Chaplains Represent… what?

Army, Chaplaincy, Theology

There is a remarkable disconnect between the symbols of authority I wear on the uniform and the actual authority I bear as a person. A chaplain has no authority. They have no command. They have no real power. They only have representative power.

This looks like invoking the commander’s name when I need something acted upon as a staff officer. This looks like owning the rank on my chest as though it actually meant something other than a pay grade.

This looks like good, old fashioned pride often enough.

And yet, when I come into a room, it is not uncommon for Soldiers to stop with foul language or they will ask for pardon, “sorry chaplain…” Sometimes, people will shift uncomfortably in their seats waiting for me to finish whatever business I have in their space and leave; hoping, it seems, that I don’t start talking to them.

Is this because I am somehow intimidating? Heavens no! I am average in every way. I am a middle to end of the pack runner. I am always pushing the deadlines on my staff work. It is a great struggle and burden to keep up with the younger, more fit, better educated officers I work with.

So what drives the discomfort?


I read this passage from a “Minister’s Prayer Book” this morning and it resonated with me.

                “I was a pastor ministering at a hospital. A patient said to me, “if you were a ditchdigger, you’d have a more useful calling than you do now.” That was a long time ago, but I have not forgotten it. I thought so myself many a time as I watched the nurses performing their tasks which are so needed and desired by the sick, and surgeons and doctors performing the most wonderful operations – while I stood there making miserable attempts at pastoral conversation. If I only were a ditchdigger! But a pastor? An impossible figure! Impossible before God, the world, and even myself. For there is a tremendous gap between what is required of a pastor in his (her) ministry and his (her) authority and power. Does he (she) have any power at all?…”*

I have oft felt that angst. I have oft flited about the “battlefield” on a mission or tasking with nothing more to do than visit with my Soldiers and just “be there.” Often, I have dealt with my angst by finding busy work to engage in. Becoming an expert in suicide intervention, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Leadership, morale work, budget analysis, event planning, and whatever else I could do to make myself useful to command.


Really, I’m often just finding work to fill my day. To fill the void in my heart that seems so unfulfilled and worries that I’m of no actual use to the world I work in I create usefulness. I can own that it often came from pride.

It is noted, on the other hand, that I was raised with the maxim, “find a need and fill it.” This, combined with the embedded message of, “always look busy,” created in me a need to always have projects going. At its best, those projects were in the first vein but often, they could be easily identified as meeting the latter need.

Projects are good. Fulfilling needs and meeting goals are always healthy endeavors. For me, I’ve found that ignoring my spirit for the sake of keeping busy is injurious to my soul. They are an effort to be needed, to create some authority, please someone rather than the Someone, and by attempting to be indispensable, create power. That is inherently not good and not healthy.

It has been a challenge, growing into my ministry identity.

In a sense, I have suffered into it. 15 years into my ministry I am finally recognizing that what people need from their pastor is not programs or skill sets or leadership – they need authenticity. They need someone who knows their lane and knows their God and can represent that to them.

I love this from my morning reading:

                “The pastor’s authority is based solely upon the fact that Jesus Christ ministers to him (her) through the forgiveness of sins. What do I have to do in my ministry? I have to preach, and we say, “preaching is God’s Word.” And I know how those sermons of mine were produced. Often, it is true, with prayer and fear and trembling; but also by the dint of coffee and tobacco, sometimes in a burst of effort, very sketchily and superficially, because I have seemingly more important things to do. Strictly speaking, an impossible thing – unless Jesus Christ himself is not ashamed to accept this preaching.”* – Herman Dietzfelbinger

I know how my ministry has been produced. Through suffering both external and internal. Through the battles of the soul. Through disciplining my body and my mind, failing miserably in the intent, getting up and doing it again.

I think, and hope, that this is the sort of pastor people want and need. One who suffers as they do and yet, still embraces hope; even when it’s so hard to see. It is not about the work I do, the expertise I develop, the intellect I wield (thank God), it is about who I seek to represent. Can my people see Jesus through my stuff or does my business get in the way? Can they experience Christ in my presence, words, and actions or do they experience just another staff officer doing their jobs?

Pastoral ministry is, after all, all about who I represent.


* I chose intentionally to make the passage egalitarian.

