Archives for November 2014

Inflection is everything, 3 Advent (B) – 2014

December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Inflection is everything.

What do Americans call the game of table tennis? Do we say, “ping pong”? No. We call it “ping pong.”

In English, men’s names such as David, Matthew, Isaac, Daniel, are emphasized on the first syllable. We tend to inflect with emphasis. In other languages inflection is handled differently. In Turkish, for example, even a four-syllable man’s name such as Selahattin [“Se-la-ha-teen”] has equal emphasis on each syllable.

Inflection can make all the difference.

Imagine a husband and wife: One says something, tells a story, perhaps makes a request, and the other says, “Yes, dear.”

Now, is that “Yes, dear, I fly to do thy bidding, I fall at your feet, I adore the ground you walk on”? Or is that “Yes, dear, grumble, grumble, darn you, drat this day anyway”?

Inflection. Such a simple thing.

It would be good to know the inflection the questioners put on their words when they came to question John.

We have yet another John the Baptist lesson this Third Sunday of Advent. John’s gospel tells the story of priests and Levites from Jerusalem, sent by Jews to ask John, “Who are you?”

There are many ways to ask that question. To snivel and snarl: “Who are you?” To be downright rude and dismissive: “Who are you?” Or like the caterpillar blowing smoke rings in “Alice in Wonderland,” rather haughty and arrogant and curious: “Whooooo. Are. You?”

Inflection is everything, and clearly, it’s an important question they are asking John. The identity of John the Baptist is explored, questioned, established in all four gospels. He is asked this question in today’s reading in the context of “testimony,” according to John’s gospel.

It’s a question that Jesus much later puts to his disciples, challenging them to answer: “Who do you, my disciples, say I am?”

The story of John the Baptizer is in all the gospels. That level of agreement between evangelists is unusual, so this must be something significant.

“Who are you?” they ask John.

And what is his answer?

John says he is not the Christ, not the Messiah – not Elijah or any other hero. He says he is not the prophet. John says, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

This quotes a lovely passage from the prophet Isaiah, but what does it mean?

Mark’s gospel makes things a little clearer by invoking a passage from the prophet Malachi: “I am sending my messenger before you to prepare your way.”

And in the Gospel of Luke we hear a fuller text from Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled –
Every mountain and hill shall be made low.
And the crooked shall be made straight –
And the rough ways made smooth.”

The religious authorities had sent folks to question John, and John quoted scripture to them. Their own scripture! Their own prophet. Every one of them would have been familiar with this text, would have recognized it. They knew it, studied it, memorized it.

Even in our own day, when most of us know very little of the Bible, we will recognize this passage from Isaiah because we listen to Handel’s “Messiah” at this time of year. Do any of you, in hearing the words of this passage, hear Handel’s music in the background? Handel’s “Messiah” plays on PA systems in department stores, and in many communities it is a center point of holiday celebration. This is a well-known biblical passage in our day.

In John’s day, it was the focus of their hope for a Messiah, a great leader and liberator sent from God. They knew these words.

The people came to John and asked, “Who are you?”

And John answered: “I am a voice – a voice crying in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make paths straight. Fill in low places. Level the high places. Make the crooked bits straight. Make the rough places smooth.”

It sounds a lot like instructions for highway engineers, doesn’t it?

There are roads in this country – perhaps you have driven one? – that are mostly straight, perhaps even mostly flat, with just one interesting curve. Just one single, solitary, interesting curve. And the road engineers and safety folks decide that one interesting curve has to go.

The idea, we are told, is that accidents often happen at such places, and straightening the curve and flattening the land makes it a safer road. That is essentially the idea with Isaiah’s prescription that John quotes.

And John said, “Prepare!”

The season of Advent, which runs from late November or early December until Christmas Eve, is all about preparation. We know we’re preparing for the birth of a baby, and some of us may even know that we’re expecting the Messiah to come – but there’s more to it than that.

John says to the people, “Prepare!” Not “I am preparing,” but “You prepare.” Prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare the world: Lift up, bring down, straighten, smooth. Level the field on which my people stand, John might say, so that all of my people can bask in the glory of God.

If this lesson is to be instructive at all, then we must hear and heed John the Baptist’s proclamation of God’s Word. If this lesson is to be instructive for us, then this is also our proclamation, rooted in baptism. We are baptized in the manner of John’s baptizing – with water, but in the knowledge of Jesus and strengthened by the promised Holy Spirit of God.

That lays on us some obligations, some responsibilities, which are part of our baptism by definition. Not luxuries. Not conditional. Not optional. Promises made. Vows taken. The proclamation of the Lord’s coming put in our mouths.

It’s not just John who carries the news.

This is part of the story of Jesus, included in all the gospels and read in Christian communities for nearly 2,000 years to remind us, to embolden us, to open our mouths. Prepare the way of the Lord – even as we are lifting up and filling in and smoothing.

