Today in the Spirit: Advent 1B

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Happy New Year, Saints! We return to what the Church calls the Incarnation Cycle in the Sunday lectionary. In Year B of the three-year cycle, we embark this Sunday on the second of three pilgrimages, walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, this time with the Gospel of Mark as our main guide. Having heard the teachings of Jesus warning his disciples of the return of the Son of Man, Advent 1 in all three years features Jesus’ prophecy of the events of the return itself. In Year B, the first Gospel reading of the new year is from Mark 13:24-37, Jesus’ prophecy of the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory, followed by his warning to be on guard and stay awake for his arrival. 

The OT reading out of Isaiah 64:1–9a gives us (probably) the words of the prophet himself, calling on God to liberate Israel from exile, but in dramatic form like a parousia, Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down (1). The assigned Psalm 80 is similarly a prayer to YHWH to stir up your might and come and save us (2). 

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The appointed NT reading from 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 gives the worshiper hope that Christ himself will preserve the saints for glory until and at the time of his coming again. The apostolic promise is that [Christ] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (8), that is, the day of his return. The Collect chosen to accompany the readings about the second coming of Christ is a prayer for “grace” from God to both “cast away the works of darkness” (renounce) and to “put on the armor of light” (receive), that the life our Lord made available through the ministry in his first visit might be found in us on the occasion of his second, that “we may rise to life immortal.”      

The Collect

Almighty God, give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Shall We Be Saved? (Isaiah 64:1-9a)

Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…
You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
    those who remember you in your ways.
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
    in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls upon your name,
    who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.
But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand (1,5-8).

This passage is part of a longer section of Isaiah (63:7-64:12) in which the prophet intercedes for the people of Israel distressed in exile. The words rend the heavens and come down, which we connect with the second coming of Jesus, are for Isaiah a prayer that YHWH would show again for Israel much as he had done in history before the exile. Strikingly, Isaiah admits Israel has sinned and continues to sin, even as he asks, Shall we be saved? Clearly, yes is the prophet’s answer. We sin, But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Others may wait, in anguish, for deliverance from God only after the people have put aside idolatry. Isaiah will call on YHWH to come based on his covenant love for Israel revealed in history, of his being a Father God who holds his people in his hands, just as a potter holds a work of clay, however imperfect, until the completion of his work.

How shall we, then, together with the heavenly hosts and with every generation of Christ followers in the past, continue to make the prayer, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20)? Will it be with our hands wringing, constantly in despair over the state of the Church in the world and the failure to complete our mission on earth? In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis answers much the same question in terms of how we must view the goodness of God. Struggling through the complex language is worth the effort:

“God is Goodness. He can give good but cannot need or get it. In that sense, all His love is, as it were, bottomlessly selfless by very definition; it has everything to give and nothing to receive. Hence, if God sometimes speaks as though the Impassible could suffer passion and eternal fullness could be in want, and in want of those beings on whom it bestows all from their bare existence upwards, this can mean only if it means anything intelligible by us, that God of mere miracle has made Himself able so to hunger and created in Himself that which we can satisfy. If He requires us, the requirement is of His own choosing.”

Today, Holy Spirit, transform my understanding of your goodness, which is so full as to need “nothing to receive,” and the terms under which the Son of God will make his return, which will be by his holiness and independent of my own. Hallelujah!

The Son of Man Whom You Have Made Strong (Psalm 80)

Turn again, O God of hosts!
    Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
    the stock that your right hand planted,
    and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
    may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
But let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
    the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
Then we shall not turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call upon your name!
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts!
    Let your face shine, that we may be saved! (14-19).

This psalm is assigned once in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle (Proper 22A, Advent 1B, and Advent 4C). Advent 1B is focused on the return of Jesus; what stands out, much as in the OT reading from Isaiah, is the crying out of the faithful for divine rescue from hardship in the world. However, one interesting feature in this psalm is the complete absence of any stated repentance from wrongdoing, personal or corporate, that is so often found in other psalms of lament (see the preceding Psalm 79, for instance). It cannot be that the psalmist has not recognized the sin of Israel and naively inquires of God why his vine Israel should be laid waste. To me, this is the prayer on the other side of complete contrition, when confession is made when no more tears can flow and when there is nothing more but longing for God to bring restoration in the aftermath. In the Scriptures, we overhear conversations of many biblical figures who have reached this critical point in their pilgrimages with God–Abram at Hebron, Job in Uz, Elijah on Mount Carmel, and Paul with his thorn in the flesh.     

Devotionally, we connect with this psalm in those moments when we have experienced a downturn in our lives, repented of our sin, and are waiting and waiting for things to turn again. We have faith that circumstances will improve in much the same way the psalmist cries out, Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved! But there is pain in the interim. Perhaps you are just now experiencing some anguish in the aftermath of a period of wandering in your life. You have repented but still see, like the psalmist, nothing but the signs of wreckage all around, some caused by you and some inflicted on you during a time of backsliding. As the psalmist looks to the man of your right hand, the Messiah, for a way forward, we look to Jesus. Hear the words of invitation from the Messiah to the Samaritan woman at the well, herself apparently waiting in the aftermath of repentance: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).  

Today, in the Spirit, hear the psalmist speaking words you might not be able to manage for yourself in a period of waiting after repentance, and with him, place your faith in Jesus, the man whom the Father God has made strong for himself (and us).

Their Lord and Ours (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1-3).

In the greetings of Paul’s letters, when he identifies the church recipient (to the Church in…), he typically does not waste much ink describing the Church. Here he says more: To the Church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. Given that Paul is going to call out the Corinthian Church on various matters of church discipline and immoral behavior in this letter, it could be that Paul, from the get-go, is seeking to take the edge off their pride, to pull them back into the fold as saints together with all the Church universal and under the supervision of his apostleship. Jesus Christ is both their Lord and ours (lit. in Greek: both theirs and ours). It seems Paul here would build them up and take them down in one throw, like, “Corinthians, take your rightful place with all the saints and hear what this apostle, called by the will of God, has to say.”

As individuals and local church communities, there is a grandeur and a responsibility to be counted among the larger communion of saints under God. All of us, at one time or another and for various reasons, will need to be chastened and brought to heel in our wandering from the truth. At the root of our misbehavior is almost always pride. We believe that our circumstances are unique or that our faithful service in many other areas qualifies us for special dispensation in our behavioral choices. Paul, the pastor, is deeply troubled by the Church’s actions in Corinth, but not so excessively that he can never envision a course to forgiveness and restoration. In 1 Corinthians 5, he addresses the situation of a man flouting serious sexual immorality in the community. He would expel the immoral brother. Yet in 2 Corinthians, he seems to return to this situation, saying they should turn to forgive him and comfort him. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him (2 Corinthians 2:7-8). For every one of our diversions from the whole Church, there is held out in the gospel of Christ a pathway to return.

Today, with the help of the Spirit, are you willing to hear the call of the Church back to the fold? Are you ready and willing to hold out the hand of fellowship to another who has sinned and repented?

The Doorkeeper to Stay Awake (Mark 13:24-37)

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake” (32-37).

Here is one of those passages in which it is essential to remember that the Scriptural injunctions—be on guard, keep awake, stay awake–are all given in the second person plural (“you all”). They are communal commands. In addition, there is the short parable: the man going on a journey puts all his servants to work, including a doorkeeper. Is it every servant’s job to watch the door? No, just the one. Each servant is doing their work according to their assignments and abilities. As long as one is carrying out the responsibility to watch the door at all times, everything and everyone is in order.

How, then, shall we rightfully obey Jesus’ command to keep watch? Of course, it would not be wrong to say that by each one maintaining a life of personal prayer and devotion to the Lord, we are doing so. But I will step out on a limb and, with the Greek grammar and the parable as my guide, say something more: What is it that warns us of the return of the Lord but the Scriptures? We would know nothing of that mystery without them. Could it be, then, that within the community of Christ-followers, the teachers of the Bible, pastors, Bible study leaders, Sunday school teachers, etc., are the doorkeepers of the Church? They are responsible for reminding us that the Lord is coming and that he is not yet here, even while everyone else keeps their heads down doing their chores. It becomes the responsibility of the other servants to stay within reach of the doorkeepers’ call for their reminders. So many Christians today believe they can do without the teaching and the community. This is out of order.

Today, Holy Spirit, keep me awake in the community of my brothers and sisters serving the Lord, giving special attention to my pastors and teachers who will remind me from the Scriptures that our Lord is coming.

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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