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Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent 4.C

Quotes That Make Me Think
"According to Luke, when Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but entered into them. Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary's song are all in the past tense. Mary recognizes as she sings that she has already been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel..."

"A Promise That Changes the World," David Lose, WorkingPreacher, 2012.

"Christmas is fascinating as a place of marginalisation..."

"First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages in the Lectionary," Advent 4, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

God of the everlasting covenant, as your servant David leapt and danced before the ark, so John the Baptist leapt in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary came bearing within her the promised One.  Let that Christ stand in our midst today, and feed this flock in the strength of your name.  Prepare us, O God, to be a people doing your will a nation believing that your promises will be fulfilled. We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year C, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on Luke  1:39-45(45-56)
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

The Icon of the Visitation
In this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel lesson (Luke 1:39-56) offers us the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah's home. We cannot read this lesson without reflecting on the passage before--wherein Gabriel visited and announced the coming of the "Son of God"--and that this child is to be born in the lineage of the great Hebrew King, David. We learned that this new royal son is to bring into creation a new reign, an eternal reign of God. So, what is this God doing in an unwed mother, in a small town, visiting a poor relative.

We have our doubts.  Where is this God?   Mary might have been wondering the same thing.  Wondering and pondering the meaning of this message. The angel puts her heart and mind at rest, reminding her that this is the God of the Hebrews who had done miraculous things, things that cannot be believed, things that are told from parent to child. This is the God who sent Abraham wandering. This is the God who gave Sarah a child in her old age. This is the God who brought Joseph into Egypt and protected him there. This is the God who frees them from slavery and provides for them in the desert. This is the God who returned his people to their land and built up a great city and temple, Jerusalem. This is the God of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. This is the God who loves his people. He is inaugurating a new heavenly reign in which all the world will be invited to participate and to dwell within. "Yes", we might say, "This is the God of those who have been forgotten, who are in need, or who live on the margins.  Now I remember."

You may have doubts but our ancestral faith story tells us that nothing is impossible with this God. We might remember these words from Genesis 18:14: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son."

In the midst of a doubt which questions where our God is, we might recall:
  • Exodus 6:6 the delivery from slavery in Egypt
  • Deuteronomy 4:34 “by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt”
  • Jeremiah 27:5 “It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth”
  • Isaiah 40:10; 51:9 "Do not fear for I am with you."

For Luke, the author of these passages, Gabriel's news is the inauguration of the final stage in salvation history; or the first stage in a recreated world.  So then, we see these very first words of Luke's Gospel--his good news to his readers--is that their salvation is deeply rooted in the story of their ancient faith ancestors.

This is true for us just as it was for the first readers of the Gospel of Luke. Do we in this moment begin to meet and know Jesus again for the first time, renewing in this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, our relationship with Jesus -- bringing our final act of preparation for Christ's birth on Christmas to a close; and opening for us a way to enter into God's eternal reign?

If this happened to me, I would rush to my closest relative's side -- and that is what Mary does -- bringing us to the Gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent. When she arrives and tells Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps. This reminds us of the ancient story of the leaping children in Rebecca's womb, brothers Esau and Jacob. Perhaps the leaping David before God's arc? Perhaps this is even a foretelling of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus; and the shifting of power from prophet to savior?

Elizabeth's response is faithful as she wonders how she might be so blessed as to receive the visitation of Mary. And Mary is portrayed as a model believer, having faith and hope in God's promises to her. For Mary what we see is an individual who has accepted this news and deliverance; she is already participating in the new recreated world.  This is the meaning of "blessed" in Luke's Gospel, that she is portrayed as a faithful follower of God. Sometimes we believe the word blessed in the scriptures refers to God's blessings, here and throughout Luke, blessed refers to the idea that the person who receives the blessing is a good steward, faithful follower and believer. It is in their actions, not God's, that show forth and invite the acclamation from those who witness their faith that they are blessed. Remember God's other blessing promises from Luke 6.20ff:
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

I wonder what it would be like to go through the rest of the days between now and Christmas and, where we witness faithful people following Jesus and helping and aiding the less fortunate, doing kind work on behalf of others, working to heal those who are infirmed … what if we mentally and prayerfully marked them as blessed people in our lives? What if we actually verbalized, as does Elizabeth in our Gospel, their giftedness and told them they were blessed?

