Day Seven: Under Whose Authority?

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Ezekiel 36:24-28;
Mark 11:27-33

The Gospel reading for this day confronts us with a question that Jesus actually refused to answer,

By what authority are you doing these things? … And who gave you the authority to do this?”
Mark 11:28.

The question comes after two significant events that threaten the power dynamics and social hierarchy in Jerusalem:

  1. Jesus entering the holy city peaceably on the back of a colt and being welcomed by the common people, to the cry of “Hosanna” which means “save us,” who see being fulfilled before them Zechariah’s prophecy (9:9) that Zion’s King would come to them mounted on the foal of a donkey.
  2. Jesus forcefully expelling the corrupt traders and money lenders from the temple to return it to a place of prayer. This action is particularly important in light of Malachi’s prophecy as it testifies to Jesus’ true identity and authority: “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple … But who can endure the day of his coming? … For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap” (Malachi 3:1-2).

The question is not asked by the common people but by those who have religious and political power over them – the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council).

Make a list of all of the “voices” that have power and influence in your life. Remember to include those from the past who still have an impact on how you think and act today.

Next to each “voice,” simply plus a “+” “-” or “?” as you reflect on whether it has a positive, negative, or neutral impact on who you are and what you do.

Finally, number the list in order of importance with 1 having the greatest influence, 2 the next etc. 

Jesus responds. Not doing so would have been highly disrespectful, and I’m sure that his mother had brought him up right.

But he doesn’t answer the question that they have asked, for his actions themselves have indicated his true identity and the source of his authority.

Instead, he turns the tables by asking them a question about the source of John’s authority to baptise in the name of God that they cannot possibly answer without further damaging their credibility among the people.

The discussion ends in deadlock. Those in power are forced to proclaim, “We do not know” (Mark 11:33a).

Often we do not know the credentials of those who seek to influence us. Nor do we truly know the voices that drive them – their hidden ambitions, their deepest longings, their fears and insecurities. Often we just follow.

But this season points us to the Ultimate Authority in our lives – our Advent God who pronounces us beloved and holy and well that we might never live like fools again (Psalm 85:8).

How does God’s authority compare to the other “voices” in your life?

Where did it rank on your list?

As others look at your choices and actions, would they question where your authority comes from or would they long to know the One who leads you more intimately?

As the first week of Advent comes to an end, you may want to sit for a while with the words from Ezekiel 36:24-28 which speak of how God exercises God’s authority – to gather, to clean, to give, to remove, to make possible, to be ours.

Do you, truly, long to be God’s?

Day Six: Construction Work

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Acts 11:19-26

The Psalms are soul music: the voice of personal prayer and praise, of anguish and hope, put together over a period of about six hundred years so that God’s people might always remember God’s mighty acts in rescuing them from their defeat and desecration and helping them to rebuild.

What is some of your soul music – passages of Scripture to which you regularly turn for comfort or guidance, songs that you find yourself singing out loud in the shower or softly to yourself on a particularly difficult day?

Take a moment to listen to or sing one of those soul songs and reflect on why it may have special meaning to you. 

Psalm 85 is a song of the Sons of Korah – a family of temple officials whose music was often used in daily worship. This song is an expression of the people’s longing to live in peace, in a land of plenty where …

Love and Truth meet in the street,
Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! God gives Goodness and Beauty;
our land responds with Bounty and Blessing
(verses 10-12, The Message).

But this beautiful image of what life might look like is rooted in the painful remembrance that not too long ago God had to restore their fortunes, set aside God’s anger, and put their sins far out of sight (see verses 1-3).

The season of Advent reminds us that constructive imagination of God is often entered into in the midst of the rubble and ruin of our own plans and ambitions, our illusion of control, our narrow imagining of the life that we might build in the limited days we have ahead of us.

Jeremiah, a young boy at the time of his call to be prophet to the nations, objects on the basis of his youth and his inability to speak into places of power the words of
judgement,
displacement,
defeat that will precede
deliverance,
restoration,
a new covenant,
and a new King
but God declares that he has known him and chosen him from before he was born for this precise purpose (Jeremiah 1:5, 10).

The first Christians were Jews who fled from their homes, from the lives they had known, following the stoning of Stephen and the relentless persecution of all who had believed that Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God.

At first they had been too bound by their geography, the demographics of their community, the religion in which they had been raised to share the gospel news with anyone other than another Jew; but as they found themselves unwelcome and unsafe in Israel, uprooted and displaced to the Greek cities of Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, they began to speak of Jesus to those who had not even heard of him and “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21b).

