Archives for November 2012

Lea Colvill

Lea Colvill is a senior at the School of Theology at Sewanee and is a candidate from the Diocese of Montana. She enjoys traveling in a VW bus with her family, gluten-free cooking and yoga.

Read Lea’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 4 Advent (C).

Read Lea’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Proper 16 (A).

Bible Study: 4 Advent (C)

December 23, 2012

Lea Colvill, Sewanee

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 1:41)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Micah 5:2-5

Micah was from a rural area that the King of Assyria razed in Micah’s youth. Micah criticized the urban elite from Jerusalem for corruption in morals and business. He warned that the Temple would be destroyed if the nation did not repent; and the Temple was destroyed about 150 years later.

Micah was longing for moral courage in this passage. If his people would repent and demonstrate moral courage, then God might grant them the military might to cast off invaders, such as the Assyrians, and restore national unity through a Messiah. The title “Messiah” invokes an idea of militarily strong and extraordinarily moral leadership selected by God.

Bethlehem stands for rural values, and for King David because he was from Bethlehem, the youngest son of a shepherding family. King David became a great warrior and symbol of Israel’s golden age of national unity and military might. This passage reminds us of Micah’s criticism of corruption, his longing for national restoration to moral courage and that the long-awaited Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

How do you imagine a nation of moral courage?

What has God allowed to be destroyed in your own life to call you to repentance?

Psalm 80

The people who need to be restored in this prayer are the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh – the tribes of the north. For Christians, this family is a symbol of the world. Joseph stands for those who are enslaved or in prison. Benjamin stands for the young and orphaned because he was the youngest and his mother died in childbirth. Ephraim and Manasseh are brothers born in refugee status but welcomed as heirs back into their families. They are the people who do not know the customs and yet belong to us. Ephraim and Manasseh are also two boys who have their birth order reversed when they are blessed, so one gets more than he expects and the other gets less. These lost tribes are the people who have tears instead of bread and are scorned by those who do not care.

“Restore all of us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (v. 19).

When have you felt laughed to scorn?

Who is left out in your family, school or workplace, neighborhood, or community? Who might partner with you in imagining restoration?

Hebrews 10:5-10

This passage assumes that the reader knows the rites for purification in the Temple and the psalms well enough to fill in the blanks and create a medley that will say more than what is written.

The phrase “a body prepared” (v. 5) reminds us of the offerings for every sin recorded in Leviticus 4:1-5:13. The size of the offering (grain, pigeons, doves, sheep, goats and bulls) was based on the station of the sinner, not the severity of the sin. The body God prepared was his own son because he desired to be reconciled to us.

The phrase “in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings” (v. 6) comes from Psalm 40:7. The implied refrain is, “I love to do your will, O my God, your law is deep within my heart.”

The phrase “You have neither desired … sin-offerings” (v. 8) refers to Psalm 51:17-18: “I would have offered sacrifice, but you take no delight in burnt offerings. The Sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart.” Offerings for sin treated the symptoms, but an obedient heart turned to God can be cured. The end of the old way makes way for the new.

Are there verses in this reading that echo through your imagination?

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

In this passage, Mary visits her relative Elizabeth, who is also carrying a miraculous child. Elizabeth’s son in her old age will be John the Baptist, and even in utero, he is filled with the Holy Spirit announcing Jesus. Later in Luke, Jesus said, “What has been hidden from the wise will be revealed to infants” (Luke 10:21). Elizabeth’s greeting is the cry of the Holy Spirit and an external validation of Mary’s internal experience. Her annunciation story has the form of the call of a prophet. This form would have been as clear to first-century listeners as the form of a knock-knock joke is to us. Mary’s prophecy is the passage we call the Magnificat. It is similar to the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel, Chapter 2. It is not a future wish but is already fulfilled. The couplets in her song amplify each other, as is common in Hebrew poetry. You can nearly hear Elizabeth nodding in agreement to encourage her to say more. Mary and Elizabeth invite even women, young and old, into the unfolding salvation story.

What is being made new around you?

How can you partner with God and others in this?

4 Advent (C) – 2012

Reflections at the end of Advent

December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Don’t you love it when people ask you, “Are you ready for Christmas?” A good answer is, “No, but it’s coming anyway, so let’s all be joyful!”

