Advent 3: “Home” Through the Wilderness

Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water.  When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” – Exodus 15:22-24

National-Lampoons-Vacatio-001Back in the 1980’s there was a popular movie called “Vacation” staring Chevy Chase.  It chronicled the Griswald family vacation as they journeyed across the United States to an amusement park called Wally World.  Of course a movie wouldn’t have much appeal if it was a simple A to Z sort of journey.  This story includes the wrong ugly station wagon (is there another kind?), teenagers embarrassed by their un-cool parents (is there another kind?), visits with strange cousins Catherine and Eddie, the unwanted travelling addition of Aunt Edna (who has the nerve of dying on the trip), the cruel death of a dog and when they finally arrive at Wally World, wouldn’t you know.. it’s closed.  Only a movie can make any of these things funny, in reality these events would make us cry.

The Israelite journey sometimes reminds me of the Griswald family vacations in that it often has a “if it can go wrong, it will” sort of feel to it.  But because it isn’t a movie, it isn’t that funny.  Consider the Israelite journey leading to Exodus 15:

God calls Abram out of comfort to be a nomad. – Abram and Sarah have to wait a century for children. – A re-enforced a barrenness plan is thrust upon subsequent generations. – The lying twin named Jacob with a reputation for crooked choices is the chosen one. – The family is saved from famine through Egyptian enemies. – Salvation eventually turns into slavery through an Egyptian pyramid scheme (okay I couldn’t resist sliding that in) – God listens to the cries of the people and raises up a heroic leader named Moses. – Powerful plagues give witness to God’s control over creation. – The people are freed from slavery and they walk through the Red Sea on dry ground. – The people party like it’s 1446 BC.

82Keller.qxdAnd so they begin to make their way to the Promised land.  Three days later…3 days…and they begin to grumble about a lack of food. If you consider what they’ve just witnessed it seems unbelievable.  Over the course of their wilderness journey we read in Exodus that the Israelites grumbled at least 19 times, 5 of those times in the first month after they walked through the Red Sea.  They are such a bunch of ungrateful, short sighted, egotistical, and selfish people.

complain lemonsExcept that none of us are ready to call them that are we?  For we know we are a people who can wake up in the morning to a ray of sunshine, but when our toast burns we’re already mumbling about a crummy start to our day.  We get to study in world class universities, but an 8 o’clock class has us cursing the schedule maker.  Our kids can play happily for an hour, but in the one-minute that they choose to go in the forbidden cupboard, we let out an exasperated yelp of frustration because “you kids never listen!”  And these are only the day-to-day matters.  What about when it comes to weightier matters of faith and life.  We can have freedom to come and go as we please and live a lifestyle that is by most standards around the world abundantly rich, yet when the stock market dips we feel hard done by.  We can have perfect health for fifty years and then when there is a medical hiccup we wonder why God would let this happen. Short-sightedness is not just an eye problem but a heart and soul problem, and it wasn’t a disease that only infected the ancient Israelites, it affects all of us today.  When we hear the people grumble and complain at the waters of Marah, which means bitter, the reaction we should have is not one of self-righteousness, but rather it should humble us because we are looking in a mirror.  And sometimes we need to take a good look so that we are aware of just how ugly we can be.

Jordan-wilderness-e1324397675349It’s a good thing that no one in the Israelite camp had their own GPS tracking device because if they would have plugged in the coordinates of the Promised Land they likely would have been driven crazy by the little voice that says, “re-calculating.”  God’s takes them on a path through the wilderness that is not the easy route between Egypt and the Promised Land.  This tends to frustrate not only the Israelites, but we today as well, for we all tend to want to take the path of least resistance, the one that we can makes sense of, the one that we can control.  But our way “home” through the wilderness always seems aimed at getting us to let go of personal control.

The season of advent is a season in which we long for a perfect world, a beautiful place, we long for God to make all things right.  But we long for it because we very much understand that we are like the Israelites wandering in the desert.  We have days where it is so hot that you could fry an egg on our back, it’s so dusty you can taste it, our feet have blisters, our kids want to know how much further we have to go, and did we mention that it’s hot?  Our spouse doesn’t want to stop and ask for directions, the same diet of bread is getting old, the group in front of us has a nasty digestion problem, if you know what I mean, and did I mention that it’s really hot?  Yes we know what it means to walk the desert journey and we can find lots of things to complain about. smelly baby But advent is a time to remember that God’s ways and God’s timing are not ours. God’s journey…get this…includes using a baby to transform the world.  Babies cry, they need diaper changes, they sleep a lot (you hope), and they need constant care.  A baby is not a neat, clean, tidy and efficient way to redeem the world…but we know that eventually this baby shows what true life is all about…but that story takes time, it takes a lifetime.  And the baby needs to learn to walk before it can run.  And so do we.