So not only are we to do the work of making that field level, we are to proclaim the work to others in the building up of community.

The men who were sent to question John asked him why he was baptizing if he wasn’t the Messiah. In other words, “You’re not one of the important ones. Why bother?”

Listen for the inflection.

John, in essence, said: “I do this because I can do no other. I have heard the news, and my mouth is opened, and my heart must love.” When John is later asked about Jesus, he says, “This joy of mine is now full.”

Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann reminds us:

“Advent is anticipation of the new community in the world, wrought by the power of Jesus, mandated by the way of Jesus, and living toward the hope of Jesus. … The person of Jesus presses us to think about the people of Jesus.”

In Paul’s words, from today’s epistle:

“Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. Do not repay evil for evil. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all things. Hold fast to what is good. Rejoice always!”

We have the joyful duty of this proclamation laid upon us, placed in our hearts for our lives together – and in our mouths for the world to know about the goodness of God.

There is more to Advent than an early “Merry Christmas!”

How will you proclaim what you know? Remember: inflection is everything!

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses and making anything chocolate.

Bulletin Insert: 2 Advent (B)

2014 Episcopal Church Christmas Card

December 7, 2014

[Scroll down or click here for ready-to-print PDFs.]

Joan Covell, “Good Tidings of Great Joy,” 2014, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

Joan Covell, “Good Tidings of Great Joy,” 2014,
oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

The winner of the first Episcopal Church Christmas card contest is Joan Covell from the Diocese of Western North Carolina with her painting “Good Tidings of Great Joy.”

A total of 11,531 votes were cast for 70 entries submitted by 48 artists. Covell’s winning image appears on the front of this year’s Episcopal Church Christmas card, which is available for download, free, on the Episcopal Church website.

Covell, a professional artist, resides in Flat Rock, N.C., where she and her husband attend St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church. Her works have been exhibited extensively in studios and showings and she has recently illustrated a children’s book.

“The Baby Jesus is intentionally at the most important place in the composition,” Covell noted. “All the lines of perspective lead to the Christ Child.”

Her image, she explained, included the variety of plants that would have existed in that time – cypress, pomegranate, olives, figs and date palms.

To see more of Covell’s work, please visit Viewpoint by JLC

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 12/07/14
half page, double-sided 12/07/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 12/07/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 12/07/14

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Bible Study: 3 Advent (B)

December 14, 2014

Susan ButterworthEpiscopal Divinity School

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

In this passage from Third Isaiah, the exiles have returned from Babylon. Their task is to rebuild the city: to create a new Jerusalem. The theme is transformation. The messianic overtones and gospel message are unmistakable on this third Sunday of Advent as we rejoice in the expectation of God entering the world in human form to transform and save God’s people. The anointed one heralds the coming of a new era: the Kingdom of God on earth, or in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo: “the city of God.”

The encompassing gospel message of mission is announced: (1) to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; (2) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; (3) to provide for those who mourn in Zion.

The prophet/poet describes the transforming work of the anointed one in vivid metaphor: to give the people of Zion a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. Take a few minutes with a pencil and paper, or drawing materials, to describe some concrete details as you imagine the new Jerusalem, the city of God.

In a single verse, the prophet speaks of how God loves justice, and will make an everlasting covenant with the people of God. What are some of the elements of an ideal covenant, and how might they ensure justice? Is it the work of the city of God or of the earthly city to create such a covenant?

Canticle 3: The Song of Mary

In her song, Mary echoes Isaiah 61:10 “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” Like Isaiah, Mary is a servant-prophet, a handmaiden of the Lord who prophesies “Behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, the day of rejoicing. It is possible that young Mary, upon hearing the news that she was to bear the holy child Jesus, would have doubts. Instead she rejoices and praises God in the most eloquent terms. Mary is transformed by the Holy Spirit. She accepts God’s call with grace and courage.

Mary is not the only woman in the Bible to be called to witness to God’s work. Read the Song of Miriam in the book of Exodus and the Song of Hannah in First Samuel. What do the three women’s songs have in common? How are they different?

In the passage in the first chapter of Luke that precedes this canticle, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth meet. The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy when he recognizes the mother of his Lord. Try writing a Canticle of Elizabeth, either on your own or as a collaborative writing with your Bible study group.

Describe an experience when you felt called. How have you been transformed by the Holy Spirit?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

The early Christian community in Thessalonica was waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, the eschaton, God’s return in glory to reign on earth. In his letter to the community, Paul names the work of the Spirit in the midst of life. The Spirit awakens and sustains rejoicing, prayer and thanksgiving. Here is another call to radical transformation: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil. Paul suggests a way that believers are to live while they wait for of the return of Christ, a way of living in community and in right relationship with God.