Hope (part two – from prison to the Tomb and beyond)


Speaking of the afore mentioned hope

There was no such hope for the two women that approached the tomb that Easter morning. (Matthew 28:1-10) There was no comprehension that anything was going to happen outside of their own suffering. They had hope that Jesus was going to be some kind of king, that Jesus would bring some real change to the world they lived in. But that didn’t happen. After all the talk, all the prophecy, all the miracles, all the hype, Jesus came to Jerusalem and nothing changed.

Nothing changed. Nothing.

The Pharisees still walked to and from the Temple, praying on the street corner. The Sadducees still were the elite. The Sanhedrin still ruled in Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate was still procurator of Judea. The Romans were still the power. The Zealots were still on the run, still hiding. The disciples, for all their talk, were in hiding.

The world on that Sunday morning was still the same. Nothing had changed.

At least nothing they could see.

Actually, the world had changed. Resurrection had come.

Their hope was based in their reality. No matter how much Jesus had been with them, spoken to them, shown them miracles they couldn’t explain, their life was still profoundly attached to the reality they knew.

So they went to the Tomb. To sit. To remember. To think on what life had been for the last few years. To reset. To think about what to do next. To grieve.

There was no better tomorrow. There was only suffering. Today.

They had limited vision. They only saw God working in a way that made sense to them. We do the same thing with our hope, we put all our eggs in one basket and see God working in a way that makes sense to us. We know that it’ll work out because the Army will send us where we need to go, we’ll get that promotion, that family member will come around and see life the way I see it, time will start happening the way I want it to – I have hope but my hope is built around my life.

Only God does not work like that. We can’t make God work the way we want God to work. NO amount of hoping will make it so. God’s plan is not bound by a world that makes sense to me. Truth is, we have no idea what comes next. We can look to the past to reassure us that we’ll live, but then, the moment may still hurt.

So the hurting women came to grieve.

This passage plays out as a drama – there is an earthquake, the guards “become as dead men,” an Angel says “do not be afraid. Sometimes our salvation brings fear. We need our God to assure us that in the midst of it all, it’s going to be ok.

They were grieving and needed hope. They needed a vision for they were dying. They looked to Jesus for Salvation but that didn’t happen so they came to the Tomb to wait.

I’m wondering what they did with Jesus’ words. I wonder if, in those moments before the earthquake, they thought about what Jesus had said. That he planned on going to Jerusalem, where he would die and rise again. I wonder if they talked about what that would be like. I wonder if they believed it.

I wonder if they set their mind on the heavenly reality. I wonder…

The Apostle writes to the early Church, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

We have the resurrection. They didn’t. We have the benefit of looking back on their reaction thousands of years later and wondering about them. They didn’t.

But the challenge of looking heavenward still remains.

Too often, our vision, our hope, is earth centered. It is human-focused. We see only what we want to see. We see only what we are looking at and when we do that, we miss what God is doing. We miss the possibilities in God. I wonder what I have missed because I only could see what I wanted to see. I wonder what you have.

Seek the things that are above…” Actively do it. Actively seek. Make it happen. Saints – where are you looking? What are you seeking?

I wonder if they had been seeking a risen Lord – would they have looked somewhere other than the Tomb? I wonder if we tend to look for God in the last place we saw God instead of a new place with the earnest expectation that God is present and alive, actively moving in this world – in our lives.

I wonder how much extra pain we end up with because we’re looking in the wrong place for a God who is doing something we don’t even imagine is possible.

This Easter – hope in God.

Look Heavenward. Seek heavenly things. Look for what God is doing and imagine what God might be doing beyond my reality.

So that you too might be able to say, I am in sorrow right now, but I know that I will make it.

For if God is with me, who can be against me?

Hope is stronger than memory.

Salvation is stronger than sin.

Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness.

Reconciliation is stronger than hatred.

The open tomb is stronger than the bloodied cross.

The Risen Lord is stronger than the dead Jesus.

We are the Easter people.

We are the people of hope.

We are the people of the empty tomb, the Risen Lord, the new life in Christ.

– Kennon L. Callahan, Ph.D.

Shame. Hope.


Guilt. Shame. Church.

Do they go together ? Sometimes, it certainly feels that way.

Why is it that the Church uses those tools so much? Seems like every time I turn around, I am meeting someone who has experienced great hurt at the hands of the Church as a result of a very ungracious way of communicating guilt and shame.

