Friday, 29 November 2013

New stuff out of old stumps.

Lectionary Passages for Dec. 8, 2nd Advent. Isaiah 11:1-10, Ps 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matt 3:1-12
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Isaiah is familiar reading territory for Advent. If you attend church around this time of year, you know the bit about the shoot from the stump of Jesse. A few years ago, another pastor told me he doesn't like preaching during this season, because the repetitive themes get old for him. I see his point, I have that worry too, but so far (I think I've preached about 15 advent seasons) it just hasn't happened. Each year there are different things going on in my life, the church, and society, and each time I read the same old scriptures, new things strike me.

This year Isaiah 11:3 seems fresh, how have I not noticed this before? In describing the coming messiah, Isaiah says that he will not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear....That's odd. Right away my mind jumps to the idea that "God judges the heart", but that's not the answer contained in this passage. Here the answer is that he judges with righteousness. That seems less about heart than about how the people have acted. This answer is given to whole peoples, not to individuals. When God comes, the poor and the meek will be rightly treated and the wicked will die. It's a righting of national relations, a setting up of a new governance that puts what is right before what is profitable. And somehow that new system will be prosperous. A huge, mysterious hope for something very different than the world we know.

Psalm 72 also lifts up the cause of the poor and underprivileged, talking about prosperity in practical terms like abundant food and peace. Here David (the psalmist) envisions justice as something that might be channeled through an earthly king, he wants God to give the king  (himself) the ability to act righteously. The final sentence of the Psalm, however, makes it clear that David knows that all good ultimately comes from God, David knows who the king really is.

Matt. 3 is the familiar story of John the Baptist preparing the way. This year, however, I notice some parallels to the Isaiah piece. In verse 8, John tells the corrupt religious leaders of the time that they are to "bear fruit worthy of repentance." Again, it is less about the heart than it is about how the people are acting-what the results are evident. Verse 12 does the judgment bit too, the grain is gathered while the chaff is burned. Of course, we assume we are grain...

Romans is a bit different than the other scriptures, what I notice here is again the corporate nature of the message. Paul is speaking to a divided church, a church where two cultures (Jew and Gentile) have come together. How do we get along with whole different cultures within the church? More than ever, we are seeing great cultural diversity in our society, and in the Christian church. How do we truly listen to, respect, and value each other? Paul claims the "root of Jesse" for the Gentiles in verse 12. Those adopted into the faith have every bit as much claim to God as do those whose faith is inherited.

So, the new challenges for me in reading these scriptures this time.
1. The passages are written to groups, to nations. How do I hear these out of my context living in an individualistic culture? What does group justice look like today? Is it all about laws, or is this a challenge for the church as a group to take on? (In a time when churches are more congregationally minded and thinking less of denominational structures, is there something here we need to pay attention to?)
2. No matter what is going on, God judges in a way that is beyond human eyes and ears. That is encouraging for the times we feel misunderstood, but can also be humbling because there is nothing that can be hidden from God. God expects us to bear fruit-are we doing that?
3. I'm struck, again, by the heavy emphasis on good news for the poor. the Advent message is a challenge to change systems, to work toward eliminating poverty and to involve all types of people in the church. I can't help but hear the words of judgement in Isaiah and Matthew and wonder if our actions (as mostly wealthy people) are simply inadequate. There is a need for John's repentance message for all of us!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Those scary rapture verses

Lectionary Readings for the First Advent, Dec. 1. Isaiah 2:1-5, Ps 122, Rom. 13:11-14, Matt. 24:36-44
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

"Then two will be left in the field; one will be taken and one will be left...." For so many of us these words bring up memories of bad movies, sensationalist books, and cold-stomach fear. (Okay, I admit I am quite biased! I really can't stand stuff that plays on emotion and uses it to scare people into belief.) Often this passage tends to hijack the rest of the message with the panic and the worry that ensues.

People don't like the idea of not knowing, of being unsure of what is in store for them. In the Believers Church Bible Commentary, Richard Gardner says that people have tended toward 3 responses to apocalyptic literature like this. One is to attempt to "assemble all the jigsaw pieces", to document and explain and predict. A second is to disregard the corporate nature of the message and turn it into a reason for an individualistic "get right with God" thing-getting scared into heaven. A third is to completely spiritualize the message by saying the judgement and resurrection is all part of the here and now, but isn't a physical time or place or event.

Gardner says all three tendencies are largely unhelpful. The message here is that God is determined to redeem us, and we are invited to get involved. Absolutely central to the message is the assertion that Jesus IS coming again, so why keep waiting to get ourselves aligned with God's work?

I still have trouble with the "rapture" verses. I guess I want explanations too, but if "even the son" doesn't know what is coming, why should I be any different?  It's best instead, to listen to what Jesus says in verse 36, that no one can know the day or hour when things end and begin. We have to trust God, not our crazy explanations and mental gymnastics.

The scriptures for First Advent always include some apocalyptic, some acknowledgement that humans are messed up and that without God's intervention, we are lost. The Romans passage is rather interesting in what it suggests might be happening among the faithful. It emphasizes the need to wake up to what is happening and there is a call to join God's side. Paul urges his readers to put aside works of darkness, to live honorably and not be caught up in drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, and jealousy. Wow. Makes me wonder what was all happening in that community. The early church certainly had its share of dysfunction and compliance with the bad parts of current culture! They needed God so desperately that they were seeing the "end". Our world is different in the technological sense, but at it's core, we have the same desperate need for God that means that the apocalyptic scriptures still resonate for us. God will help us, we are called to wake up and join in, and we have to wait and trust.

On first Advent, we cry out for God to intervene, to show us again, where Jesus is being born into lives and offering redemption. We cry out to see the hope that we crave.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Positives from Apocalyptic

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 17: Malachi 4:1-2a, Ps 98, 2 Thess. 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

It's funny how people often seem  to interpret the times as getting worse. I know I do it too. For example; I think that when I was growing up, I did a lot more playing outside, had more face to face interaction with my family and friends, and was responsible for more work than most children today. I worry about what the hours of video games, the "virtual" communication of social media, and the delayed onset of adult responsibilities is doing to society. Likely these are true observations, and my worry has some justification, but my parents could have said the same things if they compared their growing up to mine. (And I think my generation largely turned out okay!)

It's natural for us to worry and wonder about the next generations and their directions, but why is it that we get stuck in negatives? When I look at my own children, I certainly see some issues with the world they are growing in, but if I think about it, I see amazing positives as well. They are much more aware of the world and issues than I was at their age. They interact with a greater variety of cultures and different people than I ever did and they do it naturally. They learn at a higher level at school we used to. They are better at articulating their faith in well-reasoned ways than I was. They engage questions well and own their beliefs instead of just memorizing the "right" responses. They handle grey areas better than I did at their age.

The Luke passage is apocalyptic. Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, a story which is also in Matt. 24:3-14, and Mark 13: 3-13. It isn't an easy piece to read, it can cause anxiety, it can cause us to focus on some very real negatives. There are, however, positives here as well. Verse 9 says that when we hear of wars we should not be terrified...the end will not follow immediately. There is time. And when God's people are persecuted for their faith, this results in a positive. Verse 13 says this is an opportunity to testify. Verse 14 gives assurance that the persecuted will be given the right words, they will have the support they need. Testimony changes people, it can change situations. Then, even when the whole world, including friends and family, does not follow God, endurance will result in a saved soul and everlasting life.

So the positives; there is time. There is opportunity for testimony. There is support. And, when all else fails, God saves. God is still there for us.

Another positive is that new good things can grow, even out of destruction. The destruction of Jerusalem (verses 20-24) symbolizes the "time of the Gentiles". The followers of Jesus are scattered, which spreads the gospel. The message now goes out in a wide way, to the non-Jewish world. (Remember also, that Luke wrote this gospel 10-20 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. There is some hindsight here. In Acts 28:28 he writes: Let it be known to you then that his salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.")


(Verse 18 is a positive too, it says not a hair on your head will perish. I didn't include this one, because it's a bit difficult to figure out. If it is speaking in a spiritual sense, talking about everlasting life, it works. If it's talking about a purely physical hurt, a this world thing, it's harder to understand. The disciples hearing this were certainly not exempt from physical persecution and harm. Fred Craddock, a New Testament scholar, discusses this problem in his commentary on Luke. He says; "In any case, faithfulness and endurance under threat, under arrest, and under penalty of death are the qualities of disciples during this time of witnessing . Disciples are not exempt from suffering...")

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Humbling and helpful

Lectionary Readings for Nov. 10, 2013.  Job 19:23-27a, Ps 17:1-9, 2 Thess. 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

I was in a magazine store (waiting to fly home from a Canadian Mennonite writer's workshop) when the cover of the fall issue of "Scientific American" caught my eyes. It REALLY caught my eyes, as the front cover is an optical illusion that pops off the page and crawls in snaky circles. It's totally captivating!

The issue is devoted to perception. After 112 pages, I can't trust that what I see is what is actually there. I'm astounded by the mind's ability to be mislead, tricked. Even with the scientific explanations in front of me, my eyes tell a different story and my reactions and feelings are keyed to the perceptions of my obviously incorrect vision.

I'm left wondering, if my eyes can be fooled, what about my other senses? What about my thoughts and feelings about the reality of the world and relationships? It's humbling to know that they could be quite different than reality, yet there are what I must use to inform my decisions and to navigate life.

These thoughts were still kicking around when I read these lectionary passages. In all four, judgement is best left to God. Job's friends are off base when they assume his guilt. It's impressive that Job, instead of submitting to internal self-hate or externally lashing out at his friends, says what he thinks and then trusts God. He testifies to his faith and tells his friends that God will be their judge too.

Psalm 19 is similar. The Psalmist can't see that he's done anything wrong, so he petitions for God's help. (Interesting how both Job and the Psalmist are not shy about claiming innocence!) Again God is trusted to provide vindication.

2 Thessalonians 1:5 (I didn't skip verses 5-10, they are important to the theme) affirms God's judgement. The church is suffering persecution, and it is affirmed in perseverance, but take a look at verse 9. This leaves me uncomfortable, it sounds nasty.  Here some of the Thessalonian's true feelings come out. These believers aren't superhuman, they aren't above the feelings of rage and revenge that we would feel. The good thing is that they control their actions. Instead of acting poorly as a result of their indignation, they leave judgement and punishment to God. That is helpful in considering the flimsiness of perception. It doesn't ultimately matter if our perceptions are correct-(although we strive to do our best), God is the one who ultimately acts and our job is to persevere in trust.

Finally, the Luke passage is the much loved story of Zacchaeus. Here Jesus sees past the illusions everyone else is caught up in. He sees something worth redeeming in Zacchaeus and is able to draw the good out of him in a way Zacchaeus couldn't manage himself. Jesus exposes the real Zacchaeus, the one who is willing to give to the poor and sacrifice his wealth to make up for past mistakes. 

All in all, a message to ultimately trust in God. Humbling and helpful.