30 November 2017

The Second Sunday of Advent, 10 December 2017

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

Background: Nazirite

The nazirite was someone who was “separated” or “consecrated to YHWH. Vows were made by these individuals and they were to practice certain abstentions from certain foods, such as: wine, vinegar made from wine, grapes and raisins, and nothing that contained any trace of grapes. They were also not allowed to cut their hair (as with Samson), nor could they suffer and contact with a dead body or a grave.  In making their vow certain offerings needed to be made: a burnt offering of lamb, a sin offering of an ewe, and the peace offering of a ram, along with grain and drink offerings. The vows were either for a set period of time, or represented a permanent state (again, as with Samson). Both men and women could make the nazirite vow. John the Baptist seems to meet the definitions of this commitment, but the Gospels do not explicitly identify him as such.

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

First Isaiah’s message of confrontation and punishment is ended in chapter 39, and with chapter 40 we meet a new Isaiah and a new message. What were a call to repentance and a return to YHWH is in the coming chapters something quite different. This new message begins with the theme of comfort. This prophet lifts up God and says, “Here is your God!” This is the message that is to be proclaimed to the cities of Judah. Again, as we have seen in the last Sundays, the shepherd image appears, and the prophet sees in the shepherd’s care and leading an example of God tending to the people and feeding them. It is a tender scene, quite different from what we read last Sunday, from an even later Isaiah. What Israel had experienced in the past where the arms of foreign kings were seen as God’s wrath, we now see a God who leads the flock back into the promises given long ago at Sinai.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What comforts you in these days?
2.      How does your faith comfort you?
3.      Whom do you know that needs comforting?

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 Benedixisti, Domine

     You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
2      You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.
8      I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
9      Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10    Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11    Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12    The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
13    Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

I am always amazed when the lectionary seems to elide portions of the text (here verses 3-7) that seem to comment on the reading, especially the first reading for the day. You may want to just scan then to get the full feeling of the psalm. Perhaps the reason for the elision is that the prayer requests of verse five are celebrated as completed acts in the initial verses. Such contrasts lead us to believe that this psalm was written after the Babylonian exile. The notion of “turning back” is a theme in the elided verses and it adds meaning to the remainder of the poem. The “turning back action” behooves YHWH to repent of wrath, and the people of their foolishness in not following God.  The sweetness of verse 10 resides in a much rougher context.

Breaking open Psalm 85:
1.     What graces has God completed in your life?
2.     What are you yet waiting from God?
3.    What are others waiting from you?

Second Reading: II Peter 3:8-15a

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

What happens when the promise seems to be unfulfilled? And what happens when other teachers distort the good news for their own purposes? The author exhorts his listeners to wait in patience, and not to fear the coming day of the Lord. Time, as he explains in his initial verses in the reading, is flexible, just as our expectations must be. In short, we will be surprised. Rather than a wasted universe, the author sees the possibility of a new heaven and a new earth. Therefore we are called to wait in peace. All will be well.

Breaking open II Peter:
1.     What promises has God made to you?
2.     Which ones are you still waiting for?
3.    What can you do to make them happen?

The Gospel: St. Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

We have an interesting conundrum here. Is Mark’s Gospel about Jesus or of Jesus? The Greek word archÄ“ can be translated either as “beginning” or as “norm.” It stimulates an interesting search in which we look for the norm of Jesus’ good news and message. Perhaps that is the task for this liturgical year – a search at the roots of the message. The quote at the beginning, from both Micah and Isaiah, refers to John the Baptist, but perhaps also to a long line of prophets who had normed God’s message for their time as well. Rather than setting us in a specific setting aside the Jordan River, we are given a much broader context of the preaching and teaching that flowed from the tradition. There is however more than the tradition, for there will be a new Spirit who will initiate the Kingdom.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is your life normed by the Gospel?
2.     If you had to write a Gospel what would be its principal points?
3.    Who is God’s messenger to you?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