Guilt is what we feel when we’ve done something wrong.  Guilt is sometimes deserved and sometimes not deserved.

Shame is what we feel when we are wrong. Shame is exposure. When what we’ve been trying to hide is exposed to others.

In the story of the nativity, guilt and shame are powerful players.

It begins in Matthew when Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. 1:2. Seems that Mary was “found to be with child.” Discovered. Uncovered. Exposed. Shamed.

This is not just about Mary. In Matthew’s Gospel, she enters the story with this: there was a girl, promised to an honorable man named Joseph. They did not have sex. She was pregnant. She is discovered and now it’s Joseph’s problem. But Joseph is an honorable man. He is a just man. He doesn’t want Mary to be hurt.



The story of the birth of Jesus Christ, the opening story of a faith of untold millions in human history starts out talking about sex. Specifically, scandalous sex. There was this girl you see…

For shame.

This is not just about Mary. Marriage was a big deal in the ancient Mediterranean culture. Marriage is the glue that holds the culture together. Who your kids marries determines what kind of care you can expect in your old age. Having children gave you legacy and workers in your family business. Much of Mary’s young life was focused on her future husband and that choice was more about her family than her. What had taken place here was a negotiation between Mary’s father and Joseph’s father. There were certain obligations that needed to be met. Mary had no life of her own – she belonged to her father until her father gave her to her new Lord. The one who would care for her as she bore children to him. Joseph was obligated to provide for his parents in their old age. To do this, he needed children to work in the shop, learn the trade, grow and care for him through marriages that he would negotiate. This was not about love, this was about culture. Security. Continuity. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. This is a gender-divided world where men and women had little contact. Their union was arranged for the political or economic advantage of their families. If love grew from such a thing, it was a blessing though not necessary.

In America, we talk about marriage being the social glue that holds culture together but our ideas of marriage and their ideas of marriage are oceans apart. In ancient Palestine, Marriage held the social contract, the security of food and the passing on of necessary work. These were not wealthy people, they were just people living in a society. That society valued marriage in a way we cannot fully grasp. The whole process was a ritualized removal of Mary from her family. The groom’s father offers gifts, money, or services to the bride’s father to win the daughter for his son. The mother’s negotiate the deal to ensure that all is above board and fair. The bride’s father makes the ultimate decision. It sounds harsh to our ears but we are talking here about property. And community. And the security net the society depends on.

To be single is disastrous. Certainly for a woman.

To be single and have a bastard? Almost no other option excepting prostitution existed.

Discovered. With. Child.

I see Joseph pacing. “Does your father know? Really?? And he didn’t tell me?? This is not right!!”

Mary, sobs in the corner, “the angel… said I was highly favored… said I was going to…”

“STOP!! Just stop! You don’t even know what you’re saying! Will you add blasphemy to your harlotry??”

In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that unless prevented by appropriate measures, a man and woman who found themselves alone would inevitably have sexual relations. This is why the culture prescribes that men (fathers, husbands, brothers) watch, guard, and protect the women in their care.

There were a variety of strategies for accomplishing this protection. One was to ensure that there were always chaperones – woman, children – always around. The other was to structure the houses in such a way that there were inner rooms and courtyards that would prevent outside men from seeing the young girls. Again, if you are the father to a young woman in this time, protecting your daughter from violation is of paramount importance. You love your children, and they are your treasure. Literally. If this sounds like some Muslim cultures you have read about, you would be correct in seeing some similarities. Their world and our world are not the same.

Discovered to be with child. Calamity. When Joseph, their pious man, realizes, long after the rumors have been floating around, probably in the presence of her mother, that Mary is pregnant – they whole paradigm shifts in that moment. Trust is gone. Mary’s father had negotiated in good faith. Good faith! He guaranteed a virgin that would bear him many children. But this! This treachery. This betrayal! Someone needed to pay. He certainly had.

This was not just about Mary. This was about a system that had collapsed. Mary is betrothed. Our modern ideas about “engagement” do not capture the arrangement that has been made here. Betrothal was a family event rather than between individuals. Betrothal was the initial phase in a process in which the prospective spouses were set apart for each other. This had taken place years ago. The couple did not live together but a formal divorce was required to break the publically established betrothal. Any sexual relations outside of marriage was adultery. This was not a case of young love – this is adultery. Clearly, there is a problem. Perhaps her brothers had not cared for her. Perhaps her father had not protected her enough. Without the proper “tokens of virginity” after the marriage, her family would be shamed.

