25 November 2012

The First Sunday of Advent - 2 December 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
I Thessalonians 3:19-13
Saint Luke 21:25-36


Background: Advent
What a troublesome season this is, with nearly everyone either misunderstanding it, or totally ignoring it.  In American culture, the season is only observed in the liturgical churches, with the society having already launched itself into the trappings of Christmas well before Thanksgiving.  Even for those who observe it, however, there is a gross misunderstanding of its purpose.  It is there not to prepare for Christmas.  It is there to encourage us to wait, longingly wait, for the second coming of our Lord – and that perhaps is the problem.  Do we want to see the Christ come again?  The countdown of time, helped with the Advent Wreath and lesser so by the so-called Advent Calendars, make us aware of our place in time, and our yearning for completion and fulfillment.  We will in the coming weeks comment on other aspects of Advent, but for now it is enough to know that we need to be vigilant in our expectant waiting

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

In order to understand Jeremiah’s words, we need to understand the context and circumstances in which they were uttered.  Written in 588 BCE while Jerusalem was being besieged by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, these words speak not only to a national situation, but to a personal one as well.  Jeremiah was quite outspoken about the fate if Israel and Judah.  The siege was a sign of YHWH’s disfavor with the current regime (who were putting there hope with the Egyptians, an ancient near eastern Geopolitik).  The King Zedekiah had no appreciations for Jeremiah’s anticipations, that Babylon would conquer Judah, and that Zedekiah would be taken captive.  For stating this, Jeremiah is imprisoned.  Jeremiah’s vision is crisp and clear.  The stump of a tree that has been cut down (Israel and Judah) yet shows signs of life – a branch “springs up” and is a sign of a continuing monarchy from David’s line that will honor the God of Israel.  Salvation and safety, justice and righteousness, are the signs of this new kingdom and rule.  From this point of view we can begin our discussions about what Advent means in our time.

Breaking open Jeremiah:

1.     What hopes do you have in your life?
2.     What hopes do you have for our society and culture?
3.     What “new life” do you see emerging in our land?

Psalm 25:1-9 Ad te, Domine, levavi

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;
my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O LORD, *
and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation;
in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

This is an acrostic psalm that forms a period of personal reflection, rather than a theological argument on the part of the author.  This psalm seeks after Wisdom.  The reader of the psalm is urged to wait, and the actions of thoughtful waiting are pointed out: lift up your soul, be taught by the Lord, be led by the Lord, and be guided by the Lord.  The waiting is seen as a process of the discernment of Wisdom, of waiting upon God’s gracious acts.  Verses eight and nine are reminiscent of the covenant concepts in Exodus 34:6-7.  The result of our faithful waiting will be seen in God’s “love and faithfulness”.

Breaking open Psalm 25:
1.       Where do you find Wisdom in the world?
2.       Where do you find Wisdom in the Church?
3.       Are the two related, and do they move you in your life?

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Paul, having sent Timothy to Thessalonica, now rejoices in the results of his vicar’s mission, and sends joyful greetings to the Thessalonians.  The reason this reading is read during this season is seen in the final verse, “at the coming of our Lord Jesus.”  Here is the Advent hope expressed in real terms to a company of Christians who have had their share of difficulties.  Like the psalmist in the Psalm for today, Paul outlines what needs to happen while awaiting the Coming One: increase and abundance of love, strengthened hearts and holiness, blamelessness.  What is interesting is that these are not only individual virtues, but communal ones as well.  The waiting is not only done by you alone, but it is done by all of us together – seeing the sum of our waiting expressed in deeds of kindness and love.

Breaking open I Thessalonians:

1.               How does your church await the coming of Christ?
2.               How does it observe Advent?
3.               How might it be different?

