israel would be struck on the cheek with a rod. (Micah 4:14)

In response to this the ruler, coming from the humble village of Bethlehem, would rise to power, bringing peace and security. He along with “seven shepherds” and “eight princes” (5: 4) will take the war to the Assyrians. They will invade Assyria and “shepherd Assyria with the sword, the country of Nimrod with the naked blade” (5: 5 NJB).

But does this sound like Jesus? Did Jesus, who was struck and beaten, disgraced by his enemies, take up swords and naked blades to make them pay for their insults and their abuse? Did he make peace by making war?

The more I read of Micah, the more I’m convinced that Matthew used the verse as a proof-text without regard for the context. And I don’t quite know what to do with this. “To lift this prophecy out of history…is to defy the historical element in the prophets. Yet, to obscure the Messianic thrust … is tantamount to defying the divine plan for Israel and the world” (Bullock 120-1).









Bosley, Harold A. “The Book of Micah: Exposition.” The Interpreters Bible: Volume 6. Nashville, TN: Abindon Press. 1956.

Bullock, C. Hassell. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books.  Chicago, IL: Moody Press. 1986.

Hillers, Delbert R. “Micah, Book of.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume IV. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992.


Simundson, Daniel J. “The Book of Micah.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume VII. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1996.

My Christmas Card to You

I don't usually send out Christmas cards; I've never really understood the tradition. But this year will be different. Frontier Press, the publisher of my book (Muted Hosannas), has printed up these Christmas cards to send out.

So, here you go- my Christmas card to you:

exterior:



interior:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Biblical Limericks: Micah Flubbed


The prophet Micah pronounced his call:
“Assyria’s coming to waste us all;
Zion will be rubble!”
But to burst your bubble-
he flubbed, Jerusalem didn’t fall.

Micah 3: 12

Midnight Cardinal

The local high school mascot is illuminated at night.

Midnight Cardinal by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Monday, December 14, 2015

Oh, Christmas Tree: Volume T(h)ree

During the last two years, some friends decided that, despite the gross commercialization of Christmas- the lights, fake Santas, tin trees, etc- they wanted to find a way to come together and enjoy the holiday spirit. So, spread out across the globe as they were, they reached a consensus that they would band together and bring gifts of song, laughter, and overall holiday feels to their friends and family through a Christmas compilation called Oh Christmas Trees.


This collection of off-beat Christmas music is a gift to you, your friends, and your enemies (should you have any).  Download and share. Enjoy.







The Glory Shone around Them...



The Glory Shone Around Them by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Biblical Limericks: Wrapped Up in Skin


The Word came to us wrapped up in skin,
the fullness of God’s glory within,
full of grace, he was true
with his glory in view,
the glory of Father God, even.

John 1:14

God’s Silent Song of Joy – An Advent Sermon


We’ve come now to the third Sunday of Advent – the Sunday usually marked for the subject of joy. In the first week we spoke of the coming messianic king, and the city where he rules, and the people of that community, as well as the name that they all (king, city, congregation) share–“Yahweh Is My Saving Justice.”  In the second week–last week–we spoke of another name, the name that God gives to his people forever, to the people who have wrapped themselves in the cloak of his saving justice–and that name is: “Peace through Justice, and Glory through Devotion.”

The first week’s sermon came from the writings of Jeremiah, and the second’s were attributed to (though not likely written by) Jeremiah’s sidekick and scribe, Baruch ben Neriah. In this third week we continue with another indirect connection to the prophet Jeremiah. Zephaniah, whose words we’ve read this morning, was a contemporary of Jeremiah.

However many biblical scholars believe that the portion of Zephaniah’s book that we’re looking at this morning (3:14 – 20) was added later by a student or disciple of the prophet. “Current study tends to assign the greater part of the book to the 7th century prophet, recognizing that the book may have been expanded in the exilic and post exilic periods” (Kselman 1078).  The two final psalms that bring this short prophetic book to a close bear significant differences from the rest of the words of the prophet–differences that may indicate another contributing author or editor.
However it was that the words came to us, we will speak, and sing, and shout for joy today:

“Shout for joy, daughter of Zion,
Israel, shout aloud!
Rejoice, exult with all your heart,
daughter of Jerusalem.”
(Zephaniah 3:14, NJB)

This extended holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve–which encompasses Advent and Christmas (as well as numerous holidays in other religious traditions) is often described as a season of joy. It is bright and cheerful. We put up trees, and wreathes, and decorations, and lights to warm our hearts against the cold winter winds and blowing snow (of which, we’ve had very little this year…).

We sing: “Joy to the World,” (Watts) and “Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn, a Savior unto us is born” (Boye). We sing: “Once again my heart rejoices as I hear, far and near, sweetest angel voices; ‘Christ is born,’ their choirs are singing, till the air ev’rywhere now with joy is ringing” (Gerhardt).

It is a time of festivities and parties, a time of celebration and joy.  We give gifts and eat special cookies. We gather with family and enjoy ourselves.

