December 21, 2012 Comments Off on Scripture Reflection Luke 1:39-45: Belief And The Baby Womb Party
I flew home to California this week. To be honest, the visit was less convenient than absolutely necessary. I’ve been thrown for a few loops this fall. I needed home, so I informed my work, booked my flight, and flew (fled) to my parents’ house.
Throughout the week, I read over the Scripture assigned for today’s reflection. Let me fill you in. Elizabeth has recently conceived a son, the future John the Baptist, and Mary has also just been told by the angel Gabriel that, despite being a virgin, she will soon give birth to the Son of God. Verses 39-45 find Mary in the hill country of Judea, where she has traveled to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Mary goes to greet Elizabeth, and at the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. As the Scripture reads, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus and John find themselves in each other’s physical presence for the first time. Mary and Elizabeth are elated. Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” It’s like a little baby womb party.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s husband cannot speak. A consequence of questioning the angel Gabriel’s prophesy — “How can I be sure of this?” Zechariah had asked. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” Gabriel was having none of that. “Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Notice that Gabriel did not say, because of your disbelief you will no longer receive a son. John the Baptist was meant to come into this world, whether Zechariah believed it or not.
What I love most about the simultaneity of John and Jesus’ conception stories is that it’s as if God foresaw not just Zachariah’s disbelief, but also the disbelief of the people of Nazareth and Judea, and finally the disbelief of future generations — the readers of the text. You and me. We needed not one miracle, but two. Reading Mary and Elizabeth’s stories side by side, I was struck by a very worldly thought. It would have been easy to doubt the validity of an immaculate conception in Mary. But we cannot, by any reasonable means, say the same of Elizabeth. Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. Elizabeth was unable to conceive. This was a well known fact in their town, as Elizabeth states, “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” Not just one immaculate conception, but two. Not just a young woman who may or may not have prematurely slept with her fiance, but an old woman who literally could not have a baby. Still filled with disbelief?
The fact that all will come to fruition despite Zachariah’s disbelief gives me peace. As one of my favorite pastors, Timothy Keller has said, nothing we do can determine God’s plan. Yes, we have free will, and yes, our choices matter, but they don’t determine the future. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Book IV of Meditations, “Fret not thyself. Has something befallen thee? It is well. Everything that befalls was from the beginning destined and spun for thee as thy share out of the Whole.”
Before I got on the plane to return to New York, my mother looked at my face, my worry, and said, “Things will get better.” I don’t doubt that she is right. What I doubt is my ability to believe. Will my mouth be silenced like Zachariah’s until the time comes where God has fulfilled his purpose in me? Or will my spirit leap for joy at the knowledge that God is working all for the good of those who love him?
Very seldom do we get a glimpse of how God works. The story of advent is more than a glimpse. It is a ripped open, naked, glorious vision of a God who is in control. Whether I believe it now or not, God is working. But how much sweeter, and what joy will I find, if I can finally set aside my doubts and worries, the anxiety that has held me down these last few months, and finally, believe.
– Rachel Hurn
December 14, 2012 Comments Off on Scripture Reflection — Luke 3:7-18: If Today You Hear God’s Voice, Harden Not Your Heart
Our Gospel Lesson for Sunday Advent 3 is Luke 3:7-18, the old chestnut of John the Baptist addressing the “crowds that came out to be Baptized”.
I have a confession: people specifically, the unwashed public up close in crowds, repel me. In March I began a job working in what I refer to as Tourist Zone 2, in the shadow of the Tiffany star at 57th and 5th, just south of Central Park South and The Plahza. Having to maneouver my way through “children laughing and people passing meeting smile after smile” while I’m trying to get from my crowded train, around two construction sites, the Apple Store and lines of rickshaws on the way to my office every morning is an object lesson in prayerful meditation during my Advent practice. I do love people in general, however, and what fascinates me most about them in the abstract is what they pray about and what they pray for, and what they think about and what they say out loud.
