Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 60.1-6
Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3.1-12
Matthew 2.1-12

Epiphany is a wonderful and exciting time of hope. While Advent is full of expectation about the coming birth and the Potential of a Messiah , Epiphany is the next step...it is the time of the liturgical year when we point to the young child that is actually here and dream the dreams of who he will grow up to be and what he might do and how he might do it.

It is interesting to read these scripture selections together trying to think about how they might fit in to today's context. All of them were looking toward how a Messiah, a King, a Saviour might look and act and conduct himself. These were dreams of how he would rule, who he would protect, how he would enter the scene, etc. And when we look at the characteristics they were hoping for, they are not far off from the high expecations we have for our leaders today. Without intending any diminishment to the Messiah or to Boy Souts of America, it is almost like they (and we) were hoping for the ideal Boy Scout - trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.....of course, the Israelites (and we) would also like to add Just, Strong, Brave, Wise, Unfailing, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient.

As you read the passage from Isaiah, you likely recognize that the gospel writers also read (and used parts of) this passage from Isaiah. The writer was speaking to some folks that were living through a dark time themselves. Oppression, confusion, loss of home. And he was dreaming with them that a better day is on the horizon.

Psalm 72 is a beautiful entreaty of God about the hoped-for attributes of their king. There is a hope and dream for the perfect leader.

In this week's selection of Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Ephesus he is using he own experience to talk about some of the wonders of the Messiah. Many times prior to this, folks have talked about how a Messiah will bring hope or peace to all the nations, and Paul is giving a concrete example. He talks about how Jesus came not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles (i.e. the rest of the world.....for this audience and at the time, folks were either Jews or Gentiles...no third option).

And in the passage from Matthew's gospel we get the classic Epiphany scene. It is the story of the wise men, magi, philosophers, astrologers coming from the east to visit the "King of the Jews". Now there is plenty of political background that is illustrated in this little visit...think about the ramifications of this visit. These were folks that literally followed the universe to Jerusalem and then to Bethelem to find the new King. There was a universal appeal to the hope that was envisioned beneath this star.

Visions of the future are often shaped by present circumstance. We project our hopes on leaders and events and opportunities. But we (not just leaders and events and opportunties) probably play an important role in how visions are fulfilled as well. As people of God, we recognize that we do not fulfill visions alone...we recognize that we cannot completely change the world...but we can change the future in community, listening for God. And the vision of hope cast 2000 years ago still takes shape (or falls apart) in the wake of our actions. Hope expressed accomplishes far less than hope enacted.

We have asked a version of this question a lot in the last few weeks, and it still seems important. What were these folks hoping for and expecting of a Messiah? What are we hoping for and expecting from how God is present in our lives today? And how do we act on our hope and bring light into the world?

Seed us with hope
and empower us to be
and love
for the birth
of your Kingdom.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


First Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C

Spoiler warning: This week we are reading past Christmas! So if you don't want to move past the birth narrative, set this one aside until late Christmas night! But in some ways, this is also a good lens through which to consider Jesus' human reality.

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

It is a heavy responsibility to raise up a child. And it is a responsibility that exists beyond parenthood. In our own slice of the world, kids are shaped by teachers, neighbors, church members, Sunday School teachers, coaches, band directors, Scout leaders, pastors. Television, radio, the internet. Every soul is being shaped by every moment by every thing / person / sight / sound it encounters.

The lives we touch have potential - untapped and potentially intense future impact. This isn't a new phenomenon. Here in the wake of Christmas, we pause to consider some of the adults in Jesus' childhood world - aunts, uncles, parents, rabbis, neighbors, friends. They didn't know they were shaping the living God - or did they? They didn't know that heaven was touching earth in their midst - or did they? They probably couldn't imagine the future of this mere boy. Now Mary and Joseph knew that something was afoot...and so did the extended family (Elizabeth and Zechariah, for example). But did that change the way they interacted with this boy? Did it change the way he was taught? The games he played? The friends he had? The chores he did?

In the reading from 1 Samuel, we get a little insight into the way young Samuel's mother, father and the priest Eli honored his special existence. Remember that Hannah was barren and promised that if God would only grant her a son, she would raise him up for the priesthood. Here in four verses, we see Hannah preparing wee priestly robes annually for the family's visit to sacrifice at the Temple. We imagine this set them apart somehow...and especially Samuel. He received "special" treatment and preparation. What was Hannah's hope?

