Sunday, December 11, 2005

Gaudete: Advent 3

Today's the winter solstice—21 December! This blog was ready to go ten (10) days ago, on Advent 3, but I forgot about it! I'll post it now anyway, but keeping the correct date for Advent 3.
Gaudete in Domino semper—Rejoice in the Lord always! Ever since the Revised Common Lectionary replaced the one-year lectionary, the entire Philippians 3 pericope that begins the introit for the 3rd Sunday of Advent officially gets read only in year C, but the Advent 3 texts for current Year B indeed are cause for rejoicing in the Lord! Today I'm posting short samples, plus a few related texts. The passage from Isaiah 61 is the designated 1st lection; Mary's Magnificat from the Gospel according to Luke is one of the psalm/canticle options. Please take careful note: these scriptures and hymns are about God's unanticipated, unexpected presence displayed in paradox, in the midst of (or sometimes as a result of) hospitality and creating reversals of many kinds!
Isaiah 61:1-3

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.

Luke 1:46, 51-53

46 And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty."
Here's the Hebrew Bible passage – Hannah's Song – the model Luke used for the Magnificat:
1 Samuel 2:1, 5-9

1 Then Hannah prayed and said:
"My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.
5 "Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry hunger no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.
6 "The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. 9 For the foundations of the earth are the LORD's; upon them he has set the world."
One of countless scriptural, historical and contemporary-life parallels:
Genesis 18

1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
3 He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant."
"Very well," they answered, "do as you say."
6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. "Quick," he said, "get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread."
7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
9 "Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him. "There, in the tent," he said.
10 Then the LORD said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son."
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"
13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD ? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son."
15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh." But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."
This nativity hymn is very Luther—by Nikolaus Herman, 1560:

Let All Together Praise Our God

1. Let all together praise our God before His glorious throne;
Today He opens heaven again to give us His own Son.

2. He leaves His heavenly Father's throne, is born an infant small,
And in a manger, poor and lone, lies in a humble stall.

3. Within an earth-born form He hides his all-creating light;
To serve us all He humbly cloaks the splendor of His might.

4. He undertakes a great exchange, puts on our human frame,
And in return gives us His realm, his glory, and His name.

5. He is a servant, I a lord: how great a mystery!
How strong the tender Christ child's love! No truer friend than He.

The New Testament story about Jesus the Christ goes from God's astonishing Self-revelation on the establishment's periphery - in the Bethlehem manger - to the Festival of Ascension; again to paraphrase the Heidelberg Catechism, as revealed in the Christ Event, the story of salvation journeys from Christmas, with its mystery of Spirit in flesh, to Ascension, with its mystery of flesh in Spirit; as we live in Christ, each of travel that selfsame road from enfleshed spirit to spirited flesh! Here are a few of the many stanzas from one of my favorite Ascension hymns; we often sing these words to the same tune («Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich») as Let All Together Praise our God:

A Song for Ascension

1. O Christ, our hope, our hearts' desire, redemption's only spring;
Creator of the world art thou, its Savior and its King.

2. How vast the mercy and the love which laid our sins on thee,
and led thee to a cruel death to set thy people free.

3. But now the bonds of death are burst, the ransom has been paid;
and thou art on thy Father's throne in glorious robes arrayed.

4. All praise to thee, ascended Lord; all glory every be
to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, through all eternity.

Latin, eighth century; translation by John Chandler (1806-1876)

Originally I planned this as a more-or-less devo, but I cannot resist a little theological commentary—you remember what happens in the synoptics after the Ascension Thursday account! Prior to his Ascension, Jesus assured his followers that he needed to return to the Right Hand of the Father (formally assume Sovereignty) so He could send the Spirit, an event we celebrate on the Day of Pentecost—the same day the Jewish community of faith commemorates God's giving the Sinai Covenant, we find God's New Covenant of Grace in Christ Jesus both fully ratified and also enabled! I'm blogging about and singing about Divine sovereignty—from the Bethlehem manger, to the cross of Calvary, to God's presence in the world, at first most specifically in the Crucified, Risen and Ascended Jesus of Nazareth and now in the Church and the churches.

In the first paragraph of this blog, I claimed these scriptures and hymns are about God's unanticipated, unexpected presence in paradox, hospitality and reversals, though of course it's not simply about the written, recorded word, but about the Word Alive, Jesus Christ—God's Word enfleshed in a walking, talking, breathing, feeling human person makes all God's promises truly spring to life! In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul says it well:
18 But as God is faithful, our word to you was not Yes and No. 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me, Silvanus, and Timothy—was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes. 20 For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us. 21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, 22 who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
Just as with God's incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth in the power of the Spirit, God still maintains an icarnate, sacramental presence in the world, in the power of the pentecostal Spirit of God and of the Christ. In us, the Church and the churches, God's Spirit-filled, Spirit-led Pentecost people, when we are faithful, solely by grace, the Word of God again becomes flesh—walk, talks, breathes, feels, rejoices and heals. I'm constantly aware of our sola scriptura approach to doing theology, but the really ultimate Reformation "sola" is Solus Christus! Word alone, yes, but Incarnate Word alone is closer to God's reality. Check out my blog on biblical authority from 21 May 2004. Among other observations, in that blog I said:
...although I have a high view of scriptural authority, I don't consider the Bible inerrant or error-free either in terms of the actual text or as to the text's explicit or even implicit meaning. These days I usually tell people, I have a very high view of the Bible as a Divine Word (=a Word from Heaven) and I have an equally high view of the church's scriptures as a human word (=from this created earth), with all the ambiguity that implies.

With Martin Luther I agree although the biblical witness informs us and transforms us as individuals and as a church, with Luther I also agree all parts of scripture definitely aren't equal in value, and we need to discern the *GOSPEL* - "what preaches Christ" - in both the Old and New Covenant scriptures, and we need to separate out a whole lot of not-essentials and un-essentials from that Christocentric core. To say the same thing in slightly different words, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, is the supreme interpreter of the written, recorded word of God.

Despite my high view of the Bible's authority... I'll again insist, not the Bible, but Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, is our final authority, the ultimate interpreter of the written word of scripture, so in Christ our biblical authority is dynamic: still-living and still-speaking!
There is so much more to say about God's promise through 3rd Isaiah: ...provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor. That's about us! Really! But rather than taking more time before publishing this blog, I'll close with another song for the Day of Ascension from Hymns on Various Passages of Scripture by Thomas Kelly (3rd edition, 1809); I especially love it sung to William Owen's tune, Bryn Calfaria (1852); in some blog I may have mentioned Bryn Calfaria is "Calvary Hill" in Welsh!

1. Look, ye saints! the sight is glorious: see the Man of Sorrows now;
From the fight returned victorious, every knee to Him shall bow;
Crown Him, crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
Crowns become the Victor’s brow, crowns become the Victor’s brow.

2. Crown the Savior! angels, crown Him; rich the trophies Jesus brings;
In the seat of power enthrone Him, while the vault of heaven rings;
Crown Him, crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
Crown the Savior King of kings, crown the Savior King of kings.

3. Hark, those bursts of acclamation! Hark, those loud triumphant chords!
Jesus takes the highest station; O what joy the sight affords!
Crown Him, crown Him, crown Him, crown Him,
King of kings and Lord of lords! King of kings and Lord of lords!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Advent 2: People of God's Possession

Isaiah 40:1-2

1 "Comfort, yes, comfort My people!"
Says your God.

2 "Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her,
That her warfare is ended,
That her iniquity is pardoned;
For she has received from the LORD's hand
Double for all her sins."

Mark 1:1-8

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the Prophet:
"Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare your way."
[Malachi 3:1]

3 "The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.'"
[Isaiah 40:3]
4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 Then all the land of Judea and everyone from Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, "There comes One after me who is mightier than me—I am not qualified to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals!

8 I baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

People of God's Possession

Comfort, comfort, my people! This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God!

Isaiah proclaims the long exile has ended and Mark declares a beginning—creation all over again, the same word as in Genesis. For Mark, this Jesus signals the start of a new creation; right now, within our hearing, another dawn of creation is about to begin! The beginning of the gospel—unlike most of us, Mark's listeners would not have heard gospel as a religious term, but as political subversion, because they knew that gospel-word well: the Roman governor published a gospel every year on his birthday and often announced gospel news of a military victory. But Mark's gospel is not about someone with major political clout, but about a sandal-shod peripatetic teacher—this is the gospel of an ordinary person rather than of a prominent politician! Also unlike us, Mark's listeners would not have heard Son of God as incarnate deity; for them, "Son of God" referred to the relationship between Yahweh and the Davidic king. We know enough history to realize Roman rule or the regime of any superpower means an imperial, increasingly expanding control over more people and more territories, but we also know the history of the people of God and we know the Reign of God is decidedly unimperial; although God seeks to include everyone in his gracious sovereignty, it is not to control people but to free them!

