Advent 2B: Changing Light

 

Changing Light

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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.)

All-Saints A: Thin Places

This Sunday we are using the Lectionary readings for All-Saints so that means that we are actually “skipping” the readings for Proper 27A this year.  The Feast of All Saints is one of the major festivals of the church. In our United Methodist tradition, while we have specific readings for this day, they do change between the lectionary years (A, B, & C)  All-Saints Day (actually dated November 1st), probably dates back as far as 373, when the festival was mentioned in the writings of Ephrem Syrus.  The original emphasis was to honor the saints and martyrs who had no specific commemoration day.  As the festival transitioned to Protestantism (who obviously do not have the plethora of saints of our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters), it became a time of remembrance of those who had passed away in the last year. 

cliffs051FIRST READINGRevelation 7: 9-17
The Book of Revelation, which, despite its name, is the most veiled text of all in the Bible, makes great demands on those who read or hear it.  There is usually a temptation to move too quickly to interpret or translate its imagery into something that is more accessible and more easily understood.  To attempt to “decode” Revelation, as if it were Morse code, fails to take the medium that way it was given.  This is not a narrative.  It is not prophecy.  It offers instead a new view of reality.  Those with whom the Revelation was originally shared were much more comfortable with it and the mystery that it holds than we are.  There was not such a need to “prove” or to “figure out” every detailed meaning.  They were satisfied, rather, with the idea that God has been throughout history and will continue to be and that God has a greater vision of what is to come than any one of us can even attempt to imagine.  Isn’t that enough?
Albrecht Bengel was an eighteenth-century commentator, wrote this about Revelation: 
The whole structure of it breathes the art of God, comprising in the most finished compendium, things to come, many, various; near, intermediate, remote; the greatest, the least; terrible, comfortable; old, new; long, short; and these interwoven together, opposite, composite; relative to each other at a small, at a great distance; and therefore sometimes as it were disappearing, broken off, suspended, and afterwards unexpectedly and most seasonably appearing again.  In all its parts it has an admirable variety, with the most exact harmony, beautifully illustrated by those digressions which seem to interrupt it.  In this manner does it display the manifold wisdom of God shining in the economy of the church through so many ages.
In verse 4 (prior to this reading), the writer speaks of 144,000 from the children of Israel who are sealed.  (Just as an aside, this is where the traditions such as The Jehovah’s Witnesses get their number and their notion of “sealing”. But the number is thought to possibly refer to the twelve tribes of Israel times twelve times 1,000.  It connotes an infinite number.)  So, this is a much larger group, a great multitude.  They are identified and distinguished by their relationship with the Lamb.  Clothed in white, they hold palm branches (a symbol of victory) and they sing of salvation.  God is described as “hovering over them”, where God tabernacles and envelopes the people, as the Spirit hovers over Jesus at his baptism.  They are protected with a new freedom from hunger and thirst and the heat of the sun.  (Isaiah 25:8 is fulfilled)  Now this inclusive vision of the eschaton (the end) was a challenge to many late first century believers (when this was probably written) and it continues to be a challenge to many of us.  But these are meant to be words of encouragement.  They are meant to remind us of the ever-present God who walks with us through whatever comes and walks with us to whatever is waiting for us later in our journey.   And who knows?  God has surprised us with who has shown up at the banquet before!
The graciousness of God is evident.  The passage injects a theme of tenderness and comfort, and God’s sustaining promise of enduring witness to Christ in the midst of death and destruction.  The inclusiveness of the vision is striking (which is why it is used as a lection for All Saints Day.)  The multitude includes Jews and all those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, thereby identifying themselves with the way of the Lamb.
