Category: Advent

A Mystery Revealed – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4B — Romans 16

Romans 16:25-27
New Revised Standard Version

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

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                Everyone loves a mystery. Mystery novels have been published for decades and continue to be popular fodder for reading. When it comes to the things of God, well there’s mystery there as well. After the age of Enlightenment dawned many sought to establish a more rational version of the Christian faith. Thus, John Locke and others spoke of a “Reasonable Christianity.” With this emphasis on reason, mystery was deemphasized, at least in mainstream Protestantism. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that with this proclamation of a reasonable Christianity, the divinity of Christ and the teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity became problematic.

                Mystical theology, of course, continued to be promulgated in some sectors of the Church, especially in the Eastern Church. Therefore, in this postmodern world, it’s not surprising that Eastern Christianity has begun to attract the attention of many who find that a rationalistic version of the faith leaves one cold. Sometimes the attraction to the mystical theology of Eastern Christianity is experiential, at other times it is the theological side of things that has proven attractive because it provides a way of embracing divine realities that lie beyond our ability to fully comprehend or explain. This is especially true for those of us who embrace doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. But, as the late Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky writes regarding the relationship of theology and mysticism: “There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.” In fact, Lossky calls mysticism “theology par excellence” [The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 9]. While I embrace the place of reason in religion, I must confess that I’m beginning to agree with Lossky.  

                With the arrival of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we reach a pivotal moment in the Advent/Christmas season. The lighting of the fourth candle invites us to enter into the mystery that is the incarnation. The season invites us to ask the question: who is this Jesus who the Gospels proclaim to have been born in Bethlehem? This is the final Sunday before we light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve to signal the arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The message of the incarnation is that in this person as Jesus the “only wise God” whose presence has been shrouded in mystery has been revealed to us. Regarding the mystery of the incarnation, Gregory of Nazianzus, a leading fourth-century theologian, proclaims that “this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that is in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.” [Festal Orations, p. 63].

                This reflection on the mystery of God, as revealed in this final stage of our Advent journey is rooted in the reading from Romans 16 as stipulated for this day by the Revised Common Lectionary. This brief doxology, which closes out the letter to the Romans, may or may not be Paul’s work. Although the doxology is absent from some ancient manuscripts or appears elsewhere in the letter in still other manuscripts the doxology speaks to the good news Paul and others have proclaimed through the ages. Therefore, whether or not Paul wrote these words, they celebrate the work of God that brings salvation to Jew and Gentile.

                According to the letter, God has strengthened the readers through Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel. In preaching about Jesus, Paul has made known the “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” to the Gentiles. He has done so at the command of the eternal God so that Gentiles might be brought to “the obedience of faith.” Something similar is revealed in two other letters that may be post-Pauline—Ephesians and Colossians. In Ephesians, we read that “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:  that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5-6, see also Col. 1:6-7).

                For Paul, God is the one who is at work to bring about this mystery. At the beginning of the letter,  Paul offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having been given the opportunity to announce the Gospel of  God’s son (Rom. 1:8-9). Now, he closes the letter with a word of thanksgiving to God for having the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. As Paul makes clear, he does this as a servant of God, who strengthens those who receive the Gospel.    

                Returning to the mystery of God that has been revealed through Paul. The word revelation there is in Greek apokalypsin. That word should look familiar because it is the foundation for words like apocalyptic.  That is the kind of vision that Paul pursues. For him, the day of the Lord was close at hand (remember that Advent envisions two advents, one in the past and one yet to come). We may be getting ready for Christmas, but that’s not what Paul has in mind here. After all, Paul never speaks of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he’s focused on the mystery that impacts the future, and which has finally been revealed. This is the mystery (mysterion) that has been disclosed/revealed after long ages through the prophetic writings to the Gentiles. This is important to Paul because he saw himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. It was his mission to bring the word of Jesus to people outside the Jewish community. He didn’t deny the revelation made known to the Jews, but now what was known to Jews could now be extended to Gentiles through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. Now they too could prepare for the coming of the Lord.

