Advent 4B: The Edge of Heaven





The Cestello Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli (1489-1490)
The Cestello Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli (1489-1490)

OLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This text wraps up the promise that God made to Abram in Genesis 12. The people have a land that they can claim as their own and they can live in peace. 2 Samuel pretty much tracks the rise to power of King David. This chapter represents sort of the “legitimization” of David’s rule. Up until now, David has been anointed king of Israel, has consolidated power in Jerusalem, and has brought the ark of the Lord to rest in a tent in Jerusalem. Things seem to be going well. And so David envisions now a more permanent structure to house the ark of the Lord. In other words, David now desires to build a temple in Jerusalem.

But that night the Lord intervenes by way of Nathan with a promise not necessarily of a permanent “house” but, rather a permanent dynasty, an everlasting house of the line of David. David has risen from shepherd boy to king and has apparently felt God’s presence through it all. He now sits in his comfortable palace and compares his “house” to the tent that “houses God” in his mind. So he decides that God needs a grand house too. God, through the prophet Nathan responds by asking, in a sense, “Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place.” God then turns the tables on David and says, “You think you’re going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I’M going to build YOU a house. A house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with wood and stone. A house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after ‘you lie down with your ancestors.'” God promises to establish David and his line “forever,” and this is a “no matter what” promise, even if the descendants of David sin, even if “evildoers” threaten. (The Davidic Covenant).

Walter Brueggemann identifies this Scripture as “the dramatic and theological center of the entire Samuel text.” But this also would represent a major upheaval to the way that the people understood God. The permanent temple structure would no longer represent a God who traveled with the people but rather a God who expected the people to come to God.

The truth is, we all desire permanence; we want something on which we can stand, that we can touch, that we can “sink our teeth into”, so to speak. We want to know the plan so that we can plan around it. Well, if this was going to make it easier to understand God, go ahead. The truth is, this is a wandering God of wandering people. This is not a God who desires or can be shut up in a temple or a church or a closed mind. This God is palatial; this God is unlimited; this God will show up in places that we did not build. (and sometimes in places that we really wouldn’t go!) This God does not live in a house; this God dwells with us—wherever we are. This God comes as a traveler, a journeyer, a moveable feast. And this God shows up where we least expect God to be—in a god-forsaken place on the outskirts of acceptable society to a couple of people that had other plans for their lives. This God will be where God will be. And it IS a permanent home.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Are there places that you sense God’s presence more than other places?
  3. What does the change in this understanding of God mean for you?
  4. What does this say about our “model” of church? About our “model” of our faith journey? About our “image” of God?



NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 16: 25-27

This passage at the very end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the doxology. It may have even contained phrases from a familiar doxology that would have been known by its first century readers. The reference to “my gospel” may sound a little odd to us, but remember that Paul was continually disputing and warning his readers of “false gospels” that did not reflect the true essence of Jesus the Christ. But Paul’s gospel is based first of all on the tradition of the Torah and the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. But now it was meant for all—Jew and Gentile alike. Paul’s gospel is rooted in a faith that is bigger than itself; it is rooted in centuries of God’s relationship with God’s people.

In this Fourth week of Advent, we read this doxology along with the imminence of Jesus’ birth. Read alongside the story of Mary as God-bearer, we have the sense that the full Gospel is starting to unfold. This is in no way a “replacement” for the Law of Moses; it is that Law seen to its fulfillment in the new humanity, the new Adam, in Jesus Christ. Gentiles have been “grafted” into a story that was already taking place. For Paul, his gospel was the “unveiling” of something that had been around from the very beginning.

Scholars think that it is quite possible that Paul did not write these verses but that they were attached to the end of the letter perhaps AS a doxology, a statement of praise and proclamation. But regardless of who wrote it, this is a statement of response. It is, to use Paul’s words, an “obedience of faith.” The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ invokes our response; otherwise it is virtually meaningless. In Feasting on the Word, Cathy F. Young quotes Helmut Thielicke when he says, “Faith can be described only as a movement of flight, flight away from myself and toward the great possibilities of God.” The whole gospel in its fullness is about our response. It is our faith that moves it and opens up the possibilities that God envisioned.

