IV Advent, Wednesday

Wednesday, December 24

Isaiah 35:1-10; Revelation 22:12-17, 21; Luke 67-80

Twice I have known the special mixture of confusion, excitement, and fear that comes with the birth of a child. It is a thrilling, terrifying, perplexing time. In the case of both of my two children, there were many false alarms and disappointed hopes before the day finally arrived. And when the day finally does arrive, there really isn’t much to do (for the father, I mean!). One can only wait, and pray, and offer encouragement. And behold the wonder. After that, everything is different.

It’s no accident that both Jesus and Paul use labor pains as a metaphor to describe the looked-for, yet unrealized Second Coming of Christ. Just as friends and doctors annoyingly remind expectant parents that “no pregnancy ever lasted forever,” we are promised an end to our waiting. And yet, Scripture makes clear that Jesus’ return will be as sudden and unpredictable as a birth. We cannot know when it will happen and we cannot know in every detail what it will bring. But after that, everything will be different.

Advent ends today at sundown. Christmas will come tomorrow with all the predictability and regularity of the passage of time. But at the end of this season of waiting—on this night set apart for the contemplation of a birth—may we not lose our sense of wonder and joy and befuddlement. Through all the dependability and tradition of our celebrating, may we recover some of the excitement and terror that attends every childbirth, and that was surely present long ago in a cattle-shed in Bethlehem.

“Behold, I am coming.” The promise of the Incarnation—the promise of Christmas—finds its fulfillment in the eschatological hope of Advent. The joy of Christ’s first coming among us “to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death,” will culminate in the wonder of Christ’s Second Coming when he shall put an end to darkness and death at last—when “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…”

Tonight and tomorrow, may God give you grace amidst the tinsel and the trappings to grasp the promise of Christ’s coming. As you sing and give gifts and offer thanks for Jesus’ birth, may you also yearn and watch and wait for his return.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come.'”

IV Advent, Monday

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Monday, December 22

Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 20:1-10; John 5:30-47

Something about today’s passage in Isaiah has sparked the imagination of hundreds of years of artisans.  Not only do we read about the “stump of Jesse”–the phrase that launched a thousand “Tree of Jesse” windows (as shown above at Chartres) but a few verses later the prophet lays out the peaceable kingdom, complete with toddlers playing around snakes’ holes.

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As we’ve done many times over the last weeks in this space, let us take a trip back in time to Isaiah’s situation–a people in exile, the king’s line obliterated, all lifelines cut off for the people of Israel.  Yet, the prophet’s words today are of hope for the dead, barren stump of Jesse.  Jesse is King David’s father, he’s the father of the blessed, royal line of Israel, father Jesse is the origin of the great kings of God’s people.

How strange for Isaiah to profess that this lost line of rulers was not truly ended.  God would bring life out of death, God would take the mess that humanity had made of his gift and put it back on track again.  The tree which had been cut to just a stump would again bring forth life, a shoot would come up from the hopeless rubble.

From our vantage point, we see allusions to Jesus’ coming and God redemption of the line of David through the birth of a son to Mary and Joseph.  Our privileged position sometimes obscures the incredible nature of the promises which Isaiah has boldly declared on God’s behalf.

Think about something that died your life this year–maybe a loved one is dead, perhaps a friendship or relationship has petered out or more dramatically, has blown up.  Think of the most hopeless, most depressing, most beyond-the-pale event or relationship or person in your life.  Here, God is promising that life can still overcome that death.

In many Medieval churches, there were “Tree of Jesse” windows, like the one in Chartres’ west wall which is, significantly, paired with windows detailing Christ’s life and the Passion.  Each of these windows has the same message, though the window dressing, if you will, is of a particular moment of time.  Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is the culmination.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the ultimate end of every story.

The second part of today’s Isaiah passage, featuring “The Peaceable Kingdom,” comes at the same theme from a different direction.  Just as the overthrow and exile of Israel came about violently, Isaiah reminds his hearers that the whole world suffers violence, human and animal alike.  All creation is off its center, not functioning the way it is meant to be.  God still intends to set all things right, to bring life again where there is now death–between babies and snakes, between lions and lambs, between people.

As the church has done for hundreds of years, let us, along with artisans from centuries past, remind God of his promises and remind ourselves of the ways in which God has already brought about redemption for his creation.

IV Advent, Sunday

Sunday, December 21

Isaiah 42:1-12; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 3:16-21

There were these people who lived in a cave.  They were born in the cave, raised below ground, never exposed to the light of day.  These people sometimes had a fire to light their lives, deep in the heart of this subterranean cave.  Their entire understanding of what was real came from their experience of darkness and of the sort of light given by the fire.  Eventually, one of them found a way out of the cave and into the sunshine.  The light was blinding, the expanse was shocking.  Instead of walls of stone in every direction, there was open space, air–no stopping the eye’s traveling.  There was no small, specific bit of light; sure, a fireball burned in the sky, but it lit up everything–all that air and space, nothing quenched the light. 