This week we pay for that bridge week between Thanksgiving and Advent by having a truncated fourth week in Advent. It barely begins before we move to Christmas Eve, then Christmas itself. But, truly, we’re never ready. Advent is a deliberate escape from the frantic pulse of getting ready. It gives us breathing room; only, this year, almost a week less than usual.

In today’s readings we are taken to a very different space from preparation, a space of ancient prophecy in Micah, theology in Hebrews, and a docudrama of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. You will not likely find any holiday arts or crafts for sale that help us reflect on these spaces, yet each of them contributes greatly to our end-of-Advent experience, and spills over into Christmas. Let’s look at them in turn.

Micah was an eighth-century prophet. He is one of a group whose prophecies are primarily designed to call the Kingdom back to its common core values of righteousness and justice, especially for the poor. This passage today should not be understood in any other context. It is not to be viewed as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, though Christians often interpret it that way. It is rather a vision of restoration, of righteousness with kingship that cares for the values of a nation that have been lost.

While the image “she who is in labor has brought forth” is often equated with Mary, the phrasing in its original Hebrew is ambiguous, and the “she” could refer to the nation or something else. Micah is concerned about political history and its future, and how God will deliver God’s people, but he is not necessarily prophesying a Messiah in the way many have chosen to interpret his prophecy.

The significant message of Micah is that in the midst of turmoil and in a nation that has lost its bearings, God’s plan will continue to be revealed and it will involve leadership that brings in a reign of peace. This is a message of hope we badly need to hear in our time.

“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” The psalmist picks up this longing for restoration and is a great lead-in to the reading from Hebrews.

Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God’s plan involves a restoration not based on sacrifice and expensive offerings, but on God’s gracious action of sanctifying each of us as holy beings, worthy of being loved by our Savior and Redeemer. Now that’s a Christmas present!

You can feel the emotional movement from Micah to Hebrews, a faint hope now answered in the birth of Jesus, a resounding message of peace for all humanity; those who have gone before, the living and those yet to come.

Finally, we get to this wonderful drama in the Gospel of Luke, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. It helps to recall that Mary is a very young girl, likely in her early teens, while Elizabeth is older, mature. They have the intimacy of being related; but did they talk only of domestic things? One doubts they did. Both of them had remarkable experiences surrounding their pregnancies, and they share the awareness of Divine involvement. Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, rings down through the centuries, a fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, and the validation of a God who cares for all creation and loves it into redemption with justice and grace.

The early Christian church used this story of the Visitation in Luke as a foundation for the Incarnation. Luke includes it as part of the birth narrative because the church was seeking to explain and affirm that the birth of Jesus was not just another one of those “virgin births.” Many rulers had claimed similar origins to justify their deification. The forming church wanted to clarify the God incarnate, man divine, as an affirmation of humanity, and that is what begins to attract people to this remarkable gospel and to Jesus.

This last Sunday of Advent gives us a brief time to reflect upon and kindle within ourselves the light of the incarnate Lord. The foundation is laid for what we will find at the manger. Now let us prepare to join the shepherds and the angels in great joy over what God has done for us.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is an Episcopal priest serving as vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark.

Broderick Greer

Broderick Greer is a second-year Master’s of Divinity student at the Virginia Theological Seminary and a postulant in the Diocese of West Tennessee. He micro-blogs at Twitter and blogs at The Huffington Post.

Read Broderick’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 2 Easter (B).

Read Broderick’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 3 Advent (C).

Read Broderick’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Proper 9 (C).

Read Broderick’s sermon for Thanksgiving (C) – 2013.

Bible Study: 3 Advent (C)

December 16, 2012

Broderick Greer, Virginia Theological Seminary

“Even now the axe 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.” (Luke 3:9)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zephaniah’s prophetic work came at a time of bankrupt religious and political leadership in Israel’s history: idolatry is rampant, national identity is waning, social and economic violence are commonplace, and priests are profaning the sacred. God is not in any way pleased with the trajectory Israel has chosen for itself. I was surprised by what I found (after finally finding Zephaniah in my Bible): a “minor” prophet with a major voice. After promising to “utterly sweep everything from the face of the earth” (1:1); destroy the Ethiopians (2:12); and after calling the prophets of Jerusalem “faithless” (3:4), Zephaniah tells Israel to sing. And not just sing. Zephaniah admonishes the people of God to rejoice and exult with all their hearts, because the “LORD has taken away the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies” (3:15a). Zephaniah describes the source of Israel’s rejoicing: “The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” (3:15b).

