Saturday, December 31, 2022

Christmas 1 / Name of Jesus

Nativity Tree 2022
Isaiah 63:7,9

7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us
and the great favor toward the house of Israel
that God has shown them according to his mercies,
according to the abundance of his loving kindnesses.

9 in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but God's presence that saved them;
in love and mercy it was God who redeemed them;
lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Word of the Father, Now in Flesh Appearing

…in all their distress … God's presence saved them!

Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet [Isaiah 7:14]. "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which translated means 'God with us.'"

Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save the people from their sins. Matthew 1:21-23

"And lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age." Matthew 28:20

Friday, December 23, 2022

Nativity 2022

Titus 2 Grace has appeared
Titus 2:11-14

11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 14 He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

The Epistle to Titus

For all three years, the lectionary schedules readings from Titus for Christmas Eve (Titus 2:11-14) and day (Titus 3:4-7).

Titus is another letter the apostle Paul almost definitely didn't write; it bears his name because of the common practice of regular people attributing their writing to a famous person. Titus was one of Paul's ministry companions, and probably a pastor-mission overseer for house churches in Crete.

The letter to Titus was one of reformer Martin Luther's favorites. He described it as, "…a short epistle, but a model of Christian doctrine, in which is comprehended in a masterful way all that is necessary for a Christian to know and to live." I'm sure he loved the reference to Jesus as "grace" with appeared and manifestation that describe an epiphany, a bright revelation of the Divine.

The strong sense of paranaesis or exhortation to good works in this short passage happens because its strong declaration of God's gracious presence and action inspire– compel – us to loving mercy, service, justice, and compassion. God's people, with zeal for good deeds? Yes! Remember, this was one of Luther's favorites!

From Gian-Carlo Menotti's one-act opera, Ahmal and the Night Visitors:

The child we seek holds the seas and the winds on his palm.
The child we seek has the moon and the stars at his feet.
Before him, the eagle is gentle the lion is meek.

On love, on love alone will he build his kingdom…
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Advent 4A

summer garden with welcome sign
Summer Garden with welcome sign in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California

Isaiah 7:10-16

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Almost Christmas, the supreme festival of creation, the birth of God in our midst in Jesus of Nazareth, the baby in the Bethlehem manger. Although by this Sunday we're usually already into or seriously planning Nativity treats, food, decorations, music, and evoking memories, to round out Isaiah in Advent, a few comments on the first lection. This Isaiah passage is from the Old Testament, First Testament, or Hebrew Bible; it wasn't originally Christian scripture.

Over the past three Sundays I've described the frightening and precarious overall political, social, religious, and economic situation Isaiah of Jerusalem addressed. Long ago, the church identified...

14"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." a Messianic text that anticipated the arrival of Emmanuel, Jesus, God-With-Us. The librettist for Handel's Messiah also chose this, but Isaiah did not have Christmas in mind. In these very political verses, King Ahaz of the southern kingdom Judah is very concerned about military and political threats from Samaria [Ephraim] in the northern kingdom of Israel, from Damascus in Syria. The baby in these verses may be Isaiah's own soon to be born offspring.

Similar to Martin Luther, Matthew's community that produced the featured gospel readings for this year A had a habit of discovering and uncovering Jesus Christ in every passage of the Old Testament. No, I have that backwards: similar to Matthew's community, the Reformer Martin Luther loved to discern and explain the presence of Jesus in almost every phrase of the OT.

When we read scripture, our first question needs to be the historical when, where, who, why, what. But we know scripture is a living perennial word! Every verse won't apply to our here and now, but still we can ask about contextualizing (making alive) God's Word into our current when, where, who, why, and what.

Gifts of Creation

With Christmas being the church's major Trinitarian Festival of Creation (Easter – Redemption, Pentecost – Sanctification), gifts of food are especially appropriate. It's not uniquely my opinion about giving food and homemade delicacies, because why else would home-baked cookies or a commercial close approximation be so popular this time of year? Food as gift also gives the recipient permission to indulge in unneeded calories.

What are your favorite and/or must-have Christmas foods?

Gifts of Music

Advent and Christmas may be the most musical seasons of the year. Many churches and other groups offer Lessons and Carols to the community, typically early in Advent before the busy-ness gets too overwhelming. When Advent begins in the northern hemisphere, days are short, nights long. I believe it originally was for Epiphany, but I love everything about the hymn Rise, Shine, You People (by Ron Klug to Dale Wood's tune, Wojtkiewiecz) and the line, "Come, celebrate, your banners high unfurling, your songs and prayers against the darkness hurling" is exactly one of the reasons music feels so good and is so necessary during winter.

What are your essential Advent-Christmas songs, hymns, chorales and other music? It's also not specifically Christmas, but one of mine is Phillip Phillip's Home...

The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found
Just know you're not alone
'Cause I'm going to make this place your home

...always moves me. Most likely I associate it with Christmas because the first time I heard it was at a Blue Christmas service in Previous City.

Friday, December 09, 2022

Advent 3A

Isaiah 35 desert in bloom purple crocus
Isaiah 35:1-2, 5-7, 10

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The Third Sunday of Advent

We continue the counter-cultural practice of waiting for Jesus' arrival into a world that wants and expects everything delivered yesterday. Mid-Lent breaks from repentance with the brighter mood of Laetare Sunday to encourage us "rejoice"; similarly, the third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete or rejoice Sunday, named after the opening of the traditional collect or gathering prayer for the day. The blue of hope is the new color for Advent; when churches have them, rose paraments replace blue for the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth Sunday in Lent.

This third Sunday celebrates Mary, Jesus' mother. Mary's Magnificat, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God My Savior" from Luke 1:46-55 is the appointed psalm for all three lectionary years. Mary singing "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty," foresees a world where humanity has become a common-wealth that flourishes the way the desert blooms.

Like last week's, today's first reading, Isaiah 35, follows chapter 34 about horrendous environmental devastation. All three sections of Isaiah are super-clear that the natural creation is not an incidental backdrop to God's activity, but lives and breathes as an integral part of God's story on earth. Scripture as a whole witnesses to the redemption, ransom, integrity, wholeness, restoration, and resurrection of the natural world—not only human creatures. "God writes the gospel not in the bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars," is attributed to Martin Luther. However, our frequent emphasis on humanity may be valid, because for the most part creation needs redemption because of human sin and greed.

Today's First Reading

As last week's blog noted, Isaiah's inspired words came into the southern kingdom at a time of political, economic, and cultural violence and uncertainty. Against God's constant scriptural counsel "do not fear," everyone had plenty of reasons to be frightened. Like last week's Isaiah 11:1-9, this week we receive pure promise, sheer proclamation of grace, mercy, healing, and a shalom-filled future. This announcement is gospel: it is very good news!

With springs of water, rivers of grass, flowers in blossom and bloom, the desert itself rejoices and sings. In this scripture, water is womb of re-creation. Have you ever visited the desert (Anza-Borrego, maybe?) in spring bloom? Water makes the difference; water restores life. Water is life!

Today's Gospel

In Isaiah 35:5-6, the blind will see, deaf will hear, lame will walk, speechless people won't only speak, they will sing! Today's gospel reading from Matthew echoes Isaiah:
Matthew 11

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" 4 Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

Saturday, December 03, 2022

Advent 2A

greenery sprouting through hard rock
Isaiah 11:1-10

1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Advent II

Last Sunday on the first Sunday of Advent, linear time and the scriptures opened to the world a new Year of Grace.

Jesus of Nazareth first arrived in Roman occupied territory after 700 years of enemies—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Syria, Rome. Advent imagery and reality subverts our current status quo of enemies, violence, injustice, hatred, hunger, and fear. As days grow shorter, nights longer in the northern hemisphere, advent music is one of the highlights of the season.

There's a strong advent emphasis on turning around into the direction of God's gracious leading—the gospel reading on this second advent Sunday traditionally is Jesus' cousin John the Baptist telling everyone the time for God's arrival is now, and therefore now is the time to repent. However, as important as repentance is year-round, hope has become an even greater advent accent, with blue paraments, vestments, and sanctuary appointments. We must repent, we must obey, but what a gift first to hear it won't always be like this, we will know the fullness of shalom, and it will come about by God's action, intervention, and presence. But hope can't bear fruit if humans don't repent and change their ways, right?

Today's First Reading

During this lectionary year A, all of the first readings during Advent are from Isaiah of Jerusalem; today we'll look at Isaiah 11:1-9. Notice how in this passage creation is central with earth sprouting new growth, animals behaving in uncharacteristic ways. The entire witness of scripture consistently interlinks natural, political, economic, and social endeavors in the fractured world of the first creation, in the transformed world of the new creation.

Chapter 11 of Isaiah comes right after… chapter 10, that tells about a clearcut forest, so we start out today with a shoot (branch, scepter, rod) growing from a tree stump. Commentaries aren't sure what historical event lies behind the "stump" image, but it works well when we look at Israel's and Judah's history, other world history, and when we consider our own lives.

Although eventually we need to contextualize it for our place and time, when we read scripture we first ask about the original setting. Isaiah of Jerusalem (sometimes referred to as First Isaiah, who wrote most of chapters 1 through 39) experienced what has been called the first holocaust of the Jews: five times during the 40 years between 740 and 700 BCE the Assyrian army invaded Israelite territory. But notice how this entire reading proclaims, announces, promises grace, newness, healing, gospel, the reign of heaven so extensive God's presence fills everywhere!

Art, Music, Books

Today's first reading brings us a vision sometimes called the Peaceable Kingdom [11:6-7]. American artist Edward Hicks created at least 50 Peaceable Kingdom paintings. Three Sundays ago, our scripture for Pentecost 23 was from Isaiah 65 that's substantially from the post-exilic restoration in Jerusalem and promises the same reality. I illustrated that week's blog with one of Hicks' Peaceable Kingdoms.

Jesse was the father of King David. Since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the church has claimed some of the book of Isaiah and words of other Hebrew Bible prophets as Messianic, meaning they can be interpreted in a Christological manner. "Jesse" in Isaiah 11:1 refers to King David's father Jesse; in the genealogy that opens his gospel, Matthew lists Jesse and David as ancestors of Jesus. For this year's lectionary year A, Matthew's gospel emphasizes Jesus as the new King David. The carol anthem "Lo, How a Rose" sings about Jesus' descent "Of Jesse's lineage" in Isaiah 11:1.

If you've sung in choirs or listened to much choral music, you may know the Peaceable Kingdom American composer Randall Thompson wrote for double mixed choir with texts from all three parts of the book of Isaiah.

Do you know "God is Working his Purpose Out," Geoffrey Ainger's hymn that's often set to Martin Shaw's tune Purpose? It hasn't been widely included in hymnals, yet it's strongly missional and could be an excellent Advent choice; each stanza ends with God's promise via Isaiah, the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. A place and a time of shalom integrity, where justice, grace and love have the final word.

As a messianic text, Isaiah 11:4b "…he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked" can be interpreted as the Word of God that creates, redeems, and sanctifies, the word that is incarnate, embodied as living word in Jesus of Nazareth. The title of one of Hebrew bible scholar Walter Brueggemann's books is The Word that Redescribes the World —draws it over, gives it a makeover, re-creates creation, reconciles and redeems it. The promised new David will reorder creation by speaking—speech that's also action.

Resurrection Hope

Everyone loves the amazement of a green sprig or sprout growing out of what looks like a truly dead tree stump. There's life there? Most city dwellers have noticed verdant life pushing through streets and sidewalks, into an existing crack, even making a way for itself by itself and rupturing baked earth or cured concrete. Pushing back the tombstone?!

The reality of new life coming out of the death, the end of the old. God redeems and recreates our failures, our disappointments, losses, illnesses. Particularly here in southern California, new green growth from the ashes of a wildfire amazes me every time. In spite of what we've seen and otherwise experienced, we humans have a habit of deciding new life could not come from here, from over there, this situation literally is hopeless, death must be final. The new creation is not pristine, but builds on the ruins of the old.

The end of today's reading promises "On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples…" A literal vision of security and peace, of God's presence in spite of. A sign, standard, signal, icon, ensign: the cross of Jesus Christ.