Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — CHRISTMAS DAY!

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Isaiah 9:2-6
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Merry Christmas, lovely friends!

I have no words of wisdom to add to the beautiful ones above. They are well-loved, and deservedly so. They are full of wisdom and simplicity, surprise and drama. The story they tell is magnificent, both in the detail it gives and the detail it withholds. We know so little, yet so very much. 

May the light of this story bring joy to your day. Blessings of peace and grace to you. May the year ahead be filled with reminders of the Gift we commemorate during this joyous season!

 

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Eight

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Isaiah 9:2-6
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Isaiah 9:2-6

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Tonight, we will go to church. We will pick up an unlit candle at the door and sit in the semi-darkness. We will sing carols and we will hear the story. We will pray and we will laugh gently at the funny details with which we are so very familiar. And then we will spread the light, the LIGHT that came into the world in a brand-new way when that tiny baby wailed into the night and the angels sang to a bunch of wild and wooly shepherds out there on the hillside.

The pastor will light his candle from the Christ candle and then it will spread all across the room, going from person to person to person. We will sing “Silent Night,” and we will lift those little candles high on the last verse. That one who is called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” — that One is worthy of our song. 

Hopefully, somewhere in there we will remember to pray for those who are far from home this night, those who have been forcibly ejected from home, those who suffer disease and heartbreak, those who long to sing and cannot. Hopefully after we’ve blown out our small candles, we will still feel their warmth, we will still carry their light with us as we go home to our comforts and our traditions.

After all, the story is about a baby on the run, under the thumb of a foreign oppressor, and soon to become a refugee. May the beauty of this night spur us to acts of love and compassion in the name of the Light whom we worship.

Longing for Home, An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Seven

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1 Samuel 2:1-10
2 Samuel 7:18, 23-29
Galatians 3:6-14

Galatians 3:6-14

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

This short passage offers us a window through which we can see Paul’s brain working overtime! His argument is thoughtful, clear and compelling: we cannot find what we’re looking for by following the law. Even if we follow it to the letter. In fact, when we try too hard to be ‘perfect’ according to that law, we discover how very far short we fall. The law becomes a curse to us.

Jesus was willing to become that curse in our place, to take upon himself all our trying and failing, all our peccadilloes and frailties, all our broken and bent pieces. I don’t know about you, but by this time in the pre-Christmas frenzy, I begin to feel like that little old dilapidated angel in this picture! And that’s when I have to sit down, close my eyes, breathe deeply and remember.

Remember that I don’t have to try so hard! I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I don’t have to do it alone. There is One who sees me, exactly as I am, and loves me anyhow. One who calls me to my best self without making me feel ‘less than’ when the call comes. And that’s a fine line to manage isn’t it? Yet that is the promise. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. . .” Think about that for a few minutes.

Then say thank you.

And then step into whatever lies at your hand to do this day with renewed energy and true joy. 

The Truest Advent

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I sit and watch the light play across the beautiful angles of her face. Even at 95, those cheekbones are breathtaking. She is tired today, battling a mild infection, with little to no appetite and even less energy. The sharp angle of the winter sun is unexpectedly flattering as it gently flickers through the window, and I draw a sharp breath as those too-familiar tears begin to form behind my eyelids. 

“Oh, Mama! I love you so. Please, Lord, let her go to sleep and wake up in the New Creation. Enough, okay? Enough.”

But who really knows how much is enough? I don’t have any special insights, only my own bedraggled emotions and growing fatigue. To me, it feels like it is time. Time to be released from this ‘body of dust,’ time to rest from the struggle, time to breathe in and never breathe out again.

We did not go out to lunch today; we barely made it from the dining room to her own sweet space, with its lounge chair in the corner, by the window. “My arms!” she cried softly as we walked. “They ache.”

Truth be told, everything aches. Every cell in her body.

As she slept in that chair, I moved my hand slightly, the one that she was clasping with both of hers. She roused a bit, turning to look in my direction.

“Oh, Mama! Thank you for being such a good, good mother,” I cried.

She didn’t understand me, so I said it again, more slowly, more loudly. She smiled slightly and said a simple, “Thank you.” Somehow her half-sleepy state made the usual questioning unnecessary. There were no confused looks, no puzzled frowns. None of this response: “I’m your mother?? Really??” 

None today. None at all.

One week ago, that’s all I heard. I came home shaking my head at my husband. “I don’t know how much more of this repetition I can navigate! We spent our entire 90 minutes together today asking and attempting to answer the same 5-6 questions — over and over and over again. Oh, Lord, give me patience!”

