Tuesday, December 26, 2023

December 31, 2023 -- 1st Sunday after Christmas

                                Biblical Words                            [861] 

Isaiah 61:10-62:3Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7Luke 2:22-40

In the fullness of time God gives joy to those seeking the Consolation of Israel.  

The readings for this Sunday visualize (1) the glorious public appearance of an awaited king with the prolific mother city, (2) the hallelujah choruses of heaven and earth, (3) the human dimension of the fullness of time, and (4) the consummation of hope for the faithful visionaries in Israel

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 

The Prophetic reading opens with the exultant cry of a royal figure who speaks on behalf of true Israel

God in God’s own person has dressed this speaker in “garments of salvation” and a “robe of righteousness.”  This attire is appropriate to the joy and delight of a royal wedding, a time when the groom wears the most glittering headdress and the bride the most luxurious jewels.  This glory in the social and political world is like the outbreak of new growth in fields that are fertile and blessed, and like the luxuriant plantings of well-watered and carefully tended gardens (verse 11). 

As this figure representing Israel is gloriously clad before the nations, so Mother Zion will be revealed to the nations as vindicated from past woes (62:1-3).  For her too, the headdress of royalty will glitter and shine as the Lord puts his arm around her (as it were:  “…in the hand of the Lord,…in the palm [literally] of your God,”62:3).  Zion and Israel, marvelously attired, are re-united in God’s loving care for wife and son.  They will be the ornaments of the time of fulfillment. 

Such is the prophet’s vision of the consolation of Israel

Psalm 148. 

As if beholding the blinding glory of the royal coronation, the Psalm breaks forth in a tumult of Hallelujahs!  (Every occurrence of “Praise …” in the English versions is a translation of the Hebrew hallelu, the plural imperative.  In hallelu-jah, the jah is the shortened form of the divine name Yahwéh.) 

The psalm drives exuberantly through all the reaches of heaven and earth to find entities and creatures to summon to Praise! 

In verses 1-6 the heavenly realms are called upon at large and in detail to hallelu the Lord.  The poet follows the cosmic structure of Genesis 1 and of Psalm 104, so these heavenly powers both extend beyond and encompass what human eyes can see.  After all the unseen heavenly things are summoned, the call goes out to all the stuff more familiar to the human eye. 

As for the earthly realms, their summons to praise (verses 7-12) begins with the exotic creatures of the deep, then goes on to the mysterious places of the sky and the distant horizons with their storehouses of all kinds of weather.  After summoning the mountains, trees, and the animals, both wild and domestic, humans are addressed:  the mighty of the earth, but also the ordinary young men and women.  Let them all hallelu the Lord because of his glory, but also … also because “He has raised up a horn for his people…for the children of Israel who are close to him” (verses 13-14). 

Thus, as the climactic—and almost add-on—thought, the realms of heaven and earth are called to rejoice in something special for Israel.  Because of this newly-revealed glory for Israel, all the world is called to hallelu-jah

Galatians 4:4-7 

The Epistle selection is part of a rather complex theological discussion, but its pertinence to the Sunday after Christmas stands out in the following clauses (NRSV translation): 

·        “when the fullness of time had come…”

·        “God sent his Son, born of a woman…”

·        “born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law…”

The “Fullness of Time” has its meaning in reference to Israel’s covenant history with the Lord, ranging through the promises to Abraham, Moses, and David, and the prophetic messages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the visionary Daniel. 

The phrase “born of a woman” has echoes of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, but primarily affirms that God’s care reaches its embodiment at a fully human level. 

The phrase “born under the law” insists that salvation under the New Covenant is first of all for Israel, coming as the fulfillment of all God’s patient and yearning care for that troublesome and beloved people.  Whatever else Paul had to say about his fellow kinfolks, this priority of Israel in God’s plan of salvation is steadily maintained. 

Luke 2:22-40. 

The most gracious and endearing presentation of the Consolation of Israel is in this Gospel reading.  It is the narrative of the aged ones who have waited so faithfully and persistently to see the salvation of the Lord, the righteous Simeon and the dear prophetess Anna. 

The passage is at pains to make clear that Jesus’ birth was fully in accord with the laws of Moses.  (Strictly speaking, two separate rituals are combined here, the purification of the mother after birth, Leviticus 12, and the presentation of the male firstborn, Exodus 13:2, 11-16.)  From this viewpoint, Jesus was fully an Israelite.  He was duly circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (verse 21, just before our reading), making him a son of the covenant of Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14).  Then, forty days after his birth, he and his mother were brought to the temple for the “purification” and the redemption of a firstborn son. 

In the logic of the sacred rules, the firstborn belonged to God until the father made a sacrifice to redeem it and allow it to live in the ordinary world – an action referred to the sparing of the Israelite firstborn at the time of the exodus (Exodus 13:14-15). 

Though Jesus was fully an Israelite, he was a poor one—economically speaking.  The sacrifice presented by Joseph and Mary for her purification was two pigeons, the sacrifice made by the very poor who could not afford a sheep (2:24, referring to Leviticus 12:8). 

It was while the parents were engaged in the details of fulfilling the law of Moses that Simeon and Anna found them.  By the ordinary work-a-day folks, crowded and busy in the temple precincts, these two old folks must have seemed strange characters from another age.  In the evangelist’s view, however, they are heirs of Israel’s true hope for its time of fulfillment. 

In a poignant moment of prophetic insight, Simeon foresees Jesus’ destiny and the pain that the mother is yet to know.  Speaking to Mary he says, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition... And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (verses 34-35, CEB). 

So, true Israel, in its ancient wisdom, anticipates the agony and disturbance that yet lie between the coming of this little child and the mystery of God’s final salvation!  


Friday, December 22, 2023

December 24, 2023 -- 4th Sunday of Advent

                                                          Biblical Words                                            [859] 

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:47-55Romans 16:25-27Luke 1:26-38. 

God’s promise to David sends a mystery into the world—which could become very intimate and personal. 

The final Sunday in Advent emphasizes the Coming One as a descendant of David, heir to the promises of the Lord that such a descendant would deliver Israel and be their faithful shepherd (see Ezekiel 34:23-24).  

II Samuel 7:1-11, 16. 

This prophetic reading is the prose version of the promise that David will have a perpetual dynasty.  (The main poetic version of this promise is found in Psalm 89:19-37.) 

At ease in his newly-occupied capital (the old city-state of Jerusalem) to which he has just brought the Ark of the Lord (II Samuel 6), David proposes to build in that city a “house of cedar,” that is, a temple residence, for the Lord. 

Through the prophet Nathan, God tells David he has things backward; he will not build God a “house,” God will build him (David) a “house.”  For the moment, says Nathan, God wants not a temple, but a dynasty.  (The temple will come through the son of David, as indicated in the omitted portion of our reading, verses 12-13.)

City, King, and Temple.  As the old Israelite tradition has it, none of these was a part of the original guidance for Israel given by Moses.  (The one exception is that the “Tabernacle” became the pattern for the post-exilic Temple.)  David comes into Israelite history as the shaper of a new order for Israel in the world.  In that new order, Israel will be the dominant power among the surrounding nations, its holy city will be world-renowned, and the blessings of peace will flow from it to all (as in Isaiah 2:2-4). 

The visions of the King and City always reach beyond the limited circuit of Israel’s tribes.  These visions of King and City become cosmopolitan, even universal. 

This “reaching beyond” Israel’s tribal world implants an unceasing tension in Israel’s heritage. 

This tension is between the elect exclusiveness and the royal inclusiveness.  It tends to pit the intimacy of tribal identity against the sovereignty of imperial rule.  It tends to cast the self-sufficiency of tribal fraternity against the shepherding care-of-all by a divinely supported lord.  Ultimately, this tension is between kinship loyalty and the claims of citizenship. 

