Good morning, I’m Lydia, the new pastor here at Reservoir. I moved from San Francisco a month ago and I expected some things about Boston. I expected it to be very cold. I brought out all my skiing gear, wool layers, heat tech tights. I was getting ready for a battle. Honestly, I was scared that the cold would make me depressed or cranky. I imagined scraping ice off of my car in a winter storm and, defeated by the snowy wind, just breaking down and crying as I shuddered in the freezing car, alone and cold in this new land.
I actually don’t even have a scraper for a car yet, cause I’m staying at a temporary place that has a garage. Turns out, every place has the heat on. As soon as I get inside, my wool socks are sweating, I’m taking off my 3 layers of jacket and sweaters immediately. A few weeks ago it was 78 degrees outside. And the people have been warm and loving. I haven’t experienced a bad storm. I know I know, still be prepared things could hit in April you all keep saying. But for the most part, God has been so gracious and gentle to us, more than we expected. God met us with far more mercy and grace.
This is what I want to share with you today. What God has in store for us can far exceed our expectations of God, beyond our imagination. Maybe even the opposite of what we expect. So what do we expect of God? How do we expect God to respond to us? And then, how does God answer our expectations?
So, Imagine God. What does God look like to you? Do you imagine an old white man with a beard sitting on the throne in the clouds?That’s how the New Yorker illustrates God sometimes. The general society and our world has imagined God in a certain way. Or maybe you’ve been around the church a bit and you know that God is the Creator. Our Lord. Our King. Omnipotent all knowing God. Strong. Powerful.
The Old Testament describes God in various ways, and much of it was largely shaped by who the writers were and what they were experiencing. Whenever we read the Bible we have to recognize the time, context, the history, the culture. Because the Bible is a series of stories of a particular nation and a people, specifically the Israelites, and so they’re stories that are set in their specific experiences with the world and it shaped their relationship with God. Israel was, for most of Old Testament history, a small group of people wedged between many great nations, with their stories set in slavery in Egypt, and later taken over by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Their theology was one that was set in their immediate needs, one of military threat and survival. This was the case for most of the books of the Prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel — with the word “prophecy” not only being a word that means foretelling what would happen in the future, but keenly seeing with a critical eye what is going on in the present and casting a new vision for the future of their nation and their people.
Here’s an example: Isaiah 9:6 became a popular Christmas song.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders and he will be called… wonderful counselor, Mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace.”
And while these words have been attributed to Jesus Christ, the words actually arose out of deep wounds of national and systemic oppression, in which they sought a future one who would save them from their surrounding nations. The translations of these words are slightly softer and even somewhat more beautiful in English, but the original words conjured up more militaristic names, like wise counsel, brave chief, limitless captain.
Prince of peace, sounds lovely in Handel’s Messiah, but the original language would have been more like principal, the highest rank of rule, one who would establish something more like Pax Romana — the peace of Rome — which wasn’t a campaign really about peace, but military occupation in surrounding nations that maintained the “prosperity” and stronghold of Rome. So the Israelites longed for and expected, not a baby in a manger — which is what we think of when we hear, “wonderful counselor, prince of peace” — but a mighty warrior that would conquer the surrounding bigger stronger nations, smiting their enemies and finally bringing justice to the nation.
So, we’ve been reading through Revelation in this season of Lent our church calls 40 days of Faith. And Revelation uses many Old Testament symbols to tell a story about Jesus, and it conjures up this Old Testament language:
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…
I won’t get into the scrolls, seals, and the four creatures. These are all rich in symbolism we don’t have time to get into. So we’ll just focus on the Lion and the Lamb. “Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah”. Lineage was important to them because for a King — for a national leader, the highest government official — lineage was the way you achieved this, to David’s throne, has won the victory (and they do mean military victory). But then this expectation of a Conquering Lion, is met, with, none other than… a Lamb. Not just any lamb but a slaughtered lamb, with cuts and blood.
Here’s why this matters. This is what we expect too — not just Israelites. The Bible is often a mirror to human natural tendencies. The reason why the omnipotent all knowing God is such a widely sought image of what kind of God we have is because that is what we think many of us want, what we think we need, what feels like is going to really fix things. We expect that of successful leaders. Our society values this. They’ve gotta be confident. Strong, and impressive, prestigious! And preferably tall, and male! The world wants someone with charisma oozing, who comes in with a decisive vision and takes charge. People are less impressed with someone who offers their defeated scars from their life history.
