Advent 1A: Just Start Walking

Light in the darknessOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 2: 1-5

Read the Old Testament Passage

The writings that we know as the Book of Isaiah is more than likely three separate groups of writings.  (1) Chaps. 1-39, probably written about 8th century (bce) (742-701), which more than likely includes the words of the person that we know of as “the Prophet Isaiah”. During the time leading up to the exile, the people had developed a sense of God as creator of the whole world and this is reflected. (2) Chaps. 40-55, probably written at the end of the exile (About 540 bce), reminding the people that God’s word can be trusted for redemption, for recreation, and (3) Chaps. 56-66, which are more than likely Post-exilic, written about 520 bce, when the Jews began reshaping their community after the exile.  When reading the Book of Isaiah, it is important to try to view this without our Christian “hindsight” lens reshaping what it was meant to be (or the idea that the book contains a prophetic telling of the coming of Christ centuries later).  It is a story of God’s deliverance and redemption, but the notion of Christ as the redeemer was imposed by later New Testament writers.

The prophet Isaiah (who probably wrote the words of the passage that we read) was the son of Amoz and was probably active in Jerusalem through most of the 2nd half of the 8th century bce.  This would have been during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  During most of Isaiah’s lifetime, Judah lived under the threat of Assyrian domination and the conflicts that surrounded that threat.  The writer seemed to see the coming destruction of the temple and the community’s way of life.  During this time, king after king failed to give the people the security and the prosperity that they needed, so the community began to look to the hope of the Messiah, which they believed would come if they could just trust in God.  At this point they saw that they were beginning to lose what they knew.   The passage that we read announces the elevation of Zion and the establishment of peace among all nations.

There is a marked similarity between this passage and Micah 4:1-4.  We’re really not even sure which prophet said it first.  Even though there is no specific claim of authority (such as “thus says the Lord”), there is no doubt that the prophet is doing what he is supposed to do—proclaim the coming reign of God.  The sequence of events is important.  First, the mountain of the Lord’s house (Zion) will be exalted.  This probably should not be taken literally since Mount Zion is really a tiny little hill surrounded by larger ones. Then there will be a holy pilgrimage of all peoples to the mountain. The people will call upon the Lord to teach them new ways.  And the word of Yahweh will go forth from Jerusalem.  Yahweh will then bring about a permanent reign of peace.  Essentially, the writer Isaiah speaks beyond the present.

There is a timelessness to this passage.  It reminds us that our world is not separated from God’s eternity.  What we do is already part of our eternity.  All that we see and all that we are is leading up to this.  This is not some sort of naïve utopian vision laid out by the prophet.  This is not the stuff of dreams.  This is what will be when we are swept into that timelessness, into what is beyond ourselves.  So, what  would it mean to want this so desperately in our deepest selves, to awaken to God’s vision for peace and shalom?

In verse 2, the prophet depicts all the nations streaming toward the holy mountain, all the nations and all the peoples of the earth walking together toward peace and justice and God’s vision of what we were all meant to be.  Maybe this verse is the crux.  Maybe it’s about time we start walking, start following the light of the Lord.

 

  1. What images, for you, does this passage evoke?
  2. What vision of eternity do you have?
  3. What does that mean for you?
  4. What does it mean for our Advent season?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 13: 11-14

Read the New Testament Passage

The main theme of Romans is that God’s gospel unveils God’s righteousness.  Many Jews of Paul’s day recognized that the story they knew from the Hebrew Scriptures that promised the reign of God had still not concluded.  They believed that their faithfulness to God determined that conclusion but as long as they remained under pagan rule, God’s reign could not come.  So in this letter, Paul concentrates on the Gentile audience, not because he thought the Jews had denied Jesus but because he truly thought that for God’s reign to be ushered in to fullness, the whole world must come into the picture.

