By Sam Gutierrez
This Wednesday, February 17, Alger Park Church will join churches around the world in marking the beginning of the season of Lent with an Ash Wednesday worship service. One of the highlights of this unique service is the imposition of ashes, where people are marked with the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the words, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". These words are a summary of the words from Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
And so, the season of Lent begins with a sobering tone.
These are hard words to swallow. The reality of our “dust-ness” can easily lead us to despair. Knowing that everything we do and say and accomplish will one day be forgotten can make some of us want to shrug our shoulders and whisper, “What’s the point of doing anything, then?” Others of us live much of our lives trying to overcome our “dust-ness” through work, with academic success, with the accumulation of things, or by having children--all in an attempt to do something that will last or to ensure our legacy will endure.
But the Scriptures point us in another direction. The secret to living a meaningful “dust filled” life is found in the ash-marking that happens on Ash Wednesday – the ashes spread on the forehead are not just an undefined smudge, but marked in the powerful symbol we recognize as the sign of the cross.
That is the secret. Christ became dust and died for us. We are not just dust…
We are beloved dust.
More than that, Jesus rose from the dust as a resurrected human with a new body that will never return to dust again. God promises that one day, God will raise our dusty bones from the grave and give us new, incorruptible bodies that will last forever. In and through Jesus, Genesis 3:19 gets an addendum. Just listen to what Paul tells the Corinthian church: Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:51-52)
Friends, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, but Lent does not last forever...it points the way to the quiet Sunday morning when Jesus overcomes death once and for all.
By Sam Gutierrez
When I was a kid, someone gave me some important instructions that came with a dire warning: Don’t stare directly at the sun or you will go blind.
This warning was usually followed up with a story about “some kid” on “some playground” that ignored the warnings and did just that – stared at the sun and is now suffering the lifelong repercussion of permanent blindness.
Of course, as a kid, you have to test this scary fact by looking at the sun for maybe 2 or 3 seconds… which seems ok until you close your eyes and see strange spots floating around on the back of your eyelids. For my little heart and mind – that was enough evidence to prove that playground warning to be true – staring at the sun will cause permanent blindness.
It’s true – energetic photons streaming from the sun’s surface even at an astounding distance of 91 million miles is just too powerful for our delicate eyes to handle. So, just imagine the scene in Matthew 17:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
This event is known as the Transfiguration of Jesus and is celebrated liturgically on the last Sunday in Epiphany – Transfiguration Sunday. Every year, we get the opportunity to walk up the mountain with the disciples and ponder this amazing event while asking the question, “What does this mean?”
Quite simply – the “transfigured” or “transformed” Jesus we see on the mountain top – human, but shining like the sun (glorified) is a glimpse of God’s end game for humanity – resurrected human beings – fully human and fully divine. Jesus is the first fruit (1st edition) of what is to come for the rest of humanity. Here is another way to put it: What happened on the mountain top was a short “preview” of a full length feature film that is coming soon to a theater near you!
Mountain tops are places of revelation. We travel with the disciples and catch a glimpse of who Jesus truly is – and in doing so, we catch a glimpse of who we are and who we are to become.
But notice what the text says in Matthew 17:9, “As they were coming down the mountain…” With Jesus, we come down from the mountain back into our cities and neighborhoods. As we continue to live our ordinary lives, we do so with an amazing hope – the story of the world has a very, very good ending!
So, this coming Sunday, go ahead and look at the SON – be blinded by his glorious light – and when you find yourself blind with hope, you’ll paradoxically discover that you see more clearly than ever before.
By Janelle Gaudet
In John 14:5-6, Jesus and the disciples are gathered for what will become known as the Last Supper. They are rightfully worried about their uncertain present and future. While they eat, Jesus speaks words of prophecy and comfort to them.
Thomas speaks up and asks the question on everyone’s mind, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Centuries later, Scottish poet and minister George MacDonald grappled with this same question. Where can we find security in times of uncertainty? How can we know the right paths to take and choices to make? These thoughts influenced him as wrote the fantasy novel The Princess and the Goblin.