Do you have a sense of God’s purpose or plan for your life?

Is there room for that purpose/plan to unfold and grow in the way that you are currently living?

What are your objections (if any) to God’s vision of your life?

Creative, constructive God,
who spoke light into darkness
and order into chaos;
clear the ruins of the past,
put my failures and my reservations
far out of sight,
and smile upon this good earth:
the fertile ground of my life
into which you long to plant
your truth, your love, your blessing.

 

Time

9FFE2BAF-EEAA-4D1B-A294-738F260E4149We style it up
Or dress it down;
Take it seriously
Or play the clown;
Adjust the strap,
Turn the dial;
“Easy to program” –
For a while ….

We count them off,
The minutes and hours;
Pretentious masters
Of infinite powers.

But when our hearts stop
And the ticking goes on,
Our mourners will gather
To sing a new song:
“Gone too soon …”
“All in God’s time …”
“What a waste of a life!
I won’t waste mine!!!”

The King is coming
Like a thief in the night;
Are our eyes on the time
Or looking out for his light?

Day Five: A Love That Lasts

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Hosea 6:1-6
1 Thessalonians 1:2-10

What do Doris Day, Natalie Cole, Tom Jones, Barry Manilow, and Celine Dion have in common? A little song that I’m sure you know ….

When I fall in love it will be forever
Or I’ll never fall in love.
In a restless world like this is
Love is ended before it’s begun
And too many moonlight kisses
Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun.

When I give my heart it will be completely
Or I’ll never give my heart
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too
Is when I fall in love with you.

Love. It’s what we are all looking for. A love that is constant. A love that is reciprocated. A love that will last.

Complete the phrase “when I fall in love, it will be …” with your own words.

Everyone has an idea of what love should be that has been passed down and patched together through music and fairytales, family stories and photo albums, poets and philosophers, and, most importantly, our own experience.

It’s why God is Love is one of the most intimate and relatable images for engaging with the Divine Mystery. And it is the good news of God’s great love for us – just as we are in this very moment – that enables us to desert the dead idols of our old lives and embrace the holy, hope-filled, love-alive lives to which Christ calls us.

As Paul points out to the young Christians in Thessalonica, their deep conviction that  God loves them very much has given power and meaning to their faith, their labour, and their hope for resurrection.

Think back to your conversion experience (it may have been a single moment or a gradual deepening of your love for God and desire to live in relationship with God).

How did your awareness of God’s great love for you impact or change your life? 

Do you still live with a deep conviction that God loves you very much?

How does that conviction find expression in your faith, in your work, in your future hopes, in your daily choices and way of living? 

As you reflected on those questions, I wonder if you felt – as I did – a twinge of pain, a moment of guilt because of a passion for God that has waned over the years.

The accusation of God through the prophet Hosea certainly pierces my heart as I consider how often my best intentions to walk closely with God vanish before the demands of my household, my irritation with others, the rush to find some time to rest before the next appointment or activity in the diary:
“What am I to do with you, Ephraim?
What do I make of you, Judah?
Your declarations of love last no longer
than morning mist and predawn dew”
(Hosea 6:4, The Message).

The season of Advent invites us to consider that our longing for a love that is constant, a love that is reciprocated, a love that will last is a dim echo of the deepest desire of God – a desire that leads to the crude shelter of a stable and the rough splinters of the cross.

Perhaps you would like to write your own version of a “covenant” or a “vow” to God today as both a response to God’s great love for you and an expression of your great love for God.

 

 

An Advent Candle Poem/Prayer

For use in congregations/communities who light a candle each Sunday in Advent leading up to Christmas following the traditional pattern of prophets (hope), Mary and Joseph (faith), shepherds (joy), angels (peace) and Jesus (love) … a simple poem/prayer in five parts with an additional “verse” to be said as a conclusion to the prayer time until the final verse is offered on Christmas Day.

A candle for the Christ-King
For whom the prophets said to wait;
He may seem slow in coming
but we know God’s never late …

This one is for his parents
On their trip to Bethlehem
For they believed the promise
That God would be with them …

The third is for the shepherds
Whose hearts were full of joy
As angels came to tell them
About a special baby boy …

Oh! How those angels worshipped
and their song rang through the air:
“Glory be to God on high:
His peace be everywhere.”

And now, with great excitement,
We light the final flame –
For Love has come into the world;
Christ Jesus is his name.

