The Adventurous Lectionary – The First Sunday of Christmas – December 29, 2019
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23.
Today’s readings are both painful and hopeful. They describe the contrast between the fidelity of God and the evil intentions of those in political power. Yet, the evils human plan are penultimate and will not last; God’s vision is present in threat and tragedy, giving us hope for deliverance. Today’s scriptures note that the Infinite is also intimate. God’s salvation is global as well as individual.
This vision is at the heart of the incarnation. The world is saved one person – one creature – at a time. God’s healing initiative is everywhere and joins the healing of nations and planets with the healing of persons. We need a healing environment; our own healing also transforms the environment to support our own and others’ wellbeing.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims God’s faithfulness. Like a good Parent, God is not distant or abstract, God’s love is immediate and transformative. God is right here: the divine pathos, as Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts, means that God is concerned about the small as well as large details of our lives. God is intimate, moving through the lives of persons and institutions. We are saved by God’s intimate presence. The adventurous pastor may invite the congregation to consider: Where is God present in saving ways? Where do we experience God’s presence in concrete and intimate ways? Isaiah invites us to reflect on our own mystical experiences despite the fact that we seldom experience God’s presence except through the events of our lives. Only occasionally does God present us with a flashing light announcing “I am here.” (For more on mysticism see Bruce Epperly, “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” Upper Room.)
Isaiah invites us to be especially attentive to divine movements in ordinary as well as unique events. Isaiah is no deist who places divinity outside of the world to give humankind elbow room for creativity. God already gives us freedom and encourages creativity by working within our lives relationally and non-coercively. God is with us in the maelstrom of daily schedules and political realities. God wants us to grow to be God’s companions in saving the world through our efforts. God is even present in the House of Representatives impeachment vote, occurring in real time as I write this lectionary commentary, and in our quest to balance patriotism, law, justice, and open-mindedness.
Psalm 148 joins cosmology and praise. Astounded by our wonderful world, the Psalmist imagines a world of praise. All things reflect divine wisdom and give praise to their creator. Human praise is part of a larger community of praise that includes the many varieties of plant and animal life. The Psalmist invites us to become mystics who encounter the holy with all our senses. Divine companionship moves through fellow humans, galaxies, and companion animals. Even difficult people and situations mediate the holy, albeit in curious ways. Once again, we need to look beyond appearances and slow down long enough to see the deeper divinely-inspired realities of life. The Psalmist is not advocating pantheism, nor is the Psalmist making an exact correlation between God’s movements and the movements of creatures. When we perceive “a world of praise,” we see unanticipated signs of God’s handiwork in all things. Knowing God is, then, a matter of intention and perception as well as divine initiative and artistry.
The Psalmist challenges preacher and congregation alike to pause and notice, to set aside our agendas to experience the Beauty of God reflected in our wonderful world.
The reading from Hebrews joins majesty and universality with intimacy. The One who creates all things moves through each thing, mirroring and responding to our feelings of joy and pain. God is truly with us, and all creation. God experiences agony and ecstasy, sorrow and joy, and acts redemptively to bring beauty out of tragedy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once asserted that only a suffering God can save us and the deity envisaged by the author of Hebrews shares our human condition of suffering, limitation, and temptation. Christ saves by empathetic relationship and experience of our human lives.
Then and now, dreams reveal divine wisdom. When we listen to God’s whispering in our lives, we are often led on unexpected pathways of personal growth. Synchronicities emerge, guiding us toward new possibilities of adventure; luring us toward safety in threatening situations. Such messages may come to us all the time, but we are seldom sensitive to their wisdom. Once again, we are encouraged to pause and notice and then respond to the wisdom we receive. (For more on dreams as media of revelation see Bruce Epperly, “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision,” Energion Publications.)
The second theme of the Gospel reading involves the realities of immigration. Indeed, the Gospel reading is as current as USA immigration policy and the millions of refugees in our world today. The holy family flees to Egypt, having been warned through a dream that Herod plans to kill the young Jesus. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are political refugees, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Apart from the welcome of the residents, likely Jewish community, they would not have survived. In the flight of the holy family, we see both grace and initiative – God’s grace mediated through dreams is fulfilled in the actions of Joseph and Mary and the hospitality of those who welcomed them in Egypt.
A third theme, and a difficult one to discuss, is Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. One needs to be careful to about sharing this reading with young children present, although often our young children “know” more than we think about the evil machinations of political leaders. Herod had a choice. Like all political powers, he can choose life or death. Then again, he was doing what he needed to preserve his throne. Perhaps, Herod’s court took this persecution as a matter of course, the cost of maintaining the government and their well-being. Their good fortune was based on violence to the marginal and threatening. While recognizing that some forms of potential violence are implicit in maintaining national security, this passage reminds us that the most vulnerable among us must be protected even when we try to protect ourselves and our nation. Sadly, today, we wage war with apparently clean hands and a clear conscience against the toddlers and the infants of the world in a variety of ways: cutting food stamps and Head Start programs, maintaining a minimum wage that is unsustainable for families, failing to provide adequate parenting education and job training for parents, separating children from parents on our borderlands, and refusing to give incarcerated youth flu shots.
Less obvious, and more socially acceptable, is the war against childhood when we promote adult behaviors among children through the media and advertising, and also the neglect of children by parents who place their jobs and personal satisfactions about the well-being of their children. God comes to us as a child. Pause and notice, you are on holy ground whenever you encounter one of God’s little ones.
Salvation is global as well as individual. This vision is at the heart of the incarnation. The world is saved one person – one creature and child – at a time. God’s healing initiative is everywhere and joins the healing of nations and planets with the healing of persons. We need a healing environment; our own healing also transforms the environment to support our own and others’ wellbeing.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including, “Piglet’s Process Theology: Process Theology for All God’s Children,” “Become Fire: Spiritual Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”