The Psalmist sings a song of praise which can also be read as a teaching / shaping psalm. We assume these words were not intended only for the writer and God. Like so many of our modern hymns, the words are intended for the singer, the Reciepient (God), and also as an educational tool. To have someone with the experience of Praising God share that experience with folks who have not, provides an educational opportunity for the less experienced.

In Paul's letter to the Colossians, he is advising them, as God's chosen ones, to adopt a spirit of love toward those around them. He uses the metaphor of "clothing oneself" to recommend their approach to others. He specifically advises that they are "clothed" in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. And we wonder, what do the children in our midst understand and take away from the way we approach one another - the attitudes we project. Based on dinner time dialogue with our own crew, we know that kids are always paying attention and very little escapes their observations. Paul's teaching is an underpinning of our modern understanding of a "golden rule." What do we remember from our own childhood of how adults in our lives treated others? Does that shape our current approach to others?

Finally, in Luke's gospel, we experience some of the panic that Mary and Joseph must have felt as they departed from their annual celebrations in Jerusalem and traveled a full day only to discover that their adolescent boy Jesus was not among the pilgrims. We can imagine a range of emotions - panic, outrage, anger, grief, terror, anxiety. And they retrace their steps and after three days (THREE DAYS!), they find Jesus sitting among the teachers in the temple. And Jesus seems to calmly say (of course, it could have been in an snarky, adolescent tone also), "what were you worried about...of course I would be in my Father's house." Do you suppose Mary clocked him for being surly? But here he is, mounting a non-aggressive challenge to the role these caregivers have played. He is in his Father's house. How did Joseph feel hearing that? And yet, there is something akin to this moment in each of our adolescent history, isn't there? Don't you know who I am? Or whose I am? What was our parent's response? What was our parental response?

Each of is someone's child. Each of is a child of God. Each of us, whether we signed up for the task or not, influences a next generation - perhaps Nobel prize winners, pastors, world leaders. Contained in a single person, shaped by the world.

God, help us to be open to being shaped.
Help us as we consiously and unconsciously shape others.
Help us open ourselves to being shaped.
Help us be responsible as we shape others.
Help us to be shaped.
Help us as we shape others.
God, help us.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


The Limits of Incarnation - Reflections on Advent While "Stuck" in the Snow

Outside the window, the sky is breathtaking blue and the world is glittering in a blanket of snow 18 - 22 inches deep that stretches as far as the eye can see. The wind is shaking the branches clean and it rustles through all of the nearby pine needles with telltale whispers. This is a quiet and reflective world...perfect for a different kind of worship today, worship that will not happen in traditional ways because the churches are closed.

And so, as I shoveled this morning, I was struck by how such a natural occurrence - a record-breaking snow storm - the right combination of high and low pressure mixed with cold air and moisture - forces many of us into mandatory respite. It closes the door on our "obligations," and forces us to accept limitations that we normally avoid confessing. I recognize that there are some who MUST find a way out of their driveways in this snow because lives literally depend on it. But for most of us, that is NOT the case - not in any stretch of our imagination. The world will go on just fine without us and without whatever we normally contribute to the workings of the world. Most of what we do is NOT mission critical.

That is humbling. The force of creation stirs and down falls inch upon inch of beautiful snow. And our incarnate selves are limited. It's counter-intuitive to my well-equipped and entitled way of thinking. And somehow, here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, it is a very, very important reminder.

Our very bodies are limited. We assume our importance and along with that assume our infallibility. (I know that I have, on more than one occasion, sniffed with contempt at the way the East Coast tends to "shut down" in foul winter weather, but really, that is about me somehow, about being superior.) We impose ourselves on the created world. And it would seem that imposition is the source of much groaning. We grab at natural resources because we can. We drive fast or far or often or at all because we can. We buy much because we can. We consume resources like things and time and one another...because we can.

But the truth of the matter is that we are not, most of us, "mission critical" beyond others' need for our love, care and relationship to them. And today, I recognize that this was one gift of God's incarnation in Jesus Christ - a living, breathing example of relationship to others with limitations of human frailty.

Here we are, a little bit trapped and a lot humbled by the weather, aware that there are forces greater than us. And the priorities seem to fall into place...good conversation, literature, warm bread made by someone you love, cocoa and whipped cream, warmth, safety, humility, prayer.

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
Be still


4th Sunday in Advent, Year C

Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Do you ever read the Preface to a book?

