The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

File:Z cyklu Podivuhodné krajiny - Japonsko (1989).jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 8, 2019

Year A

The Second Sunday of Advent

Stunning words come to us this Sunday.  Our reading from Isaiah will proclaim that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” The fallen royal line, named from David’s father, shall bloom again.  “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”  He will be filled with wisdom and girded with faithfulness to God and the people.  And then come those sweet, ecstatic, words that under his governance:

6The wolf shall live with the lamb,
….the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
….and a little child shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze,
….their young shall lie down together;
….and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
….and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9They will not hurt or destroy
….on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD 
….as the waters cover the sea.

A world without violence.  A world like Eden.  A world restored to its primal innocence.  A creation made new.

We look at the bloodshed on earth, the betrayals of allies, the enduring hatreds of ancient animosities, the violence of speech and thought, the violence that manifests itself even in schools and churches, and such words are sweet indeed.  We can escape all this.  There will be a day…

From Isaiah we will turn to the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah at the birth of his son, John – who we know as John the Baptist.  We will hear Zechariah’s joy at the coming fulfilment of God’s promise.

68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
….for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
….in the house of his servant David,
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

Zechariah will then sing of his son’s calling:

you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
….for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
….by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
….the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
….to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Salvation, healing, wholeness, peace – God’s shalom is coming.

And we will hear John preach in the Gospel for the day.  Coming in fulfillment of the prophetic promises, dressed like a prophet of old, out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan where Israel once waited to enter the promised land, John will call the nation to new beginnings, to preparation, to living in anticipation of that day when all things are made new.

It will carry the sound of warning.  The ax is ready.  Trees that bear no fruit will be cut down.  But also promise.  God is able to raise faithful children even from stones.  The world is about to be awash in the Spirit.

The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

The Prayer for December 8, 2019

Holy and Gracious God,
our breath of life and everlasting joy,
who gathers all things into your eternal embrace:
fill all creation with the light of your love
and the knowledge of your will;
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 8, 2019

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
– Like new growth from the stump of a felled tree, a new king shall arise from the fallen line of David, a king filled with the Spirit of God, who will govern in righteousness and bring all creation to peace.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, we sing the song of Zechariah, sung at the birth of his son, John, whom we know as John the Baptist, praising God and predicting his role as the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9 (appointed, verses 4-13)
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” –
Speaking to that fundamental divide between observant Judeans and those who had become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of the Greek world, between ‘Judean’ and ‘Gentile’, Paul calls for the believers to live the reconciliation that has occurred in Christ, giving multiple examples from the Scriptures in support of God’s mission to gather all nations.

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
– John comes as a prophet of old, heralding the dawning of God’s reign and calling all people to ‘repent’, to turn and show allegiance to God.

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(If you are interested, daily reflections for this season are posted at Holy Seasons)

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© David K. Bonde
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Z_cyklu_Podivuhodn%C3%A9_krajiny_-_Japonsko_(1989).jpg  Zdeněk Thoma [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

And us? What should we do?

File:Humanitarian aid OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpgWatching for the Morning of December 9, 2018

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday we combine the assigned Gospel texts for the next two weeks because of the children’s Christmas program on the 16th. This gives us the chance to hear Luke’s account of the ministry of John the Baptizer in a single reading: The word of God comes into the brutal world of Rome and its client kings, announcing God’s righting of the world and the coming of the one who will wash the world in a holy Spirit. And what does it mean to prepare for this wondrous act of God? It is to bear fruit befitting God’s reign: to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to show faithfulness to others rather than plundering them to your benefit.

The journey towards God is a journey towards the neighbor.

The dawn of grace requires we learn to live grace.

So there are warnings on Sunday, the ax poised to strike the fruitless tree, and the winnowing fork sifting the chaff for the fire; heritage doesn’t count for anything, only fidelity. But there is also promise of a dawning salvation: a world set right and a human community awash in the Spirit. It is time, says John, to take sides. Choose the one to whom you will show allegiance: the world of rulers and empire, or the reign of grace.

Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi speak of God’s messenger who prepares the way for God to come to his temple. His task is to purify the priestly clan of Levi, that their offerings may please rather than offend God. And in this warning of a refiner’s fire we will recognize that it is not only the preachers and priests who must have the dross burned away, but a people who must become faithful.

