He was not the young man they had known before. They were sizing him up, as people in small towns will do, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the prophet Isaiah. He read a fantastic and otherworldly passage, plainly not about Nazareth, but about some other place. And then he startled them all: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Was he talking about them? Or himself? And what did he mean by proclaiming right there, in his hometown, “the acceptable year of the Lord”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? asks Isaiah. Those with ears to hear, let them hear, says Jesus. Day to day pours forth speech, says the psalmist, but God’s speech is pitched in such a register that many cannot distinguish it from silence.
Once a year, having waited to the very end of December, my wife and I dress up. Some people wait a lifetime to start living, but fortunately for us, New Year’s Eve intervenes every year. With mortality staring us right in the face, we get around to that date we should have had months ago. Rexene looks absolutely stunning in a cocktail dress. (How many times does a pastor’s wife get to wear a cocktail dress?)
Here is a lovely parable—all the more lovely considering that it comes from the chief rabbi of Great Britain’s Orthodox Jews. A young man, having troubled over the question, asks his father: Why does the Messiah not come?
For several weeks I’ve toted around Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines, on the off chance of having more time for it. Before he died at 48, Chatwin wrote a handful of brilliant travel books, this perhaps the most brilliant—a funny and fascinating account of the Aboriginal songlines. Invisible to Western eyes, the songlines crisscross Australia, charting every rock and hollow.
Here in the rural upper Midwest, it seems every other person has a pole barn. Usually it’s full of old tires, a trailer, dozens of tools gathering rust, coffee cans loaded with lug nuts and screws. Ed and Edna’s place is pretty typical. Edna's cupboards, bureaus, garage, attic and spare bedroom have been crammed full of things that define her. (“Oh, you know Edna Furbelow,” says her neighbor, “she collected Hummels.”) Now that Edna has died and her husband’s pole barn has finally gotten emptied, everything must go.
In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain. For centuries they had been tolerated there, and their labor had helped to build a great country. But King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, anxious to establish their hold over a newly united Spain by means of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition, gave the Jews a stark choice: they must be baptized or flee.
Just like that, Jesus is gone. He reappears just long enough to say goodbye. Like a wraith, like a dream, he leaves behind no children, no estate, no writings, no trace of himself except this feeling that his presence was real, that his absence is temporary. Christians have this uncanny feeling that he was just here. He must have just stepped out.
These are some of the nicest, happiest verses in scripture, easy to read because we all agree that we should love one another. Sunday school teachers affirm the thought, countless potholders and pillows are embroidered with it: Love one another. And then there's Robbie. Robbie lives a hard life and runs through help like water. After a while you want to tell her enough's enough.
"I have become all things to all people,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, apparently not foreseeing how we would regard his wry boast. Today his efforts to ingratiate himself with very different people sound inauthentic, phony—and impossible. “You can’t be all things to all people,” is how one of my seminary professors put it.