A prayer and a promise

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Readings for the Christmas Season

January 5
The twelfth day of Christmas

1 Give the king your justice, O God,
…..and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
…..and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
…..and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
…..give deliverance to the needy,
…..and crush the oppressor.
5 May he live while the sun endures,
…..and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
…..like showers that water the earth.
7 In his days may righteousness flourish
…..and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,
…..and from the River to the ends of the earth.
9 May his foes bow down before him,
…..and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
…..render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
…..bring gifts.
11 May all kings fall down before him,
…..all nations give him service.
12 For he delivers the needy when they call,
…..the poor and those who have no helper.
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
…..and saves the lives of the needy.
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
…..and precious is their blood in his sight.
15 Long may he live!
…..May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
…..and blessings invoked for him all day long.
16 May there be abundance of grain in the land;
…..may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
…..may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
…..like the grass of the field.
17 May his name endure for ever,
…..his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;
…..may they pronounce him happy. Psalm 72:1-17

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The 1984 translation of the New International Version (NIV) translated all these verbs into the future tense: “He will judge your people in righteousness…He will defend the afflicted…He will endure as long as the sun…He will be like rain falling on a mown field.” They couldn’t resist reading the psalm as a promise rather than a prayer. I’m not sure they weren’t right.

I know that linguistically the translation ‘may’ is probably safer. But this psalm has its origins in political rhetoric. This is an enthronement psalm. Kings have always been greeted with pretentious language. More profoundly, Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr in their book Psalms refer to these as divine imperatives describing what the king must do. Some sense of that is captured by the Tanakh Translation of the Jewish Publication Society when it translates the psalm saying “Let him champion the lowly…let him be like rain that falls on a mown field.”

This is what a king should be. It is what Israel’s kings largely failed to be. It is why God said both that he would give a new king and that he, himself, would come to reign.

What we saw in Jesus was a reign like this. What we see in Jesus is a reign like this. He defends the lowly. He delivers the needy. He cares for the poor. He redeems their life. The lifeblood of even the weakest among us is precious in his sight. He is like that first rain at the end of the dry season that promises goodness to the coming year. And he, we confess, will reign from sea to sea. Before him all kings will ultimately bow; all creation will come under his gracious and glorious rule. The earth will be brought into his peace.

So, yes, the psalm is a prayer – but it is also promise. And when the magi come to bow down they invite us all to bow down and come under his glorious and gentle rule.

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Arise, shine

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Readings for the Christmas Season

January 4
The eleventh day of Christmas

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
…..and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
…..and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
…..and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
…..and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
…..they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
…..and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
…..your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
…..the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
…..the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
…..all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
…..and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
7 All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you,
…..the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall be acceptable on my altar,
…..and I will glorify my glorious house. Isaiah 60:1-7

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Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

It is easy to understand how the tradition turns the magi turn into kings – or why they are often pictured riding camels. The words of the prophet evoke the story of the magi’s visit:

“A multitude of camels shall cover you,
…..the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
…..all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
…..and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

In the narrative of I & II Kings, the queen of Sheba comes to testify to the wisdom and wealth of Solomon. She verifies that all God’s promises to Solomon have been fulfilled. Her visit is the high point in the account. From there the story goes downward into corruption, rebellion, and idolatry. God’s commands to do mercy and justice are forgotten as wealth and power piles up in the hands of a few. The prophets cry havoc and brutal fates await the tribes of Israel – but the promise remains.

The promise remains: the promise Abraham trusted, the promise Moses followed. The God who wrestled with Jacob, inspired Joseph and led Israel out from bondage through the wilderness, the God who raised David from the sheepfold and promised him an everlasting kingdom – this God keeps covenant. This God shows faithfulness even when we are faithless. This God of steadfast love keeps his word. And so the good shepherd comes, born of the house of David, and the promise of the ancient texts comes to flower.

The visit of the magi embodies this vision of kings bearing royal gifts, of the scattered being gathered, of light shining in the darkness, of a world reborn. The testimony of the ancients is confirmed by the signs written in the heavens. God is faithful. He keeps his word. He comes to reign.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

The daylight of the world

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Readings for the Christmas Season

January 3
The tenth day of Christmas

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

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“I am the light of the world.”

So what shall we imagine? Is Jesus the light of a flashlight guiding our steps as we walk through a campground late at night? Is he the lantern shining upon the picnic table and surrounding tents that creates a welcoming space in the darkness of the night? Or is he the light that fills the world, marking the difference between night and day?

There is something sweet and profound about the first two of these. The images are personal, intimate, comforting. But the world of Jesus has no Coleman lanterns, no battery powered headlamps to light your way. There are only the dimly burning wicks of oil lamps. Our gospel writer, John, who ponders so deeply upon the wonder and mystery that is Christ Jesus, has in mind the daylight that surrounds us.