In the shadow of that warning we will sing the prophetic song of Zechariah that rejoices in God’s favor and the fulfillment of God’s promises, describing the mission of his son, John, to “Go before the Lord to prepare his way.” There are barriers of heart and mind that must be torn down. There are hearts that must be changed, relationships to be reconciled, wounds to be healed, love to be lived.

And we will hear Paul exhort his beloved congregation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” in the promise that “it is God who is at work in you.”

It is a season of hope, but also a season for living the kingdom.

The Prayer for December 9, 2018

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Lead us in the way of your kingdom
that we may walk in paths of faith, hope and love;
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 9, 2018

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
– The prophet known as Malachi spoke to a people who complained of God’s absence, but neglected their offerings and worship of God. He declares that God will come to this people, but warns he will come as a purifying fire.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – On this Sunday when we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist, we sing the song known as the Benedictus (from its first words in Latin). This prophecy is sung by Zechariah when he regains his voice after following the divine command to name his son John. He glorifies God for God’s work of deliverance and declares that John “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:12-16 (appointed: Philippians 1:3-11)
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” –Paul writes from prison, urging his beloved congregation to faithfulness in their life together. (Our congregation read Philippians 1:3-11 last week.)

Gospel: Luke 3:1-18 (appointed: Luke 3:1-6)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – We combine the Gospel readings for 2 and 3 Advent this Sunday where John is located in the midst of the ruling powers but speaks of the ruler to come – and calls the community to a life in keeping with the dawning reign of God.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Humanitarian_aid_OCPA-2005-10-28-090517a.jpg Technical Sergeant Mike Buytas of the United States Air Force [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sweet, but so profound

File:02014 Krippenspiel in Sanok.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 10, 2017

Year B

The Second Sunday of Advent

The children of the parish take center stage during the portion of the worship service called “the service of the word.” I don’t want to call it a “Christmas Pageant”, because it is not a little show stuck into the middle of the service, it is the vehicle through which the story is proclaimed to us of a wondrous God who comes to a world, frail and vulnerable as a child. A God who trust himself into our hands, though those hands will scourge and pound nails and press a crown of thorns into his head. Yet our hands will also reach out to touch the edge of his cloak, and his hands will touch and heal.

The message of the child in the manger is profound.   Sweet and terrible. It is fitting for children to tell it.

When I first held my daughter, I was overwhelmed not only by her vulnerability, but by my own. Suddenly my heart was thoroughly exposed. Here, indescribable joy and terror were woven together. I was attached to a child whose every wound would tear at my heart.

The story of the nativity is sweet, but so profound. Here is God risking all. Here is God come to dwell. Here is God desiring only to heal and redeem, whatever the cost to God’s own self.

So Sunday the children will tell the story. And because of that story we will adapt our service, hearing the prophet’s fabulous words that begin “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God,” then turning to the story of Zechariah in the temple learning that he and Elizabeth are to be given a son. They are to name him John. He will go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijahto make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The last words of that story will invite us to sing with Zechariah that great prophetic song that begins: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.” And then the children will speak to us the priceless story. And we will think it cute. We will laugh and smile and sing the carols.   And in between the sweetness will be the awe and wonder at such a God who shows our frail flesh a fit vessel of the holy, and fills all creation with light and life.

The Prayer for December 10, 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 grant us the peace of your kingdom.

The Texts for December 10, 2017

First Reading: Isaiah 40.1-11
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” – A prophet is called to speak a word of comfort to the people in exile in Babylon. Forgiveness is at hand, and the cry goes forth to build a highway through the desert to bring God’s people home.

Gospel: Luke 1:5-20, 57-67 (“The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.) The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah while he is serving in the temple to announce the birth of a son and, when the child is born and obediently named, Zechariah’s tongue is released and he sings the Benedictus:

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (the Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” –
Zechariah sings a prophetically inspired song celebrating the mighty work of God and the special calling of his son, John

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The appointed texts for December 10, 2017

Psalm: Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13
“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”
– The poet prays for renewal of Israel’s life in the land after the return from exile, acknowledging God’s previous help and expressing prayerful trust that God, in his faithfulness, will come to their aid.

