Category: Advent

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.”

 
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                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.

Time and Space- Narrative Lectionary, Advent 4

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 24,  2017

Introduction

When we think of the Christmas story in the Bible, we tend to think of the story presented in Luke 2. This is the text that Linus memorizes in the Charlie Brown Christmas Story.  It’s the story of Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds.

But there is another Christmas story out there.  But there is no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherd, no choir of angels.  Instead we hear about abstract things like the word, “logos.” It’s a cosmic story that allows you to see the birth of Jesus in a more expanded way. The first 18 verses of John is a prologue that sets up the rest of the book and also sets up the why of Jesus’ coming to earth.  Today, we look at the opening chapters of the book of John.

Engaging the Text

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

The birth story found in Luke is one that is grounded in time and space.  Look at the first passage in Luke 2:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

-Luke 2:1-3

Luke places Jesus is a specific context; we know that Augustus is the emperor of the Roman Empire. We know that Quirinius is the governor of Syria.  We also know that a census is being taken and Joseph has to go to Bethlehem to be counted.

Now look at the first passages in the book of John:

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.

-John 1:1

We know that something is beginning, but we don’t know when this is happening.  John starts the gospel outside of time and space.  This is a reminder of the nature of God; someone that transcends space and time.

When we hear that phrase, “In the beginning,” the writer is intentionally recalling those first few words in Genesis. The writer then goes to say that this Word or logos was present at the creation. The writer is trying to get the point across that what is going to happen in the following pages is as big as the creation.

One way to look at this chapter is to see it as if you are looking at something through a telescope.  You can see something at one viewpoint and if you magnify it you will see more things that weren’t seen before. That’s what is happening here: we start with the cosmic and then we move closer to the created order in verses 3-5.

About the word “Word.”  In greek the word is translated as logos. Logos was a word and concept that people in the first century found familiar. This logos was present with God at the creation and shares the very life of God. The Logos and God are very close to each other even though they are two personalities.

Verse 5 shows us that the Logos is not just an abstract thought, but also gives life.  A word, a thought can actually give light and life to humanity.

Starting at verse 6, we focus not on Jesus, but his cousin, John.  While they are different, they are also the same. The greek verb egeneto (was made) is used to talk about both John and Jesus. But while they both talk about God’s mission to bring salvation, verse 8 tells us that John the Baptist only bears witness to the light while Jesus is the Light. In essence, John the Baptist is the lamp- only Jesus is the Light. This reminds us how the other gospels present John before Jesus which is how they demonstrate that John the Baptist is the witness to the Light and not the light himself.

The third part of today’s text deals with the identity of Jesus.  Verse one is where we first see the word, logos.  In verse 14, the meaning of logos changes.  In chapter 1, logos is beyond time and space, in verse 14 logos becomes time-bound and enters the life of a human.  This is where we are introduced to a whole new concept, the very reason we celebrate Christmas: the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is at the very heart of the gospel of John.  John shows how God choses to express Godself through a human being.  What was once eternal and outside of time is now about life and death.

When the word “flesh” is used (the greek word is sarx) in relation to Jesus, it saying something about what Jesus is doing.  Jesus becoming enfleshed means that the logos chooses to become weak, frail and vulnerable.  The good news of the incarnation is that the God that was inaccessible, now has come to live with a fallen humanity.

Starting with verse 14, John concludes his text in a song praising Jesus. We learn the why of the Incarnation: to make God known. We also learn that the Son and Father have a relationship, a sense of intimacy.  (Father is not relating to God’s gender, but to the relationship between Jesus and God.)

Conclusion

Luke and John look at the coming of Jesus in different ways.  Luke talks about Mary and Joseph, a pregnancy, a census that the Romans wanted, and having to give birth to baby in smelly stable.  Everything here is somewhat mundane, everyday.  Yes, there is that whole angel thing with the shepherd, but even the shepherds were so plain.  Luke’s story is about people, places and things.  It’s concrete.  John on the other hand, is a whole different animal.  Where things are finite and ordinary in Luke, John tends to deal with the infinite.  “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” says John 1:1.  There is no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds, no angels.  Instead we have talk about the Word or Logos, about being rejected by people, about the Word being around since the beginning of time.  In the midst of all this, verse 14 talks about the Word, the cosmic, the infinite taking on flesh and living among humanity.

