Advent 4A: God With Us

journey-to-bethlehemOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 7: 10-16

To read the Old Testament Lectionary Passage, click here

During this season of Advent this year, we have read texts that get louder and louder with prophetic messages of what is to come. This is the thing of which Christmas’s are made. This passage actually depicts the second part of a story about an encounter between the prophet that we know as Isaiah and the Judean King Ahaz. It locates the story in 734-733 bce, when the Kings of Israel and Aram attempted to invade Jerusalem and replace Ahaz with a sort of puppet ruler who would support their coalition against Assyria. The invasion was actually unsuccessful but at this point in the writing, that ending is unknown. The attacks threaten not only the survival of the nation itself but the fulfillment of a promised ruler descended from David, the great King of history. So, the prophet Isaiah is sent to reassure Ahaz of divine protection.

Now, it is apparent that Ahaz is a ruler of faith—so much so that he will not ask as others have done for a “sign”, proof of God’s promises. And so God gives him one anyway, proof that God is always and forever God, even in the face of one with strong and faithful convictions.
The sign is a child. The child’s name, Immanuel (or “God with us”) reinforces the divine promise to deliver the nation from its enemies and sure demise. The child is born of a young woman, the Hebrew “almah”, which means a young woman of marriageable age. If the author had wanted to depict the woman as a virgin, the word “betulah” would have been used. But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word was translated as “parthenos” or “virgin”. So the writer of The Gospel According to Matthew understood the verse as a prediction of the birth of Jesus. And then all those translators that came after that capitalized on that notion, perhaps in an effort to explain the unexplainable, to rid the text of the ambiguities that were probably meant to be there in the first place.
Many scholars think that the young woman may have been Ahaz’s wife and her son the future king Hezekiah. She also is identified with the wife of the prophet himself. But, regardless, the very birth of a child could have evoked hope in a time of great despair and national duress. And, likewise, our interpretation through our Christian lens interprets the passage as a promise of redemption that we see through the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, “God with us”.

 

This text is, as we said, ambiguous at best. Who are we kidding? The whole faith story is a little ambiguous at best. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way. But the promise of this child (whoever the child is interpreted to be) is one of hope and promise, one of joy and peace, but it can also be one of fear and apprehension. After all, what does it mean for God to be with us, walking among us, being a part of our very lives? How do we respond to the idea of God’s very real presence in our lives? And how do we truly respond to the idea of full transformation of all that is into what it should be? The details of the story no longer matter. The point is that God is With Us. And so, we are called to trust God and put our faith in the promise that God brings. Ahaz, the Assyrians, everything around will soon fall by the wayside, but God’s promise will remain. After all, God is with us. But what that means will be something for you to discover on your own.

a. What are your thoughts about this passage?
b. What does that truly mean to live with the real presence of Christ in one’s midst?
c. So what expectation in this Advent season does this passage evoke for you?

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 1: 1-7

To read the Lectionary Epistle Passage, click here
This is a short text but it’s definitely packed with some pretty important ideas: being set apart, the Good News of God through Christ, the Scriptural witness, Jesus as a son of David, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and faith itself. Essentially, it has to do with identity. Paul sees himself as a servant of Christ; literally, a “slave”, one who submits totally to God, one who belongs to God. The original hearers of this message did indeed belong to God through Christ but they were also a part of the Roman Empire. But over and above who they are as Romans, Paul reminds them that first and foremost, they belong to Christ. Paul himself cannot turn his back completely on his own identity and the culture in which he grew and still resides. And he is not expecting that from anyone else. But he is calling his hearers to an awareness of something more, something beyond who they are.

 

Perhaps this is Paul’s way of reminding us that God enters our lives through the normalcy of what life holds. We are not called to change the lives we live, just the way we live them. We are reminded to live with an obedience of faith in the midst of who we are as people. Earlier this week, I baptized a baby who was eating a Ritz cracker. Now, we don’t usually pass out hor’dourves with the Sacraments, but, really, did that change God’s Presence in that moment? For that matter, who’s to say that it didn’t make that Presence more real? God’s presence and God’s promise comes wherever one is. Our calling is to respond to that presence also in the midst of the lives we lead. But that entails learning to see and listen in a way that many of us do not. We need to appreciate how God called others into being so that we might be able to better discern our own unique way that God is entering our lives.

