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Thursday, January 02, 2014
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14 OR Sirach 24:1-12, Psalm 147:12-20 OR Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:1-18

Christmas is a season when we especially focus on the nearness of God.  In many ways the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday simply elaborate on the discussion begun in last week’s blog entry.

There is an expression about searching near and far (or high and low) for something.  Some stories seem to have the moral that after searching near and far (i.e., everywhere) for something, it shows up right under our nose.  God is a bit like that. After making great efforts to find God, we find that divine presence is very near, up close and personal.

This week’s readings celebrate that presence, singing praises for what God has done, how God has come near to, been with, God's people.  It is easy for celebrations of God’s presence to cross over into the belief that we and ours are special, that God has chosen us for special treatment.  It sometimes carries with it a notion of coming home, coming into possession of a special homeland.  It’s there in the reading from Jeremiah when God says, “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, and those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.”  (Jeremiah 31:7-14)  Notice that there is a certain level of inclusion here, i.e., the blind and the lame, but the words are primarily about those in exile returning to their homeland.  “They come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden . . . the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”  (vss. 12-13)  Not only do such celebrations lead easily to a sense that I have an exclusive claim on God, but that what matters in our relationship with God are all the material blessings we receive.

The reading from Sirach is one of two optional readings from ancient writings that are not included in most Protestant Bibles.  They are treated as scripture in the Catholic tradition and by some others, leading them to be included in lectionary readings from time to time.  This is not the place for further exploration of their origins or the debates around them.  Both of this week’s selections celebrate God’s presence in the life and history of the Israelites.  In Sirach, the Spirit of God is expressed through a female presence (“Wisdom”) who “sought a resting place.” (Sirach 24:7)  “ . . . in whose territory should I abide?” she asks.  (vs. 7)  The Creator answers, telling her, “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance . . . so I was established in Zion.  Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place, and in Jerusalem was my domain.  I took root in an honored people . . .” (vss. 10-12)

The reading from the Wisdom of Solomon celebrates Wisdom’s guidance of the people in the escape from Egypt and as they wandered in the wilderness.  “ . . . she guided them along a marvelous way, and became a shelter to them by day, and a starry flame through the night.  She brought them over the Red Sea, and led them through deep waters . . .”  (Wisdom of Solomon 10:17-18)

This week’s Psalm celebrates God’s blessing upon “your children within you” and “peace within your borders.”  (Psalm 147:13-14)  “He fills you with the finest of wheat . . . He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes . . . He has not dealt thus with any other nation . . . Praise the Lord!”  (vss. 14, 16 & 20)

Many Christians have struggled with this idea of specially chosen nations and people.  Sometimes the discussion is assumed to be over after we have been reminded that the choosing was done not because of some special merit but simply as an expression of divine love (see Deuteronomy 7:7-8) and that the blessings they received were meant to be used to bless others (see Genesis 12:2 as well as Isaiah 42:6 & Isaiah 49:6 which emphasize being a “light to the nations”).  Those are important reminders but don’t eliminate the problems of thinking about a particular people as God’s special chosen.

Even beyond the history of nations and occupied lands, those who think of God’s nearness in mystical and mediational terms often speak as if God were their own personal possession.  I thought about using “My God!” as an alternative title to this week’s blog entry.  Thinking of God as near, even within, can easily make me begin to think that God somehow “belongs” to me, or that I “belong” to God in a way that makes me better than others.

Another way Christians have responded to the notion of chosenness is to extend it to include Gentiles.  Sometimes even the “church” becomes God’s chosen people.  Paul made his contribution to that way of thinking.  The reading from Ephesians, although probably not written by Paul, is in that tradition.  God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before in love.  He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”  (Ephesians 1:4-5)  It was part of “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him.”  (vs. 10)  Like Sirach, Ephesians speaks of an “inheritance.”  (Sirach 24:8 & 12 and Ephesians 1:11 & 14)  When we go on into the second chapter of Ephesians, we read, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near . . .” (Ephesians 2:13 & 17)---the near being the Jews and the far off being the Gentiles.”

It’s great to be told that I’m included, to feel that I’m included, but this interpretation still doesn’t quite do it.  If God’s vision was so big “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) where did we go wrong?

The Gospel reading from John also takes this cosmic approach.  This same Spirit of God, now embodied in “the Word” rather than in “Wisdom”, was at work from the very beginning.  (John 1:1-2---Note the parallel to Sirach 24:9 which also goes back to the beginning.)  This great hymn which the writer applies to Jesus, is an embodiment of that “light to the nations” we spoke of earlier.  “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (vss. 4-5)  One of the better known statements of scripture comes in verse 14:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  It is another statement of the Christmas truth that God is near.  Notice, though, the breadth of that nearness in this reading.  “The true light, which enlightens everyone was coming into the world . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  (vss. 9 & 16)

I sometimes find all the arguments about chosenness and inclusion to be clutter on the landscape.  It is enough to declare and experience again and again that God is as near as the air that we breathe, that in him we live and move and have our being.  Christmas is about one to whom I look to raise my awareness of that nearness.  This reading from John’s Gospel clearly states that “no one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  (John 1:18---Is this somehow connected with Wisdom in Sirach making “the tongues of infants speak clearly”?)  When I look to the Christ child and the man he grew into I see that God is found wherever Love and inclusion are at work.  God has chosen all of us, all of humanity and creation, and calls us to live into the fullness of all the possibilities in that humanity and creation.


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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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