Archive for December, 2013

For Dec. 29, 2013: 1 Christmas, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Isaiah 61 was composed as God’s people returned from exile to find Jerusalem in ruins; life is hard. Even so, says the prophet, there is great good news: it is time to rejoice as one does at one’s wedding, for God’s vindication and salvation are on their way—and already here.

The Response            Psalm 147:13-21

The selection from Psalm 147 is a song of praise. It calls the people to worship and praise the Lord for making the front doors secure, protecting the weak, giving peace, providing rich harvests, controlling the natural order and the seasons, and announcing his word. Hallelujah!

The Epistle            Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

In the epistle, Paul writes to the church of Galatia—a part of Asia Minor populated by ethnic Celts—to explain the difference between life under the law and life in faith. Under the law we were like dependents with no legal standing. Then Jesus came to name us as immediate kin—and so to adopt us into God’s forever family.

The Gospel            John 1:1-18

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Luke gave us the close-up view of the birth of Christ. On the first Sunday of Christmas season, John’s gospel begins with a wider perspective: Jesus the Light of the World comes into the world to give us power to become children of God, if we will take it.

Ponderables

A lectionary is a sequence of readings from the Bible for weekly or daily use. The Revised Common Lectionary or RCL is a three-year cycle of scripture readings for use at Sunday church services; Year A, which began on the first Sunday of Advent at the beginning of December, follows the gospel of Matthew, Year B the gospel of Mark, and Year C the gospel of Luke, with the gospel of John read on festival days and on Sundays in Pentecost Year B after the gospel of Mark is finished.

The RCL is “revised” in that the original version, based on and inspired by the three-year Roman Catholic lectionary that was published in 1969, was altered in 1996 from the version issued in 1983 by the North American Consultation for Common Texts. It is “common” in that it is in use at least to some extent in many Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist, UCC, and other churches. One advantage of the RCL is that having all these churches on the same page, so to speak, makes ecumenical services much easier.

The Episcopal Church began transitioning from the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer to the Revised Common Lectionary in 2007. We retain the BCP usage on some specific Sundays, however. One of those is the first Sunday after Christmas; where the RCL has a distinct set of readings for each liturgical year, Episcopal usage specifies the same set for all three years. The readings bear repeating: it is good to follow Isaiah’s exultant outstretched arm pointing to the Light on the horizon, to repeat with the children of Israel a short litany of the Lord’s mercies, to hear with the Galatian aliens the great good news of our adoption, and to wonder with John at the great mystery of the Word of God made flesh of our flesh. Amen, hallelujah!

For Dec. 25, 2013: Christmas Day (Christmas II)

The Reading            Isaiah 62:6-12

What astonishing news Isaiah gives us: Jerusalem restored to more than it ever was, and the fruit of their labors going to the people who have sweated for them, rather than to the oppressor. “You who remind the Lord” might be angels in heaven—but might not they also be us?

The Response            Psalm 97

Psalm 97 is one of a series of “enthronement psalms” that celebrate the Lord. It depicts the Lord as a God of mystery and power, to be feared and exalted, but also as a God before whom the righteous can rejoice.

The Epistle            Titus 3:4-7

In the first reading, Isaiah foretells the salvation of Jerusalem in terms of liberation from oppressors and abundance for those who have labored. As Titus tells it, however, God our Savior has done much more than that—not because we have done anything to earn it, but simply through God’s mercy.

The Gospel            Luke 2:1-20

The nativity narrative of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Ponderables

Psalm 97 describes a God of awe, making the mountains melt like wax and keeping track of all righteousness and unrighteousness. This is the very same God, according to Isaiah, whose preference is to promote equity by actively soliciting feedback from God’s people, and, according to Luke, the God whose way to save us from ourselves—which, as God and the writer to Titus know, we need—is to be born as one of the least of us.

Isn’t that staggeringly amazing?

For Dec. 24, 2013: Christmas Eve (Christmas I)

The Reading            Isaiah 9:2-7

What astonishing news Isaiah announces: to people who have been in deepest darkness and sorrow, oppressed and the victims of war, there now come light and joy, liberation, and peace! The new king is most probably Hezekiah of Judah, righteous son of unrighteous Ahaz, but we hear these words as a prophecy of Jesus.

The Response            Psalm 96

Psalms 90 to 106 are called the “enthronement psalms”: they celebrate God’s glory. Like the others, Psalm 96 was written in the sixth century before Christ during the difficult days of the exile in Babylon. It praises the God of Israel as the one true God, maker of heaven and earth, before whom the very trees shout for gladness.

