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Abraham and Sarah eventually have a son and name him Isaac. It is the impossible work of a miraculous God. This reminds us that as much as we might like to, we cannot overlook that part of the Abraham story is on a mountain called Moriah. We cannot overlook this part of the story where God seems to put the promise in jeopardy. As much as I love to read about a climb up a mountain, I wish this climb belonged to someone else’s story. It would be easier to ignore this story and pretend it isn’t there. Another option might be to focus on Abraham’s obedience or God’s grace.

Or we can head up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac and admit this is an emotional story and not try to explain it away. We will still not enjoy the story – but the story will do something to us.

Since we struggle with violence and negative emotion and we love children we want this story to go differently. If we were writing the story, we would write it differently. But this story is the one we are given. We can argue and debate and wrestle it. And when we are finished we may not be able to sleep at night. We may not be able to approach God the same way ever again. But we will not be the same people we were before the story. This journey into the mountain country will change us.

Already, at this early stage in the bible, we are made aware that our text, these words are a dangerous sanctuary. The words that provide direction direct us into dangerous places. We find ourselves in places we cannot survive on our own. We find ourselves in places only God can rescue us. We know that a canonical adventure will be full of both danger and grace.

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A Decorated Season

“Bright lights wrap around trees, indoors and out. On some houses, lights start at ground level and climb to the rooftops. On a clear night, it looks as if they are strung across the sky and come down on the other side of the street. The season is decorated with both strings of light from Wal-Mart and the likes of Betelgeuse and Polaris.”

(from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 16)

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Among the memories of childhood Christmas, there is one that continues to surprise me. Every Christmas, without fail, we received a pair of pajamas from grandma. The same pajamas every year. Shirt and pants that snapped together at the waist with metal buttons. Pajamas with feet in them. Pajamas decorated with Winnie the Pooh characters.

Looking back, the surprise is not that we received them. The surprise is that we wore them. The bigger surprise is that Dad allowed this to happen.

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We loved everything that came with Christmas morning. Rushing downstairs, opening packages, and making our way to grandma’s house. There, we would compare gifts with our cousins. We would stand politely while our aunt’s pinched our cheeks and told us how we had grown. And we would wait for our uncle’s to come in, one by one, to tell us “hope you got everything you wanted this year, because last night I accidentally shot Santa Claus.”

When we were real young, we wondered which of them was most likely to be telling the truth. It wasn’t too many years before we finally figured that out.

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The tax code states clearly that in order to maintain exempt status, churches may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” This is known as the Johnson Amendment.

Presently, there is a bill underway (H.R. 172) that would allow churches to identify with a political party and to encourage others to support the political party. The stated intention of the bill is “to restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”

Before conceding this is a good idea, one should consider the danger of the church identifying with a political party. Alignment with a political party is compromise no matter what government we are talking about. A church that aligns with government ceases to be the church. Before thinking this is a good idea we should consider the ease with which we could divide according to political philosophies. It is dangerous to gather in the name of American politics and convince ourselves if we mention Jesus we are doing the right thing. It might make things easy to mingle with those who are like minded as if we were just another caucus, but we do not gather as democrats or republicans. We gather as the people of God.

As far as free speech, the church has always been a people who say things we are not supposed to say. And we have said these things to people we are not supposed to say them to. We are not inclined to request permission from the state for things we must say. This is true whether or not we are granted the right of free speech.

We already struggle with the way power works and our desire for a piece of it. Even before the proposed repeal, too many of us have been tempted to attach to partisan preferences and join the empire. It is already too easy to think this is where the power lies. It is already too easy to think that working alongside the empire is the best way to get our message out. I am not hopeful that a repeal of the Johnson Amendment benefits the church at all.

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A Christmas Reading

The waiting is over, a child is born
The waiting is over, a Son is given
The waiting is over, the government is on his shoulders
The waiting is over, his name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

We light the first candle to remind us of hope in a dark place. We light the second candle to join heaven and earth in celebration. We light the third candle in thanks that the news has come to us. We light the fourth candle because God welcomes surprise visitors.

Tonight we light the Christ candle because the waiting is over.

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We approach Christmas with good intentions. We quote the prophets. We place angels and shepherds and wise men carefully in the nativity scene. Yet, we wonder, would we have believed a story about a carpenter and a virgin and a baby born from God? Would we have believed he was born in Bethlehem in order to affirm his connection with King David? It is likely that many saw the star but did not follow. It is likely that people heard the shepherd’s story but did not believe them. The scholars in Herod ‘s palace knew exactly where to find the child but did not make the attempt.

Still, we approach Christmas as if we would have believed from the start. As if we would have stood with the prophet against the king. As if we would have joined the angelic choir in song. As if we would have run to Bethlehem with the shepherds. As if we would have worshipped with the wise men. We would have been there, the shepherds and wise men and us. Yeah right.

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