Those Teeny Tiny Christmas Tree Lights and Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent 12-10-17

 Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; ; Psalm: 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14;  2 Peter 3:8-14;  Mark 1:1-8

Our Gospel reading is the opening 8 verses of Mark’s Gospel.  Mark chooses to begin with a quotation from Isaiah, chapter 40.  Mark clearly has chosen carefully, and we need to understand why he uses Isaiah and how he uses the images in it.

Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah are referred to as the “Book of Consolation of Israel.” Israel was overrun by the Babylonian army some 500 years before Christ.  It is a story of great shame and loss. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple looted and burned to the ground.  The people were captured and taken from their homeland into exile.  According to Isaiah, the refusal of the Israelites to follow God’s laws, and their unwillingness to obey God was the reason for this great tragedy.  But now the Israelites are being forgiven by God, and they will be granted their long-awaited freedom and return to rebuild their homeland.

It is a time of reconciliation. Isaiah is told to speak tenderly to the Israelites, or literally to “speak to their hearts”.  The expression is very maternal- suggesting that Jerusalem is the “mother city”, and the people are children returning to a mother’s love.  Although their punishment was severe, the Lord is returning to their midst, and the Lord should be welcomed as a great and majestic King.  The people will restore the road for God’s arrival, as God will restore his people.   Once again the Glory of the Lord will be in the temple, and the people will know God’s presence.   It is a level of joy only known to people who have suffered great losses and held against their will.

Purification was historically a big issue for the Jews. Ritual bathing was required after breaking any of a long list of laws before one could worship God again.   In a land of deserts and limited access to water, washing took on a significance that is unfamiliar to us.  Jewish tradition has it that Adam stood in the Jordan River for 40 days after he ate the fruit which was forbidden.  The prophet Elisha had Naaman wash 7 times in the Jordan River to heal his leprosy.  Traditionally, any one converting to the Jewish faith must do ritualized bathing in water.  This constitutes a rebirth, and brings purity “like that of a child just born”.  Sound familiar?  The Essenes (the Desert Fathers), of all people, were baptized each morning!

So Mark is using Isaiah, the Prophet of all Prophets, to announce that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, is coming to restore his people. It is obvious that John is the voice crying out, literally, in the desert.  Mark knows that it has been some 300 years since Israel has had a prophet of God in their midst.  John the Baptist looks and talks and preaches like an old-time prophet.  John presses the people to repent of their sins and be right with God.  Instead of preparing the road for the king, John was preparing the people’s hearts for the King. The Psalmist says it with poetic grace: Justice (John) shall walk before (the Lord), and prepare the way of his steps.

What was the attraction to John? It wasn’t the wardrobe. I think that we all are looking for second chances.  We all, to some degree, carry around a burden of regrets for some of the choices we have make and the selfish acts we commit.  We all have a little part of us that relates to the Israelites who thought they were smarter than God and ended up being homeless captives in Babylon.  We find John in a scene stripped of the liturgical niceties; just a man in camel skins, in the barren land, next to a muddy river, providing what the people needed.  Their religious leaders at the Temple were too busy with finances and politics.  So the people from the countryside and people from the city of Jerusalem were streaming out to John.  No vestments, no holy orders, no stained glass windows, nothing but raw confrontation of sinfulness and the urgent desire for forgiveness and inner peace.

But John’s purpose in life was not to only address the people’s thirst for reconciliation. He was to create anticipation, a longing for more.  He was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah.    The road that John was preparing was for One mightier and holier than John, One who would baptize with, not water, but the Holy Spirit.  You see, people were confused about the messiah- would he be a fierce warrior who would battle the Romans, or a savior, who would bring salvation and peace?  The Messiah had been promised in Genesis; people despaired he would never come. Psalm 90 answers, “A thousand years in (God’s) eyes are merely a yesterday.”  Our 2nd reading from the 2nd letter of Peter, echoes that, saying, “Do not ignore this one fact…that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years..”  But this letter does not leave the issue there.  It goes on with, “…what sort of persons should you be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”

And that is where the road of Advent leads us: to ask the questions of “what sort of persons we ought to be,” and how do we “prepare the road” for the Lord? How do we wash away the old presumptions and excuses, realize our failings, open our hearts for the Lord’s arrival?  How do we move toward holiness and hasten the coming of God?  I think sometimes those teeny tiny energy-efficient lights we have on our Christmas trees are a symbol of how much light we really want to have shine in the darker places of our lives.  But we have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit, so we pray, “O, Come Lord, O, Come Jesus, O, Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.”

