Prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent

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Lord, as we light another candle around the Advent wreath, we continue to pray for your light to shine in this season of darkness.

We pray that our fear would be pushed back as your light scatters the darkness.

Remind us of your strength so that we would not fear our affliction.

And in your strength, may we empower our afflicted brothers.

Remind us of your salvation so that we would not fear our brokenness.

And in your salvation, we may save our broken sisters.

Remind us of your comfort so that we would not fear our distress.

And in your comfort, may we comfort our neighbor in distress.

So that the shadow of fear may continually be scattered by your strength, your salvation and your comfort and the world would witness the arrival of your light through Jesus.

Amen.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light,
The hopes and fears of all the years,
Are met in thee tonight.

Missing the Path (Advent Lectio Luke 1:69-78)

Lamp of Wisdom

Lamp of Wisdom, Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire, Britian.

On December 2nd, our TV’s and social media feeds were flooded with the news of the shooting in San Bernardino. A day in which two people chose violence over peace. The week before, a man killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It was just another day in which somebody chose violence over peace. A religious leader stood up and declared that people should arm and prepare themselves for violence.

People regularly choose violence over peace.

It seems to be the way the world works. Violence is normal, expected and sometimes deemed rational.

Last Sunday was the Second Sunday of Advent. For many, the candle that was lit symbolized Peace. As this candle was lit, many read the words of Zechariah prophesying over his son John.

“Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.
Luke 1:69-78 (CEB)

The Jews in Zechariah’s time were well acquainted with violence as well. Rome was well-practiced in exercising peace through violence. The much promoted Pax Romana was maintained by Roman authorities quashing any hint of an uprising or disturbance. As the Roman occupation of Judea wore on and the Jews grew increasingly unsettled by their presence, more and more Legions showed up the help keep the peace. Crucifixions were regular and the threat of violence generally kept things from boiling over. For the Jews, Rome was the enemy. Many devout Jews hated the Romans, their occupation and their polytheistic, emperor worshiping ways. The Jews dreamed for a day that, like Zechariah says, “we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live.” Many hoped for a Messiah that would come, like King David, and slay the Goliath of Rome. The Messiah would raise up a holy army, cleanse Jerusalem and Israel of the unclean, Gentile Romans in order to restore and sanctify right worship of God at the Temple and in the land.

The Messiah would battle unjust, pagan violence with justified holy violence.

It’s the same story repeated again and again. Violence for violence so that some pale shadow of peace might come.

The problem is, when violence is the norm we are in danger of missing the true peace and salvation that God sends through Jesus. We look for salvation, rescue and redemption to come through violent and dramatic means. We have, for the most of human history, believed that violence is the means for peace. So, when an alternative shows up and tries to direct us down a different path for peace we are often unable to recognize it. Or, the worst of cases, we will flat-out deny the path revealed to us.

“Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.

The “path of peace” revealed in Jesus is not through dramatic strength or violence against the oppressors. It lead’s people away from darkness and the shadow of death. The “path of peace” is shown in a scandalous birth witnessed initially only by animals. Then, those who testified to this birth were typically untrustworthy shepherds and pagan astrologers from the East. This is the signpost of God’s path for peace and many missed in then, and I think we continue to miss it now. Spending too much time looking for our own vision of peace we miss out, “on this day what would bring you peace” (Luke 19:42, NIV) and continue our march towards darkness and the overwhelming shadow of death.

We light candles during Advent, not floodlights. We have to take care that we do not miss the faint light of peace that flickers when the flashing of bombs and smoking of guns dance across our screens and in our minds.

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent

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Lord, as we light the second candle of Advent, for many this may be the hardest candle to light.

We pray for your light to shine, we hope for your kingdom come.

But we are reminded that there is still much pain and suffering in the world.

While two candles are lit, there are those that remain unlit and extinguished.

Open our eyes to the moments when we can catch a glimpse of your light.

Of the faintly flickering candle.

Open our ears to hear the cries of pain in the world.

To the dark corners of our neighborhoods.

Open our hearts to carry your light wherever we go.

To those who sit in darkness, may we shine your light.

By your mercy God, Amen.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine.

Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine.

Just Wait (Advent Lectio – Jeremiah 33:14-16)

Reading by Eduard von Grutzner, 1889.

This past Sunday began the season of Advent as many of us, whether in a church service or at home, lit the first candle of Advent. This is a very important time in the Church as we start a new year in the Christian calendar and begin to turn our hearts and eyes towards Christmas in expectation of the arrival of Jesus, the light of the world. With that in mind, I begin my annual walk through the Sunday readings of Advent. If your unfamiliar with the hows and whys of Advent, I encourage you to go back and read this introduction I wrote last year. I’m going to kick things off this year with the Old Testament reading from Sunday.

“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”
Jeremiah 33:14-16 (CEB)

The prophet Jeremiah is speaking these words to the nation of Israel as they sit in exile in Babylon. Having experienced the conquering of their nation, the destruction of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple, the Jews have to come to grips with what it means to be a people absent from their home. They have suffered utter defeat at the hands of a pagan, Gentile nation and they have begun to question whether the god they worship, YHWH, is good and if he is able (or willing) to keep the many promises he has made to them. Were they still YHWH’s chosen people, was their land still the Promised Land, would the line of their king David indeed “endure forever” (2 Samuel 7:16)?

This is the context Jeremiah speaks these words into.

“I will fulfill my gracious promise…”

“I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line…”

“Judah will be saved…”

“Jerusalem will live in safety…”

To the people of Israel sitting in exile, this must have been exciting words to hear. God would indeed fulfill his promise, David’s line would continue and their land would be restored and safe. They were not forgotten in this foreign, pagan land. God was still good even though the land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins. But, like many of us, I imagine they began to wonder, “What’s the next step? What must we do?”

This seems typical of our human nature. We want to know the next step. What’s our “action items” or when can we get this party started? What does the blueprint look like so we can start planning? When should we save the date? We like to live in the future, planning ahead and figuring out where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. This is what ultimately seemed to trip up the Pharisees. They believed in following so closely to God’s law so that they might be considered righteous and holy when God finally showed up with the Messiah. But, I think this verse is asking for something else.

Wait.

If you read the verse closely, God is doing all the acting.

“I will fulfill…I will raise up…”

Judah is not responsible to save, instead it will be saved by God.

Jerusalem will not create peace and safety itself, God will secure its peace and safety.

We are not responsible for our own righteousness, instead we will be identified as, “The Lord Is Our Righteousness”.

God going to fulfill his promises and he is also going to take the responsibility to raise up the one who will help bring about the fulfillment of these promises. It is not the responsibility of Israel to bring about the fulfillment or to raise up or even be involved in the choosing of this “righteous branch” who will bring about the promised salvation and safety.

God’s got this thing under control.

The Lord Is Our Righteousness”

Wait and watch just like Abraham who, “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

This is the underlying theme of Advent. Waiting and expectation are central during this time in the Church calendar. It’s tough for us in our fast-moving, on-demand, culture to sit, wait and patiently light candles. Can’t we just light them all on one day and be done with this thing?

No.

To quote the great and wise Yoda:

All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing. Hmph!

We can get so wrapped up in the future and what we need to do to get there that we rarely look around and see where God may have already been paving a path. We shouldn’t light the first candle of Advent just so we can get to the second. We should light the first candle and take a moment to enjoy the time spent with that first candle. Recognizing who we are with, where we are and what God is trying to speak into that moment. During this season of waiting and expecting, we should remember that we are not the ones responsible for our own righteousness. We are not the ones doing the saving.

We are a people waiting for a good and gracious God to fulfill his promises at just the right time.

Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent

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Almighty God,as your kingdom dawns,

turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness,

that we may be ready to meet you

in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

A Table of Thanks

Sketch by Alfred Waud of Thanksgiving in camp (of General Louis Blenker) during the U.S. Civil War in 1861

Very soon, many of us in the United States will gather around a table with family and friends to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. The history and “origin story” of this holiday is a little murky, mired in myth and legend. For the traditional celebration in the United States, we are remembering the story where in 1621 (thanks to a great harvest) Pilgrims feasted for three days and invited about 90 of their Native American neighbors to join them. Edward Winslow, one of the attendees, recounts the events of the feast this way:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
From Mourt’s Relation Or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth

What strikes me about this account of the “first thanksgiving” is how happy they were at the abundant harvest and the over-abundance of fowl and deer. I find the mention of “amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms” interesting. Whether this means they shot their guns recreationally or they actually had the freedom to exercise  their arms and hands and not work with them, I am not sure. But, this type of excitement and recreation is something I think we have little context for in the United States. Many of us are so far removed from hunger and the concept of needing a harvest to survive that reading this account becomes quaint rather than feeling the immense joy and celebration of life that I think the account is getting at.

What challenges me about this account, in light of the Thanksgiving feast many of us will be enjoying, is the response of the Pilgrims to this abundance. They did not hoard it, they did not store it silos, they did not “exercise their arms” in defense of the abundance, they did not try to profit off the abundant harvest, and they did not waste it.

They were unselfish and benevolent with their blessing.

When the 90 Native Americans showed up, nobody drove them away because they were outsiders. There were no cries of, “You don’t deserve this…you didn’t work for this!” The 90 Native Americans did not try to steal the harvest or say, “You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us.” No, everyone shared in the blessing of the great harvest and everyone was welcomed to the table. Benevolence led to even more abundance and benevolence. The Pilgrims shared with the Native Americans and they, in turn, hunted deer and brought even more food to the table to share.

This reminds of the story of the infant church at the end of Acts 2:

All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved
Acts 2:44-47 (CEB)

A tradition at our table, and I know at many others, is to go around and talk about what we are thankful for. I fully support this tradition and think it is a good idea to consider our blessings and to recount what we are thankful for. However, this story challenges me to make an extra step in giving thanks. The story of the first thanksgiving is not notable that the people gave thanks for their abundance, it is notable because they celebrated and gave thanks by sharing. Again, to quote the above account, “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” In the account of the early Church, the demonstration of God’s goodness comes through sharing with those in need, “with gladness and simplicity.” So, instead of just saying what you are thankful for this year, share how what you’re thankful for moves you to share that blessing with others.

