19 November 2011

The Third Sunday of Advent, 11 December 2011

Isaiah 62:1-4. 8-11
Psalm 126
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
St. John 1:6-8, 19-28

Background: The Advent Wreath

The use of the Advent Wreath by Christians may be more of a modern innovation than an ancient tradition.  Some commentators talk about wreaths with candles being used in northern European countries as a reminder of the continuity of life, even in the harsh winter.  Other see the wreath being introduced into German churches in the 16th Century, but one historian has located the innovation to a Lutheran Pastor, Johann Heinrich Wichern (1808 – 1881) who used a wreath in his work with poor families in the cities of Germany.  It began to be used amongst German Roman Catholics in the 1920s and by Lutherans in North American around 1930.  The custom spread to Anglicans and others as well.  The Orthodox have taken to the wreath as well, only using six candles to reflect their longer season. Today’s wreaths use candles colored to reflect the liturgical vestments for the season: three Sundays of purple, and one (Gaudete) colored rose.

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.

Whoever is the author of Isaiah 61 borrows the language of call and anointing used by the first Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others.  These are claims that are made to verify the good news that the prophet proposes to announce.  The language will not be unfamiliar to us; we have heard its insights before.  They are good words for the people that have returned from the exile in Babylon and are now recreating the land of their fathers and mothers.  Substitutions are made in remarkable and moving images, “to provide for those who mourn in Zion, to give them a garland instead of ashes.  Following these initial blessings in the first two and a half verses, the tone changes to a vision of what these people must be in relationship with the Lord God.  The covenant is mentioned and the very appearance of God’s people is an image of joy.  The ruins of a former life will be built up, and the Lord will be their God.  It is a messianic vision.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Have you ever felt anointed by the Spirit?  What was it like?
  2. Have you ever felt pressed to tell people good news?
  3. What was the news?

Psalm 126 In convertendo

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Then they said among the nations, *
"The LORD has done great things for them."

The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Psalm 126 spreads a garden of beautiful language and easily understood images.  It is easy to understand why the framers of the lectionary chose these verses to accompany Isaiah’s vision.  The language is very human and emotional, “we were like those who dream”, and “our mouth was filled with laughter.  The context of the situation gives us a clue to these extreme emotions.  Like the farmer who waits, sometimes desperately, for the rains to water the crops, so is the anxious expectation of Israel, and the Advent Christian as well.  One hopes upon hope that God will bless the land with fecundity, and that the people will be fed.  These emotions and images can also be found in Jeremiah 31.

Breaking open Psalm 126
  1. Of what do you dream?
  2. What might be your supreme joy?
  3. How do these things compare to your religious life?

1 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.

The images of joy from Isaiah in the first reading, and from the psalm, are now reflected in the First Letter to the Thessalonians.  It is from this first word, Gaudete (Rejoice) that this Sunday takes its name, and it is the reason for the rose vestments that are used on this day.  Paul, however, does not dwell on the theme of joy too long.  There is work to be done in this period of waiting and watching.  The verbs form a list of actions that become a Christian’s behavior as she waits on the Lord: do not quench, do not despise, test, hold fast, and abstain.  The rewards are quickly mentioned as well, sanctify, soul and body kept sound and blameless.  One might suspect that Paul is speaking of a holy laziness as one waits upon the coming of the Christ.  But no, it is to be a period of activity, prayer, and good deeds – that is the rejoicing.

Breaking open Thessalonians
  1. What do you wait and hope for?
  2. How do you wait?
  3. Is there a holiness to waiting?

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.

In this reading, John the Evangelist introduces us to John (known in the Synoptic Gospels as the Baptist).  John the Evangelist is not interested in what John does, other than he was sent by God, and that he is a witness to the light.  John E is clear about the role of John B, “he himself was not the light”.  That was the role for someone else.

Verses later, we begin to hear John B’s testimony, and John E goes to some lengths to authenticate John B’s role.  “Who are you” is the immediate question on the mind of the reader that is reflected in the question of the priests and Levites.  In a back-and-forth series of comments, the Evangelists help us to discover whom John B is not, and by his own mouth (and the mouth of Isaiah) to determine for whom they are truly waiting.  Only after these important distinctions are made does the Evangelist tell us the where of John B’s activity.  He hopes, however, that the reader is waiting along with John B for the “one who is coming after me.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think that John the Evangelist means when he uses the word light?
  2. How is John the Baptist a witness to the light?
  3. How is Jesus the light?

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.