For us, our struggle with Revelation probably has more to do with the fact that we are trying to “figure it out”.  It’s probably meant to be symbolic metaphor and as metaphor it is contingent upon the context in which it was written.  We do not live in the late first century.  Even those of us who are well-versed historians can not appreciate the nuances that existed politically, emotionally, and even spiritually during that time for those who were living it.  We have never met John of Patmos, or whoever the writer was.  It’s a mystery.  But in that mystery, in these things that we do not understand, that do not make sense to us, we might have the gift of ever-so-slightly brushing up against the holy and the sacred and experience even a momentary glimpse of what is to come.  That’s all it is.  And whatever happens between now and when whatever is to come is revealed to us, the Book of Revelation tells us that God walks with us.  The Ancient Celts would have called it a “thin place”, a place where the distance between now and what is to come, between our “earth” and “heaven”, between the ordinary and the sacred becomes so thin that one can almost see through it; indeed, that it is only thinly veiled.  It is those times when one realizes that he or she is indeed on holy ground and that eternity stretches before us. Now we just need to not worry so much about figuring it out and get on with the journey!
Where is God in this picture?  God is all over the place.  God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out, God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular and vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.  God is the web, the connection, the glue, the air between the molecules…As of God’s plan?  You know, whether God has a file I can break into and find out what I should be doing ten years from now?  The more I learn about chaos theory, the more I favor the concept of life with God as a dance instead of a blueprint.  God makes a move, humankind makes a move, then humankind makes a moved based on God’s move.  (From “Waltzing With the God of Chaos”, by Barbara Brown Taylor, in The Life of Meaning:  Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World, ed. by Bob Abernethy and William Bole, p. 47, 48)
a.      What does this passage mean for you?
b.      What image of God does this reading leave for you?
c.       What does the holy and the sacred mean to you?
d.      What are those “thin places” in your life?
NEW TESTAMENT:  1 John 3: 1-3
John Wesley said of the First Epistle of John, “How plain, how full, and how deep a compendium of genuine Christianity!”  Very little can be said with great confidence about the author of these three letters.  The First Epistle of John is written anonymously.  There is some similarity between these epistles and The Gospel According to John, but some point out that it lacks evidence of Semitic style characteristic of the Gospel and appears more “Greek” or Hellenistic in nature.  While most agree that 2 and 3 John are actually letters, the First Epistle of John is not as clear.  They really don’t know how to classify it.  It may even be some sort of commentary on the Gospel According to John itself.
The third chapter is part of a continuous expression of confidence in Christ’s coming.  It expresses a kinship in Christ, a relationship to God.  It encourages a present endurance as preparation for the future and a calling to become perfect in Christ.  There is clear evidence of God’s grace, bestowed freely and undeserved.  And, again, there is the reminder that we do not know everything about God, that we CANNOT know everything about God.  (I mean, really, would you want to?  Where would that leave God then?  Where would that leave our faith?)
There exists in this passage the notion that God’s presence and God’s love is both present and future, already realized and not yet revealed.  So which is it?  Yes…that is the point.  This is the Alpha and the Omega and everything in between.  It is the love that we know now and the love into which we are growing.  Again, don’t try to figure out which it is.  Just live it and live into it.  It has to do with who we are AND what we will be.  Those are not separate things.  In this passage, the writer reminds us that we are God’s children now and always.  God loves us and God wants to be with us.  The earth is God’s family.  We are all God’s children.  We are all growing into what we were created to be—the very image of God—pure and loving and holy.  And when we see that Love in which we were created and in which we live, then it all comes together.  THIS is the sacredness and the holy.  THIS is that wonderful “thin place” where we can see things the way they are meant to be seen.
a.      What does this passage mean for you?
b.      What does it say to you about that becoming perfect in Christ?
c.       So what are we called to know about God?
GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 1-12
Well, this is the only Scripture this week that we have even a remote idea who the author is!  Most scholars agree that the core of what is known as the Beatitudes goes back to Jesus.  It is essentially a reversal of the usual value system that was in place in the first century.  The Beatitude was present in the Jewish tradition as a form of proclamation found in wisdom and prophetic writings.  They declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act.  Here, the opposite of “blessed” is not unhappy but cursed.