Zephaniah challenges his people to imagine a new future for themselves. He challenges them to imagine a future with God on the throne. He challenges them to imagine a future where fear is unnatural, idolatry is irrelevant, and God’s merciful justice is the new status quo. For Zephaniah, God’s judgment is not an end in itself. For Zephaniah, God’s judgment is a means to an end. It is God’s vehicle for renewing and sustaining God’s chosen people. And in a beautifully circular moment, the same God who admonishes Israel to sing now sings over Israel (3:17). God joins Israel in rejoicing in a world set to rights. Since meaningful music cannot be contained, it spreads to the lame and outcast, turning their “shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (3:19). The God of the prophet Zephaniah is good and merciful and just and wants to share that with Israel in deep and transformative ways. If only they had realized that from the beginning. If only we knew that now.

What does the God’s singing voice sound like? What does God’s song sound like? What would it look like if we joined in the song with God?

Canticle 9

One of the most frustrating aspects of Advent is the waiting. Elizabeth waits her whole life to bear a son. Zechariah waits months before being able to speak again. Mary waits atop a donkey on her and Joseph’s trek to Bethlehem. There seems to be a lot of waiting in Bible. And the hard work of waiting may not even rest in the waiting itself. I think it rests in navigating and discerning what to do in the midst of waiting. For a reason unbeknownst to me, I believe this song is an ideal meditation at this particular point in Advent. After three weeks of waiting, we still have one week to go. This song is a sharp reminder of our hope and assurance in God. This song helps provoke an imagination of life wholly centered on and in the living God. Because of our wider culture’s imposition of a long Christmas (November 1-December 25), it can hard to resist the temptation of consumerism. Isaiah’s imagination places God in the center of life, as his sole source of rescue and safety (12:2). Isaiah calls us to trust in God instead of trusting in capitalism or a robust economy or the newest gadgets and toys.

I know that when I am waiting for an important package to arrive in the mail, I will begin waiting for it with great anticipation. But as time goes on, I will often forget about its imminent arrival and become distracted by other things. The prophet Isaiah was well aware of the human inclination toward forgetfulness, and tells his people to “see that they remember that [God’s] Name is exalted” (12:4b). One task of the church is reminding the world of all the great things God has done. God is our rescuer. God is our stronghold. God is our sure defense. The good news of Isaiah is that the God of Israel is not ours for the keeping. The deeds of the LORD are to be made known “among the peoples” (i.e., everybody). Isaiah encourages us to be generous in our retelling of God’s gracious goodness toward us. This goodness is worthy of our pronouncement. So, cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel!

Isaiah encourages his hearers to make God’s “deeds known among the peoples.” In what ways can you make the deeds of God known among the peoples? What deeds of God are worth retelling?

Philippians 4:4-7

You only have to go as far as your nearest Transportation Security Administration checkpoint to gauge American society’s collective anxiety. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States spent $711,000,000 on military protection and maintenance this year (http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2012/04). In the months and subsequent years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, our country launched conflicts in two different countries and liberally imprisoned American citizens who didn’t look “American” enough, all for the sake of peace. But this is not peace at all. It is a “peace” rooted in worry. It is a “peace” rooted in anxiety. For St. Paul, peace is not a fleeting feeling, but a solid reality anchored in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This peace, according to the aging apostle, surpasses all understanding. The peace of Christ is not strengthened by nuclear arms or pre-emptive military strikes, but through prayer, supplication and thanksgiving. This is countercultural, right?

While our country continues pumping funds into defense budgets and border patrols, Jesus calls his disciples to practice the way of peace by conforming to the most vulnerable of postures: kneeling. Knees aren’t made for walking or running. Knees are hinge points of flexibility. And maybe the lasting peace and security hinge on our ability to kneel, requesting God’s help, celebrating God’s presence, and contemplating God’s self-disclosure: Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus do not have time to waste on worry or anxiety. The time is urgent. The Lord is near. The world is in desperate need of gentle people who are centered, non-anxious and joyful. Jesus, through St. Paul, invites us to join him on the road toward a peaceful future. It won’t hurt to invite others on the journey with us.

