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Monday, December 23, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148:1-14, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

Christmas has finally come in the liturgical calendar.  We celebrate for two Sundays before moving on to the season of Epiphany.  A central message of Christmas is found in one of the names given to Jesus, Emmanuel.  The giving of that name is not part of any of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, but its meaning suggests a lens (or a question) for reflecting on those readings.

Emmanuel means “God With Us.”  Christmas is a season which reminds us to pay attention to the presence of Jesus and God’s Love in the midst of all of life’s circumstances.  I grew up in a tradition which talked a lot about having Jesus in our hearts.  If taken literally, it can be an outlandish image.  More than one child has wondered how Jesus can fit in there.  I have heard Tony Campolo (on more than one occasion) reflecting on his childhood faith---as some of you may have.  He remembers his mother always saying, as he went out the door, “Take your little brother with you.”  Tony grew to resent his little brother.  I don’t remember the details of the transition, but somewhere along the way, he remembers his mother started telling him, “Take Jesus with you.”  Some of Tony’s earlier resentment rubbed off on Jesus.  He felt like Jesus was someone else to be dragged along behind him wherever he went.

Many of us growing up in that tradition struggled with how one experienced the “presence” of God within.  Was it a feeling in the pit of one’s stomach?  That sometimes seemed to be the implication.  I certainly convinced myself of that feeling most of the time in those days.  Feelings, however, are not always trustworthy.  They can come and go.  How do I distinguish the presence of Jesus from gas left over from the last meal?  What about the days when God seems to be more absent than present?

All kinds of “disciplines” have been developed to promote the experience of Jesus within---prayer, Bible reading, meditation, silence, etc.  Brother Lawrence, a lay brother who worked in the kitchen in a Carmelite monastery in Paris in the 17th century, is remembered for his thoughts compiled, after his death, under the title, The Practice of the Presence of God.  Here are a few of his comments about experiencing God With Us.

"Men invent means and methods of coming at God's love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God's presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him? . . . Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, . . . It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God."

Brother Lawrence felt that he cooked meals, ran errands, scrubbed pots, and endured the scorn of the world alongside God. One of his most famous sayings refers to his kitchen:  "The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”

It sounds a bit pious and idealistic and I’m not sure Brother Lawrence answers the question “How?”  After nearly 74 years of living, at times very self-consciously struggling with the question of how we really know the presence of God, I don’t have a nice neat answer.  Some claim to, but those I respect most, those in whom I’ve been most likely to notice God at work, don’t offer a method all wrapped up in shiny Christmas wrapping decorated with bows.

This week’s readings offer some perspectives on the question.

The reading from Isaiah sets the stage.  It is a small portion of a longer passage that vacillates between judgment and mercy and moves on to a prayer of penitence.  Throughout the ages, men and women have had trouble discerning God’s presence as they have suffered the ups and downs of life, as they’ve known personal hardship and the heavy hand of invading oppressors, or injustice in the affairs of their own nation.

In the midst of such uncertainty, the prophet remembers.  “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of God, because of all that the Lord has done for us, . . .  according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”  (Isaiah 63:7)  Perhaps when we are seeking the presence of God we should remember all that we have been through, remember the times when we have unexpectedly experienced the presence of love, when we’ve felt we were not alone in the struggle to survive and find meaning.  Our reading credits this message of mercy not to a “messenger or angel” but to God’s “presence.”  “In his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  (vs. 9)

The Psalm suggests that we might find the presence of God in the wonders of nature around us.  It is a Psalm that rings out with praise.  Even the sun and moon and shining stars join in.  (Psalm 148:1-3)  We see God expressed in “fire and hail, snow and frost . . . mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!"  And people as well.  They all come together to express praise to God.  (vss. 7-13)  Sometimes if we want to experience the presence of God With Us, we need to notice the world around us and the people in our lives.  Can we see God at work in them?  Then God is with us.  Maybe when we are seeking the presence of God we need to fill our throats with songs of praise---as we did, along with our fantastic choir, this past Sunday.

