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)

 

 

Closing

 

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)

Advent 2B: Changing Light

 

Changing Light

Join me for my daily Advent reflections on http://dancingtogod.com/.  Check it out and if you’d like, you can “Follow” the site and receive emails when I post. 

Advent Blessings,

Shelli

OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 40: 1-11

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The passage that we read marks the beginning of what we commonly refer to as “Second Isaiah” (Chapters 40-55), which is probably set at the end of the Babylonian exile. Even though the “exile” was not slavery as we know it, it was still a major upheaval in lifestyle and culture. Most of the Israelites were allowed to have their own homes, come and go as they please, and even work and make a living. But it was a different culture, a different homeland, and they knew that everything that they knew before was forever gone. The “exile” was not so much one of geography, but of cultural, political, and religious upheaval. So at this point, the “former things have passed away”. They had to think that God had truly deserted them. And so their image of God had to be rethought and recast. They were trying to find God in the midst of a strange, new world.

But about the year 539 BCE, Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, conquered the Babylonians. Now he tended to be sort of a benign and tolerant ruler and so he allowed those who had been previously exiled from Jerusalem the chance to return home. So the people are beginning to return home, but to a home that was nothing like it was before. If you can imagine, these waves of people on this highway that leads toward Jerusalem—a Jerusalem that now lies in ruins. Now imagine this highway, a highway through the desert that, typical of the ancient world, was originally built to accommodate royal processions. Everything was done to make the highway smooth and clear. And God promises a highway, smooth and clear of mountains and valleys that would impede the process. God promises a holy highway built for a grand procession led by the Almighty God.

So the exiles are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will completely end this time of despair and hardship. Speaking to a city and a way of life that is all but destroyed, the exclamation is made that the exile is indeed about to end. God is coming to lead the exiles to the Promised Land, bringing redemption and restoration. In essence, God is coming to show them a new and different way to live, a new and different to look at life even in the midst of darkness.

Now notice here that God does not promise to put things back the way they were before. God is not limited to simply rebuilding what was taken away. No, God is recreating, making new, lifting valleys, lowering mountains, and ultimately, when all is said and done, revealing a glory that we’ve never seen before. “See, I am making all things new.”

The passage sets the stage for waiting for God, which is why it is appropriate for our Advent reading. It is important to try to read it in this context rather than “reading in” our New Testament context into it. The passage begins with God’s initiative—to bring home and comfort to the suffering exiles. This is not a detached God, but one that is here, bringing hope to the faithful. The end of the exile is here. Israel has received full promise and forgiveness. It is time to prepare for a new promise from God. But to use the image of homecoming without remembering the despair, the image of forgiveness without knowledge of the sin, is an offer of cheap grace. Remember…the former things have passed away. God is not rebuilding what was there before but rather creating something new. “Comfort”, then is not merely solace, but transformation. God has promised a new way of being and a new way of seeing.

The French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet, is probably best known for his incredible landscapes and works of nature as well as for his paintings of those things that were a normal part of his own life. But the most fascinating part of Monet’s work are those paintings that he did as part of several series representing similar or even the same subjects—his own incredible gardens, poppy fields, a woman with a parasol, and those unusual haystacks.

The paintings in this series of haystacks were painted under different light conditions at different times of day. Monet would rise before dawn, paint the first canvas for half an hour, by which time the light had changed. Then he would switch to the second canvas, and so on. The next day and for days and months afterward, he would repeat the process. In each painting, the color of the haystack is different not because it is a different haystack, but because the amount and quality of the light shining on the haystack is different. The subject is the same but the perspective from which it is viewed changes with the light.

Up until this time, color was thought to be an intrinsic property of an object, such as weight or density. In other words, oranges were orange and lemons were yellow, with no variation as to the lens through which they were viewed. But with Monet’s studies in light and how it affects our view of life, that all changed. As Monet once said, “the subject is of secondary importance to me; what I want to reproduce is that which is in between the subject and me.” Monet’s study was one in seeing things differently.

