Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Time Is Near -- an Advent Lectionary Reflection

Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-45

The Time is Near

            The time has come to welcome the long promised Savior into our lives. The one born in the “Little Town of Bethlehem” is also the one who makes the final offering.  Yes, the time is drawing near, but it’s not quite here.  Last minute preparations are still underway.  One last trip to the store; one last run at the floors with the vacuum, then all will be ready.  Soon it’ll be time to turn on the porch lights so that the expected guest can find the way to the door.

            The Advent season goes by quickly, because our anticipation seems to overcome our patience.  There’s simply not enough time to get everything done, and so we feel stressed by all the activity.  We don’t need any distractions or interruptions.  Life, of course, is full of interruptions that derail our best efforts to stay on track.  Such an interruption occurred a week ago, as a tragic and horrific set of murders took the lives of a multitude of children and adults.  Like many preachers I found that this past Sunday was a challenge.  My best efforts to keep the Advent train going, by lifting up the Pauline injunction to rejoice in the Lord always, were thrown off track by these murders.  We faced the challenge of finding any form of joy in the midst of all this sadness and grief, which continues unabated and will continue through the coming seasons.   

            With the realities of life on hearts and minds, we continue to attend to the Advent promise of a new day when God’s reign will be acknowledged and peace will mark our relationships.  Yes, the time is near at hand – not the much ballyhooed Mayan “end of the world” scenario, but the advent of God’s messiah, the one who offers himself for all.  Are you, then, ready for the clock to strike midnight?

            Each of the three texts that lie before us have their own integrity and purpose.  One speaks of promise, another of fulfillment, and then a third brings us back to promise.  But through all of this there is promise that God’s peace will be revealed and we will find our security in God’s presence.  It requires our trust, our willingness to believe with Mary that “the Lord would fulfill his promises.”    

            “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!  . . . Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  These are words we’ve sung year after year, perhaps rarely seeing the fullness of its promise.  Out of a small and insignificant space will rise the one who brings light into the darkness.  We’ve been led to believe that bigger is better – whether it’s a car, a nation, or a church – so if your church is small, sort of like the village of Bethlehem, the least among Judah’s cities, then you might think that you have little to offer.  But, perhaps it’s in places like the little town of Bethlehem, that the way to life in all its fullness emerges.  From this small space, shall emerge the means of our security and our peace.  It’s important to remember that Micah is a prophet concerned with justice.  Besides this passage that speaks of Bethlehem’s promise, the other text that resonates with us is Micah 6:8 – “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  John Buchanan writes helpfully of the vision present in this passage:
His vision of a ruler from Bethlehem who will be a shepherd and “the one of peace” is not a sentimental abstraction suitable for a Christmas card greeting, but an affirmation that God’s gift of this ruler has to do with ending injustice and violent warfare, and with producing security and peace, a time when people will be free to enjoy the fruit of their labor, sitting beneath their own vines and fig trees, no longer living in fear.[i]   
No, there is more here than simply the inspiration of a beloved carol.  Instead Micah offers a promise of a realm where justice and peace will prevail.  It is a good word to hear at this moment in time, when our consumer driven culture can lose sight of the wisdom of God, and we lose track of the other.  If we’re able to hear Micah, we will let go of our fears and entrust our lives and our futures to God’s care.

            Micah speaks in the future tense, but the author of Hebrews takes up the past tense.  The passage begins (in the Common English Bible) with the word “consequently.”  Obviously something has happened that has changed the dynamics of our reality.  Our author says to us that Christ came into the world with the prophetic message – I take no pleasure in your offerings, but rather desire that you do the will of the Lord.  Ritual, the prophets continually declare, gets you nowhere if the heart is not right.  Surely that’s the message of Micah as well.

So, are you attuned to God’s direction?  I must confess, too often I take my own road and fail to heed the call of God.  I’ve relied on my offerings rather than my life.  I wish I could depend on my regular presence in worship and gifts to the church (yes, I’m professionally religious, so that makes it doubly problematic).  God isn’t impressed with our piety.  What God desires are lives lived fully for God’s realm, following the example of the one who died once for all.  Now, the Book of Hebrews is an interesting but dangerous book.  It offers a vision of faith that seems to reduce Judaism to a failed experiment, and if we read it this way we can find ourselves dismissing the value of this faith tradition that gave birth to our own.  When we read that Christ abolishes the first in order to establish the second, let us keep in mind the prophetic call to put faithfulness above ritual.  If we can do this, then perhaps we can hear the message of verse 10, where it’s stated that it is “by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” 

I recognize the importance placed on the claim that Jesus offered himself “once for all.”  Whatever our atonement theories, something profound occurs in this death that changes our realities.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if the deaths of the twenty-six Sandy Hook adults and children aren’t in themselves offerings that in the mystery of God have sanctified us all.  Their deaths were horrific and we grieve with their families.  We don’t want to take away from their integrity as people.  But have not our hearts been changed as a result?  Have we not been sanctified by their deaths?  I struggle with making this analogy, and yet it’s clear that these persons have not died in vain.  They are not mere victims, but rather they cry to us to live life fully and reverently, and to pursue justice so that others might not suffer as they did.  I have been touched, and many others have as well, by the story of these deaths.   The image of Victoria Soto, a young teacher, offering her life for her students resonates with me.  This isn’t mere ritual, it’s a life given fully for others.  That is the message that’s present here in Hebrews speaking of Jesus, in whom we are sanctified, and its one we carry into the Christmas season.

            In the Gospel of Luke, Mary, now pregnant, decides to take a trip to see her kin – Elizabeth, who also is pregnant.  Their situations are very different.  One is young and not yet married, but is with child.  The other is – at least in that day – old and beyond child-bearing years, but she too is with child.  Mary greets Elizabeth and at that moment the baby – John – residing in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.  Elizabeth is inspired by the Holy Spirit – that presence of God that is so defining to Luke’s message – and she speaks prophetically:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you bear!” (vs. 42). 

Something of the Advent-Christmas relationship is present in this exchange.    Elizabeth is Mary’s forerunner, even as John is the forerunner of Jesus.  Elizabeth prepares the way for the one who believes the promises of God, so that the promises of God might be fulfilled.  You could say that Elizabeth is too modest, but in the course of this story, one gives way to another so that God’s way can be revealed and lived into.  The lectionary gives options.  You can stop with verse 45 and simply focus on the exchange between the two women.  There’s much here to consider, but the lectionary gives the opportunity to go on to hear Mary’s own prophetic response.  The Magnificat invites us to envision the realm of God, where the powerful are brought low and those at the bottom are lifted up.  Yes, the vision of Micah is expressed in the song of Mary, which declares:   

 “My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.       

The time is at hand.  The question posed is simple – are you ready?  Are you ready to follow the one who emerges from the insignificant city of Bethlehem, the city that according to Matthew a tyrannical pretender to David’s throne, seeks to protect his power by slaughtering the innocents.  “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! . . . O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.  We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.”

[i] John M. Buchanan, “Fourth Sunday of Advent” in Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year CEdited by Dale P. Andrews, et al, (Louisville, WJK Press, 2012); pp.26-27  

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