Luke 21:25-36

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

Here in this liturgical season that precedes the Nativity of Our Lord, we are thrust into the Passion of our Lord.  This reading is found in the initial verses of Luke’s Passion Narrative, an instruction given to the disciples following the institution of the Eucharist.  In the preceding verses Luke places the dispute about greatness, and Jesus, moving from that point which threatens the communal life of the disciples, begins an instruction on “knowing the seasons” and waiting.  As we read the “signs” that Jesus points out they bear no relationship to the horrors that fundamentalist Christians delight in.  No, here we are asked to see what is going on about us, and to realize that God is present and always coming into our situation.  To make it both real and tangible, Jesus imparts some common Wisdom, relating their skills at watching to the skills of observation about the fig tree.  Again, we are given a list of duties and tasks for waiting:  don’t weigh yourself down with worries, and don’t exacerbate them with “dissipation and drunkenness.”  The disciples didn’t realize what was soon to follow, nor do we.  Like them we try to wait patiently.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are the signs and seasons that you observe in our world today?
  2. What do they say to you as a Christian?
  3. How do they inform your prayers?

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

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2012 Michael T. Hiller

16 November 2012

Christ the King - the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29 - 25 November 2012

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
Saint John 18:33-37


Background: The Day of the Lord
There is a field of study in Biblical Literature referred to as “eschatology” – it is a study of the “last things”.  The name comes from the Greek word eschatos, the last, inferring the last things of an era of history.  Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have distinct eschatological references, with the Hebrew or Prophetic references centering on the Land, and the continuance of Israel.  The prophets often describe a pattern of behavior and response (Israel covenants with God, Israel is unfaithful to the covenant, God punishes, Israel returns) that is best seen in the “Day of the Lord.”  Such a day, when God is seen in full power and might, exacting God’s will upon Israel, or upon her enemies, was first seen in the writings of Amos, with the Isaiahs, and others following.  In the Christian Gospels it is seen in Jesus’ prolepsis about the Kingdom of Heaven, in which all are called to repent and to see the presence of God and to anticipate a messianic era.  The visions of St. John the Divine in the Book of Revelation also engage these themes.  The notion of the Day of the Lord is prominent in the readings for this day.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

This is the second Sunday in which we contemplate something from the Book of Daniel.  This reading is from the second half of the book, which is devoted to dreams and visions experienced by Daniel.  The reading itself is one of the most influential pieces in the Book of Daniel, making itself felt in inter-testamental thought in Jewish circles, and certainly in the development of Christian thought about the “Son of Man”. The material with which this vision is constructed comes from various streams of iconography and literature in the Ancient Near East.  In some respects we have a similar vision in Isaiah 6 and of Ezekiel as well, but here a new element is added to this description of the “Ancient of Days”.  The new element is the “human being” who is brought up to the throne and presented before the Ancient One.  The imagery comes from the mythology of the Canaanites who believed that the Ba’al known in the storm god, and who would ride the clouds up into the heavens.  Regardless of its derivation, the thought here is of a messianic figure that will restore Israel, an image that the Christians saw through the lens of Jesus.

Breaking open Daniel:

1.     How do you picture God in glory?
2.     How do you picture Jesus in glory?
3.     How do these images enter your spiritual life?

Psalm 93 Dominus regnavit

The LORD is King;
he has put on splendid apparel; *
the LORD has put on his apparel
and girded himself with strength.

He has made the whole world so sure *
that it cannot be moved;

Ever since the world began, your throne has been established; *
you are from everlasting.

The waters have lifted up, O LORD,
the waters have lifted up their voice; *
the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.

Mightier than the sound of many waters,
mightier than the breakers of the sea, *
mightier is the LORD who dwells on high.

Your testimonies are very sure, *
and holiness adorns your house, O LORD,
for ever and for evermore.

Psalm 93 is seen both in the Septuagint and in the Talmud as representing the eve of the Sabbath, in which God, having completed the work of Creation, now rests and meditates on what has been done.  The imagery is both of kingship, where in God is seen guised as the King, and the mastery of creation, where God has conquered the floods of chaos, so that they are not only subdued but become a voice of praise to the Creator.  The final stanzas are liturgical in nature, affirming the voice of God in the Torah, and in the sanctity of the Temple.

