Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Here we are again, on the edge of a new year, revisiting a story that we as Christians revisit year after year after year. But, as often happens, our context today is different from year before, and the year before that, and the year before that. We do not stand still. Our lives continue to change and evolve. The philosopher Heraclitus said, "On those stepping into rivers the same, other and other waters flow." We have more experiences, more joys and more hurts under our belt each time we revisit the coming of Emmanuel. Life can have that strange sense of deja vu...mostly because we probably have, indeed, been in a place similar to this before.

This week, the lectionary gives us glimpses of the Prophets and the Seekers. And we also glimpse the Unaware between the two. And the question that we have this week is simple – where are we on this spectrum? Are we Prophets? Seekers? Unaware?

The prophet Isaiah is speaking of the prophet's own time, of political events unfurling in the context of the people's return to Judah after the Babylonian exile. These are people who have seen hardship and are envisioning a new future. Historically, the rebuilding of the Temple has begun. There are visible signs of hope and stability. Arise, shine, for your light has come... And in the context of the history of Israel, this moment will be repeated again and again. And if you pause to think about it, there have probably been these moments in your life as well – times after a storm when there seems to be a return to stability, a return to comfort and a return to the familiar. Maybe you have heard the Prophets yourself and are now Seeking the peace you have longed for.

The psalm this week is a petition for the justice, stability and righteousness of a new king. It's a little uncanny to read right now, because it is set here in the lectionary cycle because it eludes to a new reign, much like the birth of Christ was heralded as a new era. But we also notice the strange resonance with the changing of the political scene here in the US. This is a prayer that could be offered up for a new administration. Many feel a great deal of hope today for a changed landscape at the hands of a new group of leaders. Perhaps those seeking thousands of years ago were similarly hopeful when they saw a star rising in the eastern sky.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he is speaking as a Prophet, sharing vision and revelation with a community that he hopes will Seek as a result of what they hear. He is expanding the audience - casting a broader net and extending Jesus’ message into a broader community. What do you suppose it takes to move a community from Unaware to Seeking?

The passage from Matthew shows us a full range of Prophets, Seekers, and Unaware. These mysterious men (Seekers) from the East come following a star and a message they heard from Prophets. We cannot be 100% sure of their motivation--they were from “the east” and we have no evidence they were Jewish --all we know is that they came to worship and pay homage to a new king. And in the process they expose and stir up some folks who are Unaware. We see how King Herod and his trusted advisors are caught Unaware that the birth of anyone touted as a New King had happened. But this new information then turns them in to Seekers themselves.

And the question that we have this week is simple – where are we on this spectrum? Are we Prophets? Seekers? Unaware?

Across the vein of night
There cuts a path of searing light
Burning like a beacon
On the edges of our sight
At the point of total darkness
And the lights divine divide
A soul can let its shadow
Stretch and land on either side.

Wealthy the spirit that knows its own flight
Stealthy the hunter who slays his own fright
Blessed the traveler who journeys
the length of the light.

In a spiral never-ending
Are we drawn towards the source
Spinning at the mercy of an
unrelenting force
So we stare into the emptiness
and fall beneath the weight
Circling the Nexus in a
fevered dance with fate --

Wealthy the spirit that knows its own flight
Stealthy the hunter who slays his own fright
Blessed the traveler who journeys
the length of the light.

The Nexus, Dan Fogelberg


4th Sunday in Advent

2 Samuel 7:1 - 11, 16
Luke 1:46b - 55
Romans 16: 25 - 27
Luke 1: 26 - 38

Have you ever been listening to a very small child - one who is trying really hard to find the right words to tell you the perfect story, stumbling and sputtering and dragging on - and found that it is really hard for you as the adult to listen and not finish their sentences? You try and you try, but eventually you offer the word that you would use, or you complete their thought or sentence...maybe putting a question mark at the end, as if you are just checking in. Right?

Or maybe you've been in a conversation with an adult who has problems speaking. Perhaps they stutter or have had a stroke. While they physically reach for the words they want to say, you find yourself nodding encouragement or even leaning forward and eventually helpfully filling in for them.

Some of us even are just such fast thinkers (and are so confident in our interpersonal skills) and talkers that we rather regularly end sentences for others, assuming we know where the story/question/explanation is going and go right ahead and respond out of our own expectation of what will be said.

We have all heard it, but it is true again and again, we have to listen as much (maybe more) than we speak to be in relationship with others. To really respect and love the other, we have to listen and hear their needs.

