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Note: In this reflection I’ll consider primarily today’s Gospel reading.

Reading: John 1:(1-9), 10-18

John 1 is one of those passasges you just can’t say too much about. Today’s reading is a grand christological/theological proclamation, audacious in its claim that God did something unprecedented in the incarnation of Jesus. At the same time, John is clearly attempting to connect Jesus to Jewish tradition, to remain within the bounds of “orthodoxy.”

What do I mean? First, of course, we notice that verse 1 reformulates Genesis 1:1, placing Jesus with God at the beginning of God’s creative work. Except, second, we notice that John avoids naming Jesus and instead calls him “the Word.” Whatever the other implications of the Greek words logos, John identifies the Word as a figure through whom all things were created, a concept found in Jewish tradition in the figure of Woman Wisdom (for example, see today’s accompanying readings in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 10).

Then we come to verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Here is John’s most scandalous statement. To assert that God would in any way become visible directly contradicts the Second Commandment, in which God commanded the people not to make idols—of other gods, of course, but also and apparently of God, too. As John goes on to assert in verse 18, no one has seen God. So to say not only that the Word became flesh, but that we have seen his glory (“the glory of the Lord” is a common OT euphemism for God’s presence) appears to be blasphemy of the highest order.

But there may be a certain theological logic behind John’s statement. As Patrick Miller notes in his recent book on the Ten Commandments, it may be that one of the reasons God prohibits the people from making idols, or images, of gods or Godself is that God had in fact already created an “image of God”—that is, humanity itself. The only one allowed to create an image of God is God. Turning back to John, then, it should probably come as no surprise that, in order to make the stunning assertion that God became flesh, John takes the reader back to Genesis 1 and God’s creative action. God creating an image of Godself when the Word becomes flesh has a certain continuity with the idea of God creating humanity in God’s image. With the notable exception, of course, that this particular image of God is full of God’s grace and truth (see also Colossians 1:15, where Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”). Finally, if we read slowly, we notice that it is not until John establishes this basic idea that he goes on to name Jesus as the particular one in whom the Word became flesh.

Heady stuff for Christmas (in typical secular understanding). But these words from Gregory Fruehwirth say it nicely: “The fullness of God’s Self was present in Jesus, and as a result of God’s indwelling Spirit, we can begin to live the moments of our lives as likewise filled with God, open to the full reality of the eternal Word. This new potential of creation to bear the fullness of God’s life and light is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is what Jesus’ birth announces” (Words for Silence, p. 43).

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9 * Philippians 1:3-11 * Luke 3:1-6

This week the theme of righteousness plays a prominent role in the readings. In Malachi, the messenger of the Lord purifies the people until they “present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” In Baruch, the people are exhorted to “put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God.” Paul picks up this theme in Philippians, praying that they may abound in love so that on the day of Christ they may be “pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” And in Luke, we see John the Baptist fulfilling the role of the messenger by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

It’s interesting to note that in Luke, John is connected to Isaiah’s “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” declaring that the valleys should be filled and the mountains lowered so that the way of the Lord is prepared. The end result is that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” In Baruch, it is God who orders that these things be done so that “Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” The end result is that “God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.”

This week we are reminded that Advent is about more than waiting for a baby in a manger. We are waiting for the day that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” God sends messengers to announce God’s own coming. John is one such messenger, but note that Luke associates him with Isaiah’s prophetic voice rather than Malachi’s. In this way we are encouraged to see Jesus as Malachi’s messenger, for he rather than John is the one able to purify us in righteousness. And finally, we are reminded that Advent waiting is hardly passive waiting, for as Matthew 28 and Acts 1 tell us, Jesus has made us his messengers. Will we go into all the world, trusting that God has already gone ahead to prepare the way?

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16 * Psalm 25:1-10 * 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 * Luke 21:25-36

Here, at the beginning of the Christian year, notice the theme of God keeping God’s promises and how this is tied to the idea of God’s coming among us. In the Jeremiah text, God fulfills God’s promise to raise up a righteous Branch who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. This will result in Judah’s “salvation.” In the psalm, the psalmist counts on God’s “steadfast love” (hesed) for his salvation. He asks God to teach him God’s paths, which are “steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Our New Testament texts take us into the eschatological future and anticipate God’s coming. Paul prays that God will increase the Thessalonians’ love and holiness so that they will be blameless before God at the coming of Jesus. And the Luke text is one of those apocalyptic passages that seemingly combines a prediction of near-term calamity (in the OT prophets, cosmic turmoil represents the downfall of earthly political powers) with the eschatological arrival of Jesus.