But, for many, the holiday season is not all warmth, and smiles, and Christmas joy. There is grief, and pain just below the surface. There is loneliness and weariness. It’s not often recognized but holiday depression is a very real thing. Though it is a myth that suicide rates increase during the Christmas season (Burton) many individuals feel socially isolated from their peers who seem to be enjoying themselves so much. Those who have lost a spouse or partner often find the holidays especially difficult to endure. And even those who usually find joy and good cheer during this time of year, may find themselves troubled by the news of the world. The days seem dark and the nights very long. Joy, for many of us, is hard to see. The song of Joy is difficult to hear.

I’ve said for the past two weeks that the season of Advent is a time of expectation, a time of preparation, and anticipation. We are looking forward to the joyful celebration of Christ’s coming–both the celebration of his coming as an infant in Bethlehem as well as his glorious coming again. But before we move forward into that joy it is important (and necessary) to look backwards first. Before we can go forward in anticipation of that great joy, we should look back to see where we’ve been.

Our text, these final two psalms of joy in Zephaniah’s book, is addressed to the Jewish exiles who’d been taken away into Babylonian captivity. These psalms bring a hopeful epilogue to a book otherwise focused on the judgement and destruction of the dark and dreadful “Day of the Lord.” But the coming of the day of Lord was, for Zephaniah, not only a time of grim punishment for the wicked –both in Judah and in the nations around – but also a day of salvation and restoration. It was both Retribution and Redemption. (DiGangi 99)

After the extravagant destruction of the city of Jerusalem, after the plundering and razing of Solomon’s temple, after long years of exile in a strange and distant land, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the people of Israel were encouraged to sing and rejoice because their time of trouble was over, their shame was lifted, their sentence repealed. They would go home again. They would stand on the hills and watch their children, once forcibly scattered, come back from the various places they had been taken.

Shout for joy, daughter of Zion,
Israel, shout aloud!
Rejoice, exult with all your heart,
daughter of Jerusalem.
(Zephaniah 3:14 NJB)

But even better than the opportunity to go home again.  Even greater than the restoration of their abducted children. Even greater than these things – they were to sing and shout for joy because Yahweh, their saving God and King would be there with them, would be there among them.

In his vision of the city of Jerusalem, just before its destruction, the prophet Ezekiel saw the Cherubim, those winged creatures that carry the heavenly throne of God, rise up from the center of the city, and “with the glory of the God of Israel” depart from Jerusalem. (Ezekiel 11: 22 – 23).  In another apocalyptic book attributed to (but not written by) Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch is said to have heard a voice crying out from the abandoned temple:

“Enter, you enemies,
And come, you adversaries;
For he who kept the house has forsaken (it).”
(2 Baruch / Apocalypse of Baruch 8:2)

The people of Israel, the chosen people felt abandoned by God-forsaken, left to wither away and die in the despair of their Babylonian exile. But, after so many long years, the prophet tells them to Rejoice! You’re going home. Rejoice, your children are coming back to you. But most of all: Rejoice because God is with you.

When that Day comes the message for Jerusalem will be:
Zion, have no fear,
do not let your hands fall limp.
Yahweh your God is there with you,
the warrior-Savior.
(Zephaniah 3:16 NJB)

And, what is more, He will be rejoicing too.  He will be singing happy songs (Zephaniah 3:17 NJB)

But this is where the message gets a little difficult. The Hebrew of the text is fairly clear with its words, but what to make of them is problematic; which is why you’ll find such variety when you compare the various translations of Zephaniah 3: 17.

The Hebrew of that verse says: “He will be silent in his love.”

He will sing happy songs with the returning remnant of Israel – but he will be silent with his love. His song is a silent song. Some translations, like the KJV, take a different tack to this verse and translate it as “He will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly.” If the words are clear, the meaning is uncertain.

But I like to try to hold both of these possible translations together in my head. He will gather the sorrowful together for a solemn assembly / he will sing (silent) happy songs of love over the returnees.

There is joy in this holiday season. There is joy in the advent preparation for Christmas. But sometimes that joy is hard to find. Sometimes that song of love is hard to hear.

I think of the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”- which was based on a poem by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow-written during the sorrowful years of the American civil war. Longfellow’s wife had recently died, and his eldest son, Charles, had run off to join the union army without his father’s permission or blessing. It was only a few months before Charles was severely wounded in battle. And for the poet, the world seemed very bleak. The bells rang out on Christmas day, but there was no joy in their song.

“And in despair I bowed my head:
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men.’”

For the people living in great darkness, under the shadow of death (Luke 1:79) the light of dawn seems very far away, and that song of joy is hard to hear. The people of Israel languishing in exile felt abandoned by God, lost in their darkness; they could not hear the song. African born slaves on plantations in the American south, listened for that song. People who’ve lost their husband or wife, or their children, listen hopefully for that strains of that song. Refugees fleeing the outbreak of war in their home countries cannot hear that song over the noise of explosions and gunfire. But God is singing a song of love for his people-great happy songs for those he loves.

