God of all

Saturday

Romans 16

File:Ikona na Arhangel Gavril vo Sv. Blagoveštenie Prilepsko.jpg

The Angel Gabriel in an icon of the Annunciation, from the Icons of the Church of the Annunciation (Prilep)

25.…the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed.

Did Abraham understand God’s purpose when God called him to go forth from Haran? Did he hear the great plan of God to gather all creation to himself in those simple words by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves”? Probably not. He probably heard something more like “Everybody will say, ‘May you be blessed like Abraham is blessed.’” It wasn’t yet a hope that all people will be blessed, as much as it was a hope that Abraham will be blessed more than anyone else.

And when that clever, yes, but lying cheat, Jacob, whose name will be changed to Israel, hears God promise him a future is he thinking of God’s plan to rescue all people?

Joseph in Egypt seems more like a curse than a blessing – though everyone is fed by his foresight, it comes at the cost of their freedom. Pharaoh ends up owning all the land. Perhaps it’s only right that Jacob’s family, too, should end up enslaved. But when Moses leads them out to freedom, do they think this is the next great act of a God determined to liberate the world, or do they think they have become the favorite children of one particular God?

David’s temple and holy city is thought to be the navel of the world – not for the world, mind you. They are trapped in their solipsism. Our God is the king of all gods. Our God is better than all gods. Our God is stronger than all gods. “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.”

And let’s not feel superior. We often think the same way. Religion is about me, not my neighbor. About God protecting me and mine rather than rescuing his whole earth.

The prophets begin to speak the language of God’s universal scope. Of course it starts off with God’s judgment on the foreign nations who have toppled Israel and Judah. But if the God of Israel is determined to punish those nations – then is God not the acting agent for those nations? And so, is he not the Lord of all? If God will punish other nations, will he not also save them? When the prophets talk about the lion lying down with the lamb they may have had in mind peace in Israel. But the words sprout and grow and reveal a deeper meaning.

Pretty soon Jesus is not just treating women as disciples and eating with sinners and tax-collectors, but he is welcoming the Samaritan woman, and healing the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. Pretty soon Philip is baptizing Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch and then Peter himself is commanded not to regard any as unclean. Standing in front of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, he watches God pour out God’s Spirit upon him and his family and he has no choice but to baptize. And then the believers in Antioch are welcoming Greeks and sending Paul out to the Hellenistic cities of the Roman Empire.

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s revelation, God’s speech to us, and he is not reforming Judaism but declaring that the reign of God over all the earth is dawning. Pretty soon John sees his vision of a heaven and earth restored. Yes, he calls the heavenly city brought to earth “Jerusalem”, but it is the whole world healed, the garden restored, life made whole, the lion lying down with the lamb.

25.…the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed.

This is a dramatic revelation, a great mystery, incomprehensible to us for a long time, but now revealed in Christ Jesus. Is God the God of Jews only?”

But it’s not new information being revealed; it’s more about us finally coming to understand what was there from the beginning when God formed Adam from the dust and Eve from the rib, and then protected his rebellious children as they lost the garden, determined to bring them home.

It’s not God finally revealing secrets he never told us, but us finally starting to hear what he has always said. Everyone is our brother. Everyone our sister. God is redeeming the world.

And we are still trying to learn what it means.

Shouldering her burden in joy

Friday

Luke 1

File:Ikona na Blagoveštenieto vo Sv. Blagoveštenie Prilepsko.jpg

Icons from the treasury of the Church of the Holy Annunciation in Prilep

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

It is such a sweet verse to those who know the story, shaped by the celebration of Christmas filtered so many Christmas services and pageants, through songs like “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger”, and through storybooks about the cattle in the barn or the little drummer boy.

There are times for Christmas Candy. But we need more than candy to live.

When we strip away the glossy and sentimental layers of the story, we find a different kind of narrative. It is still a narrative that intentionally echoes the literary style of old Biblical stories like the wondrous birth of Samuel, with Hannah’s desperate prayer and the song of joy at her conception (wondrous births are a standard part of God’s repertoire). It is as if Luke wrote his narrative in the language of the King James Bible. But the old language doesn’t eliminate the dramatic content of the story.

