28 December 2017

The First Sunday after Christmas, 31 December 2017

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7
St. John 1:1-18

Background: The Three Days

Often missed in parish life, are the three days that follow The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Day. They are instructive to those who wish to follow Jesus in the days that honor his birth, for they describe what is required of those who will follow. The Days honor St. Stephen the First Martyr (26 December), St. John Apostle and Evangelist (27 December), and The Holy Innocents (28 December). The dates in the Eastern Church depend on whether the Gregorian (beginning 9 January) or Julian Calendar (1 day later in December) is being used. Some have described these saints in terms of martyrdom: Stephen martyr and will and in deed, John martyr in will but not in deed, and the Innocents martyr not in will but in deed. Each of the days explores an aspect of following Christ and grants a certain depth to the holiday that they follow. Each of them had or has customs that are followed on their specific days, a way of taking the practice in to common life.

First Reading: Isaiah 61:10-62:3

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.
For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Our reading begins with passages of anticipatory praise, somewhat like the psalms of thanksgiving which look forward to accomplished deeds well in advance of their being realized. It is not only an internalized psychological state of joy, but is shown in the garments worn, expressing thanks and praise to God. In reading and interpreting these verses it is good to keep in mind the opening verse of this chapter.

The spirit of YHWH is upon me,
Because YHWH has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring good tidings to the poor,
To bind up the broken hearted;
To declare liberty to the captives,
And the opening to those who are bound…

The anticipation of salvation, redemption and restoration (“They build up the ancient ruins”, v.4.) are both hoped for and given thanks for.

The verses that follow in chapter 62 begin the third of the laments that are evident in chapters 60-62. The first two laments deal with the enemies that Israel has confronted, and secondly a lament that remembers the ancient ruins. Finally, in these verses the lament is met with God’s return to the chosen people. It is best expressed in verses 1, “I cannot keep silent – until (the coming of salvation for Jerusalem), and 6 and 7, “I have set watchers that they shall not be silent – until (the coming of salvation for Jerusalem.” The combination of hope, promise and subsequent realization is matched with praise, thanksgiving and joy. This makes for a profound comment on the coming of Jesus, anticipated and praised.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What do you hope for, which you already give thanks for?
2.      What are the laments of your life?
3.      How have they been soothed?

Psalm 147 Laudate Dominum

[1     Hallelujah!
How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!
2      The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
3      He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.
4      He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.
5      Great is our Lord and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.
6      The Lord lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.
7      Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.
8      He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;
9      He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.
10    He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.
11    He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;
12    But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.]
13    Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;
14    For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.
15    He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.
16    He sends out his command to the earth, *
and his word runs very swiftly.
17    He gives snow like wool; *
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
18    He scatters his hail like bread crumbs; *
who can stand against his cold?
19    He sends forth his word and melts them; *
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.
20    He declares his word to Jacob, *
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.
21    He has not done so to any other nation; *
to them he has not revealed his judgments.

We have clues as to when with psalm was written in the second verse, “the Lord rebuilds Jerusalem” and again in verse 14, “For he has strengthened the bars of your gates.” There are several references to the exile, “healer of the broken-hearted”, which is now assuaged by God’s love and comfort of God’s people. There are several references to power, specifically military power, in the lines about the strength of the horse and the strength of a man. The purpose of these allusions is to underscore that it was not military might that accomplished the return to Jerusalem, but God’s good word and intention. The final verses are a reverie on the breath of God – the wind and word of God’s mouth that makes all things possible.

Breaking open Psalm 147:
1.     What in your life has God renewed?
2.     How did you praise God for that?
3.     What is God’s word for you?

Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Here Paul speaks to the people of Galatia about what it means to be an heir, a son, and a daughter. It might be helpful for you to read the entirety of Chapter 3 in that it gives the principles of the argument that Paul is attempting to make here: Abraham, the Law, and the Promise. Paul contrasts the binding nature of Law with the faith that designates us as children of God. Thus, there are no distinctions, Jew – Greek, male – female, etc. Paul argues for a recognition of a change of status. His readers would have known both states – slavery and inheritance. It is that contrast that he wants them to understand and to realize their own change of status, “so you are no longer a slave.”

Breaking open Galatians:
1.     What are the rules that constrict your life?
2.     How can you be freed from them?
3.     How are you a slave, an heir?

The Gospel: St. John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

Just as the prologue in the reading from Hebrews (see the Lectionary for Christmas Day III), so the Prologue of John is a forecast of both themes and symbols that will become central to our understanding of his theology. Some think that it was originally an early Christian hymn to the Logos, given its structure and poetic content. It is interrupted, in a way, with the appearance of the Baptist – the forerunner and broadcaster of this same message. 

Although there is a Greek influence here, we must not be forgetful of the Jewish core to this composition, formed as it is on the account of creation itself. All things, including Jesus, either begin here, or in the case of Jesus are present here to be a part of the spirit-infused creation that will make for life. The Word, the ru’ah, the spirit, Jesus, and God are all in relationship here, making for something new. That the essential content of John’s Gospel is God’s gift of life to a dying word – a gift made possible by the one who is offered on the tree – is an extension of the story that will be, and was seen in several iterations though prophets, psalmists, and historians.  The culmination is finally reached in this phrase, “and the Word became flesh.” In the incarnation there is now a connection with humankind as well, a realization that we are all a part of this story. The traditional Christmas text from Luke tempts us to see the nativity as something outside of ourselves. John’s Prologue brings us right into the center with all things. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is the gift that John gives us here?
2.     When does the Christian story begin for you?
3.    How does it end?

