“And he shall be the one of peace”

File:Bicci di Lorenzo - The Nativity - WGA2160.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 23, 2018

Year C

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

This word from a prophet of Israel’s God some 2,700 years ago shapes our gathering on Sunday. It is not a prediction; that’s never what prophecy was. It is a message, a sermon, a warning, a promise.

The words are old, very old, spoken in an ancient tongue and an alien culture. And yet it was spoken in this world, to humans very much like us, warring, greedy, loving, bitter, doubtful, hopeful, kind, cruel.

We are not much changed since then; only our technology has changed: bullets kill faster and better than swords. But war’s desolation we know. We see the rubble, even if we don’t have to live in it. We see the broken bodies, the mass graves, the fiery explosions, the children gasping for breath or searching for bread. And we know the hope for peace: peace in our world, peace in our homes, peace in our hearts.

Sunday we will sing the words of the prophet Isaiah about swords beaten into plowshares. We will hear Paul encourage us to set our minds on what is true, honorable and just, knowing that “the God of peace will be with you.” And we will hear the words of the Angel Gabriel to Mary about the child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In that promise we will find the fulfillment of the prophet Micah: a divine and royal presence come to breathe a new governance into the human heart – “and he shall be the one of peace.” (Micah 5:5)

These aren’t the appointed texts for this final Sunday of Advent this year, but they are ones that bear the Advent promise of a world made new, and prepare us to ponder again the child of the manger and the peace he brings.

The Prayer for December 23, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Fill our hearts with your Spirit,
and guide our steps in the way of that day
when Christ shall reign in every heart
and all creation shall dwell in your peace;
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 23, 2018

(We rearranged the readings in Advent to accommodate our children’s Christmas program. As a result, we read the story of the visitation last week and have added the story of the annunciation to our Advent this year.)

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”
– Amidst the words of judgment in the 8th century BCE are also words that promise a new future for the nation. This is the famous passage, quoted by Matthew, promising a king from the royal line of David who will “be the one of peace.”

Psalmody: Isaiah 2:2-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” – As Assyrian power rises in the 8th century BCE, the prophet reverses the call to arms, and summons the nation to walk in God’s way of peace.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:8-9
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure … think about these things.” – Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in all that is true and honorable.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-33
“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, of the house of David.” – Following the announcement to Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a child who would be the forerunner of God’s anointed, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.

The texts as appointed for 4 Advent C

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (alternate: Psalm 80:1-7)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In response to her encounter with Elizabeth, Mary sings with joy of God’s coming to set right the world.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10
“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.’” – In the midst of the author’s gathering of the scriptural witness to the superiority of Christ, he points to this passage and the words “I have come to do your will, O God” to speak of the new work of God in Christ Jesus that replaces the pattern of temple sacrifices.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
“As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” –Having heard from the angel Gabriel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is also wondrously with child, Mary comes to greet her. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and the child in her womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bicci_di_Lorenzo_-_The_Nativity_-_WGA2160.jpg Bicci di Lorenzo [Public domain]

Pregnant with what is to come

File:Any day now (3423098686).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 24, 2017

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday presents us with a morning service for the fourth Sunday in Advent – and then, that evening, the Christmas Eve service. After worship on Sunday morning we will have to flip all the decorations from Advent blue to the gold and white of Christmas. But already the harpsichord and other instruments will be in place, already the angel will look down upon Mary as she kneels in waiting before the altar, already Joseph will stand in watch – as if the morning were pregnant with what is to come.

Such is the Advent season: pregnant with what is to come. And such is Christian faith: pregnant with what is to come. You can hear the heartbeat of the reign of God. We have a sonogram with a fuzzy image of the life we await. There are changes already in the appearance of the world. Our lives are being restructured by the day to come.

Sunday morning we will hear Nathan speak God’s promise to David that Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” It is a promise that ran into the hard realities of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. For nearly 600 years the royal line was all but gone. There was no palace, no throne, no royal court. A few governors at first, Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, but the kingship was gone. There were brief flashes of independence, but not the line of David. The Hasmoneans were priests, and though Herod the Great was called a king, he wasn’t even from Judah. He was Idumean.

But now here is Gabriel speaking to a peasant woman not yet gone to live with her husband, telling of a child to be born who “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Birth pangs are upon the world. The day of grace is coming.

