30 November 2016

The Second Sunday of Advent, 4 December 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Saint Matthew 3:1-12

Background: The Jesse Tree

The first reading for this morning is the genesis for what is known as the Jesse Tree, Jesse being the father of David, and Jesus the virga Jesse or branch of Jesse. It was most popular during the mediaeval period, when there was a widespread concern with genealogy and the relatedness of families and fortunes through marriage and childbirth. Thus there was a similar concern with the provenance of Jesus as well. It was a concern shared at least by Matthew and Luke, both of which Gospel writers include genealogies of Jesus. Matthew describes his in descending order, while Luke’s is written in an ascending order. The concern was to show the connection with royal David.

The lineage, portrayed by means of the tree, began to be widely depicted during the mediaeval period, and can be found in churches and cathedrals through out Europe. Depictions continued in the succeeding centuries, and are seen in contemporary architecture as well. Some Christian groups also use the tree as a basis for Advent devotions.

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

In several respects, Isaiah asks his reader to look out at the past and to relive it. He once again looks at the family of Jesse, hoping for a second chance for the Davidid kings as they continue to make errors of judgment in their governance. Why is there a need for a new beginning, and new attempt at kingship and rule? What has gone before is leading to a potential ruin of the people. Isaiah offers us clues as to what went wrong. He prays for a new spirit of wisdom and understanding, so that the king might have a renewed sense of judicial capacity, and an ability of not only meting out justice to his people, but also his ability in dealing with the surrounding nations. The second anticipated gift is a “spirit of counsel and might.” Here he expects a kingship that will take action, action that is based on an intimate knowledge of God and God’s will. The king will be advised through the agency of the spirit, and not through human understanding. Finally there is a prayer for an intimate knowledge of God. This goes well beyond a cognitive understanding of God, but straight through to a knowing (as a lover might know) of God and acting then on God’s will.

What follows then, and here the prophet projects us back to creation itself is a renewal of the earth, which we see, in the renewed relationship between humankind and animals. It is a restoration of what existed earlier in Eden. Such actions and such a reality then serves as a sign and symbol of what God’s rule of the nations is like – a rule that is governed by peace rather than the presence of war and division.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          What would you like to see renewed in the society in which you live?
2.          What shoots coming up from ruined stumps have you witnessed?
3.         How is government a servant of God?

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Deus, judicium

     Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;
2      That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
3      That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
4      He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
5      He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
6      He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
7      In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
18    Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, *
who alone does wondrous deeds!
19    And blessed be his glorious Name for ever! *
and may all the earth be filled with his glory.
Amen. Amen.

In this royal psalm we read the realization of hope that is so embodied in the material from Isaiah.  The themes are similar: righteousness, justice, prosperity along with the actions of defense, and rescue. This is what the prophets were not seeing in society under many of the kings, and thus they raised alarms. The hopes are for peace and prosperity. Here the gifts for rule are direct grants from God, no agency of the spirit is mentioned here, as it is in Isaiah. The results hopefully are still the same, however.

Breaking open Psalm 72:
1.     Who are the leaders of our time?
2.     In what ways are they religious?
3.    In what ways are they not?

The Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

"Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name";

and again he says,

"Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";

and again,

"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him";

and again Isaiah says,

"The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope."

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We have a here a portion of the ninth pericope (15:4-6) of what Robert Jewett[1] calls the “Fourth Proof” (Living Together according to the Gospel so as to Sustain the Hope of Global Transformation) of Paul’s main thesis in Romans, and all of the tenth pericope (15:7-13). Both begin with an admonition, and both end with a benediction. Both offer us some sage advice in living in Christ with one another. The ninth pericope’s admonition, which is elided from the liturgical reading, calls upon the reader to up build the neighbor by doing good to them, and in that way emulating Jesus. One may want to read the full pericope to see not only the structure but to understand the argument as well. What follows this admonition, then, in our reading, is an appeal to recognize here what the Scriptures have always taught. We will see this same appeal in the tenth pericope as well. Paul encourages a unity of mind and voice among the believers so that God might be glorified.

The tenth pericope, which our reading preserves as a whole, calls upon the community to “welcome one another.” This simple request gives way to a more inclusive one, for Paul’s argument here is about the welcoming and inclusion of Gentiles. What follow is Jesus example (an interesting logic centered in circumcision), and then a series of scriptural quotations that encourage the inclusion of Gentiles in the praise of God. The benediction that follows is centered on the notion of hope (hope that is here shared with the family of Abraham, and the nations). The hope is the product of the Spirit, and is “filled” with joy and peace, a wholesome greeting to any who would follow.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. Do Christians “speak with one voice”? Why not?
  2. How do you build up your neighbor?
  3. Who is welcomed in your church?

The Gospel: Saint Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Last Sunday, the difficult words came from the mouth of Jesus in his apocalyptic designed to instruct the disciples. This morning the difficult words are the product of the Baptist’s preaching and his confrontation of Pharisees and Sadducees who had followed him out into the wilderness to witness his ministry there. This is a startling introduction, for absent the material we have in Luke about John, in Matthew he enters the scene almost as a cipher. The focus of his appearance is totally centered on the preaching that will come from the mouth of Jesus. The question still remains, however, from what theological struggle does John emerge? If we stick with the simplicity of Matthew, we can only surmise that he comes to his point of view having been a disciple elsewhere, and seeing in Jesus the fulfillment of what he was taught. That he might have done this theological discovery amongst the Essenes is a possibility, and that the Holy Spirit might have anointed this exploration with both insight and wisdom is exciting.

