St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
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Weekly Bible Study
Preparing for Sunday, November 30 | The First Sunday of Advent, Year B | Sign up for Weekly Bible Study emails | The Lectionary Page | Rector's Page | Printer-friendly guides
Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
November 30 is the First Sunday of Advent. We are now four Sundays away from the celebration of Christmas. Probably by now, holiday preparations are underway in earnest for many families. Some are eagerly anticipating family gatherings, and some are dreading them. Some have an impending sense of celebration, and others, especially the recently bereaved, have an impending sense of deep sadness. The lesson appointed for this day focuses on wakefulness, spiritual attentiveness, in a season when cultural and emotional “noise” can distract us from the presence of grace. While some Emmaus Groups will focus their spiritual reflection on the lesson, others might naturally discuss how they might support one another in the observance of a holy Advent and Christmas.
The First Sunday of Advent begins a new Church year, and we move in our three-year lectionary cycle from Year A to Year B. Each of the three years in the lectionary cycle focuses on a different Gospel. Year A is devoted mostly to Matthew, Year B to Mark, and Year C to Luke. The Gospel According to St. John is read at various times throughout each of these three years, with the effect that one hears the majority of all four Gospels read in worship over each three-year period.
The Gospel According to Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, and it is commonly assumed to be the earliest written. Mark has no birth narrative but begins instead with the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. There is a sense of urgency or immediacy about this crisp Gospel, as it conveys good news of pressing importance. The verses we are pondering here are the concluding verses of Chapter 13 in Mark’s Gospel. This chapter begins with Jesus coming out of the temple and one of his disciples marveling to Jesus about what a grand and beautiful building the temple is. Jesus’ reply is simple, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Thus, this chapter begins with Jesus foretelling the destruction of the temple, which would happen in 70 AD, and continues with Jesus’ foretelling the end of all things.
This is typically how the Church begins a new year. We begin with the end. Mindfulness of the end can bring about a sharpened awareness and engagement with the present, and this seems to be a major theme for Jesus, “Keep awake,” don’t sleepwalk through your life.
1. What do you know about a time of suffering and tribulation in your life, when suddenly it seemed as if, in the midst of the trouble and turmoil, God were sending messengers to “gather you up,” to save and protect you from it all?
Ponder the nature and character of your faith in God. Do you believe that, come what may in our world of changes and chances, God will care for you?
2. Think of a time in your life when you were waiting for something wonderful. You knew this wonderful thing would happen, but you did not know when.
What is the quality or character of our lives when we are living in a state of hopeful and joyful expectancy?
How is this state of hopeful and joyful expectancy similar to your state of mind as a person of faith?
Is your faith a quiet compartment of your overall life, a state to which you return for rest and reassurance? Is your faith something that infuses your entire life with a sense of
expectation and confident trust?
How does your faith affect the way you go through the motions of everyday life?
3. Think of a time when all the lights of your life (your sun, your moon, your stars…) suddenly seemed to go dark and the foundations upon which your life rested suddenly
Such times of darkness and unsettling uncertainty are not signs of moral or spiritual weakness. The Bible and human history are full of examples of spiritual giants who go
through such dark and tormenting nights. It seems we should expect these times, and it seems that very often these dark times can ultimately lead to deeper and richer experiences of beauty and holiness.
How do you get through such times? Do you tend to keep yourself distracted during such times? Go shopping? Take medication? Is there something to be said for simply enduring such times or allowing oneself to experience the darkness without distraction? (Note: this is NOT to suggest that medication for depression or dark times is a lesser choice. Very often, it is an important and very good choice to take medication that can keep us from wandering too far from our true selves.)
What is our role with someone we love who is experiencing such devastating darkness?
4. What causes you to lose a sense of expectancy about your life and to go on “automatic pilot”?
What helps you to break out of a spiritual malaise and become more watchful and spiritually conscious?
5. As we anticipate the coming of Jesus, we might be mindful of ways in which we miss or overlook the Lord in our everyday lives. Consider the following reflection on a painting by Brueghl entitled, “Numbering at Bethlehem.”
The artist’s warm, earthy bourgeois browns combine with white winter snow to render a December scene in a Flemish village. What we see is an ordinary day in the life of the little town. In the foreground someone butchers and bleeds a squealing pig. A woodman struggles with a load of firewood. Children cavort on a frozen pond. A young man makes an obvious pass at an obviously unwilling maid. All in all, it is an ordinary, mundane winter day with nothing save the wreath to suggest anything extraordinary, anything beyond the expected.
But then if we look more carefully at the scene, down toward the bottom of the canvass we see, moving toward the census takers at the inn, an inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. … Brueghel understood Emmanuel, God with us. The Flemish painter knew how we trudge by epiphanies with barely a shrug of the shoulders. … The Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper.
Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, at, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business…. But sometimes…something steals silently across the canvass of our dull lives, unnoticed, unheralded, unexpected. The One whom we await becomes present. And we, anticipating the trumpet blast of angelic messengers or the rending of heavens, sometimes miss God’s advent before our very eyes. (W. Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain)
Where is God in the canvass of your life?
6. So much of our lives can lapse into unconscious routines. One way of dealing with busyness and information overload is to compartmentalize our lives and develop routines that allow us to meet our obligations without having to think or reflect on what we are doing. In this sense, we can go through some days as if we are sleepwalking.
What changes would you have to make, if you were to heed Jesus’ urgent plea to “stay awake”?
7. When in your life have you felt most “alive,” most engaged, most “present”?
Some say in answer to this question that it is when they are with someone they love very much, perhaps someone they have missed for a period of time and have eagerly anticipated their reunion.
But even the most passionate and joyful relationships can become dull.
When Jesus says we should “keep awake,” perhaps one thing he is saying is that we stay present and alive, especially in our relationships with each other. What might you do in order to become more present in your own life in this way?
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