Think about that for a moment.  The infinite got involved with the finite.  Here’s what John 1:14 says according to the Message translation of the Bible:

The Word became flesh and blood,
   and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
   the one-of-a-kind glory,
   like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
-John 1:14 (Message version)

This is what Christmas is about.  God, the infinite, the all powerful and all knowing, became a helpless baby.  God loved creation so much God decided to become one of us, to accept the limits of being human.  God became Immanuel, God with us, by becoming one of us. God moved into the neighborhood.

As we get together with family and friends during the holidays, remember this: Christmas is about God getting involved in the life of the world for its salvation.  God is about moving into our hearts and joining us in the good and the bad. Charles Wesley expressed this in his carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”  The third verse explains this wonderfully:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

God has moved in. Merry Christmas.

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

Come and Get It!- Narrative Lectionary, Advent 3

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 17,  2017

Introduction

Food seems to be a major theme that runs throughout the Bible.  Earlier in the season, we heard the story of how God provided manna to the people of Israel as they traveled to the Promised Land.

The sense of journey is also a theme in the Bible.  There was the journey to the promised land.  Now we hear the time of exile and the journey back.

In today’s text we see those two themes coming together.  There is a lot of talk about a feast for the people in the context of getting ready or coming back to Israel.  God calls the people then and today to come to the feast. Today we talk about the people of Israel joining the feast of God.

Engaging the Text

Seek the Lord when he can still be found;
    call him while he is yet near.

Isaiah 55:6

The book of Isaiah is actually 3 books in one.  First Isaiah includes the first 39 chapters and talks about life in the Southern Kingdom of Judah before it fell to Babylon.  Second Isaiah is from chapter 40 to 55 and deals with the exile in Babylon and later Persia.  Third Isaiah goes from chapter 56 to the end, chapter 66 and deals with the time when the Jews returned to their homeland.  So chapter 55 is taking place during the exile, but in some cases, the exile was close to ending.  They had spent time in Babylon who did not treat the Jews with respect and then when Babylon fell, they lived in exile in Persia.  Their new king, Cyrus, is a more inclusive person, allowing for the conquered peoples to worship their own God.  

Chapter 55 are also the closing words of the writer of Second Isaiah.  The last words in any document are going to have a punch, something that the writer wants the readers to remember.  That’s what we encounter in this passage.

In Jeremiah 29, God speaks through the prophet that the newly exiled Israelites are to make a life in Babylon.  God would bring the people back to the Israel, but not right now.  In this passage, we can see that now is the time to come home. The people are to come back to Jerusalem where God will give the returning exiles a feast.  Bread, milk, water, all of this will be given to the people- and there is nothing that they have to do to receive it (any early understanding of grace). A meal can be a sign of coming home and this is what is happening here; God is leading the people home where they can have a hot meal after a time of trauma.

The food is also a covenant.  God is establishing a new covenant with David, meaning the Davidic dynasty.  At least that is what it should have been.  God isn’t talking about a restoration of the royalty, but the covenant is now with the entire people of Israel. The covenant is not with one person, but with the whole people and the feast is a sign of that bond between God and Israel.

But as they enter Jerusalem, they are also called to change their lives.  Note that God doesn’t say, “change your ways and I will feed you,” God gives the meal no matter what.  But if they enter God’s presence, they should change their ways.  Notice that the word “wicked” is used in verse 7.  Theologian Walter Brueggeman thinks it is not referring to disobedience but to something else related to the exile:

“The wicked,” I suggest, are not disobedient people in general. In context, they are those who are so settled in Babylon and so accommodated to imperial ways that they have no intention of making a positive response to Yahweh’s invitation to homecoming. That is, they have no “thought” of enacting Jewish passion for Jerusalem. To “return” to Yahweh here means to embrace fully the future that Yahweh is now offering. This “return” is not simply a spiritual resolve but the embrace of a new hope and a new historical possibility that entails a dramatic reorientation of life in political, public categories. Those who have excessively accommodated the empire are indeed to be pardoned. But pardon requires serious resolve for a reordered life commitment.

