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The Lord Is Our Light
By A. Elaine Brown Crawford
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Scriptures for Advent: The First Week Isaiah 64:1-9 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13:24-37
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The Scriptures for the first Sunday of Advent call us to the sobering reality of our fallen humanity and the need for divine intervention for our salvation. In each of our texts, we find the reminder to examine ourselves, our behavior, and our attentiveness to the things of God. In the Isaiah Scripture, Israel laments over the distance their transgressions have put them from God. They long to recapture their former status and relationship with God. Israel pleads to be remade, reshaped, and remolded by the hands of God. How often have we had to say, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me" to our spouses, our children, our friends, ourselves, and to God? We come to God almost daily asking for a do-over, a chance to set things right and to come back into harmonious relationship with our Creator and Sustainer.
The blessings extended by Paul to the Corinthian congregation in First Corinthians come in the face of a congregation that has forgotten that their gifts were to be used to edify the Body, rather than to glorify themselves. How easy it is to lose our focus during this season and to forget or stray away from the true purpose of the season. We can get lost in the gift giving and receiving and forget the true gift of God that we received so long ago, Jesus Christ, who came as a babe and will come again.
Jesus reminds the disciples in the text from Mark to be mindful of how they wait, to be alert and attentive in preparation for the return of the Master. Advent is the season of reflecting on the "signs" of God's illuminating light on our dark paths so that we find our way back to God's presence.
The Scriptures for today also remind us of the love and grace of God that predate our human existence. God's grace was there making a "way out of no way" for Israel, for the Corinthian congregation, for the disciples, and for us. Advent is a season for new beginnings and fresh perspectives on God invading history on our behalf. During this first week of Advent, God's unfailing love, even in the face of our shortcomings, is a dominant theme as we wait expectantly for the light of Christ to come anew to illumine our way.
BLAME OR BLESSING ISAIAH 64:1-9
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Advent is the season of longing to experience God's presence in new ways. We wait expectantly for God to "tear open the heavens and come down" (verse 1). Yet Isaiah reminds us on this first Sunday of Advent that repentance precedes restoration and renewal. Israel has strayed from its relationship and experience of God. The sanctuary lies in ruin (63:18), and Jerusalem is desolated (64:10b). Israel laments the absence of the past demonstrations of God's power and blessings. Israel goes so far as to say that God's anger at them is the cause of their sin (64:5b)! What a darkness of mind and spirit. They seem to have momentarily forgotten that their disobedience is the catalyst of their distance from God.
Comedian Flip Wilson had a wonderful saying that he used to excuse or justify his often mischievous antics. Rather than admitting his own guilt or his contribution to calamity, Flip would say, "The devil made me do it." Soon, you heard adults jokingly using this phrase to excuse bad behavior. When confronted with their contribution to the situation, they would simply laugh and say, "The devil made me do it." This was a joke of the 1980's, but how often do we say, directly or indirectly, like Israel, God made me do it? When we see our personal failings or situations to be a result of what God withheld from us, took from us, or did not do on our behalf, we are blaming God. Blame and blessings seldom reside in the same space.
The blame game began in the garden of Eden. Adam pointed a finger at God's culpability when Adam said to God—"the woman you gave me." Eve blamed her transgression on the serpent, and the serpent blamed God through a misrepresentation of God's instructions (see Genesis 3). There was plenty of blame to go around! Blame often permeates our behavior today. I recall that as young children my brothers and sisters and I would often push the boundaries of our Mom's kindness. Mom would say, "You can go over to your friend's house, but stay in the yard to play." We would go to their home, but we often ran outside the yard after a ball or to sit on the sidewalk to play jacks. On more than one occasion, our pushing the boundary led to trouble. Like the time my brother ran into the street after a ball and barely escaped the screeching wheels of a car. Or the time we decided the yard was too confining for our baseball game, so we went half a block down the street to the park to play, only to be chased home by a stray dog that was wandering the neighborhood. These childhood antics were lessons in obedience. We learned quickly that Mom set boundaries for our good, and when we transgressed them, we could not blame others. We had to take personal responsibility and ask for forgiveness. We were punished for our actions, but the period of reconnecting with Mom's love was always sweet. Even as children, we knew that in spite of our transgressions, Mom loved us and would forgive us. I realized that she set boundaries for me because she loved me. Even though I was disobedient over and over again, she responded to genuine remorse. Personal responsibility, accountability, and repentance can help us to refocus on God's unfailing love—even when we fail.
