|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Isaiah 2:1-5||Psalm 122||Romans 13:11-14||Matthew 24:36-44|
By David Grant Smith
The little book of Zephaniah covers a fair number of dark acres before coming to this little garden of light! The book ends with today’s passage as a final word of joy, hope, and restoration. The central pillar of hope upon which this final proclamation of joy is built is this: “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst…” [NRSV]. The awareness of the abiding, eternal presence of God is what provides hope in the prophet’s proclamation, and it is the source of his joy, and presumably the joy of the reader as well. The omnipresent God is certainly good news and a comfort—to know that God is everywhere means that we needn’t ever wonder where we can go to find God… God is already wherever we are, and at all times.
In the ancient world, it was a widely held belief (as even attested in portions of the Hebrew Scriptures) that God wasn’t always present. God was believed to only be present in the “good times” and/or it was believed that the “good times” were evidence of God’s presence. It is good news to know that we needn’t search for the God who is everywhere, and it is good news that we needn’t ever wonder when God might show up. God is in our midst always—in all places, in both the good times and the bad times, as well as in all those “in between” times.
This isn’t to say that we are always aware of God’s presence. That’s another issue altogether. We humans have a great capacity to distract ourselves from noticing things which are quite visible in front of us, so it’s no small surprise that we often distract ourselves from noticing God’s presence in our lives. The prophet’s injunction to “sing aloud… shout… rejoice and exult with all your heart” is, in many ways, a call to be diligent in those spiritual practices which affirm God’s presence in our midst, whether we can physically witness God’s presence or not. To participate in these spiritual practices of singing, shouting, and rejoicing is not for the benefit of others, but for the sake of our own soul’s health. These spiritual practices aren’t so much for the doing of them, as they are to help remind ourselves of our being in God, and God being among us.
Following the injunction to sing, shout, and rejoice, the prophet provides a litany of dichotomous realities found in the broad spectrum of human experience: disaster/victory; lame/saved; outcast/gathered; shame/renown. As each of us considers the various ways in which our relationship with God may have helped us to move from one aspect of the via negativa to its corresponding aspect of the via positiva, the human soul can’t help but find some grounding in gratitude. And gratitude which is expressed, whether inwardly or outwardly, becomes yet another avenue for our path forward in our ongoing relationship with God and our participation in God’s purposes, which are expressed through beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love.
The Revised Common Lectionary uses this passage from Isaiah in place of a Psalm this week. Selected as a response to this week’s reading from Zephaniah, this brief “song” from Isaiah picks up on the theme of salvation found at the heart of the first reading. The hymn-like quality of Isaiah’s poetry is initially cast in the first-person singular, expressing a personal relationship with God, which is founded on trust. The hymn then goes on in the second-person with the admonitions to exalt, sing, shout, and make known what God has done. This all resonates with the content and context of Zephaniah in spades!
Looking at this brief hymnic passage through a process lens provides some delightful results. The trust that is expressed seems to be an affirmation of God’s enticing lure of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace and love. The act of trusting is one of any number of possible responses which can be available to us in any given moment—any of which might lead us away from God’s initial aim, rather than toward it. But the act of trusting, in this hymn, seems to be its own concrescent reality in some ways—as if trust in God and salvation were one-in-the-same. Another way of looking at it is that it is an interdependent relationship; we provide the trust in God, and God is providing the salvific experience. Human trust and God’s lure come together in a concrescent experience, which we call salvation.
But the concrescences don’t seem to stop in just that one moment in this passage. Once salvation has been experienced (then recognized and named as such), there comes another series of co-creative moments: joy/satisfaction (draw water from springs/wells), gratitude (give thanks), luring others (make God’s deeds known, proclaim… dare we call it evangelism?), praise (sing, shout). This series of co-creative concrescent realities is, indeed, meant to be a way of life rather than a one-time chain of events. Once salvation is experienced (whatever that may be for any given individual), and it has been recognized and labeled as such, all these other concrescent realities follow; and once they become a way of life, they pave the way for other experiences of whatever that soul may want to call salvation.
Like Zephaniah, this passage proclaims that the “great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel” [Book of Common Prayer translation]. Advent is a time in which we affirm the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” in our life of faith. God is already present with us; and God is also still to come to us. Though this passage affirms the presence of God in the present tense, it also affirms what is yet to be: “For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense; and he will be my Savior” [BCP]. Each moment with God leads to more moments with God. One of the thematic focuses of Advent is to intentionally prepare ourselves for future concrescent moments of being fully grounded in God’s presence, and to see ourselves as midwives to these moments for other, as we own our interdependent relationship with God as co-creators.
