Christmas Day: Rejoicing Like Simeon

One of the most overwhelming moments of my life was when I became a parent. When I held my newborn son for the first time, I was on the verge of losing all composure. His little eyes were wide open and staring at mine, and the fact that he was there, alive and healthy...I can't put it into words. There were a lot of factors that went into the emotions I felt that morning when he was born. The delivery had been hard on both my wife and the baby, so holding him knowing that they were both safe and sound was accompanied by a tremendous sense of relief and gratitude. The tension in our waiting for his arrival started before that day, though. Though he was born in Texas, my wife and I had lived in Guatemala for the majority of her pregnancy, and much of that time hadn't gone smoothly. We lived in a foreign country, and she had been on bed rest for a significant portion of the time (and I didn't know how to cook). There were a lot of days when we were anxious about the survival of our baby.

Even before that, the day that we found out my wife was expecting was an adventure. She was in a Guatemalan emergency room with pneumonia. Just as the staff was getting ready to run some x-rays on her, her doctor happened to be on duty and said, "let’s make sure we can do this." They took some blood, ran the test, and a few minutes later, he answered the phone, then hung it up and said, "Congratulations!" It was an interesting and unexpected beginning to what would be a difficult nine months.

To go back even further: my wife and I were married for six years before she became pregnant. We waited a long time, and we were more excited than we ever had been before when we found out she was expecting. But that pregnancy's result wasn't the baby boy I held in Texas. We never got to hold that baby––the pregnancy ended early in a miscarriage. Our hopes that had built over the years, and which went through the roof when she was expecting, came crashing down with one visit to her doctor when there suddenly was no heartbeat. We were crushed, and our waiting continued.

All of that and more went into the rush of emotions I felt when I held my baby boy that first time. We had waited, and waited painfully for his arrival. The feeling of the expression that was on my face on that day when he finally came is permanently etched into my memory, and it was full of a lot of waiting, a lot of pain, a lot of hope, and an immense amount of joy.

Since I can still feel the look that was on my face that day, it makes me wonder what Simeon's face looked like when the moment came for which he had spent a lifetime in attentive waiting on God:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-32)

What was the look on his face that day? What was the look when "the Spirit guided him into the temple"? What was his expression when he saw the peasant couple from Nazareth? What would anyone have thought who saw him as he approached the young family and held out his arms? What was the look on his face when he held that baby for whom he––and in fact all of Israel, and all of the world––had been waiting so long?

Obviously, we don’t have a picture of the old man’s face on that day, but we do have his words. They're rich words, and they tell us a lot about Simeon, a lot about that baby boy that he held in his arms as he said them, and a lot about how you and I would be wise to live in light of both of their lives.

As we mentioned yesterday, Simeon's waiting was characterized by soaking his mind in the scriptures, and in this brief prayer we see the part of the scripture on which he had focused his attention. Again, it's Isaiah 40-55, the "book of comfort," which not only communicates God's compassion on Israel, but it looks forward to the one through whom God's deliverance and comfort would come to his people. It speaks of God's salvation being made evident and visible to all the nations of the world, "a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those that sit in darkness."

So, when I wonder about the look that would have been on Simeon's face as he rejoiced at the fact that he was holding the newborn Jesus in his arms, I again have to take into account how deeply Simeon had soaked the scripture's message into his soul. And then, at that moment, when he saw that baby––the baby––who by some means God had told him was to be the King of Israel, the King of the world...

...the one who would fulfill Israel's longing for the a true heir to David's throne, who would deliver Israel from their oppressors once and for all...

...the one who would fulfill Israel's longing for the Temple, the place where heaven and earth overlapped and interlocked (and even if Simeon couldn't foresee it, Jesus would somehow do so by being that heaven-and-earth-place himself)...

...the one who would satisfy Israel's longing for the Torah, as the true King had to do, by fulfilling the Torah himself and enabling the people to do so as well...

...the one who would usher in the fulfillment of Israel's longing for new creation, as the King who would finally have the wisdom to bring about the time when everything would be made new and made right...

