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Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10 OR Luke 1:46b-55, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Don’t you sometimes get tired of hearing the utopian visions in the scriptures for the Advent season?  We hear them year after year and still live in a world filled with unrest and injustice and problems.  Most of us have entertained hopes and dreams at one time or another in our lives.  I certainly did.  My whole ministry has been inspired by such visions.  Here I am 73 years old and I’m still waiting.  I can certainly understand the prophet’s cry, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack.”  (Habakkuk 1:2-4---not one of this week’s lectionary readings)

Who am I to get impatient?  Think about the long years when the people of Israel hoped and hoped and hoped.  Maybe this king will be the one!  They heard the campaign promises again and again but the new leader fell short.  The promises never seemed to be realized.  The words were repeated and repeated again.  They must have gotten very tired and frustrated.

Then I think of Nelson Mandela.  All those years in prison, waiting!  Yet he lived to see some of his hopes and dreams realized.  In his waiting, he learned the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.  His death reminds us to be patient, to keep on hoping and working.

This week’s readings repeat the visions.  Isaiah 35 has all the makings of a political platform.  The environment will flourish.  “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom . . . the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .”  (Isaiah 35:1 & 7)  Health care will be effective and available to all.  “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees . . . Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap life a deer . . .”  (vss. 3 & 5-6)  Someone at our lectionary breakfast this morning (mostly an older group) noted that the prophet understood the sometimes weak hands and feeble knees of old age.

Do I detect a mental health agenda when I read, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’”  (vs. 4)  Of course vengeance and a narrow exclusiveness creep in here and there.  (See vss. 4 & 8)

One of the planks in the platform seems to be a safe highways and transportation concern.  (vss. 8-9)

The common element of the vision which seems to be in all but the epistle reading is expressed in the Psalm when it speaks of a God “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.  The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.  The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow . . .”  (Psalm 146:7-9)

Jesus spoke of this vision in what Luke records as the sermon that launched his ministry.  He came to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  He then had the audacity to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  And then the trouble began.  (See Luke 4:16-30, also not one of today’s readings)  Still, the world didn’t suddenly turn into a utopia.  This fulfillment seemed to be more about a change of heart, a vision to help us stand strong in times of trouble.  Certainly the world into which Jesus was born knew as much distress in its politics and economics as our world does today.

The same words come into play in the primary Gospel lesson for this Sunday.  John the Baptist is in prison and hears about Jesus’ ministry.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  (Matthew 11:2-3)  Jesus’ answer?  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  (vss. 4-5)  The vision lives on through the generations.

Mary, in the alternative Gospel reading, is inspired by it as she contemplates the birth of a promised son.  “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings, “ . . . for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant . . . He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from the thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  (Luke 1:46b-53)  Maybe my son will be an instrument who organizes the lowly to usher in a new age of justice and peace.  How many mothers share that dream?

And Jesus, before sending the questioners back to John in prison, speaks “to the crowds about John,” a rough-hewn man who wandered in the wilderness.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What then did you go out to see?  Someone dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.”  (Matthew 11:7-8)  He connects John with the prophecy about a messenger who will prepare the way.  (vs. 10)  Jesus exalts John to greatness, but ends with the observation that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  (vs. 11)

Oh, that we lived in a world where all were treated as people of equal worth, where the children and poor and disenfranchised and deformed and desperate were filled with a sense of worth and empowerment!  How long, O Lord, must we listen to these promises?

We could work our way through interpretations of the various parts of the vision, as many have done before us.  We could try to explain the discrepancy between the ideals and the reality and probably not add much to the discussion.  In this week’s selection of scriptures, the epistle reading at first seems to be out of place.  Perhaps, though, it has been included precisely for those of us who are crying out, “How long?”

Like the other texts it looks ahead to “the coming of the Lord.  It even draws on similar images from nature.  “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the later rains.”  (James 5:7)  And there it is, two words in the middle of the hope:  “being patient.”  The reading begins with the words, “Be patient.”  (vs. 7)  Then comes the word “therefore.”  What has come immediately before are disturbing words of judgment upon the wealthy and those who oppress.  Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.  Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire . . . The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” (James 5:1-5)

The context is another vision of justice for the lowly.  The vision is still here but it will only come if we prepare and persist with patience and strengthen our hearts, if we don’t grumble and bicker and end up working against on another.  (vss. 8-9)  The final verse speaks of “an example of suffering and patience.”  (vs. 10)  It takes me back to Nelson Mandela, who over a lifetime turned from violence and became “an example of suffering and patience.”  And he accomplished much in the pursuit of a vision on which many were ready to give up.

There are days when even we wonder.  I’ve just finished a novel, It Happened in Wisconsin by Ken Moraff.  It’s the story of a baseball team which traveled to demonstrate the possibilities of living simply and cooperatively, to inspire workers with ideals concerning their rights, etc.  The story is told from the perspective of a member of that team, now an old man in a nursing home.  He looks back and wonders about the worth of what they have done.  Their ideals certainly never came to full fruition.  At one point he remembers a conversation with his girlfriend Nancy, who thought maybe he should give up his high ideals and settle down---with her, of course.  She accuses him of thinking the world would fall apart if it weren’t for him.  He thinks to himself, “I never said I could solve the world’s problems . . . I have ideals, but I’m a realist.”  Of his baseball team, he says, “ . . . the most we could hope for was to tip the scales a little,” and then asks, “What’s wrong with that?   If all you can do is tip the scales, don’t you want to tip them in the right direction?”

Perhaps we can take all these visions as expressions of the direction in which things need to tip.  Perhaps we can celebrate Christmas as a symbol of part of God’s effort to tip things in the right direction!

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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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