2nd Sunday Advent 12-4-16; Isaiah 11: 1-10, Ps: 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17, Romans 15: 4-9 Gospel: Matt 3: 1-12
Being Jolted at the Jordan
Part of the joy of Advent for me is the scripture passages we read, particularly from Isaiah. Isaiah is a place to go for encouragement and consolation. Today’s reading is ideal for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, since the 2nd candle of Advent is commonly called the peace candle. It is a litany of profound peace. The calf and the lion, the baby and the cobra, no harm or ruin, an earth filled with the knowledge of the Lord- who can read that without a sigh of longing? Artists have painted pictures these images of peace, and we use them in nurseries for infants.
It is easy for those of us who have heard this reading so many times to lose some of the wonder of it. Maybe some background will help. One of the most crushing defeats in Israel’s history was at the hands of the Babylonian army. Many Israelites were as captives to Babylon. During that time some of their religious practices lapsed or changed. Even the script they used to write changed from the ancient Hebrew. After 70 years of captivity, they were allowed to return home. But not everyone chose to return to Israel, and there were other tribes living in their land by then. Naturally, there was enormous sense of loss, of despair, and hopelessness for the future. Isaiah wrote to restore their faith, as well as their hope for the days ahead, and to help them realize that they were still the people of God.
So we read of the restoration of the “Stump of Jesse”, meaning the lineage of King David. We hear of the promise of a Messiah, filled with God’s spirit, bringing wisdom, strength, knowledge, and justice. Also we hear of his power -even his breath can slay the wicked. He would protect the people from their enemies, Isaiah says, and the glorious dwelling of God in Israel will be sought out by other nations. Can you image the tears streaming down the faces of the Israelites as they heard these words? It would be their wildest hopes times a hundred; their deepest longings promised to come true. Our lectionary follows this powerful reading with an elegant Psalm probably about the enthronement of King David. “Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon is no more.” That was written some 2500 years ago. Aren’t our hopes and prayers for those same blessings?
I am certain that St. Paul had learned these passages as a boy. I can image Paul thinking of them as he wrote to the church in Rome, “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” My teen-age grandchildren study the problems in the world today, and cannot image a peaceful world, with no violence, no pollution. Their generation needs hope, just as countless generations have throughout the history, since the gate to Eden was closed, really.
Our Gospel reading from Matthew starts with John the Baptist quoting-who else- Isaiah, chapter 40, verse 3. It is our signature cry of Advent: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a pathway for our God!” It is an announcement of God’s coming; it is the relief that our faulty and troubled governments make way for the King of Glory. For us, it is a cry of excitement and expectation.
But the people in John’s day might not have heard what we hear. Matthew says, “All Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and being baptized in the (muddy) Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” John’s camel-hair clothes and diet of locusts and honey linked him to Samson and Samuel and Elijah, and their messages. Those great prophets fought for justice and drastic changes in society. The people of John’s day were fed up with Roman oppression. The Roman taxes often exceeded their income. Then land, which had been in their families for centuries, was taken to pay the taxes, and the people could no longer even feed themselves.
On top of all this, the growing call was for the Last Days, the coming of the Messiah and final judgment. John called out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Desperate for change but also fearful of the future, the people came. Even the elite of Jerusalem came, the Pharisees and Sadducees. It would seem they were they fearful, too, for John says, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” John shames these leaders who are accustomed to being treated with honor and respect. He calls them less than human, the offspring of snakes, evil-doers. He denies their right to claim God as their Father, says they are less worthy than the stones underfoot. He charges them with intent to be baptized without a firm purpose of amendment. He demands “good fruit as evidence of… repentance.” He even threatens them with the horror of the unquenchable fire of God’s judgment. These are strong words.
Luke’s Gospel does not address these words just to the religious leaders – but to all the people. When the Gospel writers ask these questions, they are always putting out a challenge to us, too. It only takes a few minutes of the evening news before I see the pictures of desperate refugees in the Middle East. I see small children who have known nothing but the violence and horrors of war all their lives. I safely sit in my cozy living room, eating too much, and I can offer little defense of my complacency. I too am shamed.
The only response I can muster to John is this: I will not turn my eyes when I see evil. I will not deny my part of the injustice in the world. I will not blame the marginalized. I will volunteer more, teach English to immigrants, make donations to reputable international charities. It is a small crop of good fruit. You probably have additional ways to produce good fruit. I will strive to offer what I have to share in a more open way, without strings & avoiding recognition. I do it because I want to; I want to feel the water of my baptism fresh and wet upon my head.
