Category: Advent

Just Be Patient – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3A (James 5)

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field in Rain
James 5:7-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

*******************

                This word about patience comes at an interesting time in the year. The season of Advent is meant to be a contemplative time. That means we should slow down and prepare ourselves to welcome the coming Lord. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, making the pathways straight, by proclaiming the coming reign of God by inviting all who would list to repent and change their hearts It was a ministry that Matthew saw foretold in the words of Second Isaiah (Mt. 3:1-3; Is. 40:3). In this Advent season, we hear the call to repent and live into God’s realm that is coming into existence. The place we will find this realm revealed is in the person of Jesus. As Matthew records, the Holy Family is told that the child who will be born in Bethlehem is to be called Emmanuel (God with Us) (Mt. 1:23).

                Each Sunday of Advent we hear a call to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord by embracing a particular core value. First is the call to embrace hope and then there is the call for peace. On the third Sunday, a day when we hear this reading from James 5, we are called to embrace the joy of the Lord. While we hear these invitations to prepare for the coming of the Lord, the broader culture has invited us to a party. While Christmas (often in its commercialized forms) dominates, it’s not the only holiday party going on. That’s why it’s appropriate to greet each other with a Happy Holidays. Whether religious or secular these events can overshadow the call to prepare for something other than the beginning of a new year (and the end of a decade).  

 

So, in this busy season how do we embrace the virtue of patience? When people are rushing around making last-minute preparations for parties or travel, as well as doing all that Christmas shopping, how do we take seriously James’ call to be patient? Maybe in January, when things settle down, then we can consider the idea of being patient. Then we can consider the patience exhibited by the farmer who waits for the rains to come and water the crops.

               The Letter of James is often understood to be an expression of the larger Wisdom tradition. It has the marks of that tradition, in addition to a distinctly Jewish feel. That makes sense as it is often attributed to James, the Lord’s Brother. And, in the absence of a better claimant, I’m comfortable with that appellation. If it is from the pen of that particular James who, according to the Book of Acts, was a leading figure in the church in Jerusalem, it would be a rather early letter. The context of chapter 5 suggests that the recipients may have been experiencing some form of suffering. That might have come as a result of the Jewish Wars that took place between 60 and 70 CE, which scattered the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Among those Jews who were sent into the Diaspora would have been Jewish Christians. That appears to be the audience of this letter. While this letter has the marks of Jewish wisdom literature, this particular passage also has an eschatological, even apocalyptic feel. That is because it is offering counsel to the people as they look forward to the coming of the Lord.

Whoever is the intended audience, they are in this passage being counseled to be patient. What this coming of the Lord involves is not certain. It might include the expectation or the hope of a victory over the Romans. Whatever the hope is, the greater hope is placed in the coming of the Lord and preparing for it. That preparation includes endurance, as seen in the word present in verse 11, pointing to the story of Job.

                The eschatological element present here does point toward a day of judgment, with perhaps the coming Lord being that judge. Thus, with the day of judgment on the horizon, James warns the community to live as ones who can face that day without worry. This is a call to live faithfully as the people of God. Leading up to this word of wisdom, James has spoken of judgment on the rich who oppress the poor (Jms.5:1-6). He has also warned against the dangers of the tongue which can destroy (Jms. 3:1-12). Inappropriate use of the tongue also could lead to judgment. In the midst of this particular reading from James 5, we hear a warning against grumbling against others in the community. In other words, be careful with what you say.

James is concerned about actions that can divide and destroy a community that is facing many challenges. In response to those who, perhaps claiming support from Paul, say that faith alone is sufficient, James has declared that faith without works is dead.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

There are times when it would be appropriate to emphasize grace and faith as the foundation of our relationship with God in Christ. God’s love is unconditional, but there are also times when it’s clear that we can take this grace received by faith for granted. James wants us to understand that our relationship with God in Christ should bear fruit. If it doesn’t, then somethings wrong.

                So, when it comes to the counsel of patience here, we shouldn’t think here in terms of a passive waiting for something to happen. Consider this analogy of the farmer. It may be true that the success of the harvest is dependent on the rains (in a land that is by nature dry), but that doesn’t mean the farmer is sitting back doing nothing. No, the farmer is always at work preparing things so that when the rain comes everything is ready to go. The same is true for the prophets, whom James mentions. They are more examples of endurance in the midst of suffering than “patience,” if patience means simply waiting around for things to happen. Of course, in James’ mind, their patience is related to the delay in the coming day of the Lord. They were faithful in their proclamation even if they did not see the fullness of their message revealed. For James, the messages of the prophets pointed to Jesus and his embodiment of God’s realm.

This call to embrace patience is not an invitation to passivity. If we know anything about James, it’s an active form of patience. That patience has to do with the coming of the Lord. In the Gospel reading from Matthew that is paired with James 5, Jesus tells the disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Mt 24:42). Such is the message of Advent: Stay awake, be ready, for the rains will come, as will the day of the Lord. On that day there will be judgment, but will that entail? That is the question that we continually ponder. Matthew has a separation of sheep and goats. It’s a powerful image, and it fits with James’ message, but is that the final word?

 

As we consider this call to prepare for the coming of the Lord, I want to leave you with a word from theologian Jürgen Moltmann, and then the opening lines of an Advent hymn that speaks of waiting “patiently” for the coming of the Promised One. So first Moltmann and then the hymn.

 

What we call the Last judgment is nothing other than the universal revelation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of his redemptive work. No expiatory penal code will be applied in the court of the crucified Christ. No punishments of eternal death will be imposed. The final spread of the divine righteousness that creates justice serves the eternal kingdom of God, not the final restoration of a divine world order that has been infringed. Judgment at the end is not an end at all; it is the beginning. Its goal is the restoration of all things for the building up of God’s eternal kingdom.” [Jürgen Moltmann. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3617-3621).] 

So let us sing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows await the seed of God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. 
                                                                —Albert Taulè
               

Picture attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1820-1888. Wheat Field in Rain, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56228 [retrieved December 8, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh,_Dutch_-_Rain_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

All Are Welcome — Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2A (Romans 15)

Lahneck Castle, Germany
Romans 15:4-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 
7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
 
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;
 
10 and again he says,
 
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;
 
11 and again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;
 
12 and again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
 
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
****************
 

                What a wonderful message to hear proclaimed during the season of Advent, especially on Peace Sunday: All are welcome in the name of Christ.  Paul’s message to the Church in Rome is that God of steadfastness and encouragement, who is revealed to us in the person of Jesus, continues steadfast in service to the promise to the circumcised, the Jewish people, but we’re reminded that as part of this commitment to the Jewish people is a desire to bring into the covenant family Gentiles.  So, we hear Paul declare: “welcome one another” … “as Christ has welcomed you.”

The audience of this letter likely includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians. They may have been struggling with how to assimilate these two communities into one body of Christ. In using the word assimilate, I am aware that in our day its use often assumes that minority communities will be subsumed into the majority culture. That may have been an issue here as well, but Paul’s message seems to underlie the promise that whether Jew or Gentile, both are fully included in the community of Christ. It’s also important to remember that Paul has yet to visit this congregation, so he is speaking to a community that he didn’t establish. These are not his people, but he wants them to know that the gospel he preaches is one that bridges Jew and Gentile. He speaks of a harmony that is rooted in Christ. To do this he seems to be reminding his Jewish Christian audience of the promise found in the Scriptures concerning the Gentiles. Yes, Paul draws from the word of Isaiah 11:10 to reveal that the root of Jesse will not only rule over the Gentiles but in him, the Gentiles shall find hope. Though this is Peace Sunday, the message we hear on this Second Sunday of Advent is that of hope, which is found in Christ, the “root of Jesse.”  So, let the Gentiles join the people of God in giving praise to God who is revealed in the steadfastness and encouraging presence of Christ. With this word of hope comes a call to live in harmony (peace) with one another (both Jew and Gentile).

                Regarding this call for harmony, Karl Barth offers this word of guidance:

God does not merely instruct us: He GIVES us the incomprehensible, in order that in all our differences and in all our brokenness we may be—like minded; in order that we may, in all the play of our thoughts, look up to the One, and in order that we may, in the disharmony of the community, hear the voice of fellowship: —That with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  [Barth,  The Epistle to the Romans, p. 526].

 

     Notice that Barth points out that we are called to be “like-minded” in the context of difference and brokenness. He notes the disharmony that exists. It is a good reminder that we do not live in a utopia, where all are on the same page, for we are not. Disunity is not new, but it seems that we are feeling it in new ways. Perhaps it is due to the increasing diversity of context. We may find this disturbing and disrupting, but maybe, if we look at things through the lens of Christ, we might see a way forward.

           Barth speaks of glorifying God, and Jin Young Choi connects the call to worship (praise God) with welcoming others, suggesting that the two together are “essential components of Advent hope.”

Worshiping God cannot be separated from welcoming others. These are essential components of Advent hope as Christians eagerly wait for the Day of the Lord when all the nations—usually translated as the “Gentiles” in English—will worship God together. Accordingly, this concrete vision of a future inclusive community inspires believers to practice welcome.  [Connections,WJK Press, Kindle Edition. Loc. 1044].

                In an age when walls are being erected—both physical and metaphorical—that are designed to keep the “other” at bay, we hear this message of grace and welcome. It is a reminder that when we gather for worship in this Advent season, we come as hearers and bearers of the good news of welcome to those for whom walls have been erected. In fact, Paul is rather insistent that in Christ dividing walls do fall (Ephesians 2:14).

                The recent observance of the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good reminder that walls are not permanent. Some walls, like the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall, remain as remembrances of past attempts to keep others out, but today they are tourist attractions rather than bulwarks against the other. So, on this Peace Sunday, may we join with Paul and tear down the dividing walls that keep us apart. In doing this, we can affirm with Paul the promises made to the Patriarchs and join with the Gentiles (being that I am a Gentile that does include me) in glorifying God.

                Might we sing the second verse of Mary Anne Parrott’s Advent hymn:

            Come quickly shalom, teach us how to prepare
                         for a gift that compels us with justice to care.
Our spirits are restless till sin and war cease. 
            One candle is lit for the rein of God’s peace.   (Chalice Hymnal, 128)
               
               

 

Day Is Dawning — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1A (Romans 13)

Romans 13:11-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

****************
NOTE to Readers:  Having reflected upon the first readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, which largely covers the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), and having completed reflections on the Gospels, I will now turn for the next three years to the second readings, which normally come from the Epistles. You can find the earlier reflections by searching the text on this blog.
 
