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Tuesday, November 28, 2006
What does the future hold? These texts invite trust of God in the midst of uncertain times. In situations that seem only to threaten loss, we hear words of promises kept. We find assertions of steadfast love. We lift prayers of restoration. We trust news of redemption approaching. Advent declares: the days of God’s reign are coming in our midst! Jeremiah 33: 14–16 Jerusalem and Judah are poised on the brink of ruin in 587 bce. An exile partially begun ten years earlier will soon come to bear full force. While most of the book of Jeremiah pronounces judgment to prepare Judah for exile, the prophet shifts to words of promise in 30:1—33:26 (“The Book of Comfort”). Within that section, our focus scripture announces hope in the face of mounting despair. The painful realities of exile test the ability to trust promises of an “everlasting covenant” (2 Samuel 7:16). Yet God’s keeping of promises forms the foundation of Jeremiah’s word. A new branch will “spring up” (tsamach), a Hebrew verb used in Genesis 2:5 about the life God would bring from the ground. Waiting is involved. What will come to pass in Genesis and Jeremiah is neither clearly seen nor firmly in hand. But Judah’s new creation, as with the first creation, springs up as God’s promised work. It invites living with hope of restoration. This passage points to community restored in several ways. “House” in the Hebrew Scriptures may refer to dynasty, temple, palace, or dwelling. The promise made to the “houses” of Judah and Israel involves the whole community. Jeremiah says that God’s “branch” (a Messianic term, as in Isaiah 11:1ff) will execute justice. The prophets see justice as equitable relationships. Justice produces fairness and avoids oppression. One reason exile has come is rulers who failed to insure such equity. Jeremiah promises that this failure and its effects will be reversed in God’s promise of justice done. Jeremiah’s imagery of salvation (verse 16) expresses why hope can be held in the midst of present difficulties. In the face of seeming abandonment, Jeremiah assures that God will save Judah. In the midst of times that appear anything but safe or trustworthy, the prophet announces the promise of life lived in “safety” (literally, “trust”). Living with hope threads through the other lections. Psalm 25:1–10 reflects on such trust in personal terms. The psalmist converses with God in confession (“in you I trust”) and plea (“be mindful of your mercy”). Luke 21:25–36 frames hope in cosmic terms. Signs and wonders in creation form an unsettling backdrop that might seem to cause only fear. Trust and anticipation recognize the nearness of God’s redemption and realm. In all the passages, hopeful waiting hinges not on clear knowledge of what will be, but active trust in God’s new workings. These texts balance one another. The “in those days” of Jeremiah and Luke complement the present joy and trust celebrated by the psalmist and the words of 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13. Together, the texts affirm God’s reign is both now and not yet. These words call individuals and communities to engage in trust, and intend to strengthen us as we live between those times. For even as we await God’s coming, Paul makes clear that hope takes shape in our present practice of love. Jeremiah and the other readings challenge us to live faithfully toward the future in present days that try our patience and trust. What, and who, do we trust for the future? What might surprise us about the new work of God in our day? In what ways might these passages shape how we live in the “now and not yet” of God’s reign with anticipation and hope?
