The Common Good
December 1994-January 1995

Receive the Mystery

by Joyce Hollyday | December 1994-January 1995

Reflections on the revised common lectionary (November 27 - February 12, 1995)

Our sriptures take us through the season of Advent almost to the edge of Lent. This journey of weeks is like a treasure hunt, in which each clue reveals a truth and points us on to the next. God is the mystery behind the puzzle.

During Advent, we wait for God to reveal God's self in human form, as one of us. In the weeks that follow, we see God as Spirit, creator, light, judge, and giver of grace. This is a season of awe, a time to rest in the amazement of having been created, loved, and redeemed by a God who defies description, yet chooses to reveal the mystery to hearts that can receive it.

November 27: Get Ready
Jeremiah 33:14-26; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

The hummingbirds disappeared a month ago. This morning a family of Canada geese, including six young ones that just a few months ago were tiny yellow balls of fluff, took off in a flurry of wings and honks. Goodbye for now. On to a warmer South.

The mountains are erupting in a blaze of color. The wind chimes dance with increased fervency. Fireflies that lit up the trees like sparkling magic last summer now flicker diffidently, scattered over the ground for their dying.

It is time. Time to dust the cobwebs out of the woodstove and split the pile of logs waiting under the beech tree. Time to replenish the supply of bird seed and get in hay for the horses, while their coats turn from shiny to shaggy. Time to prepare.

The signs are everywhere. It's in the air. Change is coming. A time of portent, disruption, newness. Get ready. Don't be left behind.

The first tinge of chill in the air always brings a rush of excitement. Can Christmas be far behind? And yet we wait. And while we wait to see the face of God, we get ready.

Do the work inside yourself that can't be done outdoors. Prepare a fallow heart to welcome mystery, water a dormant soul with springs of joy. Cultivate awe. Plant a seed of hope.

December 4: For What?
Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

It's the sort of gospel passage you always hoped not to have to read aloud in Sunday school. All those hard-to-pronounce names, like Ituraea and Lysanias. And what does it matter who was tetrarch of Abilene anyway?

It matters. Especially if you're someone who cares about power and authority and having things done right. Let's try it again. In the second year of the reign of Clinton, Jesse Helms being senator from North Carolina, Dan Quayle getting ready for 1996, and Pope John Paul II sitting on the throne in Rome, the Word of God appeared in a tenement in inner-city Chicago. Or a slum in Port-au-Prince. Or something like that.

You get the picture. It was a scandal. This Word overlooked the ruling powers, both secular and religious, and went straight to the edges of acceptability-to the wilderness. The lesson was, if you want to understand the reign of God, look in unexpected places. Go to the margins.

And watch out for this Word. It has the power to level the hills and fill in the valleys. It is like "a refiner's fire" and "a fuller's soap," according to Malachi. It will purify by the torch and rub you clean until it hurts.

You were expecting maybe just an innocent baby?

December 11: Take a Seat
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Joy, joy, JOY! Our Zephaniah, Isaiah, and Philippians passages are brimming with invitations to rejoice in the God who brings justice.

On the last day of September 1981, I was walking on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. All the cafes were adorned with banners entreating patrons to "Ring in the New Year Here!" New Year? In September? Is our Congress three months ahead of the rest of us, I wondered, or miserably behind the times?-well, let's not go into that. The mystery became clear when I saw a banner that had added the word "Fiscal" in front of "New Year."

The next day, October 1, 1981, was the first day of the Reagan budget. I happened to be sitting in a cell in the D.C. jail as a result of a political protest. I will never forget the conversation with the other women there.

Most of them already felt pushed by desperation and despair into prostitution or selling illegal drugs. They spoke openly about the changes they feared were coming: severe cutbacks in education and job-training opportunities, in Food Stamps and drug rehabilitation programs. Whether or not fiscal year 1981 was something to celebrate had everything to do with whether you were sitting in a Capitol Hill cafe or the D.C. jail.

Perspective. That's what these passages are really about. So we have the ironic juxtaposition in Luke of axes being laid to the roots of trees, a winnowing hook clearing the threshing floor, and chaff being burned with unquenchable fire-followed by "So, with many other exhortations, John preached good news to the people." Good news indeed! Cause for joy and celebration.

For some, that is. It depended on where you were sitting.

December 18: Vacant Thrones
Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

A throne would not be a particularly good choice of seat. Mary knew that. She knew, before anyone else, about the radical social upheaval that was about to be ushered in by the fruit of her womb. It had already begun.

You couldn't get much lower in those days than to be a woman in a patriarchal society, a Jew under Roman occupation, and a peasant in a land of plenty. A poor, Jewish woman in occupied Palestine was bearing the gift for which the world longed.

Mary was chosen to be the bearer of God's incarnation. God's promises had already become truth in her flesh. The poor were already being exalted. No end to the ironies.

At the news, she went "with haste" to see her cousin Elizabeth. It was a natural response. When afraid, go see a friend who will listen and make it all feel a little less lonely and overwhelming.

The account of their greeting is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture. What a blessed moment for womanhood when Mary, still trembling with the news of what was to be fulfilled in her, ran to the elderly Elizabeth and embraced her. At Mary's greeting, Elizabeth's womb came to life, and the child "leaped for joy" within her!

The Magnificat, Mary's song of praise and hope, flowed forth in this setting. And two miraculously pregnant women basked in the secret of the quiet revolution that was to be accomplished through them. Two women incarnated the truth that, with God, nothing is impossible.

I like to imagine what their days together were like. They must have been filled with shared secrets, laughter, a few tears, and dreams of a future unlike any they had conceived before. They watched their wombs swell, felt their sons growing within, probably rubbed each other's aching backs and sore feet at the end of the day.

Elizabeth, in her experience and wisdom, had much to share with her younger cousin. She understood the requirements of faith and the challenges of marriage. She knew that some would point with scorn at Mary, pregnant before her wedding, just as some had spoken of her own barrenness with reproach. She knew how to live proudly despite the whispers behind her back, and how to be grateful to God no matter what the circumstances. She understood what it meant to be a vessel of God's will.

Hearing of Mary's pregnancy, Joseph wanted at first to "dismiss her quietly." Zechariah was struck dumb for the duration of Elizabeth's pregnancy because of his doubt. Shepherds quaked, Herod raged. In the birth narratives, Mary and Elizabeth carried the faith-as well as the future.

Together they nurtured a revolution. The tables began turning. The thrones began crumbling. What joy! What HOPE!

December 25: Be a Light
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

An 11-year-old boy with cancer lost all his hair as a result of chemotherapy treatments. When it came time for him to return to school, he and his parents experimented with hats, wigs, and bandanas to try to conceal his baldness. They finally settled on a baseball cap, but the boy still feared the taunts he would receive for looking "different." Mustering up his courage, he went to school wearing his cap-and discovered that all of his friends had shaved their heads.

You can't hide the pain of the world. You can't cover it up. You can only share it. Make someone else's journey a little easier. Be willing to go to great lengths to help someone else carry their pain.

God did. God left whatever throne people had put him on in their imaginations and came to earth. And God made the absurd choice to arrive as a baby, vulnerable and dependent, subject to all the pains and fears and frustrations that plague the rest of us humans. A choice for incarnation.

John reminds us that we have all been given power to be the children of God. To be lights to the world. "The true light...enlightens everyone."

Whatever darkness may envelop the globe, whatever gloom may hang in our own lives-it isn't strong enough to suffocate the light. The smallest match will light up a room. The smallest gesture of kindness, act of compassion, or work of mercy will light up the globe. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." Be a Christmas light today.

January 1: A New Earth
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Psalm 8; Revelation 21: 1-6a; Matthew 25: 31-46

I was once part of a writing group that met every month. Most of us were writers of prose and gave easy affirmation or advice about one another's essays and short stories. But there was one among us who was a poet. And whenever she read her contributions, we were speechless. "Nice imagery" was about all we could muster to say, after some awkward silence. And pretty soon it became a bit of a joke, this repetition of the compliment "Nice imagery." It was the response of people inspired and in awe of the beauty of poetic creation.

"Nice imagery" fits our passages this week. What a way to start the year! We begin with the poetic affirmation that there is a time for all things-a time for planting and harvesting, weeping and laughing, speaking and keeping quiet; a time for birthing and dying. Life goes on, seasons change, God is lovingly in charge. Time to rest, renew, and rejoice.

Psalm 8 puts us in our place-crowned with glory and honor, not God but made in God's image. Trusted with care of the earth and all that lives on it. Sheep and oxen, sparrows and trout, daisies and oak trees-all living under sun and moon and stars, according to God's plan. Good work, God. Nice imagery. How majestic is your name! Thank you.

God is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, creator of a new heaven and a new earth. And in this new world there will be no more death. God will reach down and, with a mother's care, wipe away every tear.

But we are not there yet. There are still many of us who are hungry and thirsty, naked and cold, alone and afraid, sick and dying. The old earth still groans and makes its claim: feed, clothe, visit, heal. There is much to be done.

And Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, reminds us that we will find him there, among the lonely and suffering ones. More than just a metaphor or creative poetic image. He is there. And-make no mistake about it-our salvation is at stake in how we treat him and his sisters and brothers.

January 8: Surprised by God
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Just when we think we have a grip on God, God surprises us. Loving creator, yes. Merciful redeemer, yes. The natural world and Jesus reveal parts of God's nature. But there is more.

We are familiar with the God of the still, small voice. But what of this God of Psalms whose voice thunders over mighty waters, breaking cedars and causing oaks to whirl, flashing forth flames of fire? If we have learned anything, we should have learned by now that God cannot be nicely wrapped up and contained by our limited views and finite minds.

God is Spirit, and Spirit rushes where it will-around and over and up, beyond our control. Beyond our hopes. For how could we have known that we needed this sustainer? This comforter?

Baptism by fire, by water, by Spirit. For each one of us, the heavens open, a dove descends, and God says, "You are my beloved, my precious one. I have called you by name. I have taken you by the hand. Do not be afraid."

A God so cosmic we cannot contain or comprehend the vast truth. A God so intimate we are never alone. What a revelation. Epiphany!

January 15: An Abundance of Gifts
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

God continues the revelation. God's love is precious and steadfast, a treasure. The psalmist declares to God that all may "take refuge in the shadow of your wings," "feast on the abundance of your house," and "drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light." Again, what poetry!

The love of God reaches to the clouds; it has no bounds.

And the Spirit has no end of gifts to bestow. Wisdom, knowledge, faith. Healing and prophecy. Many gifts, one Spirit.

And the key: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." For the common good. Not for show. Not to lord it over someone else. But for the building up of the body of Christ, the creation of community.

Each of us has our gift to offer. Each of us is obligated by faith to offer it. No slackers in the house of God. Remember: Without you, the body of Christ is incomplete.

January 22: Anointed by the Spirit
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

This Spirit is disturbing. Its gifts are for the upbuilding of the church, to be sure. But that is not enough. Jesus knew.

Luke 4 recounts his first public appearance in the synagogue in Nazareth. He was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he knew just where to turn in it. The Spirit had anointed him for a mission: to bring good news to the poor, to heal the blind, to free the prisoners and the oppressed.

He came "to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor"-the year of Jubilee, in which debts were erased and slaves were freed. Every 50 years, everybody started over again with a clean slate. All were forgiven and received into the community of faith on equal footing.

With the words "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," Jesus concluded his reading and launched his mission. It was a shrewd and stunning announcement of his purpose. The message had become political.

January 29: Called to Truth
Jeremiah 1:4-10: Psalm 71:1-6; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

The crowd loved it. What gracious words. From one of their own, Joseph's son. It was amazing, something to be proud of in the old home town.

But Jesus knew right away that they had missed the point. The people nodded and smiled, unwilling to allow the radical truth of his words to sink in. So he made it plain. Told them that prophets are always rejected at home, and that sometimes foreigners are more understanding and faithful than the people of God.

The smiles slowly faded. Pride turned to rage. This favorite son whom moments before they had praised was now being driven out of town, to a cliff, where they intended to hurl him off the edge.

A disturbing word indeed. But one that could not be backed away from-any more than Jeremiah could back away from boldly preaching against the sins of the people. "But I am only a boy," he tried to argue with God. Not good enough. No excuses. Jeremiah was anointed from the womb to preach truth, and God promised to be by his side and provide the words.

And so with each of us, called in our own way-in God's way-to speak truth boldly, whatever the consequences. But (we seem to need this reminder from 1 Corinthians), always tempered by love. Not anger, not frustration, not the need to be grand or glorious that motivates us. It was God's great compassion for those who suffered that put words in the mouths of the prophets.

"Upon you, O God, I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother's womb....From my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come."

February 5: Transformed by Grace
Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

For a brief time, it was a solitary mission. Jesus went from Nazareth to Capernaum and on throughout Judea, casting out demons, healing the sick, and preaching the Word of God. The crowd pressed so near on the shore of Lake Gennesaret that he climbed into a boat and taught the people from there.

Then he told Simon Peter to move the boat into deep water and let down his nets. Peter protested briefly. He had hauled nets all night and caught nothing. But he did as Jesus asked.

So great was the haul of fish, the nets began to break with the weight of them! Peter had to summon the other fishermen. Bring out another boat. Too many fish to hold in one. And both the boats began to sink.

Peter's response was immediate. He was down on his knees, overwhelmed. He knew he was in the presence of an amazing man. Next to Jesus' greatness, Peter saw his own need and sin. "Go away, for I am sinful." But what he was really saying was, "Stay, for I need to be forgiven. I need to be near to this power you have."

And so nets and boats lay abandoned on the shore. Peter, James, and John forsook possessions, vocation, and family to follow a stranger with a power they had never before witnessed. They began a lifelong venture, the consequences of which they could never have imagined. They surrendered themselves to be changed completely.

The invitation is there for us as well. Let go and be willing to be transformed-by love and grace. Join Paul in the affirmation, "By the grace of God, I am what I am, and God's grace toward me was not in vain."

February 12: Take Root
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

Echoes of his mother's song come to mind. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the sad. It's an upside-down world in the eyes of God. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence, justice is real and hope is possible.

The only way to persevere is to put down deep roots of faith. Reach far below the surface of what appears to be truth. Then when you're buffeted by gales that speak anger, or drought times bring doubt, the roots will not let go.

Be tenacious in faith. Not like desert shrubs that take flight as tumbleweeds when the parched season comes, blown by winds of fear. Plant yourself where you will be fed by streams of faith and hope.

On the small mountain farm where I live, blackberry bushes ring the lake. Much to my dismay, the owner of the farm came one day last spring to tear them out. But within days, small shoots began to reappear. By late spring the thickets were providing a canopy of protection for a nesting goose and burrows of baby rabbits. By mid-summer, a few of the bushes were putting out fruit-enough for a few days' worth of fresh berries on my cereal and several blackberry cobblers.

Next year there will be more. Whatever destruction came to the branches, the underground network of roots held, providing an anchor for rebirth. Roots that go deep can bear a lot and still survive.

"Blessed are those who trust in the Lord....They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit." n

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former associate editor and now a contributing editor for Sojourners, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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