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


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