                The call given to Paul is to “bring about the obedience of faith” in the Gentiles, and all of this is for the Glory of the only Wise God. The glory that emerges out of the revealing of the mystery of God to the Gentiles has eternal  ramifications. That is the mystery that has been under wraps until the coming of Jesus and the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Therefore, we can sing:

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. 

[“All Earth Is Waiting,” Alberto Taulé]

     

Time to Rejoice – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3B (1 Thessalonians 5)

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 New Revised Standard Version

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

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                It’s the third Sunday of Advent and it’s time to light the Joy Candle. That’s the rose-colored one. This reading is fitting for this Sunday, if for no other reason that the word rejoice is present in it. We hear the word from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is also by most estimates the earliest Pauline letter. That would make it the oldest document in the New Testament. In this reading, Paul brings the letter to the Thessalonian congregation to a close. The lectionary cuts things off a bit early (there are another four verses to go), but we get the idea. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.” Again, these words make for a reading fit for Gaudete Sunday as we light the Joy candle.

                As I write this reflection on the reading from the Epistles for the Third  Sunday of Advent, the world is anything but joyful. We’re beginning the tenth month of this COVID-inspired exile that continues to surge, at least in the Northern Hemisphere as we head into the winter months. So where is the reason for joy? There is a reason for hope, of course. We just have to survive the next few months before a vaccine is readily available for the bulk of the population. In the meantime, we’re tired and lonely and frustrated and anxious. We might even be a bit fearful. If the pandemic weren’t enough to take make us all Grinches, we’re also dealing with political turmoil in the United States. An election has been held and the votes counted. We know who won, at least if you accept the certification of votes by the states. Unfortunately, a large swath of the population hasn’t accepted the results, at least when it comes to the presidential results. So, perhaps it’s a bit premature or maybe naïve to talk about joy, even if the season is supposed to be filled with joy.

                 All of the above may be true, but Paul won’t let us off the hook. Remember he doesn’t tell us to rejoice only when things are going well or when it feels good. No, he tells us to rejoice always. I will confess that I find this a hard directive to live into. Nevertheless, the directive is there for us to ponder. Now, Paul doesn’t just tell us to rejoice, he also calls on us to pray unceasingly (and by that Paul isn’t suggesting that we all go off into the mountains and spend every waking hour on our knees talking to God). When Paul talks about praying unceasingly, he’s encouraging us to live with God in our hearts always. In this, we will find joy. Then Paul adds gratitude to the list. As William Brosend notes, the focus here is on wholeness. This is, Brosend suggests “at the foundation of Paul’s understanding of the Good Life.” He adds: “The shape of the Christian life is not contoured in measured apportionment—one part work to one part prayer, or some other recipe for spiritual fulfillment—but in unreserved and all-consuming self-giving” [Feasting on the Word, p. 64].  Thus, joy, prayer, and gratitude all go together as a sign of wholeness.

                That sounds like a good place to stop, but Paul isn’t finished. He has a lot on his mind as he brings this letter to a close. What we’ve heard so far might suffice for the third Sunday of Advent that is focused on Joy, but Paul has practical concerns to deal with before he seals the letter. He wants to address the role of the Spirit in the community. Paul tells the Thessalonians not to quench the Spirit or despise the words of the prophets in their midst. We moderns tend to think in institutional terms when it comes to church. We have our constitutions and by-laws. We have governing boards. Everything is done decently and in order (at least if we follow the rules). As for the Spirit, well, what does the Spirit have to do with church? In these early days of the church, the Spirit was moving and that led to the prophetic. While Paul was open to the work of the Spirit, and even encouraged prophetic ministry. He understood the need for boundaries. This word may concern a problem in the community. There is a sense that under the guise of prophecy some may have confused the congregation concerning the coming Parousia (the return of Christ) so that many in the church were suspicious of those claiming to speak for God. That’s understandable. Paul doesn’t want to quench the Spirit, but he understands the challenge posed by rogue prophets. So, he encourages the congregation to test what they were hearing. Only embrace what is good and stay away from what is evil. If we turn to 1 Corinthians, we find guidance there concerning the proper place of prophetic ministry within the church. He even gives guidance to how women who are gifted in this way should comport themselves, which I find intriguing since a few chapters later Paul tells women not to speak. So, which is it?  (1 Cor. 11:5). Nevertheless, he tells the Corinthian church that the purpose of prophecy is to build up, encourage, and console (1 Cor.14:3). Therefore, they should listen to the prophets with great discernment. In fact, some of them should pray to receive the gift of discernment. The point here, in the Corinthian letter, is guidance for orderly worship (1 Cor.14:26-33). Paul gives this word of guidance in the Thessalonian letter because he knew that not everyone claiming to have a word from God was a true prophet. After all, there were plenty of false prophets making the rounds, as we can see not only in the Corinthian letter but also in 2 Peter and 1 John.

