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Thursday, December 21, 2006
Luke 1:39-45. Luke 1:47-55 Micah 5:2-5 Hebrews 10:5-10. Most of the time, preachers of this text understandably focus on Mary's exuberant prayer, the Magnificat, an outburst echoing Hannah's praise for God's marvelous deeds in her life and in the lives of all who feel marginalized or downtrodden (see First Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures). And the Magnificat is indeed a beautiful expression of rejoicing at God's promises kept, a celebration of the tables being turned, or overturned, in a sense: the lowly are lifted up, the proud are brought down, and the hungry are fed. God remembers the people of Israel, and the promises God has made to them. What a powerful text for every hungry heart in need of good news! There is another strand of good news in today's text, however, that is often overlooked, and Henri Nouwen wrote a thoughtful reflection on it in his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday). Nouwen's meditation on the encounter between the two women, Elizabeth and Mary, is worthy of the best feminist theology, which draws our attention to the easily missed things that are happening to and with the "little ones" in our Scripture texts. It may be true that the mighty are brought down, and the great promises of old are kept, but in the meantime, on a dusty road outside a relative's home, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Advent is indeed a time of waiting, a time pregnant with hope. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth could be seen as two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness but first tending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting to every woman, especially the first time around, and these two women have found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms, one past the age to conceive, and the other a virgin. So they spend time together – three months, the text says – like women in every place and time. The new life promised in Mary's pregnancy brings profound added meaning in this story, and fulfills promises to all humankind, but one wonders how these two humble women must have felt about what was happening in their own lives. Nouwen says, "Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? But Mary says, ‘Let it happen to me', and she immediately realizes that only Elizabeth will be able to affirm her ‘yes'. For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them." As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: "They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community." In this Advent season, we in the church are keenly aware that we wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives. In fact, it is here in community that we "hold each other up" when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside one another. Sometimes, we just sit in the dark quiet and wait, together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the Stillspeaking God. And in the midst of our waiting, as Paul, writing from prison, encouraged the Philippians; as Hannah and Mary sang God's praise; and as Elizabeth welcomed her beloved cousin and companion, we rejoice, our hearts dancing within us. How is God at work in the life of our congregation? In what ways does it make a difference that you listen for God's word in community rather than alone? How have you, together, deepened your faith in ways you might not have experienced in isolation?
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
What Should We Do? Preparing the way for God’s Messiah relies on openness to change. Intimate relationship with God moves us through questions into expectation, through repentance into actions of sharing. The good news does not consist of promises limited to a distant future. God is near. God rejoices over us. In love, God invites all into renewed relationship. Scripture: Luke 3:7–18The gospels place John’s ministry in the wilderness. Several key points are made by that location. Wilderness had been the setting of Israel’s sojourn between exodus from Egypt and entry into their new homeland. Wilderness meant preparation and discovery. Also, John’s wilderness is far from Jerusalem’s temple and Herodian palace. John provides an alternative voice to those places and persons of power. From the outside, to outsiders, John evokes repentance. Repentance. The Greek word translates as “have a change of mind” or “go beyond the mind you have.” Narrow understandings that link repentance exclusively to sin do not do justice to its broader meaning. Repentance depicts a change of life and heart evidenced in action as well as attitude. John associates repentance in the focus scripture with “bear fruit,” a synonym in Jewish wisdom literature for one’s actions. The crowds who travel to the wilderness to hear John include two groups of outcasts: tax collectors and soldiers. Both groups were held in disdain by first-century Jewish society, often viewed as collaborators with the Roman occupation regime. John’s demanding call for repentance graciously includes them in the summons to redirect life toward God and neighbour. All, then and now, are invited to renewal. The beneficiary of John’s message is not just the Messiah whose way he prepares. The beneficiaries of repentance will be those provided with warm clothing or food. They will be those previously cheated or bullied. The Spirit works through acts of justice and compassion, as well as acts of refraining from injustice, to prepare the way for Messiah and God’s realm. The repeated refrain of the focus scripture is “What should we do?” The same response follows Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:37). The “questioning” of John by these people reflects openness to the gospel he announces. They ask, not to entrap John, but to embody the answer given. Questions serve as prelude to discipleship. So John and the crowds pave the way for God’s reign as announced and embodied in the ministry of Jesus. In our readings, hope arises from recognition of God’s nearness. Philippians 4:4–7 invites the church to be known for gentleness and to be freed from anxiety because of that nearness. Isaiah 12:2–6 beckons trust and aims to dispel fear because of God who is “in your midst.” As is fitting for a Sunday celebrated in some traditions as Rejoice Sunday, another theme in these readings is joy. Listen to the verbs used in these texts. Sing aloud. Rejoice. Shout. Sing for joy. Zephaniah 3:14–20 rejoices in the hope of Jerusalem’s restoration through the One who will “gather” Israel. Beyond that, verse 17 reveals that God rejoices over us. No wonder Philippians begins with the plea to rejoice in God always. Such joy at God’s nearness helps us discern why the early church heard the challenging message of John as good news. • • • • • John announces good news, even while calling for reorientation of our lives in light of this news. The other readings rejoice in God, who is in our midst. For whom are these texts good news and why? What are the questions John moves us to ask; and in their light, what then should we do?
