Lent 1C: Pilgrimage

Fork in the desert roadOLD TESTAMENT: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Read the Old Testament passage

The Israelites have been traveling for generations. The stories are all through the Torah, stories of loss and despair, stories of feeling like an alien, stories of out and out abuse from their captors, stories of wandering in the wilderness. And, always, there has been a vision of home, a vision of where God is, a vision of where they belong. And so this passage begins with what they know to be: when they come to the land of promise, all will be right. They will be home.

But as the passage continues, there is also a calling of what it means to be home, of what it means to be “settled”, of what it means to “possess”. In essence, all of these promises and gifts that God gives come with a responsibility to give back. The meaning of possession here does not seem to be holding but rather entrusting. God gives and then they are called to give in return. The gifts that we are given are not “ours” the way we think of “ours”; rather they are ours to use in forming the world into the vision that God holds for us all.

But the passage also lays out exactly what is to be offered to God. It is not the leftovers. It is the first of the fruit of the ground that is harvested. Our modern slang would call it “off the top”. (Yes, even before the federal government!) And the directive is to take it and put it in a basket and offer it as a part of the worship of God. The passage even gives the exact response to be offered: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…etc.” I suppose it is an acknowledgment that this land that has been given is not an inheritance the way we have come to think of the word. It is not something that is “due”. Rather, we realize that we are all immigrants, all searching for a place to be. The word “wandering” can also mean “perishing”. In other words, God has raised up the perishing and brought them home. Isn’t that just like God?

As we begin this season of Lent, we are called to be aware of all that God has given us. And we, too, are called to respond, to offer our first fruits in thanksgiving to God. I think that we are also called to remember from whom and where we came. The truth is, we are all immigrants, wandering Arameans if you will. And God opens the doors and invites us home. And we are called to do the same. The doors are not ours to close. We do not possess what is behind them. Everything belongs to God.

Notice too that the offering is not required immediately upon entering the land. God is not standing at the door to freedom like some sort of holy ticket-taker. Rather, the gift of home also comes with the gift of time—to possess, to settle, to plant, and to harvest. And then, then, with thanksgiving and gratitude, God is to be offered the first of the harvest, the brightest and best. It is a reminder that no one is expected to enter the door fully formed. We are all living on that journey toward who it is God calls us to be. Perhaps part of that journey is a patience toward others as they take the time to do the same.

And, of course, it is hard to read this without remembering that this promise of land comes with the dispossession of others. Land, of course, is a finite commodity on this earth. But it really doesn’t say anything about displacement of the one that is there. The assumption is that all of God’s children, both resident and alien, will reside together and in joy celebrate the great bounty of home that God offers all of God’s children. We remember who we are, we remember the road that we traveled, we give thanks for all that God has done, and we welcome other journeyers in. (Hmmm! Sounds like Communion to me!) “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.”

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does the notion of being an alien mean to you?
  3. How do we define “possession”?   What would it mean for us to definine it as a “responsibility”?
  4. In what ways do we miss that feeling of gratitude for all that God offers us?
  5. What does “home” mean for you?
  6. What does this passage mean for us in this Lenten season?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 10: 8b-13

Read the Romans passage

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 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.

Paul is clear that if one professes to be a Christian, than one must openly confess the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet, this confession comes without shame. That’s a hard thing for us to fathom. After all, our society thrives on shame. We do not do a good job of letting things go—either ours or others. Paul is calling us here to let the shame go and experience joy instead. The notion of God’s love and generosity being open and available to all is a pretty bold statement when you think about it. Many in this world would take exception to that. So does that mean that we are all equal before God’s eyes? Probably not. Perhaps we need to get out of ourselves. This is not a statement about us; it is a statement about God. We don’t make our salvation happen; God does. God is at work in us—ALL of us.

This Salvation thing is a hard notion to grasp. So, we don’t have to DO anything? We don’t have to rack up a certain number of points for God to acknowledge our membership is this little club. We just have to ask; we just have to desire God; we just have to confess and believe or believe and confess. (If you notice, Paul, or possibly Paul’s translators, reversed the two.) Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the whole point. God desires that we confess not for God but for us; and we need to believe or there’s really no point to this at all. I don’t think it matters which comes first. (After all, God created both the chicken and the egg!) The point is that it’s offered to all. God comes to each of God’s children in God’s own way. So whatever we confess and whatever we believe that brings us closer to God is probably the whole idea. The passage is a reminder that Jesus did not come to straighten us out on the rules but to invite us home and show us what that meant. Now THAT is something in which I can believe!

