In this season of Advent, we are reminded to wait and prepare for the coming of Christ. It is a time of new hope and new birth. And yet, these words from Isaiah sound harsh and devastating. Has God forgotten the people? Are the people of God too far-gone to be redeemable? Has God given up? But then the passage reminds us that, like clay, the people need to be molded by God into what God calls them to be. The writer calls upon God to remember the people, to remember that they are children of God. We are reminded how badly we need God, how desperately we need God to once again break into the darkness of our lives.
This section of Isaiah was probably not written by the actual prophet Isaiah but, rather, by a post-exilic writer that is trying to remind a struggling people that God had always been with them and would remain with them even in this time of despair. The context in which it is set is full of hostilities. The society is getting farther and farther away from what it is called to be. The people have turned away. And so, almost with a feeling of last desperation, the writer begs God to save them, to “come down” and redeem them. There is a sense here of a removed deity, a God who is “up there”. And yet we can identify with that feeling of God’s absence, of not being able to feel God’s Presence in our midst. Has God deserted them? Is it, then, God’s fault that the people have turned away?
This is no different a scenario than we often experience. We want God. We yearn for God. We want to be the people of God. But often that feeling of God’s presence eludes us. Has God deserted us? Or have we somehow deserted God? We want God but we want God on our own terms. We want to somehow control the Divine and fit God into our already-formed lives. We want to experience a Presence of God that is comfortable and familiar.
But the coming of God shatters that elusion. God comes in ways and places that we do not expect God. That’s what this season of Advent reminds us. We are not called to plan for God’s coming the way we plan for our Christmas festivities. We are, rather, called to open ourselves to the way that God will be revealed in our lives. We, like these post-exilic people yearn desperately for God. We beg for God to come into our lives. And, yet, we too, are out of step. God’s coming does not begin with light. God’s coming begins with darkness that the light enters. So, perhaps if we turn out all the bright lights that we insist we need, we will finally see that light that is just over the horizon.
God does not come because we are ready or because we are prepared or because we’ve gotten all our shopping done. God comes into our waiting, into our wilderness. So, wait with the anticipation not of how God will come but that God will.
a.What is your response to this passage?
b.What gets in the way of our anticipation of God’s Presence in our lives?
c.What does this passage say to us about waiting for God?
Paul’s known letters to the people of the church at Corinth often deal with the notion of spiritual gifts. Perhaps it was something of which they needed to be reminded. In the first century, Corinth was a bustling city replete with wealth and material possessions. But, obviously, that was not all they were about. They were people of God. God had instilled in them ample spiritual gifts for what they needed. It is not a new theme. We, too, have been instilled with the gifts of the Spirit.
It is a way of saying that this work of God, this Presence of God’s Spirit, has begun in us. Like God’s vision, they are not complete. They have to be developed. They have to be lived out in community. They have to be used to build up the Kingdom of God. We still have to wait for the full revelation. We still have to wait for the promised coming of God’s Kingdom in its fullness, but in the meantime, we have been strengthened and given the gifts that we need to live as the people of God.
Paul implores the Corinthians to wait for God but not passively. Rather, they are called to do the work of God even as they wait for the full glory of God to come. We, too, are called to this active waiting. God will come when God will come. But, in the meantime, we are already the people of God called to the work of God. And God has equipped us for the journey.
Now keep in mind that these first-century people assumed that God was going to return any day or any minute. The possibility that our generation would still be waiting for the fullness of God’s Kingdom would have been positively anathema to them. And as time went on, they, like those post-exilic Israelites centuries before them took matters into their own hands. Waiting is difficult for all of us though. Our world tends to operate on instant gratification. When we don’t get the “answer” from God that we think we need, we too tend to try to take care of things ourselves. In fact, we admire people that “get things done,” that take hold of the situation and make things happen. But that’s not what faith is about. Faith is about expectation. Faith is about anticipation. In fact, faith is about waiting. A life of faith is one of active waiting, believing that God will come when God will come and living a life with that vision in mind, a vision of peace, and justice, and unity within the Presence of God. But don’t wait to begin.
a.What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.How does this passage speak to the concept of “waiting” that Advent holds?
c.What does this notion of “active waiting” look like for us?
d.With what spiritual gifts has God equipped our own community of faith?
