When the promising young Hebrews were dragged into exile in Babylon, they were not kept in prisons or even camps. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops and exchange goods. Some became quite wealthy. They were also free to assemble, elect leaders and worship.
The 23rd Psalm has led us in the paths of comfort all the days of our lives. But sometimes we have trouble hearing the things that are closest to us. Psalm 23 was a cherished hymn for the Hebrews. So when we read and sing the psalms as Christians, we are to some degree also in Jewish territory. It is wise to remember the nature of the Jews’ history with God.
Once again, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for a critical encounter. This time he meets not Satan, but a most unlikely angel. In the heat of the day, a messenger of God joins him for a life-giving exchange.
We are a nation of spiritual seekers. We are hungry to learn about the life of the spirit, although many of us hesitate to translate that hunger into institutional allegiance. The majority of us are “unchurched.” Others are drawn to “seekers’ churches.” Still others are exploring the life of the spirit within a denomination and a tradition.
Lent tears us from the glow of Christmastide and Epiphany and propels us into a harsh new season. The early warning signs—the flight into Egypt, Rachel’s uncontrollable wailing, the talk of the cost of discipleship—were easy to gloss over while the “Noels” were still ringing in our ears.
In these litigious days, fast food restaurants warn us of the obvious. Before biting into that deep-fried McDonald’s apple pie, we read, “Caution: Contents may be hot.” What looks like soft, sweet, greasy comfort food could scald your trusting tongue. The familiar treat is not harmless. It may bite you back.
One Sunday soon, I’ll have news to share with my congregation. I’ll announce, with great fanfare, my denomination’s latest partnership agreement with another denomination. Or I’ll share the latest vote on full communion. And then I’ll look out into the pews and see members showing polite interest at best, or yawning.
When members of my family introduce someone, they always give that person an automatic promotion. If she’s a doctor, they will exaggerate, introducing her as a brilliant surgeon. A teacher’s aide becomes a full professor. I am told that I do the same thing, even after ten years of living in New England, the land of understatement.
I have a friend who creatively blends his ethnic and religious heritage. He is a black man with an Afrocentric consciousness and also a committed Christian. His Afrocentric commitment does not nullify his belief in Jesus, while his Christian commitment does not abolish his ethnic awareness and pride.
After the hectic and holy Christmas season, after the unusual turning of a new century and, wonderfully, a new millennium, the church and the culture will settle back into familiar rhythms. For the church and its calendar, this means the season of Epiphany with its festivals of Magi, miracles, baptism and transfiguration.