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why is it so difficult for this world to see Salvation as inclusive?
  3. What does confession mean for you?
  4. What does belief mean for you?
  5. How, then, should we look at the “written law”?
  6. What does it mean to you to profess your “witness”?
  7. What does this mean for you in this Lenten season?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 4: 1-13

Read the Gospel passage

In the chapter prior to this reading, Jesus was baptized. The Spirit of God has entered him and he is ready to begin his ministry. It is a reminder of our own baptism and our own calling into God’s work. The writer of Luke then goes into the forty day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. It says that he was led by the Spirit, the very essence of God. It is his first act of ministry—to become a sojourner, to go to God in prayer, to take a good hard look at his life and his calling. Then Jesus departs into the desert, the place of wildness and wonder. Think about all the stories of wilderness—Israel passing through the wilderness toward liberation. In the same way, Jesus is liberated from the world and we with him. Preparing for this liberation is a journey and involves struggle. For some the struggle is overwhelming. But God is leading us all.

During Lent, we often focus on the temptation (the “devil” part of the story, or whatever that is to you). Jesus is tempted where he is most vulnerable. He is tempted to guarantee having what he needs, to shift attention away from purpose. He is tempted to possess. Think about how famished Jesus really was. All Jesus has to do is say the word and he would have what he so desperately needs. Then, he is tempted by his desire of affirmation by God, the desire to impress. We all want to be liked; we all want to be validated. After all, he was just beginning his ministry…this would be a guarantee that they would LIKE him. Finally, he was tempted with the desire to be in control or to have glory or recognition. Think what Jesus could do if he had control and glory. Think how much more powerful his ministry would be. Henri Nouwen says that the temptations are to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.

The truth is that Jesus was human and was tempted by typical human temptations. It is what we all want. Fred Craddock says that “temptation indicates strength”. (Boy, I am strong!) And, yet, we are often uneasy with the whole idea of Jesus being tempted. After all, he was Jesus. He should have been above all that, right? Each temptation invites Jesus to turn away from trust in God in a different way. So maybe this wasn’t about the temptation at all, but was rather a lesson in trust, in perseverance, in resistance of those things that will surely get in the way of our lives. There is an emptiness in all of us that must be filled. We are met each and every day with offerings of things with which to fill it. Jesus affirmed that, yes, we would be met with these temptations, and, that, yes, God’s deepest desire is that our emptiness be filled with God. To be Christian or, actually, to be human, is to realize that that emptiness will never be filled without God. It is that for which it is made. And, really, what good would Jesus have really done us if he had been above it all, if he had never be tempted at all? Where would we be then? Jesus did not come to be a superhero above all that comes about; Jesus came as a human—as a you, as a me. Jesus came not so that we would be perfect but so that we would see what we were missing. After all, being relevant, or spectacular, or powerful are really overrated. Relevancy is short-lived; “spectacularness” is hard to maintain (after all, don’t you sometimes just want to go around in your warm-ups with no makeup?); and, as Lord Acton would tell, us, “power corrupts”. Jesus wasn’t showing us how NOT to be tempted; Jesus was just putting relevancy, spectacularness, and power in their proper places. Because, after all, when they’re gone, God is still waiting for us to return home.

But looking at it this way, the desert becomes the threshold through which we journey. It is a time for preparation, a time for readying oneself to claim who God calls you to be—God’s beloved child. And the only choice one has is to repent, to turn around, to change, to turn toward God.

Now, our version of the wilderness is sometimes very difficult to grasp. In our world of perfectly manicured lawns and perfectly coiffed houses, we usually do everything in our power to avoid wilderness in our lives. Wilderness means to us some sort of deprivation and, thus, a loss of power. We do everything we can to see that our lives stay exactly where we want them. We take a pill when we have a pain. We use cosmetics so that we won’t look our age. And who of us would ever be caught without access to a telephone? The wilderness is the thing that we are always trying to avoid. The wilderness does not fit into our carefully thought-out plans.

Jesus did not see deprivation but, rather, an emptying of himself before God. In fact, if you think about it, Jesus’ baptism propelled him into the wilderness. Maybe that’s our problem. Maybe we missed our wilderness. Maybe we missed our emptying. This emptying brings us in touch with what we really need—and nothing more. Without our pills and our cosmetics, our cell phones and our online calendars, we are vulnerable. Thank God! For when we are powerless, when we are vulnerable, where do we go? We look to the only place we know. Because even we, who are normally so in control of our lives, must look to the compass if we do not know the way. And there, we become acutely aware of God’s ever-presence. It is only when we have truly emptied ourselves that God can fill us with God and there we are nourished and fed by those things for which our souls truly hunger. From this we can grow in God’s spirit.