The epistle reading offers us a God who is like those people who walk beside us, sharing the burdens and joys of life with us.  It offers a reason for the birth we celebrate during the Christmas season.  Without getting into all the complexities of interpretation, it speaks of Jesus having “to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful priest in the service of God.”  (Hebrews 2:17)  It goes a step further, though, than the image of a friend walking beside us.  The writer of Hebrews depicts one who is willing to suffer for others, to stand against all that would destroy even when the cost is great in order to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”  (vs. 15---See also vss. 10-11 & 18)  It is very down to earth.  “ . . . he did not come to help angels,” but human beings, us.  Whenever we see those who dedicate their lives to justice and peace, to standing up for the “little” people, maybe we need to take that as a sign that God is with us.

Some of those same themes are present in the Gospel lesson from Matthew.  It is the story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape the slaughter undertaken by Herod.  (Matthew 2:13-14)  It is another story of abusive power and innocents on the run.  We are told that Herod, tricked by the wise men, “was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.”  (vs. 16)  There is much “wailing and loud lamentation” recalling Rachel who wept for children and “refused to be consoled.”  (vs. 18)  This birth, this thumbing of the nose in Herod’s face, is a time of suffering and sorrow as well as a time of promise.  It is precisely in such times that one may see and feel and experience the presence of God with us, if one is paying attention.

So---as we seek this Christmas to know the presence of Jesus (God With Us) let us gaze not only upon a baby in a manger.  Let us notice more than the glorious angels in the sky.  Let us lift our eyes to the hills and look down at the dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement.  Let us notice the people around us, friend and foe, seen and unseen---the ones who pick up the garbage as well as the ones who sit in oval offices, the ones who provide shelter for those whose homes would otherwise be on the street, as well as those who have accumulated enough wealth to fund worldwide educational and health care initiatives.  Let us remember that wherever love is experienced as stronger than injustice and evil, God is with us!  It’s time to celebrate!
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 7:10-15, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

In the strictest interpretation of the calendar on which the lectionary is based the Christmas season doesn’t begin until Christmas Day.  I grew up thinking of the “Christmas season” as the whole time between Thanksgiving and Christmas---and then it was over.  Our big “Christmas Sunday” was the Sunday before Christmas.  That continued in the churches I pastored over the years, and this coming Sunday will be a special musical Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ (as is usually the case).  Of course the commercial "Christmas season" now begins long before Thanksgiving, something many of us find disturbing.

Although one can see Christmas in the lectionary readings for Sunday, they didn’t seem to be as filled with the Christmas Spirit as I was ready for this year.  One has to look ahead to the three (yes, three!) sets of readings for Christmas Day, following the Roman Catholic tradition of a midnight mass, a mass at dawn, and one during the day on Christmas.  We have a candlelight service at 7 P.M. on Christmas Eve.  One church I served had a service at 11 P.M., ending at midnight, on Christmas Eve, the largest attended service of the year in the county where the church was located.

It seemed too much, though, to try to digest all those readings at our Tuesday morning breakfast, or in a single blog.  We decided to begin our breakfast discussion by sharing some of the things Christmas means to us.  Many meanings, theological and in terms of everyday experience, have been applied to Christmas.  I would argue that it can’t be captured in any one image or explanation or interpretation.  We talked about birth and babies, about new beginnings, about peace and justice, about healing and restoration.  I wish I had had with me words from Carl Sandberg, which I’ll share with you at the end of this blog entry, along with a story about how they came to me.

Each of this week’s lectionary readings can be read asking the question, “What does Christmas mean?”  What does it mean when we are surprised by God’s presence in our midst?  One of our breakfast discussion’s participants is fond of saying that God is with us when we are born and all through life to our moment of dying.  We don’t have to beg for God to be with us and save us.  God is already here.  I imagine most of those in the discussion would agree, but do we notice that presence?  Are there times we have to stop and pay attention, to notice and ponder and ask what it means?  Christmas can be such a time.

So, let’s look at this week’s texts.  Most were not written specifically as texts for interpreting the events we celebrate on Christmas, but all can be applied.

