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Tuesday, December 18, 2007
As this Advent season draws to a close, we are invited once again to journey with Joseph and Mary, and ponder the awesome mystery of Jesus – Emmanuel, God-with-us. Like many before us, God calls us to choose to follow this Promised One, and to embrace God’s ongoing work of fulfilling promises. Matthew 1:18–25 For the writer of Matthew’s gospel, the birth of Jesus marks the end of the long wait for God’s promised Messiah. In Matthew 1:1, Jesus is proclaimed the Messiah. (Messiah is a translation of the Hebrew word for “chosen one.” In Greek this Hebrew word is translated “Christ.”) The gospel then moves immediately into a genealogy, so that readers might know that Jesus is a descendant of King David. According to ancient prophecies in Hebrew Scriptures, this connection is an important part of God’s promise to send one who will save God’s people. One of the primary themes of the gospel of Matthew is how the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus fulfill the promises that God makes in the Hebrew Scriptures. These promises centre on God sending a messiah – a saviour or champion to unite God’s people and deliver them from all that oppressed them. Matthew’s gospel possibly was written in Antioch, Syria. This area was deeply influenced by the prevailing Roman and Greek cultures and their myriad of gods. Stories of miraculous interactions between humans and gods were common. Matthew underlines Jesus’ identity as not only God’s chosen one, but also as divine, by recording the special circumstances of his birth. It is God who causes Jesus to be conceived, and not Joseph. In Matthew, Joseph is never spoken of as Jesus’ father. The gospel of Matthew tells Joseph’s side of the story of Jesus’ birth. God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus and, equally, God chose Joseph to care for them. Joseph had a difficult choice to make. His fiancĂ©e was pregnant. The traditional punishment, if Joseph had chosen to accuse Mary, would have been to be cast aside, even put to death. Instead Joseph chooses to protect Mary and the baby. From Joseph, we learn about choosing to ground our lives in faithful obedience and righteous action. Joseph names the child Jesus, which means “Yahweh is salvation.” The gospel proclaims that the identity of God’s chosen one is Emmanuel, “God with us.” In declaring that Jesus is Emmanuel, Matthew draws from traditions in Hebrew Scriptures about God dwelling with God’s people. This tradition is present in Isaiah 7:10–16, a dialogue between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz the king. The king is instructed to ask God for a sign of God’s presence. Ahaz refuses, but a sign is given nonetheless. God takes the initiative and promises that a young woman will bear a son – Emmanuel, “God with us.” “Stir up your might and come to save us!” In Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19, the psalmist implores God to act, and promises that the people will choose to respond to God’s goodness with faithful worship. Paul begins the letter to the Christians in Rome by identifying himself as a messenger and servant of Jesus. In Romans 1:1–7, Paul professes faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah – God’s chosen one promised in the scriptures. Paul’s choice to live with faithfulness to Christ flows from God’s faithfulness. In Jesus, God’s reign comes among us. The lives of Joseph, Mary, Paul, and the believers in Matthew’s community and in Rome were changed in radical ways when they chose to embrace God’s promised one. As we ready ourselves to receive again this gift of Christmas, we are called to choose how we will respond. How do you experience God’s love and call in Jesus the Christ? What choices might our church be called to make?
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
When God comes to save, no one gets left behind. In Isaiah, the barren places of creation gush with the waters of new life. The psalmist and Mary rejoice in God, who lifts up the vulnerable. John’s wondering of “are you the one?” finds an answer in a litany of Jesus’ saving actions. Where there appears to be no way forward, God makes a highway homeward. Isaiah 35:1–10 This passage seems directly aimed at the exiles of Judah in Babylon in the sixth century bce. Hundreds of miles of desert wilderness separated them from the land of Judah. For many, Jerusalem was only a memory passed down from the previous generation. Over time, some of the captives had come to achieve a level of comfort and even prosperity that likely made thoughts of leaving Babylon unappealing. God’s envisioned transformation of landscape – physical and spiritual – was the first step in creating the hope and even desire for returning home. So Isaiah writes of both a wilderness and a people renewed, in order to make the journey possible and engaging. The second half of verse 4 links God’s coming with “vengeance and terrible recompense.” While the words may seem out of context with the otherwise hopeful and life-affirming words of the passage, they offer hope to those who are afraid and oppressed, and call to mind Deuteronomy 32:35. There, God declares that “vengeance is mine.” The harshness of that image, however, may point to another truth. If vengeance is in God’s hands, then it is out of our hands. It is not ours to keep and then settle scores. These words can free us from vindictiveness. The beauty and power of this passage owes largely to the richness of imagery around land and water. At least four different words are used in the Hebrew to describe the arid places (wilderness, dry land, desert, thirsty ground). More words point to the