 

a. What are your thoughts about this passage?
b. How would you describe your own identity?
c. What does that mean for you to be aware of God’s presence in the “normalcy” of your identity and your life?

GOSPEL: Matthew 1: 18-25

To access the Lectionary Gospel Passage, click here

The text is familiar. It is the story of stories. This is it; this is how it happened; this is how God entered the world and changed us forever. The writer of Matthew must have had such a great sense of God in the writings of Isaiah that this was the way it needed to be described. We already know the answer; we know what will happen. The Christ child will again come and for a moment, if only for a moment, we will look into the eyes of hope and change. We will look into the eyes of God. And then something will distract us and the moment will be lost—until next year. And yet, we are reminded of Emmanuel, God With Us. And, like Joseph, when we awake from sleep, we are to take the Christ child into our hearts.
We skip over the genealogy. I supposed that’s done so that we can get to the story and not be bogged down in the details. I mean, really, most people don’t want to hear a list of names. It doesn’t make good press or good script. And yet, the story itself is buried in the details, isn’t it? I suppose God could come into the world with no help from us, with no help from all of those faithful ones who came before us. But what would it mean? Why bother? After all, the name of the Christ child is “God With US”. Doesn’t that mean something? The story is incomplete without us. Because without us, God never would have come at all. God came as Emmanuel, “God with us”, and calls us into the story. The Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity. There’s no way out. The Divine has poured into our midst and we are changed forever. We just have to birth the Godchild in our lives. Knowing that we could never become Divine, the Divine became us. The world is turned upside down. And so God stayed around to show us how to live in it. So I suppose the writer of Matthew is right: All this DID take place to fulfill what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophets…and his dwelling will be glorious.
We also are guilty of sort of skipping over Joseph. After all, can you imagine what he must have been going through? This was not just affecting Mary’s life. It was affecting his life too. The proper (and probably the easiest) thing would be to quietly divorce her and go on with his life. But in the night in a wild fit of sleep came the dream. Ah, the dream! “Listen to her, Joseph, she is telling the truth. And she needs you. This child will need you. He will need a father in his life to show him how to grow up, to show him how to become a man. He will need someone to hold him when he is afraid and scold him when he gets off course as all children do. He really just needs someone to love him into being. And Mary? She is scared. She needs you. You can do this together.” And, so Joseph awoke, took Mary in his arms, and the rest is part of the story. But their lives changed forever.
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. (From “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst”, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, December 21)
The Season of Advent is about waiting and preparation. But in the midst of the tree-trimming and the gift-buying and the cookie-baking, remember to look for the moment when you feel the presence of God in your midst. It will change you forever.

a. What are your thoughts about this passage?
b. What does the idea of God being with you really mean for you?
c. What can we do to prepare ourselves for the coming of God into the world so that THIS TIME we know that it’s forever?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into [God’s] superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity. (Karl Rahner)
To love God is to follow the mystery, to be led by its showing and withdrawing. (John Dunne)

 

God is now on earth and [humanity] in heaven; on every side all things comingle. [God] has come on earth, while being fully in heaven; and while complete in heaven, [God] is without diminution on earth…Though being the unchanging word, God become flesh to dwell amongst us. (St. John Chysostom)

Closing
The time is almost here. In just a few hours, the door to the Divine will swing open and God and all of heaven will burst into the world. If you stop and listen, just for a moment, you can hear the eternal harps in the distance as they approach our lives. Oh, sure, it’s happened before. But can’t you feel it? Doors opening, light flooding in, the earth filled with a new vision of peace eternal. Maybe, just maybe, tonight will be different.
The child in the manger is, of course, no ordinary child, but God Incarnate, the Word made flesh. God took the form of a human–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–and was born and dwelt with us–still Divine, but in every way human (because you see God in all of God’s wisdom and all of God’s mystery can do that!) This Holy Incarnation was not meant to show us how to be Divine but, rather, how to be human. We see ourselves as “only human”, as if that excuses us from being who God called us to be. But the point is that God calls us to be human, made in the image of God (not like God, but in the image–a reflection of God, Incarnate). Jesus the Christ was born human so that we would know what being human means. And when, like Jesus, we become fully human, our hearts are filled with compassion, connecting us to one another; our eyes are filled with a vision of what God made this world to be; and our lives become holy as they are shaped in the image of God Incarnate. And we, even as humans, can reach out and touch the Divine now that God has burst forth into this world.
On the eve of Christ’s birth, let us open our lives to receive this holy child and open our hearts and our eyes that we might finally know what we are called to become–human, made in the image of God, a reflection and an incarnation of God here on earth. This Christmas, let Christ be born in us. This Christmas, let us become fully human.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel! (Phillips Brooks)

The time is almost here. The door is opening and we see heaven beginning to pour in. Go forth and become human, become who God called you to be.