In MacDonald's story, Princess Irene and her father, the king, live in a mountainous realm that is threatened by sinister goblins. Frightened and unequipped to meet this challenge, Irene looks for support and help. Through magic and providence, Irene meets her grandmother who gives her a special ring to help her on her quest. The ring is connected to a peculiar ball of thread that was hand spun by the elderly woman.
Irene is concerned that she cannot see the thread attached to the ring. Her grandmother assures her that it is too fine for her to see. When Irene then questions the purpose of the ring and thread, her grandmother replies, “If ever you find yourself in any danger… you must take off your ring… Then you must lay your finger, the same that wore the ring, upon the thread, and follow the thread wherever it leads you.”
“Oh, how delightful! It will lead me to you, Grandmother, I know!”
“Yes. But, remember, it may seem to you a very roundabout way indeed, and you must not doubt the thread. Of one thing you may be sure, that while you hold it, I hold it too.”
Irene ends up deep underground in the lair of the Goblin King. Darkness envelopes the young princess, and despair overwhelms her. Unable to protect herself, she uses her ring and follows the thread to safety. The goblins’ evil plans are thwarted. The reader is relieved as good triumphs over evil once again.
The Rev. George MacDonald knew that we all walk through seasons for which we are ill-equipped and unable to protect ourselves.
Friends, there is good news - we have powerful help at hand. We may not necessarily be able to see what Jesus is doing around us and in us, but He is there. We need only to take off our self-sufficiency and reach out to Him.
The same thread of salvation that we follow through the story of the Bible runs through our lives as well. The way may seem very roundabout indeed, but Jesus is bigger than our doubts and fears. While we hold onto Him, He is holding us.
By Sam Gutierrez
What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. John 2:11
For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the key “framing” stories for the liturgical season of Epiphany. The first week we examined the story of the Magi (Matthew 2) and saw how Jesus is not just a Jewish king, but the King of Kings – for all God’s children both near and far. The second week we took a look at the story of Jesus’ baptism and saw through words and water that Jesus is the beloved Son of God who brings grace and blessing to a broken world.
Now, in the third framing story, we take a look at Jesus’ first miracle in his public ministry–changing water to wine at a wedding feast in Cana. So, what is significant about this story and how does it tie into the season of Epiphany?
Like I’ve mentioned before, Epiphany is a season of light. It is the third season (along with Advent and Christmas) that has light as its main theme. Light has many meanings, but in Epiphany light symbolizes revelation. Epiphany emphasis the teachings and miracles of Jesus as a way of revealing his true identity. It’s no wonder, then, that Epiphany ends with the revelatory light at a maximum on Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top we see the human and divine nature of Jesus together in one glorious form.
So, if Epiphany is about revelation, then what does the miracle at Cana teach us?
First of all, it’s interesting to note that Jesus’ first miracle is a reluctant one. It seems like he’s not too excited to exercise his miraculous power in such a public setting. He says that the timing is not right, but does so anyway at the urging of his mother, Mary. We don’t have any examples of this, but Mary has probably witnessed his “special abilities” and now calls on him to do something about the tragic lack of wine at a local wedding. Jesus obeys his mother and changes six large stone jars of water into vats of the very best wine – and thus performs his first of seven “signs” in the book of John.
These large vessels were not for thirst, but used by the Jews for ceremonial washing. Remember that in Jesus’s day there were many, many religious rules and laws about what was “clean” and “unclean.” To stand in God’s presence and to be in relationship with God, a person had to be “clean.” If anyone violated a law that made them “unclean,” they had to go through a series of practices/rituals in order to become clean again. These included the sacrificial system happening in the temple courts, but also included the “washing of hands” to stand in for a full body cleansing. If I could make a crude analogy, this ceremonial washing was like our version of hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer does not take the place of a shower or bath, but rather acts as a quick “cleansing.”
Jesus turns the water used for ceremonial cleansing into expensive wine. The most obvious conclusion is to draw a straight line from Cana to Calvary. This miracle points to what Jesus is going to do on the cross – shedding his own blood (symbolized in wine at the last supper) in order to cleanse us from our sin once and for all.
But, the wine also symbolizes the manifestation of a new age (the kingdom of God is here). Now, the the intoxicating love of God available to all. After all, what else could be the reason for so much wine? The coming of Jesus is also the coming of a kingdom marked by a grace that is abundant, absurd, and free to anyone who wants to dip their cup in and drink. There is enough grace available to make you lightheaded and intoxicated with gratitude.