The Prayer for December 24, 2017

Eternal God, Breath of Life,
Font of Hope, and our Eternal Joy;
Open the doors of our hearts, and the gates of your mercy
to come into our world and our lives,
and bring your radiance to all creation.

The Texts for December 24, 2017

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, 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, (appointed: Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26)
“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.

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During Advent our parish departs from the appointed psalms and sings Isaiah 51:4-11, the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and Isaiah 12 on the four Sundays. We also adjust the readings between the Sundays to allow for the celebration of a children’s Christmas program during worship in Advent. Next Sunday we will read Mark’s account of John the Baptist that is assigned for today.

During Advent we provide daily verses and brief reflections that can be found by following this link to Advent 2017.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAny_day_now_(3423098686).jpg By Aurimas Mikalauskas from Paliūniškis, Lithuania (Any day now) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

He is our Peace

File:ANGELICO, Fra Annunciation, 1437-46 (2236990916).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 20, 2015

Year C

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

(We rearranged the readings in Advent to accommodate our children’s Christmas program. As a result, we read the story of the visitation last week and have added to our Advent this year the story of the annunciation.)

It’s interesting to me that the angels in all the baroque paintings of the annunciation I have reviewed show such deference to Mary. This is, after all, a young peasant girl and Gabriel one of the lords of heaven. It is like the chairman of the joint chiefs calling upon a college girl in her dorm room. He should be the one before whom she kneels, not the other way around.

But it is not just medieval piety about the queen of heaven at work in these paintings; the mission upon which the angel is sent is a wonder and mystery beyond all imagining. The author of the universe is binding himself into the womb of a woman.

The language of Gabriel’s speech to Mary hasn’t quite reached the depths of that mystery, yet. It is still the language of kingship: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High” – a royal title – “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” – a messianic title, but still framed in terms of human kingship. “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This is the fulfillment of the ancient promise that a shoot will come forth from the stump of Jesse, from the fallen line of the Davidic monarchy. We are not yet at the full mystery of the incarnation, but we will get there. God is beginning a new enterprise to capture and deliver his rebellious and suffering world.

And so, on Sunday, we hear Micah’s promise that from Bethlehem will come one “whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” “He shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”

And we sing of swords beaten into plowshares with the song of salvation in Isaiah 2, when all nations come to learn the way of God – a way in which God’s people are summoned to walk now.

And we hear the apostle Paul remind us to focus on all that is good and noble, promising that the peace of God will be upon us.

This child of Mary will bring the day of peace, the world of peace, the liberating joy of peace with God and one another. This child will be the one who brings the realm of heaven to earth. This child will be the bearer of earth’s redemption. And for that reason Gabriel kneels.

The prayer for December 20, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Fill our hearts with your Spirit,
and bring quickly the day when Christ shall reign in every heart
and all creation shall dwell in your peace;
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 20, 2015

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”
– Amidst the words of judgment in the 8th century BCE are also words that promise a new future for the nation. This is the famous passage, quoted by Matthew, promising a king from the royal line of David who will “be the one of peace.”

Psalmody: Isaiah 2:2-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” – As Assyrian power rises in the 8th century BCE, the prophet reverses the call to arms, and summons the nation to walk in God’s way of peace.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:8-9
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure … think about these things.” – Though Paul is in prison facing the possibility of death, he urges his community to abide in all that is true and honorable.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-33
“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, of the house of David.” – Following the announcement to Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a child who would be the forerunner of God’s anointed, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.

The texts as appointed for 4 Advent C

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”
– Amidst the words of judgment in the 8th century BCE are also words that promise a new future for the nation. This is the famous passage, quoted by Matthew, promising a king from the royal line of David who will “be the one of peace.”

Psalmody: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (alternate: Psalm 80:1-7)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – In response to her encounter with Elizabeth, Mary sings with joy of God’s coming to set right the world.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10
“Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.’” – In the midst of the author’s gathering of the scriptural witness to the superiority of Christ, he points to this passage and the words “I have come to do your will, O God” to speak of the new work of God in Christ Jesus that replaces the pattern of temple sacrifices.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45
“As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” –Having heard from the angel Gabriel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is also wondrously with child, Mary comes to greet her. Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and the child in her womb (John the Baptist) leaps for joy.

 

Image: Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, San Marco Museum, Florence.  By carulmare (ANGELICO, Fra Annunciation, 1437-The mission upon which the angel Gabriel is sent is a wonder and mystery beyond all imagining: the author of the universe is binding himself into the womb of a peasant woman.46) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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