Closing is by Shelli Williams,“Becoming Human”, 12/24/2008, DANCING TO GOD Blog, available at http://dancingtogod.com/2008/12/24/becoming-human/

Advent 3A: Expecting the Desert to Bloom

Blooms in the DesertOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 35: 1-10

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This passage is actually paired with the preceding chapter (Chapter 34) and together they provide a significant part of the total writings of the prophet Isaiah.  Chapter 35 is definitely plays the key role.  Even though the chapter is part of what we know as “First Isaiah”, there are questions as to whether or not it was actually written during the time of “Second Isaiah” (which probably occurred at the end of the exile about 540 BCE).  If you read Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah), there are many similarities in the poetic phrasing.  The writer of the 35th chapter echoes the writings of the return of the exiles (the “highway”, the “streams in the desert”) but it is apparent that whoever wrote this chapter expected even more.  The dispersed of Israel from throughout the world shall return to Zion, and the dry and lifeless desert will become a fertile garden.

Although it resembles a prophetic announcement of the coming salvation of the Lord, it almost sounds a little like a writing that would have been read to an audience.  There is no “thus says the Lord” language or specific addressee that follows most prophetic writings.  Its central theme is the proclamation that the natural order will be dramatically transformed and that the “ransomed of the Lord” will come in joy to Zion.  Even the land will rejoice, as vegetation flourishes even in the desert.  The desert itself will bloom!  There is a promise that help is coming from the Lord, who will heal the sick and bring streams that flow through the desert.  The highway in the desert, which is normally filled with threats from wild beasts and enemies, will become the “holy way”.  For the writer, this highway is restricted to those who are holy, or ritually “clean”.

As we’ve mentioned before, this is not depicting a destruction of what is there and a replacement of something new.  What is there now will still be there, but it will be recreated into something new.  It is similar language that is used when one talks of buying someone back from slavery or debt.  Here, it is reclaiming of the exiles from Babylonian captivity and bondage.  There is an image of the exiles returning along this road with praise and celebration.

In this season of Advent, we are not just called to look toward that day.  We are reminded to look FOR that day, to imagine and believe it into being and to see what of it is already there.  We live within a holy tension of the way the world is and the way God calls the world to be.  But we are reminded that the blooms in the desert are already planted.  We just have to open our eyes to the possibility and then sing and dance for joy.  It will be the fulfillment of the promise that has always been there and, finally, “joy to the world.”

a.      What are your thoughts about this passage?

b.      What does the notion of “redemption” mean for you?

c.       How is this promise of redemption reconciled with the suffering and despair, the deserts, if you will, that still exist in the face of our lives?

 

PSALTER:  Luke 1: 47-55

To read the Lectionary Psalter for this week, click here

Our tradition (and in particular, the Protestant one) seems to domesticate Mary, giving her characteristics of one who is meek and downtrodden.  Maybe so, but these words are anything but meek.  They are downright radical.  Less language has started wars.  Somehow the insertion of Mary has shifted the story.  This is not some doe-eyed girl bowing to the whim of a frightening God; this is a strong and faithful young woman who responds to God’s call to bear God for the world.  She has transfigured the story itself and brought God’s presence into something that we can grasp, something that we can embrace.

E. Stanley Jones called The Magnificat “the most revolutionary document in the world”.  It is said that The Magnificat terrified the Russian Czars.  It is an out and out call to revolution.

The Magnificate is God’s revolution. The Magnificate is the charter, the document, the constitution of God’s revolution. The Magnificate is the basic, fundamental document. You don’t change the constitution. I saw the Magna Carta, the real thing, in a museum in London. That Magna Carta is the fundamental document on which freedom is based in English society. So also, the Magnificate is God’s charter; it is God’s Magna Carta. That document lays down the fundamental principles of the Christian revolution.