You know...the little preamble that a writer often gives us (the reader) before the book really Starts. Now we are not talking about the Foreword. The Foreword is often written by someone else other than that book's writer....usually talking about how this book or this writer is breaking new ground and finding new horizons, etc.

The Preface can be such a wonderful warm up to the book itself. Sure, sometimes it is a drag, but so many times we get the chance to sort of step in to the writer's head a little. We get an understanding of the intention of what the purpose of the book is and how it is arranged and how it is intended to develop. Sometimes the Preface is the most coherent part of a book!

We see the season of Advent as something of a Preface. Especially the writings that are chosen for the Advent lectionary cycles. The writings of the prophets and the writings of the gospels are all attempting to set the stage for the purpose, intention, and scope of the life of Christ.

This week in particular, the selected scriptures read like the Preface to the story of Jesus that is about to begin.

First, in Micah we hear the words of a prophet who was hoping and expecting a difference to occur. In a day when most of the other prophets (he was writing in about the same time as Isaiah) were singing the praises of Jerusalem / Mount Zion, he singled out Bethlehem as the place from which the Messiah would come. He was looking toward how things would be different one day when the fortunes of Israel changed again.

The next bit of Hopeful Preface we receive comes from the Psalmist. He prays, as he does so often, that there might be restoration. He prays for a future that will be better and different from the anger, tears, scorn, and derision his people are currently experiencing.

In the passage from Hebrews the writer imagines what sort of conversation Jesus might have had....sort of what Jesus might have written as his own Preface before coming in to the world. The purpose of the passage is to help further explain the purpose and intention of the coming of Christ. Now remember that this passage is written to an early Christian community AFTER Christ's ministry, death and resurrection. We as readers are invited to read this as preface, but in reality it was a bit of an epilogue.

And finally we have the beautiful story of Mary (the mother of Jesus) visiting her cousin Elizabeth. At this point, we know that Mary knows Who / What she was carrying, and we know that her Older (barren) cousin Elizabeth had been graced to give birth to John (later to become John the Baptist / John the Baptizer / Saint John the Forerunner). And when Mary walks in, Elizabeth calls out, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Then Mary goes on to give a bit of a Preface to the life she was carrying in her womb.

Have you ever thought of your life as a Preface to something to come?
Is there any chance that you are being prepared for some great work to come?
How are we invited during advent to use the season as Preface to something that is next?
Are you familiar with the phrase, "The past as Preface?" What of our shared past as children of Abraham and/or as Christians may be Preface?

My soul magnifies your work
and my spirit rejoices in you.
Let my life be preface and testament
To the birth of a New Kingdom
Where peace and love reign.
Let me be an instrument of mercy
and justice and kindness
according to Your will.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


3rd Sunday in Advent, Year C

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Where Does Our Help Come From?

This is a question that many have taken and repeated from the writer of Psalm 121. It is our guess that he borrowed the question from someone else too.
It is such an important question in so many different ways and from so many different perspectives.

As we read this week's lectionary readings, this Eternal Question popped up in a slightly different way: Where does our Salvation / Restoration come from?

As any of us read through the Hebrew scriptures we can see a hundred different ways that the followers of Yahweh found themselves in a tight spot and looked at each other or to the Heavens and asked--Where Will Our Help Come From? This doesn't change much when we look at the Christian scriptures. The circumstances are a bit different--the rulers are Romans rather than Egyptians--but the question is motivated from a similar place: we are in desperate straits, our future is bleak, we are oppressed, we are persecuted....Where Will Our Help Come From?

The scripture readings this week offer two different types of answers. Now, we do not think we can take these four passages and make a generalization that these are the only two types of responses found in scripture, but it is true that these two are pretty popular.

The first type of answer to the question is represented by two passages from the Hebrew scriptures. The first is from the prophet Zephaniah and the second from the prophet Isaiah. You should read the passages. Both of them portray that Salvation / Restoration is something that will come / has come to the people from Outside of them somewhere. Yahweh will take away judgements, provide victory, renew his love, remove disaster, deal with oppressors, save the lame and outcast, bring you home, and restore your fortunes. God does these things for you and your response is to be grateful and love and praise and rejoice.

Now in the passages we find in Philippians and Luke, we find a second type of answer. As Paul describes to the church in Philipi, it is the responsibility of the individual to first rejoice, be gentle, prayerfully make your thanksgivings known, And Then the Peace of God will come upon you and guard you.