We begin this Year B of our Lectionary year with a reading from The Gospel According to Mark, whose writer really just sort of skips over the whole Advent / Christmas thing and cuts right to the chase. Most over-personalized readings of this Scripture leave us with a fear of what comes next. (Oh my, am I ready? What’s going to happen to me?) We quickly go to visions of those who are unprepared being uncomfortably ripped from what they know or, as a series of cult fiction writings would depict it, being flat out left behind! But keep reading…this is not meant to scare us; it is meant to wake us up. Sure, it is meant to remind us that there is something coming! We do not want to miss it. But, more than that, we do not want to miss the present spiritual awakening that we are all having in this very moment.
We have skewed our understanding of Advent a bit. I think all of us know that. But, really, can you blame us? The world is so bent on being prepared for what comes next that it tends to live one season ahead at all times–the Halloween decorations go up the end of August, the Thankgiving decorations go up the end of September, and the Christmas decorations go up the end of October. The twelve days of Christmas tide, will of course, be filled with merchandise sales, a couple of unreplaced burned out Christmas lights, and and a flowering of little red hearts filled with candy to make sure we’re ready for the next thing. Somewhere in there, Advent is lost. Oh, we Christians, do alright with it. We faithfully light one candle at a time while we begrudingingly ward off the singing of any Christmas carols. But Advent is not merely a season of preparation for Christmas. It is much, much more. It is from the Latin “Adventus“, which means arrival or coming. It is not really meant to be only a time of shopping and checking off our “to do” list for the December 25th festival. Rather, Advent is our awakening to the realization that the Divine is even now spilling into our lives, even now a new humanity is being birthed, and even now all of Creation is being reformed and recreated.
And here’s a thought…all of those questions that we each ask ourselves when we read this passage (you know, like “what’s going to happen to me?”)…well, it’s not about us. This passage is about seeing something beyond ourselves, about seeing something bigger than us or the little lives that we have so carefully carved out for ourselves. It’s about waking up to the realization that God is bigger than we imagine.
We cannot live one season ahead. God will come when God will come. The full revealing of what God has in store is yet to be. But this season of Advent, this season of waiting, awakens us that we might see that it has already started to be. The feast has yet to be set but the dancing has begun. All we have to do is learn to stay awake.
a.What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.How does this passage speak to us in our world today?
c.So what does this concept of “staying awake” mean to you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
One needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful… [One] cannot be satisfied until [one] ever thirsts for God. (Alexander Baillie)
You must be the change you wish to see in the world. (Gandhi, Mahatma)
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)
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.)
Jacob settles in the land of promise. This sets up the themes for the story: the movement from Canaan to Egypt and the development from individual to “the chosen people”. As it became obvious that Joseph was his father’s pet, the brothers grew to hate him and could not speak to him peaceably. The coat given to Joseph by his father is a sign of that favoritism. Remember that Joseph was the son of Jacob’s “favorite” wife, Rachel. He was also the child of Jacob’s old age, probably born long after Jacob had given up on the possibility of Rachel conceiving.
Communication breaks down and the stage is set for yet another family conflict. The brothers then journey some fifty miles from Hebron to pasture the flock where there is good grassland. Joseph stays home. Jacob sends him to look into the well-being of the brothers and of their flocks and report back. But because the brothers have moved to Dothan (fifteen miles north of Shechem), Joseph has difficulty finding them.
Considering Jacob’s past, we can’t help but wonder about his motivation. Didn’t he know of the brother’s feelings toward Joseph? Or was he possibly trying to force some family reconciliation? You really can’t help but wonder whether this is a naïve, loving father who hopes the brothers can work things out. So, the brothers plot against Joseph and when they see him approaching, they conspire to kill him. Their motivation centers on Joseph’s dream (they sarcastically call him a “master of dreams”).
