Saturday, December 31, 2016

Tell the Story!--by Linden Malki

Christmas is an amazing time of the year! The story is has captured the imaginations of people around the world, even in cultures that may not know the God behind the story. Dramatizations of the story go back to St Francis of Assisi in the 1200’s, as live drama and artistic representations. Many of us have taken part, as children and adults, in dramatically telling this Story. (There was even an article I saw online recently by a Muslim writer saying that he thinks it’s OK to tell Muslims “Merry Christmas,” because Jesus’ birth is part of their tradition as well, even though they don’t believe he was the Son of God. ) Christmas music and Christmas decorations are found in all sorts of places, even if controversial --but even the controversy indicates the power of the story.  If it had no meaning, who would care?

Even the Christmas tree has its roots in the Church—there is a legend that St Boniface, one of the earliest missionaries to Northern Europe in the 8th Century, chopped down an oak tree that was worshipped by pagans, and a fir tree grew in its place. St Boniface pointed out that this tree points to heaven, the triangular shape symbolizes the Trinity, and it keeps its color all year as a reminder of eternity.  It was also used in the travelling mystery plays in medieval Europe, referred to as the Tree of Paradise with apples hung in the branches. The modern version of the Christmas tree took shape in 16th Century Germany, where reformer Martin Luther was said to have taken an evergreen tree indoors and lighted it with small candles. (My husband’s family brought over a set of spring-clip candleholders from Lebanon; I never tried using them.) The combination of lights and the tree is a beautiful and powerful reminder of the Light of the World, and has become a valued part of the celebration.

Moses told the Israelites as they came out of Egypt that they were to tell their children what God had done for them every year as they celebrated the prescribed feasts.  This is what Christmas does for us—every year we take time and energy to remember and celebrate that God sent His Son to be our Redeemer;  to remember and share His lessons of light, love, peace, and giving.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Gift of the Kingdom--by Linden Malki

"The first Christmas came amidst distress over — just imagine! — government and governmental questions. The rule of the Romans and their Jewish allies would have been blown away by a good election. But of course there weren't any elections back then, just notifications of who was the new emperor or king or prefect. The perpetrators (from the imperial standpoint) of the first Christmas worked around the realities of power and force. These they did not seek to do away with. In their stead they erected something higher: the love of God."*
The contrast between two attitudes is very clear in the last two people we've looked at in this Advent season. Herod the Great was a classic politician--he climbed his way up a ladder based on his father's political contacts and his efforts to make the right friends in Rome and the right marriages in Palestine.  He finagled his contacts in Rome into first a governorship and then the position of "King of the Jews" over most of Palestine. Judea had been a more or less independent kingdom from 163 BC until taken over by Rome in 63 BC. The history of this period was marked by war and intrigue by Greeks, Jews and Rome.  

The other lifestyle we saw is a young woman we know as Mary. Her faith and obedience to God made her a person God could use in a unique way: as the mother of the true Messiah.  Her attitude, when approached by Gabriel with this message, was clear and simple: "I am the Lord's servant; let it be as you say."  There was a very good chance at one point that her son could become victims of the murderous Herod, but Joseph's immediate and unquestioned obedience to the angel of the Lord saved their lives. Her grace and obedience carried her through even the worst possible thing that could happen to a mom, and to a miracle on the other side.

Right now in our country we are seeing a tremendous amount of faith in politics--of all sorts--to a point that God is ignored, rejected, or invoked to support human goals. God is not the servant of our political and social wants--the Kingdom that was the ultimate Christmas gift is out of this world!