With the best of intentions about praying more often, it is easy to let prayer fall to the bottom of one’s to-do list, to put it aside until there is more time. Share some tips for praying without ceasing that have worked for you. For example, I like to pray in the car or on the train while I am commuting to school. Maybe you like to receive a daily prayer in your email inbox. Are there ways that you can connect with a community of prayer?

The Thessalonians were concerned about what would happen to their loved ones who had died while waiting for the coming of Christ. In the previous chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul has assured the community that the dead will rise to meet God at the last day, and that the living will rise to meet them. The Christmas holidays can be especially difficult for those who have lost loved ones. How might Paul’s words speak to those who grieve?

John 1:6-8, 19-28

This passage from the Gospel of John recalls the passage in the first chapter of Luke when the infant John the Baptist recognized the infant Jesus in Mary’s womb, and leapt for joy. That same child is now the man sent from God to testify to the light. This passage also refers back to the words of the prophet Isaiah. John the Baptist, like Isaiah and Mary, is a servant-prophet, commissioned to “make straight the way of the Lord,” empowered to speak and act in ways that bring hope, comfort and joy to the people of Israel. There is a theme of recognition and of Christ-among-us in this passage when John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Further, John says, “I baptize with water.” The one who comes after him, the one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the water of life, salvation.

Think of a time when you have recognized – or failed to recognize – the spirit of God shining in a human being. Share your stories. What words can you use to describe the feeling of the encounter?

Baptism is a form of anointing. What does it mean to you, that the Son of God was anointed by a human being, a man of humble means and demeanor? What is the connection between humility and the voice of one crying in the wilderness?

Look at Isaiah 40:1–11, the passage that John refers to when he says, “I am a voice crying in the wilderness.” How does that passage deepen and enrich your understanding of the scene of John baptizing in Bethany?

Kerlin Richter

Kerlin Richter is a student at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Oregon. Prior to coming to seminary, Kerlin was the editor of Hip Mama, a countercultural, feminist parenting ’zine. She is currently doing her field placement at Transmission, a liturgical house church in NYC. You can read her sermons at postulantmama.blogspot.com.

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

Grey Maggiano

Grey Maggiano is a second year Masters of Divinity student at Virginia Theological Seminary, from the Diocese of Virginia. Prior to entering seminary, he was a Foreign Affairs officer with the U.S. Department of State and a Presidential Management Fellow.

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

Read Grey’s comments on the RCL readings for Palm Sunday (B).

Bible Study: 2 Advent (B)

December 7, 2014

Jessie GutgsellBerkeley Divinity School at Yale

“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Isaiah 40:1-11

The book of Isaiah is one of the most well-known and well-loved prophetic books of the Old Testament. Scholars tend to recognize four major divisions within the book: First Isaiah (Chapters 1-39), Second Isaiah (Chapters 40-56), Third Isaiah (Chapters 56-66), and the Isaiah Apocalypse (Chapters 24-27).

Our reading for today comes from the very beginning of Second Isaiah. This section of the book is thought to have been written while the people of Jerusalem were in exile in Babylon. The major focus of the section is the people’s return from exile back to Jerusalem under the Persian King Cyrus.

The passage for today, often associated with the iconic Handel’s “Messiah,” deals directly with the question “What will the community’s role be in the return from exile?”

The community returning from exile is called upon to be active agents, to be comforters. The people fully acknowledge the fall of Jerusalem and the exile as a major failure. But – and this is important – they were never abandoned by God in the process. They’ve gone into exile, they’ve “served their terms” and “paid the penalties.” Now it is time to go home.

A major theme of the Second-Isaiah community is the idea of recreating the old to be something new – a new creation, a new Israel, etc. Verses 3-4, which are later quoted in the gospels, conjure up an image of a new exodus. But this time the exodus will be easier – the valleys will be lifted up, the mountains made low, and so on. This time, the journey will be straighter and easier.

Verse 6 illustrates the struggle of the community to move forward with their return to Jerusalem, their new exodus. The voice in the wilderness is told to cry out, but “What shall I cry?” the voice asks.

The answer, an oft-heard scriptural line, is that people will pass away and fade, but the Word of the Lord will stand forever (v. 8). Thus, the job of the people is to trust in God, to return home and to spread the Word of the Lord from the mountaintops, so that Jerusalem will be a beacon for all.

I invite you to find a recording of Handel’s oratorio quoting these lines and to rest in the deep and rich tradition of music and religion that we have been given. As you sink into the music and into these words, I invite you to let the idea of God comforting you surround you.

The Second-Isaiah community was preparing for a long journey, a journey home. Reflect on your own journeys in life of returning home. Is home a place you can go? A place you want to go or want to avoid?

What gives you strength on this literal or metaphorical journey?