Advent is about letting ourselves envision what God envisions. Because into this world that often seems random and meaningless, full of pain and despair; into this society that is often callous and lacking of compassion, directionless and confused; into our lives that many times are wrought with grief and a sense that it is all for naught; into all of it is born a baby that holds the hope of the world for the taking. The great illustrator and writer, Tasha Tudor said, “the gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy!”

This is what this doxology says: All of this that has been laid out for you, all of this that has been created; all of this that has for so long been moving toward your life, take it. Take joy! Tomorrow will be your dancing day!


Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance

To see the legend of my play, to call my true love to my dance;


Sing, oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love, this have I done for my true love.


Then was I born of a virgin pure, of her I took fleshly substance

Thus was I knit to man’s nature, to call my true love to my dance.


In a manger laid, and wrapped I was, so very poor, this was my chance

Betwixt and ox and a silly poor ass, to call my true love to my dance.

Traditional English Carol


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why do we struggle with the notion of true, unconditional joy?
  3. What is it that stands in our way?
  4. What does this Season of Advent say about our response?
  5. What would it mean to live our lives as if tomorrow truly was our dancing day?


GOSPEL: Luke 1: 26-38

Now we Protestants really don’t tend to give this much credence. We sort of speed through this passage we read as some sort of precursor to “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” This, for us, is the beginning of the birth story. But think back. Something happened nine months before. This human Jesus, like all of us, had to be grown and nurtured in the womb before the miracles started. March 25th—The Feast of the Annunciation—is for some the turning point of human history. It is in this moment that God steps through the fog into humanity and, just like every human that came before, must wait to be fully birthed into this world. March 25th is traditionally regarded as the first day of Creation. December 25th falls nine months after it and is right after the winter solstice, when the days start growing longer. So, in this view, the Annunciation is the beginning (or re-beginning, if you will) of Creation and December 25th is the coming of light into the darkest night of the world.

Annunciation literally means “the announcement”. The word by itself probably holds no real mystery. But it is the beginning of the central tenet of our entire Christian faith—The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. For us, it begins the mystery of Christ Jesus. For us, the fog lifts and there before is the bridge between the human and the Divine.

The first thing that strikes me is that I think when you hear an angel or some other messenger of God say “Do not be afraid”, you should be very concerned. The central figure in this passage is neither Gabriel nor Mary—it is God. This is the beginning of God coming into the world, a further unfolding of God’s design for the salvation of humanity. After the greeting, it says that Mary was greatly troubled. Well why shouldn’t be? But there is a folktale told in Tobit (in the apocrypha) that tells of a jealous angel who appeared on a bride’s wedding night each time she married and killed her bridegroom. Some think that in light of this popular tale, Mary may have at first misconstrued God’s messenger for an evil spirit threatening to prevent her marriage. So the angel reassures Mary and tells her of the staggering thing that she is being asked to do—to carry and nurture the Son of God, to birth the salvation of the world.

Well, then Mary is confused. Well, of course she is confused. But Gabriel assures that the baby would be born by the power of God. The Annunciation–literally, it marks the impregnating of a young, innocent girl by God. But whether or not we can get past the “how can that be” is not the point. Think about the mystery. Think about what that meant for that world more than 2,000 years ago. Think about what it means for our world. Think about what it means for you.


We all need to be told that God loves us, and the mystery of the Annunciation reveals an aspect of that love. But it also suggests that our response to love is critical. A few verses before the angel appears to Mary in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, another annunciation occurs; an angel announces to an old man, Zechariah, that his equally aged wife is to bear a son who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The couple are to name him John; he is know to us as John the Baptist. Zechariah says to the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” which is a radically different response from the one Mary makes. She says, “How can this be?”