*********

                It is the first Sunday of Advent, which means that Christmas is near at hand. The tree and the lights and the decorations are probably up, and shopping has begun. With all the buzz around the holidays, attending to the message of Advent, which tends to be darker than the celebratory mood of the Christmas season, might be difficult. Hearing a word from Paul, especially one that has eschatological overtones (as is true of many Advent texts) might be even more difficult, but here is the word: It’s time to wake up, because salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” The day of salvation is near at hand, so get ready. Yes, now is the Kairos moment. Something transformative is at hand, so be ready. Be awake to the possibilities of the moment.

                Advent is intended to be a season of preparation. It even has penitential elements, much like Lent. Even the Advent hymns, though not all, tend to be in a minor key, which is why so many churches skip them and jump to carols. When it comes to the penitential side of things, it doesn’t sit well when everyone is in a mood to party (myself included).  Nevertheless, it would be wise to heed the message of the moment, to watch what is happening around us. What might God be up to in this Kairos moment?

One of the primary messages of the first twelve chapters of Romans is that grace is the foundation for our salvation, and now with that foundation, we hear a call to live lives that demonstrate gratitude for that grace. So, in the verses leading into our reading, Paul tells the Roman church to “owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). Yes, love fulfills the law. This message isn’t unique to Paul or Jesus. It’s rooted in Leviticus, which calls upon the people of God to love their neighbor as themselves, and Rabbi Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul, suggested that love of neighbor was the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Reuven Hammer takes notes of Rabbi Akiva’s view of the love of others being the essence of the Torah: “It is not enough to insist that we treat others as we want to be treated since some people disdain themselves. It is not sufficient to say that all people are created equal. Love is the basic requirement” [Hammer, A Year with the Sages, p. 157]. Having made his declaration concerning love, Paul declares that now is the time of salvation. So, let us live accordingly.

                When Paul speaks of the day of salvation, which is dawning, and in fact, is at hand, he does so in dualistic terms. The night is almost over, and day is at hand, so “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” It is commonplace to think of evil acts occurring under the cover of darkness. Think of rats and roaches and other things that go bump in the night. When the light comes on the forces of darkness quickly flee. So be ready, the light is going to be turned on.

When we think of Paul’s message in eschatological terms, which fits Advent, darkness also represents the old age that is passing away. When dawn breaks, so will the new age. The old age is one in which sin dominates, and the new age offers freedom from the bondage to sin. Paul understands that we’re not completely free from the old age. Darkness still has some hold over the world, but we are to move toward the new age. The image here involves putting on the armor of light. Jin Young Choi comments on this call by Paul to put on the armor of light: “However, putting on the armor of light does not entail merely engaging ethical behaviors that the believers should choose; it also describes believers’ ontological status as those who put on Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27–28). In the new age, humanity is renewed into Christlike people.” [Connections, (Westminster John Knox Press). Kindle Edition. Loc. 565]. Thus, as we enter this new age of light, the age of salvation, we are to put on Jesus Christ.

Paul writes this letter with a great deal of urgency. He believes that the Kairos moment is at hand. The new age of light is about to break into the world. He believes something is about to happen that will turn everything upside down and that he is going to see it happen. By the end of his life, he might have begun to envision this inbreaking of the new realm taking a bit longer than he expected, but here in Romans 13, he’s still expecting something dramatic to occur that turn everything upside down. We’ve been on this journey now for nearly two millennia, so the anticipation may have worn off a bit. Thus, the value of Advent, for it calls us back to that moment of expectation. With that expectation comes the call to live in the light by putting on Jesus, which means living together in harmony and love. 

It’s unfortunate that what many think of when they hear the word eschatology are the end times scenarios of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. What this vision promises is a future of violence and trauma, where Jesus returns as a Marvel hero triumphing over his enemies with a terrible swift sword. I’m not sure that is what Paul has in mind; at least it’s not part of the message we read in Romans. Paul wouldn’t deny that at the turn of the ages there wouldn’t be suffering, for there likely will be resistance, but he doesn’t glory in it, nor should we. He may lay things out in terms of darkness and light, but what is key here is the reminder that having been redeemed in Christ, we have a future that promises peace and justice for all creation.

Leonora Tubbs Tisdale offers this word of encouragement in relation to our text. She speaks of two things that strike her concerning the season’s vision of social transformation:

The first is that what is often needed for Christians today is a wake-up call regarding the social evils of our day and our ethical injunction as Christians to respond to them. Often people are not so much intentionally evil as they are complacent and slumbering. Paul’s call to us to move out of the darkness of our sleeplike state and to move into the light of Christ’s work in the world is a needed one. Secondly, this text (given its locus in the book of Romans) reminds us that we do not do good works to earn our salvation. Rather, we do them out of gratitude to God and as a way of living into our baptismal callings in Christ. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 4].