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3.8-15
“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” –
In the circular letter where we hear the familiar words “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” the author writes to encourage the fledgling Christian community to patience and faithfulness as they wait for the day of the Lord.

Gospel: Mark 1.1-8
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mark begins his Gospel with the language of royal decree and the prophetic words of John pointing to the one who will wash the world in the Holy Spirit.

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%3A02014_Krippenspiel_in_Sanok.jpg By Silar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Without fear

File:Portrait of Refugee, Paris 2009 A.jpg

Friday

Luke 1:68-79

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear.

In the aftermath of the shooting in San Bernardino, people are not only frightened of possible terror, Muslim Americans are frightened of their neighbors. I can’t imagine how I would feel if the situation were reversed: a minority Christian in a Muslim dominated country when some Christians are making bombs and proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord,” as they shoot up a crowd. If the majority culture knew little about Christianity, I would fear they would view all Christians as possible terrorists – or terrorist sympathizers. It disgraces the name of Christ. It would disgrace me.

Some Christians already disgrace me (and, I think, Christ), but there are enough of us around for people to recognize that shooting up abortion clinics, church prayer groups or black youth on the street isn’t intrinsic to Christianity. But if people didn’t know Christians or Christianity…

I would keep my head down. I would be on constant guard.

Living in fear is corrosive of the human spirit. It restricts our joy. It limits our freedom. We live in the shadows, even as children of an abusive parent find places to be out of sight and mind. It is not the life God intended for us. For any of us.

It takes courage to go on national television and speak of your shock and sadness when your brother has inflicted mass casualties. It takes even more courage to wear a headscarf. Hate is made easier when you are easily identifiable, when you look ‘different’.

69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,…that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear.

I hear these words and think of the Judean experience under Antiochus Epiphanes IV who tried to stamp out what he and his cultured despisers regarded as a backward religious belief and practice that refused to embrace the values of the ruling powers. When there is the threat of death for circumcising your child – or soldiers going village to village with drawn swords demanding you eat pork – fear becomes your daily bread. It is a much different fear than the dominant culture’s fear of terrorism. It is a fear for your very being. The fear that makes you withdraw and hide.

When I served in Detroit, the kids in my parish made fun of white folks. But beneath the laughter was a buried fear. Away from their turf, an encounter, any encounter, with the dominant culture could go south quickly and unexpectedly. You needed to always be on guard. And they are not the only ones who live with such a low grade, chronic fear.

There is no want of fear in our world. It seeps into relationships and homes and communities and human hearts. It corrodes the human spirit. Compassion rusts. Tolerance wears thin. We divide. We arm ourselves. Then someone breaks into a school a workplace, a holiday party and starts firing. And then nations rise up and go to war.

To a fearful world Zechariah sings his song:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David.
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.”

Maybe Zechariah was thinking about the occupying Roman forces. Maybe the song is older, from the days of Antiochus. But maybe Zechariah understands perfectly that the enemy from which we are delivered is not Muslims or jihadis, terrorists or troubled teens, but the brokenness of our own existence.

And into this world where our brokenness has wrought its evil for generation upon generation, into this world comes a child, his child, John who will be called “the baptizer”. This child he holds in his very own hands will open the door for the one in whom the world finally begins to change:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

To guide our feet, yours and mine, out of fear and darkness into the way of peace.

 

Image: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (Portrait of Refugee  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Prepare the Way

File:Georgia Kintsvisi fresco.jpg

Watching for the Morning of December 6, 2015

Year C

The Second Sunday of Advent

This Sunday we shift our focus from the horizon of human history to the ministry of John the Baptist who announced the coming one. We are not turning our eyes in a new direction, just shifting the focus from the far horizon to the foothills. It is as in the movies when the camera shifts our focus from one character to another, revealing by that move something significant for the story.

The coming of “the Son of Man”, the “Day of Christ”, the “Kingdom of God” that was the subject of our readings last week are still part of this Sunday – only now we see John and hear the call to prepare the way for God’s advent. The kingdom is shared bread. The dawning reign does justice. It washes us in God’s Spirit. John calls us to begin to live the day that is coming.