Mary is betrothed. A marriage contract has been negotiated – this is normally done by the mothers and confirmed by the fathers – but this is not a plan for a coming event; it is signed and sealed. Money has changed hands. Mary has not yet been taken into Joseph’s house, but to break the marriage contract requires divorce. Such an action would bring shame on the families and likely lead to generations of enmity between the families that were to be united but are now divided.

The reference to the betrothal tells us that Mary is a married woman, yet young – still at the home of her parents and under their careful guard. Encounters between men and women are tightly controlled and supervised, lest the woman’s virginity or reputation be compromised. That Mary finds herself alone with an angel in a private interior of the house is a potentially scandalous encounter. (In Hellenistic culture, the gods frequently sleep with women, and the relations between angels and human women is one of the scandals that leads to the flood at the time of Noah.)

For us to appreciate the emotional impact of the story we may need to imagine Mary confronted on a dark street by a stranger far larger and stronger than she. Only it’s not Mary’s personal safety that is at risk, but the honor of her whole family.

Into this tense moment comes the word of the angel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

On a dark street, we would be “much perplexed”, too – though ‘perplexed’ is hardly a strong enough translation. The verb is a form of the word used for Pharaoh’s anguish over his nightmares; of Joseph overcome with emotion when he meets up with his brothers; of David weeping for his murdered son Absalom; for the woman pleading with Solomon for the life of her infant when he commands that it be cut in two, giving half to each of the two women claiming it as their own. The author of Lamentations uses the same root word for grief over the brutal destruction of Jerusalem. Mary is not ‘perplexed’ as though faced with the New York Times crossword puzzle; she is shaken, overwhelmed, overturned.

And the message does not ease her fear. For a married woman to become pregnant apart from her husband is social death. And the declaration that her son will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David,” wouldn’t necessarily bring comfort given the likelihood of violence by the ruling powers against any potential claimants to the throne.

But against this shattering encounter with the divine is the costly vision of a world transformed, of high powers thrown down and the poor lifted up, of grasping greed sent away empty and the hungry fed, of justice and mercy replacing power and privilege.

It is always humbling to ponder the cost to Mary of bearing the earth’s redeemer. She submits to the divine purpose despite the personal cost in shame and grief. The promise of God trumps her natural impulse to self-protection. Not that she could have done anything about it. God isn’t asking her permission; he is thrusting her onto the world stage.

But Mary shoulder’s her burden – not in obligation but in joy, trusting the promise that the price of her humiliation will be a far greater good: the redemption of God’s earth.

“Nothing will be impossible with God”

Thursday

Luke 1

File:Paolo Veneziano (Italian (Venetian), active 1333 - 1358) - The Annunciation - Google Art Project.jpg

Paolo Veneziano, The Annunciation

37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

It’s interesting that Luke uses the future tense: “nothing will be impossible.” We are more accustomed to expressing such notions in the present, “with God all things are possible.” But here it’s in the future tense.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”

When the angel speaks to Mary he is not making a statement about the omnipotence of God; he is making a statement about the surety of the promise. “None of the things God has promised will be impossible.”

The impossible thing isn’t that Mary would become pregnant. Wondrous births are routine for God. Sarah conceives when she is past the age of childbearing. According to Genesis, Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when Isaac is born. The birth of Samuel is wondrously given to Hannah when she is barren. Zechariah and Elizabeth are granted a child though she, too, is barren. This little thing of an unconsummated marriage is no great feat. The great feat is that this poor woman’s child would be “great”. The true wonder is that a peasant child would “be called the Son of the Most High,” a designation suggesting he will be second in rank and honor only to God. It is a title given to kings and emperors. The amazing work is that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” That throne has been vacant for 600 years. Judea is, at the time of Jesus’ birth, a client state of the Roman Empire; Herod’s kingship is given to him by Caesar. The virgin birth is small potatoes compared to the promise that this child “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

We get sidetracked by the small things. We either mock Christianity or treasure it because of the virgin birth rather than its claim that this child, crucified and risen, has ascended to the right hand of God and reigns there even now and shall reign forever over a world brought under the glorious and gentle governance of God.