First, two of the texts deal with a birth---Isaiah and Matthew.  In fact, Matthew quotes from the Isaiah passage.  Although Christians have often taken the Isaiah text as a prophesy of the birth of Jesus, it had more to do with hope in the midst of the politics of Isaiah’s day than with a later event in Bethlehem.  The people, as so often happens, are threatened by the powers around them.  The reading from Isaiah, chapter seven, focuses upon Ahaz, king of Judah, who is listed by Matthew as one of Jesus’ ancestors.  (See Matthew 1:9)  He is described as having “given himself up to a life of wickedness, introducing many pagan and idolatrous customs.”  His approach to the enemy powers is to abandon his faith and make alliances with them.  He’s received the message that he must instead just trust God to get him through this mess, but he’s more or less given up on God.  (See Isaiah 7:1-9)

Issues about how to relate to enemies who threaten continue into our age.  The message here is that we’re not going to beat them by fighting them, but neither are we going to find peace by giving up our principles.  The way through is never easy, but it begins by giving up our fear.  If we live in constant fear of forces which seem threatening, we’re lost before we begin.

All that, though, is but prelude to this week’s reading.  Through Isaiah, the Lord speaks again to Ahaz, telling him to ask for a sign that will give him the confidence to trust through these times of trouble.  (Isaiah 7:10-11)  Ahaz’ response sounds pious.  He refuses to ask for a sign, saying, “I will not put the Lord to the test.”  (vs. 12)  His response masks his refusal to even consider listening for a word which might call him to a different approach.  Isaiah tells him that God will send a sign anyway.  “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  (vs. 14)  There are other things in the passage.  The son is one who “shall eat curds and honey,” the food of a nomad, and one who will know “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.”  (vs. 15-16)  We could try to unpack those images, including considering at what age a child is able to distinguish between right and wrong.  We could also elaborate the political context by talking about “the land before whose two kings you are in dread.”  (vs. 16)

The basic focus, however, is upon a child, as is so often the case in scriptures.  (Remember that Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom includes a little child in the lead.  See Isaiah 11:6)  A child represents hope, new possibility.  We are given a new chance.  The threats of the past will not last forever.  New leadership will arise and new possibilities will open.  (Although our present pastoral leadership is certainly no threat, the uncertainties of unknown changes coming our way, turned our breakfast discussion to that process of change for a bit.  The call to trust and hope applies at so many levels.)

Matthew tells the story of another birth.  In his quote from Isaiah, the “young woman” becomes a “virgin.”  (Matthew 1:23)  Matthew is trying to help us see God in the birth of this child.  In his time and place, it was virgins who gave birth to Gods.  His whole story seems to center on trying to establish a “virgin birth.”  It begins with Mary and Joseph “before they lived together” (vs. 18) and ends noting that Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.”  (vs. 25)  In between we are told about Joseph’s discomfort with stepping in as the father of someone else’s child and the visit of an angel to reassure him.

There are so many lines to pursue in terms of human experience and theological interpretations.  Sometimes we get so caught up in sidelines that are foreign to our time and place, that we miss the focus upon God with us and what that means.  Isaiah’s message, repeated by Matthew, is that “‘they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”  (vs. 23)  In Matthew’s account, Joseph is also told “to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  (vs. 21)  The reading ends with the words, “and he named him Jesus.”  (vs. 25)  The name “Jesus’ means “God saves.”

If the meaning of Christmas is somehow found in the seemingly small things of life, like the birth of a child (which in my book is never a “small thing”), such small things are seen as the source of cosmic shifts of global consequence.  Humanity is given another chance.

The birth of a child is an answer to the cry recorded in Psalm 80.  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”  It’s a refrain that occurs in vss. 3, 7, and 19.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans reminds us that this shift includes an inclusiveness perhaps not imagined before.  He too speaks of a “Son” “promised beforehand through” God’s prophets, again a descendant of David “according to the flesh.”  (Romans 1:2-3)  The reading is part of his greeting to the Romans, at the beginning of this letter.  He is, among other things, introducing himself by giving a summary of the Gospel he is going to elaborate in his lengthy letter.  He does not dwell upon a birth but upon a resurrection.  The one of whom he speaks “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The purpose I see in Paul’s introduction comes in verses 5-7.  He declares that Gentiles, even Romans, are included.  God does not love just a small tribe of wandering Hebrews, and their descendants.  God’s love reaches out to all peoples and all nations.  Rome was a symbol, in those days, of the entire world.  Paul talks about the inclusion of “all the Gentiles . . . including yourselves.”  (vss. 5-6)  The letter is addressed “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.”  (vs. 7)

The message of Christmas is a message of inclusive love, and it begins with a baby.