Our passage doesn’t have us actually reading about the dreams, but it’s an important part of the story and the motivation for what happens. Joseph’s dreams, which are so famous, depict the entire family bowing down to him in reverence, a sign that he is the head of the family. This, of course, infuriates all of his older brothers and sets the stage for what comes next. Keep in mind that it was understood that dreams were looked upon as some sort of divine intervention. But the brothers looked upon Joseph’s dreams as a type of arrogance. By getting rid of him, they will make certain that the dream does not become a reality. But, ironically, by selling him to Egypt they enable it to become so. This place Egypt is now part of the story that will lead us into the Exodus saga. The brothers agree to sell him to passing Ishmaelites or, in some texts, Midianite traders. But, Joseph is ultimately sold on the open slave market and is taken to Egypt (which will ultimately provide a link between the Genesis story and the Exodus story, so the “family” theme becomes a “national” one.).
The brothers return to their father with Joseph’s coat dipped in goat’s blood and tell him that Joseph is dead. (The trickster has been tricked!) And yet still, God continues to exist even with this somewhat less than ideal, chaotic, conniving family. God remains with them. But the family of Jacob will become the family that enters Canaan.
This is an odd story, to say the least. I mean, really, what kind of parent is Jacob? And on some level, Joseph is really nothing more than a spoiled obnoxious brat. But all of that is overshadowed by this band of brothers who conspire murder. I think that may take the cake! But once again, God takes even this and uses it. This story sets in motion the rest of the Genesis story. Once again, the cycle is repeated—the eldest, the one who should be “in charge”, who should inherit the legacy and the birthright, is not in line to do that (or lets it slip away). Next week’s Old Testament lection will see the reuniting of Joseph and his brothers and the continuation of the Genesis story and this family’s story as it weaves through it. But along the way, God does not interfere with humanity’s mistakes. That is not the way God conducts business as Master of Creation. There are many ways that Creation and Re-creation happen. God is pretty good at using whatever instruments are available. I think God has to be; otherwise, this whole free will thing would have been possibly the biggest regret that God has. And I don’t think it is. God doesn’t demand perfection—just openness to the possibility that change is always in our midst.
The 15th century Spanish commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama interprets it like this:
In the Joseph story, we find all the protagonists playing their own parts, carrying out their personal objectives, without affecting God’s overall design. Quite the contrary, the freedom of choice of none of the participants is interfered with in any way… The chain of events in which the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers played a prominent part, ultimately proved to have become the instrument for carrying out God’s design. However God could have found many other means to achieve the same end. Therefore the brothers cannot claim exoneration by saying that what they had done helped God to achieve his aim. The Bible is full of similar lessons. (From “Joseph, Don’t Go!”, by Eliezer Segal, University of Calvary, available at http://people.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/Shokel/Preaching/S971221_Vayyeshev.html, accessed 3 August, 2011.)
And, using the words of the prophet Jeremiah, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani writes this Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 85:1):
“For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil” (Jeremiah 29:11): The tribes were busy with the selling of Joseph. Jacob was busy with his sackcloth and mourning. Judah was busy looking for a woman. While the Holy One was creating the light of the Messiah! (From “Joseph, Don’t Go!, Ibid.)
What is your response to this passage?
What do you think of Jacob’s part in this story?
What about Joseph’s part of the story?
What part does fear play in this story?
This story is told without a single reference to God. Where do you see God in this story?
In this passage, Paul is in the middle of explaining why the gospel does not amount to a betrayal of his own people or a denial of scripture. He uses a text from the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus. Here “live” implies life with God. He claims that this new way of looking at things, this gospel, creates something that produces right relationship and, subsequently, right behavior. It takes further this idea of the commandments, “God’s law”, no longer being external “rules” but rather something that is indeed written on one’s heart. The basis for righteousness, for Paul, is being at one with God.
Paul professes that acceptance of Christ as Lord leads to liberation. Essentially, Paul has made the same claim before but, here, he is speaking of a more internalized relationship with God. It is beyond just doing right and living right; it is being one with God. At the end of the passage, Paul affirms the equality of all humanity before God, either Jew or Gentile. Right-standing before God is a gift available to all humanity for the asking. To stand approved before God (to stand justified) is simply a matter of faith.
