Posts Tagged 'Isaiah'

For Dec. 1, 2013: 1 Advent, Year A

With the turning of the liturgical year, here’s a change for St Alban’s Lections: adding prefaces on the response and the gospel, accompanied by a shift to a shorter contemplation under the name of “Ponderables”.

The Reading            Isaiah 2:1-5

The season of Advent is a path of repentance and promise, and these themes resound in the prophecies of Isaiah that we will read each week. For this first Sunday, Isaiah foretells the path and the promise for Judah and Jerusalem—and, if we too will turn from the ways of war and destruction to the ways of the Lord, for us.

The Response            Psalm 122

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” When Jerusalem truly functions as the Place of Wholeness that its name suggests, then the vision that Isaiah has depicted comes to life.

The Epistle            Romans 13:11-14

Isaiah, in our first reading, foretold the path and the promise of Advent. The apostle Paul writes to Christians in Rome—a city like London, Paris, and Las Vegas all rolled into one—to tell them what it takes to be ready for the coming of Christ. He reminds them, and us, that the time to wake and walk with God is always right now.

The Gospel            Matthew 24:36-44

In Luke 21:5-19, which we read two weeks ago, the disciples asked Jesus when the end times will be, and he gave an indefinite answer. He replies again in today’s reading from Matthew, and with a much more definite indefinite: no one knows except the Father, and therefore it is up to us as followers to be ready.

 

Ponderables

The readings for the first Sunday in Advent fall indisputably into the category of apocalypse. The word literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revelation’, but over time it has come to mean ‘the end of times’. We associate it with bad news partly because of the horrors predicted in the Book of Revelation but mostly, I suspect, because, being human, we associate the end of everyday life—the “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” of Matthew 24:38—with bad news. The gospel provides some warrant for this in comparing Jesus’ return with the flood of Noah, which was indeed bad news for anyone not on the ark: one will be taken, Jesus tells us, and one left, though it’s not clear from the passage which of those is the one who is saved at that point, nor is it even clear what will happen to the other. One assumes that Jesus’ vagueness is intentional.

Isaiah and the writer of Romans, characteristically, are much less vague. Isaiah tells us how things will be when the Lord rules, or to be precise when all of us accede to the Lord’s rule: weapons of war and wounding will become tools of tillage and tending. The verses that precede the epistle reading famously sum up our mutual duty as loving one another—looking out for each other—before admonishing us to hop to it. But behold: what Isaiah holds out as the outcome of God’s reign is pretty much what the epistle counsels as the means to it.

What if this is precisely the point of Advent? The one taken away in the gospel might be headed for Paradise—but what if the one is left to keep being God’s hands and feet and love in the world?

For Nov. 17, 2013: Proper 28, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25

The prophet Isaiah speaks to Israelites who, after exile in Babylon, return to Jerusalem laid waste, the temple burned, and their lives in ruins. Isaiah attributed these disasters and more to the people’s disobedience. This Sunday’s reading, however, sings joyously of God’s gracious intentions for the people.

The Response            Canticle 9

“Cry aloud inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

While the Old Testament this Sunday prophesies grace, the epistle lays down the law. The author, who may or may not be Paul, is vexed with first-century believers who, instead of doing productive work, are ataktos peripatountos—less nearly ‘living in idleness’, as our translation has it, than ‘going around sowing disorder’.

The Gospel            Luke 21:5-19

“‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’”

 

Further thoughts

As the beginning of Advent nears, the Proper 28 readings fittingly touch on order and irony.

The passage from Isaiah is a glowing depiction of orderliness and rightness. We deeply feel the unfairness of little children having to lose their parents and parents having to bury their children; we perceive wrongness in people dying too young to collect on their 401(k)s; in nature documentaries, we flinch when the defenseless little zebra calf falls to the ravening lion even as we concede that the lion is simply being who the lion is. Isaiah foresees a world in which things are put right, and it is tremendously appealing.

On the face of it, the epistle goes in a different direction. 2 Thessalonians 3:10—“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”—is widely quoted out of context as a condemnation of the chronically lazy; it resonates well with the sense of enjoying what one has properly earned that makes Isaiah’s vision appealing, and the NRSV’s rendering of the Greek phrase ataktos peripatountos in 3:3 and 3:11 as ‘living in idleness’ contributes to that impression. The problem that the passage addresses, however, isn’t mere laziness: ataktos is ‘disorderly’ and peripatountos is literally ‘around-walking’ (as in English peripatetic), so this is active interference. The rest of 3:11 calls the ataktos believers not ergazomenous ‘working’ but periergazomenous; the play on words suggests the painful irony of busyness that is badly off target. In such a world, professing Christians toting prayer books toddle off for a comfortable round of gossip about people we just finished hugging and sharing Eucharist with. In this world budgets dictate slapdash subsoil containment from which toxins leach into drinking water; monuments to piety and/or greed soar and shine while those who have never caught an even break—and, too often, those damaged while serving our nation at war—squat in doorsteps and scrounge in dumpsters for food.

It is messy, this world of ours, and in today’s gospel Jesus fails to do much about it. He doesn’t promise to strengthen the Temple or eliminate war or make natural disasters stop, or to keep out of jail or the media or others’ gossip, nor to keep our families from splintering, nor to eradicate any of the predators of which this world is so full (including the two-footed ones, and sometimes that means us).

What he does promise is to give us the wisdom and the heart to stay in this messy world and speak his words and be his hands and feet, if we choose to listen and keep listening. For, in God’s richest irony, it is meeting the deepest fears and needs of God’s children around us with God’s love that is the real work of the Kingdom.