This study in light is such a wonderful reminder to us to be aware of the perspective through which we see things. The writer of Isaiah knew that and, just like Monet, he painted a picture of the city illuminated by a different light. He gave the exiles a way to look at life differently and be open to that which God shines upon them. There is a Maori Proverb that says “turn your face to the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.” Look, the light is changing. Look toward the dawn.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. In what ways does this passage speak to you today?
  3. What is the difference between “repair” and “recreation”, between “fixing things” and true transformation? Why are we reticent to allow transformation in our lives?
  4. What does this say about the idea of “waiting for God” that is so prevalent in this Advent season?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Peter 3: 8-15a

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Second Peter is one of the general or catholic (universal) epistles, along with Hebrews, James, 1,2,&3 John, 1 Peter, and Jude. It is not attributed to Paul and essentially addresses a group of churches, rather than one in particular. Even though it is presented as the work of “Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ”, most would ascribe the book to an unknown author writing under the name of the apostle Peter. There are no indications that 1 and 2 Peter were written by the same author.

The passage that we read is part of a section that could be considered an apology, or a theological explanation, for why the expected second coming (the parousia) has not occurred. The churches are here urged not to ignore or overlook God’s promise and forbearance.   We are reminded instead that life is transient, while God is everlasting. What seems like a delay in our time is not a delay in God’s time. We are still promised a new heaven and a new earth and God always makes good on holy promises.

Now it is probable that the author of this writing assumed that the coming of the Lord was about to happen. But it would happen in God’s time. It did not depend on the action of the church. Instead, what we perceive as a “delay” is an act of patience and mercy on the part of God. Our salvation is found not in our own acts but in God’s mercy. God is waiting for us to respond, for us to proclaim God’s love and mercy. This is not a time of despair or darkness. This is not an “ungodly time”. This is a time of waiting for God. We wait in penitence and hope. We wait for the darkness and the evil to be pushed away by the light.

The writer’s focus is not a warning but, rather, a promise that one day the justice and righteousness of God will be all that will remain. Transformation will be complete and we will truly know a “new heaven and a new earth”. But in the meantime, we are called to live within that vision of what is to be. “Waiting” for God is never a passive thing. We are called to live “as if”—as if the coming of the Lord is now, as if heaven has already spilled into the earth, as if justice and righteousness were the only thing, and as if we knew no other way to live.

 

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only [they] who see, take off [their] shoes—

The rest sit round it and pluck blueberries.

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from “Aurora Leigh”)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this passage speak to the concept of “waiting” that Advent holds?
  3. What would it mean to live our lives “as if”?

 

 

GOSPEL: Mark 1: 1-8

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

These beginning verses of the Gospel According to Mark sort of jolt us back into that reality. Our experience with the other Gospels, leads us to expect either a birth story, as in Matthew and Luke, or a poetic meditation on Jesus’ pre-existence with God, as in John. But not here. The writer of this Gospel gets right to the point, not allowing us to risk drowning and staying in the beauty of the nativity. Here is a messenger, coming to prepare you for what will happen next. Here is a messenger, paving the path, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. No Mary and Joseph, no baby, no stable, no shepherds, no magi, no angels…just…boom…the One is coming that will baptize you with the Spirit of God…the One is coming who will change your life and change your ways and change the world from what we know it to be…the One is coming who will bring us all into the Reign of God. Hold on…get ready!

The writer of Mark’s Gospel leaves us suspended in time, waiting, rather than living through the whole story together. Many spiritual writers call that a state of liminality, a point of being betwixt and between, the moment between what is and what will be, a place in which the old world is left behind but we’re not sure what the new one looks like just yet. It is a point between two times that intersect and become one. So, are you ready? Well, if you’re not, you need to get that way. Because in this Gospel, the good news has already begun, whether we’re prepared or not.