In thinking about what expression would have been on Simeon’s face, I’ve got to factor in this bubbling up and pouring out of his knowledge of these scriptures, his faith that they would be fulfilled, and his joy that right there, in that baby whom he held and at whom he surely stared in wide-eyed, open-mouthed was all reaching its climax, it was all coming to pass, it was all going to happen––in that infant baby peasant boy.

Simeon had waited, and waited painfully for that boy's arrival. Finally the day came, and he held the Messiah in his arms. The expression on his face when he did so surely showed a lot of waiting, a lot of pain, a lot of hope, and an immense amount of joy.

If Simeon hadn't waited like he did, he wouldn't have had the overwhelming joy of that day with the infant King in his arms. If we don't wait through Advent, the joy of this day won't be as thorough. But now, we have waited, and he has come, and we should therefore celebrate as if we are people whose every deep longing has been met in a surprising, shocking, instant. Because that is indeed what happened in Bethlehem, what happens every day that you and I abide in him now, and what will happen when he comes again.

Alleluia! To us a child is born: O come, let us adore him. Alleluia!

See—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them... (Revelation 21:3)


A Prayer for the Day:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings for Christmas Eve*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Christmas Eve: Waiting Like Simeon

As we conclude Advent and our exploration this week of how different people in the scripture's story waited on God, we finish with someone who may seem to be an unlikely candidate to be written about on Christmas Eve. But I do so because he is the first individual described by the gospel writers as someone who waited: an old man named Simeon.(1)

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. (Luke 2:25-26, NIV)

As with Zechariah, Luke is giving high praise to Simeon through this introduction. He tells us that Simeon was righteous, devout, and in the full passage, Luke mentions three times in three verses how the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, revealed things to him, and guided him. I want to become the kind of person for whom those kinds of words describe me each year during Advent, and indeed for the rest of my life. What was waiting like for Simeon, and on this Christmas Eve, why does it matter to us?

As we said when we began this Advent, waiting isn't easy. It grates against us. Many times, waiting is not only inconvenient, but involves real pain. It was like that for Simeon––during his decades of waiting, his eyes had probably seen some very painful things. Luke doesn't put a number on Simeon's age, but we get the sense that he was old. Here are some of the things he might have seen as he waited for the Messiah:

About 80 years before Jesus’ birth, before the Romans were in power in Jerusalem, there had been a civil war and at its end the Hasmonean ruler, Alexander, crucified 800 Jews in Jerusalem for rebelling against him.

Then, around 20 years later, the Romans came with all of their brutality, and through them in another 20 years, Herod. Regardless of what Simeon’s exact age was when Luke introduced him to us, his eyes had surely seen plenty of suffering. For his entire life, his people had been oppressed and dominated by pagans, and he waited, and waited for the comfort of Israel.

Of course the suffering that predated him also never would have been far from Simeon's mind. Simeon’s people, God’s people, Israel, had been oppressed for almost six centuries by the time that we learn about Simeon's waiting.

And going back even farther, for much of their history as a people––even when they weren’t subject to foreign nations, on another level, they had never really lived up to their covenant with God. They had never been the light to the nations they were intended to be. They had never fully been the righteous and devout nation God called them to be. Simeon, however, was righteous and devout, and he waited. By the time Luke introduces him into the story, not just his own waiting, but the entire history of the waiting of his people would have been etched into the wrinkles on his face and into the eyes that were always looking for the coming of the Messiah.

Even though Simeon is something of an obscure character in the Bible, he's intriguing to me. He isn't one of the main characters in the story, but rather is someone off in the periphery waiting on God throughout a lifetime. Even though we have so little information about him, what Luke does tell us can give us some clues of how Simeon became so open to God through the course of his waiting through a lifetime.

First, Luke's description of him as righteous and devout surely meant that he had a heart inwardly open toward God, but in the ancient Jewish world of Luke and Simeon, it also would have referred to the exterior things he did. He kept the commandments. He participated in the community's rhythm of prayer, worship, fasting, and giving. In other words, he had a lifestyle of holy habits.

