The world’s first breath and final sigh:

The promise of peace

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Watching for the Morning of November 27, 2016

Year A

The First Sunday of Advent

We start the Advent season by talking about Christ’s advent at the end of the age. I used to say “the end of time”, but it is not the end of time; it is the end of this time. It is the end of the world we know where bombs rain on hospitals and people still wave flags emboldened with the sign of the most hateful reign in human experience. But it’s not the end of this wondrous creation. Even the brutal travail of the world described in Revelation is not the end of the creation but its transformation, its healing, its redemption. There may be no need for sun and moon because of the radiance of God’s presence, and the author may proclaim that the sea is no more – meaning that there is no longer in this world any remnant of the primal chaos (the source of the beastly kingdoms described in Daniel’s visions) – but the point is that God has come to dwell with us and the city gates no need ever be closed. The violence that mars the creation, the rebellion begun in the garden that reaches cosmic dimensions in the imagery of the book of Revelation, is over. Humanity that was once clothed in animal skins is now robed in white. The river of life flows from the city, and the tree of life from which humanity was barred lest we live eternally in our sorrows, now feeds us with fresh fruit blossoming each month. The end of which Jesus speaks is not the end but the new beginning of a world made whole, a world born from above, a world born anew.

This season of Advent begins with our eyes on the end of the age because the child whose birth we wait to celebrate at Christmas is the Lord who was and is and is to come, the world’s first breath and final sigh. He is our peace.

And so this Sunday we will read from Isaiah the promise of swords beaten into plowshares, when the world is taught by God and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And we will hear Paul declare that “the night is far gone, the day is near.” And we will hear Jesus summon us to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The armies of the world march and train in constant readiness for war, but we prepare for peace.

The Prayer for November 27, 2016

Gracious God, who called forth the first morning of the world
and brings all things to their final end when all night is vanquished,
make us ever mindful of our journey homeward
and wake us to your presence among us,
that the day when swords are beaten into plowshares
may be alive in us now;
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 November 27, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”
– In the midst of the wars and destructions as the Assyrian empire rises and crushes the kingdoms around Judah, Isaiah proclaims God’s ultimate rule: all nations will recognize and come to Zion to learn the ways of God.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11
“The heavens will vanish like smoke… but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” – In place of the appointed Psalm 122, we sing the song of salvation from Isaiah 51. The prophet declares that even if they heavens could vanish, God’s faithfulness will not, and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14
“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep … the night is far gone, the day is near.” –
Living in the confidence of Christ’s return and the full dawning of God’s reign of life, Paul exhorts the community to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”.

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
– Having spoken of the fall of Jerusalem and warned his followers about the troubles and persecutions they will face in the days to come – and particularly of the false messiahs who will claim that the Day of the Lord has come (in their violent revolt against Rome) – Jesus assures them that though the final day is unknown, they will not miss it when it comes. In the face of the challenges to come they are to be ever awake and attending to the work of God.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMist_-_Ensay_region3.jpg By benjamint444 (Digital Camera) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The days ahead

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Watching for the Morning of November 13, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

The end of the church year looks towards the horizon of human history. In this second to last Sunday, the Gospel reading always draws from Jesus’ prediction of the fall of the temple and the question it elicits from his followers about the end of the age. They cannot imagine an end to the temple apart from the end of this age and the dawn of the new, so one leads to the other. But Jesus recognizes the cataclysm that is coming upon Israel, torn as it is between the entrenched power of the elite priestly families, the passion of the zealots who would cast off Rome, and the eschatological fervor of those who expect heavenly armies to join the battle to liberate the land and temple. It will be a time of distress for his followers. They will be hated by Romans and rebels alike. But this is not the end. Not yet. There is work to be done. There is a message to be proclaimed. The reign of God does not involve swords and spears or priestly rule but a new creation.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Malachi declaring a day of judgment upon “the arrogant and all evildoers” but “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” The psalm rejoices that “the LORD…is coming to judge the earth” and calls all the earth to sing God’s praise. And Jesus warns us not to be led astray by the traumas of our age and those who claim to be our savior. Circling this conversation about the end of this age is the reading from 2 Thessalonians where the author speaks of our obligations to one another as a community of the age to come that is already dawning in Christ Jesus.

Elites want to maintain the order of things and terrorists want to force a new order. The followers of Jesus simply try to live God’s new order, assured it is the reality that is coming.

The Prayer for November 13, 2016

O God who stands at the beginning and the end of time,
you have promised truth, justice and life for the world.
Grant that we may not be deceived by falsehood,
seduced by injustice,
or turned from the path of life,
but set our hope fully upon your Word;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for November 13, 2016

First Reading: : Malachi 4:1-2a
“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble…But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
– the prophet warns the community of God’s judgment on “the arrogant” who think God will not hold them accountable for their actions and promises God’s blessing on those who show themselves faithful.

Psalmody: Psalm 98
“Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” – A hymn celebrating God’s reign, calling all creation to exult in his deliverance and his fidelity in bringing justice and righteousness to the world.

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
“We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”
– For a community that shared resources, and whose central act of worship was a shared meal, the letter rebukes those who make no commitment to help provide for the common good.

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” – Jesus warns his followers about events to come (the national convulsion that culminates in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, but also the perennial warring of nations and distressing tragedies), cautioning them not to be led astray by those who claim to be God’s anointed, urging them to faithfulness in their witness, and assuring them of God’s ultimate deliverance.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AVictoria%2C_BC_-_Christ_Church_Cathedral_-_stained_glass_28_-_Chapel_of_the_New_Jerusalem_(20623905782).jpg Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Lift up your heads

File:Filippino Lippi, Carafa Chapel, Annunciation 03.jpg

Watching for the Morning of November 29, 2015

Year C

The First Sunday of Advent

So much of our imagery of the end of the world seems to describe “the end of the world.” We get stuck on the four horsemen of the apocalypse and forget that the whole narrative of Revelation drives towards the vision of the New Jerusalem – the making new of the world. Maybe that’s because “the end of the world” is so common in our experience. The loss of parents, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a marriage, the loss of a job – they all contain elements of a life that will never be the same, life that seems irrecoverable, life that seems at an end.

I remember how often I tried to remind my girls that some catastrophe at school or at home – a broken relationship, a broken toy or spilled milk on a report – was not “the end of the world.” But even there, “the end of the world” is equated with disaster – just a bigger one than whatever misfortune has just occurred.

Though Christianity recognizes how deep and stubborn is the rebellion in the human heart, how prolonged the labor pains might be in the birthing of God’s new world, it is about God’s world made new – restored, freed, healed, redeemed, saved. Those are all the words at the center of Christian faith, not the dark woes of apocalypticism.

There is a stunning realism in this religion accused of being “pie in the sky” – a realism about the darkness that lurks in human societies, and the wastes and wraths of our sorrows. Kings go to war, bombing villages and destroying ancient communities, disrupting food and water supplies, leading to disease and death long after the sword has passed through. Leading to the suffering of children and innocents. Leading to the birthing of hate and revenge. Leading to the birthing of despair. There is realism in Christianity.  The central story we tell is about a brutal torture and execution of an innocent man.

But the end is not the grave. The world belongs to God and not to suffering and death. We were created for joy not sorrow, for meaningful work not slave labor, for union not divorce, for a life with God in the garden not hiding in the bushes. We were created for life not death. And though we yield so easily and completely to the powers of death (revenge, hate, neglect, cruelty, greed, bitterness, and the darkest nihilism) we are creatures born of the breath of God in whom we can also see all that is glorious about our made-in-the-image-of-God humanity: love, tenderness, laughter, play, kindness, care of strangers, sharing of bread, coming to the aid of those in need.

So on the first Sunday of the year our eyes are on the horizon – not because the world ends in whimpering and silence, but because it ends in joy. And the God who comes on the horizon of history is the one who has already met us lying in a manger, and at a breakfast barbecue on the shore of Galilee.

The prayer for November 29, 2015

All earth and heaven have their beginning and end in you, O God;
you are our source and goal.
Make us ever mindful that our lives move towards your Grace,
that we might be faithful children of hope;
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 November 29, 2015

First Reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16
“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
– In the aftermath of the national catastrophe when Babylon’s armies came and crushed the nation, destroying Jerusalem and the temple of its God, the prophet rises, daring to declare that the LORD’s promise to Israel is not voided. That God will yet fulfill his promise under the banner of a true and faithful king.

Psalmody: Isaiah 51:4-11 (appointed: Psalm 25:1-10)
“The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads, sorrow and sighing will flee away.” – In place of the appointed psalm, our parish sings the song of salvation from Isaiah 51 where the prophet declares that the faithfulness of God is more enduring than earth and sea and heralds the return from exile in “everlasting joy.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:3-11 (appointed: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more… so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” – Though Paul writes from prison, his eyes are on the fulfillment of God’s promise to establish his reign of grace and life and writes his beloved congregation, rejoicing in their faith and urging them to faithfulness.

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” – Reading now in Luke at the beginning of a new church year, we start with eyes turned toward the horizon of human history and the promise of the ultimate dawning of God’s reign over all creation.

 

Image: Filippino Lippi, Archangel Gabriel in the fresco of the Annunciation, Carafa chapel.  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

But there is hope here

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David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70

Watching for the Morning of November 15, 2015

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 28 / Lectionary 33

Year B

The disciples of Jesus are awed by the temple. Rightly awed. It was a magnificent structure that Herod the Great had created, transforming the small temple whose dimensions were confined by those in the Biblical text into a great plaza of concentric courtyards surrounded by porticoes of towering columns. To accomplish this, Herod had to extend the hilltop, building out the huge retaining wall that still stands to support the temple mount. The exposed foundation stones in the southwest corner form the Western Wall where Jews gather today to mourn the loss of the temple and pray.

Herod created one of the wonders of the ancient world. But in 70 CE, four years after the outbreak of the Judean revolt, Rome destroyed it.

The war was devastating for the region and a catastrophe for Judea. Jewish residents of Roman cities who did not flee were murdered. Crucifixions abounded as the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem with concrete examples of the fate that awaited the rebels. No heavenly armies arrived to support the rebel leaders acclaimed as messiahs. The signs in the heavens and the purported miracles on earth did not lead to the liberation of Judea or the dawning of God’s kingdom. All that came was hunger, destruction and death.

Jesus talks about this pending disaster with no glee. There is no joy at Jerusalem’s fall. No delight in God’s judgment on the wicked. Just the sad acknowledgment that this grand attempt to honor God with worldwide renown was not the honor God desired. God desired justice and mercy.

This is the setting for worship on Sunday. It should make us a little weak in the knees. We are drawing near to the end of the church year. In the northern hemisphere it is the end of the harvest season when the grain is winnowed. Winter looms, darkness grows, and themes of judgment and the end of all things echo in our texts.

But there is hope here.

The Book of Daniel faces the devastation of 164 BCE with the promise of God’s ultimate triumph. The Archangel Michael shall arise to deliver God’s people, the grave shall give up its dead, every injustice shall be righted, and the faithful will shine with the radiance of heaven.

The psalmist sings in gratitude of God’s blessing and, when he speaks of God’s healing work, hints at a more profound mystery:

9 Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
10 For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
11 You show me the path of life.

Jesus acknowledges the coming judgment upon Jerusalem but warns his followers not to be led astray. This is not the end, he says, and compares it with the onset of labor pains – pains that end in joy. God’s reign will come, just not yet. The days are scary but not final. There is work yet for believers to do. Works of justice and mercy. Works of witness and service. Works of joy and life.

The Prayer of the Day for November 15, 2015

Almighty and eternal God,
set our hearts and hands to work,
not in the building of temples that perish,
but in those eternal works of mercy and truth
that serve your reign of grace and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The texts for November 15, 2015

First Reading: Daniel 12:1-3
“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise.”
– The visions granted to Daniel of the persecutions under Antiochus Epiphanes IV come to their conclusion with Israel’s ultimate deliverance.

Psalmody: Psalm 16
“Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” – The poet expresses his trust in God.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” – Having set forth his argument for the superiority of Christ as our true high priest, the author comes to the exhortation that prompts his letter: that we should “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” and encourage one another to remain faithful.

Gospel: Mark 13:1-8
“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” – When the disciples call Jesus’ attention to the majesty and beauty of the temple, he predicts its destruction. For the disciples, such and event must mean the end of the world, but Jesus tells his followers that “the end is not yet,” and warns them not to be led astray. The conflicts of the nations and the convulsions of nature are but “the beginning of the birth pangs.”