The problem that Paul is countering is that most saw goodness as achieved by obeying the law. They saw their standing as progressed by merit. They could not grasp “perfection” in the sense of Christ. You can actually sense Paul’s frustration. His passionate belief in the Gospel and in Jesus Christ as Savior comes through. But you also get a sense of a certain frustration. He truly believes that the Gospel is open and inclusive of everyone and, yet, he is frustrated that he doesn’t seem to be getting the response that he desires. And yet, he never gives up on the notion that Israel is special, chosen. He cannot imagine that God would ultimately abandon God’s covenant people. God will not just quit loving God’s children. It is apparent that Paul’s image of God is of a Creator who is loving and caring toward all of Creation.
Maybe, given the three questions toward the end of the passage, this discourse is more about proclamation than trying to figure out who was going to be saved. (Personally, I think that’s more up to God than anyone else! If God wants to save everyone, I actually think that’s God’s prerogative. I mean, are there really rules in place here?) But Paul is clear that if one professes to be a Christian, than one must openly confess the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are sent into the world to proclaim the Good News, rather than to weed out (Oh my…can’t get rid of the weed imagery, can we?) who is saved by the words. I mean, last I checked, we were saved by grace! Isn’t that worth talking about?
The last verse of this reading is familiar, thanks to Handel. Think about it—how comfortable are we with “feet”. (Not shoes, feet!) There is an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” In other words, we are sent to proclaim the good news. I THINK that’s why our own United Methodist Church recently added “witness” to our liturgy of commitment and confirmation. We now commit our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Go! Now! Start moving! Start talking!
Pope John Paul II once said that “modern [humanity] often anxiously wonders about the solution to the terrible tensions which have built up in the world and which entangle humanity. And if at times [we] lack the courage to utter the word “mercy,” or if in [our] conscience empty of religious content [we] do not find the equivalent, so much greater is the need for the Church to utter this word, not only in her own name, but also in the name of all the men and women of our time.” So, then, what is it we are being called to utter? How do we profess the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
What meaning does this passage hold for you?
What does “being one with God” mean for you?
How well do you think WE grasp perfection in the sense of Christ?
How, then, should we look at the “written law”?
What does it mean to you to profess your “witness”?
This story is probably one of the most loved. We like the calming effect of it. We like the image of a Christ who brings peace and calm to our lives, who will at a moment’s notice reach out a hand to save us. It makes us feel good. It alleviates our fears.
And yet, is that really all this Scripture is meant to portray? Look at the beginning. Jesus sends the disciples forth without him. He knew that they had the wherewithal to do it, to make it across to the other side. And then he went up to the mountain by himself to pray. And then the clouds rolled in. The winds came up and the waves began to batter the boat that held the disciples. And all of a sudden, Jesus was there, holding out his hand, inviting Peter to get out of the boat. Peter was assured by Jesus’ strong hand and his encouraging eyes. So he followed. And then, fears crept in. What in the world was he doing? This was nuts, not even rational. And he began to sink, began to drown.
In an article on this passage in The Christian Century, Amy Hunter says that “Peter’s growing awareness of the wind and the waves reminds [her] of the cartoon of the coyote chasing the roadrunner off the cliff. The roadrunner always makes it across the gap, but every time the coyote, halfway across, becomes aware that there is nothing beneath his feet, he stops cold, then plummets down.” (Amy Hunter, “Stepping Out”, in The Christian Century, July 26, 2005, 19., available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3234, accessed 1 August, 2011.)
So think about this: Did Peter begin to sink because he was afraid or because he let his fears control the person he was and affect what he was being called to do? Over and over again in Scripture, we read the words “do not be afraid”. That is not the same as being told not to fear. Of course we are going to have fears. They are normal human emotions. In fact, 19th century British Prime Minister and literary figure Benjamin Disraeli once said that “fear makes us feel our humanity.” I really do think that that is a good thing. I think God wants us to feel our humanity at its deepest and most profound level; otherwise, why would God have made us human in the first place? God wants us to know who we are—fears and doubts and all—so well that we will finally realize that we cannot do this alone. It is a way of trusting our fear to bring us back home.