Advent 2: To find “Home” one must “Go”

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went…”  Genesis 12:1-4a


you-are-here2It is quite something to feel one`s smallness.  Last year I accepted the challenge of beginning a campus chaplaincy at the University of Ottawa.  I remember walking the densely populated hallways and walkways during frosh week 2012 and wondering what I had gotten myself into.  I was raised in a devout Christian family where the Bible was read at every meal.  I had been Christian schooled and trained under those steeped in Abraham Kuyper`s “every square inch” theology.  On then to a Christian University, then on to work in that same Christian University, then on to seminary before taking a call to pastor a church for six years before moving to Ottawa.  Walking then in the University sea of diversity – a diversity of ethnicity, convictions, and intellectual pursuits – I found myself meaningfully experiencing what it is to be the stranger in the land.

I felt small. I felt scared. I felt out of control.  Thank God.

As easy as it is for us to cloister ourselves among people who think, act, and believe the same as we do, the Biblical message is one of going.  The book of Genesis isn’t centred on the creation narrative; it’s centred on the call of Abram.  SumerianZigguratIn Genesis 11 the post-flood people said “Come, let US build OURSELVES a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let US make a name for OURSELVES.”  It represented a self-centered desire to be autonomous, uniform and self-inflated.  God hated it.  God interrupted it.  God scattered them.  And their desires and words are contrasted with God’s words in chapter 12 to Abram when God says, “I will show you, I will bless you, I will curse those needing cursing.  You won’t make a name for yourselves; I will be the one to make your name great. And ALL peoples will be blessed through you.”

And Abram went…to be a stranger…to go to the place God would show him.

hymn_trust_obeyThe subsequent “going” as it is played out among Abram’s descendants, the nation of Israel, is filled with twists, turns, challenges and repeated returns to “Babel” status.  But God never gives up and He continuously pushes his people to “go” and take on a “stranger” status.  And it’s in the Gospel that God himself re-enacts the ultimate call to “go” and to be a “stranger” in the land.  The journey to a manger in Bethlehem is God’s way of leading his people in a way of “going” and of being “small” and being out of “control”…Thank God.

Advent 1: Longing for More Than Rockwell

God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. – Genesis 1:31

mothers day offIn 1916, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post contained the illustration on the left called “Mother’s Day Off.”  I’m sure that those who subscribed to this magazine back in the day didn’t realize that they were receiving first edition prints of one North America’s most famous 20th century artist/illustrators; Norman Rockwell.  Over the course of the next 50 years Rockwell produced numerous prints of American life, most of them depicting a clean wholesome traditional way of living.  One might describe Rockwell’s illustrations as nostalgic, capturing the emotion and heart of scenes that we long for, capturing the emotions of days gone by.  He creates a picture of home that people long for.

Norman-Rockwell-ChristmasAt Christmas time many people long for home.  And what they long for is a Norman Rockwell ideal. At Christmas we want to sigh and remember children opening presents with wrapping paper tossed aside, large turkey dinners with Grandma’s special stuffing recipe, and even singing at church with all the traditional Christmas carols.  We long for such scenes, but…but our homes include annual arguments over which family is hosting the extended gathering, uncle Norman’s one drink too many comments that makes everyone squirm and the pain of remembering people who are no longer sitting at the so-called festive table.  We may feel nostalgic for home at Christmas time, but what is it that we’re truly longing for?

The home we’re longing for is a “good” creation.  In fact, it could be argued that although we don’t know what heaven will look like, the best description is found in the creation account.  God’s good, just, beautifully ordered world is what we all long for – a place of Shalom. Shalom writes Neal Plantinga is,

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. . . . In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which the natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be . . . In a shalomic state each entity would have its own integrity or structured wholeness, and each would also possess many edifying relations to other entities.”[i]

Such Shalom is more appealing than any Norman Rockwell painting.

Dame Barbara Hepworth Creation

“Creation” – Dame Barbara Hepworth

But we’re not home now are we?  If we are all longing for what is right, if we are longing for rest and shalom, then that likely means we are all too painfully aware that our current setting is not home.  And that’s probably one of the greatest ironies of trying to reproduce Norman Rockwell Christmas scenes.  No amount of tinsel strewn around our living room is going to make cancer disappear.  One more chocolate letter and Christmas card is not going to change the bad decisions that have caused addictions in our family.  The perfectly cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce aren’t going to bring back the loved one that we’ve lost.   Buying a plastic blow up Santa Claus from Canadian Tire is not going to eradicate aids in Africa.  We may read about the perfection of the Garden of Eden, we may read about the beauty of God’s creation and we may know that it describes what home is supposed to be, but our present reality no matter how we try to dress it up at Christmas reminds us that we are not home.

This Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent.  In the Christian calendar, Advent marks the start of a New Year.  Advent is the season of anticipation which might equally be interpreted as a season of prayer, because we’re praying and waiting upon God.  The Christmas scene is far from quaint and nostalgic. The first Christmas was a tiresome journey as the result of oppressive requirements from a foreign occupied Roman rule. It was a “no more room” birth in a dirty stable.  Therefore Advent is a season in which the Christmas narrative reminds us that God, through small humble beginnings, interrupts the world’s expectations of power and begins to re-establish home. To this we sing, “O’Come, O’Come, Emmanuel.”

[i] Neal Plantinga, “Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be”