The Epistle            Titus 2:11-14

The letter to Titus sounds short and blunt after the soaring poetry of Isaiah 9:2-7 and Psalm 96, but it packs a great deal of theological content into a very small compass. Here it reminds us of the coming of Jesus at the end of the world, and of how we should be living while we wait.

The Gospel            Luke 2:1-20

The gospel of Luke tells the story of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem and his birth announced. The story is so familiar that it is hard not to take mangers and shepherds and angels for granted—but it is miraculous, and it begins to prepare the way for the greater miracle of Easter.

 

Ponderables

The Revised Common Lectionary presents three sets of readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Each of the readings in the first set, taken literally, contains nonsense. Isaiah announces that the throne of David is about to be secure forever and that endless peace is about to begin—though, for most of the almost 2600 years since then, Israel itself has had no Davidic king and war seems to be what makes the world go ’round. Psalm 96 suggests that there are other gods and offers the spacier-than-Disney spectacle of plants and trees shouting for joy. As for Luke, real virgins just don’t go around having babies, real men don’t agree to raise the kids their fiancées have just conceived by someone else, and real shepherds stinking of lanolin and sheep poo don’t get serenaded by an army of angels or invited to admire a perfect stranger’s new baby. And the otherwise sober-looking passage from the letter to Titus makes the quite extraordinary claim that what makes God’s people good with God isn’t what we do: it is quite simply grace, because God feels like it.

What makes all of these things true is Jesus. The dreams-come-true king that Isaiah foretold to troubled Israelites is the God of the psalm whose righteousness makes “heaven and nature sing” is the virgin-born baby with the shepherd admirers is the man dying on the cross for our redemption. As the angels sing, so may we:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

For Dec. 22, 2013: 4 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 7:10-16

In the eighth century B.C., Jerusalem is under threat. Isaiah has advised fearful young King Ahaz to let God deal with it; here the Lord offers a grand sign as proof. Ahaz piously refuses—his faith is in an alliance—but he is given the sign anyway: a baby who won’t yet be weaned before the two enemy kingdoms are no more.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

Psalm 80, written in the time of Isaiah, is a corporate lament: all God’s people are suffering—in the striking metaphor of verse 5, eating and drinking tears by the bowlful. They ask for the light of God’s countenance. Christians tend to think of “the man of your right hand” as a prophecy of Jesus. But what if it actually means us?

The Epistle            Romans 1:1-7

The letter to the Romans is one of five epistles that is agreed to be by the apostle Paul. At the beginning of the letter, Paul introduces himself in a complex paragraph that sums up his mission: to declare to the Gentiles the salvation that God promised in the scriptures and delivered through the death of Jesus.

The Gospel            Matthew 1:18-25

The gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent relates the familiar story of Joseph, legally bound to Mary but both worldly and righteous enough to assume the usual explanation for a child he knows he hasn’t fathered. He is prepared to break the contract—privately, to spare Mary further shame—but God has other plans.

Ponderables

Signs loom large in today’s readings: signs rejected and signs accepted.

In the reading from Isaiah, King Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign: he has plans for an alliance with Assyria against the twin threat facing him, and he is not interested in any proof of God to the contrary. He fails to realize that allying with Assyria will make Judah an enemy of Babylon and lead to exile and the destruction of the Temple. The baby in the sign is most likely Ahaz’s own son, and was not named Immanuel, or ‘God with us’.

Psalm 80, from the time of the exile in Babylon, laments the suffering of God’s people: the metaphor in verse 5 suggests not only that the people are weeping tears by the bowlful, but also that tears are all they have to eat or drink. Suffering and darkness were taken as signs of God’s displeasure, so the psalm begs repeatedly for the light of God’s countenance. We think of “the man of your right hand” as Jesus—but what if it actually means us?

The epistle is a litany of signs in the scriptures. Unlike Ahaz’s faith, Paul’s is real, so he has accepted the Lord’s sign—the miraculous encounter outside Damascus—even to the point of abandoning his old life to bring the good news of Jesus to people with whom, as a proper Jew, he should never even have associated. And who are those people?  Well, we are.

The gospel, in telling the story of Mary and Joseph, takes the previously unremarked verse 14 from Isaiah 7 and elevates it to a prophecy of Jesus. Like Paul, Joseph is genuinely righteous; he intends grace in dealing with Mary, he is open to God’s signs, and he is willing both to receive grace and to give it in ways he had not planned. What a remarkable Abba or daddy for Jesus to grow up with! And what a model for us to follow!

For Dec. 15, 2013: A Service of Advent Lessons and Carols

First Reading            Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25: God creates man and woman to live in obedience to God in the Garden of Eden.