The passage that we read is set in the context of knowing what time it is.  For Paul, it is almost daybreak.  The Reign of God is about to be ushered in.  The belief held here is that while the Resurrection of Christ has seen the dawn of a new age, the fullness of the day has yet to come.  Paul assumes, though, that history is reaching its climax.  Here, the “night” depicts the evils of the world.  Paul assumes that the believers will understand what “time” it is—not a chronological, but kairos—God’s time.  He urges readers to move away from what they know into a new life with Christ.

This is one of those passages that is easily sectioned off into “good and bad”, light and darkness”, “the “ins” and the “outs”.  I actually think that’s a dangerous road to traverse.  After all, who says what is good or bad.  Who declares who is in and out?  This Scripture is not meant to divide but rather to wake us up to the Reign of God as it is ushered in.  And the God of all Creation would certainly not leave the darkness behind but gather it into the Light.

William Long equates Advent to an “echo chamber” that heightens our senses, that makes us realize that those small sounds of salvation that we hear are all around us.  Salvation is not something “out there” or, even worse, “up there”.  Whatever you may think that heaven or whatever is next is, it is not way up ahead.  It is not shielded from view.  It is all around us.  The air is thick with its presence.  The only reason it is veiled is that we have too much clouding our view.

 

  1. What does this image of time mean for us?
  2. What does it mean to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light?
  3. How can we keep this vision alive more than 2,000 years later?

 

GOSPEL:  Matthew 24: 36-44

Read the Gospel Passage

It is interesting for our first reading of Advent, our first reading of the year, that we would start toward the end of the Gospel According to the Writer Matthew.  That sort of contributes once again to the “timelessness” of it all.  In the passage, the comparison with the days of Noah is probably not talking about wickedness but, rather, the fact that life was going on as normal.  There were no mysterious signs pointing to the approaching judgment.

This particular passage is one that fuels the whole view of modern dispensationalists that understand this as those who are “taken” being temporarily or permanently removed from this world at the rapture.  Matthew does not have this idea in his eschatological understanding.  Those who are “taken” refers to being gathered into the saved community at the eschaton, just as some were taken into the ark.  For Matthew, to be a believer is to endure what is to come; not to escape from it.  Once again, we have the repeating them—Keep alert and watch!

What if the surprise turns out to be that Jesus was here all along, that ahead of time himself, he has been calling and gathering and enlightening and sanctifying all along? Quit guessing—just do it.  (Bonhoeffer—“he really means for us to get on with it.”)

And, again, think back to last week’s Scripture.  We were again given the image of Jesus hanging on the Cross, minutes away from death.  And there, there beside him was the thief.  “But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The thief was not left behind but instead was gathered into the Reign of God.  Advent is not waiting to see whether or not you make the cut but rather waking up to the glorious Gathering that is happening all around us.

 

The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen.

 

You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart.

 

The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

 

The Salvation Army Santa Claus clangs his bell. The sidewalks are so crowded you can hardly move. Exhaust fumes are the chief fragrance in the air, and everybody is as bundled up against any sense of what all the fuss is really about as they are bundled up against the windchill factor.

 

But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.

 

(“Advent”, by Frederick Buechner, available at http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-advent.)

 

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Do you read this as a “negative” warning? What effect does that have on the “Good News” of Christ?
  3. What does the idea of “end times” have to do with Advent?
  4. What does the whole notion of being awake mean for you?

 

 

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)

 

Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. (Arundhati Roy)

 

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

 

Closing

 

Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child.  Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary.  Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability.  Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living.  Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us.  When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem.  Watch…for you know not when God comes.  Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. Amen.

 

(Ann Weems, “The Coming of God”, Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 13.)

Advent4C: Coming

Annunciation-01

Don’t forget to join me daily at Dancing to God!