                Although not directly related to the word about prophecy, the encouragement to test what we hear speaks to concerns of the moment in our world. We are living at a time that has come to be known as a “post-truth” era. Both religious and political leaders spout “alternative truth” as if it is fact. With the expansion of
24-hour news channels and social media, we are bombarded by messages, all claiming to represent truth, but often it is nothing more than rumor, innuendo, or speculation. So, how do we know what is true and what is not?  This might not be the kind of topic that is welcome on Joy Sunday in the season of Advent, but it is timely, nonetheless. It is therefore important that we heed this word to us, that we hold fast to what is good and resist evil, wherever we encounter it.

                All of this is couched in a larger conversation about the future. The message Paul has preached to this community suggests that Jesus would be returning soon to inaugurate the second Advent. It’s possible that the false prophets have been upsetting the people with claims that contradict what Paul has been teaching. We know that some in the community were worried about whether those who died before the Parousia would be included in the great gathering up of the people at Jesus’ return. Paul had given them assurances that the dead in Christ would rise first (1 Thess. 4:13-18). In these concluding verses, Paul reaffirms that premise, encouraging them to remain faithful, because the “God of peace” would sanctify them, making them holy and therefore be blameless when Jesus returned. 

                This is the word of joy we hear on this third Sunday of Advent. Rejoice, pray, give thanks, because this is the will of God for us. It is worth remembering that when Paul writes these words he addresses not just individuals, but a community. It is in the community that we can stand for what is right and resist evil so that we might rejoice in the Lord always!  We can also rejoice in the knowledge that “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” That is a message that is deeply rooted in the biblical story. God’s steadfast love will endure forever! There is joy in that word.

God’s Patience Is a Blessing — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (2 Peter 3)

João Marques de Oliveira, Waiting for the Boats

2 Peter 3:8-15a New Revised Standard Version

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

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                They say patience is a virtue. When it comes to God’s patience it’s not only a virtue, it’s a blessing. You see God has God’s own timeline, which is different from ours. Thank the Lord for that! Humans are not very patient, especially those of us living in the modern age. We have embraced microwaves, computers, and fast food. We are also rather impatient drivers, some more so than others. Yes, and count me among them! Such is not the case when it comes to the way God works in the world. God is more tortoise than hare.  

                When we read the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul, we see a community that assumed that the Day of the Lord was close at hand. Paul encouraged people not to marry if they could control themselves because the days were short. As Paul put it, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:25-31). We see a similar message across the New Testament, but there is also another voice present in the text. While the Pauline letters give evidence that he believed the Parousia, the second coming, was near at hand, the letters that came later often call for patience on the part of the people. Such is the case here in 2 Peter, which suggests that it dates to a second or third generation period in church history. There is still an apocalyptic element to the message, but there’s less urgency and more caution.