It is in this moment that Mary offers the words of the Magnificat. I imagine Mary reflecting on the story of her people and the immense sense of collision with her life this news from Gabriel, the leaping of the child in Elizabeth's womb, and the words Elizabeth offer. I cannot describe the potential of this moment. But Mary does describe it and speaks out proclaiming God's greatness and her willingness to serve the Lord and be obedient in all things. She will be a steward and disciple because of all that God has provided for her. In remembering her people's story she proclaims and glorifies God because God is compassionate and remembers that she is in fact one of God's blessed ones. Mary knows and calls out that this God keeps his promises and is faithful to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, and all the patriarchs and matriarchs.

Mary is rehearsing Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. We see that the past work of God is begun anew in the conception of Jesus. Mighty work is done from the lowliest of people. God is continuing salvation history and fulfilling his promises made to Abraham. But the message of Jesus is a reconstituted reign and a diversified Israel where by all those who have called their father Abraham (remember John the Baptist's words from last week) are joined by all those whose baptism with the Holy Spirit by Jesus may now find their home in Jerusalem. This is not simply an ethnic heritage, but one open to the adoption of God's children not in the fold of Abraham's family.

As we meditate upon the meaning of the words of Luke's Gospel it would be too easy to see this as a past event. Yet this is our story. It is certainly my story. From my parents and faith family I inherit the story of Jesus and the ever widening circles of his reign and his grace-filled embrace. Like Elizabeth I have the opportunity to bear witness to visions of blessed people who faithfully follow Jesus and aid those who are without, in accordance with John the Baptist's proclamation.

I also have the opportunity to thank God in this the fourth Sunday of Advent for my inheritance and the gift given to me in Jesus. Still more opportunity lies before me though, recognizing that my heart leaps at the news of my relationship with the about-to-be-born Jesus. But I also have work to do. So may my words and your words be as Mary's … “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Some Thoughts on Hebrews 10:5-10

This Sunday we come to a pastoral letter to the Hebrews.  It is one of eight epistles of which the origin is unknown.  However, it is our tradition to attribute this to Paul and the Pauline school; though unanimously this is given an unknown origin.  I think if I had to capture the ideas of scholarly thought I would say that a generous review of the text lends us to believe we have a pupil of Paul's.  That seems neither here nor there when it comes to preaching the text, but seemed somehow important to mention. 

The document itself is one of deep theology and sacramental thought.  We can imagine that the hand which has written it is thinking carefully about the old and the new covenants, the nature of Christ and his connection to the Temple, and that Jesus is the perfector of faith.  It is most likely from Jewish Christian hands that the text takes its shape.  An interesting idea emerges with the text as a whole for many scholars believe it was written for the emerging gentile Christian community.  That means, in my opinion, the text takes on an almost explanatory quality. It is as if the letter to the Hebrews is something like our catechism. It is a document that seeks to translate traditions in relationship to God in Christ Jesus to a group of people who have no inherited tradition of temple and synagogue worship at all; who in the end may only have the worship of idols as their primary context of interpretation. 

So we come to the plainness of this Sunday's readings.  We are immediately aware that God is not interested any longer in burnt and sin offerings.  Jesus, as the great high priest who sits in the temple of heaven, then teaches that while the law has required such offerings, that the new revelation is one that is about doing God's will.  The old sacrifices were good things but we now understand good things come of God in Christ Jesus.  It is as if to say the old sacrifices, which were good, where never enough. They never quite did the job. In part they were insufficient because we as humans were not transformed by them, in part they were a kind of crutch that we used continually; never quite taking on new behavior. 

In Christ Jesus, whom we sacrificed, we have made our final offering.  God needs no more of this; instead we are to be about God's work in the world.  Christ is the final offering. Quoting from Psalm 40 the author explains that God prefers an obedience rooted in the body, in life, that is incarnational.

I don't believe this does away with the old way of making good offerings so much as it says, enough, now we must be at work. God has finally wiped the slate clean.  We are made ceremonially clean, we are being perfected, we are being made whole...not through our own work but by God's work in Christ Jesus.

I wonder what "sacrifices" we believe we are making this Advent and Christmastide?  What is the ultimate purpose of them?  Do we believe that all the gifts and giving will provide us with new relationships and love?  Will this be the best Christmas ever because somehow the sacrificial credit card purchases will make it so?  For the Christian we are perhaps deeply torn.  Who doesn't like the gifts and the giving and the receiving? I do to be sure. But what this passage may remind us of this Fourth Sunday of Advent is that it is only in the giving of ourselves to one another that true and real transformation is possible. It is only in the work of the body, soul, heart, and mind that we find bound to our families, friends, and neighbor.  There is nothing in this world that will either bind us to one another or to God which is not found in the ultimate example of a God who comes into the world and gives so completely of himself.

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