Tag Archives: First Sunday of Advent

Sunday, November 29th

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And there will be signs in the sun and the moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and glory. Now when these things begin to take place, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28.

Frankly, Jesus’ advice is counterintuitive. When I see threatening conditions beginning to materialize, my gut instinct is to “duck and cover.” I would not be at all inclined to raise my head at the approach of a tsunami or in the eye of a hurricane or in the midst of a terrorist attack. If I thought civilization as I know it were about to collapse, I would want to keep my head low, stock up on beans and bullets and hunker down in the root cellar. Raising your head under such dire circumstances is the last thing you want to do.

But Jesus is telling us that, “in, with, and under” all of these terrifying phenomena, is the sign of the coming of the Son of man, our redemption and salvation. In Luke’s telling of the story, this discussion about the Temple’s destruction and signs of the end times is a lead-in to the Last Supper. “I have yearned,” says Jesus, “to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Luke 22:15. It all comes down to the table.

Meals are big in the Gospel of Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a dinner party. Jesus loved table fellowship and he didn’t much care whether he was sitting in the house of a notorious outcast filled with disreputable people or in the home of a respected religious leader. He would have us understand that our humanity depends on companionship every bit as much as our existence depends on eating. We are never more truly human than when these two primal needs are met at the table. In the most wretched refugee camp on the face of the earth, shared meals hold together the last frayed bonds of family and community that have somehow survived displacement and exile. In the wealthiest of neighborhoods, where most of all household food winds up being discarded, shared meals testify that we do not live by bread alone. That is why every table in every home, in every diner, in every tent, under every tree, in every human community is a sign of the redemption God intends for all creation. The table is where we encounter the coming of the Son of man.

At the table, we discover that we are sitting on the same level. We must rely upon one another to pass the turnips, ham and potatoes. At the table we learn the truth about who we are and the purpose for which we were created. So even as “the powers of the heavens” are shaken, the sign of the coming of the Son of man appears in our midst whenever we gather around the table. When seated around the table, we find the courage to raise our heads in hope.

Not surprisingly, the table is Jesus’ favorite metaphor for the reign of God. That great messianic banquet, Jesus tells us, will be an upside down feast at which the poor, the lame, the blind and the outcast are honored guests. Those who come to this feast with a sense of entitlement are rebuked and relegated to the most humble of seats (yet these seats also are places at the table). The ones fearing even to seek crumbs falling from that great table are invited to come forward and sit at its head. In that great supper of the Lamb, the high places are brought low, the valleys exalted and the way is made clear for the coming of the Lord.

On that note, here’s a poem by Joy Harjo.

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.

We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

From The Woman who fell from the Sky (c. 1994 by Joy Harjo, pub. by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.)

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The time is immediately before 587 B.C.E in the reign of Judah’s last Davidic King, Zedekiah. The Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem. The city, shut off from the outside world for over a year, is stricken with famine. Jeremiah the prophet is imprisoned for his preaching against Judah’s unfaithfulness to her God and specifically for declaring that God will not fight on her behalf against Babylon. To the contrary, God has brought the wrath of Babylon on Judah’s head as a judgment for her faithless reliance upon foreign military alliances, idolatry and cruel injustice against the poor. That is a message the people of Judah desperately do not want to hear. They want to believe that God will come through with a miracle at the last moment to save them from the Babylonians. The last thing King Zedekiah needs is for Jeremiah to be frightening his already demoralized army with dire predictions of defeat. So Jeremiah’s imprisonment is understandable. It appears as though the end has come for Judah. Indeed, the end has come for Judah as an independent nation. The end has come for Judah’s magnificent temple built by the hand of Solomon nearly five centuries before. There will be no going back to the past. The good old days are gone for good.

But the end of the past is not the extinction of the future. Israel’s story is far from over. As dark as the situation looks for Judah and for poor Jeremiah, Jeremiah nevertheless maintains that there is salvation and a future for Judah. A righteous branch will sprout from the corrupt line of David. Vs. 15. This one will rule Judah with justice and righteousness as the kings of Israel were intended to do. See, e.g., Psalm 45:4; Psalm 72:1-14. This promise shaped much of Israel’s faith in the difficult years of exile and domination under the empires of first Babylon, then Persia, then Macedonia and finally Rome. It continues to play an important role in Judaism today.

Yet even as this messianic hope can sustain a people in times of oppression, it is a dangerous hope. Israel’s history is checkered with persons claiming to be God’s messiah, rallying Israel behind them and leading Israel into disastrous military confrontations ending in crushing defeat. It was at least partly messianic fervor that led to a Jewish revolt in the late 60s A.D. which, in turn, brought the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of her temple once again in 70 A.D.  In 132 A.D. another revolt, led by the self-proclaimed messiah, Bar-Kokhba, brought on another fierce drubbing by Rome and further misery to the Jews.

As secular as we may be in this country, I believe that there is still a very deep longing within us for a messiah. I suspect that might be a large part of what lies behind the anger and lack of civility in our politics. We want to believe that there is someone out there who can take us to a better place; somebody who can solve all of our complex problems without asking us to sacrifice anything to get it done. Political strategists are all too aware of this deep messianic longing we have for a savior. Not surprisingly, then, they package their client candidates as messianic figures capable of meeting our unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, when the campaigning is over and the hard work of governance begins, reality sets in. We discover that we have not elected the messiah. We have elected a fallible human being like ourselves who cannot work the sort of magic that makes all of our difficult problems go away. Predictably, we feel betrayed. In fits of anger, we turn upon the idols we have created, kick them off the pedestals where we placed them and erect new idols in their place.

Israel had to learn (and hopefully we will one day learn as well) that no human being is able to bear the weight of messianic hope. Furthermore, that hope cannot become reality without a fundamental change in our hearts and minds, as the prophet Jeremiah rightly observed. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Jeremiah 32:39. A change of leaders or a change in government without a change of heart is futile. The truth is, the Messiah, the Davidic branch that rules with justice and righteousness came-and we killed him. We were not then and we are not yet ready to live in the sort of world we long for. But the good news of Advent is that God did not wait for us to be ready. Jesus comes to us while we are still headstrong in our self-destructive ways. Jesus embraces us even as we struggle to break free from that embrace. What is more, the love with which Jesus embraces us is stronger than sin and death. It refuses to let go. So the message of the season is clear: Here comes the Messiah, ready or not.

Psalm 25:1-10

This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:

Awesome is our God and Creator.

Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.

Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.

And so on down to letter Z. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.

I find particularly moving the first half of the third verse: “Let not those who wait for you be ashamed.” Vs. 3. Advent is about nothing if not about waiting. And unfortunately for nervous, impatient and hurried people like us, we have a God who likes to take his sweet time. God waited for four hundred years while the children of Israel languished in slavery before sending Moses to liberate them. God led Israel for forty years in the wilderness before bringing her into the Promised Land. God sat with Israel for seventy years in exile before bringing her home. After hearing that his dear friend Lazarus was ill, Jesus waited a full two days before even beginning his journey to Bethany where Lazarus lived. In a world where time is measured in nanoseconds, where everything is urgently needed yesterday and cries for immediate responses come from every direction, it is maddening to hear the command: “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. It is because we are a frenzied people who imagine our “historic” presidential elections, our “Giant Black Friday Sales” and our never ending string of international, economic and social crises are so very important that we need a slow God. God’s salvation, like God’s Kingdom, will come in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will not be rushed. So we might just as well stop running around like chickens with our heads cut off and learn to wait patiently for God to act.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written about 45-52 A.D., making it the earliest of the New Testament writings. The purpose of the letter is to encourage the struggling church in Thessalonica. According to the Book of Acts, Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development (Acts 16:11-40) and he was understandably concerned that it lacked the maturity and solid leadership to survive under the pressures of persecution. Paul sent his fellow worker, Timothy, to visit and encourage the little congregation. I Thessalonians 3:1-2. Paul was overjoyed to learn from Timothy that his congregation had not merely survived, but was thriving. I Thessalonians 3:6-8. The lesson for this Sunday reflects Paul’s thankfulness and relief upon receiving this good news.

Paul’s prayer is for an opportunity to visit the congregation himself. He prays that, in any case, the Lord may make the congregation “increase and abound in love to one another and to all people so that Christ may establish your hearts in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 12. This prayer brings into sharp relief how the church is a community that lives out of the future. The future is Jesus. Yet it is Jesus’ presence with his church now that prepares it for the future. For the church, the future is now. Among us, Jesus is already recognized as King. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. But the church does not wait for that day to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and live for him.

Luke 21:25-36

The Revised Common Lectionary used by the ELCA, Roman Catholics and a number of other protestant churches provides a three-year plan for Sunday readings beginning at the start of each new church year in the season of Advent. For each Sunday and festival, four readings are suggested and include: a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Psalms, and a New Testament reading. Each year of the lectionary centers on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Reading from the Gospel of John are included in the major seasons of Christmas, Lent, and Easter. This year we focus on the Gospel of Luke. So before we begin looking specifically at this Sunday’s lesson, let me say just a few words about Luke.

The Gospel of Luke is probably best known for its story of the Nativity. Only Luke tells us of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John the Baptist. Only in Luke do we find the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her of the child she is about to bear. Luke alone tells us of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the Christ child in the stable and the angels’ tidings of joy to the shepherds. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells us anything at all about the childhood of Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke also has many other popular stories not found in the other gospels. For example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan all are parables recorded in Luke alone. More than any of the other Gospels, Luke reveals to us the important role played by women in Jesus’ ministry. Elizabeth, Mary and the prophetess Anna have high profile involvement in the story line. Luke’s gospel tells us about the group of women who provided logistical and financial support to Jesus and the disciples. Women are frequently prominent in Jesus’ healings, his parables and in his teaching.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about is that he was the only Gospel writer who also produced a sequel that we know as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, Luke narrates the early years of the church, its early encounters with the gentile world and the conversion and ministry of the Apostle Paul. So too, the most irritating thing about Luke-Acts is its lack of “closure.” The Gospel ends with the disciples returning to the Temple in Jerusalem (where his gospel began) rejoicing and gathering for prayer waiting to be filled with the promised Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts ends with the Apostle Paul under house arrest in Rome, but still preaching and teaching from his place of imprisonment. We never find out what happens to him. It is as though Luke has deliberately avoided bringing his story to a fitting end because he knows that it is not over yet. The drama of the church in mission to the world continues. We are invited to become a part of this exciting story as it continues to unfold in our age.

Now for this week’s lesson. As is the case for Mark, Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction follows upon his noting the widow’s payment to the Temple treasury all she had to live on. For the connections here, see my post for Sunday, November 8th. The disciples ask Jesus when the destruction of the Temple will take place, assuming no doubt that this event would mark the beginning of the end of time. Not so, says Jesus. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be great signs from heaven.” Luke 21:10-11. But that does not necessarily signal the end. The church has a long road to travel through days of persecution, suffering and opposition. Luke 21:12. The church’s job is to bear faithful witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus. Luke 21:13. The destruction of Jerusalem is a piece of all this, but it is not the harbinger of the end.

Then, in our lesson for Sunday, comes Jesus’ enumeration of the “signs” of the coming of the Son of man. What are we to make of them? It should be obvious by now that ominous signs have occurred throughout history. Not so very long ago, Hurricane Sandy gave us a good deal of “distress and perplexity at the roaring of the sea and its waves.” Vs. 25. Someone suggested to me recently that perhaps “God is trying to tell us something” through Sandy. Maybe so. But I doubt it means that the end is near. Still and all, I think we might rightly refer to hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters as “signs” in some sense. They remind us that the earth upon which we stand is not as solid as it appears. Our orderly lives are not as stable as we think they are. Though we don’t like to think about it, we are always just one genetically altered cell, one virus, one careless driving error away from the end of the world. If we ever thought our years of careful saving and investment could give us a measure of security, the crash of 2007 surely disabused us of any such fantasy. International co-existence, economic stability and ecological balance are extremely fragile creatures. It takes very little to throw them off kilter. Terrorist attacks, hurricanes, wars and famines all serve to remind us how fragile and vulnerable we are.

Now that should make us all rather paranoid, but hear what Jesus says: “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Vs. 28. For the new creation to be born, the old has to die. And whether you see these “signs” as death throws or as birth pangs depends on whether you view them through the cross. Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples that his own present generation would live to see “all these things” take place. Vs. 32. The presence of God with human beings-the longed for hope of Israel-is put to death on a cross. It doesn’t get much worse than that. In fact, you could say that the worst thing that could ever happen to the world has already happened. The world murdered its last, best hope. Yet even this dark and terrible sin could not deter God from God’s redemptive purpose for the world. In the midst of death, God was working the miracle of new life. And so we can confess with St. Paul that “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16 Even in the signs of death and destruction, disciples of Jesus discern a new creation struggling to be born.

Sunday, November 30th

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Impatience is the unifying thread running through Sunday’s lessons. The prophet Isaiah pleads with God to tear open the heavens, come down and end the suffering of his people. The psalmist asks “how long” his people’s oppression will last. Paul must comfort the church at Corinth with the assurance that God’s Spirit will sustain it until the Day of Jesus Christ. Finally, Jesus encourages his disciples to recognize the signs of his coming in glory and find comfort in them as they wait for that day. These are all words for people who have grown tired of waiting.

I can relate to that. I have spent too much of my time waiting in traffic, waiting at the checkout counter as the elderly fellow in front of me insists on paying for his purchases in pennies, waiting in doctors’ offices, waiting in long lines. But these instances of waiting are mild annoyances. As a white male accustomed to privileges I don’t even recognize, I will never know what it is like for a person of color living with discrimination that in our age is often invisible though nonetheless real. I have never experienced what it is like to compete as a woman in professions long dominated by men. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to have to hide your sexual identity, conceal the love that others celebrate with weddings, showers and engagement parties. I expect these folks have their own psalms of lament. How long, O Lord? How long before I can walk into a store without attracting the attention of store detectives just because I am the wrong color? How long before my work and my accomplishments are valued and rewarded? How long before I can kiss the one I love without having to look over my shoulder?

These are the bitter sweet songs of Advent. Bitter because biblical honesty refuses to let us deny that the world is far from what God would have it be. Sweet because the narrative of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection remind us that it doesn’t have to be this way-and will not always be so.

On Saturday I was privileged to attend a celebration of the 16th Annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Teaneck, NJ. There we recognized the lives of transgendered persons who were murdered this last year because of who they were. Two hundred ninety seven names appeared on the printed program. These represent only the persons we know of, each with a story that ended violently and too soon. Yet we were all present together on that evening, transgendered, gay, lesbian, people of color and perfectly conventional white protestant ministers like me. Our act of gathering, singing together and joining hands demonstrated that the world need not be a place where people are killed for being different. Perhaps this event was one of those fig blossoms Jesus talks about in Sunday’s gospel telling us that the Advent of our God is near-at the very gates.

The gathering ended with our singing together the old civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” In recent years that song has been dismissed as overly simplistic, naïve and optimistic. If all we had in front of us were the names of the two hundred ninety seven dead, that might be so. If we had no hope other than a bland faith in the inevitability of progress, then the song would indeed be self-deceiving. But that is not all there is-at least not for those of us who follow Jesus. We shall overcome because Jesus overcame. The road might be longer than any of us imagines. There may be set backs and reversals. Much, perhaps all of what we hope for will not materialize in our own lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children. But as St. Paul reminds us, our Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, is here to “sustain us to the end.” Even the anguished cry, “How long?” testifies to a confident belief that, however long we might have to wait, we will not be waiting forever.

Isaiah 64:1-9

The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”

The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?

Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.

Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.

This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?

I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.

As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.

Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.

In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.

As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.

Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.

That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.

Mark 13:24-37

The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.

That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?

I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:

“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.

Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.

This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.