The content of the “sermon” that John preaches on this occasion is preparatory and expectant. He literally tears down the scene (“the ax is laid against the root of the trees”, “felled and thrown into the fire”) in order to place Jesus as the salve that will heal, and purify. Jesus also will burn the chaff, but the promise is that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit. One wonders how John learned of this Spirit, excepting that he more than likely experienced her.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     Which of John’s concepts are hard?
2.     How will Jesus’ own preaching be different?
3.    What is the chaff of your life?

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 © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Jewett, R., (2007), Romans, Fortress Press, Minneapolis

17 November 2016

The First Sunday of Advent, 27 November 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Saint Matthew 24:36-44

Background: Christian apocalyptic

Rooted in the frenzy of opposition by Jewish writers during the Seleucid Period that gave birth to apocalyptic literature, and extending well into the 13th Century, Christian apocalyptic used its Jewish cousin to explain and sort out the troubles of its own problems.  We find apocalyptic material in three of the gospels, some sections of the Pauline corpus, and it is most evident in the Revelation to Saint John the Divine. All of these stems exhibit features of extreme and often esoteric language, visions, imminence of judgment and a crisis of salvation. For a young movement mistrusted by its progenitors, and running against the social grain of the Roman Empire, such expressed fears were not specious, but rather seen in daily life and in the reaction of government and religious authorities. As our times seem to unwind in religious warfare and intolerance, we can, perhaps, assess these writings differently or at least appreciate them with a distinctly discerning eye.

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

Otto Kaiser entitles this pericope “The Consummation of History”, and that seems to be an excellent vantage point from which to review it. Probably an addition to the first scroll of Isaiah (the author reintroduces himself in the first verse of the chapter), one can read a similar oracle in Micah 4:1-4. This poem, which may have found its original use in the temple cult, is given new meaning by both Isaiah and by Micah, as the view the text from a post-exilic perspective. In four separate segments, “The exaltation of Mount Zion” (v. 2), “The effect among the nations” (v.3), “The rule of God” (v.4), and “The consequence in individual lives” (v.5), Isaiah gives us a pointed understanding of what salvation meant for Israel, particularly Israel in the present circumstance. There is a hint of proleptic in the phrase, “in the days to come”, but what leads up to a resurgence of Mt. Zion’s importance is drawn from the present realities. There is a bit of a universalistic bent to the vision, “the nations shall stream to it,” and well it might follow the cultural infusion that the exiles had experienced. Of importance, however, is the tradition, “the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” The experience of the last years will fade into memory for God will be judging the time and the nations. There is an expectation of peace. The final verse, then, becomes a question for the individual. How will you live in this new time?

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.          What is the importance of Mt. Zion in the Hebrew Scriptures?
2.          What does Isaiah see coming “in the days to come”?
3.         How do you see God judging our time?

Psalm 122 Laetatus sum

     I was glad when they said to me, *
"Let us go to the house of the Lord."
2      Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3      Jerusalem is built as a city *
that is at unity with itself;
4      To which the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord, *
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord.
5      For there are the thrones of judgment, *
the thrones of the house of David.
6      Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: *
"May they prosper who love you.
7      Peace be within your walls *
and quietness within your towers.
8      For my brethren and companions' sake, *
I pray for your prosperity.
9      Because of the house of the Lord our God, *
I will seek to do you good."

This psalm gains poignancy in its relationship to the first reading in the liturgy. If there is a renewed Mt. Zion, the source of God’s redeeming word, then this psalm celebrates the journey toward it. There is a visual context that helps the reader understand the context in which this hymn is being sung. “Now our feet are standing within your gates,” invites the reader or hearer to take on the role of the pilgrim and to imagine the scene. What is evident is that this is not an individual decision on the part of our pilgrim who shares his view, but rather the collective decision of all the tribes who go up, “the assembly of Israel.” The centralization of the Jewish cult under Josiah would have given cause for such a grand pilgrimage. It is not only the temple that draws the people up, but also Jerusalem as a place of justice. Thus, in the kingship of Israel is seen both liturgical and political unity. Like the oracle of Isaiah, the psalmist sees in Jerusalem the promise of peace.

Breaking open Psalm 122:
1.     How is your life like a pilgrimage?
2.     What are the visual elements of the psalm?
3.    What is the locus of justice in your life?

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Again, Isaiah’s vision frequents us. Paul, like the prophet, sees the movement of the times propelling us to make an individual decision about life and faith. Thus he literally awakens the reader, “wake from sleep,” “the day is near.” It is time for change and for putting aside those things that keep us from God. Paul gives us a list of vices that we check off, as we hope to follow his revelation of Christ to us.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. To what do you need to awaken?
  2. What do you need to lay aside?
  3. Where is the light in your day?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 24:36-44

Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Jesus’ gaze is clearly focused on what is not yet. That focus might center on the rather real distress that the Romans brought with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, or it might look beyond that to other troubling times. The question then is, what do these times and events mean? And just as important, how shall we be ready for them? In a time that was rife with speculation about the Messiah, and the coming kingdom, Jesus squelches all such speculation with “but about that day and hour no one knows.” The real actor at the end of the time is the Father. It is his role to assign times and seasons.

Jesus relates this concern to a story from the Hebrew Scriptures as he describes what it must have been like for Noah and the people around him as the flood approached. Many doubted Noah’s warnings, and so they continued with the exigencies of daily life. What followed was disaster. Jesus goes on to illustrate the randomness of it all, with people being taken from a daily task. The temptation here is to assign these disappearances to the so-called “rapture”. That is not the only way to view this disappearance, for they may be the result of capture, or war, or judgment. The point is that it will be a surprise, the same kind of surprise exercised by the thief when he invades the homeowner’s house. So be aware.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is the cross a throne?
2.     Whom do you see as members of God’s kindom?
3.    Are there any who are excluded?

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 © 2016, Michael T. Hiller