John the baptizer is described as a shining lamp, but Jesus is “the light of the world.” This phrase shows up about Jesus several times, but also once when Jesus says: Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.”

Jesus is the daylight of the world. In Christ we are not peering at shadows in the night as we walk in some small, illumined patch; we are living in the full light of day. The heart of God is known to us. The triumph of grace and life is clear. The call to love one another is visible. The breath of the Spirit is blowing. We are summoned forth like Lazarus from the realm of shadows into a divine living that endures forever.

Yes, Christ lightens our path in those times that seem dark. And, yes, wonderfully, Christ creates a safe space in a world too often harsh and ugly. But we are invited to live in the daylight that is Christ Jesus, to dwell in the radiance of divine mercy and grace – and to walk as children of that light.

A light to the nations

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Readings for the Christmas Season

January 2
The ninth day of Christmas

5 Thus says God, the LORD,
…..who created the heavens and stretched them out,
…..who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
…..and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
…..I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
…..a light to the nations,
…..7to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
…..from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the LORD, that is my name;
…..my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
…..and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
…..I tell you of them. Isaiah 42:5-9

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A light to the nations.

As the Christmas season progresses our eyes turn toward Epiphany, the sign in the heavens, the magi’s journey, the gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. But the Feast of the Epiphany is not separate from Christmas. They both celebrate the incarnation, the word made flesh. They both rejoice in the birth of a new king, the dawn of a new governance of the human heart. They both are about light to the nations – light to all the peoples of the world. They are the bookends of a single season, two narratives of one deeply profound mystery: God has come to us. The beating heart of all existence is made flesh. The author of all life from whom our world is so estranged has drawn near. Immanuel.

The wedding banquet is begun. Water is turned to wine. Tears of sorrow become tears of joy. The radiance of heaven shines forth. The scattered are gathered. Eyes are opened. The Spirit given. The way of love is revealed. A new exodus is at hand.

In the eyes of the society around us, the festivities are over. The trees are down. The stores are already filled with the next marketing opportunity: Valentines Day candy, fake roses, and cute stuffed animals in heart handled mugs. But in Bethlehem, the child awaits the magi. In Bethlehem knees will yet bend. In Bethlehem real human hearts open to serve a new reign.

A world made new

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Readings for the Christmas Season

January 1
The eighth day of Christmas

17 For I am about to create new heavens
…..and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
…..or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice for ever
…..in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
…..and its people as a delight.
19 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.
20 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.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
…..they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.22
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.
23 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.
24 Before they call I will answer,
…..while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 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. Isaiah 65:17-25

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Perhaps the promise of a world made new is appropriate for the first day of a new year. On New Year’s Eve we bid adieu to the old and welcome the new. We look forward. We make resolutions. We anticipate a new and better year.

We can imagine what might be. We can imagine a year that’s healthier, wealthier, or happier. I don’t think my dog ever hoped for anything other than something to fall from the dinner table – or a Milk Bone when she came in from outside (she seemed to glance at the box every time). I suspect she dreamt of chasing rabbits rather than a world where rabbits and dogs lie down in peace.

We can imagine a better world. We can imagine a world where the bombing stops. We can imagine a world where none go hungry. We can imagine a world where all have work, elders are honored and children suffer no violence of body or spirit. Something is written in the human heart. Something that speaks of what could be. Something that speaks of what should be: a world without fear, a world without sorrow.

The promise of the prophet resonates deeply in us. And the question that abides is whether the prophet’s vision is a vain hope in a broken world, or whether God can unbreak the human heart – whether God can heal and restore his creation.

The way we answer that question will explain the spirit in which we live, not only in this new year, but in every new day.

Good News and Bad

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Readings for the Christmas Season

December 31
The seventh day of Christmas

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
…..18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
…..…..because he has anointed me
…..…..to bring good news to the poor.
…..He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
…..…..and recovery of sight to the blind,
…..…..to let the oppressed go free,
…..19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ Luke 4:14-21

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Whatever else we may think of Jesus, it is clear that he represented good news to “the poor” – those on the margins, those betrayed by health or circumstance, those widowed or orphaned or rejected. The phrase is not an economic one, even as we might refer to a grieving mother as “that poor woman” or to parents of a challenging child as “those poor people”.

The ‘poor’ in the Biblical world may have limited resources, but that covered nearly everyone. What mattered was a loss of social standing. The poor are the marginalized: the widows with no male family member to conduct their affairs in the public square, the lame who could not enter the temple, the lepers kept outside of town, the peasants who had lost their land, the tax collectors and others who had lost all honor and were social outcasts (Zacchaeus is in a tree not just because he was short, but because no one regarded him as worthy of making room for him.)

Nothing is more profound than the ruthlessness with which Jesus pursues this notion that all are honored before God. He doesn’t allow these poor to be ranked a little bit above those poor, like dogs beneath the table establishing their hierarchy while scrabbling for crumbs. He engages the woman at the well and Simon the Pharisee. He answers the prayer of the Syrophoenician woman and the Samaritan leper. Indeed, as Jesus speaks to the congregation in Nazareth in this passage today, he will alienate them all by saying that God cared equally for foreigners like the widow of Zarephath and Namaan the commander of the enemy army whom the prophet healed from his leprosy.

Good news and bad news intertwine. Good news for the poor who are welcomed; bad news if you want to maintain some sense of superiority over others. Good news because we are brought back into the fullness of the human community; bad news if you don’t want all to stand together in the presence of God. But today, in Christ, this scripture is fulfilled.

Oaks of righteousness

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Readings for the Christmas Season

December 30
The sixth day of Christmas

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
…..because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
…..to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
…..and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
…..and the day of vengeance of our God;
…..to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion —
…..to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
…..the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
…..the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
…..they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
…..the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61:1-4

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“They will be called oaks of righteousness.” Or maybe it’s better to translate it as Oaks of Fidelity, for ‘righteousness’ refers to our fidelity to God and to one another, the fulfilling of what is expected in service of God and care for neighbor.

“They will be called oaks of righteousness.” The ‘they’ in this sentence are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives mentioned before.

God has a future for those who mourn and sit in ashes over the desolation of Jerusalem by the tramping boots of Babylon’s armies. They will build what has been torn down. They will resurrect what has been lost. They will become the faithful people they had failed to be. They will be oaks of fidelity.

The prophetic vision doesn’t quite find its realization in the community after the exile. There were few oaks. The preaching of Haggai and Malachi suggest a community less than enthusiastic for rebuilding. The demands of survival have a way of quenching zeal. But the promise abides. And Jesus will take up this prophetic word in Nazareth and declare it fulfilled in himself. “Today, as you were listening…”

Today. Today dawns the new creation. Today dawns the remission of sins. Today dawns the gift of the Spirit. Today we are invited to rejoice and receive – and to build and to plant.

He will not grow faint

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Readings for the Christmas Season

December 29
The fifth day of Christmas

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
…..my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
…..he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
…..or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
…..and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
…..he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
…..until he has established justice in the earth;
…..and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Isaiah 42:1-4

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“He will not grow faint.” I grow faint. Most pastors grow faint at some time or another. Congregations are people. People are people. And sometimes they act in ways that wear you down (though at other times they surprise you wonderfully!)

Parents grow faint. Children are children and sometimes they act in ways that wear you down (though at other times they surprise you wonderfully!)

Workers grow faint. Volunteers grow faint. Warriors grow faint. Politicians must surely grow faint. Those who struggle for justice, those who feed the hungry, those who tend the sick, those who care for the elderly – we all grow faint. Sometimes the work seems pointless. Sometimes it seems like we will never achieve what is necessary. Ugliness persists. War persists. Hate persists. Hardness of heart persists. We all grow faint.

But he will not grow faint. “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.” He will not grow faint until the world is reborn. He will not grow faint until we are filled with his Spirit. He will not grow faint until peace and fidelity reigns.

He will not grow faint. And in his courage we persist.

I came that they may have life

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Readings for the Christmas Season

December 28
The fourth day of Christmas

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:1-10

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The readings for this season all deserve comment, though they also deserve to left alone. The promises of the prophets, the words of Jesus, need to linger in the air. We are busy to run off to other things – shopping, football, travel, and chores that have been put aside in the run up to Christmas. But there is something about these days of the Christmas season that should be like sitting down after a party and relishing the goodness of the event rather than rushing to clean up. The Christ is born. The divine life dwells among us. In his hands, in his words, in his grace, in his sacrifice, we see the heart and passion of the eternal, creative, and life-giving truth at the heart of all things. Here is the gate through which we go out to good pasture. Here is the good shepherd leading us to true life. Here is the voice we recognize as true and trustworthy. In a world of thieves and bandits plundering the sheep, here is the one who protects and saves. We are not scattered and abandoned like sheep without a shepherd. We are not alone in the terrors of the world. We are guided and beloved. The Christ is here. In that joy we should linger. In that peace we should live.

Behold your God!

Readings for the Christmas Season

December 27
The third day of Christmas

Get you up to a high mountain,
…..O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
…..O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
…..lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
…..‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
…..and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
…..and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
…..he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
…..and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:9-11)