And the truth is, most of us are a little uneasy with Jesus’ question of Peter: “Why did you doubt?” I have to say that I squirm in my seat a little and want desperately to jump to Peter’s defense as well as my own. I mean, really, waves and wind, little bitty boat, and the fact that it is just not physically possible to walk on water! I’m sorry, you want me to get out of the boat in the middle of a storm and do what? Isn’t that enough to at least warrant a minimum requirement of fear and doubt?
Again, if God’s expectation of us is not to fear and not to doubt, then we are asked to do the impossible. We are asked to do that which we are not really capable of doing. God can do it; I’m clear I cannot. We are essentially asked to do something as ludicrous as walking on water. This passage can pretty easily generate uncomfortable questions and just downright bad theologies. Jesus is not asking Peter to prove his faith. And the message is not that having faith will shield us from all harm and woe. In her article, Hunter said that “[she] had a classmate at an evangelical Christian college who repeatedly defined faith as ‘stepping out of airplanes, knowing that God will catch you.’ [Hunter’s] response was that surely God had better things to do than catch folks stupid enough to step out of airplanes.” (Ibid.)
You see, faith is not a shield that we create that protects us from harm. It is not something that we accomplish or wear like a badge of honor. I don’t even think it’s something that is measurable. It’s not something that we check off of our “to do” list. Rather, faith makes us realize that we’re not in this alone. Maybe God will pull us out of the storm in the nick of time. I think it’s much more profound to believe in a God who will get in the storm with me, who will hold me, allow me to wrestle, allow me to fight against the waves. I believe in a God who doesn’t demean me or dismiss me for being afraid. Sure, I’m afraid! After all, there’s a big wave coming my way right now! What kind of semi-emotionally-adjusted human WOULDN’T have fears?
You know, Peter had fears. He admitted he had fears—ghosts, storms, death. Jesus never said to him that those were unfounded or baseless or stupid. Jesus just held out his hand and cheered him on. “Peter, you almost have it, hold on, hold on.” It is no different for us. In his 1833 Journals, Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear.” We need to trust our fears. They are part of our very being. They are part of the way God made us to be. But they don’t need to control what we do or who we are. There is a way to recast (i.e. reconstruct or remodel) those fears into something that is life-giving.
Of what are you afraid? Most of it comes down to one thing: chaos—loss of control, loss of knowing what will happen in one’s life, loss of being prepared for what is to come. Really? Did you forget what God can do? God has done this over and over and over again—creating order out of chaos, light out of darkness, wisdom out of stupidity, and life out of death. It’s about faith. It’s about trust. And it’s also about opening yourself to recasting your fears into something that allows you to look to Christ when you feel like your feet are sinking into the abyss. And part of recasting those fears means, I’m afraid, that once in awhile you have to get out of the boat!
What meaning does this passage hold for you?
What image of God does this story bring about for you?
How does fear affect our faith? How does it affect our image of God?
What scares you the most? How could that be recast into something life-giving?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The way of faith is necessarily obscure. We drive by night. (Thomas Merton)
Trust is letting go of needing to know all the details before you open your heart. (Unknown)
Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. (Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, p. 122)
Worry and stress are not hard for us, God. We do them without thinking. There is always the potential of threat to our security, our comfort, our health, our relationships, our lives, and we foolishly think that we could silence the fear if we just had enough money, enough insurance, enough toys, enough stored away for a rainy day. It’s never enough, though; The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily. But in the small silent places within us is another voice: one that beckons us into the foolishness of faith, that points our gaze to the birds and flowers, that, in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax and our hearts lean into loved ones; In unexpected whispers we hear it, calling us to remember your promises, your grace, your faithfulness; And suddenly, we discover that it is enough. Amen. (John Van De Laar, in Weavings, Vol. XXV, Number 4, p. 41.)