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Circle of Hope Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday brings us full circle in the liturgical year. Today, our texts show us the circle of hope in which our faith is grounded and our lives transformed: God’s covenant, Christ’s reign, and the Spirit’s abiding presence. Revelation 1: 4b–8 Tradition holds that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation while in exile on the island of Patmos during the reign of the emperor Domitian (81–96 CE). The Roman emperors claimed to be “Lord” and “Father” of all people. In doing so, the Roman Empire expected people to yield to its authority with gratitude for all the good things it provided. Those who refused to address an emperor in this way faced persecution or death. Early Christians, persistently faithful to the confession of Christ alone as Lord, faced great risk in declaring so. This book was written to offer hope and encouragement to Christians enduring such trials. In this book, the word “revelation” is a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, and means, “an unveiling.” The type of writing in Revelation is known as apocalyptic writing. It offers bold visions of the new dwelling place of peace that God is preparing for God’s people. The writer intended this book to be difficult to understand, so that it would seem harmless to any government official who might read it. The greeting in 1:4b bestows grace and peace from the God “who is and who was and who is to come,” and is paralleled later in the identity of God as “Alpha and Omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. These words are a declaration of hope. Long before the Roman emperors took breath, long after they will have perished, God is. God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, identified in this passage with three titles. “Faithful witness” foreshadows how early Christians sometimes were called before an imperial court regarding their confession of Christ as Lord. “Firstborn of the dead” underscores God’s power to bring life not just to Jesus, but to all those who witness to Christ. “The ruler of the kings of the earth” states the subversive core of this book. Christ’s power is contrasted with the oppressive power confronted by the first readers of this book. Notice the verb tense in verse 5: [Christ] loves us. Love is not just a past recollection of the cross or a promise of hope that will be fulfilled someday. Christ’s love is now. God in Christ creates us as a people, as a “kingdom” and as “priests.” This hope will be revealed not only to those who hold fast to its confession, but also to those who try to squelch it or deny it. “So it is to be” offers a word of faith to those who would hear, and a word of defiance to those who would try to shut out God’s inevitable destiny. In 2 Samuel 23:1–7, David’s words reflect on God’s faithfulness near the time of death. David grounds his hope in the timeless covenant that God keeps rather than in any temporal authority, including his own. Psalm 132:1–12, (13–18) speaks of hope in God’s covenant. The description of a future heir makes this psalm a traditional reading for this Sunday. Jesus’ faithful witness to the truth in John 18:33–37 is a model for the faithful witness of the early Christians and Christians today. Pilate, the imperial governor of Judea, needs to know who Jesus is in terms of the powers and authorities of this world. The truth that motivates Jesus is of a different sort entirely.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Justice and Joy The texts this Sunday affirm God’s birthing of the future. Their promise-bearing words urge just and hopeful lives today. Hannah cries out to God in distress. God’s hearing goes named in the child “heard of God” (Samu-el). With Hannah, we may sing with joy, celebrating the justice of God that breaks open the future to new life. 1 Samuel 1:4–20; 2:1–10 In biblical times, a childless wife was viewed with scorn for her failure to provide her husband and family with heirs. Hannah suffers such ridicule. Yet, Hannah joins those women in Hebrew and Christian scriptures whose barrenness becomes the opportunity for the birthing of promise. Hannah does not let go of the one who can bring life and joy. And God does not disappoint. Dynamics of community are revealed in this text in several ways. Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, does not waver from loving her. Peninnah, her “rival,” gives Hannah no peace by “irritating” her (a Hebrew word that has the meaning of “to cause to thunder or tremble”). Eli, the prophet, jumps to an errant conclusion, but then listens. And in listening, Eli then sends her away in peace by affirming that Hannah’s asking will find answer. God is often portrayed as the promise-keeper in scripture, a trait that brings hope to individuals and communities. In verses between (1:21–28) and following (2:18–20) the focus passages, Hannah is the one who keeps her word. And in so doing, she helps lay the foundation for Israel’s hope through dedicating her son Samuel to serve God. It is a powerful story of a mother who offers God the very promise given her. It is a poignant story, where the narrator reveals that Hannah “used to make a little robe and take it to him each year” (2:19). The joy of Hannah taps into deep hopes for the whole of Israel. The song Hannah sings (2:1–10) is not a lullaby for the son she has entrusted to Eli. It is a victory song for the Holy One of Israel, who overturns conventional wisdom and dismantles earthly powers while uplifting the very ones this world overlooks and oppresses. Hannah’s son Samuel is a sign of the future God has in store, a future that in verse 10 hints at a “king” and an “anointed” one. Hannah’s child will be the one who anoints. God’s promises, like Hannah’s, will be kept. Hannah’s song is echoed in the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46–55) in structure and themes. The notes these women sing harmonize in the chord of God’s new order that lifts up the lowly and brings low the haughty. For Hannah and Mary, their songs trace from and aim toward the birth of a child, in whom God’s promises of justice and joy will be kept. In contrast to the community provocation that irritated Hannah, Hebrews urges provocation to love and good deeds. In Hebrews 10:11–14, (15–18), 19–25 the “day approaching” serves as a motive and an ethic for living in community today. Encouragement based on God’s sure promises builds up community. In Mark 13:1–8 Jesus speaks of the birthpangs to come, when God disrupts what had been the one constant in Israel’s religious community – the temple. Yet, similar to Hannah’s song, Jesus reveals that such upheaval points to a future in God’s realm. The gifts Hannah brings to community, first in her persistent trust and then in her child Samuel, are enormous. What of our selves do we entrust to the care and keeping of community? What stanzas might we add to Hannah’s song to celebrate reversals unleashed by God for the sake of the future? Who today would embrace Hannah’s song? Who might flee from it? Why?