***

This verse is to be said on weeks 1, 2, 3 and 4 to explain the presence of the unlit candles. On Christmas Day it is replaced with the final verse.

These candles still are waiting
For their chance to shine –
they remind us to be ready
for a very special time ….

 

Day Four: Stand Tall

Psalm 79
Micah 5:1-5a
Luke 21:34-38

The story of Israel is a pedestrian one – in quite a literal sense!

From Abraham, who left his family and inheritance behind him in obedience to God’s command, to Moses who led a nation of slaves through the wilderness towards a land of milk and honey, to the regular pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem that their faith required, the people of Israel rigorously put one foot in front of the other in order to follow where God led.

The exile into Babylon – which seemed like the end to so many – was yet another step in the journey; just as the return and rebuilding would be.

As God’s people lamented their sins and pleaded for mercy … “may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need” (Psalm 79:8b, NIV) … a promise was delivered of a Saviour, a ruler who would “stand tall in his shepherd-rule by God’s strength, centred in the majesty of God-Revealed. And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect—Peacemaker of the world!”
(Micah 5:4-5, The Message).

This is the promised Messiah for whom many Jews are still watching and waiting, hoping and praying. Yet, for many of us who call ourselves Christ-followers and regularly proclaim, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” the urgent plea for the coming of his kingdom of shalom has too frequently been replaced by polite prayers for God to please do something for someone in a place we can’t even point to on a map ….

The season of Advent provides us with the opportunity to consider how our faith, our commitment to follow, our pursuit of righteousness and mercy  has been dulled down by parties and drinking and shopping, lulled by the drudgery of daily routines, overridden by road rage and envy and a grand sense of entitlement, or buried beneath #hashtags and photoshopped faces.

As Luke warned his listeners to stay on their guard, praying constantly for wisdom and strength that they might end up on their feet before the Son of Man, so do the days leading up to Christmas call us from our complacency to stand tall and follow our Shepherd-ruler faithfully, that his peace may become a present reality in today’s world rather than the pleasant “one-day” dream that we ask for by rote.

If you are anything like me, you may well be wondering where to begin. One of the greatest reasons for our apathy and inactivity is often the sheer size of the problem ….

world_problems.jpg

                                                                                                                . < me

Yet, as Micah prophesies of the coming Messiah, he reveals a vital truth to hold onto: the salvation of the world comes from small things.

Just as the Messiah would be born to the tribe of Judah, the runt of the litter, in the tiny town of Bethlehem, so too can the most extraordinary, unexpected journeys begin with a small step of faith.

Today, put aside your Bible and/or journal in favour of standing up and taking a practical step towards making the kingdom a present reality. For example,  

Walk around your neighbourhood. Smile at people you pass and pray for them as your footsteps take you further. Or put a doggy watering station or a bench out on your pavement to encourage others to pause for a while.

Pin up a map, pick a place, learn all you can about what life is like for the people there and pray for them. Support an organisation offering help or care there. Go on a pilgrimage if you are able.

***

World problem’s image sourced at http://www.diplomacypakistan.com/articles/the-solution-to-the-worlds-problems-lies-not-in-new-economic-policies-or-military-alliances-but-in-love/

Day Three: for the mighty will fall

Psalm 79
Micah 4:6-13
Revelation 18:1-10

“It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.”                            S.J. Watson

The prophet Micah speaks of the agony and the anguish of the Israelites as their city was invaded, their temple desecrated, their sons and daughters dragged off into captivity, their status altered from “God’s chosen people” to “prisoners” and “slaves.”

For many it seemed like the end – of their freedom, of their identity, of their story – as their enemies celebrated and gloated over their suffering.

Yet Micah likens the pain that gripped them to that of the pangs of labour: a beginning rather than an end; a moment of immeasurable suffering bringing forth an eternity of new life and indescribable joy.

This is the heart of the Good News: when things look grave and all hope is gone,
God does the unexpected
… the unimagined
… the impossible.

A shepherd boy brings down a giant with just a sling and a stone….

A prostitute and a foreigner become part of Jesus’s ancestry ….

Water is transformed into wine at a wedding and a few loaves and fishes into a feast for five thousand ….

The crucified Christ appears to his grieving disciples as the Risen Lord  ….

And, indeed, with hindsight and the help of history books we see that the Babylonian kingdom fell as prophesied; and the Persian and the Greek and the Roman ….

Recall a time in your life when it seemed like all was lost or that God was distant.

In hindsight, where was God in the midst of your pain and suffering? 

Were there any “gifts” that you might not have received if you had not gone through this “time of labour?”

How has this experience impacted your relationship with and picture of God?

It can be disheartening to witness all of the wars, the misery, the suffering and death that accompany shifts in power and changes in our natural world.

It can be even more debilitating to experience the pain of loss in our own lives –  be it a job, a loved one, a home, an aspect of our health, or an ability.

The gift of Advent in these devitalizing moments is a hope that is founded neither on wishful thinking nor unrealistic expectations of what it means to have God present and active in our lives, but on the  creative, transformative faith which develops between hindsight and foresight.

Hindsight helps us to remember and trust the  God who has been faithful in our past experiences of suffering and distress, who has brought light into the darkness and order into the chaos in our time of need.

Foresight enables us pray for that which God has promised and to work, with God, towards the justice, the forgiveness, the peace, the healing that we long for.

Babylon will fall. That which seems to have power over us will fade away. The simpler, pleasure-filled lives that we sometimes envy (and even pursue) will end in woeful lament, even as God personally gathers up the lame, the exiled, and the grieving.

What is the gift that you most long for from God today?

Are there any powers, any addictions, any habitual sins that need to fall in your life?

How might you act more from the creative space between hindsight and foresight rather than relying on how you are feeling or what is happening in a particular moment?

 

 

Day Two: Where Is Our God?

Psalm 79
Micah 4:1-5
Revelation 15:1-8

A retired accountant opens fire on a crowd of festival-goers from his hotel room in Las Vegas – over 50 dead and 500 taken to hospital emergency rooms for treatment ….

Buildings collapse in Mexico as the earth shakes. Thousands of homes are destroyed and over 360 people are pulverised and smothered by the falling debris ….

Strategic air strikes in Syria – some for domination, some for retaliation, some even in the hope of peace – result in well over 2000 deaths in the region in the month of September alone ….

A father of two returns home from a wonderful family vacation and is found a few days later, hanging in the basement ….

These are merely a few occurrences in the world today that cause people to question “where is my God?” or to curse and taunt “where is your God?”

Is there a particular moment in your life when you have wondered where God is …? 
… when you have felt abandoned or betrayed by God …? 
… when you have considered a terrible or tragic situation as the judgement or punishment of God?

Following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the Babylonian conquest was an unimaginable violation for the Jews – not only of their sacred places (the holy city of Jerusalem and the temple where they worshipped) but of their fundamental belief that, as God’s chosen people, they were totally untouchable.

Yet as their dead rotted in the streets without the dignity of burial, and the living were taken into captivity, they felt the scorn and derision of their neighbours keenly: their mocking question, “Where is your God?” echoed the fearful wonderings of their own hearts, “How long will God be angry with us? How long will we be punished for our sins and for the sins of our fathers?”

Reeling with the horror of what had happened and the disbelief that their mighty God would allow those who followed other gods to have victory over them, how difficult it must have been for them to hold onto the words of hope and restoration spoken by the prophets of old!

Read prayerfully through the passage from Micah 4:1-5 again.

Which promise speaks most powerfully to you?

Which image seems impossible or unbelievable given the state of the world today?

Each of today’s Advent readings invites us to examine the way that we think about the so-called “judgements” of God – none more so than the triumphant scene in heaven that John depicts in Revelation 15.

As seven angels carry seven disasters from the temple, the saved ones sing the song of the Lamb (verses 3-4, the Message):

Mighty your acts and marvelous,
O God, the Sovereign-Strong!
Righteous your ways and true,
King of the nations!
Who can fail to fear you, God,
give glory to your Name?
Because you and you only are holy,
all nations will come and worship you,
because they see your judgments are right.   

The season of Advent encourages us to give voice to our doubts, our wonderings, even our angry accusations, “God, where have you been in the midst of my/our suffering!?!” and then invites us to picture what lies beyond the crisis or the catastrophe that we are experiencing.

Salvation will come – rescue, restoration, an era of peace and plenty!

And the question, “Where is your God?” will be answered exquisitely by a personal experience of the power and presence of God acting to pull us from the muck and mess that our sin has made.

Day 1: Turn us again

Psalm 80:1-8, 18-20
Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37
1 Corinthians 1:3-9

One of my favourite memories of my children’s Montessori preschool remains their particular way of celebrating birthdays. Once a year, each child had the opportunity to sit in the centre of a circle of their peers while their teacher ambled around them, spinning a large globe in her hand.
All together they chanted:

The earth goes round the sun,
The earth goes round the sun,
Three hundred and sixty five days a year
the earth goes round the sun.