So God’s action calls for a response. God calls the people to repent, to change their ways and follow God. They were used to the ways of Babylon, but that time is now over and it is time to come home.

Conclusion

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.

-Matthew 2:16

While the writer is not thinking about Jesus or the church (and it is important to remember that), Christians can look at this passage and see how it can relate.  The meal in the chapter sound a lot like communion. We are offered a meal and we do this with the bread and the wine. There is nothing we have to do to accept this meal, but it is a sign of God’s grace.  God grace can drive us to a response, to seek to live righteously.

In the 1997 document The Use and Means of Grace, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America explains what communion is all about; gathering for a meal, the confession of sins and our need for God:

 

The simple order of our liturgy of Holy Communion , represented in the worship books of our church, is that which has been used by generations of Christians. We gather in song and prayer, confessing ou r need of God. We read the Scriptures and hear them preached. We profess our faith and pray for the world, sealing our prayers with a sign of peace . We gather an offering for the poor and for the mission of the Church . We set our table with bread and wine, give thanks and praise to God, pro – claiming Jesus Christ, and eat and drink. We hear the blessing of God and are sent out in mission to the world .

The people of Israel were called by God to come home to a marvelous feast and learn again the ways of God. We are also called home each week to a feast where we also learn the ways of God and seek to be Christ’s people in the world, drawing everyone to Jesus.

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

Dem Bones- Narrative Lectionary, Advent 2

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

December 10,  2017

Introduction

Popular culture has a fascination with the living dead. Television shows like the Walking Dead and Fear of the Walking Dead are popular. There are zombies onthe big screen as well: World War Z, Warm Bodies, Shaun of the Dead to name a few. Cities around the world host Zombie Walks where thousands of people, walk, I mean shamble around town dressed up in their best zombie gear. In 2012 about 7000 people took part in the Zombie Pub Crawl in St. Paul, Minnesota. Zombies a thing.

So, why are zombies so hot? Maybe it’s a way of dealing with death. It could reflects our fears of illness, especially the fear of some virus threatens humanity. Maybe it’s about the how thin is the wall between civilized order and chaotic violence.

Today’s text of the prophet Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones looks like the zombie story since those that were dead are revivified. But this passage isn’t talking about the Walking Dead, but life, real life coming from death. It is about restoration even when all hope was lost.  Today, we look at one of the oddest texts in he Bible.  Welcome to the Valley of the Dry Bones.

 

Engaging the Text

He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

Ezekiel 37:3

Ezekiel is a contemporary of Jeremiah.  While Jeremiah is a prophet during the last days of the Southern Kingdom, Ezekiel is the prophet during exile. The book covers a period between 593 BCE and 573 BCE- dark days for the Jewish people. When the book opens, Judah is basically a colony of Babylon.  However, when the vassal king in Judah, Zedekiah leads a failed rebellion, Babylon sends forces to Jerusalem and destroys the city including the temple in 587 BCE.  Judah ceases to be an independent entity and significant numbers of the population is sent to live in Babylon proper.  So, when chapter 37 opens, the Jews are away from their homeland which no longer exists and the temple, which was the center of Jewish life has been destroyed.  There is no sense of hope- only death.

These forced immigrants felt that their culture was dying if not dead. And they had good reason to fear this; a century earlier, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was also invaded and a chunk of their people were taken. These Jews began to intermarry with the local population and basically dissapeared. So those who were now in exile began to believe that they were cut off from God; there was no hope whatsoever.

The prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he is in a valley filled with bones. Now this is even worse than a zombie. There is no body, just bones. Death is all around. There is no hope. Assyrian reliefs seems to show that it was customary to allow bodies slain on the field to remain where they fell.  The bodies would rot and carrion birds would strip away the flesh.  So it wasn’t simply an image of bones, but images of bodies in various stages of decay. These dried bones mirrored how the exilic community felt; dried up, dead.

But God has a different message and God uses this vision to communicate that to Ezekiel. God asks Ezekiel if these bones could live. I can imagine the prophet shrugging his shoulders and saying to God, “only you know, God.” God tells Ezekiel that he will knit the bones together, adding muscles and then skin. God was going to make these bones live. Soon, the valley is filled with bodies. Just one problem: they had no breath in them, which means that the bodies were, you guessed it- zombies.

It was common in the Middle Eastern culture of this time that bodies were not alive until they had an animating spirit. Ezekiel prophesies to the Spirit and God then calls the “ruach” or breath or spirit and the bodies begin to breathe. Life has come where there was death.

What this means for the Jews in Babylon is that God  and only God could revive the people of Israel.  Only God could bring back that which was dead.

Also, there was no talk that if the community tried really hard, things could come back.  The passage is very clear that things won’t be like it was.  All we know is that God will restore God’s people.  This is the promise that God gives to Ezekiel and to the exilic community.

 

Conclusion

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.

-Matthew 2:16

When I think about this passage and the message it brings, a few hopeless situations come to mind. I think of my hometown of Flint, Michigan that is reeling after the collapse of the auto industry and the subsequent water crisis.  There is a lot of sense of loss and the hope, the wish that things could be like it was back in the 1970s, when the town had twice the population and you could see trucks of cars made in factories in the city head to other parts of the country.

But restoration isn’t reproduction.  The restoration of my hometown means it won’t make it like what Flint was like 40 years ago.  So it is with Israel.  The people in Babylon won’t go back to “normal.” But God will bring restoration and new life.

But it is also important to remember that this story is also a story of shock and horror.  I know of someone whose family were refugees from the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s.  Refugees have a longing for home, but knowing the horror they just left, the refugees know they have to make their home in a new culture.  David G. Garber explains that what seems like a passage of hope has within it, a sense of remembering a deadly and horrific past:

 We forget that Ezekiel himself was taken into exile in 597 BCE, that he heard reports of his religious institution being corrupted without the proper oversight of the priesthood, and that his status had been reduced from a prominent position as a future priest in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile.  We forget the death of his wife and God’s command for him not to mourn her as an example for the exilic community not to mourn the loss of the Temple (24:16-24). 

More importantly, we forget the historical trauma that accompanied this exile. We forget that the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair (2 Kings 25:3). We forget how they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon. Over and over again, in the texts we refuse to read from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet offers imagery that testifies to and metaphorically represents the multiple traumas that the community faced under the realities of ancient Near Eastern warfare.

While many of us read Ezekiel 37 as a beautiful passage, it is also horrifying. It is horrifying because it calls the reader to remember, confront, and testify to the devastating events that led to the valley filled with dry bones in the first place. Its beauty, however, manifests itself with the possibility that even in this landscape full of death, a hope for renewed life remains. Ezekiel prophesies to the bones that soon reanimate, with newly formed sinews knitting the bones together as living flesh and skin envelop them (verse 8). In a scene that recalls the breath of God entering the first human in Genesis 2, the prophet then commands the four winds and the same breath of God enters the reanimated bodies that live once more (verse 10). 

The miracle of this vision does not simply lie in its theatricality. The true miracle is that it occurs after the community has faced such devastating loss. Yet, the familiarity of this text can tempt preachers and teachers to reduce the miraculous to cliché. We can often turn it into a promise for new life on individual and communal levels without taking seriously the situations and circumstances that have lead to the initial death.

Like refugees from places like Syria or Cambodia or Rwanda, there is a sense of hope, the people can’t forget the horror that that population went through. Restoration can only happen when there is loss. God doesn’t want the Jews to forget the hard times, God does want to give the people a future filled with hope.

