Bible Study: 1 Advent (A)

December 1, 2013

Brian Pinter, General Theological Seminary

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44; Psalm 122

Isaiah 2:1-5

Isaiah in this passage paints with the colors of peace and pilgrimage a visionary portrait for the future of all peoples. All nations, he prophesies, will live in peace because they recognize Israel’s God as the true God. This passage makes it clear that strife, hostility and fighting thwart God’s plan for peace. The course of enmity and conflict leads to a way of living that is inauthentic in light of God’s hope for humankind. When God’s law finds a permanent home in the human heart, war and violence are renounced.

The prophet recognizes that his people – and all people – are far from realizing this vision. The image of pilgrimage (vv. 2-3) subtly instills the truth that all humanity must struggle to overcome tendencies of violence, but that this journey will find peace at its end. The pilgrimage to Zion will be a long walk toward a change of heart that accepts the wisdom of God’s vision. At the journey’s end, the prophet foresees abundance regarding both temporal and spiritual needs.

Despite these divine promises – that walking in the way of the Lord will bring peace to all humanity – most of us are afraid to trust God completely in God’s vision for peace. Rather, the quick resolution that comes with winning, defeating, besting, etc., often proves irresistible. Isaiah’s prophecy we hear today summons us to hear God’s vision for us again.

What are the obstacles, personal and societal, which impede us from walking “in the light of the Lord” toward the age of peace on earth?

What must you change about your own life in order to fully respond and live the vision for peace the prophet presents?

Psalm 122

Scholars suggest that this psalm was sung by pilgrims upon arrival in the holy city of Jerusalem. Thematically, it is closely linked with our previous text from Isaiah. Notice, for example, how verse five of this psalm speaks of the “thrones of judgment,” similar to Isaiah’s proclamation of God as the arbitrator among the people (v. 4.) More significantly, the resounding hope for peace is again expressed.

This psalm reminds us of the proper orientation for, and culmination point of our lifelong pilgrimage – the peace that permeates every aspect of our lives. Not only will there be peace among nations, as Isaiah foretold, but also in the lives and hearts of every pilgrim who enters the city gates. Peace in the biblical sense meant not the absence of strife, but the fullness of life – right relationship, freedom from fear and the satisfaction of physical and spiritual needs. Jesus embraced this notion of peace and sought to bring it to all he encountered, as is evidenced by his healing miracles, exorcisms and preaching of God’s peaceful reign. The final two verses of this psalm serve as a challenge to all who hear: Do we have hearts wide enough and hope strong enough to say to all of our fellow human beings “peace be within you,” and “I will seek your good”?

Which word or phrase from this text resonates with you?

How does this text challenge you and/or give you hope?

Romans 13:11-14

Paul’s words in this passage present an interpretive challenge to modern readers. The apostle speaks in apocalyptic terms, anticipating the immediate return of Jesus and the total transformation of the world. The church (for the most part) no longer shares Paul’s expectation of imminent apocalypse, so what are we to make of his exhortation?

Continuing our theme of pilgrimage, the traveler on the spiritual journey gradually grows in relationship with Jesus, ultimately experiencing a total metamorphosis. The disciple becomes Jesus through a transformation of will, desire and action. Notice that Paul calls the hearer to express this metamorphosis through a change in one’s way of living – renewed integrity, authenticity (verse 13) and above all, peace. Paul, without saying so directly, is calling us to die to self (i.e., die to the self-centered but ultimately small desires that so often define us as we seek our own security and personal fulfillment). When we die to self, we are now free to assume the larger mind of Christ-consciousness – that way of seeing and living in the world that is characterized by compassion and love. This is the ultimate destination for the heart of every Christian wanderer.

Spend some time in quiet prayer with Paul’s teaching to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” How is the Spirit moving you to interpret that for your own life?

If Paul were writing to us today, how might he recast verse 13 for our times? What issues would he enumerate?

Matthew 24:36-44

This gospel text affirms that Jesus will indeed return, but that no one, not even Jesus himself, knows the day or hour. Such knowledge has been reserved to God alone. Some Christians, however, have interpreted the exhortation to “be ready” to mean that one must be physically prepared for the events that will accompany the Second Coming. Others attempt to calculate when this event will occur. Interestingly, such predictions and calculations often attract widespread public attention and curiosity.

While mainstream Christians usually don’t get caught up in the hype and anxiety that surround apocalyptic predictions, such incidents, as well as today’s gospel text, invite us to reflect on a few significant issues. Often, spiritually and emotionally, we distract ourselves from what is essential by focusing our attention and energy on that which is tangential and often beyond our control. But in the end these are pseudo concerns that draw us away from responding with maturity and wholeness to the Christian call for transformation of heart and mind.

In what ways do you succumb to the temptation to excessively focus on peripheral issues over which you have little control?

How might you apply Jesus exhortation to “keep awake” (verse 42) to your own life and circumstances?

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