This tone is true to the writer of the Gospel of Mark. Throughout this Gospel, there is a sense of urgency, a sort of abruptness, that somehow compels us to get on board with it, to not tarry with things that do not matter and do not prepare us for the coming. The writer of Mark cuts to the chase: humanity has waited and prepared itself for this for centuries. We are reminded of that as the passage pulls in the words of Isaiah, the foretelling of that time when God would come and be among us, when God would come and save us. Now is the time. The Christmas celebration for all its splendor and all its beauty and all its twinkling lights is first and foremost the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation. This IS the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The writer of Mark’s gospel sees John as the forerunner to Jesus. Those who would repent, have their sins forgiven, and be baptized by John were those that had prepared themselves for a God who has already drawn near, already filling hearts with a Holy Spirit. Essentially, John was providing a receptive audience for what was to come.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes the point that it is here that Advent becomes a time of self-examination. As he says, “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 [stories of babies and mangers and shepherds and angels] 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…We are no longer alone; God is with us.”

But there is another implication here. In this Advent season, as we wait with expectant hope, we are also reminded that our expectations are limited by our own lives. God has so much more in store that what we could ever fathom. Maybe that’s why the writer of Mark quickly takes us to the wilderness. You see, God will not be plunked down in the middle of the bustling city of Jerusalem. God will not come in the way that we plan or imagine how God will come. Rather, God will emerge in the wilderness of our lives and we will realize that God has been there all along. We do not have to go to Jerusalem or prepare a grand entry to encounter God. God comes to us. We just have to be open to whatever God’s coming is. And we have to be willing to enter a new beginning. What we are living is not the prelude; it’s the beginning of the story.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What concept of “waiting” does this bring about for us?
  3. What does the whole notion of “God with us” truly mean?
  4. Why is it so difficult for us to be open to God’s coming in the way that God comes?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

A dreamer is one who can find [his or her] way in the moonlight, and [whose] punishment is that [he or she] sees the dawn before the rest of the world. (Oscar Wilde)

 

Permit me to say without reservation that if all people were attentive, if they would undertake to be attentive every moment of their lives, they would discover the world anew. They would suddenly see that the world is entirely different from what they had believed it to be. (Lusseyran, Jacques, 20th century French author and political activist)

 

One of the saddest lines in the world is ‘O come now—be realistic.’ The best parts of this world were not fashioned by those who were realistic. They were fashioned by those who dared to look at their wishes and gave them horses to ride. (Richard Nelson Bolles)

 

 

Closing

 

While others are making lists of things we have enough of, you come: to offer us salvation, that one gift we cannot purchase.

As the world prepares to entice us with more and more, you come: to fill our hearts with all the hopes you have dreamed about us forever. When skepticism and fear callous our hearts, you come: to bathe us in the soothing lotion of compassion. When stress scoops out potholes for every step we take, you come: filling the emptiness with serenity as tough as your grace. As the clock turns faster and faster each day, you come: to swaddle us in a shawl woven with patience. When others push past us to get to the front of worry’s line, you come, so we can clasp them so close to our hopes they can hear your heartbeat…

 

Into the silence of chaos, your voice cried, Comfort of the Ages, your Word flinging open the doors of goodness and beauty, the Spirit speeding over the waters to bring peace to all creation. Refusing to wait for all which you had promised to us, we made straight for death, running down the dusty road of sin. Prophets cried out to us while we were in this wilderness, but our tantrums drowned out their invitations to return to you. Since peace was your hope for us, and salvation is your steadfast gift, you sent your Child, Jesus, to become the Way for us.

 

So, with those who have waited in every time and place, and with those who try to lead lives of godliness and goodness, we lift our voices filled with longing for your omforting presence: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of creation. The exiled of the world await your coming. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the Comfort who comes in your name. Hosanna in the highest! Amen.

 

(from “Lectionary Liturgies”, Wild Goose Publications, available at http://lectionaryliturgies.blogspot.com/2011/11/second-sunday-of-advent-year-b.html, accessed 28 November, 2011.)