Luke makes it clear that this reign of God dawns into a world ruled by empire: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas – Luke names them all. Names that evoke powerful responses among the people. Names that do not speak of shared bread or justice.  Names linked to the death of Jesus and the imperial rule that crushed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Into this world of kings and empires comes a new empire, a new reign, a reign of God.

With Luke’s account of John this Sunday we hear Malachi speak of God’s advent in judgment and grace. We sing the song of Zechariah at the birth of his son, John, as he proclaims the advent of “a mighty savior.” And amidst this call to prepare for the dawning reign of God, Paul urges us to “work out [our] salvation”: to be and become the people of the age to come.

The prayer for December 6, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Teach us the way of your kingdom
that we may ever honor you with lives of faith, hope and love;
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 6, 2015

First Reading: Malachi 3:1-4
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
– The prophet known as Malachi spoke to a people who complained of God’s absence, but neglected their offerings and worship of God. He declares that God will come to this people, but warns he will come as a purifying fire.

Psalmody: Luke 1:68-79 (The Benedictus)
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” – On this Sunday when we hear of the ministry of John the Baptist, we sing the song known as the Benedictus (from its first words in Latin). This prophecy is sung by Zechariah when he regains his voice after following the divine command to name his son John, glorifying God for his work of deliverance and declaring that John is the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

Second Reading: Philippians 2:12-16 (appointed: Philippians 1:3-11)
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” –Paul writes from prison, urging his beloved congregation to faithfulness in their life together. (Our congregation read Philippians 1:3-11 last week.)

Gospel: Luke 3:1-18 (appointed: Luke 3:1-6)
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” – We combine the Gospel readings for 2 and 3 Advent this Sunday where John is located in the midst of the ruling powers but speaks of the ruler to come – and calls the community to a life in keeping with the dawning reign of God.

 

Image: By uploader Koperczak (talk) 06:28, 24 March 2009 (UTC) [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Singing of dawn

Sunday Evening

Luke 1

Sunrise in Wyoming

Sunrise in Wyoming

78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

“Those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”  I don’t know for sure what the poet had in mind with that phrase, whether it is a general metaphor for the ordinary troubles of life, whether it evokes the trials of oppression under a foreign power, whether it refers to the darkness and hopelessness of a debtors’ prison.

Many images come to my mind:  Camping in the high Sierra’s when the cold seeps through the sleeping bag and your stiff body longs for the warmth of dawn.  A cold rainy night on the road, curled up in a rest area because no one would stop in that weather for a hitchhiker.  A view outside a bus window on a bleak winter day in Minnesota, trees stripped bare and frozen earth as far as I could see – a scene matched by an inner desolation in the aftermath of a burial.  A homeless man making a home of newspapers in a window well in downtown Detroit.

All of these are shy of a debtors’ prison and enemy soldiers on the streets, yet I can guess at the desolation, the weariness, the ache in the bones and in the soul.  And I can guess at the grace of a dawn from on high.

Too often we stand at a point in life when we see nothing down the road but more of the same, whether loneliness or pain or economic difficulties, whether injustice, political turmoil, or neighborhood violence, whether troubled homes, unsolvable problems, or the dark night of the soul.

John’s father Zechariah has been silenced by his unbelief.  But now the child is born and his tongue is loosed and he sings of the dawn that comes.  The dawn that warms the soul.  The dawn that heralds a future.  The dawn of mercy and redemption and new life.

We sang this song of Zechariah today, and its beauty lingers.  But, in a sense, every worship service sings of dawn.  Every service opens doors, unlocks prisons, lifts our hearts.  Every service warms the soul and brings that new day where mercy reigns.

Sometimes the songs evaporate like the morning mist before we even leave the parking lot.  But sometimes they linger.  And the taste of the bread lingers.  And the aroma of the wine.  And the sounds of grace.  And the warmth of God’s new dawn.

Some days we return home and find God’s tender mercy our lasting companion.

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“Advent talks to us about preparation.  We are getting ready to greet the Christ who comes to us.  But there is a great difference between preparing for a test or preparing for a courtroom trial and preparing for a wedding.  We are preparing for a wedding.” 

(From today’s sermon, “The wedding of heaven and earth” – posted in Recent Sermons)