I said yesterday that I was going to attempt a reflection on the readings for the Sundays of Advent. These are reading used in the Catholic Church , prechosen, and read wherever the faithful attend mass throughout the world. Other Christian communities use them, too, but not all. After reading them this morning, I can see that I am going to fail at this. I don’t really like today’s readings, half of them anyway.
If you care to follow me along, you will probably want to read them:
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Jeremiah alludes to the idea of a coming king, a descendent of Israel’s favorite, David , who “will do what is right and just throughout the land.” Christians have applied this passage to Jesus which in my mind seems a bit misplaced. I think Jesus actually rebuffed efforts to put him into a kingly role. He was born in a stable instead of a palace. He entered Jerusalem on a donkey instead of one of those contraptions they put a king in to be carried around on the shoulders of slaves. He ate with the lowly instead of the uppity-ups. He discouraged any efforts to call him king or divine, even telling people to be quiet about the healings.
Most countries today don’t have kings and in our democracy they aren’t valued. But kings were the only alternative when Jeremiah was writing and the idea of a king that would “do what is right and just throughout the land” was a message of hope for the Israelites who’d had a string of really bad kings. They hoped that this king would rescue the people and they would be able to live in safety, Jeremiah says.
I think I am missing the point. I need to think more deeply about this. What if I substitute the idea of a king with other things to which we give our allegiance? For example, during this season before Christmas, material stuff captures the allegiance of most of us and we can think of shopping as the way we honor our king. Like the kings of old, material stuff fails to give us the freedom we want. Many of us feel trapped by the holiday’s expectations. Even when buying and giving feels good, it still promotes the accumulation of stuff as a way to happiness. I watched my family members pour over the ads for Black Friday when were together on Thanksgiving. “I would love that.” “That is so cool!” It was a fun exercise, but all I could think about was the cost and the dust that some of these things would collect. I didn’t share my thoughts. They already know I am a killjoy.
While Jeremiah sort of left me flat, the Psalm reading made me soar. It so speaks, in my mind, to what it means to walk in the light. I love every verse, but these phrases stand out for me: “Defeat does not come to those who trust in you.” “Teach me your ways…make them known to me.” “Forgive the sins and errors of my youth.” To me it says that when I put my trust in God’s will for me, I can expect to overcome my addiction to material things or food or my job or people-pleasing or _______________ (you fill in the blank). God will help to free me of the character defects that screw up my relationships. To one who follows the path that God intended, one finds the Creator’s “constant love and goodness.”
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
I think Paul experienced the kind of walk described in the psalm. Recall Paul’s dramatic spiritual experience when he was struck by a blinding light while on the road to Damascus. In this letter to his Thessalonian friends, he tells them that on this walk with God they can expect to experience joy, that all their needs will be met, that they will develop a greater capacity for love and they will become stronger as they grow toward what God intended for them. What a salesman! For a person standing at the threshold, they might think that joy means constant euphoria, having needs met means getting whatever they want, the love promised is of the blissful kind, and growing will be painless. When they step onto the path and start walking, they may find out that this path isn’t as easy as they’d imagined. But Paul will offer them encouragement along the way. “No pain, no gain,” he’ll tell them. “Just keep walking toward the prize.” The joy will come and it looks an awful lot like serenity.
Luke 21:25 –26
The gospel reading is meant to be the centerpiece in this series of scriptures. The other readings are chosen to support it. This passage in Luke is one I am not particularly fond of. It is about the event known in Christian circles as “the second coming” which some people take literally, really literally – cosmic events, natural disasters, clouds for Jesus to come on…the whole shebang. I am a bit of a poet, so the idea of symbolism comes naturally to me. As in my reflections on the Jeremiah passage, I’d like to suggest that the disasters that shake us up most are of the inside variety and different for each of us. They come in the form of emotional chaos, illness and death, loss of jobs, and broken relationships. When disaster strikes we may find ourselves scared, angry, and lonely. Having Jesus come at times like that can feel really good.
But wait! There’s more. In my study of the bible I recall reading that “clouds” represent crowds of people. What that made me think of is the way that I most experience the God who takes away my fear and loneliness…through other people. No doubt the most powerful spiritual experiences I have had came as a result of people reaching out to me when I was in need. I am not diminishing Jesus here. In fact, Jesus said that the work he started (saving, healing, encouraging, etc) will be continued by his followers, who were people. I love those stories in which a searcher sets out to find Jesus and meets all sorts of bedraggled people only to realize in the end that this had been Jesus all along. “The Fourth Wise Man” was one of these, but there are many others.
It is interesting how in really thinking through these scripture passages, I managed to get a lot out of them, even the two that at first reading I didn’t like. Maybe that is what it means to ‘chew’ on the things. Chewing makes ideas easier to swallow and facilitates our getting the most benefit from them.
I think I had better stop there. Have a good First Sunday.