                We come to this reading from 2 Peter, one of only two readings from the letter stipulated by the Revised Common Lectionary on the Second Sunday of Advent. This Advent season easily gets buried in the rush to Christmas. While that rush is both understandable and very enticing, if we set aside Advent we will miss something important. We will miss the message that we live not only after the first Advent, but we live between two Advents. One has occurred with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, the second advent is yet to come. Each year as we undertake this liturgical cycle that begins with Advent and ends with Christ the King Sunday, we’re reminded of this fact. While Paul, and even the author of 2 Peter, may have thought the second advent would have occurred already, two millennia later, we’re still living in the “between times.” For the most part, we live our daily lives as if things will go on as they have been for the foreseeable future. So, “we plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,” with the expectation that the harvest will come once again, just like it comes each year. Those who are prudent will plan for the future. Because we don’t know how long we’ll live, we put make plans for tomorrow. If we’re able, we put away funds for our retirement years. We may purchase extended warrantees for goods we expect to use over the long term. Experience and history suggest that this is a wise move. However, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring! So, stay alert!

                Although written in the name of the Apostle Simeon Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), most scholars believe that this document is rather late. It could date to the middle of the second century, though more likely it’s the late first century. At the very least, it was written by a second-generation follower of Jesus, who probably was a member of what some call the Petrine circle. While this letter has a strong eschatological vision, it also reflects a changing understanding of what that looks like. Here, in this letter, we hear a call for patience. Though it is cast in the form of a letter, the scholarly consensus is that this is a farewell address, a genre that tends to be pseudonymous. 

                One of the arguments against Petrine authorship is that it would appear that the author is highly literate. This author appears to be well-versed in Hellenistic terminology. As Duane Watson notes, the author “was skilled in the art of Greco-Roman rhetoric, especially Asiatic rhetoric, a flowery, verbose, and excessive rhetoric popular in the late first-century CE.” Besides, the author’s knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, suggests that “he was a strongly Hellenized Jewish Christian” [Watson, “The Second Letter of Peter,” New Interpreter’s Bible, 12:324]. That probably wasn’t St. Peter, the fisherman from Galilee. Nevertheless, it likely originated from a community that was committed to Peter’s vision of the Gospel.

                Knowing this context can help us better understand the message we find here. The apocalyptic element remains present in the letter, with the author speaking of the Lord coming “like a thief.” The author also suggests that the heavens will pass away and everything done on earth will be disclosed. There will be no hiding from the one who judges all. Despite the specificity of this message, the author also reveals that we don’t know when this will take place. After all, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years just a day in the eyes of God. This declaration reflects the words of the Psalmist who writes in Psalm 90: For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4). So, God isn’t slow, as some might suspect. Instead, God is patient, hoping that none will perish, and all will come to repentance.

                This word about God’s hope regarding the possibility that all will come to repentance is intriguing. Theologically, it is suggestive that God expects that all will come to the point of repentance and thus not perish. This message concerning God’s slowness to inaugurate the Day of the Lord, of course, stands in contrast to other texts for Advent that suggest immediacy. Consider the Gospel reading from Mark 1, which takes note of John the Baptists preaching a message of preparation for the coming of the one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. There is urgency in John’s message (Mk. 1:1-8). There is much less urgency here. Nevertheless, the author does call on the members of the community to lead holy and godly lives as they wait for and even hasten the coming day of the Lord. When that day comes, “the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved and the elements will melt with fire” (2 Peter 3:11-12). While this is suggestive of the idea that God’s creation will be annihilated rather than transformed, one need not embrace the annihilationist part of the message to embrace the word concerning God’s patience when it comes to the Day of the Lord.

                In fact, God desires that it’s better to wait if more people will be drawn into the realm of God than to jump the gun and leave lots of people on the outside looking in. What that looks like, the author doesn’t tell us. However, passages like this, even with the apocalyptic elements present, are suggestive of a possible universalistic reading. If God is patient in the hopes that all will return to God, then is that not good news? If we take a universalistic approach to the passage that doesn’t eliminate the call for repentance, it just extends the time for that to take place. What God desires is reconciliation.

                So, let us wait patiently, living our lives with holiness, in preparation for the Day of the Lord. The author fully expects that to happen but is aware that God’s timing is not ours. In the meantime, while we wait, the author encourages us to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or wrinkle, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Pet. 3:14-15b). Since we stand some two millennia after this was written, we should take comfort in God’s patience. In fact, God may need to be patient for a good deal longer!  