I interpret this to mean that while Zechariah is seeking knowledge and information, Mary contents herself with wisdom, with pondering a state of being…

Mary’s “How can this be?” is a simpler response than Zechariah’s, and also more profound. She does not lose her voice but finds it. Like any of the prophets, she asserts herself before God, saying, “Here am I.” There is no arrogance, however, but only holy fear and wonder. Mary proceeds—as we must do in life—making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés, the popular but false wisdom of what “we all know”? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever? (Excerpt from Meditations on Mary, by Kathleen Norris)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why do we Protestants not fully embrace the notion of the Annunciation?
  3. How does that change the meaning of God’s coming into the world if we do?
  4. How would you answer the question of whether or not you are “virgin” enough to respond to God?



PSALTER: Luke 1: 47-55

We often call this passage “The Song of Mary”, depicting it as a beautiful and idyllic poem. Really? E. Stanley Jones called The Magnificat “the most revolutionary document in the world.” It turns the world on its ear. It is a call to revolution. For those who are comfortable and fed and “on top” of ordered society, it is downright dangerous.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?



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)


God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh, the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain. God came with Love. Rejoice! Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (“First Coming”, by Madeleine L’Engle)


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)





I wonder if God comes to the edge of heaven each Advent and flings the Star into the December sky, laughing with joy as it lights the darkness of the earth; and the angels, hearing the laughter of God, begin to congregate in some celestial chamber to practice their alleluias. I wonder if there some ordering of rank among the angels as they move into procession, the seraphim bumping into the cherubim for top spot, the new inhabitants of heaven standing in the back until they get the knack of it. (After all, treading air over a stable and annunciating as the same time can’t be all that easy!)


Or is everybody—that is, every “soul”—free to fly wherever the spirit moves? Or do they even think about it? Perhaps when God calls, perhaps they just come, this multitude of heavenly hosts. Perhaps they come, winging through the winds of time, full of expectancy, full of hope that this year…perhaps this year…perhaps…the earth will fall to its knees in a whisper of “Peace”. (Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 39)

Advent 3B: Preparing for Light

Peeking Through Window ShadesOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The passage that we read is part of what is usually referred to as “Third Isaiah”, which includes Chapters 56-66. It is probably set around the year 520 BCE, after the exile, when Jews were in the process of reshaping their community after the return from the exile. The audience is probably the exiles who have become despondent and frustrated at the sad state of Jerusalem. The prophet is presenting a picture of hope and encouragement in order that they will rebuild Jerusalem in response to the glad tidings of the proclamation. Woven through the proclamation, the writer figuratively stands in the midst of the ruins of what was and foretells that perfect reign of God, the time when all Creation will be renewed and fulfilled. This is the hope for our future.

We look to this servant to lead us through “fixing things”. But you’ll notice that in verse 3 of the passage, the pronoun changes from “me” to “they”. All of those who are righteous are to be God’s own planting, so that God will reap the glory. All must be a part of this work. Here, the Lord God will cause the seed to spring into righteousness. There is also an overwhelming emphasis on the type of justice that the Lord requires. This is justice beyond acts of mercy; this is bringing God’s justice to the world permanently. There is also the sense of God’s abiding Presence with the righteous, as God nurtures them toward full righteousness. God is the provider in control of creation, history, and redemption of the people.

Again, it is all the righteous who have been anointed to do these things—bring good news, bind up, proclaim liberty, to comfort, build up, raise up, repair. Hope, then, is founded on the Lord’s love of justice which overthrows oppressive structures, regimes, and conditions in life, to bring wholeness, joy, and peace. The “Year of the Lord’s favor” probably refers to the Year of Jubilee, which occurred every fiftieth year and returned property which was held as debt to its owners. It is the year when all debt is forgiven and liberty is made permanent. But here, the prophet is declaring that year now. Now is the time for liberation. Now is the time to begin again. Now is the time for justice.