So, let us put on Christ and “let us live honorably as in the day.” With that we begin the Advent journey, singing:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
And open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling, seeks true liberty;
It cries out for justice and searches for the truth.
                                Albert Taulé (1972), tr. Gertrude C. Suppe, (1987)
               
               

 

O Little Town of Bethlehem – a lectionary reflection of for Advent 3C (Micah 5)

 
 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
*****
 
                O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
                Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
                Yet in they dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
                The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. (Philips Brooks, 1868).
        When we hear the Christmas story, the Gospel of Luke brings us to the little town of Bethlehem, and Matthew gets us out of town, just in the nick of time. In Luke it’s an imperial census that draws the Holy Family to Bethlehem, while in Matthew it is an enraged king who drives them out of town and into exile in Egypt. While Bethlehem is the city of David, the hometown of the young man, whom Samuel called to a new vocation, from shepherd to king of Israel. The prophet Micah speaks to a different age, several centuries after David’s rise to power. The kingdom that David put together no longer exists. It had divided into two parts after the death of his successor, and the northern portion was destroyed by the Assyrians during Micah’s time, leaving Judah as a remnant. While much of Micah’s message is one of judgment upon that kingdom and its leaders, this reading seems to offer hope of something, something better. What that might look like is uncertain, but for Christians this portends the coming of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, who is the one of peace.
           When we who are Christians read a passage from the Hebrew Bible, we need to remember that it has an original audience different from us. Sometimes that audience is difficult to discern, as it is here. Is this the message of an eighth century prophet who hails from the rural regions of Judah or a voice calling out from the exile, hoping for a restoration of what once existed, a kingdom under Davidic rule? Scholars are not of one mind on this. As Christians, however, we read it in light of the Gospels and apply it to the birth of Jesus. Micah may have had a different scenario in mind, but we hear it speaking to our Advent journey, pointing us to the little town of Bethlehem, from whence one will come bringing peace.
            The opening lines of the book of Micah identifies the prophet as “Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem” (Micah 1:1). This puts the prophet in the eighth century, around the time of the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. Much of the early chapters of the book fit such a context, but some scholars place chapters four and five during the exilic or post-exilic period. So, while the opening chapters offer words of doom and gloom, chapters four and five offer a word of hope, possibly to a post-exilic people that the throne of David would be restored. Of course, that never occurred. Descendants of the Davidic line did hold some power in post-exilic Judah, but not as king. On the other hand, there is the possibility that this is not a post-exilic piece, but actually comes from the eighth century. Since Micah takes a rather dim view of the monarchy, including Hezekiah, then perhaps what is being suggested is not the post-exilic restoration, but a royal do-over. Remember Micah isn’t an urban prophet, he’s a rural prophet. He sees the devastation out in the villages that took place after the Assyrian invasion, because the authorities pursued war rather than peace. Thus, Micah is seen envisioning a shepherd king, rather than a warrior one. As you can see, the original audience is difficult to pin down.
       While the original audience is difficult to discern, Matthew and Luke found it to be pregnant with possibilities, as they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. While these two Gospels offer two rather different perspectives on Jesus’ birth, both stories center in Bethlehem. Micah may not have been the only influence, but likely influenced this vision. So, now, as Christmas draws near, and we prepare for that moment when we welcome the child born in Bethlehem, whom the angels celebrate, we hear this word of restoration. The word for us is that “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.”
          I like the idea that Micah may be envisioning a new beginning, something unlike the historical record. It’s not that he envisions a restoration of the current order. It’s clear he’s not impressed with David’s successors, and maybe not even with David. But Bethlehem might be a better starting place than Jerusalem. It’s not a matter of making Judah great again, but rather living into God’s vision of a realm that is just, where those who rule do so for the good of all, and as Alan Gregory puts it, this person rules for the good “of all who struggle and work for life, who prefers peace to war, and who desires to secure their posterity in the land” [Connections, p. 50]. If as seems possible, Micah speaks from a social location that is rural and has been decimated by war (after all the rural villagers don’t have the benefit of Jerusalem’s walls to protect them, like Hezekiah did), then we can see how this vision might resonate.
Indeed, it may resonate in our day, as many in rural America feel left out and ignored. They many have also contributed their sons and daughters to serve in foreign wars or seen support for their communities sucked up by military budgets. Perhaps they have been left behind by the technological revolution. What is true for those living in rural America is often true of those living in our urban cores. Neither share in the benefits of living in suburban America (my social location), and thus feel a certain anger toward the government, who seems more intent on representing those with the means to contribute to political coffers than those living on the margins. That is, the community to whom Jesus more often than not spoke.
This is the Sunday we light the candle of love. Love is the foundation for peace and justice in the world. It is love that brings nourishment and strength to the people, allowing those gathered by God’s love to live securely. That is because the Good Shepherd is the prince of peace. Peace may have been the theme of the second Sunday of Advent, but the message peace continues to ring out. We long for its promise, even as military budgets eat up much of the governmental budgets here in my country and around the world. Maybe there is a better way, a way of peace. Micah proposes it, and Jesus exemplifies it in his words and deeds. The one who is born in Bethlehem becomes the good shepherd, who takes us on a different path.
O holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O Come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.
                                                                               —Phillips Brooks

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

A Change Is Gonna Come: Advent 3

A Change Is Gonna Come: Advent 3

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 16, 2018

Read Isaiah 42:1-9 (CEB)

Reflection

Advent gives us hope.  Hope is a hard thing to concentrate on when the wider culture forces cheerfulness and sentimentality.  There is a lot out there that wants us to forget the world we live in that is filled with sin and injustice. Isaiah 42 tells us that the world has problems, big problems. Problems that might seem hopeless.  But God speaks into that dark time to remind the people of Israel that whatever they are experiencing is not the last word. God has not forgotten them.

