Bad Girls of the Bible–Well, No! Lectionary Reflections on Proper 6, Year C

This week’s readings are here. My sermon from 2010 on these texts is here.

In our readings this week, we encounter three women. One, Jezebel, is clearly understood to be evil. She has already encouraged her husband, King Ahab of Israel, to worship and promote Baal. Now she subverts justice and orchestrates the murder of  the owner of a vineyard simply because Ahab covets the property.

In the alternative reading from the Hebrew Bible, from the track we will be following this summer and fall, we hear the end of the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and his murder of her husband and of Nathan’s prophetic judgment against David and his house.

And the gospel story is Luke’s account of Jesus’ anointing. An unnamed woman, a sinner, interrupts the dinner at Simon’s house, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil, and wipes them with her hair. After Jesus’ host Simon questions her actions, Jesus tells a parable that sheds light on what she has done. He concludes by saying, “Her sins are forgiven,” and tells her, “Go, your faith has saved you.”

The lectionary’s coupling of the David/Bathsheba story with the anointing presupposes us to imagine that the woman’s sin was sexual. That inclination is strengthened by the highly sexualized act of wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. The tradition has named this woman Mary Magdalene (although Luke makes no such connection) and has also generally understood her to be a prostitute. But leaping to that conclusion is going much further than the text permits. There are lots of sins that aren’t sexual and we ought to remember that in 1st century Judaism, “sin” meant breaking Torah, which could have been any of the 613 commandments listed by the later rabbis.

There’s something even more curious in the text. The way the gospel writer describes her suggests that something else might be going on. As one commentator translates it, “a certain woman was in the city a sinner.” The word order seems to imply that she was regarded in the city as a sinner. That is to say, we cannot be certain that she is a sinner. All we know is that the city thinks she’s a sinner. This might help to explain Simon’s internal response to the woman’s actions. He wonders why Jesus doesn’t know that she’s a sinner. Her sins are or were not obvious. And the verb tenses suggest that whatever her sins might have been, she is no longer sinning; she has been forgiven already. Her actions in anointing Jesus are expressive of the her love and gratitude at having been forgiven of her sins.

Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Simon saw a sinner; Jesus saw a forgiven and loving woman, a disciple. Is that what we see, a woman who, like the women Luke mentions in the first verses of chapter 8, women who followed Jesus alongside the twelve and the other disciples, women who ministered to him and the others out of their resources?

 

Seeing and hearing the Spirit: Lectionary Reflections for the Feast of Pentecost, 2013

This week’s readings are here.

On the Feast of Pentecost, our attention turns to the Holy Spirit, whose coming to the disciples we remember this day. Each of the three readings offers its own distinctive perspective on the Holy Spirit. With our focus on the drama of tongues of fire and the miraculous speaking in tongues, we tend to overlook the readings from Paul and John.

While Luke and John offer significantly different understandings of the Holy Spirit, there is one way in which they converge. In today’s gospel reading, we hear “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:25). Later Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn 16:26).

We see that very thing happening in the Book of Acts, as the Holy Spirit repeatedly leads the disciples to make new discoveries about the Spirit’s power and about the meaning and extent of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. There are moments when we see the radical action of the Spirit, when Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch; when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his family, and in Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. We see the Spirit working both on a cosmic scale and on a personal level, as with Paul’s conversion. But we also see the Spirit working as Luke writes. When Peter quotes from the prophet Joel in today’s reading, there are two significant alterations from the original text, which reads:

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Peter (or Luke) changes the introducton from “then afterwards” to “In the last days” providing an urgency, an eschatalogical focus to the events of the day. Second, where the verses in Joel end with “I will pour out my spirit;” Peter (or Luke) adds “and they shall prophesy.”

There is a significant interpretation and adaptation of the passage from Joel to fit this new context. It’s evidence of early Christians re-reading and appropriating for new uses the familiar texts of the Hebrew Bible. It’s also evidence of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to, as Jesus puts it in John, “guide you into all truth.”