Israel's behavior and prayers of repentance remind them that they need God. The absence of God's light in their lives reminds them that they are broken vessels, unclean people, and far from the special relationship they once experienced as God's people. They long for the God who acts on behalf of God's people.
When we "come to ourselves," we realize that even our righteous deeds fall short of God's glory. Our righteousness is like filthy rags. Our deeds often carry us away from God's presence, God's grace, and God's blessings. Yet God desires to bless us. How do we know that? We know because in spite of Israel's repeated disobedience, God blessed them over and over again. We also know that to be true because we have sinned over and over again, but God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness. What a blessing. God tore open the heavens for us. God came down in the form of love for us. God put on flesh and broke open the darkness of oppression for us. Immanuel dwelt among us to show us righteousness in action so that we might experience the light and blessings of following the Way.
In this season, we are not to wait passively for God's presence and blessing. We are called to the lamenting consciousness that we need the light of God to show us the way. Advent is as much a time of lament and seeking after God as the Lenten season is. During Advent, we are called to begin again—to explore the wonder of God's breaking forth into our lives.
We long for God to gaze on us. We long for God to see us as we are and love us, and God does. We long for God's countenance to shine upon us and illumine the way. We long, during this season, to experience the peace of God—not through gifts or even giving but through the blessing of God's joyful, renewed presence in our lives.
During Advent, we look for the coming of God to us in new ways—not in anger because of our falleness, but in love because of God's grace. We are God's workmanship—clay in the hands of the Master Craftsman. Aren't you glad that God mends us again and again?—us, God's cracked pots. God is ready and willing to reform us, renew us, and refresh us, if we will yield ourselves to God's hands. God molds and shapes us during this Advent season (64:8). Reshaping can be painful, like Israel's lament demonstrates. But the restorative joy of being shaped by God to more fully reflect God's light and love is a blessing. As we seek the blessing of God's presence this Advent season, I am reminded of the words of Henry Van Dyke in the third stanza of Beethoven's hymn, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee. He wrote:
Thou are giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest, Well-spring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!
Advent is a reminder that God tears open the heavens and comes to us in new ways.
What blame do you need to release? What blessing do you need to claim?
SERIOUSLY? 1 CORINTHIANS 1:3-9
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People often express surprise, doubt, disbelief, and amusement all wrapped up in the one word question—"Seriously?" Often, the word is followed with the additional, immediate question—"Who does that?" One may be led to use these popular expressions as we read Paul's letter to the Corinthian congregation. Paul begins this letter with a grace-filled word of blessing to a congregation in chaos. Eugene Peterson comments that "the people of Corinth had a reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people." Did Paul forget to whom he was writing? Did Paul forget about the disruption, gossip, and abuse of gifts that pervaded this community? Did Paul forget about the commotion and confusion this congregation had generated? He greets them with grace, with peace, and with blessings—seriously? In spite of the reason for his writing this letter in the first place, Paul offers thanksgiving and blessing to the Corinthians. He says that because of their faith, they will be found blameless before the Lord—seriously, Paul—who does that?
God responds to us first with grace and blessing. I think it would be helpful to our Christian walk if we would look at our behavior in the light of the gospel, and occasionally say to ourselves—"Seriously, does a Christian do that?" Does a Christian act like that or speak like that? Am I emulating the light and love of Jesus Christ in my home, in the community, and in the church? Or is my conduct dimming and diminishing my witness? For Christians, these are individual and congregational questions. Corinth is a congregation of believers whose individual and collective behavior diminished the power of their gifts.
When I was in middle school, I was a straight A student. I really loved going to school. I was excited by new ideas and new adventures through learning. My teachers loved me too and often gave me special responsibilities. The other kids often called me the "teacher's pet." But in the eighth grade, I decided that I needed to add more adventure into my life. The days had become much too ordinary and unexciting. So I decided that I wanted to hang out with the "cool girls" in my school. These were the girls who talked back to the teachers, went to the movies when they felt like it, didn't do homework, and sometimes even cut class. So in an effort to get in with what I thought was the "in" crowd, I cut school one day with a group of "cool" girls. Of course it was clear that I was not cool. I was afraid. I was crying. My mantra was, "We shouldn't be doing this." I kept up such a commotion that they were happy to send me home to my books and science projects! And to make matters worse, my teachers called my mother because I had never missed class. Needless to say, I got in a lot of trouble when the truth came out that I had cut school to go to the movies with my new "friends."
