Prepare the Way of the Lord

 

 

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11: 1-10

Matthew 3: 1-12

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” wild John the Baptist instructs us on this second Sunday of Advent. Yes, in Advent. It might seem rather bewildering to be confronted by John in this season of expectant waiting for the arrival of Christmas, but I have grown to love his passionate presence here.

John is here in Advent to remind us of the One for whom we wait. The One who we have found incarnates Israel’s long yearning for a righteous and trustworthy Judge, who decides with equity for the meek of the earth (Isaiah 11:4b). The shoot from the stump of Jesse, whose sandals John is unworthy to carry, who carries with him a baptism of purifying fire and of the Holy Spirit. The One full of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—of what God loves, what God abhors, what God delights in, what makes God grieve.

John is here in Advent to command us to make straight the paths to our hearts and our lives. Turning these to God allows Christ to transform us, for the sake of the world God so loves, making all things new. We are called to bear the fruit worthy of this turning and transformation—generosity, humility, mercy, hope, steadfast love.

John is here in Advent to prepare us for Christ Jesus’ return, when there will be no more hurting or destruction. When the delightful vision of Isaiah 11:6-8 will come to pass: the lamb will fearlessly host the wolf as a roommate; the baby goat and leopard will have a sleepover; the calf, lion, and fatling will be best friends, and a little child will safely lead the motley crew. This is where God is taking us. Survival of the fittest is not the innovation or intention of God. And Jesus has shown us that not even death will stop God from bringing to fruition what God does intend.

Advent’s heightened emphasis on the expected return of Jesus re-energized this season, and the one that follows, for me as an adult. We are caught up in the adventure of what God is up to in Christ as we await his assured return in glory. How exciting!

 

Walking in the Light of the Lord

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm 122

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

There is a moment before the sun rises when, even though it is still dark, you sense the coming dawn. It is so close that you can feel the new day’s sun bathing the terrain with light. It is so close that your anticipation causes you to scan the horizon for the first thread of light, but it is not here yet. So you wait. You wait for the day to arrive. This is what the experience of Advent is all about, as we can see in our lectionary readings for this week.

We might imagine what this waiting looks like – perhaps sitting on the porch or in your car – staring into the abyss of the last remnant of the night. It is true that Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation, but the images presented to us in these texts are far from motionless, as though we can do nothing but sit in the darkness, something akin to a waiting room at a doctor’s office. Instead, we find these lessons to be full of movement. The vision in Isaiah speaks of a time when Israel and the nations will travel to the mountain of the Lord (2:2-3). This is echoed in Psalm 122, a psalm of ascent sung on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In response to this movement of peoples, instruction and the word of the Lord will go forth (Isaiah 2:3). Romans 13 also draws on the theme of journeying by exhorting readers to “live [literally, walk] honorably” (13:13). This time of waiting is certainly one of expectation, but also one of motion.

In the anticipation ahead of dawn, we become keenly aware of the pervasive darkness that surrounds us, the shroud that will flee when the light finally arrives. Likewise, our Advent anticipation is set in sharp contrast with the characteristics of the world that surrounds us. The Romans text names some of this darkness, and Isaiah mentions the proliferation of swords and spears. Last week, while in Nagasaki, Pope Francis once again called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and decried their capabilities not only for physical destruction but also for cultivating distrust between different countries and peoples.

That war, violence, and animosity grip our world is no secret; we are confronted by this reality every day in the news and even in our communities. That they are tied to the vision of Advent is perhaps a bit more surprising. As the word of the Lord goes forth from Jerusalem, the people repurpose their swords and spears for creative uses within a renewed cosmos. The divisions brought about by hatred and violence are reconciled so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). A new reality of peace spreads over the land. As a result, Advent enables us to exercise judgment or discernment about the world around us and to see this darkness in a new way, as the penultimate reality that will soon give way.

Paul tells us “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11). The “now” in focus here is not the result of the clock or calendar changing. Hence, day-and-hour speculation is useless (Matthew 24:36, 44). However, something has changed; the winds have shifted, and something new is emerging. The night will not last forever; the day is coming, and it is very close. In fact, the approaching day brings us closer to the fullness of our salvation.

This moves us to hope – the primary focus of Advent, especially on its first Sunday. As we liturgically anticipate the coming of the Christ child, so too we hope for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. To live into this hope, however, requires that we keep awake (Matthew 24:42). Otherwise, we will miss the approaching dawn. Even so, this wakefulness is not a static activity either.

We begin Advent journeying toward God’s city. Throughout the Christian tradition, Jerusalem has signified the eschatological destination of the pilgrim church. Here it is no different. Jerusalem, “built as a city that is firmly bound together,” underscores the role of the whole community of the people of God in this hopeful vision. Indeed, we do not walk alone. So let us eagerly await the sunrise and clothe ourselves with Christ (Romans 13:14), all the while remembering Isaiah’s encouragement to “walk in the light of the Lord!” (2:5).

Photo Credit: Go Placidly Amidst the Noise and Haste

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 OR Job 19:23-27a
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

Mrs. Obrien: I just want to die, to be with him.
Preacher: He’s in God’s hands now.
Mrs. Obrien: He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?

From Tree of Life by Terrence Malick

As the liturgical year draws to its close, the lectionary readings make an eschatological turn, looking ahead to our own end and of things as we know them. It’s a shift in tone that flows seamlessly into Advent, where the church learns once again how to live as Jews, suspended between a ruin and a hope. Signs of ruin are everywhere: a planet we’re quickly making uninhabitable, collapsing world order, a country too divided by corrosive political rhetoric to reckon with pressing fundamentals, churches reeling from self-inflicted humiliations. Amid the rubble of a world plundered and a church betrayed from within, hope can grow hollow and brittle, like dry stems in autumn. What’s to become of our planet, our country, our church, ourselves?

In the fall, the season sharing its name with humanity’s turning away from God, such thoughts may arise simply from observing the natural world’s dying back in anticipation of winter. Sometimes we require some rather more direct reminder. During the now abandoned coronation ceremony for newly elected popes, the master of ceremonies would stop the procession three times to set alight a strip of flax. As the fabric burned into smoke and nothingness, he would address the new pope in a loud voice, saying, “Sic transit Gloria mundi,” (“Thus passes the glory of the world”), reminding him of his mortality and the evanescence of earthly power. Read more

A Vision for Justice

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Isaiah 1:10-18
Luke: 19-1-10

Habakkuk and his lament resonate acutely. He could very well be a contemporary (especially with what hipsters are naming their kids these days), standing next to us as we brace for the daily waves of injustice and violence in our world: suffering at the border, gun violence, endless wars, the opioid epidemic, racism, the lack of political will to meet people’s basic needs for affordable housing and healthcare, the insane vitriol that comes out of the President’s mouth. You could keep going; I could keep going. Read more

The Self-Righteousness Divide, and the Peace of Christ

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Today’s Gospel is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, a parable of two men with two very different prayer styles. God’s judgement is here, but I think it is not the kind of judgement that usually strikes us on our first reading. Rather than seeing the Pharisee and the tax collector as offering opposing prayers, one of which is “good” and the other of which is “bad”, I suggest that we see both as offering prayer to God, and being made righteous through God’s mercy. That alternate reading helps us to think about how we proclaim Christ’s peace in our contemporary divided culture. Read more

Bossy Pray-er, Living Prayer

For peace in Northern Syria, and protection for the Kurdish people who find themselves trapped between the economic and political interests of warring nations.

Lord, have mercy.

For a world where black men and women are safe in their own homes, and that the family of Atatiana Johnson knows peace.

Lord, have mercy.

For the teenagers who cry out to be healed of their same sex attraction might know themselves to be fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the congregations who have made them believe they could be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord repent and be made well.

Lord, have mercy.

For the refugee fleeing the violence and poverty of her homeland to be safe in her passage and find hospitality at the end of her journey.

Lord, have mercy.

Over the last few weeks (ok, who am I kidding…years) my prayers have taken a variety of tones. Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is straight up bossy-pants, as if God got distracted like my 10-year old son on his way to take out the trash and simply needed a stern reminder of God’s current and most important job. These directive (and sometimes salty) prayers are often accompanied by such imprecation against the enemies of justice and peace as to make the Psalmists proud and your local church-ladies cringe.

Sometimes my “Lord, have mercy” is the more desperate pleading of a soul at the end of her rope with no place left to turn. Like the writer of the 121st Psalm, my hungry eyes search the hills for any sign of salvation coming over the horizon.

On other days, my soul can’t even form words as I lay myself bare in the silence, trusting God to understand the groans of my heart for a world made new.

The parable of the persistent widow is a gift sent to us by the lectionary for days like these when we might look around and fear that God has fallen asleep at the wheel and simply cannot handle the mess we’ve made of this place. Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and the people of Israel in exile before her, Jesus’ invocation of this widow in a parable whose lesson is the need to remain steadfast in faith in the midst of trial reminds us that hearing–and responding–to the cry of the vulnerable is one of the best and chief characteristics of God. Perhaps Jesus tells this parable because he recognizes that patience and persistence are not among humanity’s best and chief characteristics.

The widow also extends to us a challenge about the true nature of prayer. She pulls us beyond whispered conversations in the dark of early morning, out of the pages of our journals into action. See, this gal is doing more than simply writing or speaking her truth. The heroine of Jesus’ story this week is an easily overlooked, readily dismissed widow who receives the justice of her cause through her willingness to make herself a thorn in the side of the establishment figure who holds power in this situation. Her faith in the rightness of her cause has voice. It has legs. It is an action. In her resistance she becomes the answer to her own prayer. She becomes a living prayer whose very persistence shows the powers of this world for what and who they are.

Being among those in this world who desperately want to be liked, and emerging from a denominational tradition that seems hell-bent on always finding a middle ground where no one is offended, the widow is a good model for a life where seeking God’s peace and God’s justice might require putting one’s reputation and livelihood on the line. Living out of a faith that believes that God’s preferred future is not just a possibility but a guarantee for all creation will set one against the powers of this world. And, sometimes, yes, those powers live inside the people and institutions who believe they speak for God.

Fredrick Baldwin said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” In the black church tradition, the statement “Won’t God do it” is equal parts question and affirmation of faith in the one who saved Israel from slavery and raised Jesus from the dead. Friends, this, too, is our God and so may this be our faith. Though we live and work in a world where the horizon of justice may be beyond us, we do not give up hope in God’s ultimate triumph. Throughout Luke’s gospel Jesus’ teaching on prayer has been consistent: to pray is to actively seek God and God’s will. As with other parables, the key to this parable’s interpretation lies not in complicated exegetical leaps, but in returning and holding fast to a few basic affirmations of faith: God knows, God cares, and God triumphs in the end for God has already triumphed in Christ. The fate of the powers and principalities of this world is like that of the unjust judge: they cannot endure when the people of God rise in power against them.

All through history there have been feisty women (and men) like this widow who have refused to rest until justice was won. Standing alongside these saints, may God make of us all like this widow: bossy, desperate, and living prayers until that day when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Image Credit: Fr. James Hasse, SJ

Hope Without Pretending

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentacost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.
– Ian Hamilton Finlay

The novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen seems to have a talent for roiling the opiners of contemporary culture. Whether it is his disdain for social media or his dismissal of shallow environmentalism, Franzen can write what seems like a subdued and reasoned essay and invite a flurry of blog posts in response, such as a recent piece on the webpage of Scientific American that was intelligently titled: “Shut up, Franzen.” It’s a prophet’s fate to invite such reaction and I think Franzen has the prophet’s gift of speaking uncomfortable words. His most recent essay to such effect was a piece in the New Yorker titled “What if We Stopped Pretending?” Read more

The Toughest Psalm

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 137
Lamentations 1:1-6

This week we read the Bible’s toughest, darkest Psalm–137. The lectionary scriptures from Lamentations 1 and Psalm 137 are poems of lament that look back to the same event…the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonian war machine.

Imagine the fear that gripped the people of Jerusalem when they heard that Nebuchadnezzar’s war machine was headed their way. Imagine hearing the city gates clang shut for the last time. Imagine how peoples’ stomachs knotted up as food, water, and supplies became more valuable than gold. Imagine the terror that gripped citizens hearts as the guards on the walls hurled stones, arrows, and fire at the attackers. Imagine the raw panic that broke out in the streets when the foreign army broke through the walls and there was nowhere to run. Imagine the sick hopelessness that overtook husbands and wives who knew what was about to happen to their spouses and children. Imagine the terror on the day the city burned to the ground and blood flowed in the gutters. Read more