People do this on dates, right? Showing their best selves on first dates, mentioning the great achievement, school, job, cool hobbies, working out. I remember telling Eugene that I love cooking Korean food, and he was like what kind of Korean food, and I told him that I like to make Japchae. And I don’t know why I told him that cause Japchae is so much work, you have to cook and season each vegetable separately before you put it together with the noodle –it’s so much work! I think I’ve made that once, maybe twice for him. I don’t know maybe I wanted to share with him about my culture because he’s Chinese, but I should’ve picked something that I actually cook more often! No one brings up their broken dreams and slaughtered selves. That is not sexy. But then, isn’t it the moments when someone, not on the first date maybe, but in a safe, self-aware way disclose a hard time in their lives. Or when you feel connected enough to that person that you can share your darkest times to another person. And moments of vulnerable leaders, showing humility, kindness, are so rare that they go viral.
Interviews are like this too. Credentials. Experience. My interview process to Reservoir, I presented my years of experience in ministry as a youth pastor for 3 years, and 7 years as a pastor in San Francisco, Master’s in Divinity, my extravertedness, my charisma, I pulled out all the stops to show my best self ,of course. I don’t even wear make up usually, but I was wearing makeup in September when I came for the interview. Although, Steve and some of leadership were keen to press on my vulnerable Jesus moment experiences, and I did share times in my life where I was lost and dark that allowed me to turn to Jesus.
But anyway, I wanted to bring leadership and vision. And now I’m here. And you know what is actually one of the biggest needs of Reservoir that I’m filling? Sunday Morning Operations, the Welcome Team, the volunteers that welcome you and set up everything Sunday mornings. And you know what that entails? Pouring coffee. Setting up bagels. Washing the dishes. Picking up trash, taking out the trash, ordering the right size trash bags so that it doesn’t fall in when it gets filled up and drop in and the drinks and everything inside get on the trash bin, and you have to wash the bins. You know what I’m talking about. That’s ministry right there. And the things is, I think that’s like most things in life. You don’t need a hero, you need a servant. I know we as a church have great dreams of extending into the Cambridge neighborhood, to make an impact, and we need good teaching and training, and strategic planning, I know. But you know, weekly Sunday runs on John turning on the heat, Grant unlocking the door, Katherine tying up trash bags. Michelle covered in sweat and water from washing huge bins in a kitchenette.
What kind of perfect leader have you expected for our church, to take us to the next level? Or what kind of a leader do you think we need for our country? What kind of perfect partner have you wished and hoped for? What kind of God do you expect to show up in your life?
I’ll be honest. For me, I wanted, sometimes I still desire and long for a God who will just fix things. Sometimes I pray to God in a kind of angry protest — God, if you are so powerful, and strong, why can’t you fix this? Why do you let young black and brown bodies die so easily? Why is there child sex trafficking? Why do you allow the rich to flourish and the poor to be forgotten? What kind of a king sits there and does not bring down some good law of the land and make everything better? I want a Lion to swoop in, take charge and roar, take all the bad people out and protect the good ones. Instead, Jesus came and let evil kill him, didn’t fight back and forgave them. Was gentle and meak. Why?! Do you not see this fractured world Lord? Are we not your children that you would protect at any cost?
Upon seeing this fractured world, seeing God’s creation, God’s children suffering, God’s response was…. Jesus.
The Christian faith believes in a crucified God. A slaughtered lamb. It represents Jesus Christ, who was born as an illegitimate son. I mean we call it virgin birth with reverence now but that might not have been clear to Mary’s fiancé Joseph at the time. Technically, Jesus is not David’s heir, but only through the adoption of his step father, Joseph, did the lineage hold true. Jesus first days on this earth — they were homeless. Joseph was a carpenter, not a professor. They came from Nazareth, which apparently wasn’t exactly the Boston of their times. God decided to show up to reveal Godself to humankind as an ordinary, marginalized, illegitimate, homeless, bottom of the social ladder, as a helpless baby, to a not so impressive or prestigious family.
It’s a picture of God who didn’t swoop in as a knight in shining armor, but as a friend, as a teacher, as a healer, as one of us. Hebrew 4:15 says:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses”
This is how God wanted to show up, saying — this is who I am. The Bible had been expecting a God who would save them, and God’s final greatest revelation of who God is, was through Jesus.
We are not met with the Mighty God who conquers all, but Jesus. A person. A fully human (fully divine yes) son of man, a human being that could bleed. We cried and cried, the Israelites longed and hoped for a savior, and God said, here I am. Jesus showed up. Philippians 2:6 says, that Jesus came,
“who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking form of a slave (and NOT A king! Like we expected! Like we needed!), being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”
Ain’t that interesting, that God didn’t arrive from the heavens in glory, but was born through a woman as a human being? Facing everything we faced, feeling, experiencing rejection, failure, injustice, death.