This week, our scripture readings draw attention to our tendency to do this – to assume that we know what comes next in the conversation and to finish it based on what we think we know, which comes out of our experiences, our life, our thinking and our words. We see David (and Nathan) learning that lesson. And we see Mary learning that lesson...actually, maybe she is teaching the class.

In the passage from 2 Samuel, we see David, who has built himself a grand home of cedar, is inspired to next build one to house the Ark of the Covenant, which has traveled with the tribes in a tent for lo these many years. Israel's God needs a dignified dwelling place, right? Well, the Lord has a different perspective. God speaks to the prophet Nathan, instructing him to rebuke David – are YOU the one to build me a house? All of these years God has been out ahead of the people. And God's indignation is pretty clear – I will find a place for the people, NOT vice versa. But really, David didn't mean any harm...he liked having a spot. God would probably like a spot too, right?

The passage from Romans is really a benediction – To God be the glory – the God of all the ages, through the telling of the prophets, the revelations of the gospels, through Paul's own ministry, knows how this story goes and who should put the period on the sentences.

Let's look at the Luke readings together, although the Song of Mary, or "the Magnificat" as it is also commonly known, is really offered as an alternate psalm. Reading the two selections together, we witness Mary hearing unbelievable news from the angel Gabriel. And the news is really incomplete. Mary, a virgin, is going to give birth. When she asks how, she doesn't get a really comprehensible answer...the spirit of the Lord will come upon you. Hmm. How about that? But she does not stumble or assume or interrupt. She listens and praises. Let it be with me according to your will. My soul magnifies the Lord. With humility, with passion, with grace, Mary listens and then lives out what she has heard and understood. Not easy to do, is it?

Are there places in your life where you are more like David--making assumptions and "finishing the sentence" for God?
Are there times in your life where you are able to sit and listen when you are confronted with surprising circumstances by God?
How do we balance asserting with listening and waiting?

I have traveled many moonless nights,
Cold and weary with a babe inside,
And i wonder what i've done.
Holy father you have come,
And chosen me now to carry your son.

I am waiting in a silent prayer.
I am frightened by the load i bear.
In a world as cold as stone,
Must i walk this path alone?
Be with me now.
Be with me now.

Breath of Heaven, Amy Grant, 1992


3rd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5: 16 - 24
John 1: 6 - 8, 19 - 28

"Who are you?"

Don't we, as humans, project our own hopes, dreams and desires upon the future? Don't we shape our hopes based on where we are and where we've been more often than on what is realistic and possible? Our expectations of a newly elected president come to mind. Can this man possibly accomplish all that we have hoped he will accomplish?

Christmas is coming. Those words probably inspire some reaction from you, don't they? What is the reaction? What hope does it create for you ("that it will blow quickly by" is an acceptable answer)? It might be a mix of joy and anxiety and anticipation. Or it might be a dull ache or dread.

In this, the third week of Advent, we are still waiting. There are no bucolic readings about shepherds yet. There are no stories of scandal, surprise and recovery about a young, engaged couple. No. We are still waiting – and for what we do not know. But our hopes are shaped by our lives and our experience, just like Israel's were.

This week's readings focus largely on that for which the people awaited thousands of years ago. Their waiting was grounded in their past and their present experience. In truth they did not know what they waited for…but they waited for a Messiah, a Savior, one who would set things right somehow. The prophet writing in Isaiah is remembering the good that God has done and anticipating the arrival of the next great thing. Well, not just "the next" great thing – The Thing. The Messiah. You have to sort of wade into this reading and pay attention to who is speaking at any given time. Sometimes it's God, sometimes it's the prophet. The prophet sees a future of comfort for those who mourn, righteousness and praise springing up before all the nations.

The Psalmist also writes in an "in between" time. The praise psalm remembers better days and petitions for a return of comfort, fortune and rejoicing.

Let's read a little out of sequence and head to the passage from John. Did you realize that so much of advent focused on John the Baptist? On the voice of one crying out in the wilderness? So, here we have John, called up by the Levites and Priests to be grilled with a really profound question – Who are you? John precedes in telling them who he is not – The Messiah. And he Is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. So one question that comes to mind is how the priests grilling John perceived their own circumstances. Were they in the wilderness from which John called? If so or if not, how did that shape what they expected from the Messiah whom John announced?