Image attribution: Marques de Oliveira, João. Waiting for the Boats, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56327 [retrieved November 28, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waiting_for_the_boats_(1892)_-_Marques_de_Oliveira_(1853-1927)_(16215690116).jpg.

Awake, Awake, the Son of Man is Coming – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (Mark 13)

Mark 13:24-37 New
Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
24 “But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
 
26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
 
28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
 
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[b] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
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                The
ancient hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
(4th Century) sets a penitential tone for the season of Advent, which is an appropriate stance as we begin the journey of a new liturgical year:
               
Let all mortal flesh keep
silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
                Ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand Christ our God to earth descendeth,
                our full homage to demand.
                Advent is a penitential season.  It is a time to take stock of one’s life in preparation for the great festival to be held in the coming weeks.  It is a season of hope and expectation.  It is also a season where we begin to look at how faith is related to the facts of life and whether judgment is in store for us.  In other words, Advent is an eschatological season.
Mark 13, the gospel reading before us, is known as “The Little Apocalypse,” because of its similarity in tone to Revelation.  There is the sense that the coming of the Lord demands of us a certain fear and trembling. It requires that we be cognizant of our own resistance to the things of God.  It is a reminder that too often we fail to pay attention.  This first Sunday in Advent is, therefore, with Mark’s Gospel in hand, a wake-up call.  Yes, the Messiah is coming and not in a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer.  So be prepared.
The reading begins ominously. The sun is darkened. The moon fails to give off light.  The stars are falling.  The moment before the coming of the Lord is one of pure darkness.  As I prepare this meditation I’m mindful of events that took place the evening prior, under the cover of darkness. A prosecutor chose to make an announcement that a grand jury voted no indictment on a police officer who shot and killed a young African American man.  We don’t know all the details.  They are fuzzy.  The way they have been set out is meant to keep things fuzzy.  The announcement stirred anger in the crowd, and some chose violence as a way to respond.  This is nothing new.  Violence is always an option.  Others chose nonviolent protests.  The choice of timing, of course, seems to many, myself included, to be craven.  The verdict could have been just easily read at 8 AM as at 8 PM.  But the prosecutor chose to issue the report at night when such a response could be predicted.  Why do we never learn?  Why do we try to hide under the cover of darkness?  With regard to Ferguson and Michael Brown, I, as a white, middle class, pastor, must first listen to the voices calling out for justice.  I may want to understand, but in many ways, I cannot.  So what is required of me is solidarity with those who grieve and mourn and suffer.
Apocalyptic texts like this one emerge out of similar feelings.  Mark writes either right before or soon after the great Jewish War that led to the
destruction of Jerusalem. Could it be that the reference to a time of suffering has in mind that reality?  Where is hope to be found in the midst of all of this destruction and grief?
               In this gospel reading Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man, an image that is lifted from Daniel 7:13.  The image is one of the Messiah coming riding on the clouds. We know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” as a self-appellation. The question is whether this mean to speak simply of his humanity, which he shares with us, or does it speak of something more?   Is this not a recognition that the people are crying out for a redeemer, one who will rescue them from the time of trial?  At the same time, Jesus speaks of this apocalyptic moment as one of a final verdict.  The Son of Man will come and gather the elect, the chosen ones, from the far winds.  Yes, this speaks of a final moment of gathering, much like the judgment scene spoken of in Matthew 25, the reading for Christ the King Sunday, just a week earlier.
                The greatest threat to justice and mercy is complacency.  We become immune to the cries of those suffering. We might not even hear them or understand the nature of the cry.  We fall asleep.  Our oil goes out.  We miss the sign of the fig tree, whose changing leaves signal a new day.  The signs suggest the time of deliverance and judgment is near at hand.  So will we be prepared?
There is only one problem – even if the signs are there, we don’t know the exact time and place of this coming of the Son of Man.  Not even the Son himself knows the exact time of this event.  If you know the exact time it is easy to be prepared.  Just set out your clothes, pack your bag, and set the alarm.  Then you can go to sleep knowing that when day breaks you will be ready.  But in the apocalyptic world, things don’t work that way.  You can’t predict time and place, even if certain figures have made a fortune on trying to make the prediction.  It makes for best-selling fiction, but in the end, proves unhelpful.  Why?  For one thing, it leads to disappointment.  The followers of William Miller found that out the hard way in the 1840s.  Besides, we can get hung up on details and miss the big picture.  So don’t get
caught trying to figure out what only God knows for sure.
In our context, it is better to see this as a call to always be ready for the Day of the Lord. I realize that this is not easy. It’s difficult to stay on high alert always.  It’s a ready recipe for burn out. You can do it for a while, but then you have to get some sleep.
Recognizing the challenges of remaining awake and alert, the word remains present with us – Don’t be found asleep when the day comes.  Don’t get complacent.  Don’t get too comfortable with your surroundings.  Instead, keep ready by being engaged in the word of God in the World. Seek justice and mercy wherever you go.  Listen for the cries of the suffering. This is our calling in the interim.  We all have our assignments, our callings, and it is to this work that we have been elected.
In hope we will continue to sing as the body of Christ:
O come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear.
                Rejoice, rejoice!
                Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!    