The darkness of the world seems ready to swallow up the light of God’s presence. The noise and clatter of the events of our lives can drown out the music of God’s love for us. It is easy to despair. It is easy to give up, to say that God has given up on us, on me. It is easy to say we are lost and alone. Hate is strong and it mocks the song of love and joy and peace and goodwill.

But God is drawing those sorrowful people together for a solemn assembly. He is drawing us together with himself to sing for us and to us and over us.

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, good will to men.’”
(Longfellow)

We are joyful because God is with us. This is the reason for the season: that God has come down and dwelt among us, has made his home, his temple within us. We rejoice because God is with us, even when his silent song of love is difficult to hear. We rejoice, even in our despair. We find hope and joy in God’s eternal, abiding presence.

In the dark shadows of our lives-God is with us. In the noisy clamor of our struggle-God is with us. He is bringing the light of hope and a song of love to the sorrowful people that he has gathered to himself for a solemn assembly. He sings this happy, silent, song of love into our hearts. And we sing and rejoice because he is here.

O come now, Living Water, pour your grace,
and bring new life to every withered place;
speak comfort to each trembling heart:
“Be strong! Fear not, for I will ne’er depart.”

Rejoice! Rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

(Lundblad)



Boye, Birgitte K. “Rejoice, Rejoice This Happy Morn.”

Burton, Neel, “Is Suicide More Common at Christmas Time: Seven Myths about Suicide.” Pscyhologytoday.com, December 23, 2012. 

DiGangi, Mariano. 12 Prophetic Voices: Major Messages from the Minor Prophets. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. 1989.

Gerhardt, Paul. “Once Again My Heart Rejoices.”

Longfellow, Henry Wordsworth. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” 

Lundblad, Barbara K. “O Come, O Come Immanuel”  

Kselman, John S. “Zephaniah, Book of” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. IV. New York, NY: Doubleday. 1992.

New Jerusalem Bible. New York, NY. Doubleday. 1999.


Watts, Isaac, “Joy to the World.” 

The Flight of Christmas Stars


"Bright and glorious is the sky,
radiant are the heavens high
where the golden stars are shining.
All their rays to earth inclining
beckon us to heav'n above,
beckon us to heav'n above."

-Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, (1783 - 1872)

The Flight of Christmas Stars by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Friday, December 11, 2015

God’s Silent Song of Joy


“Sing!” says the prophet,
“Sing and shout in great rounds of joy-
psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs,
chants, and raps, and choruses
of festal joy.

For the king who is above all
is, above all,
among you.”

And this king of rich justice sings too;
rejoicing over us with happy songs,
dancing festival dances
with whoops of joy.

But

He will be silent in his love,
gathering them that are bruised,
and those who grieve
for solemn assembly.


(Zephaniah 3: 14 – 18)

Flowers of Light

I used a macro attachment to photograph the glowing 'branches' of a fiber optic Christmas tree to create a field Flowers of Light.

Flowers of Light by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Thursday, December 10, 2015

There Were No Innkeepers in the Story (A Christmas Counting Song)


The other day I had a bit of an ear-worm: the song "Five Green and Speckled Frogs," for whatever reason, lodged itself in my brain and would not go away. Over and over and over again it played in my mind. So, in an attempt to drive it away, I wrote my own little children's counting song to be sung at Christmas.

You are welcome to it.








This song is included on the O, Christmas Trees: Volume T(h)ree collection. It's an eclectic collection of traditional, offbeat, maudlin, humorous, and original Christmas music, and well worth the free download. (And I don't say that just because my song is in it.)








Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Christmas of Crows, a Carol of Birds


A Christmas of crows, perched in the wind
on telephone wires, with black feathered wing;
their bleak carols over lonely fields bend,
“caw” for his coming, take flight for the king.

Fly finches, and sparrows, and small wrens,
with each of their melodies fluttering;
for with Advent a new year begins
and their bright carols and hymns we will sing.



There is also a traditional Catalan carol "Carol of the Birds."






Nativity (Rembrandt Lighting)

Last night I attempted something like Rembrandt lighting for a still life photograph with some nativity figurines.

Nativity (Rembrant Lighting) by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Monday, December 7, 2015

Doctor Who Christmas Carols

The other day I posted a short list of Xmas mashup songs I'd like to hear. Today I'm sharing a list of Doctor Who Christmas Carols that need to be sung:



Ood Christian Men, Rejoice
God Rest Ye Merry Cybermen
Silence Night
Do You Know the River Song that the Angels Sang?
Weeping Angels from the Realms of Glory
Frosty the Snowmen
The Boe's Face Carol
Ood King Wenceslas

*Edit: My friend, Deb, has suggested:

O Little Town in Gallifrey

**2nd Edit (because I have clever friends, and because this one now seems obvious):

Dalek the Halls

***3rd Edit

Autons from the Realms of Rory

Christmas Sparkle Spiral 4



Christmas Sparkle Spiral by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Hope

There's a small spark of hope, yet...