In the Magnificate, God totally changes the order of things. God takes that which is on the bottom; and God turn everything upside down, and puts the bottom on top and the top on the bottom.  God revolutionizes the way we think, the way we act, and the way we live. Before God’s revolution, we human beings were impressed with money, power, status and education. We were impressed with beauty, bucks and brains. But God revolutionizes all of that; God totally changes all of that; God turns it upside down.  The poor are put on the top; the rich are put on the bottom. It is a revolution; God’s revolution. The Magnificate clearly tells us of God’s compassion for the economically poor; and when God’s Spirit gets inside of Christians, we too have a renewed compassion and action for the poor.  Our hearts are turned upside down.

Listen carefully to the words of the Magnificate. Not the poetry of the words, the beauty of the words, the loveliness of the words. Listen to the five important verbs. In the Magnificate, God tells us that God regards or respects the poor, exalts the poor, feeds the poor, helps the poor, remembers the poor. In that same chapter in Luke, we hear the story that God chose a slave girl, Mary, to be the mother of Jesus. God didn’t chose the beauty queen of Ballard; God didn’t chose a mother who was a millionaire; God didn’t chose a bride with brains. God chose a little thirteen year old girl from a fourth world country, with dark skin and dark brown eyes and dark brown hair to be the mother of Jesus. The Bible didn’t call her a handmaiden. The word, “handmaiden,” sounds so pretty. The Greek word is, “doulos,” which means slave or servant. Mary was a servant girl.  God exalted a servant girl from a fourth world country to be exalted and lifted up. And this servant girl sang her song and it is called the Song of Mary. The actual words of her song are revolutionary. The Song of Mary is a revolutionary bombshell because it turns the values of this world upside down. (“The Magnificat and God’s Revolution”, by Edward F. Markquart, available at http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_magnificant.htm.)

 NEW TESTAMENT:  James 5: 7-10

To read the Lectionary Epistle, click here

The Letter of James is traditionally seen as the first of the “general” or “catholic” epistles.  It is clear and forceful in its moral emphases.  It actually was made part of the canon much later than many of the other epistles, even though it seems to have been used by philosophers and theologians prior to that.  (As an aside, Martin Luther made clear is distaste for the letter because of the emphasis on justification by works.  But it is fairly clear that the writer of this letter and Paul are not in conflict over this; they are just addressing two different points.)

The letter deals primarily with four ideas:  concern over morality (as opposed to just acting nice), intentional community (rather than just one household), egalitarianism, rather than hierarchy (you’ll notice that it has lots of “brother” and “sister” language), and a focus on the community rather than just an individual or a specific group of individuals.  There are many that think the letter may have been written by “James the brother of the Lord”, which would place it before the year 62, but many also consider it to be written under a pseudonym and perhaps later in that century.  As far as a Christian writing, it is the New Testament writing that most clearly yields a social ethics grounded in the perception of the world as created and gifted by God.

The passage that we read is addressing a community with the assumption of the expectation of judgment—to vindicate the righteous and poor and to punish the oppressive and rich. (so you can see why it fits with our other writings this week).  For those who are waiting, James tells them that they must strengthen their hearts and stay focused.  They must exercise patience.  In the meantime, oppression and injustice will continue and the community needs to focus on solidarity and unity in the meantime.  For now, we are called to patience and courage, strength and fortitude.

a.      What are your thoughts about this passage?

b.      What do you think is meant by patience here?  How well do we exercise that?

c.       What does this “call to community” vs. our own society’s call for individualism mean for us?

GOSPEL:  Matthew 11: 2-11

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

We talked last week about John the Baptist, a Jewish prophet with his own message and disciples who was ultimately executed by Herod Antipas.  We saw John depicted as this sort of wild wilderness man who preached the message of repentance in the name of Christ, the Messiah.  The passage today begins with John in prison.  And here he starts to doubt what he is doing.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the One, or should I be waiting and looking for another?”  Essentially, what Jesus was doing was not in the mold of what John had envisioned.  John was going around preaching repentance in the face of what was surely the Kingdom of God coming soon.  And here was Jesus healing and freeing and raising the dead.  John probably didn’t see it as wrong—just sort of a waste of time.  After all, in his view, there were people that needed redeeming!