This is why the message to Mary is in the future tense. Christ’s reign will not be impossible to God. It will become manifest in ways that may seem strange to us: starting with a peasant child whose birth is announced by angels to the unlikeliest of people. Shepherds as a class are unclean, without honor and regarded as thieves. This child will summon an odd collection of Galilean laborers as his posse, including a tax collector. He will wander homeless like a man either crazy or a prophet. He will eat with sinners. He will challenge the temple system and be crushed by the Jerusalem leaders. But God will vindicate him and set him at God’s right hand.

The promise will look empty; but “nothing will be impossible with God.”

That crazy little band will be filled with God’s Spirit and the reign of God in Christ will extend throughout the world: Lives will be healed. Hearts will be changed. Sinners will be gathered. Communities will be reconciled. The world will be reborn.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

This is not a statement of principle. It is a promise. Christ will reign and the gates of hell cannot stop it, the darkness cannot overcome it. Even our stony hearts will become living hearts, beating with compassion and justice.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

The throne of David

Watching for the morning of December 21

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

File:Florenz - David von Michelangelo 02.JPG

Michelangelo’s David

It is as if King Arthur was returning to bring a just and righteous reign to the land. The birth of a new king is proclaimed to Mary:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The promise made to David of an eternal line – a promise that seemed broken after Jerusalem was destroyed and brought under the dominion of Babylon then Persia then Greece and its warring successor states until finally Roman troops ruled the city – that promise has been resurrected. And Mary is chosen for the terrible and wondrous task of giving birth to this new king.

The promise made to David and fulfilled in Jesus governs our readings this final Sunday in Advent. In the first reading we hear Nathan declare God’s promise to David of an eternal reign:

“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me;
your throne shall be established forever.”

Like a river that can find no path to the sea, this promise seemed to sink into the arid desert. The line of David appeared broken by Babylon and the imperial conquerors that followed. But the hope remained that Israel would again be free, that the glory of David’s realm would be restored, that they would be freed from the woes of foreign dominion. And now suddenly there is a heavenly messenger standing before a peasant girl declaring that she would bear that child, that all God’s ancient promises would be fulfilled, that all the shame of Israel’s life would be lifted away.

The joy of that promise echoes through the song of salvation from Isaiah. And the scope of that deliverance is extended to the whole world in the passage from Romans. For the king to come is far more than the warrior king to reclaim Jerusalem, but the redeemer king who brings the New Jerusalem.

As we gather on the cusp of our celebration of that birth, the joy of God’s deliverance breaks through. God’s anointed, God’s Christ, shall reign in us forever.

The Prayer for December 21, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
through your son Jesus, child of Mary,
you entered into the fabric of time
to make visible among us your reign of grace and life.
Fill us with gratefulness, wonder and awe
that we may receive you with joy at your coming;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 21, 2014

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’” – When David seeks to build a temple for God, God declares he has it backwards: it isn’t David who builds a house for God, but God who builds a house (a dynastic line) for David.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6,
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” – the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Romans 16.25-27
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
– A hymnic conclusion to Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome celebrates the mystery now revealed of God’s purpose to gather all people into Christ.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.” – The angel Gabriel invades Mary’s home and presents her with the news that she will give birth to the heir of David’s throne.

The appointed psalm: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.
or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.”
– The psalmist sings of God’s promise to David.

Image credit: By Rabe! (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The light of God’s presence

Looking back on Sunday

Sanctuary light.blog.medium

The sanctuary lamp in the darkness

Sunday was sweet. The children who came forward for the children’s message were young and inexperienced in this little ritual of church life. They were shy and, perhaps frozen by the crowd behind them and this relative stranger asking them questions.

They were simple questions. Questions about candles. What are they for? Where do we use them? Apparently they couldn’t remember ever seeing candles, though grandparents assured me after that they had candles everywhere from the fireplace to the dinner table.