Friends, may this Epiphany be filled with light and God’s lavish love.
Then [the master of the banquet] called the Bridegroom aside and said “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” John 2:10
By Sam Gutierrez
Last week, we looked at one of the three key framing stories of the season of Epiphany – the story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-2) and discovered that this story is important in two ways.
First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham – the Lord will bless all nations through him. The visit of the Magi to worship Jesus and pay homage to him as King expands the rule of Jesus beyond Jewish boundary lines. In fact, you could say that the book of Acts is an expansion upon the Magi story – the gospel going out to the ends of the earth to bring in all God’s estranged children.
Second, we looked at how God is not bound to communicate in ways that we think are appropriate or familiar. To those who had no access to the Jewish Scriptures, God gets creative and uses a dream and a star to communicate his grace.
But the story of the Magi is just one framing story that sheds light on the ministry of Jesus during the season of Epiphany. This past Sunday we took a look at the second framing story: The Baptism of Jesus. Here we learn two critical things that can be summed up with Words and Water.
First, God’s grace comes in the form of words.
When Jesus comes up out of the water, a voice from heaven booms. The voice speaks a blessing over Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well-pleased.” (Mark 1:11) Remember – Jesus hasn’t “done” anything yet. His ministry hasn’t started. He has been living a life of obscurity in a small town. This reminds us that identity not earned or achieved, but given. This is why we practice baptismal remembrance on Sunday mornings. Just like Jesus was baptized and a blessing was spoken over him, we too receive baptism and a blessing is spoken over us. God is giving us our deepest identity as his beloved children. Just as Jesus begins his ministry with God's blessing and his indentity firmly established, we too live out our lives as beloved children of God.
Second, God’s grace comes in the form of water.
When Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river, it is a legitimizing of the “John way” – which is God’s grace working outside the boundaries of the temple courts. Remember, in Jesus' day, there was a complicated system of priests, temples, sacrifices and religious laws. Many of the conflicts we see in the gospels center on Jesus not doing “the system” correctly. But in going out to John, who was standing in the river in the middle of the wilderness, Jesus gives his stamp of approval. In essence, Jesus is saying that God’s grace is like a river. It flows freely like water. It is generous, immersive, alive and it gets all over you. We might think of Jesus’ public ministry as an expression of how he sees and experiences God’s grace and love. In every teaching, miracle and healing, Jesus exhibits God’s river of grace – powerful, generous, immersive, cleansing, uncontrollable, refreshing, and flowing.
So, now we have two key stories that are signs pointing to who Jesus is and what Jesus is about. In the story of the Magi, Jesus is the conduit through which God fulfills his promise to bless all nations – Jesus is not just a Jewish king, but the King of Kings who rules and reigns over all things. Now, in the story of the baptism of Jesus, we learn that Jesus is the beloved Son of God who has come with a message: God’s grace is abundant and flowing. In the Jordan River, Jesus gets drenched in God’s grace in order to communicate that we, too, are God's beloved children and God’s grace soaks us. Now we can see more clearly the “good news” that Jesus came to proclaim.
Next week, we’ll take a look at the third framing story of Epiphany: the wedding feast at Cana.
“In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5
By Sam Gutierrez
The season of Epiphany begins with the feast of Epiphany on January 6 and ends the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Depending on where Easter falls (it’s a moving holiday) the season of Epiphany can be as short as 4 weeks and as long as 9 weeks. The word Epiphany means “to appear” or “to bring to light”– it’s a season of increasing light and ends with the lights on maximum: Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top, Jesus’ glory is revealed and we catch a glimpse of his divine nature – a vision that’s a little too bright for human eyes.
The beginning of Epiphany is framed by three key stories from the life of Jesus: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle when Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana.
For this 2021 Epiphany post, I’d like to take a look at the first framing story for Epiphany – the visit of the Magi.
Just recently in the news, there was talk of the “Christmas Star” – a conjoining of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky. In reality, their distance from each other was immense, but their orbits made them appear close together as you looked towards the horizon in the month of December. Some think that a similar astrological “sign” happened around the time Jesus was born.
