Archive for December, 2011

For Dec. 24 & 25, 2011: Christmas, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 9:2-7

In the time of the first prophecies of Isaiah, Ahaz the king must decide whether to try to save the kingdom from one powerful and ambitious neighbor by allying with another. Isaiah the prophet directs Ahaz to put his trust in God with this stirring hymn. The child whom Isaiah predicts is most probably Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, who will indeed rule righteously in God’s sight—but of course we read it as predicting the birth of Jesus. Alleluia!

 

The Epistle            Titus 2:11-14

After Isaiah’s soaring poetry and the Psalm, the passage from the letter of Titus seems short and blunt. The point is that we await the great light, the release from bondage, the judging in equity, and the eternal joy—and, while we wait for Jesus’ return, we ourselves have plenty to do to bring these things to pass.

 

Further thoughts

Isaiah points us forward out of darkness, devastation, and carnage to the light of justice, righteousness, and peace by way of a wielder of authority and might whose wisdom will get the job done. This ringing prophecy is said of a child, to be sure, but clearly a king’s child: someone of whom it is appropriate to expect great things.

It is a challenge to square this vision with the much humbler birth that we celebrate in Bethlehem—and that, it seems, is precisely the point. This child born to us is no conqueror coming in might to fix the world by breaking it to his will. Generations of rulers before him and after have attempted that feat, and some have even had good intentions—but all have failed. This world and the people in it cannot be fixed by force, not even by force of will.

We humans find this astonishing: how much tidier if one could simply command human beings into righteousness, peaceability, and a host of other virtues. It’s evident, however, that God’s view of this is different.

I think there are several reasons for this. One of them is that none of us mortals is so much less broken than the others that we are competent to enforce our will on others totally or permanently. Even a small child must be allowed some scope to make choices and take chances, if she is to grow into our baptismal mandate to will and to persevere, and the wise parent must learn when and how to yield that authority.  Another reason is that force never lifted up a fainting heart, nor did punishment alone ever make a generous heart.

For the Babe in Bethlehem does not come to fix the world from the outside in, but rather to make the world new from the inside out through love, one heart at a time.

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For December 18, 2011: 4 Advent, Year B

The Reading            2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

The second book of the prophet Samuel relates the kingship of David, the mighty ancestor of Jesus. As today’s reading opens, David is flush with victory, settled in peace in a kingly dwelling, and he decides that his next move is to build God a house as grand as his own. God’s response is not what one might expect.

 

The Epistle            Romans 16:25-27

Today’s Epistle reading is both short and long. It is one sentence that forms a doxology, or statement of faith. In this very long sentence Paul takes a very long view: backward to the promises of God in the Old Testament, through the coming of Jesus Christ, and onward to God’s eternity.

 

Further thoughts

On the Sunday before Christmas, one expects the Old Testament lesson to prophesy the birth that we await so eagerly. It does that, to be sure: Nathan the prophet concludes by relaying God’s promise that the throne of David—his house, in the sense of ‘dynasty’—will endure forever.

Where the passage begins, however, is with brash King David announcing that he’s going to build God a house. God’s response to this ambition is less than enthusiastic: “Little man, did I ask for a house? Do I need a house? And do you really believe that your path from sheepfold to kingdom was all your own doing?”

In David’s lifetime God’s promises come to pass, mostly, though David’s shortcomings in impulse control, forethought, and humility lead to disasters including his liaison with Bathsheba. David’s progeny, including Solomon, fare no better to much worse, eventually bringing Israel to civil war and subjugation by foreign powers. By the time the Romans put Herod on the throne, there has been no Davidic king in almost 600 years; one could be forgiven for wondering how or even whether God’s promise of “forever” would come to pass.

We know how the story goes from here. God’s promise is fulfilled, of course, in Jesus, and through David’s descendant Mary. We tend to sentimentalize Mary as pure through sheer passivity, but today’s gospel hints that she is more disciplined, prudent, and self-aware than her famous forebear. When the angel Gabriel calls her the favored one of God, Mary doesn’t strut and preen; instead, she asks herself what this could mean. When Gabriel tells her she will be a mother, Mary asks how, showing a grasp of both biology and social implications: pure Mary pregnant out of wedlock is bound to be the subject of finger-pointing, no matter how holy the baby, and she must trust that God will either lead her fiancé and her family to understand or help her go on without them. Finally, Mary understands that, though it is up to her to say yes and then to follow through, it is God’s power and grace that will start her on this astonishing adventure and keep her going.

In short, Mary has a very good idea how costly it will be to say yes to God, and she says it anyway. Who better than she to be the mother of the Lamb who willingly died for our sins?

For December 11, 2011: 3 Advent, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Today’s reading from Isaiah addresses the dashed hopes of people who have returned to a shattered Jerusalem, to build their hope. On this Rose Sunday in Advent, we read this passage as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus—but if we took the opening verses also as our commission to be Jesus’ hands and feet, how might that change the world?

 

The Epistle            1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

The first letter that Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonike may be the oldest book of the New Testament. In today’s reading, from the end of the letter, Paul gives terse but well-thought advice on how to be the church in the world.

 

Further thoughts

An urban-farming friend of mine, who lives in the hills overlooking El Cajon, reported with some shock this week that there has been frost on her lettuces. Winter nights now keep getting darker and longer—and colder, even in this Mediterranean climate. But we look forward to the turn of the year, and as we celebrate Rose Sunday this week we look with eagerness to the light of Christmas.

Our readings this Sunday glow with this growing light and hope.

Last week’s reading from Isaiah, chapter 40, lyrically promised comfort and good news to God’s people in exile. Isaiah builds on that dawning of good news with a more specific set of promises as to what God and God’s unnamed messenger will do and for whom. He calls us to work in God’s name for justice in this world—“the year of the Lord’s favor” in Israel meant a jubilee year, in which slaves were to be set free, debts were to be forgiven, and property that had been sold by desperate families was to be restored to them. Imagine that! Imagine the joy of those released from bondage and want, and imagine the joy of helping God bring it about!

Indeed, imagine the lowly, the hungry, the needy, and the meek getting the good things—and you imagine the world that Mary proclaims in Canticle 15 as she accepts the astonishing commission to be the mother of God.

How do we get to this world? Paul offers us advice, at the end of his letter to the Thessalonians, that reads like the terse, hurried, loving advice one gives one’s offspring at the very last moment before parting: Rejoice; pray; be thankful; listen to prophets but don’t be taken in by fakes; be (and do) good. We all need these reminders from time to time. Moreover, as John the Baptizer reminds us, one does not need to be the Messiah in order to act as one sent by God. That’s a promise and a calling for all of us.