Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on December 6, 2009

No doubt many of you have already seen Christmas decorations start to appear in your churches, and have started the annual traditions like the lighting of the advent wreath. Although different churches may have different traditions, such as the different names for each of the candles to be lighted each week on the advent wreath, this is a time when symbols and traditions become especially important. I'd like to invite you to keep these symbols and traditions in mind as we read this week's lectionary readings. How do our traditions help us to interpret these passages?

Here are the passages for December 6th, 2009, the Second Sunday of Advent (Year C).  All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.  (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Malachi 3:1-4
  • Last week, I mentioned that a major theme of advent is that “something is coming.”  In this passage, something is coming.  A messenger is coming.  What message does this messenger bring?
  • There is a lot of language in this passage that conveys a sense of cleanliness.  “Refiner's fire”  “fuller's soap,” “purifier.”  What kind of cleaning does the author of this passage imagine will take place?  How would the people who originally heard the words (assumed to be living more than 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ) have understood these words?    At the end of the passage, we see references to “days of old,” “former years” during which offerings were apparently more acceptable to the Lord than the days during which this passage is written.  What had changed?  What was true about those earlier days that the author is attempting to return to?
Luke 1:68-79
  • The version of the Revised Common Lectionary used in the PC(USA)'s Book of Common Worship does not have a reading from the Psalms this week.  A rarity.  Rather, this passage, which consists of the prophesy made by Zechariah right after his son (John the Baptizer) was circumcised, is used in place of the weekly Psalm (some say the prophesy was sung, like a Psalm)
  • Responses like these seem to break the flow of the narrative. Why does Luke find them important enough to include?

Philippians 1:3-11
  • Because of the themes of advent, it's tempting to find a way to put the phrase “something is coming” into all of my comments during this season.  But the fact is, for this passage, I'd have force that phrase in.  It doesn't really seem to fit.  Why, then, is this passage being included as an Advent reading?
  • This passage is believed to have been written while the Apostle Paul was in prison, a fact that he alludes to in verse 7.  Yet the passage remains extremely upbeat and joyful.  How can Paul maintain this attitude despite his situation?  How were the Philippians “partners in the gospel”?
  • As the passage comes to a close, the theme of purification comes up again in verse 10.  If Paul is already so happy with the Philippians, what further purification might they have needed?  Did he have something in mind, or is he simply referring to the fact that no one is perfect, and everyone can become more pure and blameless than they currently are?
Luke 3:1-6
  • Something is coming.  In this case, John the Baptizer is coming.  We don't see much of John in action in this passage, but Luke sets up the context in which John appears.  Luke goes to great lengths to tell the year in which this event occurs, and to tell us what political figures were in power in the surrounding regions.  Why do you think Luke goes to all this trouble?
  • I usually try to make it a point to note when the New Testament quotes a passage of the Old Testament.  This passage ends with a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5.  Besides asking why Luke used this particular passage of prophesy to describe John, it's worth noting that this passage of Isaiah would have been part of the liturgical readings for this same Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, last year, when the Lectionary calendar was on Year B for weekly Sunday readings.   And on this Sunday in Year A, the gospel reading is the parallel passage from Matthew.  Why do you think that the framers of the lectionary found it so important to include these prophetic words on the same Sunday of the lectionary calendar every year of their three year cycle?

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