The dry bones tale reminds us that God doesn’t forget God’s people. We are remembered by God. We are restored by God. What we as a community must do is have eyes to see and ears to hear where God’s Spirit is at work; in our lives, in this faith community and in the world. Let’s look for life and trust that God will bring us from death into life.

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

Signs of Divine Presence – Lectionary reflection for Advent 4A

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December 18, 2016

 

Isaiah 7:10-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?   14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

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As a follower of Jesus, I am called to live by faith. After all, I serve the invisible God. There may be signs of divine presence and activity, but it’s not always easy to offer proof. Now, I live by faith, but I try to live a rational and reasonable life. I’m not given to conspiracy theories and fake news. When it comes to such things, I’m a pretty big skeptic. But my claims to be a reasonable person might note pass muster with some who don’t share my faith. A good example of such a view is to be found in a recently published book that was sent to me for review by Yale University Press. I’m not exactly sure why I received this rather large book that carries the title: Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan. In a book that stands at well over a thousand pages, Anthony Kronman offers what he believes is a third way between atheism and the God of the Abrahamic religions. I’ve only read the introduction, so I can’t say too much about the book, but the author does believe that the God of Abraham and the Prophets is “an obstacle to reason.” I hope he’s wrong, but I do know that sometimes faith requires us to move beyond the rational. I hope Kronman’s search for God is successful, but as for me I’m going to stay with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Sarah, and Mary.

This leads me to the reading from Isaiah that marks the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This is the last Sunday before we gather to celebrate the coming of the incarnate one, the one named Jesus, the one who will save the people from their sins. We’re still in the moment of expectation and promise. But there are signs that suggest that God is present, at work in our midst. We simply have to open our spiritual eyes and look for them.  This, of course, requires a bit of imagination. It requires that we move out of our de-enchanted world into the realm of the Spirit.

The reading from Isaiah 7 is paired with the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, which announces the coming birth of the messiah (Matthew 1:18-25). In Matthew’s version of the infancy story, the child born of Mary fulfills the promise made in Isaiah 7, that a child would be born whose name would be called Immanuel (God is with us), and that this birth would be a sign that God will save God’s people. The word that came to Isaiah and delivered to the king of Judah, whose name was Ahaz, sought to allay the concerns of the king about the crisis that had enfolded his kingdom. The word given here concerns trust in God. It is a word that may have resonance in our day as well, even as it had resonance in the first century among the early Christians. There is a sense of unease in our midst, but will we be able to discern signs of God’s presence in our midst, or will we seek to take care of things without God? What signs do we need to let go of our anxiety?

When we turn to Isaiah 7, we find ourselves in the midst of a conversation about foreign entanglements (does that sound familiar?). King Ahaz is being pressured by his neighbors to join in alliance with Aram and Ephraim against Assyria. The two neighbors are in the process of invading, and maybe even giving siege to Jerusalem. Things look bad for Ahaz, but Isaiah has a solution, if Ahaz is willing to accept it.  Isaiah even offers to provide signs that will cause Ahaz to trust in the way of God, whether it is in the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven. Ahaz, piously refuses to test God. It’s interesting that Ahaz is pretending to be so pious, since his reputation is anything but pious. He’s one of the bad kings, unlike his son Hezekiah. It appears that Ahaz is covering up his own anxiety and need to find an answer to the problems besetting him without any help from God, by feigning piety.  Not to be deterred, Isaiah offers a sign of his own. A young woman is pregnant, and before her child is born and weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be over. The two kings that Ahaz is worried about will be no more. The advice seems to be—don’t make a fateful alliance with your oppressors. They will lose in the end, so stay away. That’s the basic point of the story, at least from Isaiah’s point of view. This passage, which we draw our messianic theology from, is focused on a real political crisis. Isaiah isn’t concerned about a first century child. He’s concerned about Judah in the years just prior to the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel/Ephraim to the Assyrians. Will the king be willing to see signs of God’s presence?

