Today is the Second Sunday before Advent Year A (Proper 28) or 33rd in Ordinary Time. We are coming towards the end of Year A. The Lectionary Readings for today are as follows:
- Judges 4:1-7
- Psalm 123
- 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
- Matthew 25:14-30
The gift of the Lectionary offers a 3-year journey through Scripture, but with a tendency to leave out both the most boring and the most controversial passages. Here we have skipped daintily over Ehud’s eye-watering assassination of the oppressive (and very fat) Moabite King Eglon. To find out more, read Judges 3:21-22 – actually, don’t!
We enter this passage with the report of the death of Ehud, the good guy, but rather than renewing their allegiance to God for this victory over the Moabites, the Israelites simply fall back into their old ways, and are caught napping by the next oppressor – King Jabin of Canaan. We are told that the commander of his army was Sisera – a name which may be familiar to those who have a fondness for the Bible’s gory bits. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself!
We are also introduced to Deborah, who is clearly a woman not to be messed with. Another feisty woman comes later – Jael, the wife of Heber. It’s refreshing to see strong female leads in the Bible every now and again! Under Deborah’s command, Barak completely overpowers Sisera’s forces to the point where Sisera is the lone survivor fleeing on foot. Jael is the one who urges Sisera to take refuge in her tent, and Sisera acquiesces to her charms. Sisera is then the victim of the next eye-watering assassination. To find out more, read Judges 4:21-22 – actually, don’t!
Why are these extraordinary stories part of our Bible? Well the bigger picture is of course the story of people of Israel as they stumble through their history with their fluctuating allegiances to God along the way. We learn that while the faithfulness of God’s people is of varied levels of commitment, God’s faithfulness is everlasting, and God’s mercy is eternal. It is not the actions of God’s people that define the people of God, but the actions of God.
These short Psalms in this section of the Psalter are called the Psalms of Ascent. They were pilgrim songs, learned off by heart and sung by God’s people as they travelled up to Jerusalem for the various festivals. As the people look up while walking, they see the mighty Jerusalem rising above them and are drawn to praise God.
Incidentally, one of the most mis-quoted Psalms of Ascent begins with an entirely different punctuation from that mis-remembered by so many.
Psalm 121 does NOT begin with the words:
I lift up my eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help!
Instead, it begins:
I lift up my eyes unto the hills. Whence cometh my help?
In other words, the hills do not bring me any help at all. When I look to the hills I find no help. Where does my help come from then? My help comes from the Lord!
Similarly in this Psalm 123 – I lift up my eyes, certainly, but it is not to majestic mountains or mighty buildings. I lift up my eyes to you, O Lord, who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the pilgrims continue upwards on their journey, so they dare to pray for God’s mercy. May this festival be a time of renewal, that through the mercy of God, their souls might know God’s peace. What a way to approach any time of worship!
1 Thessalonians 5
The thrust of Paul’s charge in this reading is the instruction to ‘walk in the light’. Perhaps you know the song “The Spirit lives to set us free” which has that phrase as a refrain (although you’ll have sung the phrase no fewer than 36 times by the time you arrive panting and breathless at the end…), but here Paul makes good use of the contrast between light and dark, day and night; the things ‘of the night’ refer to sin – and how many sins are committed at night, today as ever was; the things ‘of the day’ refer to good deeds and acts of righteousness. In the night belong sleep, drunkenness and debauchery. In the day belong sobriety, faith, hope and love.
Much as the night time is attractive in what it hides, and in what opportunities it presents for climbing into bed (literally and metaphorically), let the reader understand that the call to follow Christ is the call to go beyond the darkness of Gethsemane and live in the light of the resurrection morning.
A ‘talent’ in this context is a unit of weight, as measured on the balance scales. We don’t have the specific context here, but elsewhere a talent has been equivalent to the money need to pay one day’s wages to 6,000 labourers. Whatever the interpretation, this is a life-changing amount of money. What should the servants do with such a vast sum?
Perhaps we can at least chuckle at the irony that at least when it was written, putting the money in the bank would have earned better returns than burying it in the ground! Yet then, as now, the way to grow money was through buying and selling (actual goods or ‘stocks and shares’ – it is the same idea). Another option was to lend the money at high interest. My own Dad always taught us to “make your money work for you” rather than simply wasting it on things we didn’t really need.
This reading parallels the Epistle in the ‘burying’ of the money being allied to the ‘darkness’ of sin. Be out in the open! Live in the light! Furthermore, we have the ‘watchfulness’ theme of Matthew 25 as the servants await the arrival of the master. As with the Bridegroom story earlier, there is a judgment pronouncement in the story when the expected one finally arrives.
Al of this, of course, points us towards our Advent theme which we shall be marking for the four weeks from 29th November, when we look forward not just to the recounting of the first coming of Christ as God in human form, but also to the second coming of Christ in all his fearful majesty. The word ‘Advent’ means ‘Come towards’. We are being urged to ‘walk in the light’ as we wait for Christ to come, and to be prudent in the manner of our living.
In the meantime, it may be helpful to contemplate the ‘gifts’ or ‘talents’ you have been given. How will you use them for God’s glory?
Grace and peace,
Words on the Word will conclude next week with the 22nd November edition.