There’s a danger here, of course. There’s a tendency among many (progressive) Christians to appeal to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit (“The Spirit is doing a new thing”) whenever they seek to introduce innovation in doctrine or practice. The lesson in Acts (and John) is that the Holy Spirit can’t be controlled: “The Spirit blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). The Holy Spirit may certainly be doing a new thing, but that new thing may not be something we are comfortable with, just as many of the disciples weren’t comfortable with Peter’s actions regarding Cornelius. I’ve often thought that it’s best to declare the Holy Spirit’s working only from the benefit of hindsight, when we can look back on events in which participants couldn’t necessarily see clearly, but were certain they were heeding the Spirit’s call.

Paul offers us a glimpse of an appropriate caution. In Romans 8, there’s a sense that the Spirit sometimes speaks on our behalf, or speaks with us; and that when it does so, we are incorporated in Christ (a spirit of adoption making us children of God and joint heirs with Christ). At first glance that might seem to lead to an even more self-interested understanding of the Holy Spirit. But Paul adds, ‘if in fact we suffer with him.” So he brings it back to the cross, to power made perfect in weakness.

 

 

The New Jerusalem: Lectionary reflections for 5 Easter, Year C.

We’ve been reading from the Book of Revelation during this season of Easter. This is the only sustained engagement of the lectionary with the last book in the New Testament. That’s a shame, I suppose, because the richness of the other readings and the difficulties inherent in interpreting and preaching Revelation divert our attention. Looking back through my sermon files, it’s hardly a coincidence that my sermons in the Easter season rarely deal substantively with Revelation before the Fifth Sunday of Easter. There’s another reason for the sudden appearance of Revelation in my preaching in the Fifth and Sixth Sundays of Easter. It’s because, the lectionary readings for those weeks introduce John’s vision of the New Jerusalem.

As a reminder, on earlier Sundays we heard from the very beginning of the book (Rev. 1:4-8) and two different visions of heavenly worship: Rev. 5:11-14 and Rev. 7:9-17. Taken together, these readings along with those for the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter do little to provide a full introduction to this complex, important, and enigmatic work. And I can’t do that in a blog post, either. Barbara Rossing’s commentaries on Working Preacher offer some introduction and her books also provide understandings of Revelation that go beyond the sensationalistic end-time prophecies of Hal Lindsey and Left Behind.

I spent a good bit of time during my academic career both as a scholar and a teacher, thinking about apocalyptic literature and the apocalyptic worldview. As a preacher and pastor, I have been especially interested in the contrasting images of human community and urban life presented in Revelation. There are two cities described in the book. One is the city John sees coming down from heaven, the New Jerusalem. We only catch a glimpse of it in this week’s reading but God, speaking for the first time in the book since its opening verses, has this to say:

“See, the home of God is with mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

He will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

A fuller description of the New Jerusalem is provided in later in chapter 21 in 22 (excerpts from which are the reading for next Sunday). The key feature highlighted by the lectionary is the absence of a space set apart for God: “I saw no temple in the city; for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.”

The New Jerusalem is the second of two cities in Revelation. The other is Rome. We see its fullest description in Rev. 17 when John sees a vision of a whore clothed in purple and scarlet, with the inscription “Babylon the Great, Mother of whores.” She is seated on seven mountains, a clear reference to the seven hills of Rome. Revelation is a text that seeks to instruct its readers in the evils of Rome and in its eternal and totalistic enmity toward the Christian faith. John’s readers were meant to receive assurance that their suffering would be rewarded and that at the end God would prevail.

The vision of a city filled with the divine presence and filled as well with people from all the nations of the world joined in their worship of God redeems the overwhelming biblical understanding of the city as evil, from Genesis, where it is said that Cain founded the first city although through to Revelation itself. The New Jerusalem though is a redeemed and re-created city, inhabited by God and mortals, a community where there is no religious, social, or ethnic difference.

We have all sorts of ideas about ideal human community. In the twenty-first century, we might think of the nuclear family as the model for human community and many of us think of the church as “family” as well. I would guess that few of us would imagine a city as an ideal human community. Cities are dirty, noisy, full of crime. But cities are also redemptive and places where God’s grace is present. They might also be places where God is present everywhere and not just within the boundaries of the buildings or boxes within which we try to confine God.

Blinded by the Light: Lectionary Reflections for 3 Easter, Year C

This week’s reading from Acts is the story of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6). It’s a story that has come to define Christian experience especially in Evangelical Christianity. It’s not just the importance of conversion but the importance of a dramatic conversion, a complete reversal. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” describes it in one way, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” In Evangelicalism, even that can’t describe how dramatic conversion is expected to be, a turnaround from a dissipate life to a life in Christ.

Luke describes Paul’s experience in these terms. There are two versions in Acts, the one in chapter 9 and also a version put in Paul’s mouth in Acts 22:3-16. It is from the former account that the interesting details come: the road to Damascus, the blindness.

Interestingly, Paul also gives accounts of his story. One of the most important is in Galatians 1. There, Paul offers a different account of what happens after the encounter than that given by Luke. More importantly perhaps, he also uses different imagery to understand his experience. For Paul, it’s not a conversion but a call:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16)

Paul uses language that draws on call narratives of Hebrew prophets. Compare Jeremiah 1:5:

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;

Paul’s experience as constructed by Luke has shaped Christianity as well as popular culture. Christians have sought to understand and construct their experience to conform to the model of a dramatic conversion and if they’ve never experienced Christ in that way, they wonder whether their faith is truly authentic. And if they’ve never lived a dissolute life, if they’ve been raised in Christianity and consistently attended services, it’s pretty hard to have an evil past from which to convert.

Conversion is real for many people, but it’s not the only, nor even the normative category for thinking about the Christian life. If Paul understood what happened to him as God calling him in a new direction, so can we. There are times when Paul looks back on his past and sees evil but he can also boast about who he was:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)

This week’s reading, and Paul’s experience, invite us to think about how we understand our own lives in Christ and to explore imagery that helps us name that experience and invites us into deeper relationship with the One who knows us and calls us by name.

(I’ve previously reflected on Paul’s conversion here).

Jesus, Remember me: Lectionary Reflections for Palm Sunday, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

We have slowly been gaining insight into Luke’s understanding of Jesus these past few months–slowly because our gospel readings have jumped around in Luke and have also included readings from the Gospel of John. Among the most important texts for Luke’s understanding of Jesus is his teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:17:21, read on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany). There Jesus announces the fulfillment of the prophecy of the recovery of sight for the blind, that prisoners will be set free, and the poor will have the good news preached to them. Over the following weeks, we saw some of that activity. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we also saw the promise of forgiveness from a loving God.

It may be that it is only now, in the crucifixion scene, that many churchgoers will encounter central aspects of Luke’s image of Jesus. His prayer for forgiveness as he is crucified is a prayer that God will forgive his executioners whether or not they repent of their actions. In fact, Jesus says that “they know not what they do.” Jesus responds similarly to the plea of the second criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here, the criminal doesn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus extends his forgiveness nonetheless: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In Luke Jesus is crucified not to pay for the sins of humanity. He is crucified because the Roman Empire and its Jewish collaborators have chosen to execute him. The charges brought against him are political: perverting our nation,telling people no to pay taxes, and calling himself Messiah, a king (Lk 23:2). Pilate finds him innocent of the charges; Herod’s interrogation is inconclusive because Jesus doesn’t answer his questions. The second criminal also pronounces him condemned unjustly and the centurion says as Jesus dies, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Jesus’ innocence and his forgiveness of those who crucified him in spite of that innocence is central to the story. Luke will draw on that same theme in Acts when the first martyr, Stephen, asks God to forgive those who stone him.