Jesus responds not by rebuking or patronizing John but by praising him for having the courage and the conviction to stand up for his beliefs.  The concept of the “reed shaken by the wind” probably held more meaning for Jewish hearers than for us.  There was a Jewish parable in first-century Judaism known as “The Parable of the Reed and the Oak”.  According to the parable, a giant oak tree and a thin reed were both planted by a river.  When a storm came, the deep roots of the oak kept it firmly established, enabling it to withstand most winds.  There was nothing wishy-washy or compromising about the oak.  The reed, on the other hand, would bend to the left or right, even with a slight breeze.  The conclusion of the story was that the oak, because of its refusal to compromise, could end up losing its life in a fierce storm, snapping in two at the hands of hurricane-force winds, but the reed, though it might survive, could only do so by continual bending to the force of the winds around it.  Jesus was probably pointing to this familiar Jewish story when he asked this question about the reed.  In other words, he was probably saying, “Did you expect this prophet of God, this forerunner of the Christ, to be a weak-kneed compromiser?”

Often people look upon theological or Biblical study as something that answers questions.  I don’t think that’s the way it works.  I think it instead teaches you how to ask the questions.  Hans Kung said: Doubt is the shadow cast by faith.  One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed.  At any moment it may come into action.  There is no mystery of the faith which is immune to doubt.  As we’ve said before, God does call us to blind faith; God calls us to illumined doubt.  Another issue here is the idea of someone (like John was) being so locked into their own convictions and images of God that they neglect to see what God is doing in the world.

The message in all of our passages today have to do with standing firm and being open. Be patient but work hard  and keep planting, knowing that someday the desert will bloom.  Faith is a balancing act between knowledge and mystery, conviction and newness, life and death.

Christmas did not come after a great mass of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort.  No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled, as a gift of the Father which he lays into those arms that are stretched out in longing.  In this way did Christmas come; in this way it always comes anew, both to individuals and to the whole world…

And so it shall be with our yearning for the redemption of humanity and for a new shining forth of the world of God.  When we are discouraged by the apparently slow progress of all our honest efforts, by the failure of this or the other person, and by the ever new reappearance of enemy powers and their apparent victories, then we should know:  the time shall be fulfilled.  Because of the noise and activity of the struggle and the work, we often do not hear the hidden gentle sound and movement of the life that is coming into being.  But here and there, at hours that are blessed, God lets us feel how [God] is everywhere at work and that [God’s] cause is growing and moving forward.  The time is being fulfilled and the light shall shine, perhaps just when it seems to us that the darkness is impenetrable…

For the miracle of God comes not only from above; it also comes through us; it is also dwelling in us.  It has been given to every person, and it lies in every soul as something divine, and it waits.  Calling, it waits for the hour when the soul shall open itself, having found its God and its home.  When this is so, the soul will not keep its wealth to itself, but will let it flow out into the world.  Wherever love proceeds from us and becomes truth, the time is fulfilled.  Then the divine life floods through our human relationships and all our works.  Then everything that is lonely and scattered and seeking for the way of God shall be bound together by divine power.  Then, of human effort and of the divine miracle, shall the world be born in which Christmas is fulfilled as reality.  (“When the Time Was Fulfilled”, by Eberhard Arnold, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, January 1st.)

 

a.      What are your thoughts about this passage?

b.      How does this speak to you about convictions and beliefs?

c.       How does this speak to you about doubts?

d.      In this Advent season, what does this say about our time of preparation?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Your imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions.  (Albert Einstein)

The ultimate goal is to transform the world into the kind of world God had in mind when it was created. (Harold Kushner)

The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves:  It is because his manifestation in the world must be through us.  (EvelynUnderhill)

Closing

This text speaks of the birth of a child, not the revolutionary deed of a strong man, or the breath-taking discovery of a sage, or the pious deed of a saint.  It truly boggles the mind:  The birth of a child is to bring about the great transformation of all things, is to bring salvation and redemption to all of humanity.

As if to shame the most powerful human efforts and achievements, a child is placed in the center of world history.  A child born of humans, a son given by God.  This is the mystery of the redemption of the world; all that is past and all that is to come.

All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honor, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God along be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger:  these are the ones who will truly celebrate Christmas. (From Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. By Manfred Weber)

In this Season of Advent, join me on my daily blog at http://dancingtogod.com/!