Joseph clutches his chest. Sinks to his knees. He was not ready for this. He’d never be ready for this. The girl he was promised huddled uncomfortably in the corner protecting her stomach, she was afraid. She was afraid of him. She was right to. He could have her stoned. Dragged into the street. Ruin her father and family.  They would never do business in this town again.

Now, Matthew, introduces the hero factor. Joseph is presented with two bad choices. He could expose this girl to death (Numbers 5:11-31) or return her to her father though divorce. He certainly does not want to take responsibility for a child that his not his!! Who would do that? The cultural honor code that society functions by, the “way things are” demand that he not let this stand. This child does not get to get away with messing that up. Regardless of her claims of supernatural conception.

But he is a just man. He does not want blood on his hands. He does not want to ruin this family. He does not want to be made out more of a fool that he is already been. People have been talking. Mary was not a part of the monthly ritual bathing. He knows that the rumor mill is in full operation. He is already tainted by this relationship – better to end it now, find someone worthy, and hope the whole thing is forgotten.

He makes plans for divorce. Not public shaming divorce but discreet and private divorce.

Isn’t it something that for all the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew chooses to start out this way? The lineage of Jesus through Joseph, a helpless girl, and a noble man.

It’s the stuff of great novels or rubbishy ones – depends on what you like to read I guess. Only, it’s not a novel and Joseph is a man plunged into a personal trauma he never wanted nor was prepared for.  He didn’t ask for this. He didn’t sign up for this. He certainly didn’t think he was up to the task of being “step dad.” His family was about to look not very normal.

Here’s the thing, we’re very good in our puritan culture of holding up a family system that we identify as “normal.” There’s a father, a mother, idealized kids, dog, picket fence, college, sports… the whole thing. When something comes along that looks different, even when we are witnessing redemption at work, sometimes, we let shame do our talking and condemn what doesn’t look right.

Until we’re the ones with the weird looking family system. Until we’re the ones with the kids from different parents and the baggage of divorce.

I have 7 adopted brothers and sisters. Several of them have handicaps that are quite severe. I grew up with a mantra – “what’s normal?” I mean really – what. is. normal?

The church seems to be really great at deciding and then spiritualizing what normal looks like. Jesus was not born into a normal situation. This was not lost on anyone and Matthew chooses to lead with it. Something very different is happening here.

All the traditional rules about the birth of a king are off. All the standards of lineage are broken. It is fascinating to me that Matthew spends all this ink laying out the Jesus bloodline and then saying – but that’s not how this one went down… there was this girl… betrothed to a man…

The birth of Jesus Christ is not about joy and happiness.  It does not seem to be too full of joyful anticipation. There is the journey of Mary to see Elizabeth. Seems a bit strange no? A young woman spirited away to another town visit with her Aunt in her “advanced maternal age…” Then there was the whole taxes thing and the long journey and the born in a barn… Not much about this birth is the way it’s supposed to be.

But look what it became.

Christmas is often like that. The season seems to highlight over and over again how life is not always played out the way it was planned. People are not where they are supposed to be. Plans didn’t turn out. Dreams didn’t pan out. Goals were not reached. Christmas is fun but can’t really hide the emptiness.

Not every Christmas is all tinsel and cookies. Not every birth is baby showers and cuddly blankets.

Joseph knows that feeling.

He carries through with the marriage out of duty. God tells him what’s going on, what’s expected of him, and Joseph responds immediately. No divorce. No putting away. This step-dad steps up to the plate and does what God has asked him to do. He does not choose shame and guilt. He does not walk away. He embraces and scandal and owns his calling.

This is why Christmas is so hopeful. Life is not always what we want it to be but there is hope. There is always hope.

Light in the Darkness. Hope.


Life is desperate sometimes. Desperation born out of “Acts of God” and “Acts of Man.” Days when there is no hope. To you saint, “Arise, shine. Your light has come.”

Isaiah 60:1-6 (NRSV)
60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

My great-grandmother recently died. She was 101. She was born in 1911. A story I learned of just recently was of WWI. When it ended, she and her friend ran to the local church and rang the bell for an hour in celebration. She lived through all the seminal events of the 20th century. One that came up alot was the “Great Depression.”