Advent is a corrective to the culture that wants to rush headlong into Christmas.  Advent not only tells us what their world is like, but what it can be. Even when we face the bad times, Advent reminds us that something good will happen, maybe not right away, but soon.  Evil will not have the last word.

The late R&B singer Sam Cooke once sang a song called “A Change Is Gonna Come.”   It was an important song of the civil rights movement. To a younger generation, it has a prominent part towards the end of the 1992 movie Malcolm X, the biopic on the life and death of the civil rights leader.  

Part of the inspiration of the song came from Cooke trying to register at a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, Louisiana.  He had called ahead to make a reservation, but when he, his wife and his entourage arrived all African Americans, the hotel said it had no vacancies.  Cooke, of course, was furious and demanded to see the manager.  After a while, they left the hotel to go to another hotel in town.  As they arrived, the police were there ready to arrest him for disturbing the peace.

Cooke wrote this song about racism and the hope that things would change.  The song became a staple in the civil rights movement because of the lyrics.  I want to close with some of the lyrics:

 

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, “Don’t hang around”
It’s been a long, a long time coming

 

But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

For Cooke and countless African Americans who were alive in the early 60s, it might have been hard to have hope when things seemed like nothing would change.  But Cooke believed that things would change for the better, even if he couldn’t see it clearly at that time. He had hope that the evil of racism would not stand forever.

That is Advent hope.  It is the hope that Christ will return to establish justice forever.  It is that hope that informs the church in mission in the here and now as we long for the not yet.

1. Sam Cooke. A Change is Gonna Come. (1964), RCA Records.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

A Joyous Homecoming – Lectionary reflection for Advent 3C (Zephaniah 3)

Zephaniah (18th century Russian icon) 

Zephaniah 3:14-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19 I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

*****************

When you read this Psalm you almost get the sense that Zephaniah has Judah’s return from exile in Babylon, but Zephaniah’s ministry dates to the time of Josiah in the seventh century BCE, just prior to the exile in Babylon. While it’s possible that this song dates from the post-exilic period and was added to the earlier words of Zephaniah, it fits the earlier period just as well. Whether a celebration of a return from exile or national revival, it invites us to rejoice that God’s judgments have been removed and God is ready to renew the people in love. So, let us rejoice and be glad in the Lord our God!
We hear these words from Zephaniah as we continue our journey through Advent to the revealing of the Christ Child on Christmas Eve. The opening season of the Christian year, Advent serves as a reminder that God is faithful to the promises made. Thus, as we gather for Advent worship, we take hold of those promises that inspire and encourage us along the way. Advent is, of course, an eschatological season. It looks forward to the ways in which God will act on behalf of the people—thus the warrior imagery here.
For a nation like Judah, which stood on the road connecting the powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, it often “hosted” armies seeking to expand their domains at Israel’s expense. Thus, they must entrust themselves to God’s care. There is a word here in verse 19 that declares that God the liberator will deal with oppressors, save the lame, and gather the outcast. Those on the margins will “change their shame into praise.” Of course, it should be noted that much of the book of Zephaniah is a rebuke to Judah, but not here. At least, here Zephaniah, looking forward, perhaps with Joshua’s reforms in mind, envisions a different, purified nation, that will celebrate God’s presence. In the verses just prior to the song, we hear the prophet speak of the remnant of Israel that will seek refuge in the name of the Lord and will “do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid” (Zeph. 3:12-13).
Taken by itself, upon reading this song of joy, you would never know that Zephaniah had pronounced judgment on Judah. There is the reference to judgments rescinded, but the nature of the crimes isn’t laid out. More likely we take hold of the opening lines, which invites us to sing the Lord, with songs of joy and exultation. Perhaps the song celebrates a new reality, in which Judah has heeded the call of the prophet and reformed its ways. Thus, it would appear, that Judah has taken steps to change their ways. They’ve heard the pronouncements and have reformed their ways. Thus, we can see the connection to the reforms of Josiah that returned appropriate forms of worship and decorum to the Temple, and proper behavior among the people. This leads naturally to a call to rejoice in the Lord. Even as we see signs that behavior changed, there is also the recognition that God is acting on behalf of the people. Again, it is good to remember that Judah was a small nation that sat between dueling empires, thus this little kingdom was a valued vassal, not for its treasures, but for its strategic location. The nation was constantly needing to shift loyalties, but for Zephaniah, there is only one loyalty to be considered, that is the loyalty to God, the protector, the warrior.
Placing this song into the season of Advent, we can see how it connects with the day of joy. So, Zephaniah joins Paul with a song of joy, as Paul invites the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). Though in Luke, John the Baptist is warning the crowds to be baptized, so maybe he is where Zephaniah was before the song was written! (Luke 3:7-18). There is, therefore, a connection in the season of Advent between the call for repentance and change and the invitation to rejoice in God’s presence.
So, what does Zephaniah have to say to us? How might we move into a position of joy? It would seem that this would require accepting God’s judgment, if we are to move into God’s new vision. If we fail to heed those calls to change our behavior, we will make the call to rejoice rather shallow. So, we might want to hear this reading with the caravan at the border in mind. Why, we would be wise to ask, have thousands of Central Americans lined up at the border seeking asylum? What might be the cause of the disruptions of life in Honduras and Nicaragua. How might situations on the northern side of the border, have contributed to the frustrations and distress, where parents fear the power of gangs that originated in the United States. Perhaps, we can start, as Seth Moland-Kovash suggests, by praying “in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world who do experience the world in ways much more like the experience of Zephaniah’s hearers. We pray for an end to all disasters and conflicts, and we trust in God’s promise for restoration” [Feasting on the Word, p. 55]. When we pray in solidarity, then it’s possible for us, whose situation is very different, to experience God’s restoration in our own situations. At the same time, it’s important to remember that this word of judgment is issued within a broader offer of mercy. Remember that Zephaniah sings that God has taken away the judgments placed on Judah. The same would be true for us.
When we are burdened with guilt, feeling that we must clean ourselves up first, before we come to God, will leave us in the dust. Yes, John called out the “the brood of vipers” for their hypocrisy, he also offered them an opportunity to start afresh in baptism. It is God’s offer of forgiveness that leads to joy. As Alan Gregory notes, “though God has not taken back a word of the condemnation, God’s grace exceeds the condemnation in the healing powers of renewal” [Connections, p. 36]. This encounter, both now and in the future, will not leave us unchanged, but instead will allow us to move forward in God’s grace into a new reality, one of renewal, and thus a joyous homecoming. So “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (Zeph. 3:14b).

