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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

When I presented the lectionary readings for this Sunday to our Tuesday morning breakfast, I suggested three at times overlapping themes for discussion: going home/experiencing restoration, joy and rejoicing, and how we live when we are in the midst of crisis. Each has a Christmas connection in our life experience. Christmas is a time when many go home or think about home and experience both the joys and conflicts that may be part of it. We sing “Joy to the World” and think of Christmas as a time of “happiness” and celebration. (As we passed the Pendleton Woolen outlet on our way to breakfast this morning their sign read, “Joy is a Gift of Pendleton.”) The birth we celebrate this time of year took place in a world in the midst of crisis. The child was heralded by some as the ushering in of a new age, with all the strains associated with the downfall of the old.

So we discussed unions and Fundamentalism and Socialism and universal health care and I don’t know what all else. I think at one point around our table of 13 there were at least four different dicussions going on. I’m not going to comment on how we got to all those places in our discussion.

As I listened and later reflected, I heard some longing for a time when belief was simpler and clearer. A number of us come out of more conservative—even fundamentalist—personal histories. (What we who are now in the more “progressive” stream of Christianity call “fundamentalism” is more varied than many of us are willing to admit—and doesn’t the term “progressive” have a hint of arrogance about it? Those variations sent me down another stream of thought which provides grist—to mix metaphors—for another blog.) We are so glad that we have moved on from that and that we have found a church which accepts us where we are and helps us grow into new understandings and expressions and experiences. Still, there are times when the shaking of the old foundations makes us long for solid ground on which to stand. Part of the appeal of the churches from which some of us have come is their clarity about authority. Coming at faith without that kind of authority can leave us in a place that seems ambiguous as our faith is constantly being reshaped.

Beyond explicitly “faith” questions, I think there are many who long for times when life didn’t seem so uncertain and shaky—if such times ever really existed. We live with “fiscal cliffs” and shifting world politics and changing understandings on what had seemed to be settled moral questions. Even when there are changes we celebrate, keeping up with the pace of change can be unsettling.
In the reading from Zephaniah I see the promise of restoration. Whether this “minor” prophetic writing which appears near the end of the “Old Testament” comes out of the turmoil associated with the succession of kings or from the later experience of exile makes little difference. The book claims that it is “the word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah.” (Zephaniah 1:1) Amon’s reign ended in less than two years with his murder. He was followed by Josiah who brought reform. Some suggest that Zephaniah was Josiah’s cousin. Wherever it fits in this or subsequent history, Zephaniah speaks of a time of restoration and going home. Sounds like a vision born out of exile to me. It is summarized in Zephaniah 3:20—“At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you, for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.”

When things around us are shaking, maybe even crumbling, we long for the safety of some place we call “home.” We want what we may think of as the security of “the good old days.” (I recognize that not all have good images of “home” and some are glad to have “escaped” the good old days.)

Much of the Bible speaks of or addresses people who are living through the shaking of the foundations. Psalm 11:3 cries out, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Isaiah 24:18 speaks of a time when “the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.” In the Gospel reading for Sunday, John warns the people: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) The end of the reading tells us that John with this and “many other exhortations . . . proclaimed the goods news to the people.” (vs. 18)

How this is “good news” is a question worthy considering, but what leaps out of the entire reading is the people’s response and how John answers them. They want to know what they should do. (vs. 10) In the midst of troubling times isn’t that a question many ask. We are looking for the clear and reassuring answers we were offered some time in the past. There must be some kind of singular answer that will cure all ills and make everything all right.

And what does John tell them? He tells them to go about their business with honesty and fairness and caring. If you have extra clothing or food, share it with others. (vs. 11) Don’t take advantage of people or be dishonest in your dealings with them. “ . . . be satisfied with your wages.” (vss. 12-14) Just because you’re going through a time of crisis doesn’t mean you have to give up your commitment to the ideals of peace and justice. Perhaps we can be the yeast that leavens the situation and helps bring new life to the whole. Remember that Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)

There’s another thing we can do. We can rejoice. Without denying that there is crying and judgment and lots of other things, the Bible is full of rejoicing. Two of this Sunday’s readings speak of that joy. Isaiah promises a day when “with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3) It exhorts us to “sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously . . . Shout aloud and sing for joy . . . for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” (vss. 6-7)

The joyous epistle of Paul to the Philippians is a testament to the triumph of attitude over circumstances. I don’t mean to be pollyannish, but there are always things for which we can be thankful. The epistle reading begins with words which have been put to music so that we have the delightful little chorus, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) My wife, Margie, who is living through a period of intense pain and awaiting surgery, says she loves to sing songs of joy because they help her endure. Joy doesn’t make the bad stuff go way. It doesn’t dispel the crises we may be living through personally or globally, but it lifts our spirits as we walk through difficult times. Thanksgiving dominates in the praying Margie and I do, even when the going is tough. Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (vss. 6-7)

Whatever the route we have traveled, whatever days we remember (maybe even long for), what we have are these days. We can dwell upon and fear all the troubles that may be coming our way—or we can keep on living honestly, justly, peaceably, and caringly, singing songs of joy and thanksgiving. Christmas celebrated in that spirit is probably more in keeping with biblical history than is the shallow glitter and canned lyrical songs about reindeer and Mama kissing Santa Claus that surrounds our shopping at the mall weighed down by consumerism.

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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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