Not everyone was in a state of depression when the stock market crashed in October 1929. The farmers of America’s Great Plains were enjoying the rewards of a bumper crop that year.
Everybody was looking decidedly down on Wall Street. Everything was looking up on the farms of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and the other wheat-producing states of the Plains.
Even in 1931, with the rest of the country in the grips of the Great Depression, things looked pretty good for these farmers. It seemed that the sky was the limit.
But then the sky betrayed them. The rains stopped, and these farmers were rocked by years of drought. Then the winds came, and nothing could prevent the years of devastation that followed.
Stripped of the deep-rooted grasses that kept topsoil in place, the overplowed land was swept away by apocalyptic dust storms. The region — and the collective events — became known as the Dust Bowl.

When drought struck from 1934 to 1937, the soil lacked the stronger root system of grass as an anchor, so the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds, called “black blizzards.” Recurrent dust storms wreaked havoc, choking cattle and pasture lands and driving 60 percent of the population from the region. Most of these “exodusters” went to agricultural areas first and then to cities, especially in the Far West.

All across the plains states, cities, towns, villages emptied. Generational farms were simply abandoned. Life was without hope.

One of the characteristics of the storm was how dark it got. When the dust came, it was as though the sun was simply, blocked out.

My father was born during a dust storm on July 23, 1933 in Custer County, Oklahoma. According to my grandmother, their house was located in the country. In order for the doctor to find the house, a kerosene lantern was placed on a fence post. The birth went well and another baby boy was born in 1935. I should add that the second baby was not born during a dust storm. The family relocated to Nebraska in the late 1930s due to the Great Depression. They remained Nebraska where they became successful farmers. However, many of my grandmother’s relatives still live in Oklahoma.
— Judy Cantrell

People just left. Old men and women watched their children just pack up and leave. Schools graduated no one. Sports teams stopped playing, there was no one to play and no reason any more. Hopeless

This is the Dustbowl story of Bruce Campbell. It is excerpted from The Salt of the Earth, edited by Bernadette Tabor Pruitt (Evans Publishing Co., 1988). Campbell, of Checotah, Okla., died in 2011. His story was told to Randy Pruitt:
Bruce Campbell, like so many others, tried to ride out the Depression. However, it proved to be a wild horse nobody could saddle. Conditions in the 1930s continued to deteriorate, but what made it worse was the fact that people were depending on him: his mother, two brothers, two sisters, a wife and their baby. Campbell had become head of the household at age 19 when his father died. The drought in the summer of 1936 made his decision for him.
‘By the first of July, crops was all burnt up,’ he recalled. “By the middle of July, we had all the corn done cut off and fed green to the cows. The best cows in the country just brought $15 apiece.
“When I left Oklahoma, there wasn’t nothin’ to do, wasn’t no work to do. You didn’t have anything. It looked like starvation living anywhere you was at.”
Talk of California was drifting up and down the streets of Checotah and through back-road communities like Central High, Onapa and Mt. Nebo.
‘Cal Collins – he ran a school bus here in Onapa – he just kind of let it slide around that he was goin’ to California at a certain time and anybody that wanted to ride with him could for $10.”
Campbell and two good friends scrambled to find some money.
“I sold a pair of mule colts for $19,” he said. “When I got ready to go, I didn’t have but $28.” He used $10 of it to pay a friend’s way.
When the trio arrived to leave early that sultry August morning, they were surprised to find not 20 people – the number expected – but more.
“There was 30 of us on that truck,” he said, “20 men, five women and five kids.”
All Campbell took with him was a quilt and the clothes he wore.
The pace westward was slow and grueling. Campbell could still hear the overloaded one-ton Chevrolet truck straining up the hills in compound gear. “I was wondering if we was ever going to get there.”
They arrived September 1, after being on the road seven days and sleeping on the ground.
“We landed down there at Arvin. ‘Ragtown’, we called it. There was a string of tents as long as from here to that road up yonder,” he said, indicating a half mile. “I had two dollars and a quarter and I’d never been to California.
“I went to work two days after I got there for old Don Jay Kavokavitch on a grape farm. I worked there for a few days then went to picking cotton. I stayed there three weeks and then I went over to McFarland to a camp south of Greenfield to a grape vineyard. I stayed there two years.”
The migrant camp, he said, was filled with people, mostly from Oklahoma and Arkansas.
At one point, his wife and seven-month-old son joined him. They lived in a chicken house rented for $4 a month.
“When you went to the field to work in the day, they hauled your water out in 55-gallon barrels strapped down to an old trailer behind a cotton truck. That water was hot enough you could shave with it when you was drinkin’ it. The only time you could get a cool drink was early in the morning.”
Campbell lived alongside the destitute, people who looked like they weren’t going to hang on for another week.
“In the winter of ’36, lots of people was out of work and they wasn’t no welfare out there. I don’t know how some of ’em got by. Of course, a lot of ’em made it. You’d see ’em sittin’ around, didn’t have no jobs. I guess I been lucky. I could always get a job. Might not make much, but I could always get a job.”
California held few fond memories for Campbell. While many Oklahomans stayed, he chose to leave and never return.
“I didn’t leave nothin’ out there to go back after,” he said.
He returned to Oklahoma with $54.
“I came home and borrowed $35 from the bank to buy a horse with and made a one-horse crop in ’38 and ’39.”
Campbell had read The Grapes of Wrath. “It was just about as bad as it read. Some things was exaggerated a little and some things wasn’t bad enough.”
The Dustbowl is one memory that would be burned into his mind forever.
“We’ve had a lot of droughts but none as bad as ’36,” he said. “I’d planted cotton in May of ’36, barefooted, and my tracks were just as plain when I left in August as they’d been when I planted it. It was just dry enough my barefooted tracks was still there and cotton hadn’t come up.
“In September, when I was in California, I got a letter from my mother. ‘It rained,’ she wrote. ‘You got a real pretty stand of cotton.’ The cotton seed had laid there all summer.”
— Bernadette Pruitt