Getting Ready for the Day of the Lord — A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1B (1 Corinthians 1)

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 
New Revised Standard Version

1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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                It is time to restart the liturgical cycle with the First Sunday of Advent. Because Paul doesn’t give any attention to the birth of Jesus, Pauline readings for Advent will be eschatological in nature. They speak not of the first advent, but the second. Paul’s message tends to be deeply apocalyptic, in that he believed that Jesus would soon breakthrough and establish the kingdom of God/new creation. Therefore, he focuses on preparing the communities he founded for the Day of the Lord.

                The lectionary reading from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians begins in verse 3, though I’ve included the opening verses for context. Paul begins, as he often does, with a word of thanksgiving to God for this community that he had only recently founded. He offers this word of grace as a representative of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a message for people who are called to watch and wait. Isn’t that an appropriate message for the Advent season, which continually calls us to slow down during the frenzy of the season leading up to Christmas? Even in a season that is being affected by a pandemic, is still filled with stuff to do. So, as we wait (are we doing this patiently?)  Paul delivers a message rooted in God’s faithfulness.

                As Paul opens up this letter, which at times, is anything but joyful, he wants them to know that as they wait for the coming Day of the Lord, they have everything they need as they begin this journey. They have been enriched in Christ in every way. Nothing has been held back. They have “knowledge” (gnosis) and they have “speech” (logos). Finally, every spiritual gift necessary to fulfill their calling. Of course, as the letter proceeds, we will discover that they struggle with how they understand and implement these gifts. They tend to focus on themselves rather than the body as a whole. Thus, as Charles Campbell points out, this word about God’s provision is true, but for Paul “these words of thanksgiving can be said only ironically, with a tone that subverts the Corinthians’ trust and assurance in these gifts, which have themselves become divisive” [1 Corinthians, Belief, p. 26]. Thus, whatever message of thanksgiving is present here, it is offered with a bit of uncertainty on Paul’s part. He knows that this is going to be a tough letter.   

                While it’s easy to give this early Christian community a hard time for their behavior, we need to be careful if we choose to point fingers. It’s helpful to remember that these are relatively new believers. Most of the members of the congregation are recently converted Gentiles who don’t have the same history and background as Jesus followers who are Jewish. They may have brought spiritualities and religious practices with them that didn’t mesh well with the Gospel. Our contemporary congregations, many of which have a long history and are filled with people who have inhabited them for decades can be just as troubled as this congregation. 

                One of the big issues that impacted the Corinthian community was the place of the ego. Perhaps it’s a cultural flaw, but humility doesn’t appear to be a strong personality trait in this community. Members of the community seem to embrace the idea that particular gifts, mainly speaking in tongues, held great value. If you had the gift, then you were a person of importance (chapters 12-14).  While Paul doesn’t have any issues with the gift itself and likely introduced it to them—as one gift among many—at least
some members of this community held it up as the gift sine qua non. Paul, however, who claimed to speak in tongues than any of them, disagreed. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Here in this passage, Paul simply broaches the point, reminding them that they are all sufficiently gifted to fulfill their calling. Later, he will develop this further, emphasizing the need to under that everyone is gifted. That is, they are all part of one body, and every part of the body is important (1 Cor. 12:12-27).