As you prepare to enter into the Christmas season, a season filled with memories and experiences of home, I invite you to remember the words of Isaiah that “the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord will stand forever.”

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

The Bible is rich with imagery, poetry and prose about people and their relationship to the land. This psalm often mentions the land, naming it as God’s in verse 1, and then exhorting that the glory of God will “dwell in our land” (v. 9). An increase in harvest would signal that God, indeed, had blessed the land (v. 12). Thus, for the people of the time when the psalms were written, and for us today, the land is integrally tied up in our relationship to God. When people turn their hearts to God, and when love and faithfulness meet, then “faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky” (vv. 10-11). Even the earth and the skies will join us in our song of praise and faith.

In what ways would you treat the land differently if you saw it as God’s? How would you treat it differently if you saw the land as a companion in the work of praising God?

This psalm is full of often-used words like “faithfulness” and “righteousness.” How would you define these words in your own language, not in the language of the church? Try describing these words in terms of your five senses. What would faithfulness taste like? Look like? Feel like? And so on.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Peter’s second epistle is one of the shorter books of the Bible, focusing on the responsibilities of Christians as they wait for the end times. The apostle Peter, the named and likely author, is concerned about the actions of Christians as they wait for the Second Coming. Early Christians understandably thought Christ was coming imminently, “like a thief in the night,” but they had to adjust their message when they realized that Christ’s coming was perhaps not quite so imminent.

Second Peter echoes a theme we heard from the Second-Isaiah community, anticipating a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” But while the people and the churches wait for this newness, Peter exhorts them to live lives of integrity, without “spot or blemish.” Peter emphasizes the importance of patience in the Christian journey. Peter likely wrote this book soon before his martyrdom, which adds a level of drama to his message, making it somewhat like a last will and testament. Also, it is interesting to note that Second Peter quotes extensively from the Book of Jude, which likely points to Jude as a major source for the epistle.

In verse 8, Peter speaks of the different way in which God views time. Peter stresses that time is different for God, and that ultimately God is patient and wants us to grow and develop. What in your life has God been patient with you about? What do you need to continue to develop within yourself and your Christian life?

In verse 14, Peter asks Christians to live “without spot or blemish” as they wait for the end times. What in your life feels like it could be a “spot or blemish”? What spiritual practices might “clean” those spots and blemishes?

Mark 1:1-8

The Gospel of Mark is considered by most scholars to be the first gospel written, and subsequently the source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Notably Mark’s gospel doesn’t begin with a birth narrative, but instead begins with the introduction of John the Baptist. Scriptural quotations and Old Testament allusions are woven all throughout the gospels, and this is no exception. Mark’s use of Isaiah establishes John the Baptist as a prophet, and Jesus as the Messiah who will come. Later in the passage, the mention of John’s camel’s hair clothing and diet of locusts and honey is likely meant as an allusion to Elijah, another major prophet of 2 Kings (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8a). While most modern readers miss these allusions, they serve to enrich the gospel text by rooting it in tradition.

John the Baptist is serving a crucial role by paving the way for Jesus. He will baptize people with water, but Jesus will come and baptize people with the Holy Spirit. John paves the way with humility, emphasizing that he’s less powerful than the one who will come after him.

Jesus had John the Baptist to “cry out in the wilderness” and “make the paths straight.” Who in your life has played this role? Who has paved the way for you in your journeys?

Thinking in a larger context, what historical figures do you think have paved the way for our faith and for Jesus Christ? Do you think this is still a relevant role to be filled in our modern times?

What would it look like to pave the way for Christ today?

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE

Read additional comments for 2 Advent (B).

Finding comfort vs. being comfortable, 2 Advent (B) – 2014

December 7, 2014

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

“Comfort ye! … Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low.”

What heart-lifting words we hear from our God shouted across the millennia into our very own day. Isaiah offers us images in just 11 verses that have become the focus of artists and musicians who have turned the words into pictures and music that channel our thoughts deep into the heart of God. We lay grasped by God’s arms and held tightly – our fears and concerns known by this immanent God who wants us to share those worries, and trust they are as important to God as they are to us.

A tenor opens Handel’s “Messiah” with a delicate, yet brilliant “Comfort ye!” When you listen to it, does your hear not soar with the beauty? This is our God calling out to us in our world – this world torn by evil, war and debilitating poverty.

Can there be any comfort for us? Maybe, for those of us who live in a relatively safe country, for those of us who have more than we need – a roof over our heads, food, clothing, safety. We can become comfortable, which is different from finding comfort. And we can feel that being comfortable is enough, perhaps until life takes a disastrous turn.

We can take God’s presence in our hearts for granted. But this isn’t the comfort Isaiah is talking about. His comfort is an overwhelming truth that surpasses the feeling of having “enough,” his comfort is the comfort of our God, who lives deep in our lives, even when we don’t think about it, even if we may not believe it, even if our fear blinds us to that presence.

The prophet goes on to explain what the truth of God will do for us. Valleys will be raised up, mountains will be laid low! No, Isaiah is not talking about a disastrous environmental exercise, he’s, of course, using an image to explain how the coming of the Lord will level the way for all people to see God’s glory and share in God’s goodness.

What a wonderful image! Instead of struggling over the rocky wilderness paths up into the mountains and down across arid deserts, the people will have a safe highway, broad and smooth. Even in life’s most difficult moments, God leads the soul along that safe, broad highway.

“But,” we may want to argue, “look at our world. See the things happening to people that would make a rocky path and an arid desert walk look like a picnic in the park. This image doesn’t work.”

And that’s true. Life does seem to throw ever more obstacles into our paths. Where is this highway?

And so, we continue reading the prophet’s words and find that, yes, we are all grass, and grass withers and fades; we are mortal, and life is often difficult. So, to make this highway image work at all in our world, we are told we must work together. We must want this world to change, we must also see beyond this mortal life and trust in God’s promise of eternal life.

“All people shall see it together,” says Isaiah. One way to think about this image is that we won’t see it if we harbor exclusion in our hearts. When we choose to separate ourselves from any of our neighbors, we begin to see only ourselves. We may not be aware of it, but doing that makes us stumble along the rocky path of injustice and sadness – a path that causes us to circle only inward, blindly into the darkness of self.

Another way to think about it is to look at what happens when groups join forces out of hatred for others, or ignorance or fear. The Israelites sometimes found themselves carried off to foreign lands because of their unfaithfulness. Some then took on the practices and idolatry of the pagan nations, to their downfall. They lost everything. We see the same thing happening today. Children get caught up in bullying, out of fear or a need to be accepted. Young people join gangs. People are drawn into terrorist organizations, to the horror of their families and friends. Sadly, we can be lured off the highway of our God by temptation and the false, bright promises of evil.

But all is certainly not lost. If we keep reading, we come to the final image of our passage and can’t help but hear again Handel’s “Messiah,” when the soprano’s beautiful voice sings, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and he shall gather the lambs with his arm … with his arm.”

On our worst days, the Shepherd is with us. We need only to turn back and allow him to offer comfort and forgiveness. The sheep of his flock are a community – a community like us. Together, a community can offer healing and love to those who have been excluded. A community can begin dealing with their issues of poverty and helplessness.

We don’t have to build that level highway; God does that for us if we open our eyes and hearts to the gifts God has placed in our midst. We can begin demolishing the lure of evil, the temptation of ill-gotten power and greed if we work together with our children, being unafraid to teach about the power and graciousness of our God – if we ourselves are unafraid to trust that God is our shepherd, that God is our comfort.

In just a few weeks, the Incarnation of our God will descend over us like a blanket of stars, and we will be filled with the song of angels, the gentle amazement of shepherds, and the humility of the kings. If the image and the songs of Bethlehem can fill us that day, we might pray during these last few weeks of waiting that our hearts will be filled with the comfort of God and strengthened to bring that Good News to all.

 

– The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Bulletin Insert: 1 Advent (B)

Advent Resources

November 30, 2014

[Scroll down or click here for ready-to-print PDFs.]

(Photo by Lawrence Lew)

(Photo by Lawrence Lew)

Today the Episcopal Church celebrates the first Sunday of the season of Advent, which will continue for four Sundays, until Christmas Day. The word “advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming,” and during this season, the church enters a time of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ “in power and glory” (Mark 13:26).

The following resources are designed to help individuals, congregations and communities celebrate the season of Advent.

Advent Calendar: The Society of Saint John the Evangelist offers a digital Advent calendar.

Following the Star: This collaborative initiative of the Youth Ministries offices of the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship offers daily online devotions for teenagers and the adults who work with them.

Advent Lectionary Reflections: The formation missioners of the Episcopal Church are offering a photo meditation throughout the season of Advent. Each day a word from the Sunday lectionary readings is offered for reflection. Participants are encouraged to meditate on the word, then post a photo on social media that embodies that word along with the hashtag “#episcopaladvent” and a hashtag for the word for the day (for example, “#joy”). More information about how and where to post is available here.

Advent Devotions: The leaders of the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Anglican Church of Canada, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada have prepared devotions for each of the four weeks of Advent, available here.

First Sunday of Advent, November 30: Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Second Sunday of Advent, December 7: The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church

Third Sunday of Advent, December 14: Bishop Susan Johnson, National Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada

Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21: The Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, Primate, Anglican Church of Canada

 

Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 11/30/14
half page, double-sided 11/30/14

black and white, full page, one-sided 11/30/14
black and white, half page, double-sided 11/30/14

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Bible Study: 1 Advent (B)

November 26, 2014

Ben Maddison, Virginia Theological Seminary

“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.” (Mark 13:35-37)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

Isaiah 64:1-9

Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, is the prophet of Advent, proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God, the Messiah, and the joy and hope of Zion. However, the use of Isaiah in the New Testament betrays an underlying truth of the book – as Paul D. Hanson points out in “Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation” (John Know Press, 1995), it was written over several years, had many writers and editors, and it is difficult to understand as a cohesive whole. Today’s scripture comes in what is known as Third Isaiah – the final and latest addition to the canon of Isaiah’s prophecy. Hanson explains that this passage comes after the joy of Zion is delayed, leaving Third Isaiah to reconcile the current experience of the people of Israel with the one promised in earlier times.

When reading this passage, it is important to remember the narrative of Jewish history. God acted mightily to save the Israelites from Egypt, leading them into the Promised Land and giving them the Law. However, the people of Israel had a difficult time responding to God’s self-giving, straying from God time after time – a normal human tendency. Hanson explains that in this passage, the writer recognizes (and blames) the unfaithfulness of the people of God – and himself – for the delayed promises of Second Isaiah. The writer of Isaiah here implores God to “tear open the heavens and come down” (v.1) that the people of God might believe. Verse 9 gets to the heart of the prophet’s message; recognizing the failures and waywardness of his people, the prophet begs God to “not be angry,” to not “remember iniquity forever” – to remember, that despite all of this, that the prophet’s people are the people of God.

For the reader of this passage today, and at the start of Advent, Isaiah is calling us to remember, to hold ourselves accountable, for the ways that we fail to follow God to the fullest. Isaiah reminds God, and reminds us, that we are God’s people, and although we have strayed, and although we fail to love God and our neighbor, that God does “forgive and forget” and that we are still inheritors of the promises of Second Isaiah – that we might see God, that the Messiah will return, and that we will revel in the joy of the coming Zion.

In what ways have you fallen away from God?

How can you live into the reality of being a child of God?

In what ways will Advent be, for you, a time of return and preparation for that which God is calling you to do?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

The psalms were an integral part for the worship of the Jewish people. In Jewish liturgy, both past and present, the role of history – and how God acted in history on behalf of God’s people – was essential to how Jewish worship was understood and practiced. Psalm 80 is the counterpart psalm to Psalm 79, both answering a simple question: How do God’s people return to God after falling away?

In the Berit Olam series’ book on “Psalms” (Liturgical Press, 2001), Konrad Schaefer writes that Psalm 80 is about returning to a normal relationship with God – a returning after a falling away.

Psalm 80 recognizes several things about the relationship between Israel and God. First, it recognizes God’s sovereignty and role in the lives of the Jewish people – God is a shepherd leading a flock.

Second, that flock has become wayward – and they are suffering under the burden of their waywardness. This psalm might remind a reader of the prayer of confession, “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 331). In this psalm, the people of Israel – as a worshiping community – recognize that they have fallen out of right relationship with God, and suffering under this burden, look to be drawn back into the fold of God their Shepherd. There is an urgency in the psalm, a desire to be again – and immediately – under the care and direction of God.

Verses 7 and 19 serve as a refrain and express the longing of the psalm’s writer: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” The writer of the psalm recognizes that it is in the capacity and graciousness of God to be forgiving – to offer restoration to all who seek God’s face. In the face of our own sinfulness, and our own wanderings from the fold of the Shepherd, God is always there, beckoning us back, offering restoration and salvation for all who seek God.

How will you seek to find the face of God?

In what ways is the psalm speaking to you, your church and your community?

In what ways do you see the potential for God’s restoration of those things in your life and in society, that are wayward – those things that don’t resemble the Kingdom of God?

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

We often take for granted that the letters of Paul are actually letters. When we hear them read in church, or in private devotions, we often lose the fact that Paul was writing a letter – opening up a dialogue – with a specific people, in a specific church, in specific region, time and context. The First Letter to the Corinthians in no different. Paul was writing to the Corinthians about certain aspects of their church – problems that they faced in their own, Roman, metropolitan context.

The reading today comes from a section of Paul’s letter known as the “thanksgiving.” It was typical – and rhetorically expected – that first-century letters would begin with a salutation and thanksgiving, usually to a Roman deity. However, Raymond F. Collins, in his analysis “First Corinthians” (Liturgical Press, 1999), points out that Paul subverts this tradition by appealing to the work that Christ is doing, and has done, in the midst of the Corinthian church. In this letter, the thanksgiving has a very eschatological edge – meaning that Paul is looking forward, too, and reminding the Corinthians of the promise of the return of Christ. This foreshadows themes found later in the letter.

Twice in the thanksgiving (vv. 7, 8) Paul reminds the Corinthians of the promise that Jesus would return. Paul’s sentiment has the air of a Markean immediacy – as if Paul is convinced that Jesus could return at any moment. It is easy, when the Bible speaks of the return of Christ, to get lost in the uncertainty and mythos surrounding this item of faith.

However, Paul is clear about what this expectation should do for us, as Christians: exercise and hone one’s spiritual gifts, and work to be blameless. This is not a call for the Corinthians to work harder; Paul’s exhortation is matched by his belief that “God is faithful.” Paul reminds us that it is God who called us through the revelation and person of Jesus Christ. In this way, God will not forget or abandon us; God is preparing us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to be prepared and blameless before the reign of God is fully realized on earth. Paul is calling the Corinthians, and us, to work toward the ends of the Kingdom of God – undergirded by the faithfulness of God through the life and revelation of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

What are your spiritual gifts? Which ones would you like to hone and improve?

How are you working toward the reality of the Kingdom of God in your church and community? How is the Holy Spirit working in those places, and how can you participate in that work?

Mark 13:24-37

Mark, despite its position in the New Testament, is, historically, the first gospel written – the gospel closest to the ministry of Christ. Key themes, often attributed to its early nature, include the “Messianic Secret” (that Jesus’ nature as the Messiah was a secret known only to a select few), rhetorical immediacy of the gospel message (often identified by Mark’s use of the word “immediately”), as well as Mark’s “eschatological immediacy” (Jesus was coming back, and soon, so we all must be ready).

Narratively, this reading comes during the section of Mark’s Holy Week narrative where the story slows down, and Jesus does a lot of talking. This passage concludes what scholars call Jesus’ “Little Apocalypse” – Jesus looking to the future and proclaiming the mysteries of heavenly things. We often think of Revelation or of the TV show “The Walking Dead” when we think of the word “apocalypse,” but as John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington remind us in their analysis “The Gospel of Mark” (Liturgical Press, 2002), in Jesus’s time, and throughout the Bible, the word “apocalypse” describes a genre of literature that tends to be prophetic and forward thinking. This passage is no different.

One of the ways to read this passage – the image of the Coming Son of Man, the warning metaphor of the fig trees and the call to prepare for the return of the Messiah – is to recognize the dual nature of the comments. The writer of Mark is using Jesus to speak to two parties: his disciples (historically), and to all Christians reading the gospel (narratively). Imagine the writer of Mark using Jesus’ apocalypse as a means of breaking the third wall – Jesus is speaking beyond the narrative setting and talking directly to the reader.

Moreover, what is Jesus saying? After affirming the divinity of Jesus as the Son of Man (v. 24-27), Jesus uses the fig tree and the warning about the impending apocalypse to get the reader’s attention. Mark, through Jesus, is calling Christians into a deeper life of faith and call, calling on them to be prepared for the immediate return of Christ, that they might be ready to join in the work of the Kingdom. (Think of Markean themes.)

Verse 33 is a nice summary of this call: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” The passage is calling Christians to live lives with an eye on the future – and an eye on the fulfillment of the work that God started in the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is an important reminder during the Advent season: We are not only looking forward to the commemoration of the birth of Christ, but we are the church expectant, waiting for God’s reconciliatory work to be fulfilled.

Have you considered how the work of God is made manifest in your life?

How are you participating in making the world look more like the Kingdom of Heaven?

Reflect on whether your faith feels important or immediate. How will you try to express or find that during Advent?

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE

Read additional comments for 1 Advent (B).

Reading the signs on our journey, 1 Advent (B) – 2014

November 30, 2014

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

Imagine traveling in a foreign city where English is not the official language. All the street signs, menus, billboards, bus schedules, everything needed to navigate the streets are in a different language. You stop people on the street for assistance, but it seems no one speaks English.

For novice travelers, this could be a scary and intimidating situation, whereas more seasoned and experienced travelers seem to relish such a challenge. Fortunately, today there are electronic devices that can translate foreign text into English. All a person has to do is point the device at the written text you want translated, and – voila! – it gives the English translation.

Sometimes Christians may feel as if their spiritual journeys have taken them to an unknown place where all the signs are in a strange language, and they just can’t seem to figure out where they are or where they are supposed to go. As much as they attempt to discern the signs in their lives, they find themselves feeling more and more confused while trying to navigate in a strange land.

For new Christians sitting in the pews, reading the signs and navigating their new surroundings can become tricky and very confusing. This is especially true with all the conflicting religious messages coming at them from every direction. But whether a new convert or a lifelong Christian, the spiritual journey is wrought with signs along the way requiring translation.

Making things even more troublesome are the modern-day, self-proclaimed prophets who incessantly talk about the End Times. They use scripture to weave fanciful tales of horrific proportions, which, if accepted as truth without a discerning heart, can derail people in their journeys.

