Advent 2A: Imagining A New Way

Stump of JesseOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 11: 1-10

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

Remember the background of the book that we know as Isaiah.  They are probably three separate groups of writings.  The first (Chapters 1-39) was probably written about the 8th century BCE and includes the writings of the person that we know as Isaiah, the Prophet.  It reflects the time leading up to the exile and the sense of God as creator of the whole world is reflected.  The second part (Chapters 40-55) is probably from the end of the exile and the third part (Chapters 56-66) was probably written about 520 BCE when the people began reshaping their community following 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.  It was not originally meant as a foretelling of Jesus’ birth.  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.  This passage that we read is extremely well-known by probably both of our traditions.  The unifying theme is, of course, the coming Reign of God.  Isaiah saw the Davidic monarchy as Yahweh’s means of implementing Yahweh’s will, first for Judah and Jerusalem, and then for the whole world.  It looks toward the rule of one whose life and rule is shaped by God.  This is the part that many more fundamentalist Christian believers will assume to be Jesus Christ, prompted, for the most part, by the writer known as Matthew.

The second part promises the Reign of God in the order of creation with the establishment of peace and tranquility among all creatures.  Here, the “world” is understood as God’s Creation.  The vision of the new order for all the world is set forth.  Essentially, it is the hope for that which is “uncommon”, a reordering, if you will, in our world.  By putting these two parts together, we’re left with a view of the relationship among justice, mercy, and peace in human society and harmony in the natural order.  Essentially, “if you want peace, if you desire the fullness of the Reign of God, work for justice and unity.”

We are reminded of the many predators that are in our world.  After all, it is important to name and place them.  But, here, the predators, those things that we have just learned to accept as the “order of nature” or the “order of humanity”, along with everything and everyone else, are transformed.  And a little child shall lead them?  Like the calf, lamb, kid, and ox, the child here stands for the vulnerable, finally living in a safe and peace-filled world.  This, of course, is what we Christians see in Christ—the vulnerable, peace-loving child who ushers in the peace of God and leads the rest of creation onto transformation.  And, further, this New Creation, this New Kingdom, will encompass not simply the future of God’s people but of all nations and all of creation.  It is the universal vision of hope for the world.  We read this text in Advent as a new generation that lives between two times—we celebrate the coming of Christ and we look forward to the promised final consummation of God’s peaceable Kingdom yet to come.  We stand in liminality, on a veritable threshold between what is and what will be.

In essence, the Advent, or “coming” (Latin), that we celebrate is about three comings—the remembrance of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the recognition of the coming of the very presence of God into the world, and the anticipation of the final coming of God’s Kingdom for which we all wait.  When the peaceable Kingdom comes to be, all of these comings will be one, and Advent will be complete.  It is then that the things that we have accepted as “natural” in this world will become the abnormal and the things of which we only dream will be life as we know it.

Here’s the hard thing about this text in all its beauty: the little child has come to us — two thousand years ago and counting — and we have not yet made it to God’s holy mountain. The cows are still grazing in the fields waiting to be processed into cheap beef for our hamburgers. The lamb is still getting shorn to make clothes that will last less than a few seasons. Children don’t come anywhere near a snake’s lair because they don’t play anywhere outside much anymore.

And righteousness? Justice? We are so drunk on the process of hurting and destroying one another that we can no longer see past the ends of our military-might-political-fight-I-am-always-right noses. Death tolls rise, wars rage on, hunger and sickness strike day after day…and we have lost sight of the mountain altogether.

If the little child has come, and shall lead us, did we simply not follow? Did we miss our chance? Did we get lost along the parade route and never realize the party broke up? ‘Tis the season to dream big dreams and hope big hopes. But the hardest question remains: Why is the earth not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord? (From “ This Branch is Slower Than Christmas”, by Danielle Shroyer, available at http://thehardestquestion.org/yeara/advent2ot/, accessed 1 December, 2010.)

Perhaps the reason that the earth is not yet filled with the knowledge of the Lord, that the Reign of God has not come into its fullness, that poverty and homelessness and injustice and war still exists is because we do not dare to imagine it.  This is not some vision of an inaccessible utopian paradise; this is the vision of God.  It is worth waiting with hopeful expectation.  The passage that a shoot shall come out the stump and a branch shall grow out of the roots.  In other words, life shall spring from that which is dead and discarded.  Because in God’s eyes, even death has the foundation, the roots of life.  We just have imagine it into being.  So, imagine beyond all your imaginings; envision a world beyond all you dare to see; and hope for a life greater than anything that is possible.

a.      What are your thoughts about this passage?

b.      What is your image of the “peaceable kingdom”?

c.       What is your vision of the “ideal ruler”?

d.      With what hope do you identify in that “peaceable Kingdom” about which we read?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 15: 4-13

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

Remember that the main theme of Romans is that God’s gospel unveils God’s righteousness, so this reading is indeed fitting for this season.  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 begins with Paul’s explanation of the Scriptures as instructional and from which we can gain hope.  It is interesting that, compared to many modern-day thoughts about Scripture, there is nothing here portraying Scripture as any sort of moral code or outline for living a godly life!  Rather, Scripture’s primary purpose is to create hope.  Then he turns to a prayer for unity and harmony.  This is actually Paul’s regular appeal, whether or not he thinks a congregation is divided.  It was important to him, though, that the church come to a “common mind”, a “common worship”, and, therefore, “one voice”.  He then begins with what most call the “messianic” welcome, open to all people.  He then launches into an explanation of the basis for that “messianic welcome”.  Paul celebrates the theme of this united worship with three biblical quotations–Psalm 18: 49, Deuteronomy 32, and Isaiah 11: 10 (part of our Old Testament passage).  The passage is ended with the hope that, for Paul, was always present.  For Paul, this hope can only be realized through an awareness of our shared story of hope in God and by emphasizing two things–pleasing others instead of ourselves and praising God in unity and harmony.  Hope, for Paul, is communal.  It is only realized within the community that we share.