Advertisements

Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment

22nd Sun Ord time, 9-3-17

Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm: 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Our readings today could easily be titled: The Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment. Let me explain what I mean.  We start with The Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading.  This is step one. Like most of us when we are compelled to do something we don’t want to do, Jeremiah is whining.  He blames God; he says he was “duped”/ “seduced”/ “misled”.  Jeremiah wants God to know that he is doing this job as a prophet against his will.  He is frightened by the threats made against him.  He is tired of being ridiculed.  He himself thinks the message God has given him to share with the people is a message of violence; he is disguised with himself for delivering the message.

So why does he continue to be a prophet for God? Jeremiah has tried to stop.  He promised himself he would stop.  But then the message “becomes like a fire burning in my heart”; he says he cannot hold the words in, he feels weak and out of control. The way Jeremiah describes his situation is almost like compulsive behavior or addiction; he is full of negativity and resistance.

The next situation, step two, starts off well. We look at is the apostle Simon Peter in the Gospel.  Peter has just been given the name of “Peter”, or the solid, stone foundation for the Church.  Peter is given the keys to heaven, and great authority; it seems impressive.  But then, in just a few moments, it goes from ideal to awful.  Jesus begins to talk about suffering and being killed.  What had sounded glorious has turned grisly.

Peter is so full of himself that he tries to set Jesus straight; he says Jesus is wrong, mistaken.  Surely the Son of God will not allow himself to be victimized by the chief priests, of all people! Peter had been thinking that he was strong enough to stand in his own power, but that illusion is swept away.  Jesus calls him the Devil.  Ouch!!  Jesus persists, saying that Peter must expect to take up his cross!!  Had Peter signed up for crucifixion??  He would lose his life? OMG!

Step 3 starts off badly, with our Psalmist saying, “my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” He clearly is not in control of his situation, either.  He sounds like a guy in real trouble.  But he is actually seeking greater power than himself.  Suddenly it changes; everything changes.  He looks into the temple and sees a vision of the power and glory of God.  He sees kindness so intense it is a greater good than life itself.

Praise for God comes out of his mouth without thinking – he blesses God, lifts up his hands in worship and calls out for God.  He is no longer hungry or thirsty – he feels as if he is at the richest and most abundant of banquets, where every possible desire for food and drink will be satisfied.  He feels sheltered; he clings to God as a steady and reliable force for his life and is filled with joy.

Finally, we read from St. Paul, who has already suffered a stoning and beatings for teaching the Good News of Jesus.  He does not even consider his own strength or power.  He offers instead the “mercies of God.”  He tells us the attitude of success is one of offering our self to God, like a living sacrifice, and offering worship to God.  Paul adds that we do not need to behave like the people around us, but rather our attitude needs to tune into God, changing and renewing us, enabling us to know the will of God.  Then we will understand what really is good and pleasing to God.  Instead of trying to control a situation, or bend a situation to our desires and benefit, we should choose to be molded into a new direction, a different understanding, where we can begin to understand how to be loving and just and true.

RECAP

Jeremiah wanted life to be easy and pleasant. He just wants to fit in, have some buddies, and go with the flow. He is very conflicted; God is cramping his style.

Peter is a good man. Power and authority also sound good to him, but only if he’s on the winning side.  He loves Jesus; but he’s hoping for maybe a little upward mobility?  He wants God to defeat the Roman army and take charge.

Next our Psalm writer is looking for God, even in the midst of thirst and hunger. He goes to the temple, and finds a spirit of glory and kindness.  Without one bite of food, he feels filled and satisfied.  Without any power of his own, he feels safe and joyful with God.

Last is Paul, who can open himself fully to God’s plan, and wants to conform to God’s ways; he is ready, and urges us, to commit – body, soul, and mind.

This is not a process that necessarily comes from intelligence, maturity, experience or background.  It is not a program where you just follow 4 easy steps. It is a gift of the Spirit which we can choose to nurture and follow.  For each person, the path is unique; ironically blissful and demanding at the same time.  Yes, the retirement plan is outstanding, but living the Godly life is unexpectedly and deeply rewarding.

My friends, keep up the good work.

Lessons from Creation

15th Sunday Ord Time, 7-16-17 Isaiah 55: 10-11, Ps 65, 10-14, Romans8:18-23, Matt13: 1-23

 

I first read today’s scriptures sitting at my desk, which overlooks a beautiful green open space, with trees and wild flowers, and chirping birds. It felt like heaven was close by.