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Zechariah blesses his newly born child. The blessings cascade into promises of hope for the people and a call to ministry for John. The role cast upon John recalls the prophecy of Malachi and anticipates God’s reign. The immanence and hope of God’s reign must be announced. The way of God’s Messiah must be prepared. You, child, shall be God’s prophet. Luke 1:68–79 Zechariah’s “song” in our focus passage is his first utterance in months. Zechariah’s disbelief at Gabriel’s word of a child to be born to his wife Elizabeth in their old age rendered him mute (1:19–20). Thus John’s birth, even as his later ministry, evoked questions – “What then will become of this child?” (1:66). Zechariah speaks over John almost as a liturgical response to this question. Another important background piece to this text, and Luke as a whole, is the previous visit of Mary to Elizabeth. Luke indicates the women are related. Their two children share ties of kinship. More importantly, they share in the revealing of God’s promised reign. John will announce that realm even as he will prepare the way for Jesus. The prophecy of Zechariah is a text of blessing and commissioning. Zechariah weaves quotes and images from Israel’s prophets into his own declaration of God’s reign: “Light to those who sit in the shadow of death” (Isaiah 9:2). “The dawn from on high will break upon us” (Malachi 4:2). In Zechariah’s words, we are invited to perceive John as the next of Israel’s prophets. Not to be overlooked in these verses is the voice of a father blessing his child. As a priest, Zechariah knew the prophetic traditions. The ways they faced were not always easy. The words they spoke often were not accepted. But as Hannah sang over Samuel, and Mary gloried in the promise of God’s reign and her child, Zechariah speaks now. We all see our children as gifts of God to us. Zechariah sings of his son as a gift and a call for the sake of a whole people. Verse 68 celebrates God’s redemption as something already come to pass. God’s reign is a “now” experience – but it is also a “not yet” hope. John’s work of announcing and preparing remains. We do not yet fully walk in the way of peace. We live between the times. But John prepares us to bridge those times, as we live toward God’s reign in experience and hope. In today’s readings, there is a strong sense of something (or someone) new that is coming. Malachi 3:1–4 and Philippians 1:3–11 both use the imagery of righteousness, whether in the context of offering or harvest, to speak of how we prepare our lives for what God is working out among us. The traditional understanding of Philippians as written during Paul’s imprisonment heightens the sense of longing in the passage. Likewise, Malachi’s placement in the Christian canon as the final Old Testament book invests its message (“Malachi” literally means “my messenger”) with a sense of transition and expectation. The surprise of God’s reign and its announcement takes narrative form in Luke 3:1–6. A careful listing of “very important persons” in their “very important places” reveals that God’s word will break forth from somewhere and someone totally unexpected. Similarly, Luke and Malachi stress that the way God breaks open may not be all that comfortable to traverse. Zechariah’s words lift up the role of John in God’s redemptive work. What do you hear this song affirming about life, self, vocation, and God: as they relate to John; as they relate to you? In what ways do we strike a faithful balance between relying on God to bring the “not yet” of God’s reign,” and our bearing witness to God’s reign already among 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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