* William Murchison, 12/20/16

 Judea had been a more or less independent kingdom from 163 BC when a family of Jewish priests, who were called Maccabee (probably derived from the word for "hammer") and who had started a guerilla uprising against a Hellenist kingdom based in Syria who were demanding pagan sacrifices. The recovery and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem is commemorated in the festival of Hannukah; and the Maccabee kingdom, always caught between the kingdoms based in Egypt and Syria and ridden with internal power struggles, looked to Rome for backing and wound up being invaded by Pompey in 63 BC and brought under Roman control. There were those who saw Judas Maccabee as a Messiah figure, but his position and power were based on war and intrigue.  He was killed in battle, and the military and political struggles continued.  Herod's third and favorite wife, Mariamne, was one of the last of the Maccabean line; she and her two sons were killed by Herod in the internal politics of the palace. Herod did keep kosher and observed most of the Jewish law--it was said that it was safer to be Herod's pig than his son.  The only survivor was a granddaughter--Herodius, who married an uncle: Herod Phillip, one of Herod the Great's sons, whom she divorced to marry his brother Herod Antipas, which triggered the murder of John the Baptist. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Birthday of the Kingdom--by Linden Malki

Many years ago, "in Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died. Led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple. As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God: God, you can now release your servant;  release me in peace as you promised. With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;  it’s now out in the open for everyone to see: A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,    and of glory for your people Israel.  Jesus’ father and mother were speechless with surprise at these words. Simeon went on to bless them, and said to Mary his mother, This child marks both the failure and the recovery of many in Israel, A figure misunderstood and contradicted— the pain of a sword-thrust through you—But the rejection will force honesty, as God reveals who they really are."  (Luke 2:25-35, The Message)

It's one thing to have been told that your child is the Messiah.  That one word doesn't tell you enough. it doesn't tell you that various unexpected people are going to pop up without much notice--from a baby cousin whose parents are the most unlikely people to have produced him, to shepherds and angels and caravans of camels and foreigners with unlikely gifts; with a bar-mitzvah developing into such  amazing scholarly discussions in the Temple in Jerusalem to have lost track of time for three days. Somehow she knew that he could save the day at a wedding celebration when the wine ran low, but when he began to draw crowds with incisive speeches and miraculous healing, she and some of the family thought he'd run mad, and when they came to see what was going on and take him home if necessary, his response was to blow them off with this: "But who is my mother and father, whosoever shall do the will of my father who is in heaven, those are my brothers and sisters and mother."  We can see her going home with family members who totally don't know what is going on here.  She must have been puzzled, too--after all that happened to get where she was at that time. It doesn't look like her life is very blessed.

We don't see her again until the most horrible day of her life--when she saw him die the most horrible death. That next day must have been literally like Hell--not only was her son dead, but God Himself might has well have been dead, too.  She must have thought back to Simeon and his words of swords that were too much in evidence, and glory that wasn't. I wonder if the sorrow and total ending of what Mary had expected for over thirty years, and what a hundred people who had given up three years of their lives, not to mention everything they could have been doing for those years, and the words of hope and love they had lived with, was a day whose memory would taint the Sabbath forever.

But the coming of the next dawn brought more than just the expected sunlight, but a totally unexpected Son-light, as all the answers came to Life. We are still wrestling with the meaning of Messiah--that it's not a hero on a white horse in the streets and roads of Judea, but a Relationship that parallels what we thought reality is, and changes our lives--if we let it.  The last glimpse of Mary in Scripture is in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, the day that the Holy Spirit shows up in power.  We celebrate Christmas as the birth of a baby--and Easter as the first step in the birth of a Kingdom.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

LOOKING FOR A KING--by Linden Malki

Reading the Bible is sometimes like missing episodes of a series--at the end of the latest book of the  Old Testament, Malachi, the Judeans are back in Jerusalem, under a reasonably benevolent Persian Empire, with a Jewish governor and the Temple back in full working order.  Then fast-forward 400 years, and we see what had been David and Solomon's Kingdom divided into three Roman provinces, and the provincial rulers and the people are puppets of Rome—or its enemies.

What happened in between? We see through the Old Testament the tension between the calling of God, the temptations of the neighboring tribes and nations, the politics of a series of aggressive empires, and the stubborn, selfish human choices that people make. We see God offering a relationship to people that He chose to demonstrate His plan for His creatures, based on their response to His offered way of living. They get off track, find themselves in trouble, God sends them a judge, king, or prophet to get them back on track, which works for awhile. The political challenges get bigger and more dangerous.  The rivals that Abraham faced were pretty much the same strength as his own tribe. The Philistines were tougher; the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians were successively stronger and more dangerous, militarily and culturally. We see the later prophets warning of God’s displeasure, and longing for His intervention.

