En-Spirited Witness
2008-12-10 by Sally Brown

It strikes me that the unknown speaker of Isaiah 61, as well as Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, bear witness in the power of the Spirit.  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," begins the Isaiah reading.  Jesus, initiating his own ministry in the power of the Spirit, will claim this mission as his own in Luke 4.

Mary, whose Magnificat we read this week, is "overshadowed" by the Spirit according to Luke 1:35; so it is in the power of the Spirit that she speaks, and in the power of the Spirit that Elizabeth bears witness to the One Mary will bear (Lk 1:41). I suspect that for Luke these two women together stand as a microcosm of the Church. Women come together at the beginning of the gospel to recognize and proclaim the presence of the Saviour, and they will be the first at the Gospel's close to proclaim the Lord's resurrection. 

John, too, is enabled by the Spirit to fulfill his task: in a verse that lies beyond the bounds of this week's text (Jn 1:32), he will testify that it is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus that reveals him for who he is.

Carrying forward my train of thought from earlier this week--the breaking forth of en-Spirited witness and announcements of socio-economic reversal seem to happen together in these testimonies. Can all unsettling social upheavals be "read" as movements of the Spirit?  Worth pondering---but we've all heard the too-glib pronouncements of self-appointed prophets that declare that every disaster is divine judgment. 

At the same time, we kow that socio-economic upheavals, natural disasters, or sudden health crises do  raise spiritual issues for human beings, if for no other reason than that such events confront us with the fragility of our human planning and expose to the light our continuing vulnerability to chance and change. Faced with the disruption of our plans, we free-fall either into despair or into the hands of God.

A temptation in times of economic uncertainty is to shore up shaky portfolios, not only by spending more cautiously, but by giving more cautiously. Many churches are trimming their budgets, yet know that those who are losing jobs and homes will in greater numbers to the church. This week's texts deliver an implicit challenge to believers to act in counter-intuitive ways in the power of the Spirit, being generous when it seems we can least afford to. The work of protecting society's most vulnerable is Spirit-driven.


2008-12-09 by CJ Teets

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Northminster Presbyterian Church
Indianapolis, IN

Pastoral News, Prophetic News
2008-12-09 by Sally Brown

Thank you to Dee Dee Haines for her insights.  Isaiah 61 as blessing to the gathered community has traction for preaching.

As I think of those to whom I will preach this coming Sunday, I recognize that some in these unsettled and unsettling (perhaps revolutionary) times see themselves, as Nora Tisdale concisely puts it, as "agents of change," while others see them as "victims of circumstance." How can the Isaiah text and Mary's song (the alternative to the psalm reading) be sounded in ways that both the fearful and the powerful can hear as Gospel?

Some will come Sunday hollowed out by fading dreams and battered hope, and will need the word of comfort and liberation (Is 61:1-3). Yet beside them in the pews will be others who need to be commissioned, or recommissioned despite a degree of personal loss in these economic times, to the work of rebuilding what is ruined-- raising up new structures out of what is devastated, repairing the cities (61:4). (How often the vision of divine restoration has to do with the cities . . . !)

"Blessing"---the word Dee Dee suggests---can embrace both comfort and commissioning. Truth be told, don't most of us find in ourselves both the need for comfort and the need to be recommissioned to action?  We need, on one hand, to be delivered from the grip of the anxiety that plagues us in the wee hours of a morning, but delivered as well from the grip of cluttered calendars dictated by routine, which can keep us from putting ourselves forward as builders of a more just society.

Turning to the Gospel, I am struck that John's gospel gives us nothing about John the Baptist's appearance, nor anything about broods of vipers and fruitless trees ready to be axed and burned. Instead, the Baptist tells the religious investigators to quit being distracted by him and his notoriety (he is reputed by Josephus to have been the most famous preacher of his generation) and start looking for One they "do not know" (v 26).

The Lord who can heal and challenge the church and the world is among us, incognito. This One will be found by those who, baptized in water, are ready to be set ablaze.  

The Power of Blessing
2008-12-09 by Dee Dee Haines

After a month’s bible study, looking at the birth narratives in their historical context, we are seeking to better understand the Advent texts with a sensory perception beyond hearing, or seeing.  Each week during Advent, we are hearing three texts; two from the lectionary, and one imaginative reading.  The imaginative reading is heard directly before the gospel, allowing for the two texts to rub against each other, showing the friction that was most likely present in the first century context.  Here are the ending lines of week one: “I wondered to myself about what that meant for so many.  Would the world never change?  How could it? Rome’s idea of peace came with a price.  Peace by violence.  Peace through victory.  Peace with fear and domination.  Peace by occupation.  What kind of peace is that?” 


Sally asks, “What does it take to preach the Church---the Spirit-empowered community---into action, so that it becomes a collective witness to the dawning Light in revolutionary times?” Author John O’Donohue speaks about the power of a blessing: “Each blessing is intended to present a minimal psychic portrait of the geography of change it names.  Without warning, thresholds can open directly before our feet.  These thresholds are also the shorelines of new worlds,” (O’Donohue, John.  To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, New York: Random House, 2008, p. xiv). 


What if we were bold and brave, deciding to use the words of Isaiah 61 as a blessing for the congregation?  How might these power- filled words serve to creatively speak into being, a future for the community that is called to be a collective witness? O’Donohue also mentions how blessings attempt to offer a brief geography of the new experience and some pathways of presence through it.  Those are the elements present in the prophet’s words.  There is acknowledgement of blessing, calling and challenge.  The directions are set before the blessed.  Here is what you do, and how you do it.  The Spirit will accompany you. 


Perhaps we do not see ourselves as gifted with the anointing of the Spirit.  Our memories can be short.  It seems that when we are most busy, we pay the least attention to spiritual matters and spiritual realities.  A meaning- filled reminder, offered in the form of blessing, can be followed by words of calling and challenge: our prayerful response to blessing.   I’ll be thinking more about Sally’s point about revolution.  In light of the imaginative reading for this week (still a work in process), John bearing witness to the Light takes on a whole new meaning.



Dee Dee Haines, Isle of Man

Texts for December 14, 2008
2008-12-08 by Sally Brown

From Sally A. Brown, Assoc Prof of Preaching and Worship, Princeton Theological Seminary (guest blog participants for Advent III) -- 

Preaching partners,

At a recent alumni gathering at my husband's alma mater, Moravian College president Christopher Thomforde noted that some economic and political pundits are calling the times through which we are now living  "profoundly transitionary." Yet, said Thomforde, it may be that we are living not merely in transitionary times, but in "not less than revolutionary times."

Revolutionary dynamics on the political and economic front have profoundly spiritual dimensions; and if the texts for this Third Sunday of Advent are  any indication, spiritual revolution means political and economic revolution: structures shaken, taken-for-granted hierarchies overturned. Mary exults over the poor raised up, the wealthy humbled.  The day of God's favor is also the day of vengeance, according to Isaiah---a message we may only be able to really "get" when we have been drawn out deep into the wilderness.

In a time when the Jewish nation was restless for a new act of God, John the Baptist is clear about who he is and isn't:  he is not the light, but he has no doubt that he is sent to bear witness to the Light.

So my initial thoughts are taking this turn:  What does it mean to be a preacher who tells the truth in revolutionary times?  What does it take to preach the Church---the Spirit-empowered community---into action, so that it becomes a collective witness to the dawning Light in revolutionary times?

Your thoughts--?

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