What makes you anxious? Have you offered that anxiety over to God? Take five minutes to sit in silence and offer God everything: your worries, your joys, your failures and your gratitude. Invite God to be your companion on the road toward peace.

Luke 3:7-18

St. John the Baptist never pulled any punches. (If your diet consisted of locusts and wild honey and your wardrobe was camel hide, you wouldn’t either.) He was a bold public witness of God’s ongoing drama of cosmic rescue. He was busy calling Israel back to its primal vocation: as participants in God’s generosity. He calls on the crowd to share a coat with a person who needs one and food with the hungry. He encourages soldiers and tax collectors to practice honesty in their oft-corrupt professional dealings. Yes, the desert-roaming prophet can come off as a little pushy, but sometimes pushiness is necessary. Like a fire marshal attempting to rescue every person she possibly can, the saintly baptizer is attempting to rescue Israel from itself. Dishonesty and selfishness tear communities down. Honesty and generosity strengthen communities.

St. John the Baptist is a model Advent practitioner; even though his public preaching is drawing throngs of people, he points beyond himself to the coming Messiah. At its core, Christian vocation is just that: an emptying of self for the sake of the One “who is more powerful than I.” Like St. John the Baptist, we are not worthy to untie the throng of Jesus’ sandals. But our unworthiness needn’t distract us from the work Jesus has given us to do. In this Advent season, Jesus calls his church to prepare the world for his coming. Through public proclamation and private conversation, the church is always on the fringes of society calling people toward Love. We are mistaken if we believe this Love can be easily dismissed or effortlessly ignored. No, this Love has demands: that we treat our neighbors justly and turn away from practices that undermine the mercy of God.

Jesus is coming to “clear his threshing-floor and to gather his wheat into his granary” and to burn chaff with “unquenchable fire.” What parts of your life could use some burning? How can you join St. John the Baptist in preparing the world for the coming of Jesus on Christmas?

3 Advent (C) – 2012

Complex darkness

December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Technically, Christmas lasts 12 days. It starts at sundown Christmas Eve and continues until January 6, the Epiphany. In the old days, Christians refrained from Christmas celebration until Christmas Eve. Not even the tree would go up before then, as people respected the holy anticipation of Advent.

However, faith often follows practice, and practice has effectively changed the timing of Advent and Christmas Advent no longer occupies the four weeks before Christmas. To the extent it exists at all, Advent falls between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas is inaugurated by a regal Santa floating down 34th street, at the end of the Macy’s parade. It continues until Christmas Day, when it stops cold in its tracks.

So here it is, nine days before the end of pop Christmas, and we’re weary-worn, tired of hearing “Silver Bells” waft through the canned-goods section at the grocery store.

But why complain like Scrooge? This isn’t the first time Christians have folded to pop culture. Both Christmas and Easter arrived at their current locations on the calendar in part because of pagan celebrations: Easter, mimicking both popular spring fertility rituals and the vernal equinox; and Christmas, honoring winter solstice celebrations. So what if retail stores command Christmas observance long before the exact day? Who are we to complain?

The problem is, John the itinerant Baptist does complain. He refuses to let you or anyone else skip Advent.

John is shouting at the top of his lungs: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”

You just wanted to buy one more Christmas present.

“I’m talkin’ to you!” John continues as you walk down the sidewalk toward him.

Who? Me? You look up to see this homeless guy pointing his boney finger at you, spittle coagulating at the edge of his thick beard.

“God doesn’t need your so-called-faith,” he continues. “God can turn these stones into Christians!”

You can tell – this guy is crazy.

Only he isn’t crazy. He is tenacious; but he isn’t crazy.

Time to live your faith.

You mutter to yourself about the city and how it won’t take care of the riff raff, all the while fishing in your pocket for a $5 bill to drop into the Salvation Army bucket.

“That paltry donation isn’t going to buy anybody anything! I’m talkn’ to you. Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

The man is exhausting your already waning Christmas spirit. If he hopes you’ll give him a ten, he’s sorely mistaken.

Only, he doesn’t want your money; he wants your soul. He wants to know: What difference do you really make? In this confused world of complex darkness?

The man’s eyes are God’s eyes, and now you can’t help but wonder the same thing: What difference?