The Wise men are sometimes referred to as kings or even astrologers. Some have called them Magicians or “Magi,” meaning “Sorcerer.” They came from the East (many think Persia) and were probably wealthy. Mostly likely, they traveled in large “family bands” and their total group far outnumbered the traditional number of “three.”
As strange as it may sound – they looked to the sky and saw something powerful and unmistakable in the alignment of the stars – something that told them that something equally important was happening on earth. This is not new – many cultures throughout history have drawn a strong connection between what happens in cosmology and what happens in human history (just study ancient Egypt). Now that we know so much more about the universe thanks to modern technology, it might be easy to debunk this kind of knowledge. But again – as strange as it might sound, there seems to be some sort of connection between what happens “up there” and “down here.”
We can sometimes get fixated on the gifts, or the star, or even the song “We Three Kings” while missing the point that Matthew is trying to make in telling us the story of these mysterious visitors.
For Matthew, the point is two-fold. First, Jesus is not just a Jewish king. He is the King of the whole earth. Remember, Matthew is primarily writing to a Jewish audience in his gospel. From the very beginning, he wanted to tell his readers that the birth of Jesus is a cosmic event that has comic implications – Jesus fulfills the promises made to Abraham – that through Abraham’s family, God will bless all nations. It’s easy to think that God is only interested in blessing certain tribes – in this case Jewish – but the birth of Jesus is for the non-believing Persians as well. This has tremendous implications for us today. God is not interested in merely blessing Christians – his overflowing grace is for everyone, everywhere. The blessing poured out on you and me is meant to communicate to others that they are blessed too.
Second, God is not bound by Scripture in order to communicate. Not only did God guide the Magi toward the manger via a “star,” but God warned them in a dream to return home using a different route. To these non-Jewish “outsiders,” God used an alternative means to speak - a star and a dream. It seems that God will use whatever means available to communicate his grace. This should give us a good dose of humility – knowing that God can and does work outside the walls of the church (and scripture) to gather folks into his family. It’s true, God does reveal himself in and through Scripture, but God also likes to get creative – recruiting planets and stars and diving into the unconscious dream state to share his promises and grace. Wow.
Epiphany is a rich but unfamiliar and overlooked season. January is considered a cold and dark month – the merriment of the Christmas season is over, the new year has begun, and we’re back at work or in school. Culturally, these weeks are marked by a return to routine.
Liturgically, Epiphany is a season of quiet hope with a watchful eye towards God’s promise to bring wholeness to the entire galaxy in the person of Jesus. It’s also a time of spreading this good news and so we look for little ways to spread hope to those around us. We pray for our friends, neighbors, relatives, children, family members and spouses who don’t know Jesus yet.
We believe that “in him was life and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5
Advent Blog Post 4 - by Lauren Cooper
2 Samuel 7:1-16
A couple of weeks ago marked four years that we’ve lived in our current house near Garfield Park. As I reflected on that, I realized that four years is the longest I’ve lived in any house--ever. While I’ll admit to wanderlust deep in my bones, I had never considered myself quite so nomadic until I started doing the math. But we did move every few years when I was growing up (across the country twice and then blocks away). And living in both Chicago and Seattle for ten years after college meant a regular shuffle of roommates and apartments. Total count? 19. So needless to say, home as a location has always felt kind of temporary.
All that said, I do like the idea of home being something more permanent and I understand the desire of King David in 2 Samuel 7. Feeling comfortable and settled in his own home, David declares that he wants to build a permanent house for God, replacing the portable tabernacle that was housing the Ark of the Covenant. But, through Nathan, the Lord tells David that this isn’t what we wants. In fact, we know that David’s son Solomon did build a temple, but it was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. A physical dwelling won’t work—and isn’t necessary.
What message does David get in response?
The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
What does this look like? Through Jesus, God provides His permanent presence in a house that stands forever. Not the physical building, obviously, but through us. The house—His kingdom—that will stand forever is the community of believers in whom the Holy Spirit lives. We are the living stones, providing structure for this spiritual house and—because of Jesus—making an impact that far outlasts anything physical or temporary.
