Advent 4A: A Light on the Horizon

Unknown GodOLD TESTAMENT:  Isaiah 7: 10-16

Read the Old Testament Passage

During this season of Advent this year, we have read texts that get louder and louder with prophetic messages of what is to come.  This is the thing of which Christmas’s are made.  This passage actually depicts the second part of a story about an encounter between the prophet that we know as Isaiah and the Judean King Ahaz.  It locates the story in 734-733 bce, when the Kings of Israel and Aram attempted to invade Jerusalem and replace Ahaz with a sort of puppet ruler who would support their coalition against Assyria.  The invasion was actually unsuccessful but at this point in the writing, that ending is unknown.  The attacks threaten not only the survival of the nation itself but the fulfillment of a promised ruler descended from David, the great King of history.  So, the prophet Isaiah is sent to reassure Ahaz of divine protection.

Now, it is apparent that Ahaz is a ruler of faith—so much so that he will not ask as others have done for a “sign”, proof of God’s promises.  And so God gives him one anyway, proof that God is always and forever God, even in the face of one with strong and faithful convictions.

The sign is a child.  The child’s name, Immanuel (or “God with us”) reinforces the divine promise to deliver the nation from its enemies and sure demise.  The child is born of a young woman, the Hebrew “almah”, which means a young woman of marriageable age.  If the author had wanted to depict the woman as a virgin, the word “betulah” would have been used.  But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word was translated as “parthenos” or “virgin”.  So the writer of The Gospel According to Matthew understood the verse as a prediction of the birth of Jesus.  And then all those translators that came after that capitalized on that notion, perhaps in an effort to explain the unexplainable, to rid the text of the ambiguities that were probably meant to be there in the first place.

Many scholars think that the young woman may have been Ahaz’s wife and her son the future king Hezekiah.   She also is identified with the wife of the prophet himself.  But, regardless, the very birth of a child could have evoked hope in a time of great despair and national duress.  And, likewise, our interpretation through our Christian lens interprets the passage as a promise of redemption that we see through the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, “God with us”.

This text is, as we said, ambiguous at best.  Who are we kidding?  The whole faith story is a little ambiguous at best.  Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.  But the promise of this child (whoever the child is interpreted to be) is one of hope and promise, one of joy and peace, but it can also be one of fear and apprehension.  After all, what does it mean for God to be with us, walking among us, being a part of our very lives?  How do we respond to the idea of God’s very real presence in our lives?  And how do we truly respond to the idea of full transformation of all that is into what it should be?  The details of the story no longer matter.  The point is that God is With Us.  And so, we are called to trust God and put our faith in the promise that God brings.  Ahaz, the Assyrians, everything around will soon fall by the wayside, but God’s promise will remain.  After all, God is with us.  But what that means will be something for you to discover on your own.


  1. What are your thoughts about this passage?
  2. What does that truly mean to live with the real presence of Christ in one’s midst?
  3. So what expectation in this Advent season does this passage evoke for you?


NEW TESTAMENT:  Romans 1: 1-7

Read the New Testament Passage

This is a short text but it’s definitely packed with some pretty important ideas:  being set apart, the Good News of God through Christ, the Scriptural witness, Jesus as a son of David, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and faith itself.  Essentially, it has to do with identity.  Paul sees himself as a servant of Christ; literally, a “slave”, one who submits totally to God, one who belongs to God.  The original hearers of this message did indeed belong to God through Christ but they were also a part of the Roman Empire.  But over and above who they are as Romans, Paul reminds them that first and foremost, they belong to Christ.  Paul himself cannot turn his back completely on his own identity and the culture in which he grew and still resides.  And he is not expecting that from anyone else.  But he is calling his hearers to an awareness of something more, something beyond who they are.

Perhaps this is Paul’s way of reminding us that God enters our lives through the normalcy of what life holds.  We are not called to change the lives we live, just the way we live them.  We are reminded to live with an obedience of faith in the midst of who we are as people.  I once baptized a baby who was eating a Ritz cracker.  Now, we don’t usually pass out hor’dourves with the Sacraments, but, really, did that change God’s Presence in that moment?  For that matter, who’s to say that it didn’t make that Presence more real?  God’s presence and God’s promise comes wherever one is.  Our calling is to respond to that presence also in the midst of the lives we lead.  But that entails learning to see and listen in a way that many of us do not.  We need to appreciate how God called others into being so that we might be able to better discern our own unique way that God is entering our lives.


