Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A

Isaiah 7:10-16 •
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 •
Romans 1:1-7 •
Matthew 1:18-25

We are all looking for different things. It seems like we spend a lot of time talking about individual context here......but it is true....we are all looking for different things.

Just ask two other folks you know what they think about God or Jesus and see if you come up with more than three answers among your three opinions.

When we read these four scriptures this week it is easy to see that they were written in four quite distinct contexts. And while there are many commonalities between what each was hoping for and expecting in / from a Savior (a person who Saves), there are some important differences.

The 7th chapter of Isaiah was written at a time when the Kingdom of Judah was caught between and among competing regional powers. Ahaz has made a political choice that threatens his position of power. As he prepares to be deposed by two other Kingdoms, Isaiah tries to reassure him and encourages him to ask God for a sign of deliverance. Ahas was looking for a military leader that would come and Save himself and all of Judah from ppressors. He sought Savior that would arise from within to Save Judah from an outside threat.

In Psalm 80 we also see a writer who is entreating God to Restore and Save the community from their physical and political enemies. The writer of this passage seems to be writing from a place of oppression (at least great distress) and is hoping for an intervention from God to Save them. AND THEN once they are saved "we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name."


In the passage we get from the beginning of Paul's letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, we can see that Paul was looking for something slightly different than his Israelite forebearers. In this passage he does not specifically mention a Savior or Being Saved, but he does give us his understanding of the Christological history up to that point. He understands that it was through Jesus that "we have recieved grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name." In this particular reading at least we seem to find Paul being grateful for Jesus the Savior because he inspired folks to Save the Gentiles.

And then in the passage from the first part of Matthew we find the conversation between Joseph and the Angel of the Lord concerning Mary's miraculous pregnancy. The angel tells Joseph his fiancee "will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will Save his people from their sins."

Notice the difference between the Salvation those in the New Testament readings were looking for? They were not looking for political Salvation or (at least in these passages) Salvation from an oppressor....they are hoping for someone that will Save them from themselves or from their Sins.

And what does that mean--to be Saved from our sins? It seems like a heavy statement. Are our sins the things in life that stand between us and God and Salvation from them will bring us back in to relationship with God? If that is true, then what does it matter if we are oppressed?

Or are our Hebrew friends correct and the primary need to be Saved from oppression because oppressed people cannot appropriately serve and follow God?

Maybe as history unfolds we are all looking to be Saved from different things. Maybe some days we need to be Saved from others and some days we need to be Saved from ourselves.

Yahweh, Creator, Light-bearer,
You know me.
You know my sin.
You know my heart.
Help me see
What you know
and help me look
for Salvation
from all oppression
(My Own and
That which Presses on Me).
Free me for service
to your Kingdom.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.


Third Sunday in Advent, Year A

This week NPR reported on the closing of the infamous Cabrini-Green - a Chicago Housing Authority project - a crumbling cluster of high-rise housing that became symbolic of the concentration of poverty amidst a bustling and sometimes affluent city. The unexpected twist to many listeners who grew up with stories of the violence and crime in these "projects" was the grief and resistance expressed by long-time residents.

Rat-infested, crime-riddled...This was home. It has been community for those that had no choice but to live there. And now it is being take away.

Imagine a time when you sat in a committee meeting about a project for which you cared deeply and someone, perhaps new to the project, suggested a change. Did anyone at the table resist, saying, "We've never done it that way?" Or, "We tried that once before and it was a complete failure?" Bumps, warts and all, this beloved project needs protected from a future unseen, yes?

During this season of advent, we find ourselves claiming to wait for God to show up...for the incarnation to take place...for the Kingdom to appear...to take shape. But we wonder, are we really ready for and receptive to whatever actually shows up? Can we let go of our vision of the ideal to receive the reality of Emmanuel?

The prophet Isaiah describes an idyllic scene of dry places set to bloom, infirmity overcome, a clear path to follow. Consider the confusing times from which this writing came. Of course this sounded like a wonderful breakthrough. But did the Israelites experience the described reality? Ever? Or did they perhaps encounter it without recognizing it?

The psalm or the alternate reading from Luke (often called as the Magnificat - Mary's song of praise after the visit from Gabriel) are both joyful, willing and reverent responses to God. Let's spend a little time particularly with Mary's response. She's just been asked to conceive God's son out of wedlock in a society where women are stoned for sexual impropriety. Who will believe this? What does she risk by saying yes? Can she possibly envision what will come next, let alone what will come over thousands of years to follow?