This is the story of of a hopeless people. This is the story of a people in need of something, anything to help them get through.

Of course, the story of the dust bowl is not just about no rain, its about how the earth was treated, how the land was changed and stripped bare by those that simply didn’t understand how their plowing up the native grasses would impact the soil. The rain stopped coming and the wind blew but there was nothing to keep the dirt down.

It was an “Act of God” but it was also an act of man.

Isaiah speaks to these people. He speaks life to these people.
That is the story of this passage. Isaiah preached to a people who had left the “old ways, the old paths.” They had abandoned their reason for being. They had stopped acting as the children of God.

This is “3rd Isaiah.” This book was not written in order, as one complete thought, it was written to specific audiences. This one are those who were left after Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and sacked it. When he came it was terror. He sacked the city and took everything from it that meant anything. Took everything that had value and meaning. He destroyed the Temple and took thousands of the young. Took the craftsmen, the layers, the accountants, the doctors, the religious. He took them all and left in their place, the old, the broken, the weak.

Read their confession:

Isaiah 59:9-15 (The Message)
9-11 Which means that we’re a far cry from fair dealing, and we’re not even close to right living. We long for light but sink into darkness, long for brightness but stumble through the night. Like the blind, we inch along a wall, groping eyeless in the dark. We shuffle our way in broad daylight, like the dead, but somehow walking. We’re no better off than bears, groaning, and no worse off than doves, moaning. We look for justice—not a sign of it; for salvation—not so much as a hint.
12-1 5 Our wrongdoings pile up before you, God, our sins stand up and accuse us. Our wrongdoings stare us down; we know in detail what we’ve done: Mocking and denying God, not following our God, Spreading false rumors, inciting sedition, pregnant with lies, muttering malice. Justice is beaten back, Righteousness is banished to the sidelines, Truth staggers down the street, Honesty is nowhere to be found, Good is missing in action. Anyone renouncing evil is beaten and robbed.

The pain is palpable. They have failed. They are defeated. The image is that old Western you watched as a kid. The saloon, the sheriff’s office, the post/general store/hardware store. The bad guys are in town. The rain is pelting downward  turning the street into mud and muck. I love the image of Justice being beaten back. He wants to help. He wants to succeed but he is beaten down in the street. As he lays there in the blood and mud, Righteousness wants to come out but she has been banished. She is sidelined and has to watch, as a spectator, as Justice bleeds out, beaten by evil. Truth staggers down the street, drunk, in a stupor, unable to reveal anything – the function of truth. Materialism taken it’s place. Good is simply not there. Not anywhere. Nowhere to be seen. Evil is complete. The darkness has overwhelmed the town. Those who might dare to renounce it hide in their homes, afraid of anything and everything. They crouch behind broken glass afraid. In the dark, everything inspired terror. To the terrorized, they are powerless.