The Second Sunday of Advent, 4 December 2011

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

Background: The Gospel According to Saint Mark I
Last Sunday we began Cycle B of the Lectionary.  The Gospel readings in this cycle are largely from the Gospel according to Mark.  Although Matthew is usually printed as the first Gospel in the New Testament, it is more likely that Mark precedes it.  Tradition holds that Mark is the repository of the memories of Peter.  Mark is identified with “John Mark” (see Acts 12:12,25, and I Peter 5:13).  His names, a combination of Hebrew (John) and Greek (Mark) suggests that he was a Greek-speaking Jew.  There are clues in the Gospel as to its origin, not likely that of Palestine, but rather the Gentile world.  Mark makes no effort to connect his Christian message with the Hebrew Scriptures, but does explain Jewish customs, and to translate Aramaic words, offer some guidance regarding geographical references, and to explain the message of the Gospel to his pagan readers.

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 forever.
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.

In these verses that begin the Book of Consolation that comprises a major portion of IInd Isaiah, we are introduced to a new reality.  There is no temple and there is no king; and there is a Jerusalem, albeit in ruins.  The words of comfort come from the heavenly council, to console a people who have seen the worst.  IInd Isaiah envisions a procession, something like the Exodus from Egypt, but here an exodus from the slavery of Babylon.  In these grand phrases, this Isaiah introduces a wholly different idea that is beyond Jerusalem, the temple, and the king, David.  These are all gone, and in their place stands an idealized kingdom, the rule of YHWH. 

Finally, after all the divine pronouncements it is the prophet who speaks, or rather questions what his role and words should be.  In balance to the verses that precede it, we hear of the frailty of human kind (all flesh is grass).  In contrast is the gentle shepherd, YHWH who leads and gathers the people.  That Jesus is pictured in the New Testament as the Good Shepherd is no accident, for these words have created the context and  setting for this image of a savior.  In this reading, however, we hear the “good news – the good tidings” that issue from the mouth of Jerusalem, the herald – a model for a later prophet.
Jesus is portrayed in the guise of the judge, who rules between the sheep and the goats.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Have you ever been freed from some kind of oppression?
  2. What images would you use to describe that freedom?
  3. Did someone other than yourself free you?  How would you describe them?

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.

You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.

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.

Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Here we have a poem that replicates the message of IInd Isaiah in the first reading.  It is likely that this psalm comes from the same time and in the same situation, namely a time after the exile.  In five separate instances the poet uses the phrase “turn back”, sometimes a demand of the people, and sometimes the request of the poet to God.  The psalmist, like the reading above, idealizes Jerusalem and her situation, and pictures for us an idealized allegory about “Mercy and truth” and “Righteousness and peace.”  These images of what the situation should be form a hoped for result of a God who turns back from judgment, and a people who turn back to God.

Breaking open Psalm 85
  1. When have you been asked to “turn back”?
  2. Have you ever asked God to “turn back” from something?
  3. What was it?
  4. What was the answer?

2 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.

The author of the Second Epistle of Peter wrestles with a profound problem, the delay of the second coming of Christ, the parousia.  To approach some kind of solution, he reverses a quotation from Psalm 89:4 (one day is like a thousand years), and then begins a discussion of the forbearance of God.  The behavior of the church is to be that of holy waiting, and a spotless life.  The goal is to be found in a state of righteousness.  In this manner, the second reading gives evidence of the “longer Advent” that prevailed up until its introduction into the Roman Rite, and its reduction to four weeks. 

Breaking open II Peter
  1. How do you feel when a promise is not kept right away?
  2. How do you think the early church felt, when the second coming of Jesus seemed not to come?
  3. What do you think the second coming of Jesus is really all about?

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."

The Evangelist Mark makes his purpose clear early on in his book.  He calls his work “good news” (euaggelion – Gospel) and clearly ascribes the content of this good news to “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”   He then uses an prophecy from the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 5, also stated in Malachi 3) to turn our attention to John the Baptizer.  Thus he establishes John’s credentials as if with a voice from outside of time.

And what is it that John will proclaim?  He points to someone else, someone different, who comes after him, with more power, and with the power of the Holy Spirit at his disposal.  Thus Mark differentiates the ministry of John from the ministry of Jesus, much as Saint John the Evangelist will do in next Sunday’s gospel.  The reading, as it is structured in the Lectionary, startles us, and leaves with a sense of expectation.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does the term Good News mean to you?
  2. How is Jesus the Good News for you?
  3. How are you like John the Baptist?

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.