An hilarious thing to me in this vein is when I used to watch one of my girlfriends at my old job go COMPLETELY berserk because she would ritually give work to one particular department at the firm and they would ritually COMPLETELY mess the project up requiring her to do the whole project all over again herself. You would think after a couple of times, let alone every time for my eleven years with her, it would cease to be a surprise and become an expected behavior, yet each and every time she would become exasperated all over again in new and exciting ways, together with tried and true rants, about that department’s incompetence.
I do it myself, especially with my weight gain over the last 11 years. I keep saying, I’m so fat, I’m so out of shape, I need to lose this weight, one of these days … Backstory: I was in a miserable job, I ate and drank my feelings and now, 60 pounds overweight, I keep saying, UCH ! I’ve GOT to get this weight off … then I think, but it’s Easter, just these few chocolates; oh, it’s Halloween, my yearly Snickers bar (and not many kids came by this year so what am I supposed to do with these leftover Hershey miniatures); dear, here we are at Advent again, I have to make my sister-in-law her favourite holiday cookies. I balance my exercise routine with the substantiation that we live in New York and I walk miles every day, so I must be healthy, plus we don’t have enough money to join a gym; the Ashram is so inconvenient to practice daily … like I can’t practice yoga on my own floor at home, as if I don’t have free On Demand exercise channels, can you imagine MAKING the cookies but not waking up in the middle of the night and have SEVERal, rationalizing it by pretending I have a sleep-eating disorder. Oh, and then there is the daily free leftover catering at work, like I seriously need a brownie and an extra sandwich just because they’re free and have no calories (but I don’t eat the bread, so that’s healthy). As Ethel Roberta Louise Mae Potter Mertz used to say in an exasperated tone, “Honestly, Lucy”.
I’m (obviously) no scholar, but I was learned [sic] that between the writing of 4th Maccabees (≈19 B.C.E.) and when we presume John began his ministry of baptism (≈26 Anno Domini), the countryside was bursting at the seams with Messiahs. Everyone was looking for Him and it seemed there was one on every corner, so John by the Jordan River was not as much an oddity as we might think. What gave him distinction, however, was a new message: repentance. Metavnoia, μετάνοια, a change of mind, the act of heartily amending with abhorrence one’s past . The system of Jewish ritual since it was handed down from God by Moses afforded propitiation of one’s wrong-doings through ritual sacrifice and the assurance of no guilt from wrong-doings by adherence to these rituals. No concept of remorse, no practice of inner reflection, no sense of personal responsibility for the wrong-doing, just the clearance of the balance sheet through performance of a ritual. John came to announce a new path.
We pronounce the Confiteor during Eucharist and at least twice each day, at morning and at evening prayer, and the words flow so easily from our lips, just like the Lord’s Prayer, but do we mean them? Do we realize what we are saying? Do we examine our hearts and make amends and attempt repentance, a turning away? I’ll tell ya, it would be easier for me to give up one of my two cloaks to a stranger in need sometimes than it is for me to let go of the resentment I feel from an offense I perceive from someone, or to abandon some judgment which brings my heart to hatred for someone, seldom realizing that I must be guilty of the same thing I despise in them or else I wouldn’t know how to recognize it. We are guided by John in our Gospel Lesson to make straight our paths, to prepare the way for the Lord and to lay the foundation of reasonable and just behavior, guiding us to await in joyful anticipation the cleansing fire with which Jesus will baptize us.
“As the people were filled with expectation…” In my very humble opinion, I find The Revised Common Lectionary a bit clumsy this time of year, as it requires us to be very nimble bobbing from nativity narratives to Jesus’ early ministry, a visit with Doubting Thomas and our risen Lord with a side trip to the fiery fields of Armageddon before we dock with shepherds watching their flocks by night. I buoy myself during the season of anticipation by remembering that we’re not just waiting for this grown-up Messiah, or for the return of the Christós; we’re also waiting for the birth of a little baby.
Know what happens when a little baby comes in to your life? I’ve heard stories! Time evaporates. You need to be prepared well beforehand with a cozy sleeping space, food and clothes, toiletries and toys … there’s no time to collect them after baby’s arrival and there certainly is no time for selfish and petty little problems like lack of sleep or the inconvenience of a diaper change or food preparation… the baby needs to be attended to constantly and you need to be in top mental and physical condition or you’ll collapse. (Actually, I’ve also heard stories that no matter how tip top shape you’re in you’re NEVER ready for the first few months of a newborn’s needs.)
It’s all well and good to be bored and wander out to the shores of the Jordan to have an afternoon’s entertainment observing the funny-looking John shouting about the coming of the Lord, but what happens if you listen but you don’t hear. Are they accountable for the content of the sermon? It’s all very lovely to tell people I go to church all the time, but that doesn’t mean I’m paying attention to anything that’s being said and it certainly doesn’tmean I process or practice the words I proclaim during the service. Am I required to act accordingly throughout the week? As Joyce Meyer says, “I can sit in a garage all I want, but that doesn’t make me a car.”
Advent calls us to a season of clarity, expectation, renewal and new birth … not just a season to sing pretty songs and hear pretty stories but a season of preparation, readiness. A chance to cast off our own chaff and blossom as mature grains of wheat to be gathered in to God’s granary lest we be consumed by unquenchable fire, ingesting this call to excellence and heeding the exhortation that we should not rely on the devotions and practices of our past, but be revitalized by a renewed and passionate present so that we are worthy to greet the coming of our Savior, whether his first arrival or his second. Not just to hear John proclaiming the Gospel that whatever I have is so bountiful and sufficient that, if I give some away, grace and bounty will be mine. As he tells the soldiers, I should be satisfied with exactly the blessings I have. And as I tell myself, concentrating on being overweight is not going to lose me weight and “one day I’ll get to that” doesn’t get me fit. Watching my intake, planning and attending to my practice, and steadfast diligence is the key to my success. Isn’t that true for almost everything in life at which we wish to excel?
December 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
- “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
- ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
- make his paths straight.
- Every valley shall be filled,
- and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
- and the crooked shall be made straight,
- and the rough ways made smooth;
- and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
- -Luke 3:1-6
This isn’t exactly a reflection on Luke 3:1-6, a third of which is taken up by a gorgeously overwrought date. It is a reflection on the use of Isaiah in Luke 3:1-6.
I tend to picture John the Baptist as the guy from the Jesus of Nazareth movie, with bangs that cover his eyes, shouting at a noisy mob about how God doesn’t delight in their sacrifices. In fact, eventually Luke will select as John’s first words, “Brood of vipers!” But already, I expect a harsh prophet, because preaching repentance tends to come with a warning, an implied threat: if you do not repent, something bad will happen. For example, you might wake up one day and regret your life. Your relationships might suffer. You might get cut down with an ax or burned with unquenchable fire. Or, and this brings me to Isaiah, you and everyone you know and love might get sent into captivity following the destruction of your city and temple.
So it is striking that in providing his interpretive lens for the sayings of John that follow, Luke does not draw from a prophecy of warning. He draws from the opening of Second Isaiah, which promises the end of exile:
Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.
This is what the voice is urging us to prepare the way for, in an emotional tone that is generous, bordering on giddy: God is going to lead a new Exodus. Not only will the desert be blasted into a highway, but when the poor and needy are thirsty, it will become a pool of water (Is 41:17-18).
What does it mean to prepare a highway for God’s liberation? This question seems like it should lend itself easily to inspiring answers, but John’s ideas are ringing hollow for me today. As Luke describes him, he leaves more questions than answers. Suddenly I wonder if I’ve always simply assumed on some level that I knew what phrases like this – prepare the way, bring about the kingdom, God’s liberation – meant. John might urge us to strip (or cut, or burn) these assumptions from our minds, to be filled with expectation, and to meet Jesus as a new person.
– Aaron Miner