One thing to note is that the form of these Beatitudes use two verbs:  are and will.  Each beatitude begins in the present and moves to future tense.  They are, then expressions of what is already true in the Christian community not, necessarily, for individuals, but in community.  The move to the future tense indicates that the life of the kingdom must wait for ultimate validation until God finishes the new creation.  There is a resistance, then, against Christianity as a philosophy of life that would make one healthy, wealthy, and wise.  It is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance one’s career, make one financially successful, or preserve one from illness.  It is, rather, a way of living based on the sure and firm hope that one walks in the way of God and that righteousness and peace will finally prevail.
In Year C of the Lectionary (which we looked at last year), the Lukan version of the Beatitudes are used. There are several differences in the two versions.  In Matthew (the more familiar one), there are nine beatitudes; in Luke, there are four.  The Matthean beatitudes are spoken from a mountain, probably since, as one writing to the Jewish community, this would depict that it was something important.  (Reminiscent of Moses on Mt. Sinai.)  The version told by the writer of Luke is spoken from a “level place” (sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain.  Matthew’s beatitudes are spoken to a “crowd”.  When Jesus speaks in the Lucan version, he speaks specifically to his disciples.  Matthew’s version has no corresponding “woes”.  In Luke, there are four “woes” corresponding to four “blessings”. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:  Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways.  Jesus knows only one possibility:  simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it.  That is the only way to hear his word.  He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.
We read this in this week of All-Saints Sunday because it is about that New Creation that God has shown us.  It is a Creation that, again, is both already and not yet.  It has already begun and we are called to its work (to, as Bonhoeffer said, “get on with it”).  It is different from the things of this life—a Holy Reversal, of sorts.  And there is a future tense to it.  We walk in hope.  Blessing is just up ahead.  But blessing here is not meant to be something that we get as a reward for doing all these things.  As you know, God is much more nuanced than that.  It’s, rather, undeserved, unmerited.  Blessing is grace.  This is not God dangling some sort of treat in front of us to make sure that we run the right traps.  This is God revealing a vision of what will be—a life of comfort, abundance, mercy, and God’s ever-abiding Presence.  It’s what is here for us now and what we will always have.  We just have to learn to see things in a different way.  Once again, it’s about paradox.  We read it and we think we have it figured out.  In this world, “blessed” often means having wealth, or security, or ease of life.  It often means that things are going well.  But “blessedness” for Christ has nothing to do with the quality of this life at all.  It is about being one with God and one with others.  Perhaps being Christian, itself, is about being paradox, about looking at the world in a different way and being open to seeing things one has never seen before.  Perhaps being Christian is about daring to call oneself “blessed”.
                                                              i.      What does this passage mean for you?
                                                            ii.      What is the most difficult Beatitude for you to grasp?
                                                          iii.      How does this passage speak to our world today?
                                                          iv.      What does it mean to you to be “blessed”?
                                                            v.      Why do you think this passage is appropriate for our All-Saints reading?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
The saints are those who, in some partial way, embody—literally incarnate—the challenge of faith in their time and place.  In doing so, they open a path that others might follow.  (Robert Ellsberg)
The past takes us forward.  (Diana Butler Bass) 
Closing
As we discussed, All-Saints is about both today and tomorrow.  And we are thankful for those who have come before us, who have walked this same journey that we travel now.  We are all part of the same conversation that began when God spoke Creation into existence.  As we celebrate the memories of those who have gone before us, let us also honor their memories by journeying with hope and courage toward the one that we have been called to be and the One that calls us home.
For those who walked with us, this is a prayer.
For those who have gone ahead, this is a blessing.
For those who touched and tended us, who lingered with us while they lived, this is a thanksgiving.
For those who journey still with us in the shadows of awareness, in the crevices of memory, in the landscape of our dreams, this is a benediction.  Amen.
                                                                        (Jan L. Richardson, in In Wisdom’s Path, p. 124)