  1. What are your thoughts about this passage?
  2. How would you describe your own identity?
  3. What does that mean for you to be aware of God’s presence in the “normalcy” of your identity and your life?


GOSPEL:  Matthew 1: 18-25

Read the Gospel Passage

The text is familiar.  It is the story of stories.  This is it; this is how it happened; this is how God entered the world and changed us forever.  The writer of Matthew must have had such a great sense of God in the writings of Isaiah that this was the way it needed to be described.  We already know the answer; we know what will happen.  The Christ child will again come and for a moment, if only for a moment, we will look into the eyes of hope and change.  We will look into the eyes of God.  And then something will distract us and the moment will be lost—until next year.  And yet, we are reminded of Emmanuel, God With Us.  And, like Joseph, when we awake from sleep, we are to take the Christ child into our hearts.

We skip over the genealogy.  I supposed that’s done so that we can get to the story and not be bogged down in the details.  I mean, really, most people don’t want to hear a list of names.  It doesn’t make good press or good script.  And yet, the story itself is buried in the details, isn’t it?  I suppose God could come into the world with no help from us, with no help from all of those faithful ones who came before us.  But what would it mean?  Why bother?  After all, the name of the Christ child is “God With US”.  Doesn’t that mean something?  The story is incomplete without us.  Because without us, God never would have come at all.  God came as Emmanuel, “God with us”, and calls us into the story.  The Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity.  There’s no way out.  The Divine has poured into our midst and we are changed forever.  We just have to birth the Godchild in our lives.  Knowing that we could never become Divine, the Divine became us.  The world is turned upside down.  And so God stayed around to show us how to live in it.  So I suppose the writer of Matthew is right:  All this DID take place to fulfill what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophets…and his dwelling will be glorious.

We also are guilty of sort of skipping over Joseph.  After all, can you imagine what he must have been going through?  This was not just affecting Mary’s life. It was affecting his life too.  The proper (and probably the easiest) thing would be to quietly divorce her and go on with his life.  But in the night in a wild fit of sleep came the dream.  Ah, the dream!  “Listen to her, Joseph, she is telling the truth.  And she needs you.  This child will need you.  He will need a father in his life to show him how to grow up, to show him how to become a man.  He will need someone to hold him when he is afraid and scold him when he gets off course as all children do.  He really just needs someone to love him into being.  And Mary?  She is scared.  She needs you.  You can do this together.”  And, so Joseph awoke, took Mary in his arms, and the rest is part of the story.  But their lives changed forever.

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)

The Season of Advent is about waiting and preparation.  But in the midst of the tree-trimming and the gift-buying and the cookie-baking, remember to look for the moment when you feel the presence of God in your midst.  It will change you forever.


  1. What are your thoughts about this passage?
  2. What does the idea of God being with you really mean for you?
  3. What can we do to prepare ourselves for the coming of God into the world so that THIS TIME we know that it’s forever?



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)

To love God is to follow the mystery, to be led by its showing and withdrawing. (John Dunne)

God is now on earth and [humanity] in heaven; on every side all things comingle.  [God] has come on earth, while being fully in heaven; and while complete in heaven, [God] is without diminution on earth…Though being the unchanging word, God become flesh to dwell amongst us.  (St. John Chysostom)




Too often our answer to the darkness is not running toward Bethlehem but running away.  We ought to know by now that we can’t see where we’re going in the dark.  Running away is rampant…separation is stylish:  separation from mates, from friends, from self.  Run and tranquilize, don’t talk about it, avoid.  Run away and join the army of those who have already run away.  When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace comes only when we turn and face the darkness?  Only then will we be able to see the Light of the World.  (“Kneeling in Bethlehem”, Ann Weems, p. 21)



Proper 15B: Embodying Bread

Bread--Rolling DoughOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3: 3-14