This new order, the Davidic heritage, is not for the moment only, but for all time.  Our selection concludes, “Your [David’s] house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (verse 16, NRSV). 

Later generations were sure that in some way or another God would keep that promise.  They were sure that, though no native king might, for the time being, be visible ruling a humbled and oppressed Israel or Judah, nevertheless in some secret way a son of David is still in the divine agenda.  In God’s own time that promise – and the Davidic heir – would eventually emerge in some unexpected way, vindicating God’s promise. 

Luke 1:47-55.  

On the Sunday before Christmas, a psalm of David is replaced by the Magnificat of Mary, a hymnic celebration of God’s acting in favor of God’s maid servant and the lowly and hungry who have waited for the Lord. 

There is a small minority of early Latin manuscripts of the New Testament that make this the Song of Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother) rather than Mary’s Song.  But whether Mary or Elizabeth, the feminine voice in the hymn is Zion’s.  It is the voice of the city who was unfaithful to God but has served her time and has now been proclaimed as restored to beauty and motherhood.  The sacred world of the mother-city (metropolis, mater-polis), seen also in Athena, the goddess of Athens, lived on in the poetry (and at one time in the rituals) about Zion as the mother of her population and of her anointed one. 

Mary’s Song, in the voice of Zion, speaks first of the grace given to her, for which the generations will bless her.  God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his [maid] servant”; God “has done great things for me” (verses 48, 49).  God has shown favor to the espoused one, a favor that signals a change in the ways of the world. 

The Song then turns to the status revolution that this favorable action creates for the world at large.  By showing favor to God’s wife/city, to the woman who will give birth to God’s Son,

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

      and lifted up the lowly;
[God] has filled the hungry with good things,
      and sent the rich away empty (verses 52-53, NRSV). 

All of this comforting of the restored mother and reversal of fortunes of the rich and the poor—through all of this God has “helped [God’s] servant Israel, in remembrance of [God’s] mercy” (verse 54), which “mercy” includes God’s promises to David. 

Restoring the City, giving birth to the royal Son—all is done for Israel, though beneficial consequences will also flow over to many nations. 

Romans 16:25-27.  

The Epistle selection is at first sight surprising for this Sunday in Advent.  It is a benediction!  The key to its selection for this day lies in the language used about the proclamation of Jesus Christ:  “…according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed…” 

Advent is about the secret working of God Behind the scenes, through the ages, moves God’s own intention, bringing it about in ways utterly unfathomable to self-occupied people.  The announcement of the good news is definitely NEWS—unfamiliar, unexpected, improbable.  It is the revelation of what was unknown, secret, a “mystery.” 

The corollary of this view of the proclamation of Jesus is that only those “in the know” can realize what is really happening:  heavenly messengers (angels), who may give a “sneak preview” to a bunch of working shepherds, faithful elder folks who have anticipated these events all their lives (see Luke 2:25-38), learned men informed by the wisdom of the ages to look for this special moment (Matt. 2:1-12). 

Paul blesses the God who has revealed in Jesus Christ the mystery of how the promises of the past are being fulfilled now. 

Luke 1:26-38.  

The Gospel selection presents that excruciatingly private and intimate moment of the young girl Mary’s life when she was spoken to by the messenger Gabriel. 

A Little Aside about Gabriel.  Gabriel appears in history as one of the chief heavenly messengers (“angels”) during the Persian period (roughly 550 to 300 BCE).  He appears by name in Daniel 8:16 and 9:21 (and without name in 10:5-11).  In those places he is an interpreter of visions of the future given to the wise dream-interpreter Daniel. 

Gabriel, section from The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Florence, 1415. 
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity School Library. 

Gabriel’s co-worker Michael also appears in Daniel 10:13, 21 and 12:1, where he is the warrior leader staving off the onslaught of the forces of evil.  (Michael also appears in the New Testament in Jude 9 and Revelation 12:7.) 