So, what does Carl Sandburg have to do with all this?  His words come to me from Hawaii, where we visited a small church one Sunday on our recent trip.  The Hokuloa United Church of Christ, on the big island, north of Kona, keeps in touch with its visitors.  E-mails come weekly, and snail mail brings us their church newsletter.  The current newsletter was in our mailbox when we got home from the Tuesday morning breakfast discussion.  Pastor John P. Hoover’s column includes these words from a writing entitled “Remembrance Rock,” written in 1948 by Carl Sandburg.

“A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.  A book that does nothing to you is dead.  A baby, whether it does anything to you, represents life.  If a bad fire should break out in this house and I had my choice of saving the library or the babies, I would save what is alive.  Never will a time come when the most marvelous recent invention is as marvelous as a newborn baby.  The finest of our precision watches, the most super-colossal of our supercargo planes, don’t compare with a newborn baby in the number and ingenuity of coils and springs, in the flow and change of chemical solutions, in time devices and interrelated parts that are irreplaceable.  A baby is very modern.  Yet it is also the oldest of the ancients.  A baby doesn’t know he is a hoary and venerable antique---but he is.  Before man learned how to make an alphabet, how to make a wheel, how to make a fire, he knew how to make a baby---with the great help of woman and his God and Maker.”

If I’d had those words, I would have thrown them into the breakfast discussion about the meaning of Christmas.  I’m throwing them in now.  Celebrate Christmas by paying attention to the little things that make a difference, to babies and new beginnings and second chances.  They have cosmic significance and communicate God’s love for all peoples and nations, including you and me.  Merry Christmas!
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!
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

I’ve written before about my interest in family history.  Some of my family traces to British royalty.  Some would be proud of that, but a lot of those monarchs were less than admirable.  Being related to them certainly does not make me a better person.  I’m also a descendant of French Huguenots, pilgrims and Puritans, and pioneers to the American West---all of whom fled or moved on to escape establishment dominance (although some of them---myself included---along the way came to participate in or benefit from such establishments).

I’m not sure what all drives people’s interest in their ancestry.  Maybe it’s just curiosity.  Maybe it’s to figure out what health characteristics, personality and national traits, etc., may affect their identity and way of life.

I know that what some people call “roots” become a great source of pride.  In biblical times we see it in their sometimes thinking that being children of Abraham gave them special privileges.  John the Baptist addresses that pride in this week’s Gospel lesson from Matthew.

The season of Advent draws our attention to John because some in the early church saw him as the prophesied forerunner of the Messiah.  Matthew speaking of John the Baptist draws our attention to the words of Isaiah 40:3---“This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’” (Matthew 3:3)  This season of anticipation introduces us to John (Jesus’ cousin) doing what gave him the designation “The Baptist”---baptizing.  There is so much we could say about John and his place in the politics of the day.  He fits right in with those we sometimes call countercultural.  (See vs. 4)  What is noteworthy in this reading is that his baptism was a symbol of repentance, turning, being cleansed and beginning a new life.  (vss. 6 & 11)  While he’s there “in the river Jordan” (vs. 6), “many Pharisees and Sadducees” were “coming for baptism.”  (vs. 7)  John does not greet them warmly.  “You brood of vipers!” he calls them.

John perceives that they have come for show without any intent to repent.  If he baptizes them, they will have come and gone unchanged.  So he challenges them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  (vs. 8)  “I know you’re proud of having Abraham as an ancestor, but it doesn’t matter who your ancestor is.  If you are unfaithful to what Abraham stood for, God will find other people to carry on God’s work.”  (That’s a free-handed paraphrase of vss. 9-10.)  “What matters is bearing good fruit, so that how you live shows evidence of God’s Spirit in your lives.” (See vss. 8 & 10)  John compares his baptism with water to one who is coming who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  (vs. 11)  God’s Spirit at work in human lives always trumps ancestry.