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage

Solomon is generally remembered for his wisdom, a gift that God gave him after he asked not for riches or wealth or long life but for help in governing the people wisely and well. (But, as the story goes, God was so pleased with the request that Solomon received all the other gifts as well.) The passage opens with David’s death and Solomon’s ascension to the throne. Solomon was very young when he came to power. Many guess that he might have been about twenty years old. He had to have felt overwhelmed with what was required of him. After all, he followed his father, David, which was no slight act to follow and David had placed him on the throne in place of Adonijah, his brother, who was actually the “rightful” heir. There were also many enemies that had to be eliminated to solidify Solomon’s reign. So, lest we think that Solomon had some sort of golden reign or was some sort of fair-haired boy, realize that this passage is a wonderful one in the midst of a story that is bloody and filled with violence, infidelity, and sin. In Solomon’s personal life, his marriages to foreign wives will come to be looked upon with disdain, seeing them as the onset of the worship of foreign gods. And, in the category of completely over the top, sources claim that Solomon took 700 wives and 300 concubines. And even in his reign, the previous warning from Samuel that a king will mean that the people will end up as slaves for the most part proves to be true. It is known that Solomon’s building projects, including the great temple, were built with Israeli forced labor. And yet, somehow Solomon stood out. He was human, a mixture of good and bad, of right and wrong. And, yet, he prays with all his heart for wisdom, for perspective, for what God calls him to be.

Solomon goes on to build up the kingdom of Israel and construct the temple. However great David was, it was Solomon who built the most important and sacred structure of the kingdom. It is clear that Solomon enjoys an intimate relationship with God. God even talks to him in his dreams. So, this would imply that true wisdom is about relationships. It is about listening, and understanding that one might discern what is right and good. It is about having the ability (and taking the time) to discern what is right and good not just for one personally but for the people that a leader governs.

This week’s passage is the first of several weeks where the lectionary will continue to deal with wisdom and that is woven through passages about Solomon. But Solomon was not without his own problems and his own shortcomings. Wisdom does not imply perfection. After all, here, David seems to be set up as the “ideal”, and we all remember that that was clearly not the case. We are not called to gloss over people’s shortcoming and make them saints. The Bible is not a story of heroes but, rather, the way God interacts in life and ordinary people interact with God.

It is also interesting because this passage provides a blatant mix of politics and religion, those very things that we are often warned never to mix. Maybe the problem is not the mixing but rather the lack of wisdom in either of those things. Maybe the warning is not about mixing politics and religion but in mixing bad politics and bad religion. Maybe the calling is to a holy conversation rather than a fight to the finish. History has shown over and over again that times when a religion is controlled by a government as well as times when a government controlled by a religion both usually result in tyranny, in the oppression of the governed. Maybe what God has in mind in the cultivation of a listening heart that is open to what is best for all rather than what is best for those in charge. Richard Rohr said that “the work of religion is to open our eyes to see a world where everything swirls with meaning.” So, as people of faith, we are called not to bring our beliefs but rather the Truth to which they point.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your definition of “wisdom”?
  3. What does “wisdom” mean in your own life?
  4. What do you think of the mixing of politics and religion in the time of Solomon and in our own time? Is it different?



NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 5: 15-20

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

Ultimately, the theme for Ephesians could probably be a coming together in wholeness of we who are one body in Christ to fill the whole of reality with the goodness and righteousness of God. In this passage, the exhortation falls on wisdom. The beginning reminds us that there are real and apparent dangers to faith and that they require some level of discernment. The implication is that “alertness” belongs to faith. Wisdom and understanding count for something in faith. As people of faith, we need to be able to discern.

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. (Jacques Lusseyran in Against the Pollution of the I) When you read Ephesians the dangers seemed to be coming not from paganism, but from those claiming that they had Christian authority. There is a certain discernment, then, to figure out what is “of God” and what is not. Lots of claims are made in the name of Christ. Some are just silly and others are downright dangerous. The passage definitely speaks to a certain integrity of faith, of life, and even of worship. It is a way of being lifted out of ourselves and beyond ourselves.

This passage probably is as much about reverence as anything else. It is an acknowledgment that God’s gifts matter, that we are called to the wisdom of using them to their fullest. Earlier in this chapter, we were called to be “imitators” of Christ. This continues with that same call. And, yet, this verse is often taken as a calling to avoid those who practice these things too. We are not called to be sequestered people of faith. We are called to live in the world. We are called to imitate Christ in the world, to live a life of wisdom, of meaning, of wholeness. The wise life makes the most of what we have been given—for our own good but, mostly, for the good of the Kingdom of God.