A Spark of Hope by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Peace through Justice, Glory through Devotion - An Advent Sermon


In last week’s sermon for the first week of Advent drawn from the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, I spoke about the name of the anticipated messianic king, the name of the city where he would rule, and the name of the congregation that is assembled there. That name, we discovered, is: “The Lord is my Vindicator” (JPS) or “The Lord is my Righteousness” (NRSV) or “The Lord is my Saving Justice” (NJB).

I want to continue this second week of Advent thinking about longing, and about new names and justice. We’ll also continue our connection with the prophet Jeremiah, though only from a distance. One of the texts we’re looking at this morning is from Baruch 5: 1 – 9, part of what is known by Protestants as “the apocrypha” and by Roman Catholics as “the Deuterocanonical books.” It is attributed to Baruch ben Neriah (Baruch 1:1 /Jeremiah 43:6) who was the prophet Jeremiah’s amanuensis, that is: Jeremiah’s secretary, scribe, and sidekick. But most biblical scholars doubt that the historical Baruch[i] is the author of the book apocryphal / deuterocanonical book that bears his name. It seems to have been written much later.

I said last week that while Advent is a season of anticipation, of looking forward, in order to do so we need to go backwards first. And so we will.  The book claims to have been written five years after the Jewish people were conquered by the Babylonians and taken into exile and is intended to call the people to repentance, to pray for mercy, to encourage them to seek wisdom, and to give them hope for the future. As I said, however, it is unlikely that the book was actually written at that time. “The Babylonian exile was not a living reality for the author or editor of Baruch. Rather, it was a theological context for reflection on the covenant between God and Israel” (Goff 73).

And we will read it as such, for, like the Jewish people in Babylonian exile, and like those of the actual author’s time, we feel the encompassing darkness of despair and hopelessness. We are afraid. We worry about the future. In the cold December of our lives, the hopeless time of sin when shadows deep have fallen (Hawhee) we need comfort. We need joy. We need hope.

The world around us seems to be crumbling, shaking itself apart in paroxysm of doom, and violent outbursts of rage and destruction. We are a people in perpetual mourning as the news continues to bring us report after report of murder and mayhem. Churches are bombed; mosques are vandalized; synagogues are defaced. Children are shot in the streets. Bombs explode in cities around the world. Bombs are dropped on countries around the globe. Machines of war roll through the rubble of smoldering cities chasing millions of frightened refugees from homes. We lower our flags and hang our heads and we despair because the world has gone mad.

We are people who “live in darkness and the shadow dark as death” (Luke 1:79 NJB).

If we are frightened by world around us, who could blame us? We want to be safe. We want to be secure in our homes. We want our families to be protected and defended from danger. And the world is full of danger: many that we know, many more that we may not know. We want peace. We want to live in peace, but peace, like dawn, seems very far away to the people living in darkness and the shadows of death.

We want peace. We want to live in peace.  And in the long ages of the earth, one method of achieving peace has been tried and taught and tested over and over again. And even though it has failed to ever achieve peace, it continues with us. This age old idea is that peace can be achieved through strength, that peace can be maintained through superior firepower. President Theodore Roosevelt was neither the first, nor the last to utilize a “big stick ideology.” He wrote in his autobiography that “… a proper armament is the surest guarantee of peace” (Roosevelt), and in ancient Rome they said, “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” – If you want peace, prepare for war. The idea is the same.

But the big stick idea of “peace through strength” or “peace through superior firepower” has never really achieved peace anywhere in its long history.  The Motto of the United States’ Strategic Air Command “Peace through Strength, Victory through Devastation” is not very different than the words recorded by the Roman historian, Tacitus: “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace” (Tacitus).

But this isn’t peace. Not really. It is violence. It is war. It is fear, not peace. It is destruction and devastation. It makes only desert and desolation. It is all those things we say that we don’t want. Most people will usually agree with General William Tecumseh Sherman, who said that “War is hell.” But when we’re frightened or angered or threatened, we’re quick to pick up our weapons and go willingly into that hell and to unleash that hell on those we perceive to be our enemies.

But this is not peace. And if it does result in a cessation of warfare, it does not last. The defeated party suffers death and devastation; they are angry and humiliated and despairing. They may surrender in defeat, but they are not at peace. And the victors may receive the spoils of war, but they can never relax. Their strength must be vigilantly maintained. That firepower must be renewed incessantly. Vast resources must be consumed in order to maintain a paranoid level of preparedness – ever watchful, ready to inflict death and destruction, ready to unleash the next round of hell on earth. This is not peace. This is not freedom from fear.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke today (Luke 1: 68-79) is the priest Zechariah’s words to his infant son, John, who would grow up to become John the Baptizer. Zechariah said to his boy:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited his people, he has set them free,
and he has established for us a saving power
in the House of his servant David,
just as he proclaimed,
by the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient times,
that he would save us from our enemies
and from the hands of all those who hate us,
and show faithful love to our ancestors
and so keep in mind his holy covenant.
This was the oath that he swore
to our father Abraham,
that he would grant us, free from fear,
to be delivered from the hands of our enemies,
to serve him in holiness and uprightness
in his presence all our days.
And you, little child,
you shall be called Prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord
to prepare a way for him,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the faithful love of our God
in which the rising Sun has come from on high to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow dark as death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
(Luke 1: 68 – 79 NJB)

This is what we want, right? To be delivered from our enemies, without fear, to be saved from the hands of those who hate us. This is what we want, right? To have the fearful darkness of our lives dispelled by the rising Sun who guides our feet into the way of peace.