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

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

21 December 2017

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, 24 December 2017

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Canticle 13 or 15, or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
St. Luke 1:26-38

Background: The Annunciation

The Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Advent is also the reading for The Feast of the Annunciation celebrated on 25 March. Both Christmas and the Annunciation are celebrated at proximate points to the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, a sign of how the liturgical year has incorporated the calendar of some ancient feasts. In the Eastern Church this day is one of the Great Feasts. The feast is celebrated widely in the liturgical churches, Eastern, Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran. The day was known as Lady Day in England, and was New Year’s Day in many Christian Countries, until it was moved to 1 January by Charles IX of France. In England all servile work was banned on this day making it a day of rest.

First Reading: II Samuel 7:1-11, 16

When the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you."

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus, says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

One could write a fine article on the place of the Temple in Israel’s social, political, dynastic, and liturgical life, but that is not why this reading is included here on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. The issue has more of a theological bent, namely, the indwelling of God in the midst of God’s people. That will be the theological point of the Gospel reading, and this discussion with Nathan the prophet, helps us to journey there as well. One might even make for some allegory here, the God who prefers at this point to dwell amid curtains and wood, also chooses to live in the frailty of human flesh and blood. There is also the aspect of waiting until the appropriate time for the temple to be built. The discussion with Nathan becomes a moment of concentration and meditation on God’s presence and purpose with Israel.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What have you hoped for in your life, that you have yet to see?
2.      What are David’s hopes?
3.      Where is God present for you?

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

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

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

Here Mary looks back, knowing and acknowledging God’s great acts of the past. Somehow, I think that forms the context for her knowing in a profound way what will happen to her (and to Elizabeth) as they become a larger part of the story already seen, and recreated in the acts of Jesus. Luke’s agenda of love and care for those who stand at the edge of society is evident and we begin to see how radically different this time will be.

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


Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Misericordias Domini

     Your love, O Lord, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.
2      For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.
3      "I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
4      'I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.'"
19    You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: *
"I have set the crown upon a warrior
and have exalted one chosen out of the people.
20    I have found David my servant; *
with my holy oil have I anointed him.
21    My hand will hold him fast *
and my arm will make him strong.
22    No enemy shall deceive him, *
nor any wicked man bring him down.
23    I will crush his foes before him *
and strike down those who hate him.
24    My faithfulness and love shall be with him, *
and he shall be victorious through my Name.
25    I shall make his dominion extend *
from the Great Sea to the River.
26    He will say to me, 'You are my Father, *
my God, and the rock of my salvation.'

We have snippets from psalm 89, and as usual it might be best to read the psalm in its entirety first, and then devote oneself to the liturgical reading of the psalm. One aspect of the first reading, namely the continuance of the house of David, is repeated and celebrated in the verses of this psalm. It’s relevance to this Sunday of Advent can be tied to the whole notion of the House of David, and Jesus’ role as a successor in that lineage. God clearly states that he is on the side of David and his lineage, protecting them through the ages. One other notion that is applauded in this hymn is the wide expanse of God’s rule – David’s rule, “I shall make his dominion extend from the Great Sea to the river.” That idea, perhaps, leads to the universalism that is known in the later prophets, and in the Gospel of Luke.

Breaking open Psalm 89:
1.     What aspects of David’s kingship would you expect Jesus to follow?
2.     What does God promise David?
3.     How does Jesus participate in that promise?

Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

This doxology, which provides a perfect ending to all of the readings for this day, may or may not be an original part of the letter. It really doesn’t matter because its desire for the praise of God, and its exploration of the mystery disclosed by the prophets must be our response as we await with prophet, with Joseph, and with Mary for the Coming One.

Breaking open Romans:
1.     What is the mystery that Paul talks about here:
2.     How do you understand that mystery?
3.     How do you praise God?

The Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Mary sits in a long line of women who are promised a future in an expected child. She is unlike them in that she is not seen as barren or too old for such a promise to be realized. Here the Angel Gabriel visits here and makes the promise known. The place of this annunciation is unusual. There is no temple, there is no capital city, there is only the outback of Galilee, which says something about the Coming One and his place amongst the people. The one who will announce the Coming One, is born in the midst of the establishment – the priestly caste, the temple, and the city of Jerusalem. The coming Jesus, however, is not without his own links to this holy hierarchy, “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”

It is Mary’s demeanor in this reading that can be a lesson to the Advent people. First of all she is troubled – what she has heard matters, it is confusing to her, but she knows that it will make sense. Even at this point she enters a stage of discernment about what all this might mean for her, a discernment that continues after the birth as she ponders its meaning. The final lesson is the one of acceptance in which she agrees to be God’s agent and handmaiden. As we stand waiting to remember the stable and God’s presence there in God’s son, we too must accept all the responsibility that this birth will bring. Let it be with us according to God’s word.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How do you picture Mary in your mind?
2.     When have you been troubled by what God has asked of you?
3.     What has God asked of you?

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

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2017, Michael T. Hiller