Since I wasn’t getting anywhere, I took them up behind the altar to look at the perpetual light that hangs in a red globe from the ceiling. And there, sitting on the floor, behind the altar, the Christmas tree, the advent wreath and flowers, we were out of sight of the congregation – and they finally began to talk.

Darling children.

We use candles for light. We use them for celebration (birthday cakes and Christmas dinners). There were lamps in the ancient temple in Israel – the only light in a windowless room where God was understood to be present. The red lamp is a sign that God is always present – not just here where people come to pray, but with us always.

On the way back we stopped and I brought down the pillar candles on the altar so each could light one. Apparently that was the moment of success. When I walked into the fellowship hall for coffee hour, one of the little ones jumped up and said, “There he is!” (the man who let them light candles).

It’s too complicated to explain to him that he is the true light of God, the true sign of God’s presence in the world: not only now because of that fresh simplicity and innocent love characteristic of early childhood, but because we were all made in the image of God, fashioned of the earth and the breath/spirit of God, and freed in Christ to be light to the world, to be the gracious, redeeming presence of God’s love in an often dark and terribly wounded world.

Hopefully he will come to understand all this.

The day of vengeance?

Friday

Isaiah 61

File:Gentile da Fabriano 032.jpg

The prophet Isaiah

1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;

When Jesus reads this text in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares it fulfilled, he leaves off the last line about the day of vengeance. Or, at least, when Luke writes about that sermon, Luke leaves that last line off.

Luke, however, is not doing it out of our modern sensibilities that routinely edit texts read in worship to leave off things that sound harsh. He is concerned with the punch line that with this Jesus dawns the year of grace.

Isaiah feels no such compunction. Neither does Mary when she sings of the rich being sent empty away. They understand better than we the grace in this message about the ‘day of vengeance’.

For us, ‘vengeance’ is a dark, troubling emotion: wanting to make other people suffer as we have suffered, wanting to strike back, wanting to ‘get even’.

The problem of ‘getting even’ – is that ‘even’ never feels even. We seem to need to add a penalty and make the person hurt a little (or a lot) more than they hurt us. This is why the cycle of revenge always escalates, and why, in the Mosaic Law, God had to say [only] an eye for an eye. God wasn’t endorsing revenge or instructing us to get even, but prohibiting the altogether too common practice of avenging a wrong beyond what was necessary to keep the peace (or neglecting a wrong done to one who was weak).

And this wasn’t personal revenge; it was corporate. It wasn’t Lamech declaring “hurt me and I will hurt you worse!” It was “hurt our tribe and we hurt your tribe.” It wasn’t individuals “taking the law into their own hands” but communities requiring that the ledgers be balanced.

The problem in such a system of social order is with those who are weak and vulnerable. Widows and orphans, the poor, have no one to stand up for their defense, no one to call the community to avenge the wrongs done to them.   So God lays that burden on the community by declaring “I will avenge.” Thus, under threat of divine wrath, the ‘weak’ become a protected class instead of being easy marks for social predation.

But if God never comes to judge, the threat becomes meaningless.

So the day of grace is a day God acts: to forgive, to heal, to reconcile, to restore – and to avenge: to set right the twisted scales of a world where the weak are victimized and the poor are plundered.

In the era of Jim Crow, where communities of people where suppressed by threat of violence against which there was no defense other than submission – to declare that God is come to set them free must mean that their avenger has arisen to right the world, to fight on their behalf, to wrench from the hand of pharaoh their liberty.

This is the hidden sweetness in the phrase a “day of vengeance of our God” – it is a day God restores the lost balance of the world. And so Mary sings about the greedy rich who have plundered the vulnerable – that they are “sent empty away.”   She is not exulting in their suffering, but rejoicing that the world has been rescued from their hands.

The garments of salvation

Thursday

Isaiah 61

File:Traditional Wedding Dress of Bahrain.jpg

Traditional Wedding Dress of Bahrain

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God.