                Here in the opening verses of the letter, Paul offers some hints about the kinds of questions he’s going to take up in the letter, one of which had to do with spiritual giftedness. This conversation set in a word of encouragement. Paul wants them to embrace the faithfulness of God as they prepare for what lies ahead. Again, they have what they need as they await the return of Christ. Even if we don’t share Paul’s eschatological timeline, as Matt Gaventa writes: “In a contemporary landscape in which few Christians are immune from the pressures of achievement—whether preachers longing for elocution, or congregations longing for knowledge, or any of us in late Christendom longing for some revitalizing gift of the Spirit—Paul’s words come as an arresting reminder of God’s provision. We already have everything we need.” [Connections, p. 10].     

                Paul’s goal here, as I’ve noted, is preparing this community for the Day of the Lord. The end result of this preparation is enjoying fellowship with Jesus. While the Day of the Lord is often envisioned as a moment of judgment (Matthew 25), that part of the story is not front and center here in these verses. Paul wants to present them as being blameless on the day of the Lord, so perhaps that’s assumed. Nevertheless, at least at this point, the letter wants to begin on a positive note. I sense that what Paul means by blameless here is not perfection but maturity. This is a community, that as the letter reveals, shows a lot of spiritual immaturity. So, he invites them to consider what it means to be in fellowship with Jesus. He wants them to know that God is faithful, so as they prepare is to come, they’re not taking this journey alone. Instead, they’re invited to be in partnership with Jesus. Is not that true for us as well? 

                As we begin this journey through Advent, may we be prepared to join Jesus in partnership. May we set aside the pettiness that keeps us from enjoying true fellowship with Jesus. We might not have quite the same sense of apocalyptic expectation as Paul and these early Christians, but surely, we understand the importance of always being prepared for the coming of God’s realm in its fulness. If we embrace this understanding, we can also find encouragement in the message that we have been provided the spiritual gifts necessary to fulfill this calling. 

Introductions – Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4A (Romans 1)

 

1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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          It’s always good to introduce yourself to new communities, especially if you’re a missionary heading to a community that already has a church. The community you’re going to might want to know what you want from them. The community you plan to visit might have heard of you, but it’s always good to introduce yourself instead of relying on the word of others. Knowing what we know about Paul, it’s quite possible that his reputation in the Roman congregations might have been mixed. Many think of Paul’s Letter to Romans as being his magnum opus. It is also quite theological, probably because he wants to make his positions on matters of concern clear. Maybe he’s heard there are questions about his theology.

We hear this opening passage of Paul’s Roman letter on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s good to remember that this is only an introductory word, with much more to come. What we have before us is Paul’s introduction of himself and of his mission, as well as a word of grace and peace to the community that is rooted in God the Father and Jesus the Lord. What he does here is to remind people not only who he is, but who he represents. He identifies himself with Jesus Christ, whom he serves as an apostle, having been entrusted with bringing to the Gentiles the Gospel that had been promised through the prophets in the form of Scripture and then through the Son. This Son descended from David according to the flesh but was declared to be the Son of God through the Resurrection. Paul has staked his life and ministry in bearing witness as an apostle to Jesus the Christ, who is both a descendant of David and Son of God. Of course, if we read further, he has more to say on these matters. But this is a good place to start.

                Again, we hear this word from Paul on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is close at hand. The excitement is building. We’re ready for the big day. Our patience with Advent might be growing thin. We do get to light the Love candle but isn’t it time to get on with the show? Well, the readings for the fourth Sunday, both here in Romans and in Matthew 1, give us a foretaste of Christmas. In the reading from Matthew 1, it is revealed that the birth of Jesus the Messiah went something like this—Mary was engaged to Joseph when she discovered she was pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit (Matthew doesn’t give us details here). Joseph has some concerns, but an angel appears to reassure him that this is all from God. In fact, this child will save his people from their sins and is to be called Emmanuel, as promised by the prophet (Is. 7:14). The meaning of this name Emmanuel is “God is with us” (Mt. 1:18-25). The Gospel reading is very Christmassy, but what about Romans 1? What does it have to say about either Advent (do you see anything about the coming of the Lord?) or the birth of Jesus, except for the cryptic word about descent from David? Yet, while Paul doesn’t offer details he does speak of Jesus as the Son of God, much like the angel describes in Matthew 1. There is something about Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, that reveals the presence of God.  

