Advent, Reflectionary

Released for Joy

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.

Isaiah 35:10

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2008, I felt like life as I knew it was over. The stiffness and pain in my hands impacted daily activities, like preparing vegetables for dinner, or holding a pen to write a check. I had trouble squeezing the handle of the pump to put gas in my car. There was one morning when I couldn’t turn the knob to open the door and get out of my own bedroom. Creative pleasures like knitting and playing the piano seemed sure to be over for me.

I felt trapped, waiting to learn if medication would help, unsure of the long-term prognosis.

A friend who had been living with the same chronic illness since childhood pointed me to this section of Isaiah. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” I read in verse 3. Was this a commandment or a prophesy? Strengthening my weak hands and firming up my stiff and painful knees seemed unlikely, even impossible.

Isaiah points to the time when all the things holding us captive will be reversed, the prison doors opened, the locked windows thrown wide, the time when joy deferred becomes joy unstopped. Both Psalm 146 and its alternate choice, the Magnificat, lay out God’s plan for upsetting earthly power structures. And in Matthew 11, an indirect conversation conducted by messages to and from jail shows how the expectations John the Baptist had for the Messiah have been upended by Jesus.

Most of the time we are in the prison cell with John, feeling the limits on our power to affect change, wondering if any of the things we planned will ever come to fruition, waiting on God to show up in the form we expect and prefer. To that, we are all captive. And yet here we have this promise of God’s Holy Way, running like a ribbon of road through scripture. The reversals we hope and pray for are the will of God, who will bring wholeness, freedom, and joy.

Sometimes I am immobilized by a sense of my weakness, my feebleness, my “what I do doesn’t matter-ness.” My illness feels like a trap. I feel a kinship with Mary and wonder if she felt captive to the appearance of the angel and the overshadowing power of the Most High. She wondered how it could be possible, this commanding prophesy, this prophetic commandment.

Still, she said yes to it. She embraced God’s reversal of her life, of the expectations everyone else had for her, of the limits she held for herself. If you preach the Magnificat, I hope you will add the three words the lectionary leaves off, “And Mary said…”

Those words remind us she was a prophet.

Whatever is binding us, stalling us, holding us captive, may we, too, embrace the reversals promised by God and be released for joy.

Purple and orange crocuses bloom from dry leaves. The text is "Advent 3. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Isaiah 35:1"

Do you want reflections and images like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers.

Advent, Reflectionary

Unquenchable Peace

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Matthew 3:12

In the first congregation I served after seminary, when it was time to pass the peace, I noted that most members of the congregation commented on each other’s clothes, or asked about their neighbor’s grandchildren, or wondered about someone’s mother’s health. They talked about pretty much anything they could think of rather than offering each other the peace of Christ. I was frustrated, in that way you are when you feel pretty sure you know the right way to do everything. 

I stopped calling that moment in worship the passing of the peace. Instead I invited the congregation to rise and greet their neighbors. Several months later, after Easter, we read about Jesus in the Upper Room leaving his peace with the disciples. I preached about passing the peace as a radical acting out of our faith, a way of claiming our identity in Jesus Christ. 

John the Baptist offers a vivid image of the coming Messiah, wielding unquenchable fire to clear out all the mess of human systems. He has a very particular idea of who God will send, and we’ll learn later that it does not include Jesus’ fondness for having dinner with sketchy characters. John is making the way for a reordering according to God’s priorities. 

We probably all have moments when we hope for the same thing, as long as the definition of “chaff” is up to us. 

John expects the Messiah to burn away all the people who would not obey God, and I feel an uncomfortable identification with him when I remember how self-righteous I often felt in my first pastoral call. John is right to think that the Messiah will change the world, that the Messiah will change us. But he’s wrong about how. Jesus came to wield unquenchable peace. We see it in his healing, in his teaching, and in his dying, full of generosity for the rejected and the misaligned and the broken-hearted. Following him is all the things John suggested – letting go of our sense of importance and turning from our accustomed ways of being – and it is more – living in harmony with one another and with God, whose desire for peace will never be extinguished.

I wonder how ready we are to claim that identity? It’s tempting, instead, to talk about the weather, or that attractive reindeer pin our friend is wearing; it’s also tempting to adopt John’s perspective and threaten devastation against the people who don’t live up to our expectations. Who wants to admit, humbly, that we have been too harsh, too righteous, too wrong? 

For today, let’s try it.

The Peace of Christ be with you.

Want reflections like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers.

Advent, Reflectionary

Unknown Hope

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Matthew 24:36

Advent begins with Jesus asking us to hold onto hope in an unknown: God’s change is coming, but we don’t know when. We are at risk of missing it when it does arrive because we are sleepy, or distracted, or too busy with the work in front of us to notice anything else. 

We might expect Jesus to be in the know on things of major importance, but that’s not what he tells the disciples. He believes God will make some kind of change in the status quo, but he admits he doesn’t know when, even though it revolves around him. I wonder how sure Matthew’s Jesus is about his status. Does he wonder whether he has accomplished what he came to do? Will any of this matter to anyone in the long run? 

I’m reminded of those uncomfortable times in my life when I knew something – a job, a relationship, a particular sense of identity I held – was coming to an end. Even when I knew the ending was appropriate, I felt uneasy, unsure of how life would change and who I would be on the other side. 

That feels to me like the apocalyptic dynamic of our time, the worry people of faith carry with them. We thought we knew what it meant to be God’s people. We had an idea of what we hoped God might do. But given the state of the world, we may wonder how we once managed to be so sure, why it is taking God so long to set things right, and whether there is something we need to do, right now, to make things better. 

As Advent begins, may we sit in the discomfort with Jesus, on the edge of what is coming next.

Want reflections like this one in your inbox? Subscribe to Reflectionary, my Monday morning email for Revised Common Lectionary preachers.