This Week in Scripture, 11/27/11

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and therefore of the liturgical year. I’m going to try to make a point of posting on this topic every week throughout Year B (as we Episcopalians lovingly call it), but being a falliable mortal being, I make no promises.

Taken as a set, this week’s readings set the stage by contrasting the pre-Christ and post-Christ worlds.  In Isaiah 64:1-9, the prophet begs God to show Himself to His people like He did in the old days (as with Moses, say), and laments that in his present time, God hides His face and punishes humans for their iniquities. He ends with, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Psalm 80 reflects the same theme, lamenting present punishment and asking God to send His blessings again. Verse 16 says “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.” While of course Jewish readers of the Psalms don’t interpret it the same way, Christians tend to read “the son of man” as a title of Jesus. By that interpretation, the Psalm asks for Christ’s arrival, and goes on to describe the effects of Christ’s coming: “And so we will never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Putting the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 1:3-9 right after this turns it into an answer to the prayer, as Paul promises the Corinthians that “in every way [they] have been enriched in him” and that “He will also strengthen [them] to the end.” “God is faithful,” he says. Those who ask for God will be answered.

Finally, in the gospel reading from Mark 13:24-37, we skip over the initial incarnation entirely, and Jesus describes how He will come in the end: He also says, in words that one always wants to go over in bold yellow highlighter for “Judgment Day is X” people, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

And then He says, several times, “Keep alert…keep awake.”

There are several ways to look at this command: both of the ones I’m going to mention here are informed by my knowledge of other faiths. One, particularly if you read this within the context of parables like that of the wise and foolish maidens with their lamps, is “do what you’re supposed to be doing, because you never know when you’re going to be called on it.” Even polytheistic gods might show up unexpectedly one day, disguised as ordinary people, and pass judgment on whole cities based on the treatment they are shown during their visit. (In fact, angels do exactly this a few times in the Old Testament. The actual judgment, of course, they leave to God, but they gather and present the evidence for Him and carry out the sentence.)

For my money, reward and punishment systems are not the highest form of moral decision-making, but in all honesty there are plenty of people in the world for whom it is the highest form they can attain.  And it’s better than nothing, as virtually every human culture seems to agree.

But there’s also a possible sentiment here that most people would think of now as something Eastern: be aware of the moment. Perhaps there was a time when we saw God as residing just in heaven, just in the great temples (like the one in Jerusalem, the destruction of which Jesus foretells): but even if that used to be so and not just our imagining, now God has come down from the mountain and moves through His creation at will. The Holy Spirit, for example, is said multiple times to abide with all Christians, forever. “Forever” is not something that starts someday far from now: “now” exists within “forever.” Be with the Holy Spirit now. Recognize that you already are. Notice God’s creation all around you right this moment; have your eyes open to what He might wish of you right this moment.

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