And also in Luke, we see Saint John the Forerunner yelling and spitting at people who have come out to be baptized by him. Now we are not 100% certain why folks were streaming (get it? streaming) to John to be baptized. In fact, John was not certain--he asks, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" And as we see him sharing some less aggressive teaching time with them, we see him encouraging folks to get their own invdividual selves in order--bear worthy fruits, share your stuff, share your food, don't cheat people. And then we see that John is encouraging folks to change their ways because when the Messiah comes, the Messiah will bring judgment. He talks like there might not be a chance to get things straight once the Messiah got there.

As we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Messiah, we should spend some time asking what that might mean.

What sort of Messiah did Isaiah and Sephaniah expect? What sort of Messiah did the people of their day need?
What sort of Messiah did John the Baptizer expect? What sort of Messiah did the people of his day need?
What sort of Messiah do we expect? What sort of Messiah do we need today?
What sort of Salvation / Restoration do you need?
Where will you help come from?

Oh Lord,
we wait with expectation
sometimes with a clear understanding
of what we need...
And other times, not so much.
Be with us in our expectancy
and open our eyes and our ears and our souls
to understand your presence
in our lives.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.


2nd Sunday in Advent, Year C

Throughout this season of waiting, we are struck by the reality that this pilgrimage we find ourselves on has neither an exact beginning nor an exact end. It is neither all about darkness nor light. It is not all about the world being bad or good. We are journeying toward something that we cannot completely know. In particular, this week, we find ourselves caught in the tension of a spectrum that lies between Destruction and Restoration.

During Advent, as we read the lectionary passages, we remember that we are observing history and living into the present and anticipating the future. And as holy scripture, we believe these selected texts speak in all of these places and times. The Hebrew scriptures shed light on the prophetic tradition of Israel, of the Jewish hope in a Messiah. In the gospel texts, we experience first hand accounts of how early followers interpreted and understood the birth of Christ looking back from his resurrection. And in the epistles, we consider how the earliest churches were interpreting their experience in light of recent history - the destruction of the Temple, the reality that no life altering second coming had occurred, and the tenacious belief that there was still hope.

Early on in the Hebrew scriptures, prophets speak of a coming power - understood to be sent, ordained or empowered by God - who would once again redeem the lives of the Israelites. This is no rosy picture - as Malachi prophesies, this is a refining force, one that will remold and remake the people, purifying them. The result will be a return to relationship "as in the days of old and as in the former years." The prophet speaks of a return to a previous order and understanding.

Instead of the typical Psalm, our lectionary readings include the Canticle of Zechariah, a praise text from the gospel of Luke, spoken by Zechariah upon the birth of a miraculous son - born to an old couple who has lost hope. The couple awaits the birth of John - who will be known as John the Baptizer or John the Forerunner...Already they know that his birth foretells the coming of a much awaited force for the Jewish people. And we can't overlook an important role reserved for John - he has the unique task of bringing people to repentance of their sins, "to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Hmm. None of that task is particularly finite...it's a step in a new direction. The way of peace is a path that people will find themselves traveling.

In Paul's letter to the church at Phillipi, we read a fairly traditional greeting that establishes Paul's relationship with the community. This is a time of persecution, and this community shares with Paul a commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and awaits the time when all will be restored. Of particular note is Paul's prayer that this community's love may overflow with knowledge and insight so that they will know what is "best." Not what is absolute. What is best...lying on a spectrum without beginning and end.

Finally, in Luke's gospel, we hear of John's call - in the wilderness he is called to prepare the way. The text sets a political stage as well, establishing the prevalence of foreign rule and control. John sets forth in an occupied land to speak of a new "Lord" who is not the emperor, not Caesar, not Roman. The text points very intentionally back to the prophet Isaiah. John's actions are fulfillment of an expectation now hundreds of years old.

And so, as we are looking back at the ancient and less ancient Israelite / Jewish hopes and expectations and understandings of Destruction and Restoration, what do you imagine they were dreaming toward? Were they hoping for a return to the way things were before? Were they hoping for a new and different Kingdom where they replaced the rulers of the day?

What about today? Are you afraid we are headed toward Destruction? What would you expect Restoration to look like? Do you / we have any role or responsibility in either the Destruction or Restoration?

God we dream of Restoration and we fear Change and Destruction.
We desperately desire things to be Just As We Plan.
We often do not appreciate the things we do not know.
Help us to find a way to be comfortable with the Unfathomable.

© matt & laura norvell 2009 www.settingourstones.org
we want to share this with you and hope you'll share with the world; we simply ask that you let people know where you found these words. May Grace & Peace be with you.