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.
The Second Sunday of Advent brings us more good stories of good news. They are stories particularly about the ones who will come to point to God among us, to messengers to God’s promises, and to those proclaiming the one who is to come. As we also journey through this Advent season, in place of the Psalm the next few weeks we receive words of praise and proclamation about what God is up to from Luke. This week we hear Zechariah’s song about John the Baptist. Let’s take our readings in order.
The first lesson appointed for this week comes from the prophet Malachi. We read, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years” (Malachi 3:1-4, NRSV).
We hear from Malachi some about what it is that God will do and might be up to. We hear first of all that God is sending God’s messenger to prepare the way. To our Advent ears, surely this sounds like a foretelling of John the Baptist. To the ears of those hearing, perhaps they imagine one who will come to proclaim that the Messiah is near. Malachi warns that change will come with the coming of the Messiah. Things will be refined and purified. This means change. It means repentance. Malachi even mentions offerings. The offerings of the people have not been well received of late because of their hearts and sin. Malachi foresees a day when that will change and “the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord…” This is good news. I also think it is good news that we know the rest of the story- that our offerings will no longer be a sacrifice toward salvation, but a joyful and grateful response for it being a pure gift and grace. That can only happen though with and through the one who is to come that Malachi is proclaiming and pointing to the messenger who will come to herald the Lord’s coming. So yes, there is good news here, and possibly even some nuggets related to stewardship.
In place of a psalm this week we read, sing, and hear from Zechariah in the hymn now known as the “Benedictus.” Zechariah proclaims: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’” (Luke 1:68-79, NRSV).
Such good words about what God has done, will do, and promises to do for God’s beloved. Zechariah gives thanks and praise for God. For how God “has looked favorably” on God’s people and “redeemed them.” For God “has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house” of David as spoken through the prophets, and has remembered the covenant that God made. This recollection of God’s story, and proclaiming of God’s story is an integral part of Advent as we wait, we watch, we prepare, and we wonder what it is that God might be up to now and next. We know what God has done and what God will do for the sake of God’s beloved. Zechariah has seen and experienced this promise too, and so he is filled with joy at being able to speak again and to share such good news. Add in the fact that he is able to proclaim to his own son John- what his name will be, John, and the great call that God has entrusted him with, no doubt fills him even more with joy, gratitude, and wonder and awe.
This proclamation echoes the words from Malachi we hear in our first lesson. Zechariah is connecting the dots as says, “And you, child will be called the prophet of the most high; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” This is God’s work. This is a holy calling. And John will certainly follow it. It’s one though that from the get go, as joyful as it is, it’s obvious that it won’t be easy. Anytime one has to admit sin means naming sin, calling for repentance, and offering forgiveness. How many people like to admit they are wrong and that they have sinned? And how many people then like to change and repent once they realize that fact? Now take that answer and turn that into the life’s work of John, and you might see why John’s message wasn’t always well received. None the less in this Advent season we too echo the words of Zechariah and join in his song, like is quoted too in our Morning Prayer (Matins) service liturgy in the hymnal. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Because of God’s love and mercy, we follow as disciples and serve as stewards, who are guided in the darkness to give light, and to walk in the ways of peace.
How can we not help but give thanks for this? And that’s precisely what the Apostle Paul does in his writing to the people of Philippi that we hear in our second lesson. Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:3-11, NRSV).
I have to admit, I love these words from Paul and have used them before to shape stewardship themed letters, giving invitations, and more. I mean how could you not quote such good words of gratitude? “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for al of you, because of your sharing in the gospel…” In the work of the whole church, this sums up at least part of our relationship of being in the larger Body of Christ together. This sums up the relationship of congregation and congregation, of congregations and their synods or ajudicatories, and of denominations at large. So, if you are reading this and you are part of the Nebraska Synod, know that this true for me too of how I feel about you and your congregations. I thank my God every time I remember you. Thank you, and know that you are in my prayers with great joy and gratitude for all of the work you do as disciples, and stewards. For the work you do of being part of God’s work and mission now. For the risks and experimentation you take, as you innovate and follow God’s holy calling. For the way you share the good news of the Gospel through all that you say and all that you do.
I pray too, as we move into the month of December where gifts might be made, and people buy and sell and prepare, that through whatever you do, may “your love overflow more and more” as Christ’s love being shared with those near and far through you, for you, and with you. Perhaps using this passage this week as an invitation to offering, or as a stewardship emphasis amid Advent and the upcoming Christmas season, or perhaps more simply, just referring to it in your own gratitude for your whole congregation may be a powerful and timely move in your context.
Finally, our Gospel lesson for this second week of Advent moves back from where we were last week with Jesus closer to death than birth and of the end times pondering, to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the work of the one who would come before him. We skip really from Zechariah’s song to the new-born John, to a more grown up John in the wilderness now living out his faithful calling many years later. We read, “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, NRSV).
Luke gives us the context of the where, when, etc. Then we hear that the Word of God has come to John, the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Which sits so well in quoting the prophet Isaiah. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…'” Many an Advent hymn and cantata has quoted these words of Isaiah like Luke. They are powerful. They set the stage well and elicit wonder and imagination about what God might be up to or bringing about. I wonder, in this Advent season- how do we prepare the way of the Lord? How do we help lift valleys, lower mountains, and turn obstacles into possibilities for equity, equality, and inclusion? For when we do this work, when we join with God in some of this work, and follow God’s call and invitation, I sincerely believe we might just see a glimpse of God’s kingdom breaking into the world. We might too, just see a glimpse of “the salvation of God” at hand. Either way, I give thanks for John for answering the call that God has placed on him, and for his work of proclaiming, baptizing, and calling for repentance. Let us indeed join with him in preparing the way.
Sunday December 5 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- Second Sunday of Advent (Narrative Year 4: Week 13)
Narrative Theme: Ezekiel: Valley of Dry Bones
Focus Passage: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Gospel Verse: John 11:25-26
The Narrative Lectionary moves closer still to the close of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, and the beginning of the New Testament. This week we find ourselves in Ezekiel with the famous story we might all recall from Sunday School about the dry bones. It’s not one that I remember at all hearing in an Advent context, but perhaps it brings a new light and possibility to the words and message of this text by hearing this story during the Advent season? Let’s see what we sense. We’ll take the story in two parts.
We read, “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (Ezekiel 37:1-7, NRSV).
God is up to something in this story. That’s often especially the case when we sense “the spirit of the Lord” is blowing and present. So when we hear God say, “Mortal, can these bones live?” It sure sounds like an invitation for God to not only be up to something, but to be about to do a new thing that only God can do. Like causing breath to enter and bringing life out of death. This God’s saving work, which God will bring about. In an Advent sense, this is good news of who and or what God might be inviting or up to and what God will do for God’s beloved in the not too distant future. God will make a way where there was no obvious way. And salvation will be at hand.
So what happened in this story? Ezekiel prophesied and suddenly, bones came together. God was indeed up to something. Ezekiel continues, “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:8-14, NRSV).
It almost reads like God is trying to pull a fast one here, or test Ezekiel to the point where he will finally say, “God, go home. You’re nuts.” But Ezekiel doesn’t do that. He does as God commands. Life comes through God’s breath. The breath of the Holy Spirit like we know of in the Pentecost story. The life giving breath that moves over creation and provides life at the very beginning of Genesis. The breath and life that provides hope, new ideas, imagination, wonder, and a new thing to spring forth. The breath that restores life and will restore life for all of God’s people. In this light then, these words from Ezekiel seem very appropriate for Advent, don’t they?
When we hear God say, “I am going to open your grave, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…” we know to believe it. Because we know the rest of the story. That salvation is at hand. That Emmanuel is with us. That life abundant and abiding comes through God’s deep love for all of God’s own. This good news is timely for us in our Advent journeys. It invites us to imagine what God might be up to now and next. So in that spirit, perhaps in your preaching you might ponder with your community, “What might God be up to now here? What might God be inviting next?”
I wonder what the answers would be to those questions in your congregation. I’d love to hear what you hear about them, and how new life comes through God’s breath that fills all of God’s beloved and creation.
Just as Ezekiel prophesied to the bones that were dry and the people were raised to new life, Jesus makes that claim clearly especially in the gospel of John. The suggested gospel verse pairing this week comes from John 11:25-26 and really needs no introduction. We read that, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26, NRSV).
On this second Sunday of Advent, it is good to hear the words of promise like those that Jesus says about being “the resurrection and the life.” I wonder too, if we might take his question to heart that he asks the woman, “Do you believe this?” If we put this question in conversation with questions like “What might God be up to now here?” and “What might God be inviting next?” I can’t help but wonder what kind of rich things we might see, hear, and experience. I hope and pray that you are able to open these questions up widely this week with your congregation and that you are filled with hope, wonder, and anticipation like me.
Whatever story or stories capture your minds, whatever questions you may be wrestling with, may God’s love, presence, and promise be with you this week and proclaimed and shared through you for all of God’s beloved. -TS