 

                So, what is the Word that we are to hear at this moment in time? When I decided on this passage as the foundation for my sermon for the week back in August, the word that stood out to me is the final sentence of the passage. There in verse 6, Paul speaks of those who are “called to belong to Jesus Christ.” I plan on asking the question: “To whom do you belong?” That is an important question, especially at this moment in time when we who are Christians face the reality that there are those who claim to be followers of Jesus, but who have some rather disturbing views on many issues of our day. That is a pathway worth exploring, but since I plan to do that in my sermon, I will explore some of the other elements here in this introductory statement.

The theological elements are intriguing. Being a trinitarian, I’m always on the lookout for passages of Scripture that at least hint at revealing something that is trinitarian in nature.  There isn’t a full trinitarian formula here, but there are elements that are suggestive. In fact, the focus here is Christological. We hear something about humanity but also possible divinity. Thinking theologically about this word of introduction, I find the connection between Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh and the declaration that he is Son of God through the resurrection intriguing. It appeals to my trinitarian instincts, though it can be read as a form of adoptionist Christology. There is not a word here about the pre-existent Logos (Jn 1:1-14). There isn’t even a word about Jesus’ baptism being the moment of recognition as in Mark. Instead, it’s the resurrection that reveals Jesus to be the Son of God.

As I often do in moments like this when it comes to Romans, I turn to Karl Barth for help. In his commentary on Romans, he takes note of the two declarations. One regarding his descent from David and the other his revelation as Son of God through the resurrection. Barth speaks of two planes intersecting—the known and the unknown—in Jesus of Nazareth, who is descended from David according to the flesh. “The name Jesus defines an historical occurrence and marks the point where the unknown world cuts the known word.” He speaks of the years 1-30, as an “era of revelation and disclosure; the era which, as is shown by the reference to David, sets forth the new and strange and divine definition of all time” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 29). In Jesus, as I read Barth’s reading of Paul, the divine intersects with the earthly. But there is more to this story. This is a disclosure that can happen at any point in time. What makes this point in time important is that Jesus “has been declared to be the Son of God.” Here lies, Barth writes, the “true significance of Jesus,” that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the end of history. He goes on to suggest that “as Christ, Jesus is the plane which lies beyond our comprehension. The plane which is known to us, He intersects vertically, from above” (pp. 29-30). Barth recognizes that this declaration is beyond history. It is something we receive by faith. But it is the declaration that Jesus is Son of God that makes all of this worth considering.

We can read this passage as suggesting that Jesus became Son of God in the resurrection. That is, the resurrection transformed him from human (descending according to the flesh) into something beyond human. On the other hand, we could read this as others have down through the ages as signaling that Christ’s full identity is revealed in the resurrection. That is the way I read it. When we consider the identity of Jesus as the Christ, it is good to remember that Paul says little about the life and teachings of Jesus. He is focused on the cross and resurrection. He doesn’t say much, if anything, about the birth, except to remind us here of Jesus’ descent from David according to the flesh. This is a witness to Jesus’ humanity, but not much else is said. Therefore, it’s not surprising then that the Creeds give such little attention to the life and ministry of Jesus. We might want more, and the Gospels give us more, but this is all that Paul is ready to reveal.  

                The question for us, as we bring the Advent season to a close and prepare for those last few steps toward Christmas concerns the identity of the one who is coming into our midst. The answer is that he is the Son of God. As we encounter him, we encounter God’s presence (as we read in Matthew 1).  

                 

 

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.

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                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.
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                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.

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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.
 
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                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.