Reformation Sunday (Pentecost 22)
Prayer of the Day
Eternal light, shine in our hearts. Eternal
wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance. Eternal compassion, have mercy on
us. Turn us to seek your face, and enable us to reflect your goodness, through
Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Happy Reformation! I should start off by saying that the lessons considered in this week’s posting are not those appointed for Reformation but rather the lessons appointed for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. Not to worry! I fully intend to observe the Reformation this Sunday. The only difference is that this year I will be reflecting on the Reformation in light of the texts for Pentecost 22. Why? To be honest, I am tired of preaching on the Reformation texts. They come up each year without alteration-that is three times more frequently than other appointed texts. While I do not believe that I have come close to exhausting all these lessons have to offer, I am quite sure that I have exhausted my own stores of insight. So I am taking a break from the Reformation lessons this year. Maybe next year they will look fresh to me once again.
By way of reflection on the Reformation more generally, I have become less and less inclined over the years to focus on the battles of the Sixteenth Century. To be sure, these controversies were important and the expressions of faith that grew out of them need to be preserved. But reformation is not all about preservation. I am convinced that a true church of the Reformation is a church always in the process of reform. It is a church that is always asking important questions. Luther did not initiate the reformation in his day by offering a platform or agenda for reform. He set off the reformation by proposing a series of statements, not for blind acceptance, but for discussion and reflection. These are the famed Ninety-Five Theses. You can read them for yourself at the following link: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html In the spirit of Reformation Sunday, I have submitted some theses of my own that I believe the church should consider-particularly the church in the United States. I put these together almost ten years ago on the eve of Reformation for no particular reason. You can read them on this blog at the page entitled Thirty-Two Theses (I could not come up with ninety-five!). These statements are just that-statements. I am not suggesting that they be incorporated into any sort of creed or confession. They might not be phrased in the best manner possible. They have no purpose other than to stimulate discussion about matters that I believe are important.
This is a word of comfort to an exiled people. Whether these words are those of the prophet Jeremiah who lived through the horrible last days of Jerusalem and witnessed its destruction or one of his disciples, they lie very close to the raw pain of war, dispossession and dislocation. These are people who know that they have lost much that will never be recovered. Life will never be what it was, even if the prophet’s promise of their return is fulfilled. For upon their return, the people will not find a land flowing with milk and honey, but a land ravaged by war, a city in ruins and a temple that is now only a pile of rubble. So whoever takes seriously this prophet’s promise that God is not through with Israel and that Israel has a future in her own land must wrestle with several important questions: What does it mean to be a nation when you have no government of your own, no claim to the land on which you live and no chance of regaining any measure of national autonomy?
Actually, Israel should know the answer to these questions. After being delivered from slavery in Egypt, Israel lived for forty years in the wilderness with no king, no land and no national identity. Israel had nothing in that wilderness but God’s promise to meet her needs-a promise that was fulfilled again and again along the way. As Jeremiah would have Israel know, God’s faithfulness is all that is needed to sustain God’s people. The rest is just a distraction.
Once again, I think there are parallels here with the people of God today in the United States. I believe that the church is learning once more to live on the margins of society. I say “once more” because we have been in that position before. There was a time when the church was just one of many religious alternatives in a pluralistic world. There was a time when the church dwelt in a hostile culture where she was misunderstood, mischaracterized by her critics and dismissed by the population as a whole. That time was the apostolic age during which disciples of Jesus began colonizing corners of the world with little communities of faith. The church in the days of the Apostle Paul held no real estate or seminaries or colleges. The only thing the church did possess was the good news about Jesus Christ-and that was enough. So to those of us who fear the demise of the church in the Twenty-First Century, Jeremiah would have us know that God is still a Father to us. We have been here before, folks. The future is not a threat to us, but an opportunity to learn all over again what it is that makes us God’s holy people.
The psalm begins with the words “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” An alternative reading is “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream.” If the latter reading is adopted, then “those who returned to Zion” are almost certainly the Babylonian exiles. This return was made possible by the edict of Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia who conquered Babylon. Cyrus decreed that all peoples taken into exile by Babylon, including the Jews, would be permitted to return to their homelands. Such an opportunity would indeed seem like a dream come true. Yet there were also serious obstacles in the way of returning to Palestine. The journey home through what is now the Iraqi desert was itself a perilous trip. Upon return, the Jews found a ruined city and hostile peoples who had come to inhabit the homeland. Rebuilding would be a long and difficult task. Hence, the psalmist prays “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb!” The “Negeb” is a hilly desert region of southern Israel. Water courses there are seasonal, being dry for most of the year but brought to life in the rainy season to revive dormant vegetation. So the psalmist hopes that God will likewise restore and nurture the community of Israel in the land to which she returns. The final verse of the psalm reflects the hope that, just as a bountiful harvest follows the toil of planting, so the sacrifice, hard work and risks taken by the returning exiles will be rewarded with the rebirth of a thriving community.
