It is Advent! This is a season of expectation, of looking forward to the coming of the Lord. Throughout the history of the people of God we have looked forward to what God will do in either judgment or deliverance, punishment or rescue. The readings for this month come from across the whole Bible and speak of God’s coming action, as understood in the historical context of that reading. Sometimes the readings are a warning, sometimes a promise.
Our readings this month will have minimal notes. The notes will give the background to the passage, its historical context and the challenges then facing the people of God. It is up to the reader to think about the challenges of our own day and what the readings can teach us about our own expectation of what God might do in our future, in our context.
Monday, November 30, 2020: Psalm 79; Micah 4:1-5; Revelation 15:1-8
Psalm 79 is steeped in the experience of war and desolation, most probably the fall of Jerusalem to the invading Babylonians dated 587 BCE. Vss 1-4 outline the calamity, noting the ruination of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple, the massacre of the citizens and that they were unburied (vss 2-3), and the taunting and mocking they endured from their neighbours (vs 4), a taunt that is ultimately directed at God (see vss 10a, 12b).
Vss 5-12 are a series of petitions for deliverance and vengeance. Vs 13 strikes a note of confidence that God will hear and act and affirms the enduring relationship of the shepherd and the sheep and the thankfulness of the people.
Among the petitions is the recognition that we are all the inheritors of ancestral sins (vs 8) and that there is a collective responsibility for the past that we seek to move beyond so that compassion [might] come speedily to us, for we are brought very low. How much does expectation and hope for the future rest in a realistic acknowledgment of our (collective) past sins and our present predicament?
Micah 4.1-5: Micah was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. He prophesied from approximately approximately 737 to 696 BCE during the reigns of kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah. This was a time when Assyria was the dominant regional power and threatened the northern kingdom of Israel. Around 701 BCE Assyria besieged and conquered Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom.
Micah’s prophesy was directed chiefly toward Jerusalem. He prophesied the future destruction of Jerusalem and Samaria, although these events were separated by over 100 years. In foreseeing the destruction and then the future restoration of the Judean state, he rebuked the people of Judah for dishonesty and idolatry.
This passage looks to days to come (vs 4a) when the people of Israel will be restored and become a focal point for the ingathering of many nations (vs 4b). Note the action of God in arbitrating between strong nations far away (vs 2a), reference to the power struggles between Egypt and Assyria (and later Babylon), with the promise of peace (vss 3b-4).
What will God do in the future struggles for power of our age amid the dynamics of the old colonial powers of Europe exploring their new Union, the current (or waning?) power of the USA and the rising powers of Asia, especially China? What can we learn from Micah about our future?
Revelation 15.1-8: Revelation is presented as a ‘prophecy’ of what the future of the Roman empire will be, with Rome represented under the figure of ‘Babylon’. After a series of apocalyptic disasters, plagues and punishments, chapter 15 presents a vision of empowerment and witness by those who had conquered the beast and its image (vs 2b). Vss 3 – 4 reveal their power and their song and vss 5 -8 tell that the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened…
How will the church of God bear witness in the current travails and challenges of world history? What does the angel of the Lord call us to proclaim and prophesy in this age?
Tuesday, December 1, 2020: Psalm 79; Micah 4:6-13; Revelation 18:1-10
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Micah 4.6-13: Today’s reading carries on from yesterday’s. In that day (vs 6) reveals the start of another oracle. This is another oracle of salvation, of rescue. The lame that are here welcomed in (vs 7) were by Deuteronomic law to be shut out of the temple (a reference to the taunt of the original defenders of Jerusalem see 2 Samuel 5.6 ff). Jesus seems to fulfil this prophesy when the blind and the lame came to him in the temple and he healed them (Matthew 21.14) in contradiction of the Jewish exclusion of such people from their holy places (2 Samuel 5.8)
Vs 11 is a marked change. This verse is an oracle of judgement, of many nations arraigned against Israel. Vs 12 reveals a secret plan of the Lord, revealed in vs 13.
Who are the marginalised and excluded in our society that the Lord calls us (unexpectedly!) to include and welcome? What twists and turns and reversals of fortune are coming in the fortunes of the powerful and arrogant in the world?
Revelation 18 is the narrative of the fall and judgment of Babylon, one of my favourite passages of the whole Bible. I love the poetry and symbolism of it, the successive laments of all these who had become rich through their involvement with the city. The first voice announces the end of Babylon (vss 1-3). The second voice calls Come out of her , my people… (vss 4-8). Vss 9-10 give the first of the laments of those who watch her destruction. Reading the whole chapter is worth it. Lament after lament over her judgment is offered before the people of God are finally called to rejoice over her judgement (Revelation 18.20).
When we see the rise and fall of nations in our own time are we called to lament, or to rejoice? How shall we find our voice for this vital work in the unfolding of the future?
Wednesday, December 2, 2020: Psalm 79; Micah 5:1-5a; Luke 21:34-38
For the Psalm, see Monday.