In Paul's letter to the church at Thessalonica, he provides some very practical advise for waiting. These early churches, like the ancient Israelites, had experienced some amazing things. Many in these churches would have known by first-hand account about the teaching, crucifixion and resurrection of this teacher, man and Messiah--Jesus Christ. And deep in their heritage, they would have been watching for One who would restore righteousness. A society oppressed by Rome and her foreign ways, these early followers were hopeful for liberation, and their hope rested in the return of the Messiah. They waited for Jesus to walk back into their midst and right the toppled reality in which they lived. Paul's advice would be hard to swallow – rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks for everything that comes your way, regardless of how you perceive it as good or bad. Waiting will make you ready for what comes next.

We each have our own vision of what a coming Messiah might mean to us today. But is our vision what matters? Do we share vision with others?

But really, do we know what we wait for?

Will we know?

"Who" are you waiting for?

O come, Thou Root of Jesse's tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.
Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee,
O Israel.


2nd Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

....so we are still waiting. And this week there is a bit of focus on the preparation we can do while we are waiting.
There is a really interesting textual question found in this week's lectionary reading (at least we find it interesting): In Isaiah 40.3 the text reads "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God'" and in Mark 1.1-8 the text reads "I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of hte Lord, make his paths straight.'"

This is a moment where having English degrees is frustrating. Look at how the quotation changes. Isaiah implies that we should prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness and Mark implies that the voice is crying out in the wilderness that the way of the Lord should be prepared, while at the same time, preparing the way for "you" (us?). Sure, we could read Isaiah as assume that the voice is crying out while in the wilderness, but that is not exactly what it says. And the reality is that in the land of Palestine that surrounds Jerusalem the difference between the protection of the city and the wilds of the wilderness is sometimes just a couple of miles.

Now what difference might this make?

This portion of Isaiah is written to the Israelites that are in exile in Babylon in about 550 BCE. They have been defeated and exiled and that is interpreted to have happened because of their disobedience to God. These are people who are wondering if God is going to leave them out to dry where they are or if they will be able to gain some power in the world (and their homeland) again. These are people that understand the wilderness as a part of their national history and as a part of their recent history of having to make the march from Jerusalem to Babylon. And this passage offers a lot of hope there will be a chance of better days to come. It seems that hope comes as a result of the preparation that was put upon them in their defeat and exile.

The passage in Mark is written primarily to a newly forming Christian community around 60-90 CE who may or may not have witnessed the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem (it depends on which historical placement you give to the authorship of Mark). Either way, they are living in a time and place where Jews / Israelites were not totally free to be themselves, and followers of Jesus were certainly not totally free to be themselves (at this point they were not even really sure what that meant). And all of these folks are living with a more distant memory of their people living in the desert. Of course, they are still geographically quite close to the wilderness, but Jerusalem itself had further developed and there were officially "city dwellers" that had little concept of the wilderness.

Both of these passages have in common a yearning for someone to somehow create a safe enviornment where they can live. Both of these messages are written to people who are hurting and scared and not sure who to trust any more and not sure what is safe any more. And God speaks through both Isaiah and John the Baptizer to bring some comfort and encouragement to the people. And in both passages there is a requirement put on the people of what their role is / has been in preparing for the whole situation--Isaiah tells them that their defeat and exile has been their recompensing punishment, and John tells folks that it is their responsibility to repent...to turn away from their old ways...so they will be prepared for the coming of the One that will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Both the 2 Peter reading and the Psalm continue with the theme of preparation. The Psalm is both a praise and a petition - a hopeful interpretation of a return of good fortune and petitions for continued good circumstances. In order to continue in God's favor, the people should be prepared for his intervention.

The writer of the Peter passage spends some time with some philosophical conjecture and then heads right toward the practical advice: "while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish." This is clearly a reinforcement of last week's lesson from Mark...it is our job as Christians to "keep awake," but not in a fretful, anxious way. Be ready but also be present.
Are we preparing for a New Day? How so?
Are we watching for God in our midst?
Will we recognize when we are prepared?

"People Get Ready" -Curtis Mayfield

People get ready
There's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage you just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesel comin'
Don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord

People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers from coast to coast
Faith is key
Open up the doors and board them
There's hope for all among the love the most

There ain't no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own
Have pity on those whose choices grow thinner
There ain't no hiding place from the Kingdom's throne

People get ready
There's a train a comin'
You don't need no baggage you just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesel comin'
Don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord

I believe, I believe, I do believe
I believe, I believe, I do believe.