For Matthew, writing centuries later, this prophetic word has important implications for his own time. He sees in it a resource for understanding who Jesus is. This is where things get tricky for us. It reveals something of how Christians read scripture. Since many Christians are uncomfortable with perceived “contradictions,” they are often give to harmonization. We like to smooth things out, which is why nativity scenes have both shepherds and magi, even though these two groups appear in different gospels, though both bear witness to this sign of divine presence. There is a tendency to read the New Testament as a first order fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Thus, we arrive at the problem of reconciling what is happening in Isaiah 7 with what happens in Matthew 1. Much of the problem has to do with the way that New Testament authors use the Old Testament. John Goldingay, an evangelical teaching at Fuller Seminary (my alma mater), offers us a helpful clarification of the connections between the two testaments.

The New Testament itself doesn’t address people who don’t believe in Jesus in order to prove from the Prophets that he is the Messiah. It does use the Prophets to help people understand aspects of their confession that Jesus is the Messiah. The passage about a virgin conceiving and having a son who would be called Immanuel, which Matthew takes up, is a notable example. [Goldingay, Isaiah for Everyone, 32].

Regarding the readings from Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1, the issue is centered on the translation of a particular Hebrew word. That word is almah, and it simply means young woman, or a woman of child-bearing age, whether she’s been with a man or not. Goldingay’s translation of Isaiah7:14 makes this clear: “Therefore my Lord—he will give you a sign. There—a girl is pregnant and is going to give birth to a son, and she will call his name God-is-with-us.” The problem stems from the way this passage is translated into Greek and then read by Matthew. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which Matthew undoubtedly made use of the Greek word parthenos,which is translated as virgin. While the Hebrew in Isaiah 7 is best translated as “young woman,” theology led to it being rendered as virgin in Christian translations to harmonize it with Matthew 1, which was read as the foundation for the virginal conception of Jesus.  

In Isaiah’s case, this is simply a young woman who is going to have a baby, and that baby will be a sign that God is at work. Who this girl is, Isaiah doesn’t say. It could be Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. It could be a child born to Isaiah’s wife. In fact, this could be any pregnancy. There’s nothing miraculous about it. The point seems to be that before the child is weaned the crisis will be over. So, put your trust in God and not the less than honorable neighbors. Again, Isaiah wants Ahaz to refrain from giving in to its neighbors, and make a fateful alliance that could lead to destruction. Stay true because God is with the people. Before too long, Assyria marches in and destroys the two neighbors, while Judah gets by barely!

It is important that we let Scripture texts have their own integrity. As Goldingay points out Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14, not an apologetic tool, but to help define who Jesus is. For Matthew, Jesus is the incarnate one (even if Matthew doesn’t exactly use that language), who represents to us the promise that God is with us. This Jesus (Immanuel) will save us from our sins (not something Isaiah has in mind, except as Ahaz decides how to respond to these outside threats). What the story of the incarnation does is remind us that God is present and at work, often within the mundane aspects of life. In the birth of a child, God is present. For Matthew God is at work in the world through the child who is being born in that moment in time. The birth in Isaiah isn’t miraculous, but for Matthew it does seem to be miraculous. This child, to be born of Mary, is conceived through the intervention of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18-25).

As we head into the final days before the coming of Christmas, may we hear the call to put out trust in God, who is with us. May we be attentive to the signs that God is at work in our midst. Let us not get caught up in battles over words, that distract from the point at hand. God has offered us a sign, if only we’re willing to pay attention. That means setting aside all the distractions that want our attention. The sign that God offers Ahaz is a simple one. A child will be born, and this child’s birth and maturation will be a sign that the external threats do not have power over us. That brings us back to the point about whether we’re able to live by faith as we take this final step toward Christmas, when the one called Jesus is born in our midst to save us from our sins.

