15 December 2017

The Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete), 17 December 2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Canticle 15
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
St. John 1:6-8, 19-28

Background: Baptism
The roots of baptism come long before John’s ceremonies in the Jordan River valley. In Jewish practice Tvilah, a ritual washing for purification was a repeatable event that was required at the point of conversion. If we look at the ceremonies and practices in the mikveh, or behold the ruins at Qum Ran with their multiple pools, water courses, and basins, we can see that baptism, or washing was an already established practice. John’s supposed connection with the Essenes may have led him to use this ritual as a way of honoring a person’s acceptance of his call to repentance. He acknowledged, however, that the practice would be rethought and changed under the direction of Jesus, the strong one who was to come.

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

Claus Westermann[1] deems this pericope to be a part of a lament that stretches from Chapter 60 to 62. Understanding its structure and content is key to understanding Third Isaiah’s purpose in these texts. The most notable lament elements in chapter 62, are elided from our reading, so it might be a good thing to print them here:

Isaiah 62:6-7:
Upon your walls, Jerusalem,
I have stationed sentinels;
By day and by night,
they shall never be silent.
You who are to remind the LORD,
take no rest,
And give him no rest,
until he re-establishes Jerusalem
And makes it the praise of the earth.

There are faint remembrances of the pericope for Advent I, where God is called upon to break the heavens open and to come down. There is a similar demand here, “give him no rest until…”  

The verses are ones of substitution in which what had been given (ashes, and mourning) are replaced with more joyful means (a garland and gladness). Although there is the hope for the concrete advent of God, re-establishing the city of Jerusalem, the final verse looks forward to an advent of salvation, “so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” There is an implicit universalism here as well, not unexpected from the prophetic work from this period.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What have you lamented in your life?
2.      How did you overcome your lament?
3.      What would you like to have substituted in your life?

Psalm 126 In convertendo

1      When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2      Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3      Then they said among the nations, *
"The Lord has done great things for them."
4      The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5      Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
6      Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7      Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

This psalm is a happy match for the first reading, and for the general themes of gladness and happiness on this Rose Sunday, Gaudete. There are themes with which we should be familiar having read the series for Second and Third Isaiah, the notion of return and restoration. Though the translation indicates a past action, “Then was our mouth filled with laughter,” the strangeness of Hebrew verb tense may actually indicate a hope for a future condition. The psalm goes on to give a series of images that can enable the reader in understanding what is hoped for here – the wadi of the Negeb, and reaping the harvest. The notes about the harvest in the final verses are redolent of anticipation and hope – good Advent themes.

Breaking open Psalm 126:
1.     When has your joy been made complete?
2.     When have you given someone else joy?
3.     What is your joy during this season?


Canticle 15 The Song of Mary Magnificat Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

It seems to be a bit early to be singing the Magnificat, to my taste. We still are in the quick of Advent, and wrestling with the prophet’s hope. None-the-less, the framers of the Lectionary thought it appropriate as an option, however it will be offered again next week. Here Mary looks back, knowing and acknowledging God’s great acts of the past. Somehow, I think that forms the context for her knowing in a profound way what will happen to her (and to Elizabeth) as they become a larger part of the story already seen, and recreated in the acts of Jesus. Luke’s agenda of love and care for those who stand at the edge of society is evident and we begin to see how radically different this time will be.

Breaking open Magnificat:
1.     How is Mary strong and courageous in this song?
2.     Do you share some of her hopes? Which?
3.     How do you regard the poor?

The Second Reading: I Thessalonians 5:16-24

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

Here Paul’s letter turns into sort of a “Poor Richard’s Almanac” with a collection of aphorisms and paranesis for the Christian community. The Rejoice section is happily met with the themes of this Sunday, and happily attaches the Spirit to our joy and rejoicing. It is a condition of happiness that ought to obtain until that time when Christ comes again – a time of true joy and rejoicing. In a period of doubt, Paul inserts a note certitude and absolute expectation for the second coming, “and he will do this.”

Breaking open I Thessalonians;
1.     Describe your prayer life?
2.     For what do you give thanks?
3.     What makes you rejoice today?