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

With Great Power…: Advent 2

With Great Power…: Advent 2

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 9, 2018

Read Esther 4:1-7 and 7:1-10  (CEB)

Reflection

“For such a time as this.” This phrase is commonly used. A time to stand up and speak out. Sometimes we can be called to speak a truth at a certain place and certain time. For Esther this meant a big risk. As we saw earlier, King Xerxes deposed his last queen for
refusing to come to his party. For Esther, it was a big risk to come before the king unannounced.

Even though God is not mentioned in this book, God is working behind the scenes, giving Esther the courage to go to the King, to display cunning in dealing with a very evil man and for being honest about who she really was. In our day to day lives, God tends to be in the background. There are no burning bushes or chariots of fire. Esther reminds us that God is still there as we face challenges to speak up to the powers that be.

What does this have to do with Advent? It has everything to do with this time of waiting for Christ. The Jews in Persia needed a savior and Esther was that person, a person that didn’t know if she had the power to do anything who was able to stand up to Haman and win. For Esther to be successful, she had to go to the King. This was a risk because no one
came to see Xerxes unless they were called and she hadn’t been called in a month. When she appears in the throne room, she has to see if the king will lower his scepter to allow her to come forward or be killed. She had great power, but she also had to be able to
risk losing that power to save her people.

This sounds familiar. Kind of like Jesus. Jesus had great power. He was the son of God. And yet he came to earth as a baby, the weakest of creatures and then lived as a human. As Jesus neared the cross, he could have opted to not get crucified, but instead allowed
himself to be killed for the good of others. Advent reminds us that God will deliver us, will free us from the powers of sin and death. “With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility.” We all have some sense of power. How will we use it? Peter Parker decided to work at saving people in his native New York as Spiderman. Esther decided to use what she had to save her people. Jesus used it to save all of creation. What will you do?

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

The Coming Refining Fire – Lectionary reflection for Advent 2C (Malachi 3)

Malachi 3:1-4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? 
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