When I returned to school the following week, my teachers were surprised and disappointed in my behavior. But what impacted me, even to this day, was the chastisement I received from my favorite teacher. This was the teacher who had encouraged me and helped me focus on college preparation. This was the teacher who made me work hard to pull out of me the intellect and gifts buried in my eleven-year-old mind. This was the teacher who allowed me to assist her with collecting papers and preparing for the next school day. When I returned to school, she treated me tenderly all day long. She gave me the same privileges and opportunities she had always afforded me. But just before the close of the school day, she pulled me to the side, made me look into her piercing eyes that were filled with tears, and said to me words that changed my life forever. She said, "Don't you know by now that you are a leader and not a follower? You don't need to misbehave to get attention. Be smart, use your gifts, be the leader God intended you to be, and you'll get all the attention you can handle!"
I was crushed that she had waited until the end of the day to speak to me. Now these words would go home with me. I would have to ponder them at the dinner table. They would haunt me in my bed when I was supposed to be sleeping. I would hear them every time my mother spoke of my punishment! Why couldn't she just have been "mean" to me at the beginning of the day like the other teachers, so I could have shaken it off with their remarks?
My favorite teacher, Ms. Yarbrough, loved me enough to see me in the light of God's grace on my life. She saw my potential. She knew that I had temporarily strayed from the path that she had helped set me on. My mother and the community in which I lived used the colloquial phrase, "She got beside herself." That phrase meant that I had gone too far with my behavior. It was an expression meaning that I was smart, but immature. I was wise in books, but foolish in life. I had book knowledge, but no common sense. Yet my mother, my community, and my favorite teacher all loved me and did not cast me off because of my transgression. They saw in me God-given abilities and potential. They taught me, through their tough love, that gifts without grace disrupt community.
Paul discerns the gifts and the promise of the Corinthian congregation not through human work or conduct, but through the work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of God in them. As I read this text, I asked myself if this text of blessing to the wayward Corinthians was an appropriate text for Advent. What are we, as Christians and congregations, to discern from this text? Why would the writers of the lectionary place this text at the beginning of Advent? This text is a wonderfully appropriate place to begin the Advent season. It reminds us of the work of God in us and on our behalf. We come to this season made aware that God's unfailing love is not dependent upon our gifts or abilities. Our gifts and abilities come only through the grace of God and are to be used to glorify God and to edify the body of Christ. This text is also a reminder that divisions in the congregation must be handled theologically, not just methodologically. Conflict management, counseling, and outside consultants have their valuable place in congregational conflict resolution. But as Paul points out, the best methodology is theological—an opening of ourselves to the reconciling work of God on our behalf. We are to discern God's faithfulness in spite of our failures and inabilities. We are to discern God's loving care of us in the midst of the vicissitudes of life. This word of blessing bids us to come to God in this Advent season just as we are—knowing that God loved us enough to bless us with the hope of the world, Christ Jesus.
This text is also a reminder that Advent begins in the messy, smelly stalls of Bethlehem, rather than the glory or glamour of a palace. The church can be a messy, grimy place at times. But God intervenes; first, to bless us with the gift of God's presence, then to direct, challenge, confront, and encourage us. We are called into fellowship first with God and then with our sisters and brothers; this will produce gifts and works that glorify God and strengthen the body in Christ Jesus.
What are your spiritual gifts? In what ways are you using your spiritual gifts to foster unity in the congregation or community during this Advent season?
"BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND" MARK 13:24-37
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In the 1990's, Steven Covey published a book on leadership and self-development that remains popular even today. He used a catchy title, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In his book, he outlines seven keys to leadership and effective living. His second and probably most often quoted principle is to "begin with the end in mind." Covey was talking about literally visualizing your desired results and then taking the necessary steps to achieve your goal. Covey argued that creation happens in two realms, the mental and the physical realms. First, we create in our minds. We envision what our goal or end result would look like. We see the project finished: the degree in hand, the new church built, the presents wrapped and under the tree, or the standing ovation for yet another Christmas pageant. Then, he says, we are ready to begin to put in place the physical creative process to achieve that end. The physical creation is facilitated because we have spent time imagining the end result, so we are better able to discern step by step the necessary processes to achieve a goal.
Excerpted from The Lord Is Our Light by A. Elaine Brown Crawford. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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