The Gospel: St. John 1:6-8,19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

We have a snippet of the prologue of John in which we meet the Baptist, and then move quickly on to John the Evangelists discussion of the ministry of Jesus. As we naturally encounter John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry notice the judicial terms with which it is described. It is the Baptist’s testimony that we hear and his confession to the Jewish leaders that explains his relationship to the Coming One. He strips from himself a goodly number of Old Testament titles and distinctions so that Jesus might be seen. At the same time, he holds on to some roles – “I am the voice,” and to aspects of Isaiah’s message, “make straight the way of the Lord.” It is, however, his standing aside to make a way for the one who comes after, that sets John apart. It gives Jesus a historical context for his message and his ministry. Jesus does not enter the scene empty-handed, but rather full of the expectation of the ages.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What words would describe you as a Christian?
2.     What is your message?
3.     How do you make way for the Christ?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]      Westerman, C. (1969), Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia.

30 November 2017

The Second Sunday of Advent, 10 December 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
II Peter 3:8-15a
St. Mark 1:1-8

Background: Nazirite

The nazirite was someone who was “separated” or “consecrated to YHWH. Vows were made by these individuals and they were to practice certain abstentions from certain foods, such as: wine, vinegar made from wine, grapes and raisins, and nothing that contained any trace of grapes. They were also not allowed to cut their hair (as with Samson), nor could they suffer and contact with a dead body or a grave.  In making their vow certain offerings needed to be made: a burnt offering of lamb, a sin offering of an ewe, and the peace offering of a ram, along with grain and drink offerings. The vows were either for a set period of time, or represented a permanent state (again, as with Samson). Both men and women could make the nazirite vow. John the Baptist seems to meet the definitions of this commitment, but the Gospels do not explicitly identify him as such.

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

First Isaiah’s message of confrontation and punishment is ended in chapter 39, and with chapter 40 we meet a new Isaiah and a new message. What were a call to repentance and a return to YHWH is in the coming chapters something quite different. This new message begins with the theme of comfort. This prophet lifts up God and says, “Here is your God!” This is the message that is to be proclaimed to the cities of Judah. Again, as we have seen in the last Sundays, the shepherd image appears, and the prophet sees in the shepherd’s care and leading an example of God tending to the people and feeding them. It is a tender scene, quite different from what we read last Sunday, from an even later Isaiah. What Israel had experienced in the past where the arms of foreign kings were seen as God’s wrath, we now see a God who leads the flock back into the promises given long ago at Sinai.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What comforts you in these days?
2.      How does your faith comfort you?
3.      Whom do you know that needs comforting?

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Benedixisti, Domine

     You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
2      You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.
8      I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
9      Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10    Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11    Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12    The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
13    Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

I am always amazed when the lectionary seems to elide portions of the text (here verses 3-7) that seem to comment on the reading, especially the first reading for the day. You may want to just scan then to get the full feeling of the psalm. Perhaps the reason for the elision is that the prayer requests of verse five are celebrated as completed acts in the initial verses. Such contrasts lead us to believe that this psalm was written after the Babylonian exile. The notion of “turning back” is a theme in the elided verses and it adds meaning to the remainder of the poem. The “turning back action” behooves YHWH to repent of wrath, and the people of their foolishness in not following God.  The sweetness of verse 10 resides in a much rougher context.

Breaking open Psalm 85:
1.     What graces has God completed in your life?
2.     What are you yet waiting from God?
3.    What are others waiting from you?

Second Reading: II Peter 3:8-15a

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

What happens when the promise seems to be unfulfilled? And what happens when other teachers distort the good news for their own purposes? The author exhorts his listeners to wait in patience, and not to fear the coming day of the Lord. Time, as he explains in his initial verses in the reading, is flexible, just as our expectations must be. In short, we will be surprised. Rather than a wasted universe, the author sees the possibility of a new heaven and a new earth. Therefore we are called to wait in peace. All will be well.

Breaking open II Peter:
1.     What promises has God made to you?
2.     Which ones are you still waiting for?
3.    What can you do to make them happen?

The Gospel: St. Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

We have an interesting conundrum here. Is Mark’s Gospel about Jesus or of Jesus? The Greek word archÄ“ can be translated either as “beginning” or as “norm.” It stimulates an interesting search in which we look for the norm of Jesus’ good news and message. Perhaps that is the task for this liturgical year – a search at the roots of the message. The quote at the beginning, from both Micah and Isaiah, refers to John the Baptist, but perhaps also to a long line of prophets who had normed God’s message for their time as well. Rather than setting us in a specific setting aside the Jordan River, we are given a much broader context of the preaching and teaching that flowed from the tradition. There is however more than the tradition, for there will be a new Spirit who will initiate the Kingdom.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is your life normed by the Gospel?
2.     If you had to write a Gospel what would be its principal points?
3.    Who is God’s messenger to you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller