25 November 2014

The First Sunday of Advent, 30 November 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
I Corinthians 1:3-9
St. Mark 13:24-37

Background: Apocalyptic
This literature emerged, quite understandably, during the period of forced Hellenization in the first two centuries prior to the Common Era. It’s stress on dualism and the battle between good and evil is found in both Jewish and in Christian sources. Some notable examples are chapters 7 through 12 of Daniel, the books that come out of the Essene community, and the “Little Apocalypse” found in St. Matthew, chapters 24-25. What bind these expressions together are a pessimistic view of the present time, and the foretelling of imminent disaster.  Unlike the prophets, who described similar conditions, these circumstances, described in apocalyptic literature, are followed by a coming period of judgment and resolution. The Book of Revelation offers a fine example of these qualities. The complex of ideas is always described in a narrative form, unlike the prophetic oracle. These descriptions are always eschatological in nature, as well, where the prophets declaimed the here and now.  Such literature developed in later Christian times, but the emphasis moved from a consideration of the salvation of the entire community to that of the individual.

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

This psalm, “O that you would rend the heavens” (Isaiah 63:15-64:11), is the pericope from which the first lesson is taken.  The structure of the psalm is:

            Introductory prayer (63:15-16)
            Lament in three parts with an annexed prayer (63:17-19a)
            Prayer that God be present in an Epiphany (63:19b-64:5a)
            Confession of sin and challenge to God (64:4b-7)
            Confession of confidence (64:8)
            Prayer that God should repent, and a Lament for Zion (64:8ff)
            Concluding question. (64:11)

You may wish to make comparisons with Psalm 18:10, where there is a similar emphasis on the “coming down” of God, and the quaking of the mountains. Here God is seen as a literal deus ex machine, who, being present, challenges those who are adversaries, and defends the chosen people of Israel. The cry for the appearance of God is the quintessential Advent theme, and the verses from Isaiah undergird that theology. There is a considerable meditation on the situation of humankind, the falling away and sinfulness, and the frailty of human life, “We all fade like a leaf, and or iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” In spite of the flawed relationship, the prophet recognizes the on-going relationship of God and people, where God is honored as “Father”, and given the role of the potter who forms individual lives. “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” The confession is closely woven with the idea of confidence in God’s not remembering the people’s sin, but acting with us in consideration that, “we are all your people.”

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Into which situations of life do you wish God were present?
  2. How is God indeed present in them already?
  3. What might your prayer be like?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Qui regis Israel

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?

You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.

You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The second verse of the psalm gives us clues as to the intents of the work.  The names “Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh” point us to the north and to the Kingdom of Israel. The scene is one of trouble and distress, but not of the trouble that is soon to come, when the Assyrians defeat and deport the people. Here all is troubled, but there is the hope that God would intervene, “Restore us, O God of hosts.” Prior to these prayers, however, are tacit admissions as to the difficulties of the people that have given rise to the fervent prayer, “How long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people.” The attitude is similar, in some respects, to second Isaiah.  The feeling of desperation is deepened in verse 6; “you have fed them with the bread of tears.” In our translation the second part of the verse is blunted from its Hebrew intensity. It might be better translated as “and made them drink triple measure of tears,” rather than our translation’s, “bowls of tears to drink.” Regardless, the language is quite descriptive of the situation.

The elided verses trace the history of Israel from Egypt into the new land of promise. The image is one of a transplanted vine, and the difficulties that can come of such an agricultural pursuit.  The theme quickly changes from the vine to the idea that Israel, as a people, are God’s son.  Christian eyes will see these final verses differently.

Breaking open Psalm 80:
  1. Are you aware of a “bowl of tears” for yourself?
  2. What is it made up of?
  3. How can God intervene to obviate your bowl of tears?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

We enter into the midst of an on-going and intense conversation between Paul and the congregation at Corinth.  Paul greets them with the peace of God, and then gives thanks to God for all the graces that have been shown to the people of Corinth.  This was a people proud of what they had accomplished by means of the grace of God, and thankful for all the gifts and talents that were evident among them.  Paul’s concern, however, are their experiments concerning the freedom Christ has won for them (indeed Corinth was a center for freed slaves in the Roman Empire.) The question then is, “How do we live with such freedom?” and that will be Paul’s theme as he continues in his letter to them. At the outset, however the concern is that they remain “blameless” in the fellowship of “his Son.” 

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What spiritual gifts have you been given?
  2. Have the spiritual gifts of another helped you? How?
  3. How might you use your spiritual gifts?

St. Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said to his disciples,

"In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."

In order to understand these enigmatic texts, we need to be fully aware of the context of the times.  Probably written around 70 CE, much had happened that made for a new context for Jesus’ words and concepts. These Mark places into a time full of disappointment.  In 40 CE, Caligula attempted to have a statue of him erected in the Temple at Jerusalem, an act fully reminiscent of Antiochus Epiphanes during the Seleucid period.  In 70 CE, Silvus, the Roman general under the Emperor Titus, destroyed the Temple, and indeed Jerusalem itself. The anxiety and grief over these events provide the context for Mark’s report of Jesus’ apocalyptic.  The message is simple – the times give you clues about what is to come, but do not think that you have the complete knowledge. The take-home lesson is “keep awake!” It’s good grist for the Advent mill. Behind the glitzy commercialism of Christmas in our time stands the reality of war, poverty, and intolerance. So, the message of wakefulness obtains even in our own time.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are your expectations of Jesus’ judgment of you?
  2. What are your expectations of other’s judgment of you?
  3. How do you judge yourself?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller

17 November 2014

Christ the King, the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29, 23 November 2014

Ezekiel 34:11016, 20-14
Psalm 100 or 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
St. Matthew 25:31-46

Background: The Feast of Christ the King
With the revisions in the calendars of the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches in the late 70s, this feast day was added as a celebration on the last Sunday of the Church year.  In the Roman Church it was first introduced as an idea in an encyclical, Quas Primas, by Pope Pius XI (1925) and was celebrated as The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe on the last Sunday in October.  In 1970 (Pope Paul VI) the feast was moved to the last Sunday in Ordinary time, the Sunday preceding the Season of Advent. The original encyclical that served as the theological basis for the feast day was not an argument based on liturgy, but rather on politics.  Pope Pius XI hoped the encyclical would be an adequate response to the growing secularism and nationalism in Europe following the First World War. Through it, the encyclical hoped to engage not only the clergy of the church but its laity as well. It aimed to see the focus human allegiance on Christ rather than the nation state. 

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.

Although many of us would be hard pressed to say that we know an actual shepherd, all of us understand both the vocation and the concepts that surround it as a pastoral metaphor for ministry and service.  Perhaps it is the 23rd psalm that has engendered this and made it available to us.  Here however, we have a prophet, who with Jeremiah (23:1-8) uses this idea as a tool in making his message real and approachable.  In addition, it was an idea to be in use in a wider cultural context in the ancient near east, making it available as an appropriate metaphor to people beyond Israel.

Like Jeremiah’s words, Ezekiel’s are preceded by an oracle of doom (34:1-10), which indicts the present “shepherds” of Israel (it’s political and religious institutions) and accuses them of not tending to the flock. In the second oracle that follows (our reading for this day), the prophet pictures YHWH looking for the scattered sheep. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” It’s a fitting scene in this time of the year. In spite of the darkness and gloom, YHWH is determined to gather the scattered flock, and to bring them back. The passages that describe this are reminiscent of the 23rd psalm, “I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.”

The theme soon turns from the pasture and sheep to the ideas of justice and judgment, and then to the supreme example of sheparding and justice, David, YHWH’s servant.  David then takes on the shepherding task that earlier described YHWH.  Now it is David who feeds, and guides them. Thus is the notion of kingship introduced into this reading, so appropriate for Christ the King.

Breaking open Judges:
  1. What do you shepherd in your life?
  2. Who shepherds you?
  3. Whom do you need to take care of?

Psalm 100 Jubilate Deo

Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; *
serve the LORD with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.

Know this: The LORD himself is God; *
he himself has made us, and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.