In the OT, God relates to a people. Not particularly individuals but a nation. In the NT, a change takes place where God interacts with the Kingdom, this kingdom made up of you and me. We are the kingdom of God. When we read these old texts, I wonder, have we ever been here? Have we walked that path? Has truth been drunk in our lives, unable to reveal anything to us because of the lies we keep telling ourselves? Has darkness ever overwhelmed your thoughts and your being? Has Righteousness been sidelined?

Have you ever felt this empty? Experienced that humiliation and depression of the “years the locusts took?” Watched your children, your dreams just up and walk away because of the blows that life and your decisions dealt you?

And 16-21
16-19 God looked and saw evil looming on the horizon— so much evil and no sign of Justice. He couldn’t believe what he saw: not a soul around to correct this awful situation. So he did it himself, took on the work of Salvation, fueled by his own Righteousness. He dressed in Righteousness, put it on like a suit of armor, with Salvation on his head like a helmet, Put on Judgment like an overcoat, and threw a cloak of Passion across his shoulders. He’ll make everyone pay for what they’ve done: fury for his foes, just deserts for his enemies. Even the far-off islands will get paid off in full. In the west they’ll fear the name of God, in the east they’ll fear the glory of God, For he’ll arrive like a river in flood stage, whipped to a torrent by the wind of God. (God’s coming in power. The marshal has arrived and it’s on!! He picks up Justice, heals him; lets Righteousness free from the sidelines; sobers up Truth; releases Good upon the town!! God is here and darkness is banished!!)
20″I’ll arrive in Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who leave their sins.” God’s Decree.
21″As for me,” God says, “this is my covenant with them: My Spirit that I’ve placed upon you and the words that I’ve given you to speak, they’re not going to leave your mouths nor the mouths of your children nor the mouths of your grandchildren. You will keep repeating these words and won’t ever stop.” God’s orders.

The passage begins with a reference to light. In the darkness, everything causes fear. In the darkness, little things seem overwhelming and terrifying – in the light, they lose their power. “The people that have walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those, living in the shadow of death, a light has shined.” (9:2)

Light brings hope. Light brings life. What sustains the community – the only thing that can sustain us through all our crises – is the faith that we are loved by God and that we exist for a purpose. We are here for each other, for the world around us, for God. We are sustained by that great hope.

I love, love, love, the image that closes our text – “Lift up your eyes, they are coming home to you. Your sons. Your daughters.” They are not the same. They have been changed by the journey but here they are. This place will return to some glory. It will not be the same, it will be better for you are better. You are changed.

Saints, this year, this Epiphany – know that you are better. You are changed. You are different now than you were. This last year may have been a year of great pain and sorrow for you. Maybe you failed, put Justice, Righteousness, Truth and Goodness on the sideline, wallowed in the Darkness, watched it overtake your life. Saints, upon you, the Light of Christ has shined!!! You are not alone! You are not forgotten! You are favored by your God! Look Up! You are coming home.

Just as you had a hand in your destruction, you have a hand in your redemption. Come to Jesus. Come to the Light. Bask in the glory.

Isaiah 60:1-7 (The Message)

“Get out of bed, Jerusalem!
   Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.
   God’s bright glory has risen for you.
The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,
   all people sunk in deep darkness,
But God rises on you,
   his sunrise glory breaks over you.
Nations will come to your light,
   kings to your sunburst brightness.
Look up! Look around!
   Watch as they gather, watch as they approach you:
Your sons coming from great distances,
   your daughters carried by their nannies.
When you see them coming you’ll smile—big smiles!
   Your heart will swell and, yes, burst!
All those people returning by sea for the reunion,
   a rich harvest of exiles gathered in from the nations!
And then streams of camel caravans as far as the eye can see,
   young camels of nomads in Midian and Ephah,
Pouring in from the south from Sheba,
   loaded with gold and frankincense,
   preaching the praises of God.