“The Lord is near” [NRSV] is the root system from which the rest of this brief pericope seems to grow. With God’s omnipresence at the root, the fruits of the tree is joy, gentleness, calm (not worrying), prayer, and peace. Sometimes an image or metaphor of growth can be helpful in exploring and unpacking the dynamic state of being which exists in human relationships with God, as well as in our own faith. When we are intentionally grounded in the reality that God is present to us, and when we intentionally embrace this reality as Good News, the fruits of which Paul writes here—joy, gentleness, calm, prayer, and peace—are easier to fertilize and grow. And another level of Good News here is that God believes these qualities to be something of which we are capable.
Joy, of course, is not mere happiness—in fact, it is quite possible to be rather unhappy yet full of joy. Joy reflects a level of satisfaction and gratitude, and one’s own contentedness with life and the relationships that we enjoy in life. Gentleness is an inner quality that shapes our outward relationships from a stance of compassion and profound caring. Calm (or not worrying, as Paul puts it) reflects an inner sense of acceptance with our being in this moment right now, without being burdened by either the past or the future. Prayer reflects our dynamic relationship with God, and our efforts to both speak to God and to listen to God; prayer (both supplication and thanksgiving) affirm our understanding that God is present with us in all that we experience in life. And peace is God’s ongoing lure toward complete wholeness and wellbeing—not only for ourselves, but for the whole world and everyone in it.
In last week’s readings, the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:69-79) was the response to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. In it, Zechariah says that God has “raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David” [Book of Common Prayer translation]. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus (who is supposed to be the savior) hasn’t been born yet. So there remains a question as to whether the one who is born to be a savior might have been Zechariah’s son, John, whose birth was the catalyst for Zechariah’s song. Can it be that John is the savior of whom John was speaking (or was the author of Luke using literary devices to foreshadow the birth of a different savior)?
A fairly strong case can be made either way, of course. But for the sake of exploring John’s role in the Gospel narrative, let’s assume that John is just as much a savior as anyone else. After all, a savior is one who helps someone in distress come out of that distress, or perhaps helps someone avoid the calamity altogether. And John’s powerful and telling witness certainly seemed to have the kind of effect on people.
Today’s Gospel reading can easily be divided into two parts: Luke 3:7-14 (regarding “fruits worthy of repentance”) and Luke 3:15-18 (regarding “one who is more powerful”). I would like to offer two poems, written by a parishioner who wishes to remain anonymous, at the outset of the comments for each of these two sections.
Luke 3: 7-18
The apple tree,
need only bear the fruit
they have inside
No more is required.
In the tirade which John unleashes on his “congregation” he is essentially inviting them (enticing, perhaps?) to connect with what he believes is already deep within them: the fruit which is worthy of repentance. As John tells the crowd that simply having a spiritual heritage (Abraham as an ancestor) isn’t being true to one’s own sense of Self, he is asserting that to be true to one’s own Self is to produce the fruits that are grounded in the fertile soil of compassion, mindfulness, and reconciliation. The fruits which are worthy of repentance are those things which come out of our intentional participation in God’s purposes, joining God in the business of creative transformation or, as our Jewish sisters and brothers put it in Hebrew, Tikkun Olam—healing the world.
Wilderness crying in his voice,
“I am not he, I am not he!
He is the Way and I the sign,
He is the bread and I the hunger,
He is the wine and I the bitter herb.”
The final portion of today’s Gospel reading has John pointing the crowds away from himself to someone who is to come after him. Having already read the story, we know that the one to whom he points is Jesus, the holy Other. John acknowledged that what he was doing was preparing the way for someone else who will be coming after him, whose power and intensity will be beyond his own. So it goes in the Gospel story (John becomes less as Jesus becomes more), and so it is in life and evolution. Conscious of it or not, all of us—and all that we do—is laying some kind of foundation for what others will do after us. All of life’s moments are destined to be part of the web that become some future moment’s past.
John’s esteem of Jesus is the same esteem, which Jesus had for his disciples—regarding others (and their needs) as greater than one’s Self. The people in John’s “congregation” were wondering whether he was the Messiah. To suspect a messianic promise within others is, of course, part and parcel of the Gospel—as is the spiritual practice and discipline of preparing a way for them to enter our lives, the world, and the lives of others. Each of us is forever preparing the way for someone else’s next concrescent moment. And this season of Advent bids us to be mindful of that, and to humbly consider how we might best hold that reality in our hearts and live it out in our lives as if it truly were Good News.