Notice that this is not just a current rebuilding but a transformation of “former devastations.” The “sins of the past”, so to speak, are not acceptable. They, too, are transformed and made new. The city that lay in hopelessness will now burst forth with righteousness and praise. It will not be like it was before. This is not a divine rebuilding project. This is new life, re-creation, and transformation into something new. This is God’s justice.

This Scripture may sound vaguely familiar to us for a different reason. In the fourth chapter of The Gospel According to Luke, Jesus stands in the synagogue in his home temple in the midst of a world smarting with Roman occupation and cites these words. Things change. You might say that it’s Jesus’ commissioning. He sets forth his agenda using the words of the writer of Third Isaiah. So, in this Season of Advent, we are reminded of the agenda. We are reminded what we as the people of Christ are called to do—to bring good news, to bind up, to proclaim liberty, to bring justice, to comfort, and to build the Kingdom of God.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. In what way does this passage speak to you today?
  3. What does it mean to you for “all” to be called to be a part of this recreation?
  4. How does this speak to us in the midst of this Advent season?
  5. What ruins are we called to rebuild in our world?


 NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24

To read the Lectionary Epistle Passage, click here

The First Letter to the Thessalonians is one of the letters that is believed to been actually written by Paul. It’s also believed to be possibly the oldest text in our New Testament canon. This letter is to the church at Thessalonica, which was part of the Roman Empire. The city was a commercial and cultic center and was a key trading center of the region. The residents of the city purposely cultivated a good relationship with the Romans and were then awarded the status of a “free city” (with an independent government). So they had a relationship where they got the benefits of being Roman but did not have to pay as much as other cities. So, Paul’s preaching was to some a threat to this status. In the eyes of some of the Thessalonians, support for Jesus weakened support for the Romans, who had brought tangible benefits to the city.

Paul’s letter, then, is a call to what it means to be distinctive in their belief in Christ. He is reminding them to exult in the new age’s manifestations brought about by Christ, whether or not they are tangible or apparent. The point was to strengthen the church in the midst of the overwhelming culture. Paul is urging them toward distinction in the name of Jesus Christ. He is reminding them what it means to be Christian and what it means to live within the hope of Christ.

In the context of the first century, people related to each other mainly based on survival and pay back. It was a pretty self-centered world. (Oh, who are we kidding? Has it changed all that much?) Paul is preaching here a sort of openness to the other. It is an openness that characterizes the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We wait for the full coming of the Lord but we wait IN the Spirit of the Lord. And there is great joy and great peace even in that waiting. So, as Paul says, do not quench that Spirit. Let it live in you and sanctify you. And praying without ceasing? What is that? It is living a life in the Spirit, a life lived in prayer. All of life is a prayer. Olga Savin says that “it tells us that ceaseless prayer in pursuit of God and communion with [God] is not simply life’s meaning or goal, the one thing worth living for, but it is life itself.”

In this season, Paul’s words ring true. We are called to active, prayerful waiting. We are called to be the people of God, to live in relationship, to be for each other. It is to live in anticipation of what is to come while we awake to the presence of God that is here even now. G.K. Chesterton exhorted us to “let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” I love that. Maybe that’s what Paul was trying to say. You know, God is coming. It will happen. But don’t forget that God is here. Rejoice! And live your life waiting and rejoicing, rejoicing and waiting. That is how you pray without ceasing.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How do you relate to the directive to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”?
  3. How does this passage speak to us during this Advent season?
  4. What would it mean to live in ceaseless prayer?
  5. What would it mean to live your religion as a love affair?



John 1: 6-8, 19-28

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Once again, we encounter John, who we now call John the Baptist. But he’s really John the Witness. Here, we are told that John is but a witness to something bigger. He is there to point to the light of Christ that is coming. But what makes John’s message uncomfortable is that he is always pointing to that which the light illuminates. For the writer of the Gospel According to John, the Logos was the true light bursting forth into humanity. Rather than an angel announcing the birth of a baby, the writer is using John to point to that light as well as the purpose of that light. We love the image of light but sometimes we are uncomfortable with full illumination. Here’s John, running around like a wild man in the wilderness preaching repentance, calling for us to change, and just being really loud. Our reaction in this season is to respond with: “John…shhhh! You’ll wake the baby.”