Luke clues us into one of those habits for Simeon. Simeon wasn't just a man who read his scriptures, he drank deeply from them. Through the words that Simeon speaks (which we'll see tomorrow), we see how the thoughts that he expressed were dripping with the scriptures he had absorbed over so many years. Luke points us toward that in this introduction by describing Simeon as one who "was waiting for the consolation [or comfort] of Israel." That's another reference to those first words of Isaiah's "Book of Comfort" we talked about last week with John the Baptist: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God..." and then it goes on to describe the voice of the one calling in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord's coming.

Simeon had ingested the vision of the scriptures, particularly of Isaiah 40-55, to the point that it had given a framework for everything he was waiting for in his life. It gave context to all of the suffering that his eyes had seen, and it gave hope for those eyes to keep waking up and watching for Israel's true King to come at last.

Christmas Eve is as good a time as any to consider what it is that is giving shape to our lives the way that the scriptures gave shape to Simeon's. Perhaps our framework is a desire for success, or for comfort, or to be loved. Whatever it is, we will certainly be better prepared to welcome the King if we can identify it and make any necessary changes in light of all that his coming into the world means.

We also see that Simeon listened. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit communicated things to Simeon about the Messiah. Certainly one way that Simeon listened was by soaking his mind in the scriptures, as we just described. But I think he did it another way, too: he was probably quiet and listening on a whole lot of days when the Spirit wasn't saying anything to him about the Messiah, so that he would be sure and be attentive whenever the right time would come.

I've mentioned the importance of silence a few times throughout Advent, because I'm convinced we don't have enough of it in our lives. We've got to practice listening to God and sometimes––even many times––that's going to involve quieting ourselves and hearing nothing from God. If we don't practice that, we might not be paying any attention when God does want to say something. So, in light of your Christmas Eve today and your Christmas Day tomorrow, are there any ways in which it would be appropriate for you to be quiet with God as a way of practicing being attentive to him? (And if we aren't attentive to him on these holy days, do we really expect the remainder of our year to be substantially different?)

Simeon soaked his mind in the scriptures. Simeon listened quietly to God. And the third thing we can learn about his waiting is that he did those two things for a long time. Simeon didn't just wait on God through the four weeks of Advent. Simeon's Advent had been a lifetime.

May it be so for you and me too, so that we can let the church's call of Advent through the centuries incessantly ring throughout our souls:

Our King and Savior now draws near. Come, let us adore him.


A Prayer for the Day:

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for Christmas Eve*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Much of the content of today's post was influenced by the chapter titled "Simeon's Song" in Jack Levison's outstanding book, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2012).

Fourth Monday of Advent: Waiting Like Mary

I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ soon after it was released in 2004, and I clearly remember having a reaction which I never expected. There was a lot of hype surrounding the movie, and people were having a wide variety of reactions to it by the time I saw it, but of all the comments I had heard from friends or the media about the movie, no one else was expressing the thought which sank deeply into me the day I saw it and about which I still have some of the movie's images in my mind: No one else in history has ever had a role like Mary's, and many of my fellow Protestants and I have paid far too little attention to her. Any of us would certainly benefit tremendously from following her example of humble openness to God, regardless of which Christian tradition we are a part.

That should have been obvious to me ever since I began to read the Bible, but it took the film's portrayal of Mary, including scenes from different stages of Jesus' life (from her caring for him as a young boy to her presence at his crucifixion), to bring my prior disregard of Jesus' mother to my attention.

There are many other Biblical characters in whose place I can imagine myself, but I can't do it with Mary. Perhaps some of that reason is due to my being a man and my total unfamiliarity with what it's like to carry any kind of child––not to mention if that child happened to be God. But my inability to imagine myself in Mary's place in the stories goes deeper than the nature of our genders. There simply could never be another person to have had the role in Jesus' life that she had, nor to be impacted by him in the ways that she was. In other words, as one powerful scene of Gibson's film portrays, no one else who saw Jesus bleed on Calvary could have had flashbacks to picking him up as a toddler and caring for his scraped knee.