If you’re thankful for your family, invite people to your table who might not have a family to share a meal with.

If you’re thankful for your food, share your meal with someone who might go hungry.

If you’re thankful for your health, spend some time with those who are sick or burdened by extreme healthcare costs.

If you’re thankful for your job, spend some time with (or donate some money to) those who can’t find work or (due to circumstances outside their control) are unable to work.

If you’re thankful for your freedom (to vote, to worship, etc.), spend some time learning about or listening to those who do not have the same freedoms.

Thankfulness shouldn’t just end with us. As the story of the first thanksgiving shows us, our thankfulness should cause us to create moments of thankfulness in others by inviting others in and by sharing out of our abundance and blessing.

When the Story is Co-Opted

Watching TV a few nights ago, my wife and I were subjected to this little bit of commercial advertising.

My wife was appalled. She is a pretty big Hunger Games fan. She’s read all the books, she’s eagerly anticipating the release of the final film and she re-watches the previous movies regularly. Seeing characters she loves get pushed into a commercial endeavor did not sit well with her. We’ve actually taken to picking apart car commercials regularly at our house as they very often have little to do with the car and more to do with the image/status/feeling you get from driving said car. At first, I was amused at my wife’s discontent at the use of her beloved characters. But the more I thought about it and rattled around my limited knowledge of the Hunger Games story (admittedly I’ve only seen the movies) the more I realized how disjointed, forced and blatantly co-opted this whole commercial is.

Mainly, it seems that the people in District 12, where main characters Katniss and Peeta come from, would never be able to afford the luxury of a Chrysler, or any kind of car for that matter. Katniss had to beg for bread to feed her family. District 12 is the poorest of the districts and it’s people mine coal to power the Capital rather than warm their own houses. The quote from the commercial, “Where you’ve been is part of your story,” seems to suggest some kind of suffering on the part of Chrysler, ala that experienced by Katniss, Peeta and District 12. This is your standard “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality so popular in America. I don’t know about you, but Chrysler seems pretty blind to the context of their own story let alone the story of the Hunger Games. You might recall that Chrysler was given nearly $12 billion in bailout money from the government (*cough* the Capital *cough*) and was eventually bought out by Fiat. I don’t know who’s pulling who’s bootstraps here, but Chrysler sure didn’t pull their own. Chrysler does not seem to even understand their story.

I mean, seriously, they're riding chariots here. Do they even have cars in Panem?

I mean, seriously, they’re riding chariots here. Do they even have cars in Panem?

Oh, and of course there’s the atrocity of the Hunger Games spectacle, the violence of the rebellion and the general abuse of propaganda and story between factions in the Hunger Games that Chrysler seems to ignore.

It’s easy, and a little fun to pick at Chrysler for this blatant commercial co-opting of a much deeper story. But, this blog was not started to pick on Chrysler and our over-commercialized culture. How about we turn the microscope inward a bit?

How often do we co-opt the Bible, God’s story and the Christian narrative for our own purposes? One does not have to look far down their Facebook or Twitter feeds to see friends, pastors and political leaders using pieces from the Bible to seemingly prop up and round up support for their chosen cause.

Imagine if this Chrysler commercial had been cut with video of Samson getting his hair cut by Delilah and then him killing all the Philistines while blinded. Or David getting chased by Saul and then being crowned king. Or Peter denying Jesus and then him giving a heroic speech after Pentecost.

Or…imagine if they had cut it with Jesus dying on the cross and then resurrecting from the dead?

It’s easy, convenient and ego boosting to feel like the Bible is talking about us, our culture wars and issues of the day. This is what we do when we pick and choose verses to support our own claims. We propagandize the Bible when we pull stories out of context and fail to take in the breadth and depth of God’s narrative so that we might get a spiritual leg up on someone else.

Now, don’t get me wrong…the Bible has a lot to say about a lot of issues. But, we have to let the Bible say what the Bible is saying. There is so much depth to the Bible than just a political agenda. The Bible says much about living this life now rather than punching our ticket to the salvation of Heaven. The wealth of King Solomon can only truly be understood when compared to the apparent lack of wealth, and charity, of Jesus and the post-resurrection disciples. We do a deep disservice to the 2000+ years of history and people, struggle and suffering bound up in the pages of Scripture when we tack it’s verses to our outrage de jour.

What I’m basically saying is, we would do better to listen and ingest the words in Scripture rather than speak them constantly and use them for our own purposes. Otherwise, we will succumb to a similar temptation like Chrysler and ignore the whole story for the sake of telling an, ego-driven, commercially white-washed and board of directors approved version of our own story. When we listen to the story of Scripture, we are invited into it and are called to be our true selves in the midst of it’s revelation.

We offer ourselves to the God revealed in Scripture through Jesus, not the other way around.

We are co-opted into the story of God, not vice versa.

Then and only then can we honestly accept God when we’re told (not when we say), “Where you’ve been is part of your story.”