The problem is that this light is a lot brighter and more fully illuminative than any of us bargained it would be. Looking at the light of Christ is blinding—blinding to our own needs over those of the world, blinding to the ways of the world. And here’s a newsflash…the baby is not asleep! It’s our move now. We cannot help but be changed.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt said this: “a light has a purpose; a light ought to shine into our lives so that we can see what needs to be done and set our hand to it and clean it up.” That is the Light of Christ. The Christ light is not a warm, delicate light. The Christ light is this incredibly bright, all-encompassing light that enables us to see the world differently. It is a light that illumines not only the present, but also the future. The Spiritual Masters would refer to this illumination as a type of liminality, a way of existing in two worlds, betwixt and between. We are standing in the world in which we live, but the light is illumining the world to come. And when we learn how to see with that light, the world in which we live will look different. We will finally see that some of this is just not right. We can then no longer close our eyes to what the light has shown us. It will be impossible. Because, for us, all the shadows will finally once and for all be exposed. We will no longer be able to live with hunger and homelessness, with destruction of people’s lives and waste of our planet, with violence and war, or with the exclusion of any of God’s children from the light. The light in our lives will find those things not just sad, but unacceptable, inexcusable, incapable of being.

So in this Season of Light and Enlightenment, we read of John, a man, not divine, just a man, but a man who knew and witnessed to the Light of God coming into the world. As the writer depicts in this passage, John makes it abundantly clear who he is not. He is not trying to be something that he not. He is witnessing to what is. He is pointing to Christ. Aren’t we called to do the same? John did not wait around for God to appear in more conventional form. He instead pointed to what was and what will be. John prepared the Way of the Lord. So, what are we doing this Advent?


When our daughter was born, one of the first difficulties we encountered was the problem of light. To make sure that she would always experience the presence of a gentle, comforting light if she awoke during the night, we installed a little lamp close to the nursery door. It also meant that if she cried we could grope our way to her even in a half-asleep state.

However, visits to a newborn baby in the night can be frequent and can take a heavy toll on the parents’ mental and physical well-being. One of the side effects of surviving on a meager ration of sleep is that the eyes start to burn. Even the little nursery light, we soon discovered, burned our eyes, especially after the third or fourth unscheduled awakening during the night. So we went to the local electrical shop to ask whether they had any bulbs lower than 15 watts!

It’s strange how light that is so needful for growth and life can also be so hurtful when we are unprepared for it. (Margaret Silf, in Lighted Windows: Advent Reflections for a World in Waiting, p. 101.)


Prepare the Way of the Lord!


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why is John the Baptist sometimes an uncomfortable character for us?
  3. What is illumined that we’d rather ignore?
  4. So what does it truly mean to “prepare the Way of the Lord”?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play And mild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.             I thought how as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom Had roll’d along th’ unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men.  And in despair I bow’d my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”  Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.”  ‘Til ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth, good will to men!                   (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863)                                                                                                        


The joy of Advent is a joy born of eager expectation and waiting: waiting for something good, in fact, something wonderful. It is waiting for something sure. And what is sure? That God, the God who once came in Jesus, will come to us again. The joy of Advent springs from expecting him who came before “to build his tent in our midst” as one of us, and who will come again and again. It is a joy that springs from hope. (Jaime L. Cardinal Sin, D.D., Archbishop of Manila)


God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid. (Annie Dillard)





For the good of all humankind Jesus Christ became human in a Bethlehem stable. Rejoice, oh Christendom.


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 alone 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.


Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! Amen.


(“In a Bethlehem Stable”, in Christmas with Dietrich Bonhoeffer)