9th Day of Christmas: Unfolding – Luke 2:21-33

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

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.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon opened his eyes and all he saw was darkness. He woke up every morning at the same time for as long as he could remember. He unfolded his blanket away from his frail body and slowly made his way out of bed. Every morning, it took him longer to get to his feet than the one before. He wondered how many more mornings he had in left him. Simeon was now an old man who long ago made peace with God and with death. He had lived a long and full life, and now he was ready for it to come to an end.

Simeon was a patient man; faithful too. God’s Spirit had come to him and told him that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. God had told Simeon that the one who would come to redeem Israel was on the way. God would send a savior to the world who would deliver the people from their hardship and comfort their restlessness.

But God had told him this a while ago. Simeon had been waiting years.

Simeon wondered, just like he did every day, whether today would be the day. God’s window of opportunity was, frankly, getting smaller. Simeon was somewhere in his eighties, and his body never let him forget that. He slipped on his robes and stepped outside.  It was morning in Jerusalem, but the sun’s rays had not yet stretched over the hills.

Simeon breathed in deeply. Mornings were his favorite part of the day. He wrapped the scarf around his head just a little tighter, and he began his daily journey to the Temple. There was a chill in the air that Simeon loved. The cool air invigorated him and helped him forget his own weariness—this day-after-day vigilance. God had blessed Simeon with a great promise, one he was humbled to receive, but, to be honest, waiting this long for God to deliver on this promise was stressful for him. Plus, he wondered how he would know what to look for. Simeon had no idea what a messiah looked like. He had a hard time trusting that one day he would just stumble upon a messiah unwittingly. How would this unfold? What if he missed it? What if he already had?

Simeon had decided that God uses us in ways that surpass even our own understanding, but still God needs us to pay attention. “Simeon” was an old name that means “he who hears”. He was a vigilant man. His eyes and ears were wide open, so that he was better able to see and hear what God was doing right in front of him.

Simeon listened closely, he looked around.

A reflection by Pat Ryan.

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

19th Day of Advent: Advent and the Holocaust – Reflections on Luke 3

Female prisoners at forced labor digging trenches at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. This photograph is from the SS-Propaganda-Album des Frauen-KZ-Ravensbrueck 1940-1941. USHMM (18344), courtesy of Lydia Chagoll.

Advent and the Holocaust don’t normally get put together. However, I figured writing on the eve of the winter solstice (aka the longest night) and the Mayan apocalypse (aka the end of the world), Holocaust imagery might just be appropriate.

Advent and the Holocaust overlap more that you first might think. The story of Jews waiting, longing, hoping, traveling, being housed in deplorable conditions. Will a savior come? It doesn’t seem so as Herod and Hitler massacre innocent children. Murder. Hopelessness. Hate. Fear. A far cry from the peace, hope, love, and joy candles we light on our advent wreath in worship.

Every generation thinks they have it worse than the one before, but the unrest the Christ was born into was a world headed for a spiritual cliff just as much, if not more, than our world today. Those in power are neglecting and causing harm, and so John the Baptist holds a press conference to tell it like it is:

John said to the crowds… …bear fruits worthy of repentance… …Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation… …John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.  – Luke 3

When we read this text, and think about the massacre last week or the one long ago in Germany, it seems as though John got it all wrong. He said the bad fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire, not innocent children. Where in the hell is God in all of this? Why is evil still winning?

The following prayer was found at Ravensbruck death camp where 92,000 women and children died.  It was scrawled on a piece of paper near a dead girl. (It is also the text used in a single by Jennifer Knapp for the Martyr Project.)

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will also those of ill will.  But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.

Just like Advent again, in the midst of all these questions and feelings of abandonment by God, a child shall lead us. This child’s prayer are Word made flesh:

In our suffering, remember all of your children, even those who turn on the gas chamber or trigger a semi automatic rifle. May the fruits we have borne in this suffering—may they be their forgiveness.

Sounds a lot like something Jesus would say. Fruit borne in suffering for the forgiveness of sins. Wine poured out for the forgiveness of all. The Christ becoming flesh in the words of that little Jewish girl.