For the LORD is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

The shepherd theme appears in the thanksgiving psalm, but briefly, as it mirrors the phrase from Psalm 95 (see below), “we are his people and the sheep of his pasture”. Quickly we return, however, to the Temple as we “enter the gates” and “go into his courts.” These verses indicate the status of those addressed in the psalm.  We are invited into the courts and beckoned to enter the gates. Now we are not only pilgrims, looking forward to the courts of the Lord. Now we are standing within them – standing in relationship with God.

Breaking open Psalm 100:
  1. What does it mean to be a pilgrim?
  2. What does it mean to having arrived at the place of worship?
  3. Where are the “courts of the Lord” in your life?


Psalm 95:1-7a Venite, exultemus

Come, let us sing to the LORD; *
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.

For the LORD is a great God, *
and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
and the heights of the hills are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it, *
and his hands have molded the dry land.

Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the LORD our Maker.

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.

Any good follower of Morning Prayer or Matins will recognize this psalm or at least its beginning verses, the Venite. Like its ancient intentions, this psalm calls us to both prayer and worship, “Come”. What follows are a series of liturgical actions, thanksgiving, shouts of joy, raising a shout of praise. Here YHWY exists not in a divine loneliness, but rather in the company of other gods, “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” What follows are the deeds of God, as the wonders of creation are rehearsed – the caverns of the earth, the heights of the hills, the sea (which he conquered) and the dry land. What is mortal woman or man to do in the face of these divine deeds? That is supplied to us as well, “Bow down, bend the knee.” A final reference (in this pericope) brings us back to the shepherd image, and the theme, “the shepherd-king” for this day. “We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” One understands how this psalm made its way into the Morning Prayer office of the church. Its call to worship becomes the initial realization of the day, and the One who gave it being.

Breaking open Psalm 95:
  1. Who or what bids you to come and worship?
  2. How do you do that?
  3. How do you worship and pray during the day?

Ephesians 1:15-23

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Some see Ephesians as a summarization of Pauline teaching, a letter not given to one congregation alone (Ephesus) but rather given to all with an intention of grounding them again in the apostolic teaching.  What the author intends here is linked to the thanksgivings evident in both of the psalms recommended for this day.  The Pauline author is pleased that those receiving the words written have flourished in the Gospel.  What is wished for them is “a spirit of wisdom and revelation.” Thus the faith is seen not as a static practice, but rather as a continuing encounter with God. The promise of the Spirit is given “as you come to know him.” Then there is a vision of a triumphant and glorious Christ who has been raised by the Father not only from the dead, but also “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” One can see where Pius XI got his inspiration (See background). The present situation was that the Church, the body of Christ, the company of the believers lived in the shadow of the imperial dominion. Here they are bidden to think of themselves as living in the church, “Which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It seems to be a participatory kingship>

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. Do you have a daily encounter with God? How?
  2. What gifts does the Spirit give to you?\
  3. How do you react to the powers and dominations of this world?

St. Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, `You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

It is with a certain sense of sadness that we leave Matthew and these marvelous parables on the Kingdom of Heaven. However, Mark will treat us well in the coming year.  This particular parable is only found in Matthew, and is uniquely suited to this day. In Matthew we are on the cusp of the Passion Narrative, and here in this parable, we understand Jesus to be giving some of the final points of instruction to the disciples, so that they might understand the kingdom and its true nature. That might be a jumping off point for an especially fine sermon to edge us into Advent.  We are literally caught between the “Coming Again” and its Advent hope, and the final judgment of Jesus that comes with the passion. One wonders what those who followed Jesus thought as they lived these days. Jesus is clearly calling them, and us as well, to look at and to begin to understand “the end” to which we are all called. 

These are scenes of judgment, division, and (yes) shepherding. The judge asks us to reflect on how we have lived, whom we have seen in the lives of others, and what our response has been. The expectation is clear – Christ needs to be in all of them. Thus the example of our unknowing gifts, or our ignorance of the One who has expressed need, brings us squarely to the seat of judgment – a perspective that is known in our own hearts and minds as well. It is a sad statement that this parable has given place to the judgment of Christians by Christians, failing to see Christ’s presence in the midst of what seems to others to be our lack of faith and our ignorance.  That is for the Christ to decide, and it is for us to ponder.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are your expectations of Jesus’ judgment of you?
  2. What are your expectations of other’s judgment of you?
  3. How do you judge yourself?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller