Reading Ramblings – December 1, 2013

Date:  First Sunday in Advent, December 1, 2013

Texts:  Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: (8-10)11-14; Matthew 21:1-11

Context: With Advent we begin a new liturgical year.  As we concluded the liturgical year with readings anticipating our Lord’s return, we begin the liturgical year in remembrance of his first coming in humility.  We also begin a new three-year lectionary cycle, having just concluded year C and now beginning year A.  Regardless of the cycle, the season of Advent is one of preparation, and historically shares much with the season of Lent that precedes Easter.  Both seasons emphasize personal repentance and preparation.

Isaiah 2:1-5—The book of Isaiah opens with a damning critique of God’s people.  God’s people reject God’s entreaties for discussion of their behavior, and the hint of judgment is already laid out.  Chapter two moves to a vision of how things will be one day in the future.  The people of God will again be faithful and their God will dwell with them in fullness and truth, a beacon to peoples of all lands who will come to learn the way of the Lord.  The divisions of mankind will be brought to an end in that day, which is the Day of the Lord. 

The arrival of our Lord will bring about a new state of reality for all of creation, where all is restored to the harmony and perfection that existed prior to the fall into sin in Genesis 3.  That day will be a day of judgment for those who reject the Lord, but it will bring about peace and joy for those who trust in him. 

Psalm 122— One of the songs of ascent that were recited and sung together by pilgrims en route to Jerusalem for holy days, this song emphasizes the beauty and specialness of the City of God.  It was likely recited as the pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem proper, and emphasizes that the reason for the specialness of this city is the House of the Lord, the Temple.  It is not enough simply to be in the city, the goal is to be at the Lord’s House.  Jerusalem is praised for the design of the city which affords protection and reassurance to those who visit, for being a city of worship because of the pilgrims that throng it for holy days, and it is a place of judgment as embodied in the Davidic kingship.  Pilgrims are then exhorted to pray for the city, that it continue to be a place of security and fellowship in God.

Romans 13: (8-10)11-14—The assigned readings for the day oftentimes indicate an optional set of verses, denoted in parentheses.  These are optional usually to keep the amount of reading on a given Sunday to a manageable amount (though what any group of people considers manageable has decreased markedly over the centuries!).   Romans 13 is best known for the first seven verses and the exhortation to obedience to civil authorities.  Verse 8 shifts the focus from civil law to religious law, as evident by citing portions of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) as opposed to sections of Roman civil law. 

Yet at least in theory, the two laws should not be far removed from one another.   Civil law functions best when it is based on the revealed laws of God.  This is not to advocate for a theocracy, but rather to affirm that the law of God is not arbitrary—it is woven into creation itself and therefore all people benefit when we live according to these laws.  That law is ultimately based upon love for neighbor. 

Verse 11 shifts thought again.  We are obedient to the law of God as well as civil law because we are not asleep—we know that our Lord is going to return, and that return only draws nearer to fulfillment.  As such, we must live as those who are awake, rather than those who claim the cover of night as a means of hiding their deeds, or who seek to claim ignorance as a defense for their lawlessness.  Rather, the Christian is to live as they have been shown to live by God himself, in anticipation of the return of the Son of God.  This means that when civil law conflicts with divine law, or permits or advocates for what is contrary to the divine law, the Christian must continue to adhere to God’s law.

Matthew 21:1-11—It may seem odd to be reading a passage associated with Palm Sunday, but it describes what is anticipated in Isaiah 2, and is the perfect fulfillment of the joy and excitement hinted at in Psalm 122—the coming of the Lord to his city and people. 

This is the proper response of God’s people to his coming—joy and elation, praise and thanksgiving and worship.  This is not the forced pantomimes of a subjugated people.  This is not the false enthusiasm of people who have guns pointed at them just off-screen.  This is authentic joy!  This is the creation rejoicing at the presence of it’s creator!  Did everyone in Jerusalem that day acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God?  No, yet many of them undoubtedly found themselves cheering and celebrating alongside those who did. 

Our anticipation as Advent begins is for the return of our Lord.  We mark the historical reality of his Incarnation with a time of preparation.  The presence of God demands that we examine ourselves and recognize our need for his presence, as well as our unworthiness to stand in his presence.  Our anticipation is guided in self-examination and repentance, as well as in joyful thanksgiving for the forgiveness and grace that the arrival of our Savior 2000 years ago made possible.  Our recognition of our own shortcomings, failures and flaws would be crushing if not for the promise of forgiveness in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God. 

 

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