Picture attribution: Nuttgens, Joseph Edward. Isaiah prophecies to Ahaz about the birth of Christ, Immanuel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55805 [retrieved December 12, 2016]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/2838876113.

bobcornwallRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Where’s Jesus? – Advent 3

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December 11, 2016
Isaiah 61:1-11

A few years ago at the congregation I was serving at as an Associate Pastor, members of the church were busy decorating the church for the Christmas season. The hallways are decked out in wreaths and garlands, Christmas trees are found in the lounge and in the sanctuary. The decorating had an air poignancy; this would be the last Christmas at the old location of the congregation. In a few weeks, the church would move to a new location a few blocks away.

One of the things that is always fascinating are the manger scenes. Like most folks, people tend to decorate the mangers with all the central characters; the wise men (even though they weren’t at the manger), the shepherds, Joseph, Mary and yes, Jesus. One my favorite mangers at church is one that is basically made for kids. The characters are all dolls and you can imagine a kid picking it up and squeezing it. That manger scene is a bit different. One of the young mothers set it up in front of the communion table. Mary and Joseph are there at the stable, but you have the shepherd on the steps leading down from the chancel and the wise men are all the way in the back of the church near the narthex.

What missing is Jesus. There’s no baby Jesus to be found.

View of the what once part of the Buick City complex in Flint, MI.

The young mother explained to me that since wasn’t Christmas yet, the characters in the birth story are still a ways off. As Christmas draws closer, they will move in closer and closer. What I was fixated on was the fact that there was no Jesus. She did a good job of hiding Jesus, because I could not find the baby Jesus any where in the sanctuary. Where’s Jesus? Where indeed. Advent is about waiting and expectation, but I wonder if sometimes it’s also about this scary feeling that hope will never come, that things will never change. I think about places like my hometown of Flint, Michigan, known now for the lead in its drinking water, but also a place where the auto industry’s shrinkage has left huge swaths of empty land  where giant factories used to be.  Or places like the Syrian city of Allepo that has been devastated by five years of civil war. It’s in those dark times that people feel that hope is not present and that Jesus is nowhere to be found. We might pray and pray and for whatever reason, it feels like the phone line is dead.

Where’s Jesus?

Isaiah 61 tells the returning Israelites that hope is on the way. This had to be good news to these new arrivals after coming back to the land from years away in exile to a place that was ruined by wars. The unnamed prophet tells the people that the holy city of Jerusalem that had been destroyed decades earlier, would be rebuilt better than ever. It’s a great story and would be even better if it just stopped there. But the background reveals that Jerusalem was never rebuilt in the way the writer of Isaiah 61 said it would-at least not in their lifetime. And yet, this passage is still one of hope. Actually it’s not just about hope, but also about faith. We have faith that hope will prevail even if we can’t see it.

As I said earlier, one of the Christmas trees is located in the lounge. It’s was decorated with lights and an angel at the top…and socks. That year, socks were being collected for refugees, helping newcomers have warm feet in the winter, since most of them are coming from tropical countries to chilly Minnesota. Advent is a time of hope, and sometimes hope comes in the form of…well, socks. Hope can come in the form of socks! It’s hard when you are in pain or suffering to see Jesus anywhere, but maybe we can have hope that Jesus is the giving of socks to the stranger, or in the kind word we give to someone grieving or simply standing by a friend as they battle cancer or even something that only God knows. It is in these acts that God brings hope to the burdened…and it’s where Jesus is found.

 

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

Marching to Zion with Song – Lectionary Reflection (Isaiah) for Advent 3A

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December 11, 2016


Isaiah 35:1-10  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
35 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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On the third Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy. Even a casual reading of Isaiah 35 suggests that joy is a central theme of Isaiah 35. That is because the “ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” Isaiah 35 has an eschatological tone to it, at least as we read it today in the context of Advent. Looking at the text more broadly, this word of joy is part of prophetic promise on the part of Yahweh to deliver the people from captivity. The word begins in Isaiah 34, which offers a word of judgment on Judah’s neighbor, Edom.  There is a reason why we read Isaiah 35 and not Isaiah 34 in the season of Advent. Chapter 34 offers a rather bloody picture of God’s judgment. There’s no joy present in that chapter, but it is present in chapter 35.