For Sept. 9, 2012: Proper 18, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 35:4-7a

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, when Israel and Judah are two distinct kingdoms threatened by the Assyrian Empire, the king of Israel joins in a treaty with another nation—but Isaiah tells Ahaz, king of Judah, to trust in God, and the miraculously good things he prophecies in today’s reading will come to pass. The references to vengeance and terrible recompense sound like odd things about which not to fear, but the Hebrew they translate can also be rendered as ‘vindication’ and ‘restoration’.

The Response            Psalm 146

The Epistle            James 2:1-10, 14-17

Today’s psalm picked up the thread of God coming to rescue those in need. The letter from James reminds us of two things. The second is that God uses agents to bring about the justice that Isaiah prophesied: each and every one of us who bear the name of Christian. The first is that the one who plays favorites breaks the law as surely as if she had committed murder. It is a challenge to square this assertion with the gospel story of Jesus initially refusing to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter.

The Gospel            Mark 7:24-37

 

Further thoughts

The claim in Isaiah’s prophecy that good things are coming to the outsiders and the admonition in the letter of James not to play favorites play disquietingly with today’s gospel.

As the gospel opens, Jesus is still mourning the recent assassination of his cousin John, who baptized him, he’s fairly new to ministry, and he’s been working very hard; Tyre, in Gentile country, may have looked like the place for a nice anonymous rest. Found at once, however, he initially and rather rudely refuses to heal a child because her mother is Syrophoenician. It is a troubling reading: why on earth would compassionate, generous Jesus blow anyone off with the comment, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”?

Many commentators assert that Jesus must be joking with the woman and that she must know it to respond as she does. A related interpretation is that he is testing her faith. Somehow, though, like D. Mark Davis (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/09/comparing-humans-to-dogs.html), I just can’t accept that Jesus would knowingly stoop either to joshing a desperate mother or to intentional disrespect.

What if Jesus said what he thought and the woman’s response made him rethink not only her request but the scope of his ministry? This view is not original with me: see the David Henson’s blog Edges of Faith (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2012/09/jesus-was-not-colorblind-racial-slurs-and-the-syrophoenician-woman-lectionary/), among others. It makes sense to me, though. Human beings are classifiers: we like to know what the categories are and what is and is not inside the boundaries, and we use what we know or think we know to construct parameters by which to judge. This bent is a strength of our cognition—emergency medicine depends crucially on being able to make snap judgments—but it is a weakness when our categories box us in. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, the inhabitants of Tyre were definitely Them, not Us. Second, insofar as historical Jesus is human and not just God through and through, he would have learned the attitudes of his culture just as we do, even as he had to learn how to operate one of these fleshy bodies just as we do.

This raises the prospect that what we see here is Jesus’ continuing education. I for one find this both comforting and challenging: if Jesus could listen to dissent and rethink things, then far be it from me to continue to shelter behind my own prior beliefs and attitudes. I still won’t match Jesus’ step for step on the way, of course—but I have much less excuse not to try.

For Sunday, May 6, 2012: 5 Easter, Year B

The Reading            Acts 8:26-40

The readings from Acts after Easter tell of the spread of the church by Israelites in Israel. Today’s reading broadens the scope: Philip (whose name is Greek), having just witnessed in Samaria, is sent by God to a highly placed Ethiopian eunuch (who is not only African but less than a man, and therefore someone who was not welcome at the Temple). Thus the Good News begins to come to the Gentiles.

The Response            Psalm 22:24-30

The Epistle            1 John 4:7-21

The first letter of John continues on the theme of love.  We are to love others because God commands it and because Jesus gives us that example, and because loving others is a way to thank God for loving us first. When we love God and our brothers and sisters fully, then we are no longer bound by fear before God.

The Gospel            John 15:1-8

Further thoughts

The passages from Acts and the first letter of John and the gospel of John speak to us of reaching out, belonging, and discipline. In the reading from Acts, Philip the somewhat marginalized Greek follows the Spirit’s prompting to go walk a wilderness road that heads south from Jerusalem into Africa. On this road he catches up with a chariot. We never learn the VIP passenger’s name, but we do learn details: he’s Ethiopian and a eunuch—that is, castrated, and probably as a boy so he wouldn’t develop a man’s build, beard, voice, and sex drive. Castration, by rendering him safe in the queen and court of Ethiopia, has opened doors for him: he can choose to journey hundreds of miles to Jerusalem to worship. But it has also definitely closed to him the door of the Temple. So he’s on his way home, and passing the time by reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip would discern this because, from the invention of writing up until at least the late sixth century AD, “to read” meant “to read out loud”. Philip responds to this foreign freak factotum neither by shutting his mouth in fear or respect nor by turning up his nose in revulsion or scorn. It reminds me of a wry and grateful line from Operating Instructions: of the church that lovingly welcomed her in spite of her substance abuse and, later, her out-of-wedlock pregnancy Anne Lamott remarks, “These people were so confused, they thought I was a child of God.” Even so.

As the first letter of John points out, that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do, and our model in showing love is the love that God shows us by sending Jesus to bear our sins and be our brother. We testify to God’s love when we love one another: through loving one another we show the world what God is like, and through loving each other we show that we belong to God’s family. As God’s children we need not fear, and it is our love that will help us not have to hide from God.

The gospel also tells us that we belong and are to reach out, though it uses the imagery of the grapevine and adds an element of discipline. We can count on being shaped and sometimes even redirected by God, directly or through the people and influences with which we surround ourselves. It won’t always be fun, though the pruned branch not only survives but thrives. If we abide in Jesus—if we remain habitually belonging to Jesus—we will, like the branch, have the life of the vine flowing through us and making us fruitful.

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.


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