He and I were getting ready to leave town the next morning, our annual anniversary getaway to parts north. We both needed it — time and space to savor an ocean view, good food prepared by someone else, and quiet time together — no expectations, no obligations, no schedule. And it was good. Very, very good.

They called me from the dementia unit as we were driving home yesterday. “She has a UTI and a low-grade fever. Is it all right with you if we put her on antibiotics?” 

Yes, it was all right with me. UTIs make dementia much worse and increase confusion and disorientation. She doesn’t need any escalation of those symptoms and neither do I. But this time around, the infection plus the added medication led to extreme exhaustion — one more sign of decline, diminishment. 

And yet, as painful as it is to watch that happen, this time I will admit that my primary response is relief and gratitude. She is heading in one direction only; and today’s exhaustion underlined that truth for me. My mother is very old. She is very frail. She is extraordinarily confused.

She is also beautiful, grateful, loves people (even when she hasn’t a clue who they are), sings the old songs and hymns with a higher degree of accuracy than her illness might lead you to expect, and generally enjoys her life. It is not up to me when that life will end on this side of the mysterious veil that separates us from the eternal.

There are, however, some decisions that are up to me. When and how to treat illness, for one. I think I know what I will and will not allow — mom and I discussed it all, long before dementia took over — but until illness or accident happens, I suppose it’s all pretty hypothetical.

So, in addition to those prayers for patience, I also pray for wisdom, grace, kindness and insight as my mother moves ever closer to the end of her long and remarkable life. I will miss her presence in my life more than I can adequately put into words, more than language will allow.

 

Then again, I have been missing her for a very long time.

“Oh for grace to trust him more!”

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Six

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Luke 1:46-55
Isaiah 33:17-22
Revelation 22:6-7, 18-22

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

What a girl she was! If I really think about it, I can’t quite take it in. She wouldn’t have been much more than 13 or 14, yet she was chosen for a task that would have toppled a woman of ‘child-bearing age’ in today’s culture. An angelic visitation, a strange message, an arranged marriage to a man who was honorable but clueless, traveling late in pregnancy on the back of a donkey, over rough mountain roads, going into labor in a strange place, far from family and friends. How did she say yes? How did she do it? 

Her song tells us a lot about the ‘how,’ and also about the ‘why.’ Mary was a girl who paid attention to the teachings of her people. She listened when the family went to synagogue, even if she did have to sit at the back and cover her face. She listened to her parents and her siblings discuss the things of faith. And she somehow managed to develop a relationship with the Great I Am. 

She was chosen.

And so am I. So are you. No, not to carry the Christ child within our physical bodies. But yes, to carry the Christ, the Risen Christ, out into the world where we live and work, where we eat and play, where we listen and learn. I want to know enough to sing a song like Mary’s  — a song about reversals, about surprises, about God upsetting the usual. 

Help me to borrow a little bit of Mary’s courage, Lord. Just a little. Help me be willing to carry the gospel, the ‘good news’ of Jesus the Christ, wherever you lead. May it be so.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Five

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1 Samuel 2:2-10
Genesis 37:2-11
Matthew 1:1-17

Matthew 1:1-17

The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaphthe father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Yes, I have put them in bold print. The five ‘questionable’ women who appear, very intentionally, in Matthew’s lineage of Jesus. Foreigners, at the center of scandal of one kind or another, women who did questionable things — or had questionable things done to them. An interesting set of grandparents for this humbly born shepherd-king!

Tamar, whom Jacob treated badly and who dressed up as a prostitute to get him to do the right thing. Rahab, the lady of the evening or the local innkeeper (or both – who knows?) in the town of Jericho, a Canaanite (!!) — yet she helped the spies and saved her own skin and that of her entire family. Ruth, another non-Israelite, one we’ve talked about before in this series. And the unnamed, but clearly identifiable Bathsheba, the bathing lady King David took for himself, killing her husband to make it legal.

And, of course, Mary herself. The chosen mama, the clear-headed youngster who took upon herself burdens and blessings she could not begin to comprehend. I love that each one of these women is listed here! I love their mixed-bag stories, their strong personalities, their willingness to play a part, even when they didn’t fully understand or even know it, in the story that God has been telling over the ages.

We all have a part in that story, you know. Yes, even you. Even me.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Four

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1 Samuel 2:2-10
Genesis 21:1-21
Galatians 4:21-5:1

Genesis 21:1-21

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Talk about your weird stories. This is one of the wildest ever. Abraham casts out the son of his heart and he does so in obedience to God. God . . . who seems to have listened to Sarah in this small story.