Breaking open Psalm 93:
1.       What does the psalmist mean that the world has been made so sure that it cannot be moved?
2.       How does God rule creation?
3.       How does God rule your life?

Revelation 1:4b-8

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

In this prologue to the Book of Revelation, the Seer is greeted and given a view of what is to come.  In a sense, the theme and the conclusion of the book are announced at the very beginning.  It is Jesus who is seen as the one who ascends on high (see the first reading).  The theological points are laid out, the foundation of the vision’s argument:  Jesus is one with the Ancient of Days, Jesus is the faithful witness to God, and the first fruit of the resurrection, and the ruler of all that exists.  To his is added the vision of Jesus as the one who is to come again.  All of this is tied into the Alpha and Omega phrase; Jesus is both the beginning and the end.  What follows this is the tribulation that comes with believing this vision of Jesus as the King of Creation.  The Seer knows that such belief has the benefits of salvation, as he views the followers as a kingdom of priests.

Breaking open Revelation:

1.               What does it mean to you that Jesus will come again?
2.               Does your life have a beginning and and ending?  What does it mean for you that Jesus is “Alpha and Omega”?
3.               What is your role in the “kingdom of priests”?  How do you exercise it?

John 18:33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

This conversation, which takes place in the Praetorium – in the heart of worldly power, turns on where that power is truly to be found.  Pilate wants to know what Jesus is in the world.  Jesus answers in turn from the viewpoint of another nexus of power – the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a difficult conversation, one that Pilate does not fully grasp.  The nature of Jesus’ kingship, however, is of a more distinctive nature, and it is not really of interest to Pilate who is here concerned with matters of state, and national security.  Jesus uses as a proof of his unworldly kingship the mere fact that he is in captivity.  Were he a worldly ruler, his followers would have besieged the Praetorium.  That, however, is not the case.  The truth of the situation is the distinctive cusp between these two worlds, that of the political leader, and that of the Son of Man.  The former attempts to define truth in terms of the world.  Jesus, however, witnesses to the truth – the truth that seems to evade Pilate and his kind.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. In Pilate’s place, what questions might you have had for Jesus?
  2. What is the difference between Pilate’s power and that of Jesus?
  3. How do you live both in and outside of the world?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

13 November 2012

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28 - 18 November 2012

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10-11-25
St. Mark 13:1-8

Background:  Daniel
Daniel exists as a character known to Ezekiel, and as another character of heroic legend used by whoever wrote or compiled what we know as the Book of Daniel.  Most likely, the book was written in the second century BCE during the period of time that Palestine was ruled by the Hellenic Seleucid Kings, especially Antiochus Epiphanes (175 – 164 BCE).  The book is comprised of three sections: a) Daniel and the Babylonian Kings (Chapters 1-6), b) Tales of Daniel (Chapters 7-12, and c) Appendices (Chapters 13-14).  The material in the first section places the hero in the court of the Babylonian kings where he resists the temptation to adopt Babylonian living and religion.  This actually serves as a warning against the Hellenization being promoted by the Seleucid kings in Israel at the time, and was probably promoted under the Maccabean revolt.  The Visions that follow are a proleptic view of a restored Israel, cleansed of the practices of Hellenic interlopers and Hellenized Jews.  The final section, known only in its Greek version, is considered Apocryphal, and is included amongst those books.

Daniel 12:1-3

The Lord spoke to Daniel in a vision and said, "At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever."

This reading from the book of Daniel comes from that section of the work that is devoted to visions and dreams.  Here we meet Michael, a legendary prince, who appears in later Christian literature as an angel.  Here he is the protector of people.  The visions in this section are informed by the difficulties that were endured by the Jews in Palestine during the forced Hellenization during the reign of the Seleucid kings.  The vision is one of great calamity and “anguish” that is brought to naught by the vigilance of Michael.  So profound and all encompassing is this redemption that it also includes those who have died in the tribulation.  The inferences to the God of the Jews are slight and obtuse, but the notion of salvation is quite clear.