Our 1st reading is from the 55th chapter of Isaiah.  I find these readings to have much more meaning if I read the whole chapter.  You might label this chapter “an invitation to grace”. God starts by offering water to the thirsty. Then God offers food to the hungry, those with no money to buy food, those facing starvation. Plentiful, rich food is offered, food which satisfies.  Next God says, “Come to me, that you may have life.”  The symbolism has faded away and we have arrived at the heart of the message.  Come to God for the food of mercy, for God is always ready to forgive. Isaiah says, “Like the heavens are far above the earth, so are God’s ways above our ways.”

We understand about rain freely coming down from the sky to water the earth; mercy rains on us in the same way. Anyone who has seen a drought understands the life-giving impact of rain, changing dried clumps of earth into a growing field and producing the crops that give food. In the creation story, God’s Word was the source of earth and sky and sea. Now God’s Word comes to us, comes to us like rain and gives us life. God’s wisdom grows in our hearts.

Our Psalm is a very similar message; it begins with praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy. We are overcome by our human failures; it is God who pardons them. It is God who set the mountains in place.  God sends the rain, makes the crops grow; God fills the meadows with flowers. We can do none of those things.

Many of us now are so removed from agriculture and food production that we can easily forget about all this. In our Gospel, Jesus taught people who lived fully at the mercy of the rain and the fields and the flocks. But like us, somehow they managed to hear but not listen and look but not see. They too refused to change, to listen to God’s Word, or to be healed with God’s wisdom.

Jesus described some people as the dry, hard packed dirt of a busy road, where the seed of God’s Word fell. The seed could not break thru to put down roots and grow, and the birds came and ate the seeds.

Other people were described as thin soil on rocky ground, where the seed sprouted but had too little nourishment to flourish. Such people have nothing to ground their lives; they pay any attention only to the crisis of the day. Still other people are described as thorny ground; they are worried about things they cannot control, and put all their efforts into gaining wealth and power, crowding out the seeds of virtue and wisdom. But those who treasure God’s Word, they are like good soil, will grow a large crop of blessings and have a full harvest of eternal life.  It’s a beautiful parable of possibility and choice.

St. Paul takes a different approach to the images of creation.  His goal is to instill hope in us.  He acknowledges that suffering is part of this life.  He speaks to those who are disheartened and discouraged.  He tells us that the worst suffering is a small price to pay for the glory of eternal life.  He understands failure, and shares our frustration with our inability to be the strong and faithful people we want to be.

Creation was put under human control by God, and therefore it fell from glory along with Adam & Eve when evil entered the world. Paul uses expressions like “subjected to futility, and “slavery to decay” to describe creation now.  But the entire creation, Paul wrote, has been groaning as if in the labor pains of “childbirth”.  We have the Holy Spirit as a “down payment” on our redemption, so we, along with creation, also groan as we wait for our final adoption as children of God.  The Spirit, too, Paul adds two verses later, “intercedes (for us) with inexpressible groanings.”  Paul makes our universe sound like a giant Labor & Delivery Unit!  Suffering, he says, is not a threat to our salvation, but a sign that “birth” is close at hand.  Our second birth, our “delivery” as believers comes in the form of resurrection.

This is a reminder that we live in a time of “already”, since Christ has already come. At the same time, we live in the time of “not yet” as we still await the return of Christ.  In 2nd Peter, we find this: “With the Lord 1 day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like 1 day. The Lord does not delay, but he is patient, not wishing that any should perish.”

So we found four lessons in creation; what do we do with them?

1. God rains down mercy and grace on us all.  With these two gifts, God will create new and eternal lives for us.  Since mercy is forgiveness, we must make amends then move on.  Grace is generosity and love for all, creating new paths after failure.  We accept grace and mercy; we offer grace and mercy to each other.

  1. God created a beautiful and fruitful world for us. God does what we can’t, and we should praise God for his goodness and the abundance he gives us. So, let’s take time to marvel in God’s power and the mysteries of nature. Take time to be thankful.
  2. We can be blind and deaf to God’s goodness. We must choose if we will receive that abundant goodness. The Word of God has immeasurable power in our lives, transforming power, available to all who nurture that Word which God sows freely. Bible study (reading God’s word), prayer (talking with God) and meditation (listening to God) change us.
  3. Hope and comfort is found in all that God created. Suffering and a sense of futility will pass. The Spirit is with us, and we will soon enough know the glorious freedom of being children of God. So, focus on what is right and good.  Spend your time on things that are positive, generous and loving.  Seek out God.

It occurred to me that if each day, we took time to focus on these 4 lessons, our lives would become more righteous. That isn’t just something that Saints do, but something that we all can  do.  It simply means that we develop a right and good relationship with God.  We become more closely aligned with God and our lives look and feel like we reflect God’s ways.  Let me challenge you with this: try for the next week to take a few moments at the beginning and end of each day to review these 4 lessons, and really act them out.  See what happens.