This is what we say that we want. But I’m not sure that we mean it.

Instead of peace we are pursuing war. As a nation we spend trillions for an ever expanding military preparedness, and as individuals we purchase more and more powerful firearms. On this most recent “Black Friday” (November 27, 2015) alone, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) performed 185,345 background checks on those individuals purchasing firearms. That’s enough to equip an army (Owens). We say that we want peace but we are preparing for war.

“Peace with a club in hand,” says an old proverb “is war.”[ii] This is not peace. The world has been making wastelands and calling it peace for millennia. It is time to say enough. We are tired of the desert. We are tired of the devastation. It’s time to say, “I’m going to lay down my sword and shield and study war no more” (Down by the Riverside) because peace through strength has not brought us peace.

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh,
to the house of the God of Jacob
that he may teach us his ways
so that we may walk in his paths.”
For the Law will issue from Zion
and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.
Then he will judge between the nations
and arbitrate between many peoples.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into sickles.
Nation will not lift sword against nation,
no longer will they learn how to make war.
Isaiah 2: 3-4 (NJB)

In our text from the Apocryphal Baruch we read these words of hope:

Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress,
put on the beauty of God’s glory for evermore,
wrap the cloak of God’s saving justice around you,
put the diadem of the Eternal One’s glory on your head,
for God means to show your splendor to every nation under heaven,
and the name God gives you for evermore will be,
“Peace-through-Justice, and Glory-through-Devotion.”
Arise, Jerusalem, stand on the heights
and turn your eyes to the east:
see your children reassembled from west and east
at the Holy One’s command, rejoicing because God has remembered.
Though they left you on foot
driven by enemies,
now God brings them back to you,
carried gloriously, like a royal throne.
For God has decreed the flattening
of each high mountain, of the everlasting hills,
the filling of the valleys to make the ground level
so that Israel can walk safely in God’s glory.
And the forests and every fragrant tree will provide shade
for Israel, at God’s command;
for God will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory,
with the mercy and saving justice which come from him.
(Baruch 5: 1-9 NJB)

Last week we spoke about the coming of that messianic king, and the city and the people of the congregation whose name is “The Lord is our Vindicator” or “The Lord is our Salvation” or “Yahweh is our Saving Justice.” And we want that to be our name. We want to be that city of righteousness. We want to be that holy people. Just was we want the new name in this week’s reading: “Peace through Justice”

In his new year’s day message for the celebration of the day of peace in 1972, Pope Paul VI said, “"If you want Peace, work for Justice” (Pope Paul VI).  This is how peace is made. Not through bigger and more powerful and more abundant weapons. More guns will not make peace between us and our enemies. More tanks, more bombs, more missiles will not bring us peace to the earth.

There is no Peace without Justice.

Do we want to live at peace and security? Then we must pursue justice. We must put down our weapons and work for righteousness. We must stop threatening each other and begin to work for the good of everyone. This is how you make a lasting peace that is something more than the devastation and ruin of the desert. 

We must put off the garments of sorrow and distress and fear and put on the new clothes that God has for us; we must wrap ourselves in the cloak of God’s justice. Justice for everyone. There can be no exploitation of the weak, there cannot be two standards of justice-one for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and marginalized, in this beautiful city called “Peace-through-Justice, and Glory-through-Devotion.” The people of God, who really and truly want peace, must not be ready and waiting to call down fire from heaven, to unleash hell on their enemies.  The people of God will seek justice – even for their enemies, so that there will be no cause for them to be enemies.

This is true and lasting peace, without fear, without the shadow of death hanging overhead.

We are to be, during this season of Advent, preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus, both in our celebration of his birth in Bethlehem and in his glory at the end of all things. But how are we to prepare for the coming of the prince of peace if we are still preparing for war?

In a recent morning mediation, Pope Francis said: “Jesus weeps, because we have chosen the way of war, the way of hatred, the way of hostility. This is even more glaring now that we are approaching Christmas: there will be lights, there will be celebrations, trees lit up, even nativity scenes... all decorated: the world continues to wage war, to wage wars. The world has not comprehended the way of peace.” (Pope Francis)

This Advent season, when the world around us seems lost in the darkness of death and fear and perpetual war, let us begin the dawning of a new light, the light of God. Let us work for justice-in our homes, in our cities, in our states, in our nation. Let our name be: “Peace-through-Justice, and Glory-through-Devotion.” Do we want to, as the slogan says, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Then let us begin even now during this time of Advent. Let’s put down our weapons and build up that city of Righteousness with justice for all. We will be fair, acting without discrimination, without hatred and without fear. This is how to celebrate Christmas. This is how to make peace.

Let us bring Glory to God in the highest heaven and make peace on earth (Luke 2: 14). 








Federal Bureau of Investigation. "NICS Firearm Background Checks Top 10 Highest Days."

Goff, Matthew. “Baruch” The Oxford Encyclopeida of the Books of the Bible.  Oxford.
Oxford University Press.  2011.

Hawhee, Howard (translator) “Cold December Flies Away” – Catalonian Christmas Carol.

New Jerusalem Bible. New York, NY. Doubleday. 1999.

Pope Francis. “The Way of Peace.” Vatican. November 19, 2015. 

Pope Paul VI. “If You Want Peace, Work forJustice.” Vatican.  January 1, 19712. 

Roosevelt, Theodore. Theodore Roosevelt: an Autobiography. 1913.

Tacitus. Agricola. Oxford Revised Translation. 1897.




[i] And Historical he may have been. In 1975 a clay bullah (an impression of a seal in clay) was found with the inscription, “[belonging to] Baruch son of Neriyahu the scribe.” The authenticity of this find is debated, but the potential is certainly there.

[ii] Described across the internets as a “Portuguese proverb” but I can’t find an authoritative source.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Biblical Limericks: One of the Lost Books


So you want to know ‘bout Hez’kiah
and you’ve read through the Bible, no d’uh!
If more info you need
you have only to read
the lost Book of the Kings of Judah.

2 Kings 20:20

The Book of the Kings of Judah may be lost, but a bullah (that is, the impression in clay of a royal seal) bearing the name of King Hezekiah has been found. 


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Whoa!




Kettle Helpers

I was out playing my Trombone at one of our Salvation Army Red Kettles yesterday. It was a cold, rainy day, but these two kids didn't care. They joined in by ringing bells and dancing around as I played. Whoo hoo and why not?

You can support the Salvation Army of Newton, Iowa / Jasper County by contributing at any of our kettles at local stores, or by contributing online via this handy-dandy virtual kettle. Your contributions will help us help others in this community all year round.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Do Not Be Afraid

Cheesy Christmas decorations and hallmark cards aside, if the first thing that angels in the bible always say is, "Fear Not!" isn't it likely that biblical angels were fairly frightening?

Do Not Be Afraid by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Rainy November Night Lights

I went out last night, after watching The Walking Dead with my family, after finishing my homework, and after a final cup of coffee, to walk around in the near freezing rain. Why? Photography, of course.

Rainy November Night Lights by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Rainy November Night Lights by Jeff Carter on 500px.com

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Biblical Limericks: Poultice of Fig


The king was fatally ill, you dig?
So he prayed a prayer, quick as a jig.
Isaiah the prophet,
announced, “He’s healed, you bet,
but smear him with a poultice of fig.”

2 Kings 20: 1 - 7

Its Name, His Name, Our Name - An Advent Sermon


A few weeks ago, I made a detour from the standard lectionary readings to spend a few weeks preaching from the Confessional passages of Jeremiah. That was a good thing and I was glad to do it, but I was relieved to return to the lectionary texts when that series was done. Jeremiah may be one of my favorites, but he’s better in small doses; he can be a bit overwhelming. So, I was amused when the lectionary texts chosen for this first week of Advent brought be back to the prophet Jeremiah.

“See, days are coming-declares the LORD-when I will fulfill the promise that I made concerning the House of Israel and the House of Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a true branch of David’s line, and he shall do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And this is what she shall be called: “The LORD is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16 JPS)

This will be an Advent sermon, yes, leading us to think about the coming of Jesus, preparing our hearts for Christmas, and leading us forward into greater hope for the future, but in order to get there we need to go back to the days of the prophet Jeremiah and the last King of Judah, King Zedekiah. In order to go forward, we need to go backward.

Zedekiah, the third son of the good king, Josiah, was given the name Mattaniah “gift of Yahweh” at birth. His father, the good king, the young king Josiah, was killed on the field of battle against Pharaoh Necho. Necho first appointed Mattaniah’s brother Jehoahaz the puppet king of Judah, but he only ruled for three months before being deposed by Pharaoh Necho, and imprisoned. Jehoahaz was replaced by the other brother, Jehoiakim. But, according to the historians who composed the books of Kings, he also “did what was displeasing to the LORD” and only ruled for 11 unpleasant years. Jehoiakim’s rule was brought to an end by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Jehoiakim died during the Babylonian siege of the city of Jerusalem and his body was thrown outside the walls (Jeremiah 22:19). Jehoiakim was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin–but only briefly. After three months and ten days, Jehoiachin, along with 3,000 of the leading citizens and officials of Judah were taken away into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. 

Jehoiachin was succeeded by his uncle, Mattaniah-now renamed Zedekiah by King Nebuchadnezzar.
During his time as king-as puppet king, answerable to Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah was not criticized by the prophet Jeremiah, as his nephew and brothers had been. But this isn’t to say that he was a good king. His new name, Zedekiah, means “My Righteousness is Yahweh;” Zedekiah, however, never quite lived up to the import of that name.