It’s important that we remember the context. This word originally was meant for people experiencing exile in Babylon. The prophet, likely Second Isaiah, offers the people hope of redemption and return to Zion (Jerusalem). We will return to the context, but let us also put it in a liturgical context. This is the reading from the Hebrew Bible for the third Sunday of Advent. Liturgically, we hear a word of joy. We receive the invitation to lift our eyes so we can see the glory and majesty of God. The reading begins with the desert in bloom. Such a picture is a joyous one. I’ve seen enough nature films to know what that looks like. A bit of rain falls and the desert comes alive, revealing a previously hidden radiance. A good example can be found east of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley. It’s high desert. It’s dray and barren, but most every spring, when the rains fall, this normally barren land turns a vibrant yellow as the California poppy, the state flower, blooms across the valley floor. The flowers mentioned are different, but the effect is the same. Not only does the desert blossom, but our eyes are drawn to the glory of Lebanon – that is the mountains. While I may have never been to Lebanon, I’ve lived much of my life in the shadow of mountains. Growing up, I lived within view of Mount Shasta, a 14,000-foot volcano that dominates the landscape. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most beautiful mountain in the world.  When covered with snow, it is magnificent. Yes, nature has a way of declaring God’s glory (I know, it can also wreak havoc on us).

There is another vision present in this passage, and it’s the one that the season of Advent picks up on, and that is the vision of one who will open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, even as the lame shall “leap like a deer,” while the speechless will sing for joy. In each case this is a reversal of fortune. What was is no more. For the people of Judah, who had been living in exile, this is good news. It also describes Jesus ministry as revealed in the Gospels.

We need to return to the context of the reading. While placed within the section we call First Isaiah (the eighth century BCE prophet), chapters 34 and 35 fit best within the scope of Second Isaiah (during the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century BCE). Thus, the highway that God is laying out isn’t the one the Messiah traverses as envisioned by the call of John the Baptist, but rather it is the one the people of Judah will take as they journey home from Babylon (Edom?) to Jerusalem (Zion). They will return home singing the songs of deliverance.

While the hymn “Marching to Zion” isn’t an Advent hymn, it does seem to fit the context: The hymn begins: “Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known; join in a song of sweet accord, join in a song of sweet accord, and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.”  Then we join in the chorus: “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God” (Isaac Watts; refrain by Robert Lowery). In the Watts/Lowery version, the road to Zion is that road that leads to the heavenly realm. It is a song of consummation rather than advent, and yet Advent is an eschatological season. While we remember the first advent, when Jesus was born, bringing into flesh the Word of God (John 1:1-14), our continued observance of the season is rooted in the belief that we are moving into God’s future, when God’s vision of peace will be revealed and we will be redeemed. Thus, we can all join in the march toward Zion. There we’ll “obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isn’t that the message that Advent brings to us, or at least that is the message that this reading from Isaiah suggests.

This is a good word for the moment. In conversation with someone at church this past Sunday, we talked about leaving 2016 behind. In many ways 2016 has been a difficult year. There was an election that leaves the United States divided, with many uncertain about the future and even afraid of what it might bring. We also saw beloved figures, especially in the music world, pass away. Some of us lost members of our family. We need some joy in our lives. So, perhaps this is a good Sunday to sing “Joy to the World.” At least Isaiah seems to suggest that this would be appropriate.

Let us sing for joy at the prospect of returning home, marching to Zion, along the highway that God has prepared for us. When we get to the promised land, there will be a full reversal of fortunes. As Isaac Watts puts it in stanza four of “Marching to Zion,” “then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry; we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground, we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground to fairer worlds on high, to fairer words on high.” While this hymn might suggest that our hope for joy is to be found in the next life, could it not be that the joy can begin now, as we experience the inbreaking of the realm of God?

bobcornwallRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).