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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, II Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

One of the rituals of this season usually involves someone reading a poem by Clement Clarke Moore about the night before Christmas. It includes this line: “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Many of us, perhaps most of us are dreamers. I’m referring not to night dreams during our sleep—although those can be quite revealing at times. I’m talking about visions of possibility, our “dreams” for a better world, our understandings of the shape that world might have.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior inspired many of us with his famous “I Have A Dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. At one point he launched into cadence that repeatedly returned to the phrase, “I have a dream,” each time fleshed out with a vivid image of peace and justice. Dr. King was a clergyman, deeply influenced by biblical vision. Part of his inspiration for this speech was drawn from this week’s reading from Isaiah 40, words from verses four and five: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Many attempts have been made to describe the perfect society. What would it look like if human beings lived together in a way that they achieved their maximum potential, so that the human spirit was encouraged and enabled rather than worn down and destroyed? Some have even tried to build “utopias”, intentional communities where those dreams are lived out. People still experiment with living together communally, usually either failing or finding that life together involves a lot of compromise.

Perfection is not found in this earthly existence, but it doesn’t mean we should stop dreaming or stop taking steps to realize those dreams. Advent is a time for such dreaming. What visions run through our heads during the days before Christmas?

The lectionary readings for this week offer some images and suggestions. Isaiah 40 addresses a people in exile, living in a strange land. They feel separated from all they have known and need a word of comfort. Their dream is, among other things, to discover that God still cares for them. In the very first verse we read, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1) They dream of returning to their homeland, going back to things the way they were, but the road back is difficult, full of obstacles. The dream—and the promise--- is that those obstacles will be removed: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (vs. 4)

I’m not really sure that having it easy is the way to human fulfillment, but we need encouragement and hope when we are down, when the challenges of the future look nearly impossible to face and overcome. It is encouraging to know that a way is being prepared. (vs. 3) The Gospel reading from Mark looks back to this verse and applies it to John the baptizer. He is the one who cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3-4)

Isaiah 40 also includes a dream we encountered a couple of weeks ago, the image of sheep in intimate relationship with a caring shepherd. Do we ever entirely lose the longing for the caress of a loving caregiver? For some it is embodied in memories (perhaps unconscious) of being nurtured at the breast of a loving mother. For some it is the assurance offered in the popular “Footprints” poem: “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Again this dream seems to me to be based in a degree of helpless dependence, yet in difficult days we need the assurance that there are those around us who will love and support us. The “perfect” society of which many of us dream is one in which we can all count on one another for such support—and where we sense ourselves connected with an underlying and supportive Spirit.

One of the longings that seems to work its way into our dreams is that of forgiveness. Although we in the more “progressive” wing of Christianity like to avoid too much emphasis upon “guilt,” I don’t know a person, including myself, who has not engaged in some hurtful or destructive activity. We have spoken words which cut someone down. We have pursued a goal at the expense of someone else. We have entertained thoughts and wishes that have haunted us. For some the “dark side” has been much deeper. We want to know that things will be all right, that such acts will not destroy us. We want forgiveness. Isaiah 40 speaks of the “penalty” having been paid. (Isaiah 40:2) Psalm 85 says, “You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.” (Psalm 85:2) II Peter speaks of all coming to “repentance” (II Peter 3:9), and John the baptizer comes as one who proclaims “a baptism of repentance for sins.” (Mark 1:4)

Forgiveness is one of the central Christian understandings associated with God’s Love. God is not a vengeful God, but one who is patient and forgiving. Part of what II Peter brings to the discussion on the awaited Day of the Lord is an emphasis upon God’s patience. The writer starts by reminding us that, in God’s time, “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (II Peter 3:8) It’s another way of stating that we shouldn’t get bogged down in trying to map out events leading to a day of judgment. In fact, it is a sign that “The Lord . . . is patient with you.” (vs. 9) God is not out to kill all the bad guys, but to patiently waits for forgiving Love to transform them.

Back to Psalm 85 for a minute. The dream there is poetically expressed in verses 10-11: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Many of us dream of a society in which every one does what is right, i.e., where righteousness prevails. It is a society in which people are honest with one another, don’t use power to take advantage of and suppress one another, etc. All of the following words have been used at one time or another in translating the Hebrew biblical word for “righteousness”—integrity, equity, justice. One who is righteous is innocent, true, sincere. Righteousness is the product of upright, moral action. Is righteousness part of our Advent dream?

II Peter says, “We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” (II Peter 3:13) Yet, we need not wait, he implies. We can start living the dream right now, being the sort of persons we ought to be “in leading lives of holiness and godliness.” (vs. 11) “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace . . .” (vs. 14) Remember the words of Psalm 85 where it says “he will speak peace to his people,” that “righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:8 & 10)

For some, peace is the highest of all dreams. God’s peace, however, is more than just the absence of violence and hostility. It is an inner attitude as well as an outer reality. It is harmonious cooperation for the well-being of all so that war becomes obsolete. Now there’s a dream worth having. I’m tempted to say “worth fighting for,” but that doesn’t quite fit. How about “worth cooperating for”?

The Gospel reading jumps right in with John the baptizer preparing the way for one who comes to embody the dream. No birth stories. No genealogies. Mark, the earliest Gospel, opens with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) We’ve already noted that he quotes from Isaiah to describe John as the preparer bringing a message of forgiveness. John the baptizer is a symbol of Advent preparation, for awaiting the dream—and living the dream while we wait.

Note how the reading ends. John speaks of Jesus as one who baptizes not with water, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 8) Is there the suggestion here that all of our dreaming is empty without the presence of the Spirit? The dreams that matter are not just about bricks and mortar, laws and rules and regulations. Our dreams are most profound when they are “baptized” with the presence of God’s guiding Spirit.

May this Advent be a time when we attune ourselves to God’s Spirit and move beyond dreams of sugar plums—or even sugar plum fairies—anticipating and living into a time when “steadfast love and faithfulness” meet and “righteousness and peace” kiss each other.

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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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