23 November 2017

The First Sunday of Advent, 3 December 2017

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

Background: Apocalyptic

Often the message of the prophets has mistaken as apocalyptic literature. There really is quite a difference. The prophetic work was a message from God to that certain time in which it was spoken, a call to repentance or righteousness. Apocalyptic literature often looked to the future and used weighted symbols in speaking of what was to come. Some of the prophets were known to have written in this genre, but not all of their work can be assigned to it. Joel, Zechariah, and some chapters in Isaiah (24-27, 33) along with the book of Daniel could be classified as apocalyptic.  Thus it is known in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the literature of the Christian New Testament. The development of true apocalyptic can be seen in Jeremiah and Ezekiel as well, and reaches its fullest form in Daniel, and in a series of non-canonical books, all “Apocalypse of”. Christian examples of apocalyptic can be seen in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and the Book of Revelation. Along with the tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures there is a series of apocalyptic books in an extensive non-canonical collection.

First Reading: 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.

There is a courage present in our reading for today that is evident in the first verse of the pericope, “O, that you would.” It is a clear call to YHWH to be present in deeds that will aid Israel. This is not the cry of some unrelated people to their god, but rather a family of people that are clearly related to their God – they call him Father. Hidden from them, they ask that they be delivered from the consequences of their actions and that God be present with them in how they are formed and act. God is potter and father, former and begetter. It is a request for God to come again – an appropriate Advent thought.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.      What have you pleaded to God to do?
2.      In what ways is God hidden from you?
3.      How do you wish God would make Godself known to you?

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.
2      In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
4      Lord God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
5      You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6      You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
16    Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.
17    And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
18    Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

We so often associate the psalms with David, and thus forget or do not see their relationship to a broader continuum of the history of the people. In this case the psalm deals with the Northern Kingdom (Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh). In the superscription in the Septuagint, there is a reference to the Assyrians, thus locating the psalm at a particularly difficult time in Israel’s history. We hear this as well in the “bread of tears” passage, although the second verset of that line is muted in our translation. The psalmist notes in the original that they have been given a triple measure of the bowl of tears to drink. The elided verses refer to the “vine brought out of Egypt” and the planting of the people in a new land – a land that is now being threatened by the great powers of the time. Thus the final verses of our reading refer to the “man of your right hand,” (a phrase used by Martin Luther in his hymn, ‘A Mighty Fortress’.) Someone is called for, sent from God, who can deliver God’s people, again an appropriate Advent reference.

Breaking open Psalm 80:
1.     What have been the difficult times of your life?
2.     How did you ask God to help?
3.    What was the answer?

Second Reading: I 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.

As is usual, Paul begins his epistle with a gracious greeting and thanksgiving. There is no promise of something new, but rather a celebration of what has already been given to them. They have been enriched by God with gifts of a spiritual nature, speech, and knowledge. These gifts will become an obstacle to the community in the future, and Paul will address these difficulties in the remainder of the letter. Paul, at this point, looks beyond the immediate difficulties to the end, to “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the end it is the people who have been called into a relationship with God – they are God’s people.

Breaking open I Corinthians:
1.     How have you been enriched by God?
2.     How have you used those gifts for the benefit of others?
3.    What will “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” be like?

The Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

Jesus said, “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.”

With this reading we see Mark’s “Apocalyptic Discourse”, a commentary, if you will on what will happen to the Son of Man. It might be helpful for you to read the parable discourse of 4:1-34, so that the apocalyptic can be seen in relationship not only to the narrative that Mark presents, but to the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus announces. The story of Jesus is seen here as the central segment of a history that runs from the Word of Creation to the End of Things. The pericope is divided into three segments: 1) The end is not yet (5b-23), 2) The end will come (24-27), and finally 3) When? (28-37) – Two parables. Thus the reading is to make sense of the whole experience of Jesus’ story and sayings. For latter day Christians it make sense of Jesus’ coming again.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     In whom have you seen Jesus?
2.     Where have you helped others?
3.    What were your feelings about doing that?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller