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Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122: 1-9, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

This coming Sunday we enter the season of Advent and begin a new lectionary year.  After years of working with the lectionary readings, something struck me this year.  In moving from the end of one lectionary year into the beginning of the next, the tone is much the same.  Over the past few weeks, we’ve been paying attention to the biblical anticipation of a time when God’s ideals are realized, when they reign supreme in human life.  When we enter Advent we do not suddenly leave all those dreams and visions.  Instead they come to focus in the expectation of a Messiah.  For the early church and Christians, the season of Advent is a time of anticipation, waiting for the birth of the Christ child in whom all those visions are in some way “fulfilled.”

The word “fulfilled” appears 31 times in the New Testament, more than once with reference to the words of Isaiah.  (See, for instance, Matthew 4:14)  The final words of the first stanza of the familiar Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

It’s not easy to make sense of this fulfillment.  Certainly not all evil disappeared with the birth of Jesus.  People didn’t suddenly cease to face threats and challenges.  Injustice was still quite evident.  The weapons of war weren’t suddenly all put into mothballs.

What happened, I believe (from a Christian perspective), is that all those visions about an ideal future came to focus on Jesus.  They are no longer out there in the beyond; they are visions that compel us and empower us and motivate us in the present.  We are inspired by and find hope in events as simple as the birth of a child.  It is not so much that Jesus establishes a new order.  He becomes the one in whom we see the visions, the one who keeps them alive in us.

Think of it this way.  We human beings sometimes develop an ideal image of one who would make a good life partner.  We keep looking.  Could this be the one?  How about this one?  For some there comes a day when we meet someone and say, “He’s the one” or “She’s the one.”  We find, of course, that that person, over time, falls short.  In human affairs, though, a particular person often becomes the one who reminds us of, and calls us to, the highest ideals.

This week’s lectionary readings begin the Advent focus on the search for and realization of ideals, offering visions and hopes sometimes applied to a Messiah or to Jesus.  Both the Psalm and Isaiah call us to a location where God can be found.  In Isaiah the vision is of a time when “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.”  (Isaiah 2:2 & 3)  In much of the biblical tradition, God is assumed to dwell atop the mountain.  That is where Moses receives the tablets that contain the ten commandments.  I’ve spoken before about the inspiration I receive from the wonder and awesomeness of nature, including the snow-covered peak of Mt. Hood which we can see from the deck of our apartment.

In Isaiah, however, it may be that the mountain is Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Interpretations, if you research  this line, are rich in historical meaning and application.  Some also suggest that the “mountain” is symbolic of government, pointing to the establishment that ideal kingdom long imagined and awaited.

The Psalm connects, perhaps, with the Temple Mount image.  It sees God’s dwelling place in the temple and in Jerusalem.  (Psalm 122:1-4)

Like the elusive visions which seek to identify God’s kingdom with a specific time and place, these attempts to locate God may be a diversion.  Jesus, in this week’s Gospel reading, says, “ . . . about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)  I prefer to focus upon God’s agenda, which, in both Isaiah and Psalm 122 is “peace.”  The reading from Isaiah speaks of a time when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)  In Psalm 122, the instruction is to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem . . . Peace be within your walls . . . For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’”  (Psalm 122:6-8)  Granted that the peace in these latter verses is somewhat limited---peace for me and mine, perhaps we can expand it to be more global.  I’m convinced that God’s vision is at least that large.  We associate Christmas with a message of peace on earth delivered by an angel choir.  We have come to speak of Jesus as the “Prince of Peace.”  Can we look to him and say “He’s the one,” the one who calls us and inspires us into the ways of peace?

Romans draws upon another image associated with God’s agenda, that of light overcoming darkness. (Romans 13:12) Jesus has been called “The Light of the World.”  We find instructions that might be thought of as behavior fitting those who would seek peace.  “ . . . let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”  (vs. 13)  Portions of this verse have been used by some groups to enforce a narrowly defined moral code, but it can also be seen to refer to behaviors which are self-centered and contentious.

The troublesome Gospel lesson comes to us as part of a passage in which Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple and signs of the end of the age.  (See Matthew 24:1-35)  It includes verses which have fed the notion of a “rapture” in which some are “left behind.”  “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” (vss. 40-41)

I like to read passages like this from the perspective that we are always living in the end times.  We are mortal.  Our days will end.  A friend may be beside us today and gone tomorrow.  This passage calls us all to live in readiness, to live one day at a time expecting, so to speak, the unexpected.  (See vs. 44)  And remember, the first verse of the passage (words I quoted earlier) reminds us to exercise humility when trying to tie God down to particular times and places.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

The season of Advent is a time of looking for the ideals of peace and justice and love embodied in the people and events all around us.  Maybe even in a manger, or the birth of a child in the finest of hospitals or the poorest of rural homes, we may suddenly exclaim, “He’s the one” or “She’s the one.”

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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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