A full portfolio of the top four heavenly commanders (“angels”) is given in I Enoch 40:8-10 (from around the 1st century CE). 

And after that, I asked the angel of peace, who was going with me and showed me everything that was hidden, “Who are these four faces which I have seen and whose voices I have heard and written down?”  And he said to me, “The first one is the merciful and forbearing Michael; the second one, who is set over all disease and every wound of the children of the people, is Raphael [in Hebrew the name means “El heals”]; the third, who is set over all exercise of strength, is Gabriel [the name means “El is a strong-man”]; and the fourth, who is set over all actions of repentance unto the hope of those who would inherit eternal life, is Phanuel [“face of El”] by name. 

(The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth, [Doubleday, 1983], Vol. I, p. 32; translated from Ethiopic by E. Isaac.)

Back to Mary.  Of all things secret, this interview between the messenger Gabriel and the virgin Mary has to about top the list. 

Only Luke and Matthew tell anything about Jesus’ birth and his virgin mother.  In Matthew’s version of the virginal conception, Mary’s side of the experience is totally absent.  The event is related exclusively from Joseph’s viewpoint.  His experience is of a near-scandal that must be kept as secret as possible.  The virginal conception is exclusively a divine secret, a mystery, at the direct instructions of the (nameless) heavenly messenger in Joseph’s dream (Matthew 1:18-25). 

The story of Gabriel and Mary was written about eight decades after Jesus’ birth, yet it is a touching and personal account of the secret divine action at work. 

There is emphasis on the fact that Mary is a virgin and will bear a child, but there is no direct reference to the prophecy in Isaiah of such a birth.  Here the virginal conception is simply a miracle, similar to those that accompanied the births of other destiny-makers in ancient Israel and the Greek world. 

Judean ethos took great pride in fatherhood and the succession of the male generations, but one parent had to yield to the divine source—and better the father than the mother!  (In Israel, the favorite type of miraculous birth story was infertile women becoming pregnant, and in Greek lore it was common for a male god to impregnate a human female.) 

In Mary’s case, Gabriel declares that, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (verse 35, CEB).  The Holy Spirit is the impregnator rather than a human father. 

Thus was Jesus’ divine origin affirmed.   

When Gabriel talks about the Destiny of this miraculously born child, the emphasis is on the descent from David.  “The Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father.  He will reign over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom” (verses 32-33).  God’s past reign over Israel through the house of David will take place again, after many centuries of apparent defeat and abandonment. 

Whatever God’s future work through Jesus would bring, this tender story presents Mary as the stand-in for the mother-city Zion—and for the coming church.  Down through the ages the faithful of God’s church would echo her modest response to Gabriel:   “I am the Lord’s servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said” (verse 38, CEB). 


Saturday, December 16, 2023

December 17, 2023 -- 3rd Sunday in Advent

                                         Biblical Words                                            [858]

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Those who mourn shall be comforted—by the coming of the Anointed One.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. 

In the Prophetic reading God’s Anointed One speaks. 

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
      because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
      to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
      and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
      and the day of vengeance of our God;
      to comfort all who mourn; …  (verses 1-2, NRSV)

This amazing announcement is the most compelling expression in the Old Covenant of the mission taken up by Jesus the Christ, the mission of the One Anointed by the Holy Spirit.  For early Jesus followers who heard this prophetic passage, the speaker can only be Jesus himself, and so it is affirmed in Luke 4:16-21. 

The Anointed One (in Hebrew “the Messiah”; in Greek “the Christ”), empowered by God’s Spirit, proclaims to the oppressed poor a time of great change, a healing, a “release” (with echoes of Jubilee), most of all a comforting to the mourners.  (The beatitudes in Matt. 5:3-5 are about these people.) 

Our reading is the central portion of a block of prophecy, chapters 60-62, that ecstatically proclaims the restoration of Zion as the glorified center of the nations.  The City of God and the Anointed One of God are the dual foci of the transcendent reality that will be the reign of God among the nations.