That’s what Lent is—it’s a pilgrimage through an intentional wilderness. These forty days are our emptying time—the time when we strip all of our preconceptions away and meet God where God is—right there with us. We do not walk this road alone. God is always there. And when we are tempted to once again take control, God will still be there. Lent is the time when we allow God to work on us that we might burst forth on Easter morning in radiant bloom. It is a time of journeying toward home.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does temptation mean for you?
  3. Are you bothered by the notion of Jesus being tempted?
  4. What does this say to you about your own Lenten journey?
  5. What is uncomfortable about this whole image of the wilderness?
  6. What does the wilderness image mean for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

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

 

At the center of the Christian faith is the history of Christ’s passion. At the center of this passion is the experience of God endured by the godforsaken, God-cursed Christ. Is this the end of all human and religious hope? Or is it the beginning of the true hope, which has been born again and can no longer be shaken? For me it is the beginning of true hope, because it is the beginning of a life which has death behind it and for which hell is no longer to be feared…Beneath the cross of Christ hope is born again out of the depths. (Jurgen Moltmann)

 

The promised land lies on the other side of a wilderness.{Havelock Ellis}

 

Closing

 

Those of us who walk along this road do so reluctantly. Lent is not our favorite time of year. We’d rather be more active—planning and scurrying around. All this is too contemplative to suit us. Besides we don’t know what to do with piousness and prayer. Perhaps we’re afraid to have time to think, for thoughts come unbidden. Perhaps we’re afraid to face our future knowing our past. Give us the courage, O God, to hear your word and to read our living into it. Give us the trust to know we’re forgiven, and give us the faith to take up our lives and walk. Amen.

 

(“The Walk”, from Kneeling in Jerusalem, by Ann Weems, p. 21)

And join me for a daily Lenten meditation at Dancing to God

Advent 2C: Messenger

 

Tis the season!  Check out my Advent meditations at my other blog and join me for the Season.  Go to Dancing to God

John the Baptist

 

OLD TESTAMENT: Malachi 3: 1-4

To read the text from Malachi

This passage is familiar to most of us thanks to Handel and his use of it in The Messiah. The themes here of judgment and purification may seem a little out of place to us during this season, but we need to remember that Advent is more than a season that readies us for Christmas. Advent is a season in which we are called to prepare ourselves in remembrance of Christ’s coming 2,000 years ago but also for Christ’s coming into our own lives. The writing that we know of as the Book of Malachi is the final one in the collection of the Twelve Prophets. At this point, the temple has been rebuilt, but Judah still remains a minor administrative unit within the vast Persian Empire. In human terms, it is but a shadow of its former self.

The name Malachi literally means “my messenger” and is probably a title, rather than a name. Either way, though, there is very little that is known about the author (or authors). There are no references to specific persons or events that would enable us to situate these words on the larger stage of world history.

The writings known as Malachi seem focused on attempting to reform Judean worship. In the writings, although the accusations sometimes seem a little vague, claim that the priests are not performing the rituals as they should and, in some cases, the writings indict them for being out and out profane. In other words, they are not obeying Judean law and are seen, then, as profaning the temple and the worship itself. It is hard for us sometimes to view these things as important in light of some of the other prophets’ concerns. What has happened to “justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” like we hear in Amos? But it’s important to not dichotomize and make one thing more important than the other—religion as worship and religion as action go hand in hand, as do love of God and love of neighbor, and prayer and action. But there is also a passion for justice, the concern for the widow and orphan and laborer. The two realms are brought together—the temple and the society.

So at this point the exile has ended, the temple has been rebuilt, and worship has been restored. But it is not all that we envisioned. There was no sign of the glory of God coming to fill the new temple. So the prophet is saying that the Lord will come once the temple, the society, the people have been judged and purifed. The Lord is not going to give up on the people, but their impurities and injustices cannot be condoned. God will cleanse them and renew them. Justice and truth and goodness do matter.

There is a strong reference to the “covenant with Levi” (2: 4). Levi was the patriarch of one of the twelve tribes of Israel and was closely identified with priestly functions. Once the Levites WERE those who lived pure and righteous, who actually successfully “purified” themselves. But things had changed. In verse 3 of this passage from Malachi, the writer uses the image of a refiner’s fire that will purify the sons of Levi, the priests. Only when they offer right sacrifices, when they worship the Lord with the right heart, will the people be set right and God’s glory will be revealed. This image of the “refiner’s fire” implies some pain and even, perhaps, despair that the people must go through.

Refining requires intense heat to burn away the impurities and set free the pure metal. To work with the metal, you have to get close to the fire, dangerous as that may be. The image depicts God as a blazing fire that impurities cannot withstand. But getting close means that we have to enter the danger and risk change. We have to endure our own impurities, our own shortcomings, being burned away until we are made new. The people had expected that once the temple was built they would be blessed. But here they were and there was no justice. Things were really just as bad as before. What they did not realize was that part of it was up to them.