He was a weak king-but this isn’t entirely his fault. His father, Josiah, had attempted to rule between the rock and the hard place between two powerful empires, Egypt and Babylon, and was squashed. His brothers and nephew had flip flopped their allegiances, trying to preserve the little nation of Judah’s independence. But they could not. And when Jehoiachin and the court officials were taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, 21 year old Zedekiah was left without any experienced political advisors. Jeremiah described those who were left as “bad figs.” (Jeremiah 24)  Zedekiah was never accepted as the legitimate king of Judah; even after he was taken away into captivity, the people still considered Jehoiachin as their rightful king.

Jeremiah repeatedly counseled the desperate king to bite the bullet and to surrender fully and completely to Nebuchadnezzar, to accept the inevitable. But the bad fig advisors in Zedekiah’s court and the people of Judah still insisted on trying to make a go of it. Zedekiah felt unable to accept Jeremiah’s advice, and the bad fig advisors pushed the weak king to try to hold out against the Babylonians, by making an alliance with Egypt again. (Althann 1069) Nebuchadnezzar responded, as you would expect, with force. The Babylonian army came and laid siege to the city again and during those 30 months the city experienced the worst sorts of woes and every desperate depravity. Before the city was captured, Zedekiah and his family attempted to escape, but they were captured and taken to King Nebuchadnezzar. Zedekiah’s sons were executed in front of him and then his eyes were gouged out so that the last thing he ever saw was their gruesome deaths.

The city of Jerusalem was razed to the ground. Solomon’s Temple was plundered and destroyed; its treasures were taken away to Babylon. And the rest of the people of Judah were taken into captivity; only a few–of the poorest people of the land-were left. This is where we must begin when we consider the words of the prophet spoken during the final year of Zedekiah’s troubled kingship.

“See, days are coming-declares the LORD-when I will fulfill the promise that I made concerning the House of Israel and the House of Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a true branch of David’s line, and he shall do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And this is what she [the city of Jerusalem] shall be called: “The LORD is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16 JPS)

Ever the ironic prophet, Jeremiah preached imminent doom and destruction during years of prosperity, now the destruction he’d prophesied was near at hand (indeed, the army was camped just outside the walls) and he’s speaking of blessing, of salvation and restoration and security.
In this darkest hour, Jeremiah anticipates the coming of a “true branch” (JPS) a “righteous branch” (NRSV) – “the Righteous Branch” (KJV).  But this is no eschatological, world conquering hero. (Hyatt 988) He is not a military leader to ride into battle against the Babylonians, to fight in armed combat against Israel and Judah’s enemies. This Davidic scion would bring salvation and security through his righteousness. The Hebrew word “Righteous” here is “zedek” and is probably intended as a play on the name of the failure king. King Zedekiah did not live up to the righteous expectations of his name. But the word also implies “rightful” and “lawful” and “legitimate,” another dig at Zedekiah, “whose name suggests legitimacy-but who [was], in fact, a Babylonian vassal” (Brake 776).

The hope that Jeremiah sees in the future for Judah and for Israel is a good and rightful king who is a legitimate descendent of David, and who will rule in justice and righteousness. This would be Judah’s deliverance. This would be Israel’s security.  And it is because of this justice and righteousness that the city of Jerusalem would become known as “the Lord is our Vindicator” (JPS)

Other translations give the city’s name as:
“The LORD is our Righteousness” (KJV, NRSV)
“The LORD gives Justice” (CEV)
“The LORD is our Salvation” (GNT)
“God Has Set Things Right For Us” (The Message)

The city that had become a “horror-an evil-to all the kingdoms of the earth, a disgrace and a proverb, a byword and a curse” (Jeremiah 24: 9 JPS) in its utter destruction at the hands of the Babylonians would in days to come become such a wonderful place that it is called by God’s own name, known as the place of Yahweh’s Righteousness, the place of the LORD’s Saving Justice.  Its name would be “The LORD is our Vindicator.” Its name would be “The LORD is our Salvation,” “the Lord is our Justice,” “our Righteousness.”

I said that before we can go forward, we need to go backward. And here, as we’re just beginning to look forward with longing to the coming of this Righteous Branch, this good and righteous Davidic King who would bring restoration and security to the city of Jerusalem, we need to go backward a little bit further.

The passage chosen for us by those who established the standard lectionary readings (Jeremiah 33: 14-16) actually quotes from an earlier section of Jeremiah with a small, but not insignificant, difference.  In Jeremiah 23: 5 – 6 it says:

“See, a time is coming-declares the LORD-when I will raise up a true branch of David’s line. He shall reign as king and shall prosper, and he shall do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And this is the name by which he shall be called: “The LORD is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 23: 5 – 6 JPS)

Did you note the difference? In 33: 14 – 16 it is the city of Jerusalem that will be known as “The LORD is our Vindicator” or “The LORD is our Righteousness” but in the earlier passage (earlier in the book as well as earlier in the book’s sometimes disordered chronology) it is the righteous king himself who will be known by that divine epithet. The emphasis in this earlier prophecy is on the man; in the latter the emphasis is on the city.  The earlier passage is more “messianic” (though messianism is not really prevalent in the whole of Jeremiah’s writing. Only a few passages in his book could arguably be considered messianic: 23: 5 – 6 / 33: 14 – 16, 30: 8 -9, and 33:17.)[i]

