First Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11.
At first blush, this isn’t particularly encouraging. These words of Paul were written in the middle of the First Century to a church that could not have existed much longer than a couple of decades. A couple of millennia later we hear this message and wonder what Paul could possibly have meant when he told the Christians of Rome that “the night is far gone” and “the day is at hand.” The stock answer given by a lot of New Testament scholars back in my seminary days was that Paul, like all First Century believers, expected the return of Jesus in his own lifetime. Neither he nor any of the other early believers suspected that the return of Jesus in glory might be “delayed” for a century, to say nothing of over two thousand years and counting. That explanation allows us to dismiss much of the New Testament’s ethical teachings on grounds that they are “eschatological” in nature. The Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s love ethic and the communal existence we read about in the Book of Acts must be understood as hastily drawn, interim guidelines for a community that did not believe it would be living in the present age for very long. Clearly, communal living, non-violence and renunciation of wealth are not practices that can be the defining values for a community desiring to maintain itself over the historical long run. At best, they reflect ideals for which monks and nuns might aspire, but which we who must live in the “real world” find unhelpful. So we can safely dispose with the New Testament and look elsewhere for ethical guidance.
As I have said in prior posts, I find this reading of the New Testament unpersuasive. While none of us can see into Saint Paul’s brain, I strongly suspect that his view of Jesus’ return in glory was a good deal more nuanced than these scholars allow. Though convinced of the imminent reality of Christ’s return in glory, the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead, Paul’s primary focus is always very much on the present state of things. The moral practices of his churches are anything but an afterthought. His is an ethic for a church living in the darkness of this present age in which the works of darkness abound in the surrounding culture. Paul’s call for militant resistance to the darkness with the “armor of light” underscores his confidence that the inbreaking of God’s kingdom is as sure as the dawn. How near or far away the sunrise might be in chronological time is irrelevant. For the disciple of Jesus, the hour is always late. Morning is already on the horizon. The light is already breaking into the world and the time for waking up and getting on with life in God’s resurrection kingdom is now. This, according to Paul, is the “real world.”
Paul has no interest in faith that accommodates the darkness. He doesn’t preach a gospel that helps us “cope” with the realities of our world. That’s why we have valium and TV. The status quo is not to be endured, but resisted. Paul has no use for a faith that is hardly worth pulling the kids out of soccer practice to learn. If the church doesn’t preach something worth your life’s devotion, then it should not be wasting an hour of your time on Sunday either. If the lives of Christians are not noticeably different from those of everyone else, what’s the point of joining the church? There are plenty of other places with good coffee, friendly people and entertaining things to do-and nobody will stick a plate under your nose. A church that fits nicely into its community is not worth the oxygen it uses up. It has gotten so comfortable living in the dark that it thinks it belongs there. When the light of God’s kingdom breaks in, such churches find themselves blinded and frantically shuttering their eyes just like everyone else.
Paul boldly proclaims a brand new reality-something that is worth living for and, if necessary, dying for. Paul calls us to re-orientate our focus. We look in vain toward the western horizon, trying desperately to find light and hope in the ever diminishing glow of the vanishing day. Instead, we need to face the darkness squarely with the confident belief that our salvation comes from the dawn whose light cannot yet be seen, but whose coming is as certain as yesterday’s end. We are challenged to be communities living in the darkness as though in broad daylight; people shaping our lives as though we lived now in the nearer presence of our Lord. We are challenged to become the kind of communities we long for and that, by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection, we confidently anticipate. In the face of so much doom saying, the Advent scriptures insist that the night in which we now live must inevitably give way to a new day.
What does such an Advent community look like in a fragmented society such as ours? What does church look like in neighborhoods filled with strangers who commute hours to their place of work and socialize principally with clients and coworkers? What does Jesus’ call to discipleship mean for people increasingly enslaved by the demands of employers, financial institutions to which they are indebted and the anxieties of unemployment, loss of medical insurance and everything that follows in the wake of such losses?