Many contemporary Christians and those who struggle with Christianity wrestle with the meaning of the cross, with the doctrine of atonement, and especially with the notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. As hard as it is for us to get our heads around this notion, it may be that Luke’s understanding of the cross is still more puzzling–an innocent victim who prays for forgiveness: that’s an image of a God of great compassion, and of a Christ who is difficult to imitate. But forgiveness of others is at the heart of our faith (Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) and should also be at the heart of our ethics

A Smoking Fire Pot and a Flaming Torch: Lectionary Reflections on Lent 2, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

One of my most memorable worship experiences is connected with this story from Genesis. I was still a layperson at the time, member of an Episcopal Church.  I remember looking around the congregation and as the description of the covenant ceremony was being read, catching the eyes of a parishioner on the other side of the church. Her eyes grew wider and wider, a look of puzzlement on her face. She wanted to know something about this strange story. The reading ended. The service continued, and the preacher got up and had nothing to say about it, or as I recall, any of the other lessons read that day. That experience cemented for me the conviction that one of the preacher’s greatest obligations is to engage directly the hard questions raised in or by a text.

The story tells of the covenant Yahweh made with Abram. It’s a promise by God to give Abram a son, to make of his descendants a mighty nation, and also to give to them the promised land. Although covenant is a key theme in scripture, it’s almost as strange a notion to moderns as the subsequent description of the ceremony. We might think of it as a treaty, for in many cases, biblical covenants share a great deal with ancient treaties that have been discovered. At its heart is God’s promise. As we see in this text, Abram has a hard time trusting in that promise. He wants to work out his descendants on his own (here in c. 15, later with Ishmael, too). Here, Yahweh shows him the stars in the sky, and says, “So shall your descendants be.” And in that powerful verse used later by Paul, “Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Then comes the ceremony. Abram splits animals in half, lays them out, and “a smoking fire pot and a torch passed between these pieces.” In ancient covenant ceremonies, parties to the treaty passed between similarly-killed animals and promised that if they broke the covenant, the offender would be destroyed as these animals were killed.

In this eerie story, we encounter both the otherness of the text and the otherness of God. Various details contribute to its spookiness–Abraham falls into deep sleep, there’s a terrifying darkness. The story’s ambiguity contributes to its strangeness. Does this take place in a dream, a vision?

In spite of all of that strangeness and other-ness, relics of a far distant age, there is also reassurance. There is God’s promise, and those wonderful words, Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Here “righteousness” doesn’t have to do with holiness, but rather with being in right relationship with God. Whatever his doubts now or in the future,  Yahweh’s promise to Abram will remain true, and Abram will know that God is with him, and he with God.

It’s a reassuring message in Lent as well. Invited to reflect on our lives, we are also encouraged to encounter and experience God’s promise to us of salvation, and the grace that is offered us in Jesus Christ.

 

 

So what is baptism, anyway? Lectionary Reflections for January 13, 2013

This week’s readings (The Baptism of Our Lord) are here.

The readings for the first Sunday after the Epiphany always focus on Jesus’ baptism but in year C, the lectionary raises all sorts of questions for a close reader of the texts. The brief selection from Acts 8 seems to suggest that baptism with water is not adequate (a reading reinforced by the Pentecostal tradition that asserts the importance of baptism with the Holy Spirit). The gospel reading only tells part of the story and leaves out the most interesting details in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Taken together, these two readings should encourage us to ask about the meaning of baptism, both for Luke (the author of both the gospel and Acts) and in the twenty-first century.

Context is always important for understanding the text, so to extract the brief lection from Acts 8 is confusing and misleading. The chapter begins with Philip fleeing Jerusalem for Samaria, where he preaches the gospel and baptizes a large number of people. The twelve heard about this success and sent a couple of representatives to Samaria to check it out. One particular person is mentioned, the magician Simon, who is also baptized. After Peter and John lay hands on the newly baptized and they receive the Holy Spirit, Simon offers them money to do the same for him (hence the term simony which refers to the sin of purchasing church offices). There’s a great deal that’s curious in this brief episode but perhaps most important in the context of the lectionary regards the significance of the Holy Spirit in all of this. Pentecostal interpretation notwithstanding,  “signs and miracles” were taking place in Samaria before the arrival of the apostles (and the Holy Spirit).

The gospel reading only deepens the mystery surrounding baptism for in Luke’s account, we don’t actually see the baptism taking place. There is no mention of John baptizing Jesus and the lectionary omits the verses that suggest John was already in prison when Jesus was baptized. Early in chapter 3, Luke writes that John proclaimed a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but Luke records no conversation between John and Jesus that would help a reader understand why Jesus was baptized.

The readings invite questions about baptism. No doubt, many people have a different set of questions about the sacrament of baptism than those raised by the readings. It has been a matter of deep division within Christianity over the centuries and its meaning in our current cultural context is being debated as well. The Episcopal Church is debating the relationship between baptism and the Eucharist, for example (a conversation I’ve followed at least sporadically here).

As David Lohse points out in his column this week, sermons about the meaning of the sacrament might be especially appropriate now.

 

 

The Magnificat: The Songs of Advent, Part 3. Lectionary Reflections for 4 Advent, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

This week’s gospel is the story of the Visitation, Mary’s visit to her elderly cousin Elizabeth. The focus of the selected verses is on the interaction between the two women as well as the response of the child Elizabeth is carrying in her womb. There’s a great deal of artifice in Luke’s depiction of this scene (what do two pregnant women talk about when they get together for coffee or a visit?) and our interest is easily diverted from their conversation to the sons they are carrying.

There’s a third woman present in the scene, not physically, but in her words. Mary’s song echoes the Song of Hannah from I Samuel 2:1-10. The ties between Mary and Hannah extend beyond the similarities of their songs. In I Samuel 1:11, Hannah identifies herself as the “handmaid of the Lord” just as Mary identifies herself in the same terms (Lk 1:38 and 1:48). The NRSV translates “servant” but the word means female slave.

Again, as in the other songs Luke uses in his story of the Nativity, the resonances with Hebrew Bible language, imagery, and psalmody are very strong. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was barren. She had prayed devoutly in hopes of having a child and promised to dedicate her son to the service of God. Both Hannah and Mary sing of God’s activity on behalf of the poor and oppressed; strikingly, Mary puts God’s actions on their behalf in the perfect tense. That is to say, God has already begun intervening on behalf of the oppressed; it is not only something we can hope for in the future and (there’s something of a parallel here to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes although in this case, God’s action lies in the future:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

When we sing or reflect on the Magnificat our tendency is to see these words as Mary’s words, not our own. We lack the imagination and faith to make these statements ours. But if we believe in a God who comes to us in a manger in Bethlehem, it shouldn’t be beyond our capacity to believe in a God who acts in history on behalf of the poor, powerless, the hungry and the oppressed. If Mary and Hannah can believe it, so ought we.

Songs of Joy–The Songs of Advent, Part 2: Lectionary Reflections for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

I’m not a big fan of the recent tendency to focus our attention in Advent on one particular theme, so that the Third Sunday of Advent becomes “Joy.” While three of the readings could be construed as joyful or as exhorting joy, I don’t see much joy in the gospel or in the preaching message of John the Baptizer. In fact, if you go back and read the contexts for both the reading from Zephaniah and the canticle from Isaiah 12, you will note that the larger textual context is full of doom and gloom, prophecies of destruction, fears of being invaded and destroyed by larger powers.

Listen to some of Zephaniah’s words:

I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea.

This week’s reading comes from the very end of the text and is remarkably different in message and tone. Now Israel has been restored; the people are urged to sing, shout, and rejoice. Yahweh, too, sings:

The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing (Zeph 3:17)

In fact, there’s something of a puzzle here. What reads in the NRSV as “he will renew you in his love,” appears in the Hebrew as “he is silent in his love.” Imagine God struck silent by joy!