And, above all, this is a life of joy. It is about paying attention to the glories of life. In one of his “Sabbath Moment” reflections, Terry Hershey shares this midrash story:

The splitting of the Red Sea, according to Jewish tradition, is the greatest miracle ever performed.  It is so extraordinary that on that day even a common servant beheld more than all the miracles witnessed by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel combined.  And yet we have one midrash that mentions two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who had a different experience. Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?” Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”

“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven. “What’s the difference?”  Complained Shimon.  “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.” And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea.  And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing and dancing. For Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened. (Shemot Rabba 24.1)


While the sea had parted for Reuven and Shimon, the miracle never made it’s way into their heart, or their life. This is a story about the permission to look up. Because there is something about the blinders we choose to wear that not only affect our vision, but our capacity to risk or embrace or celebrate or sing and dance or praise or venture or love wholeheartedly. (Terry Hershey, “Look Up”, Sabbath Moment, August 13, 2012)


            So maybe this passage is about more than doing the right things or not doing the wrong things. Maybe it’s about reverence, about seeing the beauty in life, about allowing the beauty to find you, about looking up and feeling joy.


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does this say about wisdom? What about discernment?
  3. What does equating “alertness” to faith mean for you?
  4. What gets in the way of you “looking up”?
  5. What “dangers” to faith do you see in today’s world?


GOSPEL: John 6: 51-58

Read the Lectionary Gospel passage

This week’s passage continues a direct link to the Eucharist and the Gospel writer expands the theme that Jesus is the bread of life. Some commentators have suggested that the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel was composed over time and that the implications to the Eucharist might have been added later. But we cannot help but hear the language of our Eucharist. It is understood as an opening of oneself to a life in Christ. The bread and the cup are lenses through which we can see things differently. Taking them literally, the words are shocking and those who take them literally just don’t get it. The words are meant to correct our vision of what nourishes and sustains us.

Remember that this would have been a real change to the status quo of its first hearers. No longer was adherence to the Torah and its traditions what created community but, rather, the oneness and union with Christ. This relationship is what made the bread “live”, made it come alive for those who receive it. Receiving Christ is not just intellectual assent; it is more; it is making Christ “live”, making Christ real in your life. That is how we receive the presence of Christ. Communion with Christ is a lifestyle and the celebration of the Eucharist is a reflection of that life.

Richard Rohr said that “We do not think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of living.” Making Christ come alive is not merely about understanding what the words say; it is about incarnation. It is about becoming Christ in your flesh and your blood. It is about entering communion with Christ in every aspect of your being. In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says this:

The daily practice of incarnation—of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh—is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper? With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—specific ways of being together in their bodies—that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.

After he was gone, they would still have God’s Word, but that Word was going to need some new flesh. The disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on a regular basis, something so real that they would not be able to intellectualize it and so essentially untidy that there was no way they could ever gain control over it. So Jesus gave them things they could get their hands on, things that would require them to get close enough to touch one another. In the case of the meal, he gave them things they could smell and taste and swallow. In the case of the feet, he gave them things to wash that were attached to real human beings, so that they could not bend over them without being drawn into one another’s lives…

“Do this,” he said—not believe this but do this—“in remembrance of me.” Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas finds most Christians far too spiritual in the practice of their faith. Christianity “is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian,” he says, “but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.” In our embodied life together, the words of our doctrines take on flesh. (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, 43-45)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does the term “living bread” mean to you? What does it mean to say that Christ is the “bread of life”?
  3. What does receiving Communion mean to you?
  4. What does it mean to “live” Communion?
  5. What does incarnation in this sense mean to you?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things. (Mechtild of Magdeburg, 13th century mystic)


The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information but to face sacred moments. (Rabbi Abraham Heschel)


Wisdom is the depth of soul that enables us to understand what must remain in our lives when everything else…goes, It is what we believe spiritually that carries us through life. It is the well of wisdom from which we are meant to draw…Only that which nurtures the truly spiritual in us, the search for the presence of God in every small dimension of life, is real wisdom. If, by the time we die, beauty has moved the silent center of us, love has wracked our hearts, and the word of God has seeped into our heart, we will be as wise as any human being can ever hope to be. (Joan Chittister, Aspects of the Heart: The Many Paths to a Good Life)





Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.  Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

(From “Service of Word and Table I, The United Methodist Book of Worship)