Perhaps the most important contribution the church has to offer is that of simply being the church. What made the church an object of awe in the New Testament was its members’ commitment to one another. There was not among them any that were in need, Luke tells us in the Book of Acts. This was a community that said to a world under imperial oppression, military occupation and slavery, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Hunger is not inevitable. Class distinctions are not absolute. Race is not a defining human characteristic. Conflict need not lead to violence. This community is living proof of that. This is a demo plot for the reign of Christ. Not surprisingly, a lot of people who witnessed all this wanted in. In the New Testament church, your fellow disciples had your back. That was important because discipleship was dangerous. Taken seriously, it still is. And it’s costly. It takes guts for a congregation to pledge that none of its members will ever go without a roof over his head, the medical care she needs or food on the table. It takes courage to give sacrificially to help a sister or brother in time of need trusting that the community will be there for you when your time of need comes. It’s risky to open your doors to strangers. Societies that specialize in building walls between peoples (real and metaphorical) don’t like seeing them knocked down. But that is precisely what the kingdom of heaven does.
There is a danger, Saint Paul knew, of becoming too comfortable with the darkness, too much at home in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. Here’s a poem by Ilya Kaminsky about such false and deceptive comfort.
We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Ilya Kaminsky was born in 1977 in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. His family was granted political asylum by the United States in 1993 and they settled in Rochester, New York. Kaminsky earn a BA in political science at Georgetown University and a JD at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Milton Center’s Award for Excellence in Writing, the Florence Kahn Memorial Award, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize as well as their Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Philips Exeter Academy’s George Bennett Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation fellowship. You can learn more about Ilya Kaminsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The introductory comment at verse 1 indicates that this chapter begins a collection of sayings associated with the prophet Isaiah that once constituted an independent collection. The material from our lesson was therefore not joined to the rest of what we now know as the Book of Isaiah until a later time. The prophesies introduced by this opening line probably extend at least until Isaiah 4:6 and may also include Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 5:8-24; Isaiah 10:1-4; Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 5:25, 26-30. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 23.
Verses 2-5 are also found in Micah 4:1-4. This could mean that one prophet was relying upon the other, but the more probable explanation is that this oracle of salvation grew out of ancient Israelite cultic worship traditions from which both prophets drew. Kaiser, supra goes so far as to suggest that the saying was introduced into the works of both prophets by a later editor in the post-exilic period. Placement of such a liturgical expression of hope from pre-exilic times into the collected oracles of these pre-exilic prophets strengthened the prophetic witness and encouraged the post-exilic community in its struggle to understand its new role as God’s people in their changed circumstances.
Be that as it may, the saying in its present context (which is the only one that really interests me) juxtaposes in stark contrast the future declared by Israel’s God against the present reality of impending and actual war. In the midst of this violent geopolitical neighborhood where imperial superpowers vie for control and the smaller players seek to survive by playing one such empire off against the next through ever shifting alliances, the little nation of Judah is called to be something other than one more petty kingdom thrown into the mix. “The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains” says the prophet. Isaiah 2:2. Yet what exalts Judah is not her military might or her commercial power, but her Torah. Her covenant wisdom, not her sword will bring all nations under the righteous reign of Israel’s God. When the treasure of Torah is opened up to the nations, they will seek it eagerly and submit their disputes to God’s judgment there under. When perfect justice is so established, weapons will become obsolete. Resources dedicated to producing them can now be put to more productive use. Verse 5 concludes with a plea for Judah to begin doing now what she and all other nations must inevitably do in the end: walk in the light of the Lord. God’s people are called to live in God’s future now.
This passage presents a bold challenge to all of us in mainline churches that have reliably and often uncritically supported military action, assuming it to be a necessary accessory to the “kingdom of God’s left hand” (To use a peculiarly Lutheran term). Though we generally subscribe to the “just war doctrine,” we seldom apply its criterion vigorously when the prospect of military conflict ensues. More often than not, we issue preachy/screechy denominational statements for public consumption, stand on the sidelines and allow political and military leaders to make all the decisions based largely on “national interests,” which, by the way, do not justify military action according to just war doctrine. How might we begin “walking in the light of the Lord” in the midst of this very violent global village? In a society where trading sound bites and exchanging rhetorical barbs from across entrenched ideological battle lines passes for dialogue, how do communities of faith bear witness to a better way of conversing with one another about important issues? How do churches reflect to the world an alternative way of living together?
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period.
The psalmist expresses devotion to and longing for Jerusalem. Verse 1 suggests that the pilgrim is overcome with awe upon arriving at the holy city and standing within its gates. Though probably used by post-exilic pilgrims visiting Jerusalem, these verses might well date back to the monarchic period of Judah when the kingdom of David was still intact. The psalmist refers to Jerusalem as the place where all the tribes come together. Vs. 4. Though th
is was surely the case during the reigns of David and Solomon, it is not clear whether and to what extent this practice was continued by the northern ten tribes after the kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The phrase may therefore indicate early composition between 1000 B.C.E. to 900 B.C.E. during the united monarchy. On the other hand, the reference might well be symbolic, reflecting the unifying function of Jerusalem for Diaspora Jews following the return from exile in 530 B.C.E.
Verse 6 seems to be a word play on “Jerusalem,” the shorter form of which is “Salem,” and “peace” which in Hebrew is “Shalom.” Thus, “Pray for the shalom of Jerusalem.” The term shalom means more than mere absence of conflict. It denotes wholeness, health and wellbeing. As I have often said before, I am not a big fan of interfaith dialogue as it seldom produces anything more than generalities and platitudes you can get at your local Hallmark store. However, I believe that Jews, Muslims and Christians might have a fruitful discussion about what the city of Jerusalem means in each of their respective traditions and how, working together, we might make it a place of peace.
This snippet from Paul’s letter to the Romans comes in the middle of some admonitions delivered to the Roman church. Paul has completed in Chapter 11 his lengthy discussion of Israel’s and the church’s role in God’s plan of redemption. Now he turns to practical pastoral concerns. Paul speaks more generally here than in his other letters, probably because this is a congregation Paul did not start and has never personally visited. Nevertheless, he appears to know several of the persons involved with the congregation at Rome, most notably Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila who assisted him in founding the church at Corinth. Acts 18:1-4.
Paul begins by urging the Roman believers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. He then warns them not to be conformed to the surrounding culture, but “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2. These verses reflect the practical outcome of Paul’s understanding of church as the presence of and witness to the resurrected Christ in the midst of the world. The church’s life is to reflect God’s future, an alternative to the carnivorous culture of death that is the Roman Empire. Just as Jesus’ body was broken on the cross, the resurrected Body of Christ can expect resistance and opposition to its way of being in the world. Thus, the sacrifice Paul calls for here is not an afternoon of raking leaves out of the church parking lot. Being the church is a dangerous profession.
In the reading for today Paul urges the Roman congregation to “stay awake” and be alert, for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11. That theme is echoed in our gospel lesson from Matthew. The phrase that caught my eye in this reading was Paul’s call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having had three of my kids in the high school band, I know firsthand the transformative effect of a uniform. The band uniform was a reminder to my children and their fellow band members that they were not just another bunch of high school kids. They were members of an organization that made certain demands on them, set them apart from the rest of the community and called them to a higher standard of conduct. They acted much differently when in uniform.
A uniform also raises expectations from outsiders. If fire breaks out in a building, you wouldn’t blame anyone for trying to get out-unless the person is wearing the gear of a fire fighter. You expect fire fighters to act differently in the face of a fire. You expect them to enter into the zone of danger. They are not supposed to run away from it. Similarly, when one puts on Christ one assumes the calling of a disciple of Jesus. As Jesus offered himself up as a living sacrifice, so his disciples are called to place themselves in harm’s way if necessary for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
With the dawn of a new church year, we say farewell to Luke and embark on the gospel narrative given to us by Matthew. Though most scholars date both Matthew and Luke sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.C.E., recent scholarship has questioned this dating. For example, John Noland, academic dean and lecturer in New Testament studies at Trinity College in Bristol, England believes that Matthew wrote his Gospel before the Jewish War that lead to the fall of Jerusalem. Noland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 12. Noland notes that scholars dating the gospel after the Jewish War point to Matthew 22:7; Matthew 23:36-38 and Matthew 24:2 as reflecting memories of this traumatic event. However, given the strained political atmosphere of resentment toward Rome and the frequent and reckless insurgencies against Roman rule throughout the first century, it would not have been surprising that an astute observer like Jesus should have foreseen Jerusalem’s destruction as did Jeremiah in the years immediately before 587 B.C.E. Noland shares with most scholars the view that Matthew was dependent upon the Gospel of Mark and source material also available to Luke in constructing his own gospel. This means, of course, that both Mark and the source common to Matthew and Luke were also composed significantly earlier than most scholars assume. Consequently, the source material utilized by the gospel writers likely emerged during the life time of eye witness to Jesus life and ministry. It is conceivable also that the writers themselves were witnesses. If this is the case, we lose the historical gap between the gospel witness and the so called “Jesus of history.” While I still lean toward the majority view that Matthew post dates the Jewish War, I am keeping an open mind.
Matthew makes more specific citations to the Hebrew Scriptures than any of the other three gospels. This has led most scholars to conclude that his gospel is written for a Jewish Christian audience. Though the location of Matthew’s community cannot be determined with certainty, the prevailing view among New Testament scholars is that the community was located at Antioch in modern day Syria. Noland, supra, at 18. Though numerous attempts have been made to discern efforts on Matthew’s part to parallel his narrative of Jesus with Moses, the patriarchs or the people of Israel as a whole, none of them seem to hold up with any consistency. In my own humble opinion, Matthew was not attempting such a ridged comparison with any one particular Hebrew Scriptural narrative. Instead, he was intent on drenching his story of Jesus in Hebrew prophecy, employing numerous Old Testament parallels, citations and images in order to enrich Jesus’ portrait. Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses; a prophet in the tradition of Elijah; and a royal heir to the throne of David. In the end, though, none of these images is fully capable of containing him. Like the new wine poured into old wine skins, Jesus bursts through even the most powerful, eloquent and beautiful messianic images showing himself finally to be God’s only beloved Son.
There are many gospel events narrated only in the Gospel of Matthew. The coming of the Magi to the infant Jesus by the guidance of the star in the east which triggered the tragic slaughter of the innocents is found only in Matthew. Matthew alone has Jesus and his family sojourning in Egypt. Parables unique to Matthew include the story of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16); the story of the wise and foolish maidens (Matthew 25:1-13); and the account of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). As we will see, these stories and parables help us understand Matthew’s particular focus as his witness to Jesus unfolds.
The gospel reading for Sunday calls upon the disciples to be prepared. I think that is the sum total of the message here. But for us that is frequently too little and too much. It is too little in the sense that we look for more to do than simply wait and hope. Literalist readers of the scripture turn the strange passages about those who are taken and those who are left in every which direction in an effort to figure out how and when the end of the world will come. Moreover, as Stanley Hauerwas points out, liberal progressive readers who have no use for mapping out the end times nevertheless assume that disciples of Jesus are capable of discerning the God intended direction history should take and use every means available to turn it in that direction. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, Brozos Press) p. 204. In both cases, these readers are chasing the voices of false prophets claiming to know more than they do. The siren call of the false prophets would lure us away from following Jesus into a fruitless attempt to ferret out information that the Father has specifically withheld from us or goad us into a misguided seizure of the levers of political power in order to “make history come out right.”
“Both temptations-to employ Jesus’ apocalyptic imagery to predict the end time or to discern the movement of history-betray the character of Jesus’ training of his disciples. He is trying to teach them how they must live in the light of his coming. The dramatic character of apocalyptic language should help the disciples understand the challenge he presents to them. We, along with the disciples, make a disastrous mistake, however, if we allow our imaginations to be possessed by the images of apocalypse rather than by the one on whom these images are meant to focus our attention-that is, Jesus.” Hauerwas, supra, p. 205.
Verses 40-41 in which Jesus speaks of two men working in the field and two women grinding at the mill at the coming of the son of man, one of each being “taken” and the other “left,” figure prominently in the Left Behind novels by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Because I don’t believe in the “rapture,” I naturally do not believe that these verses have anything to do with that fanciful event. Standing alone, it is not even obvious from these verses whether it is more desirable to be taken than left behind. However, in the context of the previous discussion about Noah’s salvation through the Ark and Lot’s rescue from Sodom’s destruction, it seems likely to me that being “taken” is equivalent to salvation on the day of the Son of Man. The wise maidens whose faithful watching resulted in their being received into the wedding celebration is instructive as is the judgment in favor of all who practiced compassion toward their vulnerable neighbors and so found a welcome from the Son at the last day. (Matthew 25:1-13 and Matthew 25:31-46).