The NRSV translation includes “the day of vengeance of our God” (verse 2).  Vengeance” has the wrong associations.  (The TANAK version is, “a day of vindication by our God.”)  God is not getting even; God is setting things right!  This is a time when the falsely or unjustly accused are vindicated by God’s judgment!  The Anointed One comes as God’s vindication of the wrongfully oppressed, of those suffering unjustly from the ways of the world. 

The vindicated people, however, are not only comforted, they will become active.  The recovered people will restore the devastated places:  “they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (verse 4). 

The newly liberated and comforted people are the means of transforming the habitations of humankind. 

And as the passage moves toward its conclusion, the Anointed One anticipates a time of his own glorification as a blessing to the nations: 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

      my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with garments of salvation,
      he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
      and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
      to spring up before all the nations.  (verses 10-11)

Into the dark world in which so many people were mourning came the proclamation of the Anointed One who would bring comfort – and rejoicing. 

Psalm 126.  

The Psalm reading takes us ahead, to the time when in vision the prophecy was fulfilled: 

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion

… then our mouth was filled with laughter,
      and our tongue with shouts of joy” (verses 1-2, NRSV). 

The liberated and comforted people exult in their new blessing: 

The Lord has done great things for us,

      and we rejoiced.  (Verse 3.)   

However, the restored world still exists in the cycle of the seasons, the alternations between anxiety and joy.  In the dry time of the year, anxiety sets in about whether the grain crops will be sufficient for the coming year. 

A prayer for abundant grain harvests parallels the great change of fortunes for Zion. 

The dry land of late autumn, when the sowing time approaches, is like Zion’s old condition.  The fruitful land of early spring, when the harvest is brought in “with shouts of joy,” is like Zion’s new joyful time. 

The emotional tension of the harvest expressed in the Hebrew poetry is caught particularly well by the New Jerusalem Bible translation of verse 6:  

He went off, went off weeping,

      carrying the seed.
He comes back, comes back singing,
      bringing in his sheaves. 

I Thessalonians 5:16-24.  

The selection from the Epistle also regards the time of mourning as past.  The new believers now live in a condition in which there is only the imperative,

“Rejoice always …” 

This is one of a chain of short commands, given as a pastoral closing to the epistle, calling on the new believers in Thessalonica to show in their lives the effects of the great change brought about by faith in Jesus the Christ. 

These people have just recently experienced the beginning of the Great Transformation that the prophetic and psalm passages describe, for the gospel came to them “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5, NRSV). 

As a consequence they should be empowered to

·        live joyfully,

·        prayerfully,
·        thankfully,
·        open to the Spirit and the words of prophecy,
·        advocating the good, and avoiding the evil,

all of which things the apostle urges upon them in quasi-commands (verses16-22). 

Paul then pronounces a benediction on them, emphasizing that the sanctification from God transforms the whole person (spirit, soul, and body) and prepares for the coming (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

But the mini-series of commandments begins with:  Rejoice always! 

John 1:6-8, 19-28.  

The Old Covenant declared that the mourners would be comforted by the coming of the Anointed One.  The Gospel reading speaks about who that Anointed One is—and is not! 

Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, and in year B the lectionary uses John’s Gospel to supplement and complement the readings from Mark.  Thus here the Gospel selection re-tells the witness of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Anointed One, now as given in the Fourth Gospel. 

A man named John was sent from God.  He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light.  He himself wasn’t the light, but his mission was to testify concerning the light. (Verses 6-8, Common English Bible translation.) 

John the Baptist is here introduced in a larger theological context than in Mark (last week’s reading):  his mission here is “to testify concerning the light,” that aspect of the divine being which was the first word and act of creation (Genesis 1:3).  That first-creation-light will assume a bodily form and become the light of the world.  (That is, of course, simply another way of expressing the Incarnation – God became human, the Logos became flesh.) 