Breaking open Daniel:
  1. Has Christian culture been threatened by popular culture, or nationalism?
  2. What difficulties do you see religion facing in our time?
  3. What does the prince Michael represent here?

Psalm 16 Conserva me, Domine

Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; *
I have said to the LORD, "You are my Lord,
my good above all other."

All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land, *
upon those who are noble among the people.

But those who run after other gods *
shall have their troubles multiplied.

Their libations of blood I will not offer, *
nor take the names of their gods upon my lips.

O LORD, YOU are my portion and my cup; *
it is you who uphold my lot.

My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; *
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; *
my heart teaches me, night after night.

I have set the LORD always before me; *
because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; *
my body also shall rest in hope.

For you will not abandon me to the grave, *
nor let your holy one see the Pit.

You will show me the path of life; *
in your presence there is fullness of joy,
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

The psalm for this Sunday mirrors the prophetic concern about faithfulness to YHWH.  Here the psalmist poses a righteous and faithful person in contrast to those “who run after other gods.”  The reference is not necessarily to the Canaanites, or to the Phoenicians, but to those in Israel who were attracted to the gods of their neighbors, and the ascendant cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt.  The faithful one does not offer the prescribed libations or incantations, but rather describes the God who embraces both the individual (you who uphold my lot) and the community (I have a goodly heritage.)  The fate of the unfaithful is trouble, but the fate of the righteous one is full of “pleasures forever more.”

Breaking open Psalm 16
  1. What comparisons would you make today about faithfulness and irreligion?
  2. What are the temptations that obscure your path to God?
  3. Do you live in “a pleasant land”?

Hebrews 10:11-25

Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. [And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,

"This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord: 
I will put my laws in their hearts, 
and I will write them on their minds,"

he also adds,

"I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.]
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The reading from Hebrews continues, and once again we are steeped in the typologies of the Hebrew Scriptures.  For the last few chapters we have seen Jesus raised up as the perfect priest, performing the rites of a perfect temple.  With a quotation for Jeremiah, the author introduces the theme of the covenant that God has cut with the people.  Here again, the author compares the offering of Jesus to the sacrifices of old.  It is not the blood of the sacrificial victim in the old days, but rather the blood of Jesus that is effectual here.  As the Hebrew priest sprinkled the blood of the victim in the Holy of Holies, so now it is the blood of Jesus that makes for a cleansing of forgiveness.  Indeed, Jesus’ coming again is hinted at in the final verse as the reader sees “the Day approaching.”

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What kind of agreement does God have with you?
  2. What have you promised and what has God promised?
  3. How is Jesus a sacrificial victim in your life?

St. Mark 13:1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."

With these readings we begin to see the lectionary point to the last days, and to give evidence of a much longer season of Advent – looking forward to the coming again of Jesus, the Savior of the Nations.  Here in this apocalyptic section, Mark sees Jesus pointing out the meaning of the present as it indicates what is to come – “he birth pangs”.  Although written earlier than the other Gospels, it is indeed possible that Mark new of the end of things, namely the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.  The assault on the holy city by the Romans, under the General Silva, and the subsequent destruction of the Temple, was an event that is retrojected into Mark’s portrayal of Jesus message.  For the messianic era to be born, there must be “birth pangs”.  Mark’s Jesus looks ahead to the difficulties not only in Palestine, but also in the empire, as the Gospel of Jesus takes root in a time of conflict and difficulty.  Time moves inexorably toward the new heaven and the new earth.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What is Jesus attempting to teach in his comments to the disciples?
  2. Why does Mark retell the story?  What is his aim?
  3. What “birth pangs” is Christianity experiencing today?

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

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.