Thursday, December 30, 2010

Past Present Future

This First Sunday in the New Year is also the Second Sunday of Christmastide (i.e. the 12 Days of Christmas!) and the Sunday that can be celebrated as Epiphany, the day of the Wise Men's visit to Jesus and the revelation of Jesus not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles (traditionally observed on January 6, which this year falls on a Thursday). The readings for this day remain fairly consistent every year: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12...stories of light, mystery, and strange visitors from far away. You can read them here.

So as we finish up our Advent/Christmas Series on time, perhaps no passage in its very word choice asks the question of "What Time Is It?" more than the appointed Old Testament reading for Epiphany from Isaiah 60. Now, I confess that I do not know a lot of Hebrew; but one of my regular sermon preparation practices is to read each passage in several different translations. All it took was reading this passage in a couple of different English translations to raise questions for me about time. This passage would have gotten slaughtered by any of my English teachers in high school because the writer could not seem to pick a consistent verb Isaiah speaking of something present, or past, or future? The passage seems to switch randomly between times, often not being clear enough on verb tense for translators to agree on whether the prophet was referencing something that had already happened, is presently happening, or will happen at some time in the future.
Check out this parallel with translations in the NRSV and the NIV: I highlighted what appear to be future verbs in purple (though these appear to just be kind of boldfaced here, I guess), and present verbs in orange. You can see that this is a bit of a mess:
As we enter this day of closing out the Christmas season and moving into the Epiphany season of celebrating the revelation of God in Christ, this conjunction of times and tenses brings up a series of interesting questions for people of faith, questions that can help shape our seeking and living in a new year. What has already happened in Christ, and what are we still waiting for? What has God already done, and what do we need to implore and watch for God yet to do? This passage from the Old Testament was at least partially fulfilled through Christ, yet anyone who observes our world knows that all nations of the earth are not yet praising in one accord the Lord. So how do we live in this strange meantime, caught somewhere between fullfillment and really full full-fillment? Are we to live waiting on things that are yet to come, or in light of what God has already shown? Can we live both ways? How do we live in the now while also living towards the not-yet? These are questions we need to visit again and again...because they go to the heart of the great tension of living in the upside-down kingdom of God that has already come among us in Christ, but that is seeking now to break in once again.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It Makes Me Wonder...

This week we get two sets of lectionary texts: one for Christmas Eve, and one for the First Sunday in Christmastide. Our readings for Friday night are Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20 and can be found here. Our readings for Sunday are Isaiah 63:7-9, Hebrews 2:10-18, and Matthew 2:13-23 and can be found here.

Our Gospel readings for Christmas Eve and the first Sunday in Christmas (that's right--Christmas is more than a day, it's a whole season! Ever heard of the 12 days of Christmas? December 25 to January 6=Christmastide...this celebration is by no means over) show us two very different sides of Jesus' birth: the way it is announced, and the way it is responded to and received. Both of these sides are peculiar...the only ones who get Jesus' birth announcement are some shepherds in a field and a few scholars who happened to be paying attention to the night sky. The only ones who recognize what is going on enough to respond are those shepherds and magi, as well as chronically insecure King Herod--and they react in vastly different ways.

A great observation was made in the title song to the musical "Jesus Christ, Superstar": If you'd come today you would have reached a whole nation, Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication. Maybe this is a silly thing to consider when reading a story as significant as the Christmas story, but it makes me wonder...
If Jesus were born today, in this age of mass communication even beyond what "Jesus Christ, Superstar" could have imagined, how would God have shared the good news? Would God have sent out one of the nice photo birth announcements like the one at right to everyone God knew...meaning, I guess, to everyone? Would God have posted pictures on Facebook, or notified all God's followers on Twitter using 140 characters or less? With new technologies available, would God have changed the way God announced this birth so that more people could find out quickly?

Part of me hopes not. Because, though it seems incredibly inefficient, part of what I love about the announcement of Jesus' birth is how intimate it God is giving this gift to the whole world, but it is being unwrapped (or seen wrapped in its swaddling clothes, more accurately) by just a few witnesses whose testimony will become part of how God shares the good news of love and grace. After all, God could have unleashed those angels on all of Bethelehem...all of Israel, for that matter...but for some reason, God didn't: God chose a quiet way, a particular way, and God chose to involve other humans in the announcement. I think there must be something to that...enough to ponder for many future Christmases.

Then, I look at the contrasting reactions to the birth of the Christchild. On one hand we have the shepherds--the lowliest of society--trying to outrace each other to see who can get to the baby first. On the other hand we have a king--the most powerful of society--terrified by this new bundle of alleged joy, a bundle he fears could grow up to threaten his security and power. This baby is such a threat that Herod kills who knows how many innocents just to protect himself. I wonder how we would respond if we got news that this promised king was born among us this day...would we trip over each other trying to get to him with haste...or scurry to insulate ourselves from anything that might uproot our worlds...or, worse yet, would we fail to respond at all?

The questions of the first Christmas remain potent more than 2000 years later: the technologies have changed, but our God hasn't...and nor, it certainly seen, has human nature. Jesus comes again among us...silently...without much flash or dazzle...often unrecognized. Will we respond with joy or with fear? And will we be aware enough to respond at all?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lost in Translation (or, perhaps, Found)

Our Lectionary Texts for this final Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25, and Romans 1:1-7. Read them here as we prepare for our final days of preparation.

Here's the dilemma of this week's readings: I hate it when people take scripture out of context and try to bend it to whatever point they're trying to make. It's one of my pastoral pet peeves...always pay attention to the context, people. Though they have rich applications for life today and can still be faithful guides, these texts were originally written for specific communities in specific times, and we have to approach them always with this in mind.

So what do we do, then, when one biblical writer seems to misquote and take out of context another biblical writer? It makes me squirm a little...but that seems to be what Matthew is doing in quoting the now-famous and much-debated prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 within the narrative of his gospel.

Isaiah had a very specific context in mind when he offered this sign to Ahaz more than 700 years before the birth of Christ. The original Hebrew of this passage reads something like this: "Here, the young woman is pregnant, and is giving birth to a son. She will call his name Emmanuel, meaning 'God with us.' And before this child is three or four, these two kings you presently live in fear of will have been dethroned." Matthew, apparently drawing upon the Greek version of this passage which uses a word that could be translated "virgin" as well as "young woman," takes the liberty (prompted again by the Greek) of projecting this passage out of the present tense into the future, saying this virgin (now understood as Mary) "will give birth," and claims this son, too, will be called "Emmanuel"--even though the angel, clearly, had just told Joseph to name him not Emmanuel, but Jesus, or "God saves."

So what gives? Is Matthew being a bad interpreter of scripture? If so, Lord help us all.
But I don't think he is. Perhaps what Matthew is doing is reinterpreting Isaiah in light of God's new one expected any further fulfillment to Isaiah's prophecy, you see. That Emmanuel had been born, the years had passed, and the kings had gone down just like Isaiah said they would. The prophecy was over. But here we see God doing something unexpected...that prophecy had been fulfilled, but perhaps it has not yet been full-filled, if you get what I mean. That child was named "God with us"; but here is a child who actually is "God with us." Now it's not just a young woman, but a virgin--the prophecy is taken a step further. And now it's not just two kings who will be deposed, but all the kingdoms of the world will be superceded by this baby who is himself a king, one introducing a new sort of kingdom that will have no end.

Perhaps what Matthew is doing here is not interpretive unfaithfulness; perhaps he is doing the most faithful thing an interpreter can do with a text: seeing the God who is lurking behind it and animating it, and imagining how God might, again and again, do a new thing that no one expects. It's having the imagination to dream of new ways that God's promises might be even fuller in the future than they were in the past. I really like how commentator Fred Gaiser described such imaginative dream work:

"It takes a daring reinterpretation to make this one work. The word of God is not a simple prediction that will "come true" in a latter day or an equation to be solved to get one final answer-it is a living word that kills and makes alive in every generation, always needing to be proclaimed anew, always carrying both continuity and surprise: continuity in God's steadfast love and mercy, which never change; surprise in God's enduring penchant to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), which always stirs things up. And now, says Matthew, Jesus is that unexpected new thing: Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, even if they didn't get his name right. The details are not the point; the promise is."

Are we free to dream about the story of God in this way? Or does Matthew need to go back to school and take another class on proper biblical interpretation?
Thoughts on this one welcomed...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Apparently, Spring is Coming

Our Lectionary texts for this Third Week of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-10, Luke 1:46-55 (we get this second gospel text in place of a Psalm, because Mary's song reads very much like one!), and Matthew 11:2-11. Read them here, along with a reading from James that, though fabulous, won't be among our readings this week.

When February rolls around, some people look towards the infamous groundhog to find out if winter is finally over. For me, as a child February's progression meant that, every time I walked out the back door of my family's home, I would peer into the mulchy bed to the right of the steps, straining to see the first glimmer of purple. Usually, right around my birthday at the beginning of March, it would suddenly appear: sometimes poking up through snow, sometimes responding to a burst of warm air, a single crocus--the first visible sign that, apparently, spring was coming...and coming soon.

Isaiah tells us that the crocus' time has come: this crocus strains not through mulch or through ice but through the harsh wilderness landscape of the desert--a rocky land where nothing blooms. Yet here we find not just a single crocus, but crocus(crocuses? croci? Not sure on the plural...) that "blossom abundantly," signaling the unlikely dawn of a new season. It's a day when everything from the physical environment to the human heart will be miraculously transformed, where it's impossible to get lost even if you left your GPS at home--and all because God is here, a God who has been as absent to the people during exile as water is to the desert.

Mary sings of the crocus, too--of another glimpse of what it looks like to be able to say with confidence, "Here is your God." Mary sings of a social order transformed, of oppressed people put on an even playing field, of economic justice, of promises fulfilled--all because of this unexpected baby beginning to kick in her womb, the first signs of a new season in her life and the life of her people.

In prison, however, it's hard to see a crocus--or anything--growing outside of the dark concrete walls. In his cell, John is filled not with song but with one piercing question, the question of one who thought they'd seen spring beginning to dawn but who now can't see a sign of any blessed thing breaking through the ground: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we be expecting someone else?" It is the question of one who has seen his shadow and scurried back into his hole, this life of being a prophet far more difficult than he'd imagined and whose dream Messiah has turned out to be a little slower than his heart had hoped. Nothing was turning out like John had would the crocus ever bloom? Would spring ever come?

It's cold as all get out in Annapolis this week...the time for crocuses to bloom could not feel farther away. But hang in there, friends. If we believe these promises of God...then apparently, spring is coming. And as we ask our heartbreaking questions of that promising God, we might begin to see glimpses of budding miracles of truth: the blind can see, the lame can dance, and the most helpless among us learn God is on their side.

A Parting Poem to reflect on:

"Waiting for It," by R.S. Thomas

in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence
to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end
of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

John the Baptist's Time in the Spotlight

Our scripture texts for this Second Sunday of Advent are a motley crew of beauty and bizareness: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12. Click here to give them a read.

The picture at right is too good not to use, and I figured I probably could not get away with using it as the bulletin cover this week, Lego John the Baptist. As I was searching for a picture of John the Baptist to use on our blog this week this was not the picture I was expecting to come across...but then again, when is John the Baptist ever what we expect? He shows up at the beginning of all four gospels, preparing the way for Jesus...and he shows up in the lectionary for the Second Sunday of Advent every single year...he is Advent's prophet. Yet he always catches me a little off guard and makes me wonder, what is it with this guy? What makes him so significant that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all give him serious face time...that Luke gives us as many details about his conception and birth as he does about Jesus'? What makes this season of Advent a particularly poignant opportunity to pay attention to such an odd character? Why is he the right prophet for this season of preparation? What makes this the right time, to continue our theme, for John to show up and disrupt our lives with his cry of, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near"?

Beyond this plethora of questions about John the Baptist, the other question I had rolling around in my head as I read our texts for this week had to do with all the tree imagery found in these passages. In this season where we put up trees in our homes as a means of preparation, these passages speak of a shoot coming out of a stump, of a root rising to rule over all people...such images of growth and new life are rich in Isaiah and Romans. In Matthew, however, we hear of an axe prepared to chop trees down at their roots, leaving those that don't bear fruit as decimated stump. We hear of cut-down castoffs added as fuel to the fire by a sort of Lumberjack Lord. How do these seemingly contrasting images, powerful in their rich detail, hold together? When we put them side by side, what kind of forest can we make out from these trees?
Good questions for us to ponder as we head into this Sunday...