***************

                The message of Advent is clear. Get ready. Get cleaned up. Prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. But, are we ready to bear the burden of purification? Are we ready to be refined by the refiner’s fire? A little water from baptism maybe, but fire?  Sometimes we ask for things to occur, but don’t know the full ramifications. We cry for justice, forgetting that we might get singed along the way.
                Malachi speaks to a people facing a crisis. Exiles have returned home to a ruined Jerusalem, from Babylon and Persia. They have rebuilt the Temple, but maybe they’re not of one mind when it comes to supporting it. The Book of Malachi is best known for its “stewardship theme” of tithing so as not to rob God. Maybe the context of this message was a capital campaign to rebuild the Temple. Maybe people were a bit behind in their pledges (Mal. 3:8-12). Could the prophet of record be a disgruntled priest, who is discouraged by the lack of progress in supporting the Temple or in behavior change for that matter. We aren’t reading that portion of Malachi 3. We’re reading the word that precedes it.
That word follows the word we hear now, a word about a messenger, perhaps an eschatological messenger, who will come suddenly to carry out judgment. The identity of the messenger is uncertain. The name Malachi can be translated as “My Messenger,” which is the task given to the one who is coming. In any case, the word comes to the people from God, and it is God who will do the refining.
                Whoever this prophet is, who likely writes early in the fifth century, BCE, the word we hear, is that the people have lost their way. They want much but seem unwilling to give of themselves for this purpose. They may be experiencing disillusionment. They decry corruption, but perhaps are caught up in it themselves (and can’t see it). So, the prophet calls the people to account on behalf of YHWH Zebaoth (Lord of Hosts), who is coming, with refiner’s fire, to cleanse and renew the community.
                The Gospel reading from Luke 3 that accompanies this reading speaks of another messenger, who is sent to the people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord. That messenger or prophet is John, son of Zechariah, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord—as Isaiah had already revealed (Luke 3:1-6). Malachi’s calling is similar, or better, John’s calling is similar to that of Malachi. Both prophets call for repentance so that sins might be forgiven, and people might be purified.
The age in which we live is an age of division that at times lacks a sense of moral vision. As Reinhold Niebuhr would say, moral man is living in an immoral society. We hear hue and cry about corrupt systems—political, religious, corporate—even we participate and perhaps benefit from those systems. We want change, but we would rather not incur any pain or inconvenience. It is like those who complain about the roads, but demand tax cuts. So, we throw out the bums, and elect new bums in their place. When the new bums fail to fulfill their promise (or fulfill it at our inconvenience), we complain. It seems to be a never-ending cycle. So, perhaps Malachi’s concerns are our concerns.
While we’re not sure about the context, the prophet is concerned about the context at hand. Things are not as they should be, which suggests that God will do something to set things right. People have been calling for God act, but perhaps they need to ready themselves first. The refining fire might prove uncomfortable. So, am I ready? I don’t know. Is the church I serve ready? I don’t know that either.
                As we move quickly toward Christmas, on this the second Sunday of Advent, with only two more Sundays after this one we are faced with the question: are you ready for what is to come? Perhaps we will answer: If only we had more time, or perhaps more resources, then we could fulfill our promise. But will this answer be sufficient? While the promise that the coming messenger will bring refiner’s fire might seem ominous (who wants to undergo judgment), perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps if we submit ourselves to this process, we will be better prepared to bring our offerings to the Temple in righteousness.
                With Malachi’s message in our minds, what is the vision that moves us in this journey toward Bethlehem? What are we hearing from God that speaks to our souls? Are we ready to receive this word of judgment so we can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord?
                Let us remember that the season of Advent points not only to the first Advent, when a child is born in Bethlehem, a child who will grow up to preach good news, bring healing and wholeness, and then face death, but also a second Advent, the eschaton, the time of judgment. While the death of Jesus culminated in the Resurrection, that was the end of the story. We live in the interregnum, the in-between time, before the coming Day of the Lord. We may be experiencing some of that refining fire now, in our time.
                After centuries of Christendom, where in Europe and its colonies, Christianity dominated culturally, that cultural dynamic no longer exists. People find church to be less important. They still claim faith in God but operate outside the usual channels. Our congregations shrink, and along with it, our budgets. The majority of churches in America have less than 100 members. I serve one of those churches. I know the challenges that come as we grow smaller. Thousands of cars pass by our church each day, no one paying attention to that church on the corner. I don’t know the future. I am hopeful, but realistic as well. The future of our congregations, especially smaller ones with older and whiter memberships, is uncertain. The good news is that God is faithful to the covenant, and so the invitation is sent out, inviting us to submit ourselves to the refiner’s fire.
                This passage is intended to be heard on Peace Sunday. The question is, does it bring peace to our souls? Does it inspire us to be peacemakers? Whether we’re able to answer in the affirmative, we can hear the words of Alan Gregory, who writes:
When Christians accept God’s calling, it is good news for the world, because the church, when it is willing to bear God’s refining, represents the glory of humanity as it exists in God’s desire. In the end, of course, what sustains the church, and all human beings touched by God’s grace, lies beyond the words of judgment, in the faithfulness with which God shall complete the loving work of creation.  [Connections, p. 20].
May we present ourselves to God’s messenger so that we might be refined. With that act on God’s part of refining us, we find ourselves brought to wholeness, to completeness, along with the rest of God’s creation. With  that we can continue the journey toward Christmas.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

The Last Word: Advent 1

The Last Word: Advent 1

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 2, 2018

Read Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19 (CEB)

Reflection

There is a story told about Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu during the apartheid era.  It is an example of this faithful waiting, knowing that the injustice that reigns now will fall one day.  

Tutu held a church service/protest rally at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town.  Outside of the church were hundreds of policemen there to intimidate Tutu and the worshippers.  While he was preaching, the police, who were armed, broke into the cathedral and lined the walls of the sanctuary.  They took out notebooks to record Tutu’s words.

The Archbishop continued preaching, talking about the evils of apartheid and reminding those gathered that this oppression would not endure.  

Then Tutu made a pointed statement directed at the police. 

“You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”

And then those gathered broke into song and dance.  The police were left dumbfounded.

Tutu was correct of course.  The police and the whole apparatus of apartheid had already lost.  In a few years, Nelson Mandela would be released from prison and South Africa would become a multiracial democracy.

We live in faith because we know that one day, the walls of injustice will come tumbling down.

Our text today reminds us that God is with us as we faithfully wait.  Even when it might seem dark, we can put our hope that the barriers that keep us from becoming a whole society will fall.  God has promised this and God will do it.

More likely than not, you are reading this around the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas where we prepare for Christ’s coming.  The word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, which means, coming or arrival.  So we have a season where the practice of waiting is front and center.  Advent is about waiting for the arrival of Christ, but it is also about waiting for the time when God’s kingdom is fully realized.  God’s kingdom is breaking through now, but it is not fully here.  We trust in the future when the things that divide us, like race will be thrown away.  But we have to live faithfully in now where there is still distrust and fear.  We have to wait.