Yes, I get Sarah’s discomfort, even her jealousy. But. BUT. This casting aside business makes me distinctly uncomfortable! And yet I love the rest of the story. The lonely wandering, the mother moving away from her child, her tears. And God’s response? Strange, isn’t it? TWICE, the passage tells us that God ‘heard the cries of the boy.’ Yet the narrative itself mentions nothing about the boy crying, only his mother. And God converses with Hagar, not with Ishmael. Small details, ones I hadn’t noticed before. Yet they’re here. They tell us so much about the time, the emotional betrayal Hagar felt, the raw need of the young Ishmael. And they tell us about God, too.

God agrees that the primary begetter in the tree of Abraham will be Isaac. Isaac will take God’s dream forward. But Ishmael will not be forgotten. No, another ‘nation’ will rise from him. And we see the barest beginnings of that at the tail end of this little story.

The brothers are still at odds, aren’t they? All these centuries later.

God does not forget the children. ANY of the children. Ishmael is moved off center stage, but he is not abandoned. Chesed is shown to him, too. Lovingkindness, faithfulness . . . yes, God’s chesed extends to surprising people in surprising ways. Even to what might seem to us to be ‘the least of these,’ eh?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Three

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1 Samuel 2:1-10
Genesis 7:15-22
Galatians 4:8-20

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.

“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”

My goodness, but today’s readings were an interesting set! I chose this psalm as the ‘easiest’ of the three to reflect upon, but somehow, it’s not all that easy! There are parts of this song that are hard to read, hard to hear. I don’t like reading lines like, “The Lord kills . . . he brings down to Sheol. . . ” No, I don’t like it.

But there they are – so – now what?

Well, I will take them in, wonder about their meaning, lay them alongside a bunch of other words that might seem to say otherwise, and prayerfully leave it up to the Spirit to decipher and use them as the Spirit sees fit. I believe I can do that in good confidence that God will use even the difficult words to teach and to shape me and others. 

How do you wrestle with the words of scripture that are tough for you? It’s at times like this that I am grateful for the dedicated work of Bible scholars over the ages. It is at times like this that I remember that the church in the sense of THE CHURCH, has not always agreed on interpretation of certain ideas/passages. In fact, the church in that sense has re-interpreted things lots of times over the past two thousand years. I believe that is the ongoing work of the Spirit, the ongoing revelation of God. No, words are not added to Scripture. Nor are words taken away. But they are read in differing lights, using all the truth that is revealed by history/science/psychology. All truth is God’s truth, right? 

So, I will take from this psalm the power and truth of the overall teaching it contains — that God is sovereign, that God hears and answers prayers like Hannah’s (although, not always in the same way), that God is holy and that God is ultimately victorious over evil. And that God is even now at work bringing those powers down. And that sometimes God might choose to do that by working through the likes of you or me. 

Gulp.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Two

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Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Romans 1:1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Every Sunday as he moved to the pulpit to preach, our former pastor spoke that last line to us. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” I cannot tell you how important those words became to many of us over the eleven years he was with us. They spoke to us of steadiness, of core truth, of centeredness, of hope . . . and, of course, of grace and peace.

This opening to the letter to the believers in Rome is so lovely, isn’t it? It distills the entire gospel into a few succinct words — something Paul was both good at and lousy at, depending on the letter! Not that his words are every ‘lousy,’ but sometimes they can be far from succinct! 

Here, however, he nails it. Read it out loud, if you can. Listen to each word. Let them roll around in your mouth and in your heart. There it is — this faith that we claim. Neat, simple, clear. Past, present, future — the work of the gospel! Oh, I thank God for Paul. And for these words!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-One

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Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
2 Samuel 7:23-29
John 3:31-26

2 Samuel 7:23-29

Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”

Today’s passage is the closing part of a conversation that David the King had with God, through God’s chosen intermediary, the prophet Nathan. I encourage you to read the whole chapter. David wanted to build the temple and God said, ‘No.’ This is David’s response to that ‘no.’

Even though David’s character was far from spotless, there was much in him to admire, even to emulate. And this lovely passage illustrates that point well. It’s part of prayerful answer to God’s clear ‘no,’ and there isn’t one whisper of complaint, is there? God said ‘no’ to the temple, but God also said a resounding ‘yes’ to the ‘house’ — the lineage of David. And it is that very lineage that we celebrate one week from tomorrow. The Ultimate King comes through the line of David, fulfilling ancient prophecies and hopes. David could not dream of what that fulfillment would look like, but he chose to believe it anyhow.

Help me, Lord, to believe your word, even when I cannot imagine what that word might look like in the future that is unknown to me. Help me to lean into trust, to remember my history with you, even as David remembered the history of his people and his own personal journey with you. Help me to find center in those memories, those stories, that truth.