Pride in our roots, our ancestry, our own tribe, often leads to deep divisions.  People who are not our kind are excluded.  People without the right credentials and pedigrees aren’t worthy.  In Jesus’s day and earlier, lines were drawn between Jews and Gentiles.  In other eras it has been between blacks and whites, between gays and straights, and a host of other groups deemed to be on the inside or outside.  Paul set out to overcome such barriers.  In Ephesians 2:14 we read, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility . . .”

Most of what Paul writes in Romans, including the portion in today’s lectionary readings, can be understood in the context of that great division.  His prayer is that “the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another . . .” (Romans 15:5)  “Welcome one another,” he says, “just as Christ has welcomed you.”  (vs. 7)  He quotes a series of Old Testament passages to show that it was God’s intent all along for the Gentiles to be included.  (vss. 9-12)  We can’t use our ancestry to exclude anyone.

His final quote is a free interpretation of words used in the lectionary reading from Isaiah, chapter 11.  The version in Romans has it, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”  (vs. 12---See Isaiah 11:10 for comparison)

There’s the word “root” used in our title this week.  Let’s put it in context.  Advent is a season of expectation and hope, a Christian interpretation built upon centuries of waiting for a Messiah, an anointed one known under a variety of names with a variety of characteristics that altered and developed through the ages.  Originally, it was a vision for an earthly ruler, sometimes even expressed as what the people desired in the next king.  It was not unlike what comes out of one of our presidential political campaigns.  In every age, people want a leader to come along and fix things, even save them.  The Messiah (a Hebrew term translated into Greek as “The Christ”) was the one.  Over time, it moved beyond the immediate king to describe one who would eventually come and set things right, maybe even through some kind of supernatural intervention.  Christians saw Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, but the kingdom of which he spoke had more to do with what values and spiritual realities are meant to reign in human hearts than with a governmental authority who sits on a throne or in an oval office.

We revisit those hopes during the season of Advent, trying to understand what they mean for us today and to recapture the power and inspiration that hope has to offer.  Even in the reading from Romans is all about hope.   Its first verse calls us to find “hope” in the “steadfastness” and “encouragement of the scriptures.”  (Romans 15:1)  The reading ends with this benediction:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  (vs. 13)

Advent is a season to remind us that digging up our roots is not what life is all about.  It is not that researching genealogy is some sort of sinful activity to be avoided at all costs.  It’s only when it becomes prideful, almost to the point of worship, or prevents us from looking ahead.  Advent is not about preserving roots, but for anticipating new growth from those roots.

The reading from Isaiah begins, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  (Isaiah 11:1)  It ends declaring that “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples . . . “ (vs. 10)  Jesse was the father of King David, one of the most revered people in Jewish history.  He was far from perfect, but his reign was remembered with longing as sort of a Golden Age.  This is one of the great poems about the attributes of an ideal king, a Messiah.  The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.  He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (vss. 2-4)  This is not a king who claims pride of position.  He builds a world in which peace and justice reign.  “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”  (vs. 9)  Even the animals and children will live together in a peaceable kingdom.  (See vss. 6-8---much the same vision we read a few weeks ago in Isaiah, chapter 65)

Psalm 72 waxes eloquent in offering a prayer for such a king.  “May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.  May the mountains bring prosperity to the people, the hills the fruit of righteousness.  May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.  May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.  May he be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth.  In his days may the righteous flourish and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.”  (Psalm 72:2-7)

Branches are the growth that emerges from the roots.  Imagine one branch saying to another, “My roots make me more special than you.”  All the branches get into a great brouhaha about which has the more legitimate claim to the roots which give them all life.  Sound familiar.  In nature it is the branches that breathe oxygen into the air giving life to the entire planet.  We are the branches.  Which will it be?  Pride over our roots or acting in ways that breathe life into the world?  It doesn’t take much to figure out what is the Advent answer.

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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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