OLD TESTAMENT: Micah 5: 2-5a

Read the Old Testament passage

On this last Sunday of Advent, we come to another familiar prophetic passage; familiar, at least in part, because it plays a prominent role in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. (When the magi from the East come to Jerusalem expecting to find the king of the Jews, King Herod’s scribes quote this passage as evidence that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem.) The writings known as Micah were probably written, as the superscription implies, during the reigns of three kings of Judah: The first, Jotham (742-735 BCE) ruled during a time of growing fear and unrest; the second one, Ahaz (735-715 BCE) came when Israel (the Northern Kingdom) was experiencing internal rebellions and rapid turnover of kings; and the last, Hezekiah, (715-687 BCE) was the time when Sennacherib marched on and destroyed most of Judah and Jerusalem barely survived.

Micah is associated with Moresheth, a small town about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem and probably did most of his writing during the reign of Ahaz, when there was great oppression from the upper class. His message is assurance that this time of oppression would end and a new ruler would come from Bethlehem, ushering in a time of salvation. The prophet is claiming a coming new Davidic king, one that would rule relying on the strength of God. Keep in mind that in this time of exile, it appeared that the Davidic line would be ending. The Assyrian threat is as real as it ever could be. Darkness is everywhere. The prophecy was a reminder that God would keep the promises that God had made, offering new hope to the people in despair.

But also keep in mind that the original prophecy and the current-day Jewish interpretation does not associate this promise with Jesus. Remember that the Old Testament should stand within the context in which it was written and be understood in this way. But for the Gospel writers (and, in particular, the writer of Matthew), this understanding was illumined through Jesus Christ and we as those with Christian lenses see it that way. Neither is the “right way” and neither is the “wrong way” to understand it. Either way, God offers hope and a promise of new life.

For the prophet Micah as well as for us, God has promised something new and the writer looks toward that hope. It’s not unlike what we want even in this day. But the world will not look the way it looks. This sleepy little town called Bethlehem is seen by the prophet using different standards. God does not live or act within the understood “rules” of the world. Bethlehem, a small, seemingly poor, sort of “no name” city will produce something wonderful. The mighty in this world will fall. The lowly will be exalted. And the last one that you would imagine will be the one to usher in the peace and vision of God. For it is here in this tiny breath of a town that heaven will soon touch the earth and nothing will ever be the same again. The power of hope changes the boundaries and changes the rules in which we live. God’s vision, a great “reversal” of the expected, has begun.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in. (Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, ca. 1868)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does that hope of “reversal” mean for you?
  3. Why is that so hard for us to imagine?
  4. What would have been different if God had come in the way that was “expected”?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 5-10

Read the Hebrews passage

This passage forms part of the author’s argument against the “old order” and for the “new order”. (This is, of course, often interpreted in a way that would be considered anti-Semitic. That’s not nor never was the intent. Bringing something new does not imply that the “old” was bad. Both are the way they are supposed to be in the time in which they are. And, as has been said before, “it is good.”)

Using the language of several Psalms (2:7, 45: 6-8, 8: 4-6, and 110:1), the writer treats the words as those said by Jesus. But the statement is one about priorities, more than anything else. God in Jesus did not dismiss sacrifice but instead put it in perspective. It is sort of an argument against blind fundamentalism and for a true spiritual life. Sacrifice for merely sacrifice’s sake is indeed pointless. And I would doubt that sacrifice to “prove” something or to get one’s name on some sort of perceived “heavenly list” was really what God intended for us. Doing something in the “name of religion” is not the way. But doing anything that brings one closer to God is indeed a righteous thing.

The starting point is always God’s goodness and holiness, a gift for all those who seek it. That is the “new order”. It is centered on the cross of Christ. But this sometimes seems an odd lection to read when we’re about to approach the manger and all. Maybe it’s a reminder that Christmas is about more than mangers and babies, shepherds and wisemen. Instead, Christmas is our entrance into something relevant, into our life of faith. But this Christian faith never for one second was intended to supersede the Abrahamic faith; it was intended, rather, to illuminate it into being. In other words, Jesus took up the first order to transform it into a new order. In the same way, we are called to take up ourselves and offer them up to be transformed in this new order. It’s called sanctification. We United Methodists describe it as a journey of “going on to perfection”. In this way, maybe Christmas is as much our birth-day as it is that of Jesus.

