Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lectionary 17: Working Over Time

What these passages tell us about God
What these passages tell us to do

Reading 1  GN 15:1-6; 21:1-3
The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying: "Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great."

But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?" Abram continued, "See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir."

Then the word of the LORD came to him: "No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir."

The Lord took Abram outside and said, "Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so," he added, "shall your descendants be."

Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.

The LORD took note of Sarah as he had said he would; he did for her as he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time that God had stated. Abraham gave the name Isaac to this son of his whom Sarah bore him.

Responsorial Psalm PS 105:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
R. (7a , 8a) The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
Give thanks to the LORD, invoke his name; make known among the nations his deeds. Sing to him, sing his praise, proclaim all his wondrous deeds.
The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
Glory in his holy name; rejoice, O hearts that seek the LORD!
Look to the LORD in his strength; constantly seek his face.
The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
You descendants of Abraham, his servants, sons of Jacob, his chosen ones! He, the LORD, is our God; throughout the earth his judgments prevail.
The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.
He remembers forever his covenant which he made binding for a thousand generations which he entered into with Abraham and by his oath to Isaac.
The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.

Brothers and sisters: By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he received power to generate, even though he was past the normal age—and Sarah herself was sterile—for he thought that the one who had made the promise was trustworthy. So it was that there came forth from one man, himself as good as dead, descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sands on the seashore.

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, of whom it was said,
"Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name."
He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.

Alleluia COL 3:15A, 16A
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Let the peace of Christ control your hearts; let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel LK 2:22-40
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, He took him into his arms and blessed God, saying: "Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."

The child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem. 

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
1.    God’s plans sometimes take a long time to unfold, at least from a human perspective. We see that in the lives of the four people discussed in today’s readings: Abraham, Sarah, Simeon, and Anna. They did not fulfill their primary purposes until rather late in their lives.

2.   We also see that pattern in Jesus. It took him 3o years to prepare for His public ministry. The full fruit of that ministry has yet to mature, it is still being harvested 2,000+ years later.

3.   Although Abraham, Sarah, Simeon, and Anna did not fulfill their primary purposes until late in their lives, they had significant work to do ahead of that time to be able to accomplish those purposes. Abraham and Sarah had to set out from Ur and get through the long years where it seemed that they would never have a child. Simeon and Anna were only in a position to fulfill their primary purposes because they spent years living lives of piety. That dynamic is discussed more fully in Preliminary Work: What We Can Learn from the Lives of Joseph and Daniel.

4.   That dynamic is also hinted at in the last sentence of today’s gospel. Jesus had to do the work of growing up in order to be prepared for His public ministry.

5.    So how do we get through the waiting and get the preliminary work done? Today’s readings give us some specifics:
A.   “Fear not” and “Give thanks to the LORD.” We can dispel discouragement by savoring the good things God provides/does and letting Him know that we appreciate them. Noting your blessings and thanking God is a wonderful way to recharge faith. Check out C.S. Lewis’ delightful discussion of a similar dynamic in letter 17  of Letters to Malcomb.
B.    Relatedly, “proclaim all his wondrous deeds.” This involves recalling the amazing things God has done throughout salvation history. That definitely provides encouragement. Perhaps that’s why its recommended in Sirach 2:10.

C.   Keep your mind on scripture when you get discouraged; “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” It is far more inspiring than anything else. It’s the same dynamic we see in Matthew 14:27-29: we can rise above troubled circumstances if we keep our focus on Jesus. Think about the last gospel passage you heard/read, roll the factual details over in your mind, think about what principles it illustrates. That will take your mind off the discouraging thoughts and onto to something far more worthwhile.  

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

What We Can Learn from Jesus' Nativity: Joseph's Call (Matthew 1:18-25)

This is how Jesus Christ came to be born. His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace, decided to divorce her informally. 20He had made up his mind to do this when suddenly the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.' 22Now all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
23Look! the virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel,
a name which means 'God-is-with-us'. 24When Joseph woke up he did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do: he took his wife to his home; 25he had not had intercourse with her when she gave birth to a son; and he named him Jesus.

1.    God powerfully uses folks late in their lives. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph was well established before God called him to his primary mission in life. The same was true of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, Peter, and Paul.