This is a great illustration for which the author is unknown, as near as I can tell: “But Sir,” she said, “do you sit while the work of refining is going on?” “Oh, yes madam, “replied the silversmith, “I must sit with my eye steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining  be exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured.” (“He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”) As the lady was leaving the shop, the silversmith  called her back, and said he had still further to mention, that he only knows when the process of purifying was complete, by seeing his own image reflected in the silver.

In a 1928 Advent sermon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:

 

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . 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 every one who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. ed., Geffrey B. Kelley and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSan Francisco, 1995), 185-186, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=12/6/2009&tab=1, accessed 1 December, 2009.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. In what ways are we called to “purify” or refine ourselves and our own lives?
  3. What does this sense of purifying or preparation have to do with our Advent waiting?
  4. What does it have to do with preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 1: 3-11

To read the text from The Letter to the Philippians

The passage that we read today is the formal beginning of a letter in the typical form of first century letters. Philippians is considered one of the seven “undisputed” letters of Paul (along with Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, and Philemon), so the writer Paul begins by reassuring them of his prayers and his pride in them because their faith is continuing. Paul was never interested in winning converts as if the main game was numbers. He was concerned about people entering a new relationship with God that keeps going.

Notice that he is making a real effort to cement the relationship, perhaps in the face of things that his opponents were doing to dissuade people from belief in Christ. Paul equates good relationship with God and Christ with a good relationship among Christians here and now (not least, with himself). Anything that threatens that threatens everything. Paul wants their love to abound more and more. Paul’s understanding of such love relates to God’s love flowing among us and through us into the world – for all. It is wonderfully big and generous.

For Paul, this is a love that is well-informed and able to be critical, to differentiate faith from phony or destructive forms of religion. Paul wants people to be genuine/honest/sincere and faultless/having a clear conscience. Rigid adherence to laws is something Paul would have seen not only as erroneous, but also as destructive and the opposite of everything he would understand as holy and good. That is because for Paul God’s holiness consists in God’s love, not in a kind of self-protective obsession with order and rightness where laws and rules matter more than people. Paul’s image of praising God has to do with real people living changed lives and changing others’ lives in the process.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What gets in the way of our living this concept of holiness?
  3. Why is this so difficult for so many people?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 3: 1-6

To read the Gospel passage

In a way, this seems to be an odd Scripture to read during Advent. This week’s Gospel is not a beautiful canticle, or a visit from an angel promising a birth, or Elizabeth’s child leaping for joy in a womb. Instead we hear from Elizabeth’s child much later as a grown man from the wilderness on an intense mission from God. He announces salvation by proclaiming a message of repentance. In other words, he claims that we need to be ready for what’s coming. Kathy Beach-Verhey says this:

 

The advent of guests prompts the host not only to straighten up, but also to fix things around the house—a broken doorknob, a loose towel rack, the burned-out lightbulb, the leaky guest toilet. Preparing for company often causes the hosts to look at their home, to examine their surroundings with a whole new perspective. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the broken chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to do” list. (Kathy Beach-Verhey, From Feasting On the Word, Year C, Volume 1, ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.

 

John is calling us to do the same with our lives. It’s really not as scary as some make it sound. The time has come for a radical change of heart and mind. For what are we waiting before we renew our spirits and begin to live out our baptism. And even though it may seem a little out of place in the midst of this season of hope and glad tidings, John’s message is no different from the earlier messages of the prophets. The world is about to change. Things will no longer be as they were, and this will come as quite a shock to some. But, remember, God seldom comes in the way that we expect or at the time that we had planned or to the place that we have prepared. God will come when and where God will come and the world will never be the same. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote:

 

All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honor, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger: these are the one who will truly celebrate Christmas. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, From Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer,ed. by Manfred Weber (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books ).

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In light of John’s message, what should our preparation during this season look like?
  3. Why is this message so difficult for so many people to hear?
  4. What will you do this Advent to prepare yourself for Christ’s coming?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside us to get better. It is about getting better inside about what is going on inside. It is about becoming open to the God of newness. It is about allowing ourselves to let go of the present, to believe in the future we cannot see but can trust to God….Hope is fulfilled in the future but it depends on our ability to remember that we have survived everything in life to this point—and have emerged in even better form than we were when these troubles began…Hope is what sits by a window and waits for one more dawn, despite the fact that there isn’t an ounce of proof in tonight’s black, black sky that it can possibly come. (Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope)

 

The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything. (Julian of Norwich)

 

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

 

 

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. (Ann Weems, The Coming of God”, in Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 13.