Once again, N.T. Wright describes it well when he gives a brief overview of the twists and turns that only Mary's life with Jesus could have had:

"A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when Jesus is a baby. She will lose him for three days when he's twelve. She will think he's gone mad when he's thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem, as the God she now wildly celebrates seems to have deceived her....All of us who sing her song should remember these things too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost, and this time it won't be taken away."(1)

As worthy of our consideration as any of those parts of Jesus' and Mary's story are, here at the end of Advent, with Christmas approaching soon, we need to consider the way that only Mary waited on God, and what her waiting can teach the rest of us.

Luke's gospel gives us the fullest description of Mary's waiting, and part of the way he does so is to contrast her with the character we considered yesterday, Zechariah. The story of Gabriel's visit to Zechariah in the Temple (1:5-25) is followed immediately by the story of Gabriel's visit to Mary in Nazareth (1:26-38). Even though Zechariah was described as being righteous and blameless, Luke doesn't portray him as a hero, but rather with the kind of confused and baffled response to God's message through Gabriel that most of us might have had. The news was hard to believe, so Zechariah said he needed a sign to know that it was from God. Mary, on the other hand, responds with absolute humility and obedience. She too asked a question of Gabriel, but she asked for more information, rather than for proof.(2)

Zechariah thought Gabriel's message was impossible, asked for a sign, and ended up unable to speak until his son was born. Mary thought Gabriel's message was improbable but responded in humble obedience and ended up praising God through words that have been prayed, sang, studied, and meditated upon by Christians for two millennia:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

In considering the profound way in which Mary waited for Jesus' coming, her song again reveals an inescapable aspect of learning to wait well. We saw it yesterday in Zechariah and will see it again in our character tomorrow: Mary had soaked her mind in the scripture and the story revealed there of how God was working in human history. While perhaps we could naturally expect a high degree of scriptural literacy from Zechariah since he was a priest and had served God faithfully for a lifetime, our expectations of peasant teenage girls isn't quite so high. Yet it appears that not only had Mary absorbed the message of the Hebrew scriptures, but that she had particularly set her mind upon the story of another remarkable mother in Israel's history, Hannah. The similarities between Mary's song and Hannah's prayer are striking:

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. ...Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. ...The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Samuel 2:1,5,7-8, NRSV)

Mary was able to wait on God by responding in humility ("Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."), and by having already soaked her mind in the scripture. Also, before moving on, we do Mary's example injustice if we fail to consider the bodily, physical, very human nature of her obedience to God. We too often think that if we are to live the kind of life that would be pleasing to God––or even just to wait on God during Advent or celebrate Christmas well––that it would primarily be something "spiritual" and we rarely if ever consider the irreplaceable role that our bodies have in our lives with God. Mary, however, didn't have the opportunity to make such a mistake since what God was asking of her involved her body to the furthest possible extent.

If you and I have the courage and humility to experiment with praying Mary's prayer ("Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.), we will also find that our bodies are always included if we are to follow through in obedience. We will be given opportunities to praise God with our mouths, love people with our hands and feet, study with our eyes, and worship with every part of us. In other words, we will be asked––as Mary was––to wait on God by allowing the Messiah to dwell in us, so that our bodily lives may bring his blessing to those around us.

As you enter into this final time of preparation for Christmas, what is one way today that you can wait like Mary and open the deepest parts of your life to the one who says, "Abide in me, and I will abide in you"?


A Prayer for the Day:

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Wright, Luke for Everyone, 14-15. (2) Ibid., 12.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Waiting Like Zechariah

Perhaps the question most characteristic of Advent is, "How long, O Lord?" It isn't a question that only comes up in a verse or two of scripture, but it gets asked in various forms more than thirty times in the Bible. Take these examples, just from the Psalms:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? (Psalm 74:10)

Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! (Psalm 90:13)

How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me? (Psalm 119:84)

We are certainly in good company when we ask the question of God, whether during Advent or any other time. Yet there is an accompanying version of the question that we should pose not to God, but to ourselves: How long are we willing to wait? How long will we remain faithful if it seems that God continually remains silent?

One reason that I'm pretty weak when it comes to waiting on God is that, while I think it's a good thing to wait through the kinds of practices we explored in the first week, I seem to have an unstated time limit on how long I'm willing to do so before I place my demands on God that he take notice and respond. That kind of limited waiting isn't really what it means to wait on God, because we still have things according to our own terms. On the other hand, when I think of the lives of those I've known who have had the kind of life with God I desire, they seemed to have developed an ability to wait on God without any limits, whether it meant months, years, decades, or even an entire lifetime.

Luke introduces us to a person like this in the beginning of his gospel:

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. (1:5-7)

Being described as "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" is high praise from Luke for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They had lived good, faithful lives before God, and they had done so for a very long time. Yet through decades of waiting on God through their prayers, their service, and their obedience, God had been silent. Elizabeth was barren in a culture in which that was considered a disgrace. God was not only quiet in regard to their personal struggles, but God's old promises to their ancestors continued to be unfulfilled. How could God bless all of the nations of the world through the family of Abraham when they were continually oppressed, generation after generation, by one brutal empire after another? Would the real heir to David's throne ever appear and deliver them?

In spite of their faithful waiting on God, God had left Zechariah, his family, and his people in a painful place for a very long time. Yet Zechariah continued to offer his prayers and wait, year after year, with no apparent reward.

How long are we willing to wait? How long will we remain faithful if it seems that God continually remains silent?

If we read through the remainder of the first chapter of Luke, we see how Zechariah's normal routine of serving and waiting on God was burst into by the angel Gabriel one day while he was giving the incense offering in the Temple. Zechariah was told that God had heard his prayer, and that he and Elizabeth would have a son whom they were to name John. Zechariah may have been devoted and faithful, but he still didn't find difficult things easy to believe, and thus he was unable to speak from that day until the promised son was born, when contrary to what his friends and neighbors assumed, Zechariah insisted, "His name is John."

N.T. Wright points out the parallel between Zechariah's silence while waiting for John's birth and what was happening in Israel at the time: God and his prophets had seemingly been silent––not just for the term of a pregnancy, but for centuries. But now, at the birth of a baby, God's word was about to come again in unprecedented and unforeseen ways.(1)

Upon the baby's birth and naming, Zechariah regained his ability to speak and gave a prophecy of his own which Christians through the ages have found worth repetitive reflection for increasing our understanding of who both John and Jesus were and what they did. It's found in Luke 1:67-79, and is worth stopping to read now if you're able.

It's a remarkable vision of what God was about to do through these two baby boys, and it reflects how Israel's long period of yearning for their King was about to be met. It says that the old promises of God to his people were about to be fulfilled, that they would be delivered by a descendant of David, and it also points to ways in which the deliverance will extend beyond political freedom, even reaching into the shadow of death itself:

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel... He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David... that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. ...[He has remembered] 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 all our days. ...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."

For our Advent waiting, it's also helpful to consider what Zechariah's words reveal, not only about John and Jesus, but also about Zechariah himself and how he became the kind of person who could wait on God with such faithfulness throughout his life. Along with what Luke had already mentioned about Zechariah's consistency in the face of God's silence, the words of this prophecy also reveal the depth to which Zechariah had studied and pondered the Hebrew scriptures. He knew the story in which these two boys were going to play major roles, and it's a safe assumption for us to think that the depth to which he had reflected on the scriptures formed the substance of his ability to continue to hope in the midst of God's silence in his own life, plus the centuries of agony of his own people.

So, we can wait like Zechariah by doing the kinds of things he did: praying, soaking our minds in the scripture's story of how God has worked throughout history, and letting that story shape our hope regardless of how long God seems to be silent. Wright describes Zechariah's example well: "God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind."(2)


A Prayer for the Day:

O God, you make us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of your Son our Lord: Give us this day such blessing through our worship of you, that the week to come may be spent in your favor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) See N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, 19. (2) Ibid., 8.

Third Saturday of Advent: Habakkuk's Plea

Among the books you and I don't read to our families around a fireplace in December as a way of getting ready for Christmas is the three-chapter Old Testament book of Habakkuk. That's okay, because I would much rather sit with my children and watch Linus tell Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang what Christmas is all about than I would read them this book in which God tells Habakkuk that he's preparing a devastation of Judah so astounding that it wouldn't be believable it even if he were told.

Yet while Habakkuk will never make a popular Christmas children's book or TV special, it is fitting for Advent as we have been exploring it together. (This fact alone should let me know that I shouldn't expect this Advent series to ever turn into a bestselling book.) Particularly for this week, as we have explored ancient Israel's long period of waiting for the Messiah to come, I think it's helpful to listen to what Habakkuk had to say before we turn a corner into the final week of Advent.

Habakkuk's opening words characterize well the longing and waiting of Advent:

"O Lord, how long shall I cry to you for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you 'Violence!' and you will not save?" (1:2)

Habakkuk is a book for all of the times when God's people have exclaimed, "This just isn't right!" and pled with God to do something about the broken world around us. God responds to some of Habakkuk's questions, but doesn't fully engage his complaints. Habakkuk laments things he sees daily: oppression and violence, indifference to God's law, and how God is seemingly unresponsive in spite of them.

Yet Habakkuk waits:

"I will stand at my watch post and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint." (2:1)

Then, after a list of the kinds of things that made Habakkuk yearn for God's intervention, he concludes:

"But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!" (2:20)

As we bring to an end these three weeks of considering different aspects of waiting on God, it's appropriate for us to follow Habakkuk's example of how he (and surely many others in ancient Israel) waited on God: to lament over the abundance of brokenness in our world as it is, and then to realize that God is still not far off and to be quiet in the presence of the one who has promised us that he will indeed come and make all things new. If we can cultivate that sense of quietness in the midst of a swirling world around us, we will be ready to be attentive through next week's journey with those people in the biblical stories who were there to greet the Messiah. Silenced awe may be the best possible reaction once we finally arrive at the point of considering how a human baby could completely redefine what it means for God to be in his holy temple.


A Prayer for the Day:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Third Friday of Advent: John's Cry in the Wilderness

One of the highlights of each year for me is taking part in a camp meeting which my great-grandparents began attending in the early 1900s in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. We still live very close to the place where they settled more than a century ago, and the trip that used to take them a few days in a wagon now takes us about three hours in a nicely air-conditioned vehicle. Part of the difference in the travel time now is obviously the faster vehicles we have in which to travel, but those vehicles wouldn't be of any use to us if it were not for the other major difference: roads. Life as it was a century ago without today's ease of transportation is difficult to imagine. I'll never know the names of the people who built the good roads through the mountains between here and our campground, but I'm very thankful that they did.

That image of preparing a road through difficult terrain is how each of the four gospels describes the work of one of the central characters of Advent: John the Baptist:

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 3:2b-6)

In reading these words that the gospel writers chose to describe John, it should again be obvious to us that in order to understand John the Baptist and what he helps us to learn about Jesus, we have to get to know the story he lived in and see his place within it. Of course, as with Jesus, John lived within the story of ancient Israel. Also alike to Jesus, the writers of the gospels found in Isaiah help in understanding who John was and what he did.

Luke's quotation of Isaiah above comes from the first passage in Isaiah's second major section, chapters 40-55. Chapters 1-39 are sometimes referred to as Isaiah's "book of judgment," because it is full of warnings about the devastation that was coming to Israel if they continued to depart from God's commands. Chapter 40 begins a section sometimes called Isaiah's "book of comfort," because it comes to Israel after that devastation had come through their exile to Babylon and is full of promises of redemption and God's deliverance. This powerful section begins with these words:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God..." (Isaiah 40:1-3)

The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple left the people of Judah with the sense that not only had God left the Temple and Jerusalem, but that God had abandoned them, and in their suffering, they were desperate for him to return and restore them. As we have seen already this week, this hope centered on the dream that their true King would emerge. He would come and deliver them from their oppressors. He would restore the place where heaven and earth overlapped in the Temple. He would be one who fulfilled the Torah and led the nation to do so as well. Then, Israel could fulfill its place in the world, bringing God's blessing to all nations and all of creation.

But how could all of that happen when God had seemingly abandoned them? The beginning of Isaiah's words of comfort indicated that God was indeed coming back to his people, but like preparing for an ancient king's return to a territory after a long absence, the roads through the mountains needed to be cleared. The way needed to be prepared for the king's arrival.