2.    Joseph was a carpenter; that was his primary identify in the community where he lived. See Matthew 13:35.  We can learn several things from that:
A.   Our occupation may not be the primary import of our lives. We do not remember Joseph because of his carpentry work.
B.   God powerfully uses folks from all walks of life, even if their occupations do not give them great social status. We see that in Noah (farmer), Gideon (farm worker), Moses (shepherd), David (shepherd), and Peter (fisherman).
C.    Although our occupation does not measure our ultimate worth, God uses it for His purposes and hence expects us to do the best we can at it. Joseph’s work as a carpenter supported Jesus and Mary, so he had to do good carpentry work to carry out that divine mission. That dynamic is discussed in Preliminary Work; What We Can Learn from Joseph and Daniel.  That is why scripture consistently tells us to take our work seriously, whatever it is.  Scriptures addressing work generally are collected in Wisdom Principles: Diligence & Working. 

3.    Like Zechariah and Mary, Joseph didn’t “get it” at first, he didn’t understand what God was up to. See Luke 1:18-20,  Luke 1:34, and  Matthew 1:19. As was true with Zechariah and Mary, Joseph’s misunderstanding did not prevent his effectively carrying out God’s purpose. The same dynamic is seen in the lives of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus’ first disciples. For more on this see Fear Does Not Equal Failure and Doubt Does Not Equal Disqualification.

4.    The pattern of Joseph’s service parallels that of Joseph the patriarch. Both were called via dreams. Both humbly served God in self sacrificial ways. Both ended up doing great, great, good for God’s people and the world as a whole.

5.    The angel was correct to refer to refer to Joseph as “son of David,” and not just for genealogical reasons. See  Matthew 1:20. The underlying Greek word for “son of” is “huios.”  It means, among other things, to be a follower of, to resemble, and to be worthy of the person/thing the subject is a “son of.”  The angel had good reason to refer Joseph as a “son of David” in that sense. Both Joseph and David:
A.   Went through serious hardship/disruption in the process of doing what God called them to. Joseph had his expectations of a normal married life upset, no doubt had to endure ridicule/gossip over his spouse’s apparently illegitimate pregnancy, and had to become a fugitive in Egypt. David had to go on the run from Saul.
B.   Faithfully followed God’s call, even though what was involved did not make sense on a human level.  See, for example, David’s actions in  1 Samuel 17, 1 Samuel 24, and  1 Samuel 26 and Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s apparently illegitimate pregnancy.
6.    The angel communicating with Joseph stressed the great good that was to come from the sacrifice he asked of Joseph.  Matthew 1:20 (“he is the one who is to save his people from their sins”) (NJB ). We see the same pattern in the annunciation.  See Luke 1:32-33 . That seems to be an application of the principle described in Sirach 2:8-9 (“You who fear the Lord, trust him, and you will not be robbed of your reward. 9You who fear the Lord, hope for those good gifts of his, everlasting joy and mercy”) (NJB).
7.    The angel also stresses Jesus’ divinity:
A.   Jesus is “conceived … by the Holy Spirit” Matthew 1:20.
B.   “they will call Immanuel, a name which means 'God-is-with-us'Matthew 1:24.
8.    The statement in Matthew 1:24  that Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had told him to do” (NJB, emphasis added) brings to mind James 1:25's admonition about being a “doer” of the word. Joseph certainly lived that verse out. If the author of the Epistle of James was indeed Jesus' step brother, it seems that he leaned well from his father.
9.    Joseph and Mary go through great stress as a result of Jesus’ birth:
A.   Stress on their relationship (“Joseph … decided to divorce her”) Matthew 1:19.
B.   Stress on their relationships with their families and their community. That seems to be what inspired the angel’s statement about being “afraid to take Mary home as your wife” in Matthew 1:20.
C.    But God heals/helps them through those stresses.

10.  Joseph’s initial response to the dilemma he faced here, although mistaken, nonetheless shows that he was a wise man. It exemplified at least two principles laid out in wisdom literature.
A.   Joseph was not a rash man; Matthew 1:20’s statement that he “had made up his mind” about how to address Mary’s seemingly adulterous pregnancy implies that he had given the matter great thought. That is consistent with Proverbs 21:5. See also Proverbs 19:2.
B.   He was considerate of Mary, even though she had apparently done him wrong.  Matthew 1:19. That is consistent with Proverbs 20:22, Proverbs 24:29, and the other scriptures collected at Wisdom Principles--How to Deal With Those Who Do You Wrong.

11.   Joseph literally accepts Jesus and makes Him lord of his life. Like Mary’s, Joseph’s life is radically changed by his intimate relationship with Jesus. We see the same thing with Peter, Paul and the other Apostles. All those folks:
A.   Were called.
B.   Answered their calls, even though it took them outside their plans for their lives/their comfort zones.
C.    Were part of the delivery of tremendous, tremendous, good.
D.   Their lives exemplified the dynamic Jesus described in John 12:24 and Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35,  Luke 9:24.

12.  It is interesting to note how insistent the angel was that the Jesus was to be named Jesus, both here and in the annunciation. See Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31 .