Five, six, seven  times she would circle and they would chant  until the birthday boy’s (or girl’s) new age had been counted.

It was a sacred moment, not only of remembering all the years that had passed before and brought them to that particular time and place, but also of rooting their lives within the greater context of a world that would continue to move and spin – three hundred and sixty five days a year, year after year after year.

The start of the Advent season is a similarly sacred time; an opportunity to reflect on the days that have passed within the greater context of God’s continuing plan to bring the entire earth into right and whole relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So we pause ….

We pause and hold at the centre of our thoughts, our prayers, the abundance of tears which we’ve choked on or choked back over the past year ….

We pause and open ourselves fully to the anxiety that we have not wanted to acknowledge as the earth has quaked and flooded and the sun has scorched ….

We pause and feel the weight of our own sinfulness and selfishness as it ripples through our family, into our community, into our society at large; even into our leadership, until we are smothered by our iniquity and immortality ….

We pause
in the darkness of sin
and the dis-ease of despair,
with no magic word to offer
a world so broken
that it seems beyond repair ….

It is in the painful pause that the significance of the Advent season is borne. Three hundred and sixty five days of the year, year after year after year, the world keeps on turning, going about its business; trying through its busyness to drown out its groaning, aching need for a Saviour. Advent reminds every Christian of the call to watch and to wait for the Word, the Light of the World, to come again and save us.

“Turn us again, O God; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved,” the Psalmist beseeches (verses 4, 8, and 20).

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah invites (verse 1).

Today, practise the pause. 

Offer God the hurt and anxiety that you might have felt over the past year. 

Express your empathy and concern for the pain of the world.

Then pray repeatedly the plea of the Psalmist or Isaiah’s invitation.

From Advent to Epiphany

For many, Christmas has – at best – a tenuous connection to the Christ child.

Some Christians refuse to celebrate the season because of the pagan practices that have influenced it and/or its historical inaccuracy. Others really struggle with how to keep the season centred around the coming of Immanuel in the midst of our frenetic, consumer-driver world in which the perfect present is more important than our simple presence.

Yet I am amazed each year at how, in spite of declining membership in most parts of the world, churches fill up on Christmas Day with people for whom hearing the remarkable story of God entering into our life in the vulnerable form of a baby boy is an essential part of their family tradition.

It’s a special time; a moving story about the unimaginable love that God has for the world finding expression in the the fragile relationship between a young virgin and a carpenter who are far away from the support and shelter of home in the days before a miracle is birthed – all under the threat of a jealous king who will do anything to solidify his power.

It’s a story best understood in the context of those dangerous times, and within the seasons of Advent and Epiphany in which we express our commitment as Christians to watch and to wait for the Coming King in the midst of our own struggles and difficulties.

When the mountains tremble is a contemplative journey through this season which seeks to open our eyes to the power and presence of God – not in spite of the trouble and the tumult all around us, but in the very midst of it.

Based on the daily readings from the Revised Common Lectionary which we often shy away from (who doesn’t prefer stories of bemused shepherds and worshipping angels to warnings of judgement and destruction?), each day offers the invitation to remember where we’ve come from, give voice to how we’re really feeling, wrestle with some of the deep questions we may not often ask, and wonder with God about where we’re headed.

Some weeks – the first in particular – are more cognitive; while others are more experiential. Some are structured around becoming still; others around getting moving in a particular way. Some of the meditations may feel incomplete and will be returned to in a new way a little further on in the journey, while those left open may be the beginning of a new journey of wonder for you entirely.

It would be helpful to keep a journal over this time; not so much to record the answer to every question you may encounter in the readings (which is not at all necessary), but to jot down a summary of each day’s experience or a particular line or verse that stood out for you, to write out a prayer response to God, to return to your own questions and wonderings as the old year makes way for the new.

If you have subscribed to this blog, you will receive notification of each day’s post beginning on Sunday, the 3rd of December 2017, and concluding on Saturday, the 6th of January 2018. If not, you can do so on the home page or visit as you’re able.

May the One for Whom we Wait
bring us rest and restoration
in what is so often a worn and wearying season
and open our eyes to the signs of His-Her Presence with us,
always and in all things.

Yours, in Christ,
Yvonne