Isaiah wrote his lines of comfort after the exile of the Israelites, who had to rebuild new lives out of the ashes of their country. John called out his message of repentance to urge people to rebuild new lives out of the ashes of their failures. Good fruits could grow in their lives, but they would have to act with intent. Paul tells us encouragement is in the Scriptures we read all the time. With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can work to bring the hope and peace and joy and love into this weary world, during Advent, Christmastide, and all year.
1st Sunday Advent 2016 yr A; Isaiah 2:1-5, Ps 122:1-9, Romans 13:11-14, Matt 24: 37-44
The Marriage of Light and Hope
Advent. Advent means preparing for Christmas, right? Advent means shopping. Where are those ornaments I got at 75% off last year? Oh, sorry, this is church. Advent means appearance, that Christ child is coming. We are supposed to wait and prepare. But I can’t wait – I have to prepare!! Ugh, I am so befuddled!
Well, even in the church world Advent can be confusing. We talk about things that have already happened – and things that haven’t happened yet. The already is the stories from the Gospels – John the Baptist, the Jordan river, call to repentance, the rejection of Christ by the Pharisees, Elizabeth and Mary. And we also talk about “not yet” -the Second Coming, end times, last days, death and destruction, heavenly banquet, eternity. Do you feel like you have one foot in 2 entirely different stories, two worlds, neither of which are very comfortable? We’ve left ordinary time behind, and feel more like we’ve been thrown into calendar mania.
The Church says Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. Most of us would love to have some time to sit and wait, or to finish our preparations for “The Holidazes”. Myself, I think I need some rehearsal time for the coming of Christ. I don’t think my head is in the “zone” I want to be in when Christ returns. I think my seasonal affective disorder is kicking in and lighting 4 candles, one a week, may not be enough.
So what to do? Well, at the risk of sounding like a Priest, the customs of the Church for Advent really do supply answers. But these customs come from a different time, a culture past, and while the answers are correct, we need some translation.
Imagine….. a world of no electricity. Imagine nightfall with no street lights, no motion lights, no overhead lights, no bedside reading lights, no desk lights – you would be seeing, …well, nothing, just darkness. When is the last time you could not see your hand in front of your face because there was no light? Hold that image while we talk about a single candle. Suddenly that candle brings hope that morning light will come. It chases back some of the fear. If you are of a certain age, you remember going into the darkest corner of the basement, where the spiders were, with a candle or a dim flash light and replacing the fuse in the fuse box that would turn the lights back on. If you have ever been in a blackout, you can understand the connection to light and hope.
Our Advent candles have names. The 1st one is Hope – that is today. The 2nd week is Peace, the 3rd week (the rose colored one) is Joy, and the 4th week is Love. That is what today’s candle is about – easing out the fear, replacing despair with hope. Hope grows slowly, one candle at a time, giving us precious time for our eyes to adjust. We also need to adjust our perception of life from the darkness that looms in our culture to the promise of a future with light, goodness, and truth. By the 3rd week, when we light the rose candle, we can begin to see that light and joy are building, as we sense the filling of (not our Christmas stockings) but the filling of our souls with the living Spirit of Christ.
No longer overwhelmed by alarm, we find anticipation in Advent. There is constantly fresh amazement that God would choose to be born as a human child, not into wealth or power, but into our messed up world, with egos and pride and cruelty and pain and struggle. It takes more than candlepower to enter our world; it takes illumination from divine wisdom.
That is the place Isaiah is coming from, when we read, “Come, let us go to the house- the dwelling- of God, we will learn God’s ways, we will walk God’s way. Come; let us walk- live, and act- in the light of the Lord.” We can change from people of darkness who think that war solves problems, that might makes right, to people of light who ensure that no child goes to bed hungry. This passage ignites the imagination. It is a call sent out in love, to bring us to the possibility of joy.
Psalm 122 comes from the same place. In the house of the Lord, or we might say, in the Spirit of the Lord, we pray for peace, we pray for security and prosperity, we commit ourselves to not only claim what is good for ourselves, but work for the good of each other, all others.
St Paul wrote the same message, calling us to the light. He calls it the “armor of Light.” There’s a very mixed metaphor! He does not call us to bullet-proof vests, but to enlightenment. Enlightened minds see new ways. Then we will listen to each other, offering healing and forgiveness. In darkness we feel fear and are blind to alternatives. In light we can see truth and that gives us the ability to see the possibility of peace. The image is this: neurotransmitters dashing through our brains, flipping all the light switches on, like little cartoon characters with light bulbs above their heads. Advent says solutions are possible. In Isaiah 43:19 we find, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness (of your politics) and rivers in the desert (that is your culture).”
Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus cites the people of Noah’s time as those completely absorbed with the picayune details of daily life, ignoring truth and thus living in darkness, knowing nothing and having no desire to learn. Their end was the flood. They were the opposite of people living in light. Jesus cites the example of a thief breaking into the unguarded house. He’s telling us to be ready for the unplanned, the unexpected, for like joys of the Son of God, the innovation of Spirit. And we, …..with our candles…… will be prepared….and waiting.
As the second week of Advent begins, we once again see the appearance of John the Baptist. John at the time of Jesus’ birth would have himself been an infant. Yet, in the view of the church and the liturgical year, the birth of Christ is seen in the context of Christ’s birth, ministry, death and resurrection. As a prophet John played an important part and so in preparation for celebrating Christ’s birth, John the Baptist is brought forth to remind us how to prepare, even as to how the prophets of old spoke to the people. Repairing ourselves and our relationships, seeking peace with our neighbor and those around us and looking out for the poor and others who can not adequately care for themselves are all important things. All of us are called to do these things. Truly it is an always type of thing we are called to do, but often need to be reminded. How often do we lose sight of others and focus on ourselves. Only by prayerfully looking into ourselves can we reach out and do what our commitment to faith and love calls for us to do.
John’s call to repent is to ask us to do just that. In ancient times, water, fire, wind(spirit) were considered liquids. Water was for cleaning, refreshing, renewing. His baptism was meant to do just that. For John, Jesus would baptise with fire and the spirit. He would purify by fire and renew and unite us to him and the trinity through the spirit. So, we see John’s mission was one to introduce and prepare for the whole of Christ’s mission. His birth was also a preparation for the birth of Jesus as he was the one chosen to make the way for he who was to come.
All of which leaves a practical question for each of us, and that is, What have we done and what are we doing to prepare for Christmas?
11-20-16 Readings: Samuel 5:1-3 Ps 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5 ,Colossians 1:12-20, Luke 23:35-43
Most of us have some pretty weird images in our minds when we hear the word “King”. Perhaps you think of TV images of British royal family, with huge spectacles of weddings, the gloved hand waving slowly from the motorcade, and the invasive pictures taken by the tabloids. Maybe you think of palaces, golden crowns with jewels, and social elites. Some think about the King Arthur stories or movies of heavy handed monarchs with no compassion for the impoverished peasants they rule. All in all, kings are not like anything in our lives, and, as students of American history, we may even have a cultural dislike and distrust of kings.
So we find ourselves at a loss to understand why we would celebrate Christ as a King. I will suggest that we should travel back in time, back to King David of the Old Testament. I pick this point in time because we are about to begin the season of Advent, and will soon read that Jesus was of the family of David; there is something special about the Kingship of David.
Our 1st reading comes from 2nd Samuel, the book of history about the reign of David. Saul was the 1st king of Israel. God directed his prophet Samuel to anoint David as the next king. After Saul’s death, all of the tribes of Israel came to David and announced, “Here we are, your bone and your flesh. (When) Saul was king, it was you who led the Israelite army out (to war) and brought them back (triumphant). (God) said to you, ‘You shall shepherd my people Israel (in their relationships with each other and with me) and shall be commander (of the military forces) of Israel.’” This marks the moment when twelve tribes, previously only loosely connected, really became a unified kingdom. What were they saying? Their sense of solidarity under David’s rule was so strong that they refer to Genesis 2:23, when God makes a woman from the man and Adam exclaims, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The tribal leaders of Israel are declaring their people to be one with this King who was chosen by God.
Our Psalm offers a snapshot of exactly this – all of the tribes in Jerusalem, flowing up to the temple together. The people are rejoicing in each other as they feel the unity, and they rejoice at being together and in worshiping God as one community. This is also an image of the heavenly Jerusalem, where for eternity we come to God, cleansed of our ideological differences, as one body in love.
From this we get powerful images that transcend culture and time. We are all one in God. God walks closely with us; God is the source of all that is good. Amazingly, God took David, an adulterer and murderer, a warrior and politician, and used his gifts to make a unified people out of twelve tribes which had fought among and against themselves. We too, can be somewhat less than perfect, and still be God’s beloved people, in a mutually loving relationship, and our gifts can be used to bring peace and community from hatred and chaos.