You see what Jesus did on the cross is a mystery. He died and 3 days later he did resurrect in glory and defeat human’s greatest enemy, death. But why this way? Why did God have to go through such lengths instead of waving around the banner of God’s great power and reign? Because God is not only power, but love, which is more powerful than military or coercion. God decided to use the power, not of control, but of love. Because God’s plan this whole time wasn’t let me fix you. I know Christians use such language — God saves — but what does the word mean? It doesn’t mean let me save you from all the sins you’ve committed cause you’re bad. It means let me save you from the lie that you are bad, because I created you in our image, and you were good from the beginning. It means, I love you, and I’m with you. No matter where you’ve been, what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you, I love you and I’m with you.
My need for a fixer God — is a only a shadow of who God really is. My expectation of a God who rights all wrongs isn’t big enough to see that God is doing something much more greater than righting wrongs. God doesn’t wanna fix me, God grieves with me, is angry on my behalf, is lamenting the evil done to me, and sits next to me and says, that shouldn’t have been so. God loves me.
We know this by relationships we’ve been in, that when someone is really going through suffering, they don’t need your answer to it or reasoning. You know when you’re trying to tell a story and they interrupt saying what you should’ve done, what you could’ve done, what you should do next time. Most of the times it’s not really that helpful. Especially with the really hard stuff –you just need someone to cry with. Someone to say, I feel your pain, man. I hear your struggles. In fact the Bible doesn’t even give a reason for why there was a snake in the garden. Why evil exists. At the end of all trials and suffering in the book of Job, God never gives him an answer for why he had to endure it all, but only lets him know that God created him and knows him. God doesn’t explain the evil, but says, I know you and I am your God.
You know, I don’t know why hard things happen in life. I wish I knew the answer why. But I don’t. Sometimes life seems so unfair and filled with questions of why Lord, how long oh Lord. And in those dark places, Jesus says, I’m here, I’m with you.
Where are you in your life right now? Have you been rejected? From your colleagues or once a loved one? Have you felt emptied out? Exhausted, like you’ve given everything you got, and nothing’s left? Have you experienced an unjust world that leaves you hanging high and dry? Have you been misunderstood, ignored, discredited or invisible?
Do you know that God is not disappointed in you? God’s not mad at you! God’s not sitting there wondering, oh when is he going to get his act together? When is she going to stop asking me for things? In all of life experiences. God see you, God knows you, and your suffering, and sometimes your wrongdoings, and moves towards you with, compassion, self-giving, self-empyting love? We do not have a high priest who sits on a throne, but comes down to the tear soaked pillows of our dark nights and says, I see you. I see you and I love you. I’m with you.
Don’t make assumptions about who God is, but be curious, inquire, and get to know Jesus. What’s God like?God is like Jesus.
That’s the loudest thing God has to say to us. So, get to know who Jesus was. What he did, said, what he was like. That’s who God is.
Secondly, fixing is not God’s primary goal.God says: I don’t need to fix you, I love you.
And this is the same for the people around us.
At the church I used to work at, we had a County Jail ministry where we would go to the Jail weekly and hold worship services. We’d share a word with them, sing with them, pray for them. And all of them, there’s not a thing we could do to change their situation, or help their lawyers, or change their sentencing. If we did anything, it was because we were with them, and knew them, heard their stories and love them, that we would have any impact on criminal justice reform in a more systematic way. But foremost was to know their struggles and be with them. And sometimes I would feel bad for not being able to do more. But to just be a friend, be a community, and sharing prayer and laughing together was what they enjoyed with us. I think sometimes it’s hard for us to serve others because it’s easier to want to solve a problem rather than journey through their struggles. But that’s usually what’s more effective at the end of the day, move into their lives and resonate with the other. Anything else than that is just colonization or co-opting the situation. There’s a book called Toxic Charity and it talks about the wayschurches sometimes provide charity that is unhelpful. It actually talks about how charity giveaways often are wasteful or ineffective, and rather empowering local workers and not creating outside dependency has more impact. Top down or outside giveaways never understand the complexity of the local context of its culture and the people. We know this to be true now in non-profit work and missions, and it absolutely makes sense that instead of stepping into another person’s situation with an agenda, moving into their lives and being with them through their struggles has more lasting and transformative impact.
God’s like a wise and savvy non-profit organization, that came to us, to be one of us, as human, to be among us, Immanuel is what that means:God is with us. So our calling is to be just that: be with people.
Do you believe that God is with you? Who can you be with this week? Without your own agenda or even ideas on how you could better them. But with simple love and care?
May the slaughtered lamb open up our hearts, unleashing the prophetic vision and voice to be a people that sits with the brokenhearted, feed the hungry, clothes the poor, that is with the people in need and with one another. May God be with us as we do so.