Enjoy these reflections about this week’s appointed stories from the revised common and narrative lectionaries, with potential insights about discipleship, mission, innovation, and stewardship.
Happy New Year! The beginning of Advent heralds the beginning of a new church year, a new journey through a different gospel, and grounding ourselves in the Incarnate truth and love of God in Christ. As we do typically in the first week, we kind of continue the themes of the scriptures of the late lectionary year, with some apocalyptic and end time themes in the gospel. This builds on the “now and not yet” in-breaking of God’s kingdom which is part of our Advent journey, and a call to remember our Emmanuel- God with us. As we do each week, let’s take the stories in order and sense and share what we observe.
Our first lesson this week comes from the prophet Jeremiah chapter 33. Jeremiah proclaims, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (Jeremiah 33:14-16, NRSV).
Jeremiah here is proclaiming what God will do. There are words of prophecy and promise here. Good words for the beginning of Advent, and a reminder that God will do a new thing. God “will fulfill the promise” that God made. God “will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” All of this will happen because of the name, “The Lord is our righteousness.” We are made right with God by God. Not by anything we do for ourselves or by ourselves. This is such an important reminder and basic theological tenant which seems lost in secular and American Christianity. We have made this all about ourselves, rather than recognizing that it is God at work and we are called to join in and respond. But first and foremast, it is God who does the saving work. Not because of what we do. Not because of how much we believe, because if that is what matters, then faith has become a work in and of itself. No, I take this lesson as very good news needed in our world today.
As I write this I am sitting in the tensions between grief, wonder, sadness, and hope. Amid the tension of verdicts in certain trials in our country, the senseless violence and death in Wisconsin at a Christmas parade this past evening, and the hope of families being able to gather safely for Thanksgiving even amid an on-going pandemic. There is so much going on. To hear again these words about God’s promises and work for us from Jeremiah is a balm and blessed way to start anew this Advent season, and to wonder about what it is that God might be up to and inviting on the horizon.
Psalm 25 is a familiar one. Perhaps not as memorized as Psalm 23, nor as directly related to stewardship as Psalm 24, but is well known all the same. It begins with verse 1 which if you are like me may have you singing a camp or more contemporary worship style song, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul…” The psalmist sings, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees” (Psalm 25:1-10, NRSV).
This familiar psalm reminds us of who God is and whose we are. It reminds us of God’s presence, promise, and work of salvation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It also has rich words for our lives as disciples and stewards. We follow and live as disciples as we “lift up our soul” and trust in God. As disciples we pray and dwell and learn hoping to join with the psalmist in asking God to “Make me to know your ways” to “teach mea your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me.” We do all this because we know what and who God is. God is the God of our salvation. The God of life itself. Creator, sustainer, and savior. We ask God to forgive us our sins and transgressions, appealing to God’s promises and steadfast love and faithfulness. And we do so in trust and hope, that by being made right with God by God, we might lean more fully into our relationship with God and neighbor that we are changed and we are enveloped in and embody God’s love. In a lot of ways these simple but powerful 10 verses of Psalm 25 encapsulate so much of our faith together. For in this the why we do what we do, and the who and whose we are, are articulated so well. Our role then as disciples and stewards comes in response to this, and particularly in response to all that God has done, will do, and promises to do for us.
You knew I couldn’t help but notice in the psalm that there’s a stewardship perspective, didn’t you? Well to that end, Paul continues that thread of gratitude and a sense of stewardship in our second lesson in 1 Thessalonians 3. The Apostle Paul writes, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, NRSV).
I kind of wish Paul would have just stopped at ‘How can we thank God enough?’ Because that’s a faithful question with an answer that is simply- we can’t. But we lean in with our fullest selves- with all that is entrusted to our care by God to give thanks and praise with joy and gratitude for all that God has done, will do, and promises to do. And to lean fully in with all the gifts entrusted to our care, to join with God in some of God’s on-going work in the world today to care for neighbors, strangers, all of God’s beloved children and creation. But even though Paul kept going, I think it’s fair to emphasize the stewardship lens of this passage both as it pertains to the start of Advent but also to the weekend (at least in the United States) of Thanksgiving and even Giving Tuesday to come (on Tuesday November 30).
Nonetheless, Paul does keep going. The sense of joy and gratitude is real. And Paul gives us language reminding us all that it is God who is at work and makes this all possible. It is God who guides and shows the way and invites us to walk in it. And it is God who increases all of the harvest, and who abounds in love for all of God’s beloved children. This is good news. And as Paul writes, he does so with the hope that he is strengthening the faithful with a sense of anticipation of the coming of Lord Jesus. This now and not yet sense of Christ’s presence and God’s kingdom which enfolds and which we remember and celebrate in this Advent season. The language here is rich for situating ourselves in God’s story, but also for leaning into hope and promise in our current context.
Our Gospel story this week, for this first Sunday of the new church year, in year C of the three-year lectionary cycle comes from the Gospel of Luke as it will for the majority of the year ahead. We find ourselves far into the book in chapter 21 where Jesus offers a series of signs and lessons about the Son of Man and the times to come. We’re picking up themes we heard from the Gospel of Mark a couple of weeks ago, and they carry over from the end of Year B to the beginning of Year C. We’ll take the gospel in three small chunks this week.
Jesus says about the coming of the Son of Man that, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28, NRSV).
Depending on my mood in hearing these verses I am either drawn to the Advent hymn “Rejoice, Rejoice Believers!” Or am in fear and trembling about the change, unknown, and even potential destruction to come. Today I’m leaning more into the hope where as Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” We could easily “faint from fear” as Jesus describes, but today I’m hopeful. Because what Jesus is describing is God’s work of redemption, reconciliation, and salvation coming into being. The work of the Kingdom of God breaking-in for the sake of all of God’s beloved and creation. People for generations since Jesus (and even before) have tried to interpret signs of the end and pointing to distress, famine, war, etc. But the truth is, those things exist now and they existed when Jesus was on the earth and they existed before his incarnation. That doesn’t justify them, but it puts them into perspective. The Kingdom of God is actively breaking into the world. We join with hope that the coming of the Son of Man might also mean that pain and crying will be no more, famine and hunger will be no more and all will be fed, wars will cease, and the other hopeful words we have heard the last few weeks especially from Revelation might come into being. As we do this, we acknowledge too that this is God’s work and not our own.
To explain further (or quite possibly confuse further), Jesus then tells the disciples a parable about the fig tree. Luke writes, “Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:29-33, NRSV).
Jesus is offering encouragement here. Pointing to signs of God’s kingdom building work all around God’s people and among and for creation. Jesus is proclaiming again that “the kingdom of God is near.” Whether that is hopeful or frightening, Jesus is also offering words of promise about God in Christ’s presence with and for God’s people. He says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Things will change. Our very conception of church and the way things are in the world all around us, will change. But God in Christ’s promises to be with us, for us, and to love us, do not. That’s good news to cling to, especially amid uncertain and anxious times that we might be living in.
Finally, Jesus calls on the people and the disciples to “be on guard.” He calls them to the Advent theme to “keep awake,” to “watch” and “be ready.” As he says elsewhere no one except God knows when these things will happen and take place, but we are called to be alert and hopeful- mindful of God’s promises and presence, and also present in our world now. Jesus says, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36, NRSV).
Jesus calls us to “be on guard” and “be alert.” But more so, he calls us to pray. He calls us to lean into our lives as disciples to pray that God’s will be done, but also so that life may go well for our neighbors, loved ones, and strangers- for all of God’s beloved and creation. We’re not in this experience alone. We’re part of a great cloud of witnesses and a Body of Christ. Together, we are called and invited into this life as God’s people. As we enter into this Advent time, perhaps this is a timely invitation this year to be intentional in whatever way that means for you. Perhaps this is an invitation too, to open ourselves up and hear God’s story with new and fresh ears, and to wonder, given what we see and experience all around us, what it is that God might be up and what God might be inviting us into as part of God’s kingdom building work and love here and now.
Sunday November 28, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- First Sunday of Advent (Narrative Year 4: Week 12)
Narrative Theme: Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles
Focus Passage: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
Gospel Verse: John 14:27
The Narrative moves along through the prophets this week to Jeremiah. Last week on Christ the King Sunday, we heard words which might have sounded very Advent like. We hear these words too which might as well as we officially enter the Advent season now. The reading in the narrative comes to us in chapter 29 and we’ll take it in three sections.
Chapter 29 begins, “These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:1, NRSV). There’s not too much to report here in terms of stewardship, discipleship, or mission. But there is helpful context for sensing where we are in God’s story and as part of God’s on-going story this week. God’s people are in exile. Things are not as they ideally might be, nor as they once were. This is not a new experience for the people of Israel as we know well.
To this Jeremiah tries to provide words of hope, assurance, challenge and promise from God to God’s people. We continue reading in verse 4. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:4-9, NRSV).
God calls God’s people to live, and to live well. There’s words of hope, presence, and promise in this. There is also a message of abundance and a reminder that God provides for God’s beloved abundantly and God abides with them and is present with them. God wants life to go well. Thus God says, “build houses and live in them, plants gardens and eat what they produce.” God calls God’s own to be in relationship to “take wives” and “have sons and daughters,” and to “multiply there, and do not decrease,” living into the covenant promise that God made to Abraham. This is good news. But it is not all that God has to say.
God also says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” God has sent God’s own into exile. But also God is calling God’s people to pray for their community and all those they are with outside of their faith community too. God calls us, each of us today to do likewise. To pray for our world. To pray for our neighbors and strangers. To be in relationship with one another, as signs and presence of God’s abundant and abiding love here and now. We are called to be present and active in our world today. Not to close ourselves off, but to care for those around us recognizing that God has entrusted us with what we need to meet our neighbor’s needs and to share the Good News of God with all of God’s beloved.
It would seem that some have been getting in the way of this message. So whether it’s Jeremiah projecting or claiming God’s authority, or God directly doing so, we hear about others claiming to speak for God, “it is a lie, that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them.” Woe to those who speak falsely. This is an important reminder to each of us in ministry and authority, that we are entrusted with our calls and roles believing that the Holy Spirit equips and God calls us to this work. But woe to us if we think we know what we are doing without listening to God and following God and being honest enough to admit when the path forward is not clear. And woe to us all in the world today, for when we think we hear the voice of a way forward from someone who really doesn’t know of what they speak, or who is claiming to be of God but whose actions are clearly not. There’s caution to be had in this story, but also a reminder that we are called to be in relationship. That discernment happens in community in congregations and as families and people, together. Through that discernment is perhaps the best way to figure out when something is of God and something may not be spoken of God.
Jeremiah continues, “For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:10-14, NRSV).
God reiterates God’s promises, but also acknowledges some more of the covenantal language which has been added. God will bring God’s people back, but only after… Even with that good and hard news, there is good news in God’s declaration, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” If there was ever a verse for the start of Advent, this might be it. What God is up is to bring to creation and fruition welfare for God’s people but also, “a future with hope.” Amid all that is happening in the world, amid clergy shortages and despair among some faith communities about what might be next, God is still saying that God will provide and “give you a future with hope.”
God also reiterates God’s promises of presence in this. “When you search for me, you will find me.” And God reiterates provision. Not in a theology of glory or prosperity gospel sense, but in an acknowledgement that God will return God’s own to the world and to their space and property in writing, “I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all that nations…” It is God who will do this. Not you. Not me. And through God then, we can interpret this as meaning that God will also reconcile all the nations. (Yet another famous Advent theme.)
With these words of good news from the prophet, it is suggested that the gospel verse be shared from John 14:27. Where Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27, NRSV). Jesus is offering an assurance of peace. He is reminding that he does not give and provide as the world might think or does. That’s true for God in general. God provides and God does abundantly. In God’s kingdom scarcity is not real. It’s a human made lie which is the result of sin. And in these words Jesus also calls us to “not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” He is saying again basically, “Do not be afraid.” Yet another reminder that God is present with us in the midst. That God is active and up to something for God’s own. And that God loves us, is with us, and is for us.
All of this is Good News for us this day and for the start of this Advent season.
Whatever story or stories capture your imaginations, may God’s love and promise be with you as you begin a new church year and your Advent journey. May you proclaim God’s love and promises through all that you say and do. Happy Advent! -TS