So as we light candles and begin the chords of “Silent Night”, remember that it is more than a celebration of Jesus’ birth; it is the day that we begin to come to be, the very dawn of redeeming grace has spilled into the earth.

 

Silent Night, holy night, all is calm all is bright round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light; radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at thy birth, Jesus Lord at thy birth. (Joseph Mohr, 1818)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What “legalistic” things do we or does our society require that is not really in perspective?
  3. What does it mean to understand this “new order” that God has offered? What does that mean for our lives?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 1: 39-45

Read the Gospel passage

What Mary has been asked to do is nothing short of staggering: to carry, nurture, and birth the Son of God. She has been charged with birthing the salvation 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 us is the bridge between the human and the Divine. Now we Protestants really don’t tend to give it 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.

And as she waits, Mary goes to her cousin’s house. Elizabeth was probably surprised. After all, it wasn’t like Mary could call ahead or text her to tell her of the coming birth. As the young girl enters the house, Elizabeth, also pregnant after so many years of trying, feels her womb move, as if the tiny fetus somehow felt a presence that she could not. And at that moment, Elizabeth got it. Mary, her young cousin, the girl with no important name and no real pedigree, was part of something bigger than herself. Mary’s life up until now was nothing. She was young, poor, female. In her mind, her life really did not amount to anything. But now she is blessed. Now she is named “oh favored one”. She must look at life differently and find that part of the mystery of God that is within her and that she is called to live.

Our Psalter this week is her becoming, her song, her Magnificat (Luke 1: 47-55)

 

46 And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,    and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him    from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm;    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,    and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things,    and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel,    in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

 

When I first went to a Benedictine abbey fifteen years ago, I wasn’t looking for Mary at all. But, over time, as I kept returning to the monks’ choir, I found that I was greatly comforted by the presence of Mary in the daily liturgy and also in the church year. I hadn’t been to church since high school, and I doubt that I had ever been to a vespers service. So, at first I had no idea where the lovely Magnificat we sang every night was from: “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” When I eventually found it in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, I was startled but glad to see that it was one pregnant woman’s response to a blessing from another. It is the song Mary sings after she has walked to her cousin Elizabeth’s village, and on greeting Mary, Elizabeth, who is bearing John the Baptist, recognizes that Mary bears the Messiah.

The song is praise of the God who has blessed two insignificant women in an insignificant region of ancient Judea, and in so doing “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly: [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” I later learned that these words echo the song of Hannah in First Samuel, as well as the anguish of the prophets. They are a poetic rendering of a theme that pervades the entire biblical narrative—when God comes into our midst, it is to upset the status quo.

The Magnificat’s message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980’s, the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation (a sanction that I’m sure the monasteries of that country violated daily). But when I came to its words knowing so little about them, I found that all too often they were words I could sing with ease at evening prayer, with a facile (and sometimes sleepy) acceptance. On other nights, however they were a mother’s words, probing uncomfortably into my life. How rich had I been that day, how full of myself? Too full to recognize need and hunger, my own or anyone else’s? So, powerfully providing for myself that I couldn’t admit my need for the help of others? Too busy to know a blessing when it came to me?

 

…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? (Kathleen Norris, Meditations on Mary (New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1999), 13-14, 35).

 

 

  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. What does it mean to enter this Christmas “spiritually virgin”?
  3. What would that change in the world?

 

 

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)

 

Light looked down and beheld Darkness. “Thither will I go,” said Light.  

Peace looked down and beheld War. “Thither will I go,” said Peace.

Love looked down and beheld Hatred. “Thither will I go,” said Love.

So Light came, and shone.

So Peace came, and gave rest.

So Love came, and brought Life.

And the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us. (Lawrence Housman)                                                                                                                                                                        

 

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)

 

Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are. (Alfred Delp)

 

Closing

 

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 is some ordering of rank among the angels as they move into procession, the seraphim bumping into the cherubim from 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 at 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 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 39.)