 

David Roberts, The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The elements will be dissolved with fire”

Wednesday

2 Peter 3

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Nuclear weapon test on Bikini Atoll. United States Department of Energy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

I remember the “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills in third grade. After hiding under our desks from the flying glass of the initial blast, we lined up outside and walked home before the fallout rained down. At least, that was the theory. My brother had a nightmare one night from which my mother couldn’t wake him – she resorted to Cheerios, how did we raise our children without them? He came screaming from the bedroom; there was a nuclear bomb under our bunk bed – and I, his little brother, was still in there sleeping! (But he was too frightened to let Mom go in to show him I was okay.)

We had a small cellar in the house to which we moved in 5th grade. Mother stocked it with canned food and a camping toilet and we rehearsed what each of us was to bring in the case of a nuclear attack. I was to bring my flute and a Bible. I remember the painful and puzzling conversation about why we couldn’t bring any of our pets in with us.

So it was no wonder that, when I encountered these words from 2 Peter in High School – all of us recognized immediately that the world would end in nuclear war: “the elements will be dissolved with fire.”

I even remember the twisted logic that God promised he wouldn’t destroy the world again with a flood, but he didn’t say anything about fire.

I heard the word ‘elements’ and thought of the periodic table. Dissolving with fire, must mean fission, matter turned to unimaginable energy. But Peter’s readers didn’t think the world was composed of elemental atoms; for them the world was rooted in (and driven by) elemental spirits.

And suddenly these words of terror – nuclear holocaust as a divine instrument and inevitable future – become words of grace: the primal forces that war within and amongst us will perish. Racism, sexism, fear, bigotry, deceit, greed, war, violence, abuse – all these primal impulses and realities that we cannot extirpate from the human soul or human society – they will all disappear. They will be purged like dross from the silver.

The world is not being annihilated; it is being redeemed.

+     +     +

Now, if you need more convincing, note that the fire discloses not destroys:

“the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

And the Greek word ‘elements’ is used in Galatians 4:3

So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.

and 4:9

Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?

(The English word ‘spirits’ in both these quotes is not present in the Greek, but added to give the meaning of this Greek word ‘elements’.)

If you need more, go to Colossians 2:8 and 2:20.

The new heavens and earth for which we wait is this one made new, a world “where righteousness is at home.”

The point 2 Peter wants to make is not how the world will end, but where it will end (in God) and therefore, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way,” since our fearful cruelties will be ‘dissolved’, “what sort of persons ought you to be?” We should be citizens of the age to come, “leading lives of holiness and godliness.”

14Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.”

A full and terrible end?

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Icon of the prophets Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Jonah and Moses

Friday

Zephaniah 1

18A full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

A lot depends upon translation. Different words evoke entirely different images. The word translated as ‘earth’ also means ‘land’.  “He will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the land” is far different than “he will make a terrible end of all the inhabitants of the earth.” The one disaster is local; the other sounds cosmic. The one is about Judea; the other is about all of us. The one is about the Babylonian onslaught in 586 BCE; the other is about the apocalyptic end.

Of course, the devastation of war – the hunger, the violence, the ruined buildings, the disease that follows in its train, the dead, the violated, the captives taken into slavery, the lost national treasures, the lost identity, the lost hope – there is no other way to describe it than as “the end of the world.”

And, still, we speak of even personal tragedies and crises as “the world crashing down.”

We understand the prophet. Berlin after the war, Dresden, Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Hiroshima, Iwo Jima, the killing fields of Cambodia, Aleppo – only apocalyptic language can tell the horror.

This language of the prophets will be taken up by others, especially by the Revelation to John. It will come to speak of that final catastrophe when humanity persists in rebellion from God until every plague has been suffered. Yet even that allusion to the plagues of Egypt, the plagues that were the consequence of Pharaoh thinking he was master of all and resisting to the end God’s purposes for the world – even those plagues are about redemption, setting both Israel and Egypt free from the bondage of slavery. So, too, are the disasters of humanity’s ultimate resistance to God. They are the birth pangs of a redeemed world.

God will make an end of all the inhabitants of the earth. God will make an end to the brutality of war. God will make an end to the sufferings of injustice. God will make an end to the corroding reality of poverty.

God will make an end to our violence and fear. God will make an end to our guilt and sorrow.   God will make an end to our pride and pettiness. God will make an end to our thirst for revenge. God will make an end to the coldness of our hearts and the disorders of our passions. God will make an end to our rebellion, one way or the other.

And though it cost us our life, it will give Life.