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Courage can arise in the most ordinary of lives. Faithful human actions in the book of Ruth restore two widows, and through them the whole people of Israel. The texts this Sunday invite us to consider what puts survival at risk. Ruth 3:1–5; 4: 13–17 At the beginning of this book, Ruth chose to join her life and path with Naomi’s. In the focus passage for today, this following reaches a decisive turn. Earlier, chapter 2 told of an encounter between Ruth and a relative of Naomi named Boaz. Verse 20 identified him as “nearest kin.” The Hebrew word used here is goel. Elsewhere translated as “redeemer,” goel is a family member who is supposed to restore something that another family member has lost because of debt or poverty. Now, need and opportunity meet in the plans of Naomi and Ruth. In 3:3, Naomi proposes action filled with double meanings. “Do not make yourself known…” uses a verb that can also mean sexual intimacy (Genesis 4:1).“Feet” can be a euphemism in Hebrew for genitals. “Threshing floor” has an association with sexual activity (Hosea 9:1). These sexual undertones move the text’s interpretation into a reflection on the courage to risk offence for the sake of life. Ruth follows Naomi’s counsel. Boaz acts with honour as “next of kin” (goel – “one who redeems”). God gives conception. Throughout this book, Naomi and Ruth act with loyalty. As the narrative closes, we learn how their relationship expands into a larger community of women. These women recognize the child’s importance to Naomi. “He shall be to you a restorer of life” (4:15). “Restorer” is a translation of the Hebrew shub, that word of “turning” used throughout the book of Ruth. The women, not father or mother, name the child Obed. A story of widows who have no living children becomes a story of birth. A struggle to survive becomes the means by which God delivers hope to these women and to Israel’s unborn generations. God sets into motion the promise, who will be David, through the courage and faithfulness of Ruth, the Moabite. Many scholars date the writing of Ruth to the post-exilic era, known for its disdain of foreigners and especially foreign wives. The book of Ruth affirms: God will work through whomever God chooses. Psalm 127 also asserts that children are a gift of heritage and hope. The balance to the psalm’s male imagery comes in the role played by women and daughters (in law) in Ruth. God will build the “house” (the word can mean “dynasty”) by whomever God chooses. There is a sense of eager waiting for the unborn David at the close of Ruth. The writer of Hebrews 9:24–28 also conveys a longing, a sense of “eagerly waiting”– looking forward to the salvation Christ will bring. The sacrificial imagery in Hebrews has a common backdrop with the temple scene in Mark. Jesus, in Mark 12:38–44, warns against shows of religious devotion that cloak actions and systems that are devouring the most vulnerable persons in that day, widows. Whether by requirement or social conditioning, the widow who placed her coins in the treasury may have felt she had little choice. This woman shows courage by entrusting all that she has as a gift to God, trusting God’s providence to keep her. Economic injustice and racial and gender prejudice still jeopardize life. Yet, covenant and hope still call forth acts of courage. Courage is shown in any action that would bring safety and wholeness to another. When and through whom have you found your life restored, nourished, and (en)couraged? What offence might we need to risk in order to secure the welfare of those with whom covenant binds us?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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