John’s mission is to “testify” to that light.  Here John testifies to the religious authorities who are sanctioned from the holy city itself. 

In the long dialog with the authorities (verses 19-28) a certain delight is taken in drawing out the questions about just who this John is.  A series of possible identities is posed and each one denied.  The most important identity is addressed first:  “He confessed... ‘I am not the Christ [Anointed One]’.”  Not only is he not the Anointed One, he is not Elijah returned, nor is he “the prophet” (the prophet like Moses in Deut. 18:15). 

This increasing suspense about John’s identity leads to his testimony that he is a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the imminent coming of the Lord.  John affirms that he is that “voice.” 

In this version of John’s testimony, there is great emphasis on the imminence of the Coming One:  “Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize” (verse 26, CEB).  The bearer of the divine light is still unrecognized, still secret, but very close at hand. 

In their midst!  The light of the world, the comforter of those who mourn, was present but not yet disclosed so peoples’ lives could be turned around. 

Saturday, December 9, 2023

December 10, 2023 -- 2nd Sunday of Advent

                                              Biblical Words                                                       [857] 

Isaiah 40:1-11Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8.

Out of judgment there comes a voice, which prepares the Way.  

The readings for this Sunday have this message:  Out of judgment there emerges a Way.  This way needs to be prepared—built up, leveled out, paved, and posted with proper signage.  This Way leads to a God-given relief from sin and past disaster, to a place of comfort, where righteousness is at home. 

Isaiah 40:1-11.  

The four parts of this famous prophetic text—evoking for most of us the yearning-joyful sounds of Georg Friedrich Händel’s music—emphasize the announcement of comfort, though not without a darker reminder of the transitoriness of human affairs. 

The basic message is good news for Zion-Jerusalem.  Her sins have been paid for—the punishment has even been double what was deserved.  The story behind the proclamation is in earlier passages in Isaiah. 

How the faithful city has become a whore!

      She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her— 
      but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
      your wine is mixed with water. 
Your princes are rebels
      and companions of thieves. 
Everyone loves a bribe
      and runs after gifts. 
They do not defend the orphan,
      and the widow’s cause does not come before them. 
            (Isaiah 1:21-23, NRSV)

And the fate of such a corrupt one had already been revealed: 

And daughter Zion is left

      like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field,
      like a besieged city. 
If the Lord of hosts
      had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
      and become like Gomorrah.  (Isaiah 1:8-9) 

(A much longer and bawdier version of Jerusalem’s story is given in Ezekiel 16.) 

The unfaithful wife was punished with conquest by enemies, devastation of the city, and depopulation of the surrounding land.  It has lain thus desolate as a moral lesson to the nations for a long time, twice as long as its wickedness deserved. 

It is this disgraced and desolate widow to whom a sudden and surprising announcement is to be given. 

The servants in the heavenly court are commanded to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  Tell her “she has served her term,… her penalty is paid” (verse 2). 

The proof of the awesome turn in her fortune is that her former husband is returning to her.  The command is going out as we speak to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  A spectacular construction program is being carried out creating a super highway (a festival procession route) leading to the site of the city from the east (the direction of the “desert” and the direction taken by God when Jerusalem was previously abandoned, Ezekiel 10:18-19 and 11:22-23.) 

On this grand triumphant Way will come God, the good shepherd, who brings as the reward and “recompense” recovered from the nations the flock who will repopulate the city and show the glory of God’s new creation—a faithful people. 

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13.  

The Psalm reading responds to the prophetic announcement as an accomplished fact. 

Lord , you were favorable to your land;

         you restored the fortunes of Jacob. 
         …you pardoned all their sin (verses 1-2, NRSV). 

This restoration of the welfare of the (now) faithful people will be God’s own glory.  This all happens so that God’s “glory may dwell in our land” (verse 9).  

The poet is carried away as the imagined characters cavort and act out in this drama.  Here Steadfast-Love passes along and “meets” Faithfulness.  Righteousness and Peace are so intimate that they “kiss.”  Faithfulness takes the role of new crops and “springs up from the ground” while Righteousness plays the part of the vivifying rain that comes from the heavens to make the crops abundant (verses 10-11). 

God’s restoration of the repentant and recovered people is climaxed by a procession led by Righteousness.  “Righteousness will go before him [God], / and will make a path for his steps” (verse 13). 

The sign-post on the Way prepared for the Lord is “to Righteousness.”  

II Peter 3:8-15a.  

The Epistle reading has its word of comfort also, but it is more subdued, because there is still a great judgment to come. 

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day....  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done in it will be exposed. 

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?  You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God.  Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames.  But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.  (Verses 8-13, CEB translation.) 

The writer is certain of this coming judgment by fire (verse 10), even though one also knows that some folks scoff at it (see II Peter 3:4).  Nevertheless, the faithful are those who live their lives under the expectation of an ultimate cataclysm for the earth.  That cataclysm will reveal everyone’s deeds and character—“the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (verse 10, NRSV). 

But meantime, the faithful are participating in preparing the way toward the day of reckoning and salvation.  Their main tool in preparing the Way is Patience.  Patience is learned from God.  “The Lord … is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (verse 9 NRSV).  Thus it is Patience that is exercised by “those who wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (verse 13). 

The faithful wait patiently for a new reality, a reality where “righteousness is at home”! 

Mark 1:1-8.  

We heard the prophecy of the final coming of the Son of Man (the Human One) last week from the Gospel According to Mark.  That was the first reading for Year B of the Lectionary, during which the Gospel selections will be mainly from Mark. 

Having heard the judgment that is the first word of Advent, we now begin to hear of the promise contained within the judgment.  The Gospel reading now goes to the beginning of the Gospel, the words about preparing the Way. 

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ”—that good news begins with a quotation from the prophets. 

That is, the good news begins in the old order.  This new news was testified to before hand by God’s prophets, from Moses on down.  (The opening clause of the prophetic quotation is taken from Exodus 23:21, addressed to Moses:  “I’m about to send a messenger in front of you...”, CEB translation.) 

As Mark presents it, the beginning of the gospel is God speaking to God’s own son.  “Look, I am sending my messenger before you.  He will prepare your way…” (verse 2). 

John the Baptist.  The “messenger” whom the prophecies said would prepare the way for Jesus is John the Baptist.  Our reading, after we get past the prophecy, concerns only John. 

The first thing we hear is that he called for people to be baptized, and that lots of people from Judea and Jerusalem came out to hear him.  They were convinced by John’s preaching and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (verse 5).  Then we get a little background on John.  He is dressed as Elijah-returned and, like Elijah, he confines his diet to the natural if austere foods of the wilderness.

John’s Judgment movement was the actual historical background—and probably the preparation ground—for Jesus’ later calling and ministry.  John had his own disciples who followed his way of life instead of the way of Jesus and his disciples (see Mark 2:18).  John’s movement went right on after the deaths of both John and Jesus.  His disciples appear in Asia Minor in the 50s of the Christian Era (Acts 19:1-7).  And apparently the sophisticated scripture scholar from Alexandria, Apollos, had originally been a member of John’s movement before he was converted to the gospel about Jesus (Acts 18:24-26).  Thus, in a real historical sense John the Baptist prepared the Way for Jesus—baptizing him and proclaiming the imminence of the reign of God, which Jesus would carry on in his own way. 

John understood himself in terms of the prophecy in Malachi 3:1-2 and 4:5.  He proclaimed that he was preparing the way for God to come in judgment.  When John said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (verses 7-8), he thought the prophecy referred to the Lord God of Moses and all the prophets, coming to the holy place in judgment.  The disciples of the early Jesus movement discovered what John had really meant.  

The disciples understood that John had prepared the Way for the “beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” (verse 1).