The Isaiah song, (Is 9:2-6), is another song of joy, presumably from a similar dire situation as that of Zephaniah, although perhaps a century earlier. Christians have interpreted these words as a prophecy of Jesus Christ but they are backward-looking as well. The imagery of the first few lines recalls Israel’s flight from Egypt and sojourn in the wilderness. The image of God as Savior, stronghold, and defense are all military images, calling to mind that early song of the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Moses, sung after the Israelites passed through the Red Sea:

The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation; (Ex. 15:2)

The next image also returns to the wilderness and the miraculous streams and fountains that came when the people were thirsty. Like the songs I talked about last week, these songs of Advent look backward in history as well as forward. They are songs of remembrance as well as anticipation.

The difficulty we have in feeling or expressing joy often comes from the difficulties in our lives; our personal struggles and pain. Joy is also difficult when we know of others’ suffering or when we think of all the problems facing our nation, community, and world. Both Isaiah and Zephaniah lived in periods of deep national crisis. In both men’s lives, Judah and Jerusalem faced existential threat. Within a decade or two after Zephaniah’s death, Jerusalem itself lay in ruins, its political and religious leadership carried off in exile in Babylon. But in Babylon, hope persevered and the exiles created a religious community and religious texts that survive to the present.

Perhaps these joyous songs of Advent will help us remember God’s mighty acts in history and give us hope that God continues to act in the world around us, bringing deliverance and salvation to a desperate world.

 

The Tender Compassion of our God: Lectionary Reflections for Advent 2, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

The Psalm this week comes from Luke’s Gospel (1:68-79). It is one of several songs or hymns that Luke records in his nativity scene (among the others are the Song of Simeon and Mary’s Magnificat). New Testament scholars suppose that Luke was drawing on hymns being sung by early Christians in his community when he wrote the gospel but in their current form they reflect his literary genius and overarching theological concerns.

Although we say, sing, or hear a psalm in every Eucharist, it probably doesn’t dawn on most of us that the Psalter is a hymnal; that when we say the psalms we are joining our voices with those of Christians from the two millennia before us as well as with the Jewish community of today and previous generations.

The Song of Zechariah is replete with the language and imagery of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms. In fact, like the other Lucan canticles, one can find in Hebrew scripture parallels for almost every word, phrase, or image. But it goes beyond a simple parroting of earlier language and imagery. In its current form, the canticle connects earlier scripture and prophecy with the current moment. The first section refers to David and thus draws our attention to the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. The second section refers to Abraham and thus refers us to Torah, the Law. Here we have the Law and the Prophets pointing the way forward to the present moment and the coming of the Messiah. The same thing is true in Luke’s description of Zechariah and Elizabeth which resonates powerfully with both Abraham and Sarah and Elkanah and Hannah. Both were barren couples.

To sing, say, or reflect on this hymn in Advent is to place ourselves in the middle of the season’s expectant hope. Our words echo the words of ancient Hebrews and first-century Jewish Christians. With them, we proclaim our faith in God’s promises; we look forward to our salvation. And we can sing from the position of Zechariah, who with the birth of his son knows that “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shalll break upon us.”

One of the miracles of Advent is that for a few brief weeks, all of salvation history, the story of God’s reaching out to us, is collapsed into our lives, into the darkening days of December. Through our prayers and worship, we unite with the voices, the hopes and faith of countless generations, in awaiting the coming of the Savior. God’s tender compassion comes to us as it has to the generations before us and will continue to come for generations to come.

Of course, Luke was writing his gospel decades after the events he was describing. He may have been writing decades after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE (some scholars think Luke was written in the 120s). He, his readers, and the community of Christians among whom he worshiped were singing hymns of hope and faith that were not reflected by the reality in which they lived. The Savior in whom they believed had not materially changed their situation. They were as poor and oppressed as ever. But still they could sing that God had raised up a mighty Savior; promised forgiveness of sins, and guided their feet into the way of peace. And this Sunday, so will we. I pray we believe it.