Every now and then I have to stop the liturgy and remind the congregation what they are saying. To respond to the declaration that all sins are forgiven with a lackluster “thanks be to God,” is a travesty. No groom stands before his bride and mutters off the vows as if they were old and tired words. If such a groom exists, the bride should flee. Every now and then the guy is nervous – and, since he is repeating words I give him, he will start the vows looking at me. For that brief moment his concern is “getting it right.” He’s reciting a formula. But I always stop and remind him that he is not making the promise to me but to her and he should look at her. Then his whole demeanor changes. Then the words are channeled through his heart and will and emotions. Then they are spoken from the core of his being. “I take you…”

When we stand to speak in worship we stand before that power and presence in whom and from whom all things came into being. We are speaking to the one who is the source of all existence including our own. We are speaking to the heartbeat of the universe and the breath of all life. We are speaking with the power of creation and new creation, the power of truth and redemption, the power of grace and mercy, the power that unleashes every bondage yet binds itself to us.

We are not just looking into the loving eyes of a bride or groom; we are looking into the eyes of eternal love. If we mumble, then it ought only be because we are overwhelmed.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God.

My whole being shall exult. My whole being. Every heartbeat, every breath, every blink of the eye, every silently pulsating work of cells to grow and divide, to heal and renew, to stretch and grow, with every fiber of my being I praise this source of life. For the God who is at work in the world is loosing those who are bound, is building what has been torn down, is binding what is broken, healing what is wounded, forgiving what we imagine cannot be forgiven. The God who is at work in the world throws down every empire and raises up the ruined city. This God who is at work in the world, who speaks to us and to whom we speak, comes to wrap us and all creation in the garments of salvation.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

“Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

Wednesday

John 1

File:Ambrogio Lorenzetti - St. John the Baptist - Google Art Project.jpg

St. John the Baptist, Ambrogio Lorenzetti

26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

“Among you stands one whom you do not know.” I don’t think John is saying that these representatives of the Jerusalem elite who have come to question him simply haven’t been introduced yet to the coming one who stands among them. They don’t know him. They don’t understand him. They don’t recognize him. They don’t live in him or from him.

They don’t receive him.

The first verses in our reading this morning are connected to that great hymn that opens John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.

He himself was not the light,
but he came to testify to the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone,
was coming into the world.

He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.

He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.

But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood
or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man,
but of God.

In the face of this great and majestic hymn about the light of life entering into the world but not being received – immediately we hear the representatives of the Jerusalem elite not understanding who John is, nor caring about the one who is to come.

Among you stands one whom you do not know.

What they care about is whether John is going to be trouble. Is he going to start something? Is he going to rise up like a Messiah and lead people towards Jerusalem with an eye to establishing a theocratic state? Is he going to be an action figure like Elijah attempting to initiate God’s great act of deliverance from foreign oppression? Is he the prophet like Moses leading the people to a promised land?

John denies it all. He is just a voice.

But though John says he is a “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” these interrogators are still puzzled because he is baptizing, he is taking action – an action that looks like the gathering of an army. So, again, they ask. And though John keeps pointing to the coming one, these representatives of Jerusalem’s power are not interested.

Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

These are sad words. Those who should know do not. They are like Nicodemus, wandering in the dark, confused by the breath/wind/Spirit of God. They do not receive the light.

They just want things to stay the same.

But things won’t. They can’t. For the one whom they do not recognize is one so great in honor and rank that even a prophet of God Most high is still not worthy to serve as the lowliest slave assigned the task of tending such a masters’ feet.

And this one is in the world!

The light and life by whom and in whom and through whom all things exist is in their midst – and they don’t know him. They don’t receive him.

But others do.

It’s no accident that the author of this gospel is the one who tells us that this great and honored one, whose feet the Baptist was not worthy to touch, will take a towel and bend to wash his followers’ feet.

And he will tell them to do likewise.

And the grave shall not hold him.

And he will breathe on them his Spirit.

And the world of the wealthy and powerful will be turned upside down.