remarkable variety of God’s gift of water (waters, streams, pool, springs, swamp). God brings life to parched places and parched persons. The “highway” provides a way home. The Hebrew is unclear in verses 8–9. It can be taken in a restrictive sense of some who may not travel there. Or, it can be heard as emphasizing the safety of this highway – even “fools” cannot get lost. This passage addresses the reality of God’s vision and promise. As in other prophetic works, these promises of God remain part of our lives today. God serves among us – as God served for the people of Judah – as the One who summons hope with promises of days still to come. Isaiah testifies that hope resides in the promised actions of God. We trust and we act in response, grounding what we do in God’s activity. As a result, creation’s transformation plays a large role in Isaiah’s message. Just as God brought all things into being in creation, so will God bring the new creation into life. God’s saving actions and their trans-formation of our “times” form consistent themes in the other readings. In Psalm 146:5–10, the psalmist speaks of God’s actions of justice in the present tense. Even so, the last verse looks forward to God’s future reign. In Luke 1:47–55, Mary rejoices. She celebrates what God has done for her. She also declares God’s actions of justice for those who are lowly or poor. Matthew 11:2–11 witnesses to Jesus’ identity by saying what Jesus is doing. James 5:7–10 seeks our patience as we wait for the time of God’s coming. On this third Sunday in Advent, observed by some traditions as “Rejoice Sunday,” the saving activities of God provide ample reason to rejoice. What might Kairos UCC point to as God’s saving activity towards our community : in actions past, present, and future? How, and for whom, do these texts lift up genuine cause for rejoicing today? Who might find them difficult to receive?
Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Hope, like God who offers it, can be shocking. Dead stumps send out live shoots. Spirit-led leaders rule for the poor. The overturning of enmities in the natural order breaks ground for a wilderness prophet who shakes up privileged orders with calls to repentance. Isaiah 11:1–10 This passage begins and ends with references to “Jesse.” Jesse was King David’s father. The use of that name implies a reference to kings who followed David. To call that line a “stump” might have come as a shock to those who thought the Davidic line would continue. Some take the “stump” reference as a clue that this passage comes from Judah’s time of exile in Babylon during the sixth century bce. The Davidic dynasty had ended in that national disaster. Hope and judgment, warning and invitation, can be difficult to separate in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is clear, though, that hope resides in the power of God’s Spirit. Verse 2 promises that God’s Spirit will equip the “shoot” from Jesse’s stump with qualities needed for just rule. The Hebrew Scriptures often link Spirit and community leadership. God’s Spirit possessed Saul on the day of his anointing (1 Samuel 10:10). When Samuel anointed David, “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13). God’s Spirit was present in the creation of the natural order (Genesis 1:2). Now, God’s Spirit is promised in the transformation of the social order envisioned in a righteous ruler and a peaceable kingdom. Verse 3 poses a potentially confusing statement. The new leader will “not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” The meaning is not that justice can be done by avoiding the sight and sounds of the real world. Rather, the verse affirms that leadership will not be swayed by appearances. The prophets condemned the leaders of Israel and Judah for bias toward the rich and privileged. They promised, as Isaiah does here, a new day. The mention of “equity” strongly implies that a situation of inequity existed and that this would be no more. One striking feature of this passage is its imaginative use of animal imagery. The importance of this imagery goes back to the creation and re-creation theme mentioned earlier. Dramatic change is promised. How can we trust that God has the power to effect such change? For Isaiah, God’s power in creation serves as the reason to hope in creation’s transformation. God, whose power made all things, is the God whose power can renew all things. The pairing of predator and prey in a peaceable world is a parable-like word of God’s power to renew. Imagination becomes the prophet’s means to raise that word and inspire hope. Hope and repentance form recurring themes in the other texts. Hope in Psalm 72 takes form in the expectation of a just ruler. In Matthew 3:1–12, John the Baptizer testifies to the nearness of God’s coming realm. That hope accompanies John’s call to repent. John’s repentance insists on integrity between faith and living. Such integrity is also sounded in Romans 15:4–13. Our welcome of one another is to mirror Christ’s welcome of us. Paul stresses that the stories of faith invite our hope, even as they are to shape how we conduct our lives and community. This second Sunday of Advent presents us with texts that abound, and surprise, with hope. Such hope invites turning and changing on our part. In what ways does hope remain a shocking and daring message for us; for our community? Where, and through whom, do we see God’s Spirit summoning hope and repentance in our day? How might we open ourselves to the leading that children provide in the ways of God?

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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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