Where the hell is God in all this evil? God is right there in the thick of hell; love conquering death. John tells us, God’s answer to unimaginable evil is Immanuel—God with us. God’s plan is incarnation—taking on flesh and suffering. And fiery furnaces, intended as evil, are transformed into baptism by fire—God claiming all as God’s children and calling us to bear fruit… that is how the evil in this world is destroyed.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver

16th Day of Advent: Advent According to Anna – Luke 2:36-38 and Isaiah 12:2-6

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on God’s name; make known God’s deeds among the nations; proclaim that God’s name is exalted. — Isaiah 12:4

Anna spent every day of her life in the Temple. She knew who came and who went, and her eyes were peeled. Along with Simeon, she was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Anna spent her days speaking, sometimes shouting at the top of her lungs, that God had not abandoned the people. But as Anna looked around, she mourned the direction that things were moving in.

The Caesars and the Herods ruled Jerusalem with an iron fist. Rome occupied the Holy city of Jerusalem. Even the King of the Jews, Herod, did everything Caesar wanted him to do. There were no princes, or kings, or rulers who had any concern for the well-being of the common people, and as long these cruel leaders were in control, there was no consolation for Israel and no redemption for Jerusalem.

Anna saw what was happening in the Temple, too. The signs of power and greed that were overtaking the region had begun to overtake the Temple itself. Money changers overcrowded the corridors of the Temple, each of them profiting off of every transaction. Exploiting poor peasants like Mary and Joseph was an everyday practice for the Temple money changers. Merchants were selling animals for sacrifice at unfair prices.

Anna spoke against this type of sin. This was God’s Temple and God was never interested in these kinds of riches. Anna was concerned that wealth was becoming the peoples’ new salvation and greed their new God.  But Anna knew that real salvation never involved collecting more and more. Salvation was about how God’s love frees us to give more and more of ourselves to one another.

Anna hoped for a new type of power, one that changed people’s hearts—one that brought princes to their knees and made the rulers of the earth into nothing. The only kind of power mighty enough to bring down princes, kings, and the occupying Roman authorities would have to come from God. What Anna hoped for was a Messiah.

The Messiah would be someone who would come from among the people and speak for the people, who would give them a voice, and a new way to see how God works among God’s people. The Messiah, Anna hoped, would usher in a new kingdom.  One stronger and more meaningful than any that had ever existed before.  Not one that exploited the people, but one that raised them up and freed them.

Anna waited in the temple for the one who would come to redeem us all.

Anna listened closely, she looked around. The promises of God were about to unfold before her.

A reflection by Pat Ryan.

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

11th day of Advent: John and Oscar – Luke 3:1-6

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.’

In the third year of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when generals were ruling over El Salvador, and rebels (armed by the US) were planning a coup, and priests who stood with the poor were called terrorists and communists, the word of God came to Bishop Oscar Romero in the wilderness of a civil war.

Both Oscar and John the Baptist spoke an unpopular truth that upset those in power.  In the scripture above, Luke didn’t just throw in all those hard to pronounce names to try and stump the scripture reader. He was framing the world into which this prophet John was preparing the way. In the midst of these oppressive leaders, John was not only speaking words about the change he knew was coming, but he being those words made flesh. John’s weapon of choice was the waters of Baptism; Romero used the bread and the cup.

Romero went into the town square, proclaiming that God was present with the poor, calling on the government and church to repent, and he served the bread and cup as the ultimate protest against the oppression of the poor. Romero knew that the body and blood, when embodied by the people, empowered them to make paths straight, fill valleys, lower mountains and hills, and smooth over rough places… how? Romero believed that God was present in the bread and cup, was present in the poor themselves, and that all flesh would see the salvation of God.

Said another way, Romero framed the plight of a people being oppressed with the perspective of a Christ who suffered and died and defeated death. Romero could confidently serve the bread and cup in defiance of those standing around them with guns pointed because he knew how the story ends: all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Do not be confused… this is not a “it doesn’t matter what happens here on earth because everything will be okay in heaven” theology. This is the theology or life perspective of “I know how this is all going to end—love defeats death—so I am going to live then ending now. I am not only going to speak words about the change I know is coming, but I am going to be those words made flesh.”

In the words of Oscar Romero:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.

