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Thursday, December 18, 2014
11:42 AM | Posted by Rick Skidmore |
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah4, 8-11, Psalm 1salm 126:oII Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:46b-55 OR Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38
We spent most of our breakfast discussion this morning reflecting upon Mary’s response when an angel came to her and announced her pending motherhood. We are told, “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:29) Some of the women, remembering their first pregnancy, thought “perplexed” seemed too mild a word. For me, it had been a verse that made Mary particularly human, confused, maybe a bit panicked.
Being a lover of words, the discussion sent me to the Merriam-Webster dictionary on my Kindle Fire to find out more about perplexity and being perplexed. Perplexed: “filled with uncertainty, full of difficulty.” The encounter with the long list of synonyms was most enlightening and helpful, at times almost amusing: “puzzled, baffled, confounded, hard-pressed, nonplussed, hard put.” Mary was “nonplussed.” She was “hard put.” The list of synonyms for perplexity is even richer: “bewilderment, entanglement, bamboozlement, befuddlement, bemusement, bewilderment, confusedness, discombobulation, distraction, fog, head-scratching, mystification.” One is almost driven to leaf through the dictionary for further definitions. Did Mary feel bamboozled and befuddled? Was she discombobulated? Was it a head-scratching moment for her? What kind of entanglements was she getting into? And “mystification” opens up a whole wide field for responding to this indeed “mysterious” moment.
At points the definitions and synonyms made me think of wonder, a word which is used to describe two, perhaps related, human feelings. Wonder as a noun refers to “a cause of astonishment or admiration,” “rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one’s experience,” but also to “a feeling of doubt or uncertainty.” I was surprised to find “caution” among its synonyms. To wonder, a verb, means “to feel surprise, to feel curiosity or doubt.” Wonder is both a sense of awe and a way of saying that we want to understand something better. “I wonder why this is happening to me.” “I wonder what that is all about.”
I thought about titling this week’s blog entry “Oh, The Wonder of It All.”
Mary was in total turmoil. She was frightened. She didn’t understand. Her life was being turned upside down. Many would note that, in the end, she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (vs. 38---Note a similar attitude in the story of the calling of the boy Samuel in I Samuel, chapter 3.) I want to suggest this week, though, that Mary’s attitude, if it be understood in all the richness of the words “wonder” and “perplexity”, is an attitude to be commended to us as we continue to reflect on the meaning of the strange child in our lives and in human history.
Some of this week’s lectionary readings reflect “wonder” and “perplexity” more than others, but all have elements worthy of notice and contemplation.
The alternative Gospel reading is a longer response known to many as “The Magnificat” or as “Mary’s Song.” (Is its inclusion in the readings for three weeks in a row now meant to suggest it’s importance?) It is certainly the song of an amazed soul, singing in wonder at the work of “the Mighty One.” “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things . . .” (vss. 48-53) We often wonder why bad things happen to good people. We might also ponder on the wonder of it when good things arise from lowly places. The Christmas story is set among the lowly, not among the high and mighty (except as a challenge to their abuse of power). It is about justice, something always arousing wonder and perplexity.
The readings from II Samuel and Psalm 89 are significant in their focus on David. The Gospel lesson (along with other Gospel and Epistle readings) makes the connection with “the house of David.” (vs. 27) Jesus was seen by many to be the long-awaited Messiah (spirit-anointed king) and the Messiah was expected to be the heir of King David’s legacy. Both II Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 sing praises to King David and call attention to God’s promise to be with God’s people throughout history and eternity. The rule of the ideals embodied in David is seen to be eternal. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (II Samuel 7:16) “I declare that your steadfast love is established forever . . . You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one . . . I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’” (Psalm 89:2-4)
The mystery of ideals marching their way through history, what is passed from generation to generation through families, is reason for wonder and perplexity. How can this be, especially when David had major blemishes in his personal life? He was a murderer and an adulterer, yet God found ways to use him and continued to love him beyond all bounds of our understanding. Is such love part of the wonder and perplexity of the Christmas message?
The reading from II Samuel, however, emphasizes another aspect of David’s heritage. He has built himself a grand dwelling and begins to wonder about a place for God. He engages the prophet Nathan in a conversation, saying, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” (II Samuel 7:1-2) Nathan, in effect, gives David the go-ahead to build a temple, but God has a different perspective. “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” (vss. 5-6) There are other stories which call into question our human obsession with buildings, our attempts to contain our spiritual expressions in a defined and limited space. Wonder and perplexity call us, sometimes even force us, to break out, to notice God at work in the lowliest places, sometimes far from the stained glass of sanctuary windows.
My wife and I have been reading a book by Brian Doyle, A Shimmer of Something: Lean Stories of Spiritual Substance. At one point he writes,
“You know how everything seems normal and usual and
But actually everything if you look at it closely with all four eyes
Is utterly confusing and puzzling and mysterious and
He also notes, “Sometimes we are starving to see every bit of what is right in front of us.” Jill Pelaez Baumgartner, in her forward to the book adds, “It is not just that we miss the facts of our lives as they whiz by us . . . It is that we miss the true nature of reality---that which happens to us every day of our lives---which contains mystery, and if we miss that, we miss the reason for our existence.” A Shimmer of Something---something to wonder and be perplexed about---something the season calls us to notice and bow down before, or lift our arms and voices in praise about.
That leaves the reading from Romans. It is one of many benedictions in the Bible, including an abundance in the Pauline epistles. A benediction is a good word, a blessing. Sometime you might want to explore the benedictions of the Bible. Someone noted that this one isn’t even a sentence, but then Paul was never known for his carefully constructed sentence. Its sentiment calls us to take a long view of things, to see and experience God’s glory in all things---forever!
At breakfast someone observed that the encounter between Mary and the angel begins with a blessing, i.e., Mary is greeted as a “favored one.” (Luke 1:28) At the beginning of her song of response, in verse 48, she speaks of the Lord looking “with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” We often speak lightly of blessings. When we notice the deepest blessings of life, we are “nonplussed,” “confounded.” Blessings may even “entangle” us in all kinds of things, like love and peace and justice. Is Christmas that kind of blessing---one before, and in, which we wonder and are perplexed?
Rather than wishing you Merry Christmas, perhaps we all need to hear again the words of the benediction in Romans 16:25-27---"Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith---to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen."
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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog
Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.
Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.
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