I thought it odd that the lectionary reading for this first Sunday of the Advent season would take the less messianic passage. It seems like a no brainer, to me anyway. If we want to start our thinking towards the coming king of Israel, the messianic king, the prince of peace, the great desire of nations, the righteous branch, the noble son of David that brings Saving Justice to the whole world, why not, when you have the choice between two very similar readings, go with the one that puts clear emphasis on the One whose name is “The LORD is our righteousness”?

But while the Advent season (despite all the indications to the contrary, it is not Christmas season yet…) does prompt us to anticipate the coming of that “Rose e’er blooming”, that “flow’ret bright” (Baker) of Jesse’s lineage – both in his coming as a child in Bethlehem and his glorious eschatological coming, Advent also prompts us to anticipate the coming of that King of Israel’s kingdom, the coming of the New Jerusalem, the coming of heaven to earth.

When the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, they plundered the Temple of Solomon and carried off its many treasures as the booty and spoils of war. But the Ark of the Covenant was lost. Did it go to Babylon? Was it destroyed during the siege? Was it carried off to Ethiopia? Or Egypt? No one knows. One legend says that the prophet Jeremiah, having been warned of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, snuck the Ark out of the temple and hid it in a cave on Mount Nebo. (2 Maccabees 2: 4 – 10) No one really knows.

But the prophet Jeremiah wouldn’t have been concerned by its absence. He envisioned a time when “men shall no longer speak of the Ark of Covenant of the LORD,” when it would not even come to mind. The people would not “mention it, or miss it, or make another.” It would be a time when Jerusalem became the “throne of the LORD” and all nations would assemble there in the name of the Lord. (Jeremiah 3: 16 – 17 JDS)

The Medieval French Rabbi known as Rashi, commenting on this passage, said it would be a time when the whole assembly was so imbued with the spirit of sanctity and righteousness that God’s presence would rest upon the congregation as if they were themselves the Ark of God’s Covenant. (Rashi)

We are to be this congregation. This is to be our name.

“Sing choirs of New Jerusalem
Your sweetest notes employ;
the paschal victory to hymn
in songs of holy joy!”

(Cambell)

In the New Testament John, imprisoned on the island of Patmos, saw a revelatory vision of temple of heaven opened, “and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.” (Revelation 11:19 NRSV)

And where is this heaven? Where is this kingdom? Where is this city so righteous that its name, and the name of its king, and the name of its assembled congregation is “The LORD Is our Righteousness”?  Do we anticipate it? Do we desire to see it? Do we long for it?  This advent season is a time to consider the coming kingdom of God.

But not merely to think about it in abstract meditation. We are not merely longing for it with some vague wistful hope. Do we want to, as the slogan says, “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Then let us begin even now during this time of Advent. That Righteous Branch and his Heavenly Kingdom are not far removed from us as they were in Jeremiah’s day. For the Kingdom has come and is among us. I’ve frequently quoted William Booth, the founder and first General of The Salvation Army who said, “Making heaven on earth is our business.” (Booth)

Do we long for that Righteous Branch and the city of God? Then work for justice and righteousness. Put away all violence and warring. Feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned. This is the kingdom of God; this is making heaven on earth. Do we want our name to be “The LORD is our Saving Justice”?  Then do good, and be good. Make peace. Make love. Make joy. And God’s holy presence will dwell upon us, and we will live in peace and security.

“How bright appears the Morning Star,
with mercy beaming from afar;
the host of heaven rejoices.
O Righteous Branch, O Jesse’s Rod,
the Son of Man and Son of God!
We too will lift our voices:
Jesus, Jesus, holy, holy
yet most lowly, come, draw near us;
great Immanuel, come and hear us.

(Mercer)

Lord, Make our name, “The LORD is our Righteousness.” Amen.



Althann, Robert. “Zedekiah” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 6. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.
Baker, Theodore – translation. “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming” (German Traditional) 1894.

Booth, William. “Don’t Forget” 1910.

Bracke, John M. “Branch” The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol. 1. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.

Cambell, Robert. “Sing, Choirs of New Jerusalem”

Hyatt, James Philip. “Jeremiah: Exegesis” The Interpreters Bible Vol. 5. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956.

Mercer, William. “How Bright Appears the Morning Star.” 1859

Rashi 

Wassink, Matthew W. “A Biblical Theology of ‘RighteousBranch’ in Jeremiah 33” 




[i] There is the difficulty, however, that 33:14 – 16 is not included in the LXX Greek translation of Jeremiah. So the question is: “is it more likely that an authentic passage was deleted from the LXX translation or that an un-authentic one was added to the MT?” (Wassink 2) Either way, for the purposes of this sermon we will accept the text as we have it, with both passages.
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