Around 600 years after the prophecy in Isaiah, Israel was still longing for their true King to come and be their deliverer. Herod was building a Temple, but it wasn't yet truly the place again where heaven and earth overlapped. God had not yet fully returned to them and rescued them from their suffering. They were becoming ever more diligent in scrupulously observing the Torah, but God's new world still seemed a distant reality.

It was during that time that a locust-eating, fur-wearing misfit in the desert began shouting his message that God was indeed about to return as King, and therefore, all of Israel needed to change their direction and prepare accordingly. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each saw this as fitting what Isaiah's first words of comfort had described so long before. God was coming––they needed to prepare the way and be ready.

John's call to repentance is an essential aspect of our Advent waiting which we haven't yet explored. He came saying that God's kingdom was near, meaning that the hope of their centuries of waiting was about to be fulfilled. It was right on the verge of happening. Like the other centuries of followers of the King before us, are urged to live each day realizing we are on the verge of his return. As we remember John's part of the story each Advent, we have to consider what we might do to prepare our own hearts and our world to welcome him when he comes.


A Prayer for the Day:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Third Thursday of Advent: Israel's Longing for New Creation

Last week, a friend of mine from college lost his wife to pancreatic cancer. She was thirty-six, and leaves behind a loving husband and four young children grieving her loss. Her funeral service is happening as I write these words, and I can't help but to wish there could be some way that I could take over some of the burden of grief for them. It just isn't right that they had to lose her in this way.

About six weeks ago, a massive typhoon hit the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people. The images of the devastation were overwhelming. Because of the speed of our media communications, every time a natural disaster hits, we can either become overwhelmed with the images of suffering on our TV and computer screens, or we can become calloused to it and attempt to shrug it off. Either way, we all have a sense that it isn't right that our world should be like this.

Those examples don't even approach the horrible things we do to each other, and since our theme for this week is the yearning of Israel that we remember during Advent, I would be remiss not to lament the suffering of the Jewish people in both ancient and modern times. The Jews are so well-acquainted with the cry of "How long can our world be like this," that we Christians should recognize that we are following their lead whenever we offer any similar prayer.

If, as I said earlier this week, we must understand the thoroughly Jewish story in which Jesus lived if we are going to have any chance of understanding him, it's also surely the case that to really grasp our longing for his return, we have to look for its framework in Israel's yearning for their true King to come. While not presuming that I can equate the griefs I have experienced in my life with the tremendous suffering of the Jewish people throughout the centuries, I think it's good for us to realize that we have inherited our "How long, O Lord?" prayer from them. 

The Hebrew scriptures are full of that prayer in many different forms, and they also contain the vision of what the world will be like when God finally does set everything right. In the book of Isaiah, which we are given to read often during Advent, we read both about ancient Israel's lament of how their world was and the hope that God would make things right, and Isaiah particularly emphasizes the point that everything would be made right not only for Israel, but indeed for the whole world and all of creation. Consider these examples from some of the traditional Advent readings from Isaiah:

"He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (2:4)

"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom....Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water....And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (35:1,5-7,10)

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people." (64:6-9)

And in one of the magnificent concluding passages of the book:

"For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord." (65:17-25)

Each time that we have grieved a tragedy and wished for a different kind of world, we've participated in Israel's longing for new creation. Even if we could have never put those words around it, the sense that "this just is not right" is evidence that this yearning of God's people through the ages is deeply ingrained into us all.

Thankfully, Isaiah both acknowledges the reality of the pain and points us toward God's intervention. And as we've seen the past couple of days with Israel's longing for the Temple and the Torah, the longing for new creation which we've inherited from the Old Testament is again tied to their longing for the coming of their real King, the Messiah. N.T. Wright points to Isaiah 11's prophecy of how this descendant of Jesse and David "will bring restoration and healing to the whole world," since "this king will possess the wisdom he will need to bring God's justice to the whole world....The rule of the Messiah, then, will bring peace, justice, and a completely new harmony to the whole creation."(1)

"The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (11:2-4a,6,9)


A Prayer for the Day:

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Wright, Simply Christian, 84.