Complex darkness.

The winter solstice takes place this coming Friday, December 21, at 11:12 a.m., Greenwich Mean Time. At the solstice, the complex darkness of an empty winter expands like bellows inhaling light, exhaling darkness. Darkness overwhelms and crushes; the soul is lost in a sea of nihilism. It is winter yet again? And your imagination wonders, just like John asks, What am I doing here? Do I have purpose?

Seasonal affective disorder, holiday blues, simple self-questioning. What’s it all about, anyway? Winter darkness can seem so very, very oppressive.

Only, don’t you know? Darkness is not the same as eternal night. Paradoxically, light is hidden within darkness, in its corners, beneath thick blankets. Playing hide and seek, light waits eternally for you to discover grace.

In her poem, “Twelfth Night,” Laurie Lee writes:

“No night could be darker than this night,
no cold so cold …
O never again, it seems, can green things run …
from this dark lung of winter.”

Darkness and cold, night and eternal sleep. John the Baptist frames the darkness for you: What are you doing here, anyway?

What you don’t know is this: Hidden in the dark words of John’s question is resplendent light. When John wonders, “What are you doing here?” he is actually claiming, “You have purpose.”

But John is not one to let you off the hook easily. Meaning: Faith is not simple; it isn’t easy; it takes attention. “God can turn these stones into Christians!” he reminds us. Don’t take your faith for granted.

But this is Christmas, and all you want is a little peace.

“You brood of snakes.”

The Revelation of Peter is an extra-biblical text that was discovered in 1945 among the Dead Sea Scrolls. When written at the end of the first century, Christians faced fierce persecution, and many, Peter included, were being tortured and killed. Christians needed to know that God had not abandoned them – in the stadiums, facing lions, being crucified upside down. They needed to know their life was not being given in vain, that they had purpose.

The times were dark, and these people needed light.

The Revelation opens with a visit to Peter from Jesus. Peter sees himself in the Temple, when a murderous hoard of people run up to attack him. Peter is afraid, but Jesus reassures him: “Put your hands … over your eyes, and tell me what you see.”

Peter covers his eyes, and answers, “Nothing.”

Jesus tells him to do it again.

This time in the darkness, Peter sees a bright light – brighter than the sun. Only the light is not new, it is a light that had been there all along, only Peter couldn’t see it. This light infuses Peter with strength and hope, enough to face persecution and ultimately death.

Enough to share with the other Christians, also facing death. Light – hidden under the thick blanket of darkness.

Light – and hope and confidence that there is more to reality than what you see.

This is the same light neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander observed and described in his new book, “Proof of Heaven.” During his very real, near-death experience, Dr. Alexander was ushered into a pitch-black void, a darkness that Alexander described as paradoxically and simultaneously brimming with light. Complete darkness containing absolute light.

Later, Dr. Alexander quoted the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan to explain his experience: “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness.”

In God, a dazzling darkness.

John the Baptist, full of the Spirit of God, interrupts your dull light of Christmas cheer with disturbingly dark words. But these dark words are meant not just to break, but to heal; not just to crush, but to build.

Do you need real light this Christmas season? Do you need real hope?

Perhaps you will find tucked deep into John’s dark accusation some ray of hope. For there you will find the promise that God refuses to leave you, or anyone else, alone.

Laurie Lee continues her poem: “For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows.”

And it is out of utter coldness that the babe is born. That hope is born. Which is what Isaiah meant when he beat John the Baptist to the punch and proclaimed, “The people who lived in deep darkness, on them a light has shined.”

Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

2 Advent (C) – 2012

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be

December 9, 2012

Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Have you ever thought to yourself, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”?

Maybe it was the latest report of rockets falling in Israel. Maybe it was images of the security fence along the West Bank. Maybe it was a report on dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Maybe it was the story of the mother of an aspiring 13-year-old cheerleader hiring a hit man to kill the mother of a rival cheerleader. Maybe it was the latest family gathering that ended in shouting. Maybe it was the stupid thing I said when I just should have kept my mouth shut.

“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

If you have ever felt this way, then you have a sense of the biblical concept of sin. As you may have noticed, it is complex. Two things are actually going on when you say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” First of all, you have a sense that something is not right. But there is also a second thing. In order to say that something isn’t right, you also need a vision of what things are supposed to be like. So sin, in the biblical tradition, is a derivative concept. First, you have to have some sense of what is right. Only then can you say something is wrong.

In the biblical tradition the vision for how things ought to be is called shalom. We translate this word as “peace,” but it means much more than an absence of warfare or a calm state of mind. Shalom or peace in the scriptures means universal flourishing, wholeness, harmony, delight. The prophets spoke of a time when crookedness would be made straight, when rough places would be made smooth, when flowers would bloom in the desert, when weeping would cease, when the lion would lay down with the lamb, when the foolish would be made wise, when the wise would be made humble, when humans would beat their swords into ploughshares. All nature would be fruitful and benign, all nations sit down together for a sumptuous feast, all creation would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God.

As Cornelius Plantinga says in his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” shalom is a “rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” In the Bible, shalom, or peace, is the way things are supposed to be.

Sin, the way things aren’t supposed to be, is the violation of shalom. Of course, sin is an affront to God, but it is an affront to God because it breaks God’s peace. And what breaks God’s peace? Twisting the good things of creation so that they serve unworthy ends. Splitting apart things that belong together. Putting together things that ought to be kept apart. The corruption of personal and social and natural integrity. A moment’s reflection or a look at the evening news can easily supply specific examples.

Now, all this talk about sin may sound like a bit of a downer. Especially on December 9. Many of us are getting into the holiday spirit. Decorating the tree. Listening to Christmas carols. Feeling jolly. We even came to church this morning! But instead of the baby Jesus and heavenly choirs of angels, we get John the Baptist, a rough prophet prowling about in the Judean wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not exactly “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas”!

But here’s the strange thing. We still refer to this message as good news. After the gospel lesson is read, the deacon or the person appointed to read this passage will have the audacity to say, “The gospel of the Lord.” That is to say, “the Good News of the Lord.” How can this be? Some of us will say, “No way.” An Old Testament prophet wagging his finger at us and calling us sinners is definitely not good news. Others of us may be willing to admit the importance of John’s message, but only as a prelude to good news, something we must do to get ready for good news of the birth of a savior. We need to go through the hard process of acknowledging and repenting of our sins so that we may make ourselves ready for the gift of Christ. It may be a necessary process, but we still wouldn’t call it good news. The doctor who tells us we have to give up fatty foods and start exercising may be telling us a truth we need to hear, but we won’t really rejoice and burst into song when we hear it.

And yet there is a way that John’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins can actually be seen as good news, and not just as a necessary, grit-our-teeth-and-get-through-it prelude to good news. After the lesson, the deacon will say, “The gospel of the Lord,” and we can respond, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” not with a palms-up, raised-eyebrow puzzled expression. We can really mean it.

How?

I think we can see John the Baptist’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news in three ways. First, if we hear John’s message and it rings true, if we have ever said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” then we already know God’s peace. As noted before, in the biblical view, sin is a derivative concept. We must already have a vision of how things ought to be if we feel as though things aren’t that way. We must have some sense of God’s peace, to know when it is broken. And this is good news. We do have a vision of God’s shalom, God’s peace. It has been given to us in our scriptures, and in our religious traditions, and in our reflection on creation. We have been given a vision of the world as created and redeemed by our good and generous God, a world made to be fruitful, abundant, harmonious, life-giving, peaceful, whole, filled with deep and abiding joy. If we hear and respond to John’s message about sin, then we must already know about God’s peace. And that is good news.

A second way we can see John’s message as good news is that if we hear and respond to his call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then we must believe that there is something we can do about it. John is not saying things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and they never will be; get used to it. His is not a message of futility in the face of the brokenness of God’s creation. Rather, it is a liberating and joyful call to realign our individual and collective wills with the purposes of God. If we already know of God’s vision of shalom, we can be people who promote flourishing, seek wholeness and restore harmony. We can be repairers of the breach. To hear and respond to John’s message is good news, because in spite of the fact that things aren’t the way they should be, they can change and so can we. People can stop killing each other. Hungry people can get fed. Parents can love their families and raise healthy children. Enemies can become friends. It is good and, indeed, joyful news to know that we are free to respond to God’s call to shalom.

Finally, we can hear John’s message about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news because if we already know God’s peace, if we can respond to the call of God’s peace, then in some deep way we already trust in the eventual triumph of God’s peace.

In our gospel lesson, John is described by the words of the prophet Isaiah as:

“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It is an emphatic message: all flesh will see the salvation of God. And this is good news, the Good News. Yes, things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. But we already know God’s vision of shalom. We can turn our hearts and minds to God’s purposes. And we can trust that someday all things will be put to rights, all tears will be wiped away, all swords will be beat into ploughshares, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. God and God’s peace will be triumphant in the end. And we know this because in the birth of Jesus, these eyes of ours have seen the savior, who is Christ the Lord, and he shall be called “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. We know this because we already know God’s peace. Through a process of repentance we can align ourselves with God’s purposes, God’s peace, the way things are supposed to be. And we can do this in spirit of gratitude, joy and trust because we have been given a promise of the eventual triumph of God’s shalom in the birth of a baby who is the prince of peace.

That is Good News!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

1 Advent (C) – 2012

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer

December 2, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.”

Jesus foretold of horrors so great that people would faint with fear at the end of the world. Over the 2,000 years since Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, the surest way to prove oneself a false prophet has been to name a date for the return of our Lord. According to prediction after prediction, we should not be here at all.

Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

The world should have ended 1,000 years ago when the first millennial scare hit. Or maybe one of the many other times a warning went out that the end is near. Time and again, people have wrongly predicted the end of the world. We only have to look back and snicker at how the Y2K threat fizzled out with hardly a whimper to see how big scares can turn into nothing.

Jesus says, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

The disciples thought Jesus would come back soon, maybe, probably, even in their lifetime. They lived their lives thinking that at any moment Jesus would return. It’s like holding off just a few more moments by saying, “Wait for it. Wait for it. Now!” But they had the “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And “now” never came. In fact, it has yet to come. The Christian church around the world has been collectively holding its breath for nearly twenty centuries – always waiting, always watching. And still the time has not come for Jesus’ return. Not yet.

Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Advent: the word means “coming.” This is the first day of the new church year, and like every church year, we start by remembering when Jesus first came into the world and remembering that he will come again. Yet we can’t walk around all the time with our heads raised to the sky in anticipation, can we? We would look silly and nothing would be accomplished. What are we supposed to do if we think the world is falling down around us? The great reformer Martin Luther was asked this very sort of question. Someone challenged, “What would you do if you heard that Jesus would return tomorrow?” Martin Luther said that he would plant a tree. For in all likelihood, the rumor would be untrue. After all, Jesus said elsewhere that no one knows the hour or day when he would return. No one but the Father. So why not plant a tree and plan for the future? Then if Luther was wrong and his Lord did return, he would find Luther taking care of the earth.

Jesus told this parable, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

The signs will be there for anyone to see. We need only look around us to see that the world is coming to an end. But there have been so many signs. Thirty years after Jesus’ death, the Romans crushed the Jews in a horrible war that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Many Christians at that time still worshipped at the Temple. How could that not be the beginning of the end? Or what about the fall of the Roman Empire, or the rise and fall of the Nazi Empire, or Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia or the many other conquests for power that have ended in the deaths of tens of thousands? Were these not the signs of the end?  How could we possibly know what truly signals the end of times?

So if we humans have proven stunningly bad at reading the signs of the times, what good are passages like this? Why bother with the Apocalypse anyway? We may get an Apocalypse – an end of the world sometime. But the Apocalypse is always immanent. Soon and very soon. When will the Apocalypse be now?

Today is the end of the world, right now. This is the day for somebody. Thousands of somebodies – maybe a million or more. All over the world, today is the day of judgment. Many, many people will die today. Many others will reach an important point of decision. For all those people, the end is very near.

Passages like this remind us that we don’t have forever to decide what we think about this Jesus of Nazareth. There is a time to decide, and that time is always now. We always have now. Jesus reminds us that we don’t always have later. Jesus either was who he said he was, the Son of God, or not. And if he was who he said he was, we can have a relationship with him right now. Then the end of the world is more or less irrelevant, as we have already begun eternal life. But if he wasn’t who he said he was, then he was just plain crazy and we should drop the whole thing. It’s that straightforward.

Passages like the gospel reading for this morning remind us that we are in a radical option situation right now. We can accept or we can reject. Either way, the Kingdom of God is near. If we accept God, we enter into that kingdom here and now. If we reject God, then we are still standing by waiting and watching.

Chicken Little runs around in the fable yelling, scaring everyone with the news that the sky is falling. All that happened was an acorn fell on her head, but she just repeated, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky is falling,” until everyone but the fox was scared, too. Today, some folks have said the end is near so often that they can sound about like Chicken Little to us. But try this Christian version: Instead of “The sky is falling,” think “The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near.” Because whether Jesus returns in glory before this service is completed or he waits another millennium, the Kingdom of God is near.

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer. The Kingdom of God is as near as the bread and wine in this communion service. God is here among us, and the Kingdom of God is very near indeed.

Jesus says that we are to be on our guard that our hearts are not weighted down. He told us to be alert at all times, praying. But we need not fear the end of the world. If there is distress among the nations or even if the sky is truly falling, we need not be afraid. That Christ is coming is Good News. And as the Body of Christ gathered on this day, we rejoice that Jesus is not waiting to come into the world at the end of time alone.

Yes, we affirm a belief in Jesus’ return in glory at the end of the age, but more importantly, we affirm that Jesus is here in our midst right now as more than two or three are gathered.

And in our hearts as we worship, the Kingdom of God is near. Thanks be to God! We need not fear the signs of the times, we only need to trust in our Lord.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs on congregational development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Bible Study: 2 Advent (C)

December 9, 2012

Jordan Haynie, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’” (Luke 3:4) 

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79)Philippians 1:3-11Luke 3:1-6

Malachi 3:1-4

Advent can be a tough time. We all just want to think about candy canes, ugly sweaters, children dancing the Nutcracker, eggnog and sweet little Jesus in the manger. But this Sunday we remember Christ’s Second Advent, yet to come. The prophets uniformly call for the world to be transformed, and for all that we know to be overturned for the sake of the Kingdom. This passage says that we will “delight” in the messenger of the covenant; we will like what we hear! But who can endure it? Even if we celebrate the good news of the Kingdom of God, even though Kingdom ways are better than our ways, our ways are comfortable. Being shaken out of them will be tough.

Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79)

What does it mean that we have been set free? Is this an invitation to lawlessness? Does it mean physical freedom, that no one can make you a slave? Or is it a spiritual freedom? What does that freedom mean for our lives?

“God promised to show mercy to our fathers.” But sometimes He didn’t. Bad things still happened. What does God’s promise of mercy mean in the face of tragedy and doubt?

What a beautiful image, that “the dawn from on high shall break upon us” as the “tender compassion of our God.” What hope wells up in you as you hear this image? What will that dawn look like to you?

Philippians 1:3-11

Who do you remember with joy in every one of your prayers? What about them brings you so much joy? What hopes do you have for them?

What in this season do you long for in the compassion of Christ Jesus? Do you miss family and friends? Do you long to see justice done on earth? Do you ache for the Kingdom of God to be made manifest?

How can your love overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight? What encourages you to love more and more every day?

Luke 3:1-6

John the Baptist is such an odd figure for the church. We admire and revere him for his work proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, and for baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan, but if we’re honest, he was a little bit crazy. So crazy that if we met him today, we would be pretty creeped out by him. I mean, doesn’t he sound like one of those guys with the signs that say “The End is Near!”?

But unlike those guys, John was actually right. He prepared the way of the Lord with confidence, and refused to be shaken by his crazy reputation. Sometimes, God calls us to be crazy Christians. Probably not to stand in the road with signs, but definitely to remind the world that it is not behaving in the way God intended. There are mountains and valleys, crooked and rough places. In order for God’s reign to truly be known on earth, these must be made straight and level.

How can we work to make this a reality in our own place and time?

Dorian Del Priore

Dorian Del Priore is a postulant from the Diocese of Upper South Carolina and a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va. Dorian was the youth minister at St. John’s Episcopal in Columbia, S.C., prior to seminary and currently serves at St. Patrick’s in Washington, DC. Visit his blog at: http://theawkwardanglican.wordpress.com.

Read Dorian’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 1 Advent (C).

Read Dorian’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 3 Pentecost, Proper 5 (C).

Read Dorian’s comments on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for 17 Pentecost, Proper 19 (C).