Second Reading            Genesis 3:1-15: Adam and Eve rebel against God and are cast out of the Garden of Eden.

Third Reading            Isaiah 40:1-11: God comforts God’s people and calls on them to prepare for redemption.

Fourth Reading            Jeremiah 31:31-34: A new covenant is promised which will be written in our hearts

Fifth Reading            Zechariah 9:9-10: The humility of Jerusalem’s King is foretold.

Sixth Reading            Haggai 2:6-9: The Lord will restore the splendor of the house of David.

Seventh Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25: God promises a new heaven and a new earth.

Eighth Reading            Luke 1:26-38: The Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the Son of the Most High.

The Gospel            John 1:1-14: The Word was made flesh and we have seen his glory.

 

About the Service of Advent Lessons and Carols

The format of this Sunday’s service dates back to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols devised by Edward White Benson, then Bishop of Truro in southern England, for Christmas Eve 1880. In 1918, shortly after the fighting in World War I ended, this order of service was adapted for use at King’s College, Cambridge UK, by the Dean of the college chapel, Eric Milner-White. With the revisions that Milner-White made in 1919, this is the service that is broadcast every year by the BBC.

In 1934, Milner-White devised a similar service for Advent: its purpose, he said, was “not to celebrate Christmas”—as the Christmas Eve service does—“but to expect it.” It is in that spirit that we offer today’s lessons and carols.

The nine short lessons or readings are chosen to show the story of salvation unfolding. God’s creation of humanity in the first reading from Genesis is followed by the fall into disobedience in the second. The remaining readings, except for the last two, come from Israel’s dark time during and after the destruction of the Temple and the deportation to Babylon. Isaiah foresees comfort and return from exile for God’s people, in words that inspired much of the first part of Georg Friedrich Handel’s masterful Messiah; Jeremiah announces the new covenant, not between God and the whole people but between God and each human soul; Zechariah foresees a King who combines the power to end war with the humility to ride a donkey; Haggai foresees the restoration of the house of David and of the temple to which all people will come in worship; Isaiah returns to prophesy a world order of unimaginable peace and harmony under God. The eighth lesson is Luke’s account of the  invitation to Mary to become the mother of God and of her astonished but ultimately obedient response. The ninth lesson, from the beginning of the gospel of John, tells of Jesus as Word, God, Light—and, wonder of wonders, flesh like us.

“For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” Thanks be to God!

For Dec. 8, 2013: 2 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 11:1-10

For the second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah the prophet poetically continues the theme of promise: from the remains of the house of David will come a ruler who will bring righteousness and peace beyond our dreams—and perhaps, as we contemplate the mess that we humans have made of God’s world, beyond even our fears.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Psalm 72 may have been composed as a coronation hymn for Solomon, the son of David. The psalm asks God to grant righteousness and justice to the king’s son—that is, the rightful heir—so that even the mountains will be sources of wellbeing. The king’s rule will be long and will bring blessing as does rain in the dry season.

The Epistle            Romans 15:4-13

In the early church at Rome were both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity who did not always agree. The epistle calls all the Romans to live together in harmony and with hope: as Jesus came to the Jews to fulfill God’s promise, he now comes to the Gentiles or non-Jews so that everyone might see and believe.

The Gospel            Matthew 3:1-12

The Old Testament lesson and the psalm sing the praises of the king that God has anointed; the psalm, for one, has in mind a king of the standard sort, if a really good one. In the gospel, John the Baptizer is a most unusual herald announcing a much less familiar kingdom, in which repentance and readiness count more than rank.

Ponderables

The readings for the second Sunday in Advent trace royal descent in more senses than one. The psalm, dating back to the second and third of Israel’s kings, expresses a people’s high but not entirely unthinkable hopes for and of their new monarchy. We know that things went downhill rapidly—each generation of flawed and even wicked king had prophets reading him his metaphorical pedigree—but Isaiah points to a literal lineage in foreseeing a new kind of ruler whose judgment cannot be corrupted by lust for power, whose mere breath smites the wicked, and whose rule will be righteous enough to bring back Eden. This is the king whose coming John heralds in the gospel, the king who brings the fire of judgment on those who take pride in their ancestry and their spirituality. But neither psalmist nor prophet, nor even proclaimer, had actually met him.

It falls to the book of Romans to tell of the dream come true: real man, real God, real servant. We wonder at the indelible image from Christ the King Sunday two weeks ago, of Jesus, even in humiliation and agony, extending mercy and welcome to the sinful. What kind of king is this? And what kind of people would we Christians be if we poured ourselves out to welcome all God’s children as Jesus has welcomed us?