But we cannot miss the image of warrior in this story, because that image led to the popular idea of the Messiah, or Christ, as a military leader, a King like David, who subdued all of Israel’s enemies. The people of Jesus’ time were more than willing to believe that the Messiah would destroy the Roman armies that oppressed them, and would bring peace to Israel once more. As a result, the Romans took no chances with this “so-called” Messiah. The sign, “This is the King of the Jews” makes the crime against Roman power clear. It is the lowest of mean-spirited domination to use the title of “King” in this way. The crucifixion of Christ offers an opportunity for the rulers, the soldiers, and the thieves to mock Jesus, this man who apparently will do nothing to save his own life.
But love that is willing to suffer is greater than the power to dominate. Jesus is indeed a King, but his reign does not end at the temporal limits of one place or time. He tells the thief who defends him, that “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
What is it with that “today” thing? It is a term Luke uses to announce a significant and almost breathtaking change. While not necessarily some measure of time, it marks an event has begun a new day in our lives. At the nativity story in Luke 2:11, the angel tells the shepherds that “Today a savior is born; he is Christ the Lord. In the synagogue of Nazareth in Luke 4:21, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 that he has been anointed to preach, proclaim, recover, and release, and says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. In Luke 19:9, Jesus says of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Suddenly, the Kingdom of God has broken through and the unexpected, the unimaginable has happened, “Today,” St Paul would say in Colossians, “(We were) delivered from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
And so, an entirely new image of “king” has entered our lives. It is the reversal of all that we may have been thinking. He is the king who serves us, not the mighty monarch we cower before. He is the king who died at human hands, so that we can join him in eternity, not the warrior who sends us out to fight his battles. He does not have an army. He has no need to protect himself, but he shields us. He forgives those who offend his laws; he does not punish but restores. He does not tax, but invites us to his banquet. He is ridiculed, scorned, mocked, and appears politically powerless, yet he performs miracles and leans his ear to the softest whispering of a prayer. This is a King who has no need of violence or vengeance, no use for envy or lust or desire, yet he controls the wind and the waves. This King is innocent of any sin, yet knows all of our follies, loving us while we are at our worst. This King needs no riches, furs or purple robes, but is himself the source of all beauty.
In the end, we call Jesus “King” because our vocabularies do not yet know the fullness of his Glory. The Title “King” tells us more of what he is not than what he is. But he gave us a concrete gift that we hold dear. Jesus left us the gift of the Eucharist, where we draw together, like King David’s people, where we can be joyful as we recall his life and teachings, his death and triumphant resurrection, where we know we are one with the body and blood of our Christ, and will be forever.
As I have said in past years, the Feast of Christ the King is a rather late addition to the liturgical calendar. The Papal States had fallen and a secular government had taken over Italy with Mussolini on the rise. Communism had taken hold in Russia. Pope Pius XI was very concerned at the time with secularism and the Roman question. Secularism rejected religion in public affairs and in the schools. The Roman question referred to the Pope’s civil authority and independence from the Italian State. At best, his status was tenuous and Pius was working hard in many different was to solidify the Papacy which he did in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty making the Vatican a city-state. For many centuries, religion and state were often identified with each other and there were state religions that followed the religion of the ruler. With the beginning of the 1900’s and the rise of secularism, the events of the early century leading to World War I, and the separation of religion from secular affairs and the turmoil following WWI, secularism rose and religion declined. In trying to restore and emphasize the importance of religion, Pius instituted the feast of Christ the king trying to bring the laity to realize that Christ was a King over all above and beyond all secular power and having all authority over the universe. Surely, scripture tells us Christ was a king, but not in any way an earthly king. His kingship was evident the day he died, his crown was one of thorns. His kingship was one of being of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Faith and religion are a part of a person’s belief, a part of their being. Ultimately, every person meets and answers to God in light of that faith life he leads. Regardless of the state, country or kingdom in which we live, What Christ has done is always before us and calling us to him and his Father. In his own way, he is present in the world today, in his Eucharist to nourish us and feed us as we move on in this life, and with his Spirit who comes to each of us and helps and guides when call upon him for His help. No matter how extreme or far out things may seem or even be, Christ and his Spirit are with us and will see us through if we watch, listen and pray. Our life of faith is one that while being within our world, is at the same time looking and being in the next. Can faith and life or living in the world be in conflict? Yes, they can and often are. But seeing, knowing and resolving the conflict is simply part of being human and answering Jesus’ call