To a similar degree, Jesus’ disciples were confused by the signs of their times. Israel was under Roman rule, contemporary prophets were routinely spouting apocalyptic predictions, and the Jews were desperate for a Messiah who would reinstate the Davidic line and establish Israel to its former glory as an independent kingdom. In the midst of all the confusing signs and false prophets, Jesus warned his disciples – and his believers today – to stay awake.

This implies being alert and cognizant of what is happening in our surroundings, living in a constant state of readiness and anticipation. It does not, however, suggest believers should be pouring over scripture in a vain attempt to find a prophetic interpretation for every single event in history or in the news. Much time and energy has been wasted on End Time books, movies and prophecies. Now is the time to focus on proclaiming the Good News in Christ by being his hands reaching out to those in need.

As the church enters into this Advent season, the world is in a race to read the signs of the time in an attempt to make sense of all that is going on. The news media is rife with reports of increased terrorism, nations rising against nations, and rising religious extremism and intolerance. Political and religious leaders are under continual scrutiny as reports of indiscretion and malfeasance surface, and crime seems to be taking over the streets. Diseases such as Ebola indiscriminately kill, and people are being pitted against each other in a continual competition for limited resources while those who are vulnerable in society suffer the most.

When looked at as a whole, we can easily begin to wonder what all this means. It’s no wonder that some begin to interpret all these events as signs of the End Times. Misguided religious zeal and emotional nihilism are ripe and dnagerous in times such as these. People begin to lose hope and an insidious spiritual and intellectual apathy sets in.

In the midst of suffering and despair, the world longs for some cosmic event that will wipe away all that is wrong in a single stroke. In the midst of doomsday predictions are those who warn that Christ’s return is just around the corner. Despite the confidence of some who say Christ’s Second Advent is imminent, Jesus clearly states that no one knows the time of his appearance, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Apocalyptic predictions in social media and from pulpits are indicative of the fear and anxiety filling people’s hearts in light of life’s uncertainties; however, the church’s emphasis on scripture, tradition and reason is the lens through which these signs can be put into focus and better understood. Part of remaining alert in these times is a commitment to continual study of scripture in light of historic teachings of the church, developing critical-thinking skills, and seeking a discerning spirit.

The church is firm in her belief in the return of Christ Jesus, but exactly how and when this culminating cosmic event will take place remains a mystery. Scripture doesn’t give a clear explanation; however, it does provide signs to help navigate life’s journey with the help of the Holy Spirit until the Lord’s Second Advent. Until Christ’s return, the church is reminded to remain awake as she diligently carries on the ministry of the Lord. She learns from the past while maintaining a confident faith in the future, all the time tending to the work of the Kingdom of God today. Now is not the time to be caught sleeping while the master is away, but to be busy about managing his affairs. The people of the world may be driven by fear and anxiety, but believers can be confident that God will strengthen them to the end, so that they may be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In light of all that troubles the world today, this Advent presents a unique opportunity for the church to stand in the gap and proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus through word and deed. Now is the time to be diligent in proclaiming the Kingdom of God in word and deed. If believers are to interpret any message from the signs of the time, it is that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain his people even in the worst of circumstances.

History teaches us that the Church Militant is victorious even under the most extreme conditions. The early church faced systematic persecution under Roman domination, but their hope in Christ’s Second Coming gave them the courage to boldly proclaim their faith in Christ. Eventually, the church settled into the knowledge that the Second Coming was an event that would take place sometime in the distant future, and they began to systematically spread the Good News that is found in Jesus Christ.

With every generation that passes since Christ’s ascension, the danger of complacency threatens the church’s overall mission to proclaim the Good News. Some in the church are happy living with the status quo, while others adopt a “religious country club” mentality. Even worse and more detrimental to the mission of the church is when believers become embroiled in debates that result in division. Self-proclaimed prophets have misread the so-called signs and made false eschatological predictions of apocalyptic proportions, only to push people away from the church rather than draw them into the Kingdom. They fail to listen to Christ’s words spoken to his disciples in our gospel reading today. The church proclaims that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again in the Eucharist.

In the meantime, the church has a job to do until the master returns.

Whether Christ returns today, tomorrow or in a hundred years, today is the day of salvation. If one looks closely at the signs of the times, they point to the One who holds all the answers to all that ails the world. Christ’s mission to the church remains as clear today as when he first sent his disciples into the world.

May she be faithful to proclaiming God’s love for all creation, and labor tirelessly in proclaiming God’s justice and righteousness until the master returns.

 

— The Rev. Timothy G. Warren is a vocational deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, Redlands, Calif. He is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran, and he has more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry that reaches out to at-risk young adults and families in the High Desert Region of California.