What to make of all this? I argued in my six-part series on the gospel that the gospel is good news because its central focus and starting point is God’s action, not me and whether I end up in hell. These passages reflect that belief. Throughout the Bible, one of the writers’ major theological convictions is that God is righteous precisely because God keeps God’s promises (or shows hesed, steadfast love). God keeps God’s end of the covenant even when we don’t. As the psalmist declares, God’s mercy and steadfast love are “from of old.”

This theological conviction is also central to the New Testament. For example, Matthew regularly declares that certain events in Jesus’ life happened to fulfill OT Scripture. All the writers, in one way or another, interpret Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection in terms of God’s action in the world. Thus, in light of Jesus’ resurrection, the early Christians came to believe that he was God’s promised Messiah. God keeps God’s promises.

And one of those promises is that God will come among us in such a complete and final way that justice and righteousness will have complete sway over the earth (see, e.g., Rev. 21). God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, dwelled in the tabernacle during the wilderness wanderings, directed Israel through the giving of the Torah, took up residence in the temple, and, Christians believe, dwelled among us bodily in the person of Jesus and dwells among us still through the presence of the Holy Spirit. All these are signs and promises of God’s eventual coming in fullness and power.

So here, at the beginning of the year, we remember that God kept God’s promise to Israel by sending them the Messiah, and so we remember Jesus’ birth. But this annual Advent reminds us of that Advent that we ultimately wait for, and that we anticipate here, now, as we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Amen.

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 or Daniel 12:1-3 * 1 Samuel 2:1-10 or Psalm 16 * Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25 * Mark 13:1-8

More of a question about this week’s readings than an outright reflection, and I welcome your comments. What do you make of the shame/honor themes that run throughout the Bible? Do you think that Western readers have trouble interpreting the text because we don’t live in the kinds of cultures the Bible was written in?

In this week’s readings, the 1 Samuel texts center on Hannah, who is humiliated by her rival, who constantly points out that God has closed her womb. Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, a clear model for Mary’s song in the Gospel of Luke, exults in God’s action in reversing the places of the powerful and the downtrodden. She “derides her enemies” in her victory.

The Daniel 12 text, likely the first clear reference to bodily resurrection in the Old Testament, declares that some will be raised to everlasting life and some to—not eternal torment in hell, but “shame and everlasting contempt.” In Christian tradition, spending eternity in hell is the worst fate imaginable, but in the OT, telling your enemies off or putting them in their place seems to be ultimate retribution (e.g., Psalm 23’s “The Lord has prepared a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Take that!).

This motif is picked up in this week’s Hebrews text, which declares that Christ is sitting at God’s right hand until his enemies are made his footstool. And of course, if you know your OT, you know that being hung from a tree was a sign of having been cursed—something that doubtless figures into the Gospel writers’ accounts of Jesus’ death on a cross. Jesus’ resurrection, then, places him in a line of those whom God has vindicated against those who thought to keep them “under their thumb” (or worse), from Hannah to the psalmists.

But what do you think? How are we supposed to talk about shame/honor in Western culture in understandable ways? Many of us today are concerned about not assuming that God is on anyone’s side, but Hannah, the psalmist, and certainly the writer of Hebrews, referring to Jesus, clearly declared that God was on their side. How do we discuss God’s ultimately setting things right without encouraging the triumphalism that seems so prevalent in much American religious life?

Reading: Mark 10:17-31

This story is really interesting and bears looking into with some detail, although I will not be able to do so here. Rather, I’ll simply make some observations.

First, in the past I’ve read this story as though the man (not identified by Mark as a “rich young ruler”) was insincere. After all, isn’t his reference to Jesus as “good teacher” an obvious attempt to ingratiate himself? Isn’t he just looking for a shortcut to salvation? Now I don’t think so. I think that for us to feel the story’s full power, we need to see that the man was completely sincere, even when he declares that he has kept at least 5 of the 10 commandments since he was a youth, and even when Jesus deflects his attempt to write Jesus off as just another teacher (at least, I think that’s what Jesus is doing). No, the man is sincere. He really does want to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. As, by the way, do we. The text clearly asserts that Jesus “loved” him—an assertion that would be odd if he was just putting Jesus on (and wouldn’t Jesus know that?).

Second, Jesus connects “eternal life” with keeping the commandments that deal with how we treat each other. If nothing else, this should cause us to rethink our own ideas of what “eternal life” might be. Yes, Jesus goes on to say that eternal life will be given in the “age to come,” but we don’t get any real idea of what that is in this passage. Except that Jesus, after the man leaves, connects all this to “the kingdom of God.” Here we need to notice that Jesus twice asserts how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, but that these statements frame a more general statement that includes everyone: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

Third, the disciples’ astonishment seems to come from their apparent belief that wealth indicates blessing from God; therefore, if it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom, it must be impossible for those whom God has not so blessed. And Jesus does affirm that impossibility—but then immediately asserts the possibility of the impossible with God.

Finally, Peter declares that the disciples have done what the man could not—given up all they had to follow Jesus. Jesus doesn’t deny this, and affirms that those who do such things will be given back “in this life” what they gave up and receive eternal life in the age to come. But then comes that saying that seems to have been one of Jesus’ favorites: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

We need to pay attention to that final statement of Jesus. This is a story about discipleship and the difficulty of discipleship. Jesus’ statement to the man that there was “one thing” he should do was not some sort of universal key to the secret of salvation; it was what that man needed to do to. Only by giving his possessions away could he gain the perspective needed to be Jesus’ disciple—to see himself as “last” rather than “first” or, to put it another way, to recognize that it was only through the power of God that he would inherit eternal life.

The other disciples had done what the man could not, but this does not mean that they were any more privileged than him—hence Jesus’ final admonition. So, for those of us who would be Jesus’ disciples, we need to hear this story as being directed squarely at us. Like the man and the disciples, we need to come to Jesus sincerely as we seek eternal life. We need to hear from this story that eternal life in the age to come has a great deal to do with ordinary everyday life in this age. Loving God means loving our neighbor. But we also need to be ready to hear Jesus tell us to give up something we’re hanging on to, something that keeps us from seeing ourselves in proper perspective. The question is, will we have ears to hear?

Readings: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Mark 9:38-50

There’s an interesting similarity in the Numbers and Mark lessons for today. In Numbers, the people weep because the manna in the wilderness is nothing compared to the good food they had in Egypt. Moses goes before God and complains about the heavy burden that the people have become. God’s solution is to have Moses gather 70 elders of the people at the tent of meeting, where God’s spirit rests on them and they prophesy (but, notes the text, this was a one-time occurrence). But two elders, Eldad and Medad, also receive the spirit even though they remained in the camp, and they prophesy as well. When informed, Joshua declares that Moses should put an end to this “unauthorized” prophesying. Prophecy, it seems, is Moses’ bailiwick. This is reflected in Moses’ reply: “Are you jealous for my sake?” But he goes on: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

 In Mark, the disciples tell Jesus about someone moving in on his territory: “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” This episode occurs immediately after the disciples have been arguing about who is greatest among them. Thus, we’re invited to see this incident as another example of the disciples’ tendency to in-group and out-group: we’re in the inner circle; that guy’s a two-bit nobody who’s trading on Jesus’ name but doesn’t really get what he’s all about. Jesus’ reply? “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” He goes on to say that even those who do no more than give the disciples a cup of water because they follow Christ will gain “the reward.” Jesus follows this with a series of statements: about putting a stumbling block before “these little ones who believe in me”; about one’s hand, foot, or eye causing one’s own stumbling; and about the nature of having/being salt—being “at peace with one another.” lectionary

Jesus’ standards for who is “with him” are shockingly broad, including those who (we might speculate) are using his name to gain glory for themselves by casting out demons; and those who do nothing more than provide a cup of water for his name’s sake. At least Eldad and Medad were “registered” elders! At least in Numbers there’s no doubt that God’s spirit rested on them too! Here those affirmed by Jesus do not even have a name or credentials of any kind.

Jesus’ and Moses’ final words in these lessons are telling. Jesus’ statement, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another,” casts light on what immediately precedes it. Stop arguing about who is greatest. Stop ranking people by whether they know enough, or do enough, or believe enough to be “in.” Stop in-grouping and out-grouping and be at peace with others. That’s how you’ll show your saltiness. Moses’ words should send us to Acts 2 and Luke’s description of Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel 2—as a day when God’s spirit is poured out and the people prophesy. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit has indeed been poured out. The question, then, is whether we’re living in the power of the Spirit so that we’re able to bear witness to God’s redemptive intentions for the world, or whether we’re more interested in determining who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

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