James' epistle urges the community to be patient. Ha! Patient because the Lord is coming near. What does that even look like...patience?

Finally, from the gospel of Matthew, John has sent word to inquire whether this Jesus is really "the one." Now we don't know what John was expecting...but he had to ask clarifying questions. Jesus alludes to the visions of the prophet Isaiah...the blind will receive sight, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear. As they depart, Jesus turns to the gathered crowds and asks them to consider what they expected in the arrival and proclamation of John the Baptist. Did they expect the voice crying out to be clothed in soft robes? Did they expect preparation to be a light task? How willing were they to listen to this messenger and respond in faith? Is their faith colored by their preconceived notions?

In advent, we light one candle after another, watching and waiting. We sing O Come O Come Emmanuel. We remember a story of a precious baby born to a scared young woman in a cold stable. God touched the world in an unexpected way. How can we have any expectation of what happens next? Will we resist what shows up?

Sleepers, awake!

We've quoted Annie Dillard more than once:
"It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."

Prepare our hearts
so that we
are truly able
to prepare the way...
whatever that way
may be.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.


Second Sunday of Advent, Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In our house, there are at least 5 and sometimes 15 different views of what would be a Perfect Day.

This is true for all of us--if pressed, we would likely all have different ideas of what would make the Perfect Day.

And this is true if we were to poll folks about a Perfect Meal or a Perfect Home or a Perfect Mate or a Perfect President.

We all come to this current moment with different experiences and different preferences and different needs and desires and hopes and dreams. And when faced with the same problem or event we would all likely have at least a slightly different solution or view of what happened.

This week's lectionary passages give us four different views of what a Savior might be or do.

The passage from Isaiah 11 is familiar to most of us. Many are familiar with Edward Hick's painting, "Peaceable Kingdom", that shows the wolf and the lamb and the baby and the snake all playing together. The words of Isaiah are a prophecy spoken / written to an oppressed and defeated people who have primarily known pain and suffering. This passage is written from the perspective of people who are dreaming and hoping about how things might be better one day. Isaiah is drawing a vision of the Perfect Day. And for these Israelites, the hope is that things will be better when one of their own (a shoot from the stump of Jesse) raises up who has all the right looks and knows all the right moves. He will judge against the oppressor, he will be righteous and faithful. And perhaps most importantly, he will bring Peace to the Israelites, to all of nature, and to all nations. When we look at other parts of scripture we are able to piece together that this was their expectation of a Messiah...this was a sketch of their Perfect Savior.

In the section we get from Psalm 72 we see another idyllic vision of a leader. This description is of a King that existed in real time...not the dream of a future leader. Read the passage. It is ideal. It is everything you could want in a King, or a President, or a mate.

In the passage from Matthew we see a different expectation set out by Saint John the Forerunner. Remember, he is under a different set of oppressors than those in Isaiah's day were. And not only was he bothered by Roman occupation and rule, he was obviously also upset by the hypocrisy of the keepers of the Jewish law at that time. As he stood there under the trees baptizing people in the Jordan river, he described a dangerous leader that was coming. John has his own view of what was needed in a Savior. Someone that would bring a kind of other-worldly and fiery judgment. John does not comfort folks with talk of a Bringer of Peace here. John warns them of a Bringer of Judgment.

And then in Romans Paul offers us one more perspective. When he is writing this letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Jesus had already lived, taught, been killed, and resurrected. By this time Paul had already been a vehement persecutor of followers of Jesus and then was dramatically converted to being a vehement evangelist in the name of Jesus. Paul had a lot of perspective of what a Savior might be and do. Paul was also among the first to be able to reflect on who Jesus really was and what Jesus really did. And what was his take? In this particular passage he does not focus on the need of the Savior to bring judgment. Paul talks about how Jesus brought reconciliation and Peace. He talks about how Jesus came to serve Jew and Gentile alike. Paul talks about how Jesus...the Savior...came so all might live in harmony.

We all come at this from our own places.

For some of us, our Savior is a long haired blonde man.
For some, our Savior is a diminutive Macedonian woman.
For some, our Savior is a healthy bank account.
For some, our Savior is perfection.
For some, Peace must come through force.
For some, Peace can only come through love.
Dear God, please don't let us choose.
Help us to quiet our judgment-biased and category-creating minds
and seek Peace in any way we can find it.

© matt & laura norvell 2010 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.