Reading Ramblings – December 4, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Context: The readings for this Sunday are almost identical between the ‘Lutheran’ version of the 3-year lectionary cycle and the actual Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). For reasons that not even seminary homiletics professors are aware of (at least the ones I’ve talked to), the LC-MS modifies the RCL to suit our own tastes, something that frankly annoys me as something contrary to one of the points of a lectionary system, which is to have Christians reading similar passages of Scripture on the same weeks. But this week, all the LC-MS version tweaks is to leave off verses 18 and 19 of Psalm 72, which the RCL includes. Incidentally, while various traditions assign different themes or meanings to each of the Sundays in Advent, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of agreement on these. The Roman Catholics observe the third Sunday of Advent as Gaudete Sunday, based on the first Latin word of the mass for that day – gaudete (rejoice).

Isaiah 11:1-10 – Isaiah will be heavily utilized until Lent, and will again be drawn upon frequently during Ordinary Time later this year. The readings from last week and this week emphasize the coming glory and benefits of our returning King. Today’s readings emphasize the various blessings He will bear, namely the presence of the Spirit of the Lord which will grant him specifically wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge of the Lord and fear of the Lord (vs. 1-2). As such, his insight and wisdom and judgment will be perfect, free from the sinful brokenness and limitations of human judgment (v.3). Rather his judgments will be perfect, meaning that the oppressed have hope and a champion, a champion who need not cajole or negotiate to have his judgments enacted, but who bears within himself the power to call all of creation to obedience (vs.4-5). This will, in turn, transform all of creation. Natural enemies and predators will be at odds no longer. Frankly, I have no way of even imagining a world where the feeding chain as we know it is no longer necessary. Are there to be no predators and no prey? What will that look like? I don’t know, but I can trust that the righteous and perfect judge who initiates such an order will not do something inappropriate or unnatural. Rather, it is the sinfulness of creation which cannot imagine a world in which peace is not something that we maintain, but which is the natural order of things from largest to smallest.

Psalm 72:1-7 – This is a psalm likely used at the coronation of a king – more specifically a Judean king in Jerusalem. While ascribed to Solomon it is not specifically linked to him, but could be utilized for any king. It clearly delineates the role of the king – to promulgate the law and blessings of God to his people. Righteousness and justice are the chief of these blessings and the essence of the Law. Failure in this respect will mean failure in any and all respects. As the king faithfully does his duties (vs.1-4), the people pray for his strength and power to enforce that right rule against any who would oppose it (vs.5-7). The upshot is blessing to God’s people, even to creation itself as the king properly conducts himself and his duties in accordance with the directives and priorities of God who has placed him on the throne. The Revised Common Lectionary includes the liturgical ending of the Psalm, verses 18-19, which some see as the formal ending to one section (the second) of the psalms.

Romans 15:4-13 – Concluding a section dealing on Christian love for one another as the guiding principle for settling minor theological differences of opinion, Paul turns to Scripture (in this case, and at the time of his writing meaning the Old Testament) as a means once again of validating his message and instructions. God’s Word is given for our instruction. It is not simply history or the issues of a people long-gone with whom we have nothing to do with. It is written to and for us, and for all of God’s people whenever they come to it. A key aspect of how the Word instructs us is the demonstration of endurance and therefore encouragement. Spanning over 2000 years of history, the Old Testament shows the steady working out of God’s plan through God’s people, a plan that had reached culmination in Paul’s day with the life and ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. So Paul writes to the Roman Christians who endure persecution or at least misunderstanding and exhorts them to endure and be encouraged by the example of how God’s people have endured all along. God has not forgotten them or us. Our endurance has meaning because God’s plan to reconcile all of creation is moving forward on his timetable, not ours. We simply are to remain faithful in whatever our circumstances might be. Such an outlook on our individual lives leads us to rejoice and give praise to God, who will indeed work all things to the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). In terms of the Roman’s specific needs for endurance, this means enduring even their disagreements between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians. Each has a role to play in the salvation of creation. God desires the salvation of both groups of people, therefore both groups are to affirm the value and worth of the other as followers of Jesus Christ.

Matthew 3:1-12 – John the Baptist enters the Advent scene, the voice calling out in the wilderness in preparation for the Lord’s Anointed One. Here is an example of endurance in the face of suffering! John endures the rise and fall of his own ministry (John 3:25-30), his own arrest as the Messiah he announced walks free (Matthew 11:1-6), and his eventual execution on the whim of a vindictive woman (Mark 6:17-29). John fulfilled his prophesied role, yet he did not himself personally experience many of the joys and blessings that the Messiah would bring. He himself experienced deprivation, suffering, and death. Yet he was exhorted to faithfulness, to endurance in the midst of his waiting, to the terrible realization that in God’s plan of things, even the coming of the Messiah might not mean the complete reversal of all injustice and suffering – yet.

So we wait. We who in hindsight see and accept the Messiah. We who proclaim his resurrection and his victory over sin, Satan and death – we still deal with the repercussions here and now of our enemy Satan, of sin at work in our bodies, and physical death. Despite the fact that our lot in life does not look appreciably different from the lot of an atheist or Buddhist or Muslim, we are called to profess in faith and praise that our lives are different, both here and now and eternally. It is as though we peer out from the bars of our cell like John the Baptist did, wondering if perhaps we got it wrong, if Jesus really isn’t who and what He claims to be. And like John, without promising to set us free immediately from what appears to be our imprisonment, we are called to endure. To be faithful to the end. To trust that the Valley of the Shadow of Death is only that, a valley, and that our Good Shepherd is both faithful and able to bring us through it and to the banquet on the other side.

Advent focuses us on this waiting, drives us to consider what it means to be an anticipatory people, to consider carefully where we place our hope, and what the repercussions of our hope are. Advent invites us to give voice to the struggles of our life, the suffering inherent in a broken and sinful world, even a broken and sinful world that Jesus has conquered in his own death and resurrection. But we are not to keep our focus on our suffering. We are to lift up our eyes, to wait for the promised return of our Lord, to praise God for what He has already given us in Christ, and what we will fully experience in the day of his return. This is the source of our hope and joy, not politics or economics or any of the other systems the world offers as mechanisms of hope.

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