Micah 5.1-5 continues the cycle of oracles. Vs 1 is an oracle of judgement, but vss 2-5 are oracles of salvation. Vs 2 has become a part of the Christmas narrative as we can see in Matthew 2.1-12 and the following oracles in vss 4-5a have been applied to Jesus. Vs 5b returns with some abruptness to the late 8th century BCE and the threat of Assyria to the small and weak state of Israel.
In this chapter the geopolitics of ancient Israel and the many threads of the first Advent of Christ mingle together. In our own age how do geopolitics and Christian expectation interact? Is it only in the time of Jesus that prophecies of empires and their rise and fall are linked with the expectations of the people of God, or are we called to similar watchfulness and readiness in our own age?
Luke 21.34-38: This passage emphasises Jesus’ message of readiness and watchfulness. The final verse is interesting: if our preaching were more engaged (like Jesus) with preparedness for the challenges of our time, would we find all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to [us]? (vs 38).
Thursday, December 3, 2020: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Hosea 6:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10
Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13 is a reading that removes a key section – vss 3-7. This ‘harmonises’ the opening section (usually vss 1-3: an acknowledgement of past salvation) and the concluding section (vss 8-13: an oracle of future salvation) by omitting a lament about the current struggles and misfortune of the people (vss 4-7).
Let us attend to the final oracle of salvation: vs 8 is of an unusual form which introduces a prophetic oracle in vss 9-13. It is almost as if a priest introduces another speaker who from vs 9 on assures the people of coming salvation, which is both imminent (vs 9) and marked by the salvific powers of love, faithfulness, righteousness (or justice) and peace coming together (vss 10-13).
But what of verse 8? How do we hear what God the Lord will speak in our own time? Who names or introduces the prophetic word? In an age of social media, constant chatter and the endless dump of information into our ears, eyes and minds, how do we still ourselves enough, and find the quiet, ordering rituals to be people who turn to him in their hearts (vs 8c)?
Hosea was a prophet who found in his tumultuous private life (for his wife was unfaithful and appears to have borne children by other men – see Hosea 1.2-9, 2.2-5) an allegory of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Here in Chapter 6 he prophesies a return to the Lord in vss 1-3. In vss 4-6 there is an oracle of judgment spoken in the very voice of the Lord. Vs 6 was quoted by Jesus in Matthew 9.13.
In 1 Thessalonians 1 Paul offers his thanksgiving for the Thessalonian church (in vss 2-10). The reason for its inclusion in this week is in vs 10 – how all their faithfulness and service and exemplary life leads them to expectation, waiting and rescue… from the wrath that is coming (vs 10).
Friday, December 4, 2020: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Jeremiah 1:4-10; Acts 11:19-26
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Jeremiah 1. 4-10 is the call narrative of Jeremiah. Each of the prophets had a story about how they were commissioned, how God spoke to them and called them. It was part of their authentication, their validation for prophetic ministry in the eyes of the people. Sometimes, as with Moses, it came with protest and reluctance on the part of the prophet. Here Jeremiah protests his youth. This is overridden by God’s call which predates his birth in its origin (vs 5) and its final destiny in the rise and fall of nations and kingdoms (vs 10).
Does our sense of expectation in this day, our sense of the gospel, have roots so deep and consequences so high?
While Acts 11.19-26 starts with scattering, death and foreboding, it soon changes because the hand of the Lord was with them (vs 21). Barnabas comes into this environment and is impressed (vss 23-24). He then looks for Paul and brings him into this ferment of the community now energised by the martyrdom of Stephen.
We know well the conversion of Saul (Acts 9) and his later missionary work and Christian theologising, but the link between these two phases of Paul’s Christian experience is the way Barnabas sought him out (vs 25), encouraged him and mentored him in service for a whole year (vs 26). Expectation is not always about waiting and watching, but sometimes discerning who are the ones who will initiate and shape the future and encouraging and mentoring them in their calling.
Who are we called to seek out, encourage and train for the tasks of the future?
Saturday, December 5, 2020: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Mark 11:27-33
For the Psalm, see Thursday.
Ezekiel was a prophet who worked in the time of the Exile in Babylon. In Ezekiel 36.24-28 he prophesies the restoration of the scattered people of Israel. In vs 26 he prophesies a change of heart in terms similar to Jeremiah 31.33. Vs 28 repeats the terms of the covenant known from the Deuteronomic writings.
In a time of repression and exile, of military defeat and cultural retreat, the prophet looks to a time of restoration and return, but not just a return to the status quo. He foresees a new spiritual vitality and energy, reinterpreting the ancient covenant.
As we live through an age of cultural marginalisation and institutional decay, what is the prophetic word to God’s people in the 21st century?
Mark 11.27-33 ends the week with a fascinating argument between Jesus and the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (vs 27). The setting is the week before Jesus’ death. The issue is his authority. They ask Jesus a question about his authority. In posing a counter question, which they refuse to answer, Jesus exposes their failure to understand the work of John the Baptist, the forerunner to Jesus. Because they were caught between the expectation of the people (vs 32) and their own lack of faith (vs 31) they were powerless to force an answer from Jesus – and even if they had received an answer they would not have understood or responded to it.
Expectation, preparedness, is a force that constrains the powerful and shapes the courses of action open to others in our own day. How does our expectation act to constrain and shape the actions of others who will create the future?