Joy overflows

Watching for the morning of December 14

Year B

The Third Sunday of Advent

File:Children sharing a milkshake.jpg

By krzyboy2o

Joy overflows this Sunday. We hear of the call of the prophet in Isaiah 61 who has been empowered by the Spirit of God to declare God’s restoration of the people. He uses the language and imagery of the jubilee year when every debt is forgiven and all lands restored. It contains also the imagery of a new king ascending the throne announcing amnesty and a new beginning for the nation.

The joy and expectation of the birth of Jesus cannot be contained. When Mary goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy and Mary sings her exquisite song rejoicing in God’s salvation.

Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica to “Rejoice always” and declares that their faithful God will keep them “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The only harsh note is the inquisition by representatives of the Jerusalem elite who come to interrogate John. They want to know whether he will lead an uprising against the powerful governing families in Jerusalem. They are satisfied that he is only a prophetic voice and do not seem to care when he declares that the coming one is already in their midst.

The coming one is in our midst. And the joy of that day is ours already.

The Prayer for December 14, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
you sent your servant John as herald of your kingdom
and witness to Christ, the light of the world,
who stands even now among us.
Renew us by your promised Spirit
that, with lives made whole,
we may receive you with joy at your coming;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 14, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 61.1-11
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” – The prophet describes his ministry as announcing a jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and all lands restored.

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
– Paul concludes his letter to the believers in Thessalonica with a series of exhortations about their life together as they wait for Christ’s return and the consummation of God’s dawning reign.

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” – The wealthy and powerful leaders in Jerusalem send representatives to discern whether John represents a threat to revolt against their rule, and seem satisfied that he is “only” a prophetic voice. They fail to hear his message that the coming one is already here.

The appointed psalm: Psalm 126
“Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
– The poet remembers the joy of their restoration to the land, and prays now that God would refresh the land anew with rain and abundant harvest.

The angel’s broken nose

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 40

Angel with broken nose10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him.

We were laughing at the door of the sanctuary as I greeted people after worship. A member was carrying a bag with a Downton Abbey image on the side. I asked if they watched the show. She said they were hooked. I said I almost quit after Matthew got killed, and she said, “That was terrible.” And then, suddenly, she lost her balance, stumbled to the side, and fell against the table where our new nativity figures had been set out for the congregation to see (the figures are for a display outside that is under construction). As she hit the table, the angel began to rock back and forth in that strange, slow-motion, disaster-is-coming, fashion, then tumbled over onto the wooden pews.

Our first concern, of course, was entirely with the person who had fallen against the table as we helped her get her feet under her. When it was clear she was okay, I recruited someone to take my place in providing her support as she continued on her way, and went back to shaking hands and greeting people. But the back of my mind was wondering just how sturdy these new figures were. Then our property chairperson came out holding the broken wing of the dove in the angel’s hand – and the angel’s nose.

Life is hard, even for angels.

We don’t think of angels as battle scarred. Our culture seems to picture them as graceful and feminine, long flowing white robes and wings not all that different from the strutting, nearly naked women on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Search for images of angels on the Internet and we get very few that inspire the fear reported in every Biblical text. The angel in Daniel 10 declares he is on his way to war. Joshua is met by a warrior of the LORD. Elijah opens his servant’s eyes to see that the town is surrounded by the heavenly armies. These are not the figures that adorn the tops of our Christmas tree or stand watch in our nativities.

The Biblical title “LORD of hosts” refers to the vast armies of the LORD. Certainly the metaphor draws from the experience of kingship in the ancient world, where kings are served by – and masters over – great armies. But there is more to the image of soldier-angels than divine pomp and circumstance. They remind us that God is defending life, that God is at war with evil, that God is fighting to reclaim his rebellious world.

Angels are not guardians of our personal safety, but warriors against what is cruel, unjust, violent, and hateful. Wars have battles that are won and lost, and sometimes in the chaos you can’t quite tell who’s winning, but the notion remains that God is fighting those spiritual powers that seem to have us so firmly in their grip. Sometimes, as with Balaam, they come to stand not with us but against us.

So our angel has already been mended and she will stand, gazing lovingly at Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and magi come to see the new born king. But I will know that she has battle scars. And I will find that reassuring.