Of course, it is also possible that the opening lines of the psalm refer more generally to God’s many faithful acts of deliverance for Israel and that the prayer for restoration refers to an unknown calamity at some other point in Israel’s long history. Either way, this is a community that has experienced God’s salvation. Drawing upon this experience of God’s past faithfulness, the community prays hopefully and confidently for God’s future help.
This psalm is classified by most commentators as a “group lament.” A lament, you may recall, is a psalm in which Israel or an individual calls upon God to honor the covenant relationship with Israel and provide deliverance. Sometimes deliverance is rescue from enemies or healing from sickness. Other times it is forgiveness of sin. While the psalm does contain elements of a lament, the psalmist’s prayer goes beyond mere lament and into a bold expression of confidence in God’s faithfulness. Thus, one could also consider it a psalm of trust. The form, however, is of minimal importance. By whatever classification, this psalm is a powerful prayer challenging believers to draw encouragement from God’s past faithfulness as they face an uncertain future.
This is a continuation of the argument begun in last week’s reading. You might want to refer back to Sunday, October 21st. As you know, I view the Letter to the Hebrews as in part an effort to assist Jewish disciples of Jesus in coming to grips with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Consequently, the author goes to great lengths explaining how Jesus fulfills the function of the Temple and its worship, offering a deeper communion with God and a stronger basis for solidarity with fellow believers. Unlike the temple priests, whose mortality and human frailty required repeated sacrifices, Jesus has been raised from death after having made one single sacrifice that suffices for all time.
My take away from this passage: The church can afford to lose anything it has if only it clings to Jesus. That is basically my observation from last week and so I won’t expand on it further.
This is the last healing miracle Jesus performs in the Gospel of Mark. In order to appreciate fully the irony in this story of Jesus’ opening the eyes of the man born blind, we have to back up and review some of the stories we have heard in previous weeks. At the end of chapter 8, Jesus announces that he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the people and their leaders, handed over to the Roman authorities and put to death-and raised on the third day. Peter rebukes Jesus. Next, Jesus begins again to explain to his disciples that he must be put to death in Jerusalem and in three days rise. His disciples promptly get into a heated argument over which of them is the greatest. Then Jesus begins his pilgrimage to Jerusalem telling his disciples for the third time that he will die there and be raised. No sooner are the words out of his mouth than James and John approach with a request that they be seated at his side when he comes in glory. You begin to wonder whether these men are blind. Then, at the end of chapter 10, Jesus encounters, Bartimaeus, a man that is indeed blind. This blind man’s faith banishes his blindness and he rises up and follows Jesus on the way. Jesus, it seems, can open the eyes of a man born blind, but he cannot seem to make his witless disciples see.
This miracle prefigures what is to follow. Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as “Son of David,” which, though a messianic term, might also have been no more than a polite form of address. But whatever may have been intended by Bartimaeus, Jesus does ride into Jerusalem in the manner of a king, pronounces judgment upon the establishment of the Temple worship and engages in a number of disputes with his opponents focusing on the nature of his authority. Commentator Morna D. Hooker sees this story of Bartimaeus as a final challenge to Mark’s readers to “follow Jesus in the way,” even as it leads to the cross. The Gospel According to Mark, Hooker, Morna D., Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. (ed. 2005), p. 252. I tend to agree. I believe that Mark’s gospel is directed at a church that has become enamored with institutional success and is in danger of losing its focus on the cross. I base that not so much on assumptions about the Markan church. The truth is, we know next to nothing about the faith community to which Mark was writing. Rather, I believe that fixation on institutional growth, the struggle for power within such institutions and wrongheaded notions of glory have been endemic to the church in every age. That is why this gospel has been preserved in the New Testament. Its call to turn away from the tempting path of glory and success to follow Jesus on the redemptive way of the cross speaks to the church in every age.
“So how will he tie all of these texts into the Reformation?” You might be asking. Well, I think reformation is what happens to the people of God when circumstances make it impossible to turn anywhere but back to their Lord. We sing, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” knowing that our God is a “Father” to us as Jeremiah points out. So when Israel lost her land, her king and her temple-the symbols of who she understood herself to be-she turned back to the God who gave her these symbols and who also took them away from her. Israel knew that for there to be any future at all for her, it could only come from the God who called her from slavery to become a special people. Of course, Israel would learn that there is no going back to the way things were. She had to learn that what she regarded as “the good old days,” were not at all good in God’s eyes. Israel would need to learn all over again what it means to be God’s covenant people. She would need to be “re-formed.” The hard work of reformation is likewise reflected in the psalm. Israel is always in need of restoration.
The author of Hebrews similarly calls his hearers to re-imagine their worship life without the Temple and apart from the traditions that formerly gave it meaning. Just as Luther called the church back to a more faithful understanding of Jesus’ atoning work for us by grace through faith, so the author of Hebrews called his hearers to recognize in Jesus the only sacrifice that will ever be necessary and to enter with confidence into the presence of God.
Finally, the Gospel gives us a vivid picture of God’s saving power that removes our blindness, giving us eyes to see the truth that is Jesus. Like Bartimaeus, we are powerless to open our own eyes. We are entirely dependent upon the merciful God who intervenes to save us from ourselves.