This upended the world which these people had created–there was so much more than they’d realized before.  The sunlight which suffuses the face of the earth, even under clouds, is the opposite of the fire’s small, contained, direct light surrounded by the cave’s darkness.  The open space which goes on forever is the opposite of the small, walled cave (a somewhat bastardized version of the Allegory of the Cave; please don’t tell Plato).  It was a brave new world.

How clear it is to each of us surface-dwellers that life is so much more expansive, colorful, textured, and light than a person who lives in a cave could hope to experience.

How similar is the news which God brings us through Jesus Christ.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (John 3:19)

Today’s gospel reading challenges us to recognize real darkness and evil, to stand up against it, refuse it, ask for God’s grace to cast away the works of darkness.  We love darkness.

This passage comes as Nicodemus visits Jesus under the cover of night.  Can you imagine risking your reputation to go and meet this strange traveling teacher?  A respected man, Nicodemus even approaching Jesus is a super humiliating move, and to add insult to injury, Jesus drops a truth bomb: “For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” (v. 20)

God brings light through Jesus, God offers us life through his only Son, whose arrival we anticipate with ever-more-bated breath.  We are unable in ourselves to help ourselves; our only hope is to allow God to put upon us the armor of light.

III Advent, Friday

Friday, December 19

Isaiah 10:5-19; 2 Peter 2:17-22; Matthew 11:2-15

“Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

This may seem strange to say it, but I think we’re rather too good at following this specific command of Jesus. We worship him, follow him, patronize him, or ignore him. But very few people today take offense at Jesus.

The reason for that is that American Christianity has done a pretty good job neutralizing any offense Jesus might cause. We look to Jesus as a warm friend, a dear brother, a wise teacher, and a gentle healer. We look to Jesus who knows us and loves us and walks beside us.

Now, Jesus is all these things. But he is never only these things. The Jesus to whom John sends messengers today is offensive. He is someone who actively subverts the cherished image of a Messiah–of an anointed king–expectantly longed for by generations of faithful Jews. He is someone who spends his time with the least and the lowly. He is someone who ushers in the promised kingdom of God not through military victories and political machinations, but by preaching, teaching, and healing: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers and cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

In Jesus, we see God’s power to work above, beyond, and even against our human expectations. Goodness knows that, in our reading today from Isaiah, the king of Assyria is neither impressed nor offended by God’s power. The arrogant potentate looks over his victories and says to himself, “By the strength of my own hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding.”

But the Lord God of Israel asks, “Shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him whom lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood.” Even the greatest king is merely a tool in the hand of God.

The God we serve operates beyond our power to cajole, corral, convince, or coerce. The God we serve is carrying out his purposes, according to his timetable, for the sake of his glory. This realization may well offend us.

And yet the Good News of this Advent season is that the God whose holiness, power, and plan stretches beyond our comprehension has also stooped to lift us up. This God of might who wields kings like axes has come to be present in our midst as a helpless baby.

He does not promise to play our game or follow our rules. He frequently offends us with the reminder of our limitations. But he has intended for us good beyond what we can ask or imagine. And he has invited us to trust him.

“Blessed is anyone who does not take offense at me.”

III Advent, Thursday

Thursday, December 17

Isaiah 9:18-10:4; 2 Peter 2:10b-16; Matthew 3:1-12

I knew an old priest who was fond of saying, “We are not punished for our sins, but by them.” There’s something to that statement. How often do we find that the consequences of our misdoings are mixed and mingled with the deeds themselves? I suppose you might call my elderly colleague’s maxim “The Hangover Principle.”

Isaiah summarizes the idea this way: “Wickedness burns like fire.” As he describes the gnawing hunger with which God’s people attack each other–“each devours his neighbor’s flesh”–it’s pretty clear that their evil deeds both call for punishment and are, in fact, already their own punishment.

In like manner, Peter paints a picture of people who are powerless over their own perversity. They are like “irrational animals, creatures of instinct…they are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation, carousing with you…they have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin…they have hearts trained in greed.” Though Peter assures his readers that evildoers will eventually face the judgment of God, their own behavior is itself a sort of punishment in the present.

Our collect for this week of the Third Sunday of Advent prays that God will come among us with great might, “because we are sorely hindered by our sins.” That’s not the usual way for us to think about sin–if we think about it all. Most of the time, I typically think of sin as something I want to do but know I oughtn’t to do. I end up feeling like a grumpy child who’s been told not to play with a dangerous toy. I know the toy isn’t safe, but I think it will be fun and am resentful when it is taken away.

But the God we meet in the announcement of John the Baptist–the God incarnate in Jesus our Lord–isn’t a spoil sport or a scolding parent. He is a God who knows that we are hindered and harmed by our sins. He is a God who knows that The Hangover Principle is real–that we are punished by our sins as much as we are punished for them. He is a God who knows that we need release and renewal, as well as repentance.

And it is precisely this problem that the God made manifest in Jesus has come among us to address. As John says in today’s Gospel reading, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me…will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.” As a human preacher, John calls the people to repent and to turn away from their sins.

But the One for whom John prepares the way–the One whose birth we celebrate one week from today–the One whose return we look for with eager hearts–does more than call us to repent. He does more than urge us to turn away from the sins that punish us. He comes among us to change us–to transform us.

In these final days of Advent, may you know the cleansing power of Christ’s presence purging away your sins like a baptism of fire. As we approach with joy the mystery of the Incarnation, may you rejoice to meet Jesus, who has poured out his Holy Spirit upon us to make you and the whole creation new.

III Advent, Wednesday

Wednesday, December 17

Isaiah 9:8-17; 2 Peter 1:1-10a; Mark 1:1-8

“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Those words are not part of any of our readings today. They’re taken from the Epistle of St James. And yet the sentiment they express fits today’s passages perfectly. As we have already seen, it is a solemn, even dangerous thing to lead God’s people.

Once again, Isaiah rails against an arrogant and a faithless nation. Once again, the leaders of that nation come in for special condemnation. “For those who lead this people lead them astray, and those who are led by them are swallowed up.”

We hear it in 2 Peter, too. “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies.” Peter warns his flock against these deceptive, exploitative leaders, because of whom “the way of truth will be reviled.”

Why this special Scriptural contempt for faithless leaders and false teachers?

Paradoxically, the answer to that question lies with obedience and not with leadership. God has placed leaders and teachers over his people. But he expects those leaders and teachers, in turn, to be obedient to him and him alone. Their power has not been given for their own self-aggrandizement, and it has not been given because they are particularly impressive. (The witness of much of the Bible is that God usually prefers the unlikely and the unimpressive.) Rather, leaders and teachers over God’s people have been given places of power and privilege in order that they might serve God with obedience.

Our Gospel lesson introduces us to a strange man who embodies this vision of leadership. Dwelling out in the wilderness, wearing rough garments, subsisting on locusts and wild honey, John the Baptist doesn’t look like much of a leader. And yet he can claim a quality that the faithless rulers of ancient Judah and the false teachers besetting the Church can never claim. John is obedient.

Faithfully, fearlessly, he proclaims his message. Faithfully, fearlessly, he calls the people to repent. Faithfully, fearlessly, he prepares the way of the Lord.

And just when people might begin to exalt John–just when people might begin to become impressed with this odd fellow out by the Jordan–John demonstrates the depth of his obedience. “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” John always points beyond himself to Jesus, from whom and for whom John has come.

May we all–leaders and people alike–learn to embody John’s obedience. May we accept attention, responsibility, leadership, and service as opportunities to point the way to the One who is mightier than we are—the one who came once in great humility, who is coming again with power and great glory.

III Advent, Tuesday

Tuesday, December 16

Isaiah 9:1-7; 2 Peter 1:12-21; Luke 22:54-69

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Korea’s bizarre dictator. Paranoid, bellicose, and ferociously committed to the self-reliance and independence of North Korea, Kim’s repressive government controlled nearly every aspect of the lives of his people. Though he and his cronies lived in great luxury, failed policies and a refusal to accept aid from abroad resulted in deplorable living conditions for ordinary North Koreans.

One of the most striking expressions of Kim Jong-Il’s disastrous leadership can be seen in a satellite image of North Korea by night. In all such pictures, South Korea glows brightly with a web of electric lights. Above North Korea, China is similarly well-lit. But in North Korea itself, there is only darkness. The one bright spot of the capital Pyongyang stands out starkly against an otherwise pitch-black background.

I always think of those eerie photos when I hear the famous words of the Prophet Isaiah that we read in the Daily Office today: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Of course, the darkness of which the prophet speaks is not a lack of electric light. It is a lack of understanding–a lack of the knowledge of God.

Peter tries to hide in the same darkness in our Gospel lesson today. Following Jesus as he is carried from arrest to trial, Peter cowers in the background, wanting to know Jesus’ fate but not wanting to be recognized. He stays in the corners, afraid of what the light will reveal, desiring only darkness.

We ought not to patronize Peter in his fear. After all, he was given a special place in the ministry of Jesus. To him was given the divine revelation of Jesus’ true identity as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Peter has seen Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. He has seen Jesus’ power to heal the sick and raise the dead.

And the Gospels make very clear that Peter could not grasp–would not accept–Jesus’ frequent predictions of his own death. We cannot blame him. He beheld Christ’s shining light firsthand. How can we expect him to accept that that light will be snuffed out?

I wonder whether he understood better when, after denying Jesus three times, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” I wonder whether he began to see that God’s intention for bringing light to the darkness was not like flipping a switch to flood a shadowy room, but was, instead, like carrying a candle down into the gloomiest place. I wonder whether, as Peter saw the face of Jesus–a face he had seen transfigured and glorious, now bloodied and bruised by soldiers’ fists–he understood that God’s determination to go down into the deepest darkness of our world and our hearts.

Peter went out into the darkness and wept bitterly after denying Jesus. But even in the darkness, the light shone upon him. For in the light of the Resurrection, Peter saw at last what God was doing. In the light of the Holy Spirit, Peter found boldness to preach the Good News. In the light of his own life, Peter reflected God’s brilliant light shining “on those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness.”

“Let your light so shine on people everywhere, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

“And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.”