The Reflectionary – Week of December 15, 2019

Advent 4

Text: Luke 1:5-24; 57-80

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink,and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” 

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.

 —————————-

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

Reflection

When we found out I was pregnant, one of the first things we did was to choose potential names for our child. We agreed on a boy’s name and a girl’s name – each chosen with significance and intention. When our child was born and we saw that we’d had a boy, we joyfully named him Augustine Thomas, after St. Augustine and Doubting Thomas/Thomas Aquinas. Each of these people have had significant influence on our faith journeys, and so we gave our son those names, with the hope that he will go on his own faith journey.

Names are important in Scripture. They often tell us more about what is going on in a narrative. In today’s text, we meet two such people whose names reveal much: Zechariah and Elizabeth. We learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth are up there in years, and that they have been childless all this time. Of course, when we hear about an elderly, infertile couple in Scripture, we know that the unexpected is about to ensue! It’s no different here. Zechariah and Elizabeth are about to get the surprise of a lifetime – they will conceive and bear a child – the child who will grow up to be John the Baptist.

We know this story – but what do their names reveal? In her book, Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent (which, incidentally is the book we are using for this year’s Advent study), Dr. Amy-Jill Levine tells us that the name Zechariah comes from the Hebrew root z-k-r,  which means “remember” and the yah” sound at the end of his name is the traditional marker for YHWH, the Divine Name. With this knowledge, we learn that Zechariah’s name literally means, “God remembers.”

Memory is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Not only does God remember God’s people time and again, but God also calls God’s people to remember. In fact, memory is often tied to recognizing God’s miraculous and liberating work in the life of God’s people. God constantly calls God’s people to remember the covenant, to remember how God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. God constantly calls God’s people to remember how God has been present, how God has spoken, how God has loved, and how God has delivered God’s people. Zechariah is one whom God remembers, just as he is also called to remember how God has worked throughout the life of the people of Israel.

And yet, we find that Zechariah seems to temporarily forget when the angel comes upon him in the Temple. He forgets the ways God has worked in the past, so he is unable to see how God is working in the present. He questions what the angel is saying, in disbelief. He loses his ability to speak as his memory of what God has done and can do fails him. It isn’t until his son is born that he is able to speak again. And what are the first words out of his mouth? A song remembering the way God has always remembered his people! Zechariah is now able to see the way God’s memory gets played out in his own present – he sees the relationship between memory and seeing the miraculous!

Elizabeth, too, is a name that echoes this theme of memory. According to Dr. Levine, her name likely derives from the Hebrew Eli, which means “my God,” and sheva, which means “oath.” Her name means “God’s oath” or “God keeps promises.” In other words, Elizabeth’s name reveals that God remembers what God has promised. God does not forget, and God follows through.

The whole of this first chapter of Luke’s gospel is one that proclaims that God remembers God’s people. God does not abandon, forget, or destroy them. God’s memory is long. And what does God remember? Love. God remembers God’s love for his people and he makes a way for them. The story of the birth of John the Baptist is a way that God begins to bridge the past into the present reality of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Like Zechariah, Elizabeth, and all of God’s people, we are called to memory, that we might recognize the miraculous. May we remember, even as God continually remembers us.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   What stories of Scripture stick out in your memory? What stories have spoken to you?
o   Where in your own life do you recall experiencing God’s presence and grace?

Challenge

If you have been in the practice of journaling or writing prayers and you have access to older journals, go back and read through some of them. You may be surprised at moments they call to mind in your own spiritual journey.

And/or

Write a psalm of praise to God, recalling what God has done and is doing in your life.

Prayer

God, your memory is long. You never forget me. You never forget all of your people. Help me to recall the ways that you have worked in the lives of those who have gone before me, and in my own life, so that I might be able to see how you are working in the present. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of December 8, 2019

Advent 3

Text: Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: 

“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’” 

———————-

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day.

———————-

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: 

“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.”
 

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.

Reflection

When I think back on Advent and Christmas as a child, I remember a sense of magic to it. I get this deep sense of sentimental nostalgia, where I wish I could relive this season now just as I remember experiencing it as a child. But no matter how I try, there is no going back. For me, that day has passed (though I now find joy in the season in different ways.)

I imagine that you, also, have experienced something like this. It might not be about Christmas, but perhaps it is about a time gone by. Maybe you look back to a time in your life when you were young, or your children were young. Maybe it was a time when everything in your life just felt so right. Maybe you look back to a time when the church was full, or when everyone knew their neighbors. Maybe you look longingly back at the time when you could let your children play outside without having to supervise them and you could leave your doors unlocked. We look back, and we long for those days, but no matter how we try, there is no going back.

In this passage from Ezra, we see some of the older priests, Levites, and family heads who experience this deep longing and grief for what once was. As we have been reminded in texts from previous weeks, the exile that the Kingdom of Judah experienced under Babylon was incredibly significant and disruptive to the life of the people of Israel. Though the exile was not particularly long, it challenged the people in major ways. The Temple built by King Solomon had been destroyed. Many people had been taken from the land. They had to figure out what it meant to worship God away from Jerusalem and without a Temple. It was HARD.

But now, the Persian king, Cyrus, had allowed the exiled people of Israel to return home. He allowed them to rebuild the Temple. For many, it was, in fact, a time of celebration. Rebuilding the Temple was a fulfillment of God’s promises. So why wasn’t everyone rejoicing?

For those who remembered the days of the first Temple, this new Temple paled in comparison. The first temple was built under the powerful and autonomous Kingdom of Israel. It was built with the great wealth of Solomon. It was the Temple of the “Golden Age.” This new Temple was built only under the auspices of the Persian king. It was built with much more meager resources. It could not compare to the Temple of days gone by. And so, the elders grieved. They had lived long enough to remember what once was, and they longed for it. They wept because they know no matter how hard they tried, there was no going back.

While we can relate to this passage as individuals, I think we can also relate to this passage as the Church. There is a general sense among those who have been Christian for a long time that we have long left behind the “Golden Age” of the church in America. Among many, perhaps yourself included, looking to the future does not bring about shouts of joy or a sense of excitement, but instead deep lament over what has been lost or left behind.

Moving into the future can be scary. It can be overwhelming. Change always brings some kind of loss. While the rebuilding of the Temple was certainly a time for celebration for many as God’s promises were being lived out in a new way, it was also a time of grief for others. This passage speaks to a new beginning and a new expression of the shared life of the people of Israel, but shouts of praise could not be distinguished from the sound of weeping. The sound and the deep emotions behind both are to be honored.

So know this today: if you are excited and thankful for new expressions of Church that are taking place in our midst, you are heard. But also know, if you are weeping and longing for what once was, you also are heard. And in it all, God is with you.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where do you look back longingly in your own life?
o   Where do you look with excitement or anticipation of the future?

Challenge

Identify a change that has taken place in your life where you are now grieving the loss that has come through that change. Name it. Validate it.

And/or

It’s easy to get caught up thinking about days gone by. Sit down and make a list of things that you are grateful for in the present, and things you are hopeful for in the future. Give thanks to God for them all.

Prayer

Lord God, you are the giver of hope and new life. You constantly bring about the new and the good in me and in the world around me. I give you thanks for what you have done in the past, and I ask you now to help me look to the present and the future, and to find hope even in the midst of loss and change. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+

The Reflectionary – Week of December 1, 2019

Advent 2

Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
 

A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
 

“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

Reflection

I have never experienced an earthquake, and I hope I never do – but there are millions of people around the world who have gone through the devastating impact of the earth literally moving beneath their feet. An earthquake is no less than a earth-shattering event. It drastically alters everything. In particularly bad earthquakes, buildings are reduced to rubble. Lives are lost. The world is undone.

In today’s text, Isaiah speaks of a world undone. Of mountains being laid low and valleys being raised up. Of the crooked being made straight. He speaks of nothing less than an earth-shattering event. But here, unlike in an earthquake, the reversal of fortune is a good thing.

The people of Israel had known great misfortune throughout their history. They had endured slavery, violence, oppression, captivity. They experienced deep grief, deep lament, and deep anger. Their world had come undone time and again – even as they had willingly deviated from God’s parameters and faced the consequences.

As we’ve moved through the Hebrew Bible over these last few months, we’ve heard the story of God’s people – of promise, of sin, of oppression, of forgetting what it means to worship God. We’ve seen what happens when God’s people go terribly astray.

And yet, all along the way, even as doom and gloom bears down on God’s people, there is always grace. God’s final words are never words of hopelessness, death, or destruction. They are always words of hope. They are always words of new life. They are always words of restoration.

Today, I’m thinking about those who have entered into this season of Advent with deep grief. I’m thinking about those who have lost loved ones and are facing this time of year for the first time without them. I’m thinking about those who have been cut off from their families. I’m thinking about children who are without their parents. I’m thinking about those who are facing violence and upheaval. I’m thinking about all those who have gone through or are going through earth-shattering experiences.

For many, this Advent season, it feels like the earth is moving underneath their feet, and all they know is falling away or being reduced to rubble. We cannot and should not try to skip through these seasons of grief and darkness when they come. But this text reminds us that grief and darkness are not the last word. God gives us a promise that one day, things will be different. One day, the darkness will turn to light. One day, we will, in fact, experience the fullness of the good news.

Jan Richardson, an artist, writer, and United Methodist minister knows what it is to experience grief after losing her husband during Advent in 2013. She writes,

“Comfort, O comfort my people, we hear God cry out in an Advent text from Isaiah (40:1). If, in this life, I cannot do away with grief, then I pray that I will at least enter into it with a heart open to this comfort, this solace that is one of the greatest treasures God offers us in the landscape of this season. This comfort is no mere pablum, no saccharine wish. And though it is deeply personal, it is not merely that; solace does not leave us to our own solitude. True comfort opens our broken heart toward the broken heart of the world and, in that opening, illuminates a doorway, a threshold, a connection. It reveals to us a place where, in the company of heaven and earth, we can begin anew, bearing forth the solace we have found” (This Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas).

May the words of Isaiah speak comfort and hope to you here and now, especially if you or someone you love are struggling with grief this Advent season.

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   Where are you experiencing grief or struggle presently?
o   How do you move through and with grief?

Challenge

Maybe this is a difficult season for you that overwhelms with all of the expectations, all of the people, all of the cultural noise around Christmas. Cultivate space in your life. Make time for silence, for prayer, for working with your hands. Make time for a meal with a loved one. Perhaps seek out a counselor if you need help processing your grief. Disengage from all of the extra noise. You don’t have to buy into it.

And/or

Notice those around you who may be having a difficult time. Don’t force cheerful words upon them. Be with them in their struggle. You don’t need the right words. Just be present. Share a meal, write a card, be with them. Allow them to speak to their grief if they need to.

Prayer 

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Man of Sorrows. You know grief and suffering. Walk with me as I struggle. Be with me in the darkness. And even in the darkness, may I experience sparks of your light this Advent season. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

-Cindy+