The prophet had to learn to wait for vindication.  God was calling the prophet to trust in the midst of waiting; to live a holy life expecting that God will answer in due time.

But that is a challenge, isn’t it?  It’s hard to wait for God’s justice when injustice seems to be running amok in the land. Waiting means sometimes waiting a long, long time. Waiting means having to see more injustice.

Towards the end of C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, we are told that Aslan the Lion is on the march to restore Narnia.  It’s interesting when these words are spoken because at the time the kingdom was still under the power of the White Witch who had made Narnia where there was only winter.  The winter was slowly receding, but winter was still here. 

But Aslan was on the March.  We are on the winning side. Hope is on the way as we wait.  God is coming.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

God’s Righteousness Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1C – Jeremiah 33

Jeremiah 33:14-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

 
*********************
                It is the First Sunday of Advent and a new liturgical year begins. This first Sunday in the Christian year is designated “Hope Sunday,” which is a good place to begin a journey. Advent has an eschatological dimension to it, in that it invites us to look forward to God acting on our behalf not only in the present but in the future. It invites us to put our trust in the God who makes and fulfills covenant promises. Many congregations, including my own, begin the journey singing the medieval hymn “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” While the hymn references the exile of Israel, it also invites us to look longingly toward the coming of the Christ child.  But it doesn’t end with the coming of the Christ child. That is a past event, and Advent continues to point us forward into the future. So, with this first Sunday we begin a journey that will takes us from anticipation to fulfillment in the coming of the Christ child, and then from there through the ministry of Jesus, his death, resurrection, on to the planting of a church that will bear the message of Jesus until that time when Christ reigns all in all.
                The word of the Lord as recorded in the first testament comes to us from the prophet Jeremiah. We can assume that this word is addressed to exiles living in Babylon. Although this word is addressed to both the people of Israel and Judah, Israel had long since disappeared from history, having been rooted out by the Assyrians in the eighth century. Jeremiah offers words of encouragement, reminding the people that God fulfills God’s promises, and the promise that is put before us concerns the time when “a righteous Branch” will “spring up for David.” As one might expect among a community of exiles who have watched as their nation has lost everything, including its leadership, there is the hope that life will return to normal. That things will go back to the way things were when the nation was at least theoretically independent. The only way for that to occur would be to see a member of the royal family restored to the throne of Judah. That is, there is an expectation that a member of the Davidic line will emerge, take the throne, and in that role will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This would be good news!
                The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent in Year C is taken from Luke 21. In this reading we hear Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms of the day God’s reign will be fully revealed. In this reading Jesus calls on the hearer to “be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap” (Lk. 21:34-35). The message of Advent is always one of being prepared and being alert for the day of the Lord is ever at hand. That was Jesus’ message, and it was Jeremiah’s. Neither Jesus nor Jeremiah offer a timetable, only a promise that the realm will come, and with it will come justice.  
 
                As we read Jeremiah today, in what some call a post-Christian age, when the church’s cultural dominance is diminished, what word do we hear? There are some who seek to “make the church great again,” by reclaiming cultural dominance. We see this in practice during this Advent/Christmas season by the demand made that retailers great customers with “Merry Christmas,” as well as demands that city halls place creche scenes on their front lawns. During other months of the year, we hear calls for restoring prayer and bible reading in schools. Some even want to make the McGuffey Reader of the 19th century the standard educational curriculum. Is this what Jeremiah has in mind for us? Is this the day when the Lord will be our righteousness? While, it’s true that the exiles desired to return to life as it was before exile, is this God’s vision? When we read books like Ezra and Nehemiah, we see attempts made in the post-exilic period to return to normal, by rebuilding Temple and city walls, while attempts are made to keep the community pure (Ezra’s call to put aside foreign wives—Ezra 9). While Zerubbabel was a Davidic descendant and the center of hopes of David restoration, he served only as a governor appointed by a Persian king (Haggai1). I’m not sure that either Zerubbabel or any other governor fulfilled the promise, but the promise remained.
The Christian community has taken it up, affirming that Jesus is the true son of David, and thus the righteous branch, who will bring justice and righteousness to the land. This is the vision that drives the Christian message. Jeremiah likely had a return to the land of the ancestors in mind, when he spoke these words. Jesus, on the other hand, at least in Christian theology, has a larger frame of reference that a return to the land of the ancestors. For Jesus the vision of the future involves the revelation and inauguration of the realm of God. This eschatological realm is marked by God’s justice and righteousness. As we gather for worship in Advent, we are confronted by this larger vision of God’s realm. Out of that vision comes the question of how we, the people of God, called together in the name of Jesus, can embody the justice and righteousness of God. This embodiment can take a variety of forms, but all reflect God’s love for all creation. This might involve both those first responses, taking care of immediate needs, like providing food and shelter, but ultimately it involves pursuing systemic change, so that the vision might be fulfilled.
With this invitation in mind, we begin the journey of Advent, moving toward the celebration of the birth of a child who was, at least temporarily, a homeless refugee.    

Picture attribution: Tree of Jesse, a Bavarian ivory panel., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=27238 [retrieved November 26, 2018]. Original source: Wikimedia.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.