We see an early change in Israel's way of dealing with these challenges, when instead of dealing with God and the leadership of individuals called by God, and their own knowledge of His requirements, they ask for a king. They wanted a political answer, and they got mostly bad kings.

The Persian empire was conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, about a hundred years after Nehemiah and Malachi. At Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his generals. Judea was originally ruled from Egypt under a Greek dynasty friendly to the Jews, but in 198 BC it was taken over by another Greek ruler based in Antioch in Syria. His son, Antiochus IV, was determined to make Jerusalem into a Greek city, and replaced the worship of God by offerings to Zeus. This led to a revolt led by a family of priests, the Maccabees, who took back control of Jerusalem and the Temple. The rededication of the Temple in 163 BC is still celebrated by the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah in December. The Maccabeans became more and more concerned with their own political issues and less with God, and made a treaty with Rome, which took over the area in 63 BC. Their intention was to recreate the Kingdom of David, but they did it by military conquests and power politics. The dream of the restored Kingdom by a God-called military hero was very much in the air when Jesus was born.

The dream of the righting of all wrongs and creating the ideal society through politics is very much still with us. Jesus often said that His kingdom is not “of this world.”  What does this mean for our

Saturday, December 3, 2016

THANK GOD FOR MUSIC! by Linden Malki

Music is one of the greatest gifts of our Creator.  There is no "logical" reason that music has a profound effect on our minds and spirits, but the experience of music affects our mood, enhances our memory, helps us learn, and brings people together.  One confirmation of the effect of music is its connection with Christmas--we are at the time of year when almost anyplace we go, especially shopping, we are surrounded by music--and we often find ourselves singing along mentally if not audibly. We are drawn together in celebration with music--many of the events of the season are based on music.

I took piano lessons as a child, and have played off and on most of my life; not much recently, however. Last evening, there happened to be no one else at home when I got there, and it seemed like a good time to play. There was a book of Christmas music there on the piano; playing my way through it I found that I was playing many of them from memory.  They brought back memories--of Christmas programs over the years; songs that had been part of kids' choirs I have worked with, groups I've sung with, the praise band I played vibraphone with when I was in high school.  My folks both sang in choirs (in fact, that's how they met); all three of my brothers sang, two of them professionally. My dad's family would gather around the piano at my grandmother's or aunt's house for an evening sing-along, and some of my cousins still do. The night before a family funeral I found myself practicing a duet in Swedish with one of my cousins, to be part of the service.

Swedish Baptists sing! I went on a Swedish Baptist Heritage tour in 1998 with  folks interested in Swedish Baptist history on the 150th anniversary of the first adult believer's baptism in Sweden, I was somewhat surprised that the tour organizers sent out a small book of Swedish hymns with instructions to practice, as we would probably be singing in churches around Sweden. At  one point a group of us were in a church that didn't happen to have an accompanist that Sunday, so I found myself at a piano. We sang on the buses as well, just for the joy of it.  Singing is a good introduction to a language; some years ago at Calvary our Kids' Christmas Choir did carols in about a half-dozen different languages; a good way to get a taste of the ways people around the world celebrate the coming of the Messiah.

The NorthPoint Choir singers have a program scheduled for next Friday at a disabled children's facility over near Community Hospital. These are children who are chair- or bed-bound, many with speaking difficulties as well. The first year we went there, we didn't know quite what to expect, but we found that the children do respond as well as they can, and the staff says they enjoy it. They've invited us back almost every year.  Most of our programs are in facilities with older people with a variety of abilities and needs; music touches people even after many other abilities are gone. God made us capable of making music--and capable of responding to music, both as individuals and in groups. It is no accident that the longest book in the Bible is Psalms!