Gospel is a political term, but isn't the gospel of Jesus Christ a spiritual one, about our other-worldly lives? Doesn't this baby Jesus we wait for to be born in Bethlehem, this Jesus whose name means "Save," come to earth primarily as savior of our souls? Scripture makes clear the Gospel is both spiritual and political, as well as earthly and heavenly in a completely comprehensive sense. Jesus Christ's gospel is religious and secular, but totally different from and set apart from contemporary Roman rule and the scandals and abuses of the Jewish temple system; the gospel we live and proclaim is set apart from contemporary political power in this or any other country and way far apart from the abuses and scandals of the prevailing power structures, whether governmental or ecclesiastical.

For Jews, the Jerusalem Temple was the axis mundi connecting earth and heaven and literally the center of their world—in fact, people were required to journey to Jerusalem at passover whenever possible. Mark, the gospel-recorder tells us "...all the land of Judea and everyone from Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins." Mark informs us people left Jerusalem, the religious center and went to the river to be baptized by John, a very un-ecclesiastical type character who dressed strangely and ate strangely. We just read about John and we know about Jesus regarding repentance, baptism and forgiveness, but what about the entire temple method of assuaging and propitiating God so people could be forgiven their transgressions? According to the Hebrew way, only God could forgive, and only through the mediation of the temple priests acting as conduits to heaven. Weren't the people still honoring that system? In this narrative, it was John who baptized, not the high priest at the temple or the archbishop at the cathedral, those visible venues of religious power. God sent John, a layperson, a common person and not a priest or ecclesiastical leader, to baptize and to challenge people to repentance. Mark turns around the conventional, established procedure, so forgiveness and salvation are regenerated not at the settled center of the world but at its shifting margins!

2nd Isaiah says Jerusalem, the city of God, "...has received from the LORD'S hand double for all her sins," while John came proclaiming repentance and baptism for forgiveness. So are the people of God persistently all that sinful? Living in faithful covenant with God and in community means living God's commandments of love, mercy, justice and righteousness to the very fullest, but so well we know that most certainly is not possible for any of us humans.

As we follow Mark's gospel, we discover Jesus doing what we never could, as he trusted and followed God completely with absolute obedience, totally observing the spirit of the law. For Jesus, the gospeled journey ultimately leads to the cross, and because of Jesus' perfect fidelity, we are forgiven our many transgressions, our relationships with God and one other are restored, and we have everything we need for living faithfully today, right now, at this very moment.

Comfort ye, my people, saith your God—we can hear the elegant tenor recitative from Handel's Messiah: your warfare is accomplishèd, your iniquity is pardonèd…my people, your God: Isaiah says we are people of God's possession and astonishingly, maybe even God is our possession! Well, almost—at the very least God is ours in that we can call upon and trust God to be with us and for us, because - as scripture and Jesus reveal - creation's needs always are uppermost to God. Just as for the Jews returning home from exile, for us too, God has overturned the powers that be of the secular, religious, temporal and spiritual establishments! Even that inescapable power, death, has not had the last word! Mark begins his gospel with John the Baptizer, a wilderness guy's call to repentance, baptism and new life. But we know the gospel reality goes even further, to Jerusalem, to the cross on Calvary Hill and then to the empty grave of Easter morn.

Both Isaiah of the exile and Mark are declaring God of great turnarounds - a God Who Himself repents, if you will - and a God of tremendous transformations, a God whose final answer always is resurrection! The Jews Isaiah addressed would leave their situation of captivity in Babylon for restored life in their old community; John's followers left settled life in the center of the commercial and religious world - at least for a while - to encounter John by the riverside, to repent, to be baptized, to be forgiven into new beginnings, changed from conventional life into following Jesus of Nazareth. Changed into disciples of Jesus who, like the Crucified and Risen One, help transform lives and change communities. For us too, our gospeled discipleship ultimately leads to the cross, but following Jesus includes the victory of the cross, the cross that bears all the world's sin and shame and leads to the resurrection triumph of Easter morn.

Comfort for the people of God's possession and the Gospel of Jesus Christ: homecoming, forgiveness and new beginnings...what great Good News! Then what are we to do?

The Word of Life,

Amen!