When I reflect on every place I’ve lived, I realize that it’s really never the building that make a place feel like home. And length of time in a place doesn’t necessarily mean anything either. It’s always something that rises above anything physical or tangible. When I think about my college semester in London (which, though my shortest residence, remains the most magical five months of my life), what made it feel like home in such a short time had nothing to do with my tiny dorm room. It was the non-sanctioned bonfires in the back field with our new English friends, where we’d laugh at the strangeness of ourselves and share secrets until the sun started peeking up over the horizon. And still, it was temporary—and it fades over time.
During this season of Advent, we’re reminded that in a world full of temporary things, God provides something permanent that can satisfy the longings of our hearts. As we wait and anticipate and sit in our weariness this December, we are comforted by the knowledge that, through the birth of Jesus, God gives us His permanent love. A love that is intentional, enduring, and without condition. It’s this permanent feeling of home that we hope for through a covenant that lasts forever.
Advent Blog Post 3 - by Nancy Vander Meer
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
The year 2020 was like none most of us ever imagined. So many of our sisters and brothers at Alger Park Church experienced disappointments and frustrations this past year, exacerbated by COVID-19 and political situations. We all kept waiting for good news to come, for the weeks and months—and the year—to just be over. Yet sometimes it seemed like the news kept getting worse.
I don’t know many people who like to wait, especially through difficult times. In challenging situations, we are tempted (and often succumb) to blaming God. “Where are You, God? Why are You allowing this pain, these disappointments, the setbacks? We believe the everlasting covenant You’ve made with us (Isaiah 61:8), but we aren’t seeing it. It’s a little (or a lot!) difficult to rejoice and praise You right now (v. 10). My faith is faltering.”
Ah, but isn’t that exactly when our faith grows? When we see God being faithful no matter the circumstances. Even when we can’t see His immediate plan, we stand rock solid on God’s truth and past experiences of His faithfulness. During some deep disappointments in my earlier years, I held on to the encouragement in a song by Pam Thumb. The chorus kept repeating, “When you can’t see His hand, trust His heart.”
Our pastors have often reminded us to look for God’s big picture. I imagine this Sunday they’ll explain how the people of God in Isaiah 61 were able to go from the ashes to crowns; from mourning to joy, from a spirit of despair to a garment of praise. Because Yahweh is the faithful covenant God who keeps His promises.
We may have to wait for the bigger big picture in the circumstances we are struggling with. We will have to wait for the perfection of Christ’s kingdom here on earth. But while we’re waiting, God continues to send glimpses of His grace, and reminders of His faithfulness, even—or especially—through the difficult times. We can now look for and see the Greater Good News that Jesus came to earth to dwell among us (John 1:14); to experience everything and anything we might be going through (Hebrews 4:14-24); to proclaim the Good News to the poor, brokenhearted, prisoners in darkness, mourners (Isaiah 61:1). He is waiting with us, and that gives amazing hope.
In what ways are you seeing God at work in your time of waiting?
Advent Blog Post 2 - by Jamie Reynolds
There’s something a little bit magical about Advent as a child: four weeks of candles, carols, and stories at church while colored lights, ornamented trees, and ribboned gifts pop up everywhere else. Advent is a marathon of anticipation, of waiting, and Christmas is the finish line. However, as an adult, I feel like I have become painfully aware that when we do finally reach Christmas Day, our waiting is actually far from over. When Jesus was born, humanity’s initial wait for the arrival of the Savior indeed came to an end. But when Jesus died and rose, when Jesus ascended to return to God in heaven, we began waiting anew – waiting for him to come once again, to complete the work of redemption he began in the manger.
At the end of a year like this one, that thought can make Advent feel a bit like poor comfort. We are living through a pandemic that has upended our lives, devastated families, and impoverished countless people in the midst of heartbreaking political and racial unrest. On days when our world is so obviously broken, it can feel like Christ’s Birth just isn’t enough. Jesus came to save us – an act of extreme grace that, without question, merits every ounce of celebration that we can pour out – but I also find myself yearning so deeply for The Rest of It. I’m ready for that second part, the Big Finish where Jesus comes back and, as Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “make[s] all the sad things come untrue.” I am ready for the fulfillment of comfort, not just the promise that comfort is coming.
