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Lectionary Living

Scripture and Self

(12/13): Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11  •  Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55  •  1 Thessalonians 5:16-24   •  John 1:6-8, 19-28

    This week's readings are examples of understanding scripture as a way of getting clearer about oneself. Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist knew scripture well enough to be able to make it their own.  Taking them in reverse order, the John reading is about John the Baptist, and his use of the Isaiah 40 passage to describe who he was and who he was not. John, son of a priest, slightly modifies Isaiah 40 to put himself in the wilderness. The Luke reading, an echo of Hannah's song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, is Mary's way of telling her cousin Elizabeth her thoughts and feelings about her pregnancy. Mary's situation is different from Hannah's, but she is experiencing a similar joy. The Isaiah reading is picked up almost verbatim by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, who uses it to describe his calling in life.

    Jesus uses the Isaiah passage to reach out to the discouraged people of his own time:  broken-hearted, captives, oppressed, and prisoners. It seems that he, like Isaiah, is wanting them to find joy, to have "a garland instead of ashes" (61:3). Ashes were a custom of the time for mourners, wearing them on their heads. In these COVID times, there is much to mourn. Perhaps a loss of health has occurred or a death (and my condolences to you). Other losses, of jobs or opportunities, are many. For most of us, a loss of relationships, as the social distancing drags on, has been difficult. A difficult winter is still ahead.

    Every verse of the Isaiah passage could be seen as an instruction manual for tough times. Remember social justice. Grow your community into an oak of righteousness. Put away the ashes and hang up that wreath. Even the verses left out of the lectionary (61:5-7) adds useful details. Saying to the people that their lives are going to be known for their ministry provides a sense of the extraordinary opportunity of the time.

    That we're in unprecedented times is old news. Still, it's a reminder that creativity is called for. Scripture – if one bothers to read it! - offers ways of thinking about human problems. Jesus, John the Baptist, and Mary all followed a similar process of using scriptural reflection to become the persons they wanted to be. Their religion provided them a vision of their best selves. Scripture both challenged them to grow up and provided a way. The problem, as I see it, is that many of us have not followed this process. Many of us have failed to consider how our religion can be a guide to defining ourselves and our principles. The great insights of our faith perspective remain unconsidered in the most challenging time of the last 100 years.

    Not that it goes that well for those who do consider it. John the Baptist, after all, was beheaded. Mary watched her first-born son die on a cross, and Jesus did the dying. Even the day that Jesus first read the Isaiah passage ended with the community trying to push him off a cliff! Choosing to follow one's best thoughts, one's highest aspirations, will not be without a cost. The world will push back on those acting with maturity. The example of the wise can stir the reactivity of others.  

    Maturity, though, has a contagious quality. Over time, the less mature are drawn to follow leaders who attract others through their clarity of purpose. One can be a leader regardless of one's place in a system: a mother, a desert hermit, or a prophet. Paradoxically, one becomes a leader not by focusing on others, but by getting clear about one's own aspirations for life.


Morning: What scripture passage or story is important to me? How can I make it my own?

Evening: What sort of push back do I experience when I work on growing myself up?

Psalm 126:3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.      


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