Again, don’t be confused… this is not a history lesson about events that happened over 30 years ago. This is as true today as it was then. Advent is not all love, peace, joy, and candles on Christmas Eve.  Advent is a chance again to prepare for the persecution that is coming when we welcome this revolutionary, table turning, bread and cup-serving Christ child into our lives again.

There is no real peace without justice. Oscar and John stood up to corrupt governments and churches that preached “peace” that was dependent on the oppression of the poor and the silence of mass graves. “Peace” was maintained by the US-assisted Salvadorian government through kidnapping, torturing, and killing those who preached about what real peace looked like.

In Romero’s words:

It is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.

Sounds a lot like today. We hear propaganda like “freedom isn’t free”, while those who speak about what real freedom and peace look like are condemned as troublemakers and sometimes terrorists. Many of our churches that are “thriving” are maintaining their growth on the backs of the poor—proclaiming “peace” where there is no justice, while those who stand with the poor are sacrificed by those same churches in order to maintain that “peace”.

But the hope we find in this Advent time of waiting and preparing can be found in the very words made flesh by John and Oscar:

John the Baptist quoting 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.’

Bishop Oscar Romero blessing the bread and cup:

We receive here the body of the Lord who offered himself for the redemption of the world. May his body and blood given for us nourish us in such a way that we, too, may give our body and blood as Christ did, so we may bring justice and peace to our people.

Immediately after speaking these words, Romero was shot dead by the government; John the Baptist was eventually beheaded by the government. They were both guilty of speaking truth to those in power, telling the oppressed something the powerful didn’t want them to hear:

Freedom is free.

Real peace is only possible with justice.

Love conquers death.

And this was all made flesh by a little baby whose blood would be the seed of freedom.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver

7th Day of Advent: Faithful Readiness – Luke 21:25-36

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?

Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.

It’s hard to read the Gospel accounts where Jesus clearly gets things wrong. Here in these verses, Luke has Jesus declaring all these creepy cosmic signs of the end times, and it’s clear in these words that Jesus thinks it all will happen sometime very soon.

People will faint from fear… the seas and the waves will roar… the Son of Man will come on a cloud…

Be on guard… the day will come and catch you like a trap…

Holy crap. Really? Jesus seemed to be a whole lot more alarmist about the end-times than we care to realize.

Bart Ehrman wrote a book called Jesus: The Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium in which he argues that Jesus was first and foremost an apocalyptic prophet who wrongly believed the end was coming soon—maybe even during his lifetime.

Perhaps he was.

Luke makes Jesus sound like all the crazies out there. The ones who are much more interested in instilling fear than in instilling faith. The ones who put judgment where love is supposed to go. The ones who are much more interested in counting the sins of others than in reminding themselves that God’s grace doesn’t know anything about counting.

What are we to do with this?

First off, with all of this language here about distress and foreboding and being alert, I don’t see anything here about judgment. I see words of warning and counsel, and, yes, they are still quite intimidating, but there’s nothing in here about who is in and who is out.

Maybe the Kingdom of God doesn’t have a cosmic bouncer standing outside of it. Maybe it’s not even a place we wait to get into. Maybe the Kingdom of God is where we already are–we just need eyes that open to it.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus seemed interested in having others realign their sight to the sight of God. To replace the priorities of the world with the priorities of a new kind of life—one where God’s desires for this world are put above all else. A kingdom that exists right here and right now as well as in the world to come. On earth as it is in the heavens.

I can only agree with Bart Ehrman on this one—Jesus got it wrong (or at least Luke’s version of Jesus gets it wrong). There may be no cosmic ending in our immediate future and time spent waiting for one is time wasted.

Advent is filled with a different sort of waiting.

Advent is about waiting for the present to reveal itself to us rather than waiting for the future to collapse upon us.

It’s a time when we wait with faithful readiness. A time to hope and listen for something new to spring forth among us and renew us. When the world gets rearranged once again by divine priority. When we are invited once more to see what God desires for it.

Advent is when we wait for new and full meaning to invade a world that too often feeds us with stale and empty meaning.

May this advent be one that throws light into the dark corners of this world. May this Advent be one that opens our eyes to the reality of a new heaven and a new earth. A new order revealing itself right in front of us, if only we use our eyes as we’ve never used them before.

A reflection by Pat Ryan.

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.