So, the advent of Christ does not just belong to one group.  There is no group that is more privileged than another.  All are invited; all are included; indeed, all are expected to be a part of it.  That is the hope of the world.  The Kingdom of God would never be complete otherwise.

The sign above Dante’s hell reads “Abandon hope all you who enter here.”  To enter one’s hell is to give up hope and to give up hope is to enter one’s hell.  But we are instead called to “abound in hope”, to live as though our live depends on it.  Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe life depends on our hope for something more, our willingness to trust in God’s vision for what we will be, and to have faith in the faith that God has put in us.

  a.      What are your thoughts about this passage?

  b.      What do you think “unity” and “harmony” mean in our world today?

  c.       What does hope mean in our world today?

  d.      Soren Kierkegaard said that “hope is the passion for the possible.”  How does that change your view of hope?

GOSPEL:  Matthew 3: 1-12

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

John the Baptist was a significant figure even in his own right.  He was a Jewish prophet with his own message and disciples who was ultimately executed by Herod Antipas.  He had his own movement, which continued long after the Resurrection and into the beginning of the Christian community.  The description here depicts John as sort of a wild, hairy man, not at all part of elegant society.  He definitely identified more with the wilderness than ordinary society.  But here, John is cited as a “precursor” of the greater one to come.

John definitely saw an impending time of judgment for those who did not know God.  The image of the ax at the root of the tree indicates the judgment that is already prepared and is just waiting to begin.  The whole idea of “repentance” that John emphasized is not one that we good Methodists often focus on.  It sometimes sounds a little too “hellfire and brimstone” for us. But repentance means turning around, a new mind, a change of direction.  It means throwing off those things that bind us to the life we know for those things that point to a life with God.  It does not mean that God has finally won us over; it means, rather, that our own self, our own story, has finally come to be.  Just being there is not enough; just having Abraham for your ancestor is not enough.  You must change your life.  There are no favorites.  This includes everyone.

The idea of the wilderness is a whole other concept.  Think about the wilderness—it calls us into things outside our normal routines, outside of the establishments that make up our lives.  It calls us to a cleansing, to a repentance and acceptance of life anew.  Essentially, John message was  to “prepare”; in the wilderness prepare for the coming of the Christ; in the wilderness be washed clean; in the wilderness, change your life so that you will be ready to receive Christ.  John probably would be labeled today as a liberal evangelical, challenging the conservatism of his day and yet his ideas and his theologies are not new.  At their very core is the heart of the Gospel itself.  In Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon wrote (without identifying which one of them thought it) that “indeed, one of us is tempted to think there is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry.”

This is a good reading for Advent because the season is not only about beginnings, but also about transitions, about changes, about finding a new way—the Way of Christ.  John’s wilderness sermon points beyond himself to God.  Whatever our message is going to be, it is not going to be found in ourselves.  We are not the message. The church is not the gospel.  The community of faith is not the savior. Preaching worthy of the name strives to point ever and always to Jesus.  He should increase in every sermon, and the preacher, and even the church, should decrease. (Mark E. Yurs, in “Feasting on the Word”, Year A, Volume 1, p. 49)

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)

Maybe that is why, to us, John’s message seems so “over the top”.  Maybe he saw the same thing that Bonhoeffer did—that this vision of God that is coming closer to us each and every moment, that little by little is taking hold, will shake the world as we know it to its core.  Because God’s vision and the way the world lives cannot exist together.  The stump will die and from it, all of Creation will be resurrected.  The Way of Life is found by turning and changing and accepting life anew.

a.      What are your thoughts about this passage?

 b.      What does “repentance” mean for you?  What stands in the way of that for you?

  c.       Where, for you, is the desert or wilderness that calls you out of your normal routines?

 Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God where we met thee, Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.  Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand true to our God, true to our native land.  (James Weldon Johnson)

No language about God will ever be fully adequate to the burning mystery which it signifies.  But a more inclusive way of speaking can come about that bears the ancient wisdom with a new justice. (Elizabeth A. Johnson)

Believers know that while our values are embodied in tradition, our hopes are always located in change.  (William Sloane Coffin)

 Closing

In each heart lies a Bethlehem, an inn where we must ultimately answer whether there is room or not.  When we are Bethlehem-bound we experience our own advent in his.  When we are Bethlehem-bound we can no longer look the other way conveniently not seeing stars, not hearing angel voices.  We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily tending our sheep or our kingdoms.

 This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord has made known to us.  In the midst of shopping sprees, let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.  Through the tinsel, let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.  In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos, let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.  This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places.

                        (“In Search of our Kneeling Places”, Ann Weems, in Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 19)

Advent 1A: Awakening

Sunrise-1OLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 2: 1-5

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

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  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.

 a.      What images, for you, does this passage evoke?

 b.      What vision of eternity do you have?

 c.       What does that mean for you?

 d.      What does it mean for our Advent season?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 13: 11-14

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

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.

 a.      What does this image of time mean for us?

 b.      What does it mean to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light?

 c.       How can we keep this vision alive more than 2,000 years later?

GOSPEL:  Matthew 24: 36-44

To read the Gospel Lectionary passage, click here

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 elightening 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.)

 a.      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

 b.      Do you read this as a “negative” warning?  What effect does that have on the “Good News” of Christ?

 c.       What does the idea of “end times” have to do with Advent?

 d.      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. (Roy Arundhati)

 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.)

And join me for my Advent devotionals or Virtual Study or whatever you want to call it on http://dancingtogod.com/.  I’ll be posting every day beginning December 1st.  There will be some crossover with these notes, but join me!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Shelli