Those feelings can make God’s words to Isaiah in the midst of Israel’s own devastation into a bit of an emotional roller coaster. While I feel such relief at God’s command that Isaiah declare bold, tender, and certain comfort to his people, to joyfully “cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,” that “ Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,” that “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,” I look around me and ask the anguished question of, “But when? When?”
Somehow, in the midst of that anguish, the comfort refuses to evaporate completely, like an echo remaining just within earshot. Maybe at times like this, the comfort comes when we whisper fervently in the depths of our hearts, “This is not the way things are supposed to be!” and the Spirit whispers back, “Oh, my child. I know.” Maybe Advent is the time when we celebrate that whisper, when we cling to it, waiting for its completion, its fulfillment. We wait to celebrate the comfort of Christmas – the comfort that the end of our divine separation began with the birth of a tiny baby, and that redemption is still in motion – even as we wait some more for the day of Reunion, when comfort will finally come in its full and complete form.
Advent Blog Post 1 - by Annalise Kontras
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.
My hunch is that few of us have called for the kind of intervention Isaiah does in the passage, asking God to rip open the heavens, shake the earth, and terrify enemies.
Instead, some of us will recall acute experiences of fervently calling out to God from the miry pit of tragedy and trial, petitioning him for the interventions of healing or reconciliation or provision. Others may reflect on their prayers for God’s intervention over the past nine months during the pandemic, political tensions, racial injustice, strained relationships, economic hardships, or enduring loneliness.
Other cries for God’s help arise from everyday circumstances in which we are confronted with our sin, or the monotony of ordinary existence, or our own inadequacies. That is how it usually goes for me.
My oldest child was a difficult newborn. For months, my days consisted entirely of soothing her to sleep while she wailed, holding her so she’d stay asleep, and feeding her. Though I attempted to hold it together and tell myself this new mom thing was a joy, the truth was that moment by moment, I felt like a failure. One lonely winter day, during what felt like the hundredth hour of cradling her while bouncing on an exercise ball (in the dark bathroom with the fan on for white noise, of course), I broke. “I need your help, God. I don’t like this, and I don’t know what to do. Please help her fall asleep. I need to rest. I can’t do this. Please, help me!”
In this real, very human moment, I called for God to intervene on my behalf and for my cause. I wonder how often my requests for God’s help are to this end: to accomplish my purposes and fulfill my desires.
I don’t think such requests are sinful; in fact, examples of God’s people calling out for help in human situations abound in Scripture. We are told to cast our cares on Him, for he cares for us.
Yet, the request for intervention in Isaiah 64 is situated in a broader context beyond our immediate needs and desires. To paraphrase: God is Lord! We, in contrast, are shriveled leaves swept away on the winds of our sins. How can we be saved?! Because despite our brokenness, we are clay, being molded in the merciful hands of our Father.
This context causes me to consider that God’s intervention is often internal. Through a fussy, dependent newborn in my arms, God was intervening powerfully. He was molding, shaping, and forming me to be a mother who is more and more like Christ. He was refining me through peeling away the layers of self-centeredness and perfectionism and comfort-seeking that had calcified on my heart.
What an incredible thought, that even if the external intervention we hope for isn’t realized, God is working so intimately and compassionately within us! That through the valleys and shadows, God intervenes at the heart-level for His good and loving purposes.
During Advent, we wait and hope for The Intervention--the Emmanuel, the “God with us” who will make all things new. We long for His intervention on the individual, communal, and societal levels.
As one who also longed for the coming of the Christ, Isaiah writes, “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down...” Indeed, the intervening Messiah who came down was not what the prophets and religious leaders and Hebrews expected. He was a lowly, poor carpenter from Nazareth, for starters. And his interventions completely missed the mark: while they expected a king who would establish a prosperous earthly kingdom, this Messiah described an upside-down Kingdom and sought to intervene in their hearts.
The unexpected, amazing Intervention of God is tangible mercy and steadfast love, packaged in the unlikeliest of wrappings: the meagerly clothed, dependent body of a newborn baby, born amidst filth and stink.
That our hearts prepare Him room this Advent means that we--like the sinners and outcasts who readily believed--see our need for Christ’s intervention deep within us, that we invite him into the broken places that we strive to cover up or mend ourselves. It means that we surrender, contrite and willing as clay.
Questions for Reflection: