Archive for December, 2012

Sunday, January 6th Epiphany of our Lord

Epiphany of Our Lord

January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (11)
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Prayer of the Day
O God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A blessed Epiphany to one and all!

About a month or two ago I was in the sanctuary late on Wednesday evening when I heard a timid knock at the main doorway facing Palisade Avenue on Linwood. I opened the door to a little who could not have been more than twelve or thirteen. She had just moved into the neighborhood and had gotten off the school bus one stop to early. She had left her cell phone in her locker and could not remember he home number. She knew her address but had no idea how to get there. Fortunately, she lived just a few blocks down Palisade Avenue and so I was able to walk her to her destination. During our short walk, I learned that her parents recently divorced and that she was living with her mother in a rented home. She had little in the way of a religious upbringing, but told me that an aunt had once said to her, “If you ever find yourself in trouble, go to a church.”  That is what brought her to our doors.

I had forgotten about that incident until I read the lessons for this week and began reflecting on Epiphany. Like that little girl, the magi in our gospel lesson likely had little or no understanding of Israel’s messiah or its hope for salvation. Yet somehow they found themselves at the manger worshiping the newborn king. Isaiah foresees the day when the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem not for conquest, but to seek the wisdom and understanding God mediates to the world through his covenant with Israel. Paul speaks of his insight into the mystery of Christ-that the Gentiles (those outside of Israel’s covenant relationship with God) are now brought into the commonwealth of faith through Jesus and that through reconciliation within the church God reveals what is in store for the whole world. The church has come under a lot of criticism over the years for failing to be the reconciling and hospitable community of faith described in Ephesians. Much of that criticism is justified. Yet it gives me much hope that one child understood that the church is a safe and welcoming place to go in times of trouble. I only hope that she will remember her aunt’s counsel in the coming years as life becomes more challenging and complex. I also hope that when she turns to us again, we will not fail her!

Isaiah 60:1-6  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223970458

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 537 B.C.E., declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters 56-65 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. The prophet’s utterances are addressed to Jews living in their Palestinian homeland, but it is clear that the temple of Jerusalem has not yet been rebuilt. Thus, we can confidently date the work of this third prophet as taking place between the return from exile in  537 B.C.E. and the dedication of the reconstructed temple in 515 B.C.E.

Chapters 60-62 are believed to contain the nucleus of the message attributed to “Third Isaiah.” They contain a message of salvation to the disillusioned Jews struggling to rebuild some semblance of their community under difficult and dangerous conditions. The land to which the exiles returned was inhabited by peoples who considered it their own, principally, the Samaritans. Political instability in the Persian Empire created a tense and uncertain atmosphere under which the Jews were reluctant to undertake any project that might ignite hostility with their neighbors or the empire. Consequently, the work of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem begun soon after the return from exile was abandoned. The temple would not be rebuilt until the arrival of the scribe and prophet Ezra.

Our lesson today constitutes the opening line of a jubilant announcement of salvation to Israel. Israel’s “light” has come. The glory of the Lord will rise upon Israel. While “darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness upon the peoples,” the Lord will “rise upon” Israel and God’s glory will be upon her. The nations that now oppress Israel will be conquered and come to serve Israel, but this conquest will not be accomplished through violence. Rather, the nations will be drawn out of their darkness into and the Light of God shining forth from the restored Zion. The kings of the earth will be won over to the praise of Israel’s God and contribute to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. While this prediction might sound a little far-fetched, it is thoroughly grounded in history. According to the book of Ezra, Cyrus the Emperor of Persia both supported and helped to financed the rebuilding of the temple. This work, which was abandoned after the death of Cyrus, might never have resumed without the support of the Persian emperor Darius whose reign began in 522 B.C.E. The prophet might well have seen in this patronage the beginning of this great turning of the nations to Israel’s God.

I cannot read these words without recognizing that, so far from becoming a center for reconciliation between peoples, Jerusalem has been and continues to be a flashpoint for conflicts having global ramifications. It is easy to spiritualize the text and get around the messy historical reality by claiming that the prophecy now refers to the “New Jerusalem” where all will be made new. While there is surely some validity to this application, I don’t believe we can divorce these words from the brick and mortar Jerusalem that stands in the heart of Palestine today. Are we not still called upon to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”?  Psalm 122:6

I am not a fan of what passes for interfaith dialogue these days, much of which tends to degenerate into New Age mush.  But I am convinced that Christians share with Jews and Muslims an interest in the well being of Jerusalem. For Christians, it is the place where Jesus made his final stand of unconditional faithfulness to God and love for us. For Jews, Jerusalem is the city where God caused his name to dwell. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the site of Muhammad’s miraculous ascension into heaven. All three faiths have generated prayers for the peace and well being of this holy city. I believe that dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims focusing on how together we can bring peace to Jerusalem might well lead us to a better understanding of each other’s faith traditions and take us a long way toward healing some old and deep seated conflicts. This is particularly so if such dialogue is followed up with concrete action on the part of our respective faith communities to make the peace of Jerusalem a reality

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223970520

This psalm might have been used in coronation ceremonies for the anointing of a Judean king in the line of David or for the annual commemoration of such an occasion. Stylistically, it resembles the coronation liturgies typically used for the ascension of kings in the surrounding Canaanite cultures of the Near East. With respect to content, the psalm is strikingly different from such rites. What is noteworthy here is that the king does not rule for his own sake. He must exercise his power only in the cause of “justice and righteousness.” This notion would have seemed remarkable to typical Near Eastern monarchs who considered themselves “gods.” They would have had a difficult time understanding why David found it necessary to cover up his act of adultery with Bathsheba. He was king, after all. Why not just take the woman? Who has standing to argue with a god? David knew, however, that he was no god and that he was not above the law. That is why he went to such great (and ultimately unsuccessful lengths) to cover up his crimes. As pointed out by Old Testament scholar, Artur Weiser, “…behind the reign of the earthly king is God’s rule as King; the righteousness of the king is a function and the mirror-image of the righteousness of God which he has promised to his people in their need for protection (‘thy needy’ in v.2) and to those individual members who depend on his assistance, and which does not allow the weak to become the prey of the mighty.” The Psalms: A Commentary, Artur Weiser, (S.C.M. Press, Ltd., c. 1962) p. 503.

As I noted in last week’s post, Israel’s view of monarchy was ambivalent. Some of the literary sources making up the Books of I and II Samuel affirm the Davidic monarchy as a saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. But other sources express deep skepticism and
outright hostility to the notion that any human ruler should assume the role of “king” which rightfully belongs to God alone. The 8th and 7th Century prophetic critiques of the Judean and Israelite monarchies and their unfaithfulness to the covenant of Sinai, their tolerance of idolatry and their frequent abuses of power suggest that the weight of the crown is more than any human being can bear. This, by the way, is a favorite theme of William Shakespeare. Most of his kings, even the good ones, are eventually undone by their all too human character flaws. Perhaps this very insight is what led the prophets to yearn for God to take matters in hand and “cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.” Only a person thoroughly imbued with God’s Spirit can be expected to “execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  Jeremiah 33:15

Once again, to say, as disciples of Jesus do, that Israel’s messianic hope is fulfilled in Jesus raises more questions than it answers. The juxtaposition of Jesus, the crucified one, with the title of “king” can only place in graphic relief the radical difference between God’s exercise of sovereignty and how sovereignty, authority and power typically are exercised among the nations of the world. If Jesus is King, if he really is God’s messiah, then we must rethink everything we think we know about power, authority and might. Indeed, we need to rethink everything we think we know about God and the way God operates and exercises power.

Ephesians 3:1-12  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223970611

For some background on Ephesians, see my post of  July 15, 2012. See also the article by Mary Hinkle Shore, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary at http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=14

This is an incredible passage that ascribes a tremendous amount of importance to the church. It is “through the church [that] the manifold wisdom of God [is] now made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Vs. 10.  If that is true, then the single most important thing the church can do for the world is simply to be the church. Or, to borrow the phrase of Jonathan R. Wilson, Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College, “Just getting together is accomplishing something.”  (If you have the inclination, you can listen to the full presentation by Professor Wilson at the 2012 Ekklesia Gathering this past summer at http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/the-gathering/2012-slow-church-and-fast-friends/schedule-gathering-2012/plenary-session-1/ )

For years I have attended clergy meetings where the first question asked by everyone I meet is, “So what is your church doing?” or “What’s happening at Trinity”  I always feel pressured to start enumerating all that we are doing (and thankfully, I always have a formidable list). Yet I sometimes think that our focus on “doing” and our emphasis on “programming” and our seeming lust for “measurable results” are all dangerously misguided. After all, there isn’t much that we do that someone else cannot do as well or better. But if we are not the community that mirrors God’s reign on earth, who else will be? If we are not communities in which people are shaped into the image of Christ through the practices of worship, prayer, confession, forgiveness, compassion and hospitality, what other institution will pick up the slack?  I submit that from the standpoint of the witness from Ephesians, there is nothing more important we can do than gather for prayer, praise and the breaking of bread together. If everything else we do does not flow from that, we are just spinning our wheels.

Matthew 2:1-12  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223970672

The image of the three kings has become enshrined in Christian art and hymnody-even though the three visitors to the infant Jesus were not kings and we have no idea how many of them there were. We also have no idea where they came from. Matthew tells us only that they “came from the East,” In theory, that could be anywhere west of Palestine. The term “magoi” which Matthew uses to describe the “wise men,” is an imprecise term referring generally to persons engaged in occult arts. It covers astrologers, fortune tellers, priestly augurers and magicians. The Greek historian, Herodotus describes a priestly cast of “magoi” among the 6th Century Medes that had special power to interpret dreams. This has led some scholars to suggest that the magi in Matthew’s gospel might have been Persians. There is little in the way of evidence, however, to support the claim that this was Matthew’s understanding. Whatever their origin, the magi were clearly outside the scope of God’s covenant with Israel and had no claim on Israel’s messiah. It is therefore highly ironic that these outsiders are somehow drawn to seek this new “king of the Jews,” whereas the scribes, the scriptural experts are caught completely off guard and are “troubled” along with Herod and the rest of Jerusalem.

A further irony comes in the question placed to Herod: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” That title belonged to Herod. Though not a Jew, he had received the designation “King of the Jews” from his Roman overlords-a fact that was not lost on his truly Jewish subjects who mostly hated him. One can well imagine the apoplectic rage inspired by the magi as they entered Herod’s throne room and asked, “So where is the real king?”

There has been no end of speculation concerning the origin of the star that caught the attention of the magi. Supernova, comet and even a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn have all been suggested to explain the astronomical event. As far as I am aware, there is no astrophysical support for any of these explanations and no historical testimony from any source other than the gospel for the appearance of the star leading the magi to Jesus. But perhaps this entire line of inquiry is missing the point. We know that the gospels are not intended to be historical reports, but rather faithful testimony constructed from the early church’s preaching and teaching. So the better question would be: what part does the appearance of the star and its draw for the Magi play in Matthew’s story of Jesus?

Matthew has by far the largest number of explicit citations to the Old Testament in his gospel. He believes emphatically that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of Israel to which the scriptures bear witness. Yet from the very outset he also wishes to make clear that God’s reign reaches beyond Israel. The magi, though outside God’s covenant with Israel and informed by what Matthew would clearly have regarded as a false religion, are nonetheless drawn by God’s grace to worship Israel’s messiah. This brings us full circle to Isaiah and his declaration that the nations of the world now shrouded in darkness will be drawn to the light of God to seek Israel’s covenant wisdom. The story also echoes the lesson from Ephesians which boldly states that through the church the mystery of God’s saving work in Jesus is made manifest to the world.

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Sunday, December 30th

First Sunday of Christmas

December 30, 2012
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Prayer of the Day
Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Greetings one and all! By the time you read this, the cultural part of Christmas will be over. The Christmas displays will have begun disappearing from the malls. Fir trees that only a week ago were selling for $50 to $100 will be lying out on the curb waiting for the recycling truck. The world will have woken up to the sad reality that Christmas is over, but winter has only just begun.

Not so for the people of God. The feast of the nativity continues for two more weeks culminating on Epiphany. I will admit that it is hard to keep alive the Christmas spirit when everyone else has moved on. But perhaps that is not what we should be attempting to do anyway. I am not so sure what we commonly refer to as the “Christmas spirit” has much to do with the Holy Spirit that gives life to the church. At its best, the Christmas spirit is about giving, family and light hearted fun, i.e., Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph et al. At its worst, the Christmas spirit is an orgy of consumption, consumerism and greed. In either case, I can’t help but point out that a “spirit” that evaporates on December 26th s not much of a spirit. I am glad, however, that however one defines this vacuous Christmas spirit, it has the good grace to clear out of the way so that during the rest of the Nativity Season we can focus solely on what the Holy Spirit is telling us.

The lessons for this week focus on two children, Samuel and Jesus. I think it might be productive to use these lessons to reflect on our feelings about our children in particular and children in general. We dote on our children. We spend a fortune feeding, clothing and educating them. Our leaders speak eloquently of wanting to bequeath a brighter future to our children. The Christmas season is largely about indulging (and often overindulging) children. Perhaps that is why the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School has had such a powerful impact on us. We find it inconceivable that anyone could harbor such malice against a small child.

This week the Bogota police visited Trinity School to discuss with us precautions we should take to prevent or minimize the impact of attacks like the horrific one at Sandy Hook. I suspect that such visits from law enforcement are taking place at schools throughout the country. I appreciate the concerns expressed about school security. Still, I think we need a sense of perspective here. As horrible as the Sandy Hook shootings were, such events are thankfully exceedingly rare. The chances of a child perishing in a school shooting are far less than his or her being stricken by lightning. That does not mean we can afford to be careless with our security. But it should temper our security procedures with a good dose of healthy realism. Sandy Hook had state of the art procedures for dealing with terrorist threats. Those procedures probably prevented the attack from taking many more lives, but they did not prevent the attack. Practically speaking, we cannot prevent vicious attacks like those at Sandy Hook anymore than we can prevent lightning from striking. There are, however, more immediate and pressing dangers facing children that we can and should address aggressively.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, no less than 21% of our children live in impoverished households. A staggering 16 million kids in the United States suffer from some degree of malnutrition according to No Kid Hungry, a child advocacy organization. Each year over 3 million children are victimized by physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, and death – and those are only the ones that were reported! (Love our Children USA). Clearly, there is a huge disconnect between our avowed zeal for protecting children on the one hand and these horrific statistics on the other. The entire nation was horrified and outraged over the murder of the twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and rightly so. Should we be any less horrified and outraged about the 21% of our children living in poverty or the 16 million hungry children in our land or the 3 million children victimized by violence? If we are going to protect our children and ensure for them a better future, the places to start are secure homes, access to health care and adequate nutrition-not turning our schools into armed fortresses.

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306127

A word or two is warranted regarding the Book of Samuel which actually consists of two volumes  (I and II Samuel). The book is still widely regarded to be the product of two very different and originally independent pieces of literature or “sources.”

  • Early source: this writer expresses a favorable view of the development of Israel’s monarchy and sees the rise of the house of David as another saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. This piece was probably composed in the period of the united monarchy under David and Solomon before Israel split into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
  • Late source: This writer composed his or her work in the later period of the Judean monarchy and was influenced by the prophets’ criticism of the Davidic kings for their idolatry, injustice and oppression of the poor.
  • These two sources were woven together into a single narrative during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to 530 B.C.E. or shortly thereafter.
  • The actual process of composition is actually a lot more complex with evidence of editing as late as the Persian period following the Babylonian Exile.

The tension between these opposing views becomes evident later on in the book when Samuel expresses opposition to the very idea of Israel’s having a king like all the other nations, yet takes an active part in anointing both Saul and David.

The particular snippet of scripture making up our lesson for this Sunday is part of a larger story from the late source. Hannah is one of two wives wedded to Elkanah. She is unable to bear children-a particularly cruel fate for a woman in ancient near eastern culture. In many such societies, a woman’s failure to bear children was grounds for divorce. Though we now know that infertility can as easily be a function impediments to the male reproductive system, in ancient societies it was almost always attributed to the women. To make matters worse, Hannah’s sister wife was fertile, had given Elkanah several children and would not let Hannah forget it. So while the family was on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh, Hannah went into the sanctuary and prayed fervently to the Lord for relief. She vowed that if only the Lord would open her womb and give her a son, she would give that son back to God by sending him to serve at Shiloh. Eli, the priest of Shiloh, saw Hannah there engaged in earnest prayer and mistook the poor woman for a drunken prostitute. To his credit, Eli changed his tune when he discovered the truth and blessed Hannah. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to the boy, Samuel. True to her word, she brought Samuel to Shiloh where he served at the altar with Eli.

The pathos here is striking. Hannah prays for a child, but recognizes that any such child she may have will not be hers. I cannot help but wonder whether Hannah did not experience a degree of regret as she prepared her son for the journey to Shiloh form which he would not return with her. Her boy would spend his formative years away from home. Her only contact with him would be the annual visits she made with the family to Shiloh. She seems to accept this arrangement without any sign of regret.

Twenty seven years ago when I baptized my first child I began my sermon with the announcement that, after much prayer and consideration, Sesle and I had decided to give Sarah up for adoption. My relatives were deeply incensed and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a lame joke and in poor taste. The rest of the congregation was taken aback as well. I doubt they heard much of the rest of the sermon which explained (I thought) my reasoning behind the opening remark. So this was probably not one of my more effective sermons. Nevertheless, I think it faithfully reflected what we are actually doing in baptism. We are giving custody of our children to Jesus. We are acknowledging that the bond they are forming at the font is deeper, stronger and more important than the bond of parenthood that ties us to them. For disciples of Jesus, family values are not the be all and end all. What, then, does it mean for the church, the people of God, to be our primary family?  How does this understanding influence the hopes, dreams and expectations we have for our children? Are we ready to sacrifice all of these to whatever purpose God may have for our children?

Luke 2:41-52  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306195

I will move from I Samuel to the gospel from Luke because there is such an obvious tie in. It is remarkable to me that in this one and only New Testament story from Jesus’ childhood, Jesus does exactly what we all tell our children they must never, ever do. He wanders away from his family in a strange city without telling anyone where he is going. Why this story? Why not a story of Jesus winning the Nazareth elementary school spelling bee? Or why not the story of Jesus making Eagle Scout? Confound it, Luke! Couldn’t you give us a story of Jesus that we could hold up to our kids as an example? Why give us a story of Jesus being naughty?

It does seem that Mary and Joseph need to learn what Hannah understood from the beginning. Their child is not really theirs. God has a hand on Jesus who must be about his Father’s business (that remark must have been a little hard on poor Joseph). But again, isn’t that the case with us and our children as well? Don’t we surrender ultimate custody when we hand them over to become one with Jesus in his death? I cannot say that I am at peace with that. Of course, I was delighted to be a part of two of my children’s weddings last summer. I was happy to see each of them united with someone who loved them deeply enough to build a home with them. I was also aware, however, that they were entering into a new bond that was deeper than any bond I have ever had with them. Now there is someone in each of their lives that comes before me. On a purely intellectual level, I understand that this exactly how it should be. But on a gut level, I would be less than honest to deny that it hurt just a little.

I wonder whether we should not be experiencing something of the same thing at baptism. Perhaps we have gone overboard in making this event solely a joyful celebration, even “cute.” Should we not rather feel something of the dread upon Abraham when God said to him, “Take your son, your only son, and offer him up to me.” I believe we are far too invested in the destinies of our children in this culture. The insanity of intense competition for spots in so called “Ivy League” preschools is just one extreme symptom of a larger societal compulsion for exercising control over our children’s destinies. When the kids become extensions of ourselves and we begin to live vicariously through them, we are not only developing a pathological outlook destructive to them. We are also violating the vows we made at their baptisms to “live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Rite of Baptism. In reality, we are only stewards or surrogate parents for our Heavenly Father who has his own calling and purpose for the children we call our own.

Psalm 148  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306282

This is a psalm of praise most likely composed after the Babylonian Exile. The hymn has some interesting parallels to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. As pointed out by J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay in their commentary, vss 1-6 correspond to Genesis 1-19 recounting the creation of the heavenly bodies. Vss 7-14 correspond to Genesis 1:20-2:4. There are also similarities of language and ideas. The psalm reflects the “word theology” seen in Genesis, namely, that God creates by the power of God’s speech. Compare Genesis 1:3 “And God said ‘let there be light;’ and there was light” with Psalm 148:5 “For he commanded and they were created.”

Let me make just a couple of observations here. First, the psalmist is remarkably taken with the unity of creation in all of its diverse forms. From angels, to stars and planets, to weather phenomena, to human beings, to creeping things and winged birds, all created things are united in praising the God who spoke them into existence. Praise is the echo of God’s creative word reverberating throughout the universe. We might want to reflect on whether the “image of God” in which we were created consists in this: that we speak. How much of our speech, then, is creative and life giving? Is such speech the essence of praise?

Second, note that this psalm is a prayer that asks nothing of God, expects no response and has no motive other than sheer praise. I suppose that in result orientated culture that demands results, it should not surprise us that best-selling books on prayer tout “the power of prayer,” “answers to prayer,” “inner peace through prayer” and numerous other things that one might “get out” of prayer. Yet Jesus does not begin there. The Lord’s Prayer opens with a petition that God’s name be hallowed and that God’s will be done. In short, prayer is not first and foremost about us and our needs. We don’t pray out of our need but in response to God’s goodness and compassion. That is precisely what the psalmist does here. He or she praises God for no better reason than that God is God. We discover our true selves and our place in creation through praising the One who makes and sustains it by the power of his Word.

The last verse speaks of God raising up a horn for Israel as those “near to him.” The “horn” is a symbol of strength and power. (See Psalm 75). Israel’s exaltation is for the purpose of bringing all peoples to the praise of God that, in turn, will bring unity.

Colossians 3:12-17  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=223306343

For an excellent summary of this remarkable letter to the Colossians, see the introduction by one of my New Testament Professors at Luther Seminary, Paul S. Berge at the following link for enterthebible.org http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=18

There is plenty to talk about in these jam packed verses. But the one that strikes me at this time is the admonition to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” There is nothing that builds community like singing together. As one of my colleagues has often remarked, more people are driven out of a church by bad music than by bad preaching. This is true. I can easily forgive a lame sermon if the music of the liturgy carries me and the music leaders draw me and the congregation into spirited singing. But it is impossible to ignore a musician who lacks the skill and knowledge of the music to lead a faltering congregation in worship. Bad music is just painful. I feel the embarrassment of the musician as well as the frustration of the congregation. No sermon, however inspiring, articulate and well delivered can repair the damage done by disappointing music.

The church is about the last place in our society where people still sing together. Community singing is a practice fast disappearing in the rest of our public life. Other than singing the national anthem at sporting events, I cannot think of very many other occasions in which people sing together. Maybe that is at least part of what lies behind the lack of unity and polarization we experience in our nation and in our communities. We don’t have songs that unite us. That brings us full circle back to our reflections on Psalm 148. There, the entire universe finds its center in praise of its Creator. Perhaps disciples of Jesus can speak of their mission as a calling to sing for a people that has no song. I think that if I were going to preach on this aspect of the text, my hymn of the day would either be: “My Life Flows on in Endless Song (ELW 763) or “The Singer and the Song” (ELW 861).

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Sunday, December 23rd

Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Greetings! As our Advent journey draws to a close, there are two events that weigh heavily on my mind. It goes without saying that we need to remember in our prayers all victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday. This tragedy strikes  too close to home. While I listened to the news of this tragedy unfold, I naturally thought about our own children here at Trinity School and breathed a prayer of thanksgiving for their safety even as I was praying for the families of the Sandy Hook victims. As many of you know, my daughter-in-law teaches in an elementary school near Hartford, Connecticut. When the news first broke over NPR, I heard only that the violence had occurred somewhere in Connecticut. I had to listen for several anxious minutes before learning that the school affected was not the one in which she teaches. You may recall how I reported in a recent newsletter article that two of my children had spent the night in Aurora, Colorado just weeks before the mass shooting that took place in a movie theater there. Perhaps such coincidences are not so very remarkable. After all, when your children are spread out all across the United States as mine are, it stands to reason that the likelihood of their being in proximity to such events increases. Nevertheless, they serve to bring home in a very concrete way our vulnerability and that of those we love. Precisely because our children share the helplessness and vulnerability of children in places like Newtown, we experience deeply their tragic loss and unimaginable sorrow. At times like this it becomes clear that we all have a stake in the well being and safety of children in our communities. Everybody’s child is everybody’s business.

Happily, the other event I have on my mind is one of sheer joy. I learned some time ago (and now have permission to share publically) that my daughter Sarah and her husband Caleb are expecting a baby in June. So I look forward with great anticipation to becoming a grandfather! I am also looking at the interchange between the two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, in a new and deeper way this year. Elizabeth acknowledges and Mary sings of the new hope about to be born into the world. It is striking how fragile and vulnerable is this new hope. So deeply dependent is the unborn child on its mother. So helpless and needy it is. If this child of Mary manages to be born alive, he will enter a world in which more than half of all children die before the age of seven. It seems that God is staking a lot on a very doubtful proposition.  Yet the willingness of God to become vulnerable lies at the heart of our faith. Our savior is not Superman. When he is wounded, he bleeds. When he is rejected, his heart breaks. Jesus’ strength lies in his ability to love even those who hurt him. That God continues to breathe such love into a world so filled with violence and death is cause for joy and perhaps the only meaningful way to address the emptiness and despair left behind in the wake of tragedies like Sandy Hook.

Micah 5:2-5a  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222764472

The book of the prophet Micah is one of the Minor Prophets. He is “minor,” though, not in terms of importance but by the volume of his work. In comparison with the Major Prophets (i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & Daniel),  Micah is only a slim collection of prophetic utterances. As is the case for most of the prophets, the book of Micah is not really a book in the proper sense. It is more like an anthology or collection of the prophet’s prophetic speeches most likely compiled and arranged by Micah’s disciples after his death. It is likely that this “book” was edited and supplemented with the work of these disciples and probably reached its final form during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile following the conquest of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

According to the introductory verse of the book, Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. This would have made him a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. At this point, Judah was leading a precarious existence in the shadow of the mighty Assyrian Empire. Micah witnessed the Assyrian attack that would eventually bring to an end the Northern Kingdom of Israel, thereby bringing the Assyrian army to the very border of Judah. In the face of this crisis, King Ahaz saw only two choices. He could join with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its ally Syria in an anti Assyrian alliance-which appeared doomed to failure. Or he could proactively seek an alliance with Assyria. The emperor of Assyria would no doubt find such an offer attractive. It would give him a small, but effective ally at the rear of his enemies. Control of Judah would also give Assyria a buffer between its own sphere of influence and Egypt, its enemy to the south. Of course, such an alliance would come at a heavy price for Judah, including the loss of a large degree of her sovereignty, the requirement that she receive into her temple the gods of Assyria and heavy tribute payable through taxation of the common people. Yet as unattractive as the Assyrian alliance option was, King Ahaz found it preferable to joining an anti-Assyrian military effort that was likely to end badly.

Micah (and Isaiah) saw yet a third alternative. Judah could wait for her God to deliver her-as God has always done in the past. Though Ahaz proved a disappointing king, Micah is confident that God will yet raise up from Bethlehem (the home of David) a king who, unlike Ahaz, will give to Judah and her people the peace, safety and security for which she longs. Scholars have long debated whether these words constituting the reading for Sunday are actually those of Micah or those of a prophet living after the Exile speaking these words of hope and encouragement to the exiled Jews. I side with those who attribute them to Micah. There is no mention at all of Babylon in chapter 5, but there is a clear reference to the threat posed by Assyria in Micah 5:5. Israel is not addressed here as a community of exiles, but as a nation under siege according to verse 1 (which is not included in our reading). This would fit the historical circumstances in which Micah found himself in the 8th Century B.C.E.  See Isaiah 36 & 37.

However one might date these prophetic words, they reflect Israel’s hope that God would finally raise up a ruler fit to be a king in the proper sense. Christians have long asserted that Jesus constitutes the fulfillment of this hope, but we cannot afford to slide too easily from Micah to the New Testament. Such an identification of Jesus with the one “who shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” raises more questions than it answers. What sort of security does Jesus provide? In what sense does he stand in “the strength of the Lord”? How can one rightly say that Jesus has “become great to the ends of the earth”? Clearly, Jesus is not the sort of king that would make mince meat out of the Assyrians (or Romans) and re-establish the Davidic dynasty or one like it. What, then, does it mean to call “Lord” and “King” someone who was born out of wedlock in a barn and died the death of a criminal? These are the questions that the gospels and the letters of Paul struggle with.

Something else is worth noting here. The gospel of Luke contains a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry from Adam through the line of David up to Joseph. Yet Luke takes pains to emphasize that Jesus was not the natural son of Joseph. Consequently, Joseph’s Davidic credentials appear to be irrelevant. If anybody’s genealogy matters here it is that of Mary. But we don’t know anything about her ancestry. So why does Luke include it?

One reason might be that the gospels are not “books” in the sense of having a single author writing his or her own material from start to finish. The gospels consist of parables and sayings from the preaching and teaching of the early church that were subsequently woven into a narrative or “story.” Because the gospel writers were working with material from several different sources and trying to fit it into a coherent story, there were naturally inconsistencies, seams in the narrative and places where the story does not flow naturally. That all may be so, but I think it glosses over the issue with a little too much ease. The gospel writers may have been relying upon material that was handed down to them, but they were doing more than simply stapling pages together. To the contrary, they exercised a high degree of originality and creativity in their use of stories, parables and hymns that came down to them. They took an active part in shaping the tradition to enhance the story they were trying to tell. I doubt that Luke would have intentionally allowed such a great discrepancy to stand unless he had a reason for it.

My belief is that the genealogy over against Jesus’ miraculous birth makes the same point John the Baptist elaborated on last week. “Do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” So also, God does not need the line of David to raise up a savior for Israel. Out of sheer grace, God adopts the line of David-as he once did David himself. Jesus’ status as Savior and Lord does not stand or fall on his Davidic credentials. It stands rather upon the redemptive and grace filled work of God. Out of mercy, compassion and in faithfulness to his covenant with the line of David, God freely adopts that line identifying God’s self with God’s people Israel.

Luke 1:39-45  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222764548

I want to move directly into the gospel lesson for Sunday because it seems to address some of the questions raised by our identification of Jesus with Micah’s promised deliverer. I also believe that this narrative is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of verses 45-55 used as this Sunday’s psalmody. This remarkable visit between two women touched in a profound way by the Spirit of God sets the stage for Mary’s remarkable hymn. Elizabeth, you may recall, was infertile and so bore societal “reproach.” Mary also was carrying a child and it is tempting to draw the conclusion that she bore reproach also as the pregnancy was obviously out of wedlock.  Both women would then have been subject to human reproach, albeit for different reasons. Both women also have been divinely vindicated. This provides a delightful literary symmetry that would work nicely in crafting a sermon, but I fear that we might be reading too much into the text. It does not appear that anyone regards Mary with moral distain as a result of her pregnancy. Unlike Matthew’s gospel, Luke does not tell us of any ambivalence on Joseph’s part.  Neither does Mary express any sense of shame or give any indication that she has been subject to moral sanction from any quarter. Thus, the thrust of this encounter appears to be Elizabeth’s affirmation of Mary’s vision and recognition of her unborn child as the one whose way her own son has been sent to prepare.

Most remarkable is, once again, the vulnerability of the promised savior. The helplessness and fragility of this fetus stands out in stark relief against the world dominating might of the Roman Empire. From this vantage point, the cross seems inevitable. A confrontation between this savior and the Empire could end in no other way. What is less obvious and what Luke strives to reveal is that what appears to be inevitable defeat will turn out to have been victory. The cross, Rome’s instrument of terror by which it maintained the pax Romana (peace of Rome), is soon to be snatched from the hands of the Empire to become the symbol of a very different sort of peace-the peace of Christ.

Luke 1:46b-55  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222764614

This remarkable hymn of Mary, known as the Magnificat, is woven directly from the worship tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. The closest scriptural parallel is the Song of Hannah from the Second chapter of I Samuel. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was unable to have children and sought the help of the Lord. Hannah’s song is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving in response to the birth of her child, Samuel. Both hymns praise God for looking upon the humble state of the petitioners and hearing their prayers. Both hymns transition from thanks for personal deliverance to praising God for his compassion for the poor and for raising them up. The theme of the “great reversal” that will be seen throughout Luke’s gospel is reflected in Mary’s song: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.” God’s exaltation of the humble maidservant Mary prefigures the career of Jesus who lifts up the outcast and the sinner. Also prefigured is the day when the reversal begun in Jesus will be complete. “My soul magnifies the Lord…” This is most likely the Greek rendering of a Hebrew expression, “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” See, e.g., Psalm 146:1. The “soul” here is the “self.” Thus, the psalmist praises God with his or her whole being. One could also say that the self becomes a lens for magnifying the glory and goodness of God through the act of worship.

It is critical that Mary’s song be understood within the context of Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. It is not for general consumption. This is not a song about some general social revolution. The salvation spoken of here is very specifically understood as the vindication of Israel’s hope in the covenant promises of Israel’s God. The raising up of the humble and the leveling of the proud takes place within the covenant community when the terms of covenant existence are observed. This covenant life is what makes Israel a “light to the gentiles.” The conclusion of the hymn says it all: “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.” Vss. 54-55. As gentiles, we enter into this covenant by the door graciously opened for us through Jesus.

Hebrews 10:5-10  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222764662

What more can I say about Hebrews than I have already said? As I have pointed out in previous posts, I have never been convinced that this epistle argues for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, though it has been so interpreted. I believe rather that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The loss of this structure and the liturgical institutions that gave meaning and substance to the faith of Israel struck a demoralizing blow to all of Judaism, including those Jews who were disciples of Jesus. Judaism dealt with this event by refocusing its worship more deeply in the life of the synagogue and in the study of Torah. Disciples of Jesus turned to the redemptive suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as celebrated in the worship of the church.

The quotation attributed to Christ in verses 5-7 appears to have been cobbled together from a few Hebrew sayings found in various forms in Psalm 40:6-8; I Samuel 15:22; Psalm 50:8-15; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:21-26; Hosea 6:6. It is not surprising that the quotation is not precise. The author appears to be working from memory rather than in the stacks of the library. For example, in Chapter 2:6 he or she introduces a citation from Psalm 8 with the words, “It has been testified somewhere…” We need to remember that in this age, centuries before the invention of the printing press, books were available only to a tiny fraction of the population. Reading was a rare skill and a useless one to common people with nothing to read. Consequently, one’s Bible was whatever had been committed to memory-and that typically constituted a lot of material. This is evident from the letter to the Hebrews which is saturated with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The argument spelled out here is that the Temple and its sacrificial liturgy were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” Heb. 10:1. They could not effect true reconciliation with God. The Temple was only a symbol of the dwelling place of God and its priests were merely human representatives whose sacrifices could do no more than point to the perfect sacrifice required to establish communion with God. By contrast, Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and resurrection by the power of God establish communion with God, the reality to which the Temple and its priesthood could only point in anticipation.

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Sunday, December 16th

Third Sunday of Advent

December 16, 2012
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Prayer of the Day
Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 Welcome to the third Sunday of Advent. Last week John was introduced as a “voice crying in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” or a voice crying “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,” depending on where you place the quotation marks. Those of you who heard last Sunday’s sermon know that I favor the latter reading. John’s call pulls us away from what the rest of the world considers “great,” “powerful” and “historic” focusing our attention on what God is doing on the margins with unremarkable people. This week we get a taste of what that voice has to tell us.

Zephaniah 3:14-20  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222166586

The book of Zephaniah is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. They are so called not because they are any less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (Major Prophets), but because these prophetic collections are much smaller. Zephaniah is only three chapters long. In the opening verses, Zephaniah’s ancestry is traced through Hezekiah. It is not known whether this was the Hezekiah who reigned over Judah between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E.  King Hezekiah was one of the few kings that gets a favorable rating from the books of Kings and Chronicles. The prophets Isaiah and Micah both were active during his reign and it seems that he was somewhat receptive to their preaching. According to the opening verses of the book, Zephaniah’s preaching took place during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. through 609 B.C.E. It is therefore possible that Zephaniah could have been sired by Hezekiah through one of his concubines. On the other hand, because Hezekiah was such a well regarded king, it would not be unusual for the name to become popular. The Hezekiah named as Zephaniah’s father is not identified as a king or given any royal appellation. Consequently, Zephaniah’s royal lineage is not a foregone conclusion.

It is also thought that Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry must have come prior to the reforms introduced by King Josiah ten years into his reign that are reported in II King 23:4-25. Zephaniah criticized severely the idolatrous worship of Baal and Asherah in Jerusalem, all traces of which Josiah rooted out of the city in the course of his restoration and purification of worship at the Temple. Zephaniah was also unsparing in his criticism of “the officials and the king’s sons.” It seems unlikely that he would have leveled such criticisms during a period of time when the King was implementing the very reforms Zephaniah was demanding. Thus, it is likely that the prophecies we have from the prophet Zephaniah date from between 640 B.C.E and 630 B.C.E., the first decade of Josiah’s reign prior to the institution of his reforms.

The book can be divided into three sections corresponding to its three chapters. The first chapter focuses chiefly on the corruption of the royal court and priesthood in Jerusalem. Zephaniah threatens the nation with divinely wrought destruction for its sins. In the second chapter the prophet expands the threat of judgment to Israel’s enemies. The third chapter begins with what appears to be further indictments against Judah, but the prophet’s tone changes abruptly after chapter five. Beginning with Zephaniah 3:6, the prophet begins to prophecy judgment against “the nations,” and words of comfort directed to Jerusalem. This is the section from which our lesson for Sunday is taken. The prophet promises that God will rescue Judah, restore her fortunes and defeat her enemies. Instead of bringing a judgment of destruction, God now declares a removal of destruction. Some scholars have explained this abrupt change by attributing these verses to a prophet other than Zephaniah who preached during or shortly after the period of the Babylonian Exile. This is quite possible. Like other prophetic books, Zephaniah is a compilation of prophetic utterances given at different times under different circumstances. As was the case with both Isaiah and Jeremiah, it is possible that the work of one of Zephaniah’s disciples or an editor might have found its way into the book. But I am doubtful for the following reasons: First, there is there is no mention of Jerusalem’s destruction, Babylon, the Exile or the return from exile. Second, the theme of the nations being cleansed and united by the glory of God shining forth from Jerusalem is part and parcel of the earlier prophecies of Isaiah. This week’s lesson reflects these same themes that are entirely consistent with the earlier prophetic tradition of Isaiah and so fit into Zephaniah’s period of ministry in the late seventh century.

God’s promise to “live in the midst [of the people]” reflects the longing of Advent. Like Israel, the church is a people formed by its longing for God’s reign. We struggle between the reality in which we live on the one hand that is characterized by violence, injustice and cruelty and on the other hand an alternate reality proclaimed to us by the scriptures in which God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. For us the latter reality is the more real and compelling even though we cannot see it yet.

Isaiah 12:2-6  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222166647

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters 55-65 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. So it appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to First Isaiah of the 8th Century, are more likely from the time of disillusionment that developed in the post-exilic setting, in the late 6th Century.

Most scholars agree that these verses from Isaiah chapter 12 that form the psalmody for this Sunday do not belong to the prophet of the 8th Century. Most likely, they were placed by the editor as a poetic doxology to the collection of prophetic utterances by Isaiah in these first eleven chapters. Though some assert that the passage dates from the time after the Babylonian Exile, there does not appear to be enough in terms of historical references to date it with any certainty. It reads like a psalm of praise and so lends itself to precisely this liturgical usage. The call to praise God and acknowledge God as savior is naturally appropriate for Advent which looks back to Jesus who came and forward to the Christ who is to come.

Philippians 4:4-7  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222166712

As I pointed out last week, the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Phillipi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:

  • Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
  • Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
  • Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

See the post for Sunday, December 9, 2012 for more particulars on this letter.

As was the case last week, so this week the reading is from the second of these three letters and constitutes its conclusion. Paul reminds the Philippian church that the Lord is near and encourages them to rejoice. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that for followers of Jesus the “Coming of the Lord” does not conjure up images of terror, divine wrath and damnation. It should elicit rejoicing. Advent is above all a season of joy. We do not face the future with dread. We look to tomorrow with hope, but not out of some blind optimism that everything will work out in the end. No, our hope is grounded in the promise of Jesus’ return to reign in gentleness and peace.

Luke 3:7-18  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=222166774

Last week’s lesson introduced John as the voice crying, “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” This week, we come face to face with John the preacher. Luke’s account of John’s preaching differs significantly from the Gospel of Matthew in one respect. In Matthew, John addresses only the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism with the scathing words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Luke, this stinging rebuke is directed at the “multitudes that came to be baptized.” Luke 3:7. We don’t know much about John’s audience. Luke does not tell us who was among the multitudes. We learn a few verses later, however, that there were soldiers and tax collectors among them. We can safely assume that the folks who sought John out and came to receive his baptism were looking for a renewed Israel, perhaps along the lines of Zephaniah’s vision. That would have involved an end to corruption within the priesthood and worship in the Temple-just as rampant in John’s day as in that of Zephaniah. They might also have been looking for restoration of Israel as a great kingdom. Or they may have expected some miraculous transformation of the present world into a world in which Israel would be glorified rather than downtrodden. Again, this last expectation would have been consistent with the hope expressed in our reading from Zephaniah. But whatever they were expecting, John makes clear to them that the change they are hoping for must begin with them. Submitting to John’s baptism without repentance would be an empty and futile ritual exercise. It is not enough to be a descendent of Abraham (or a confirmed Lutheran). It is fruits, not roots that matter.

Understandably, the people respond, “Well then, what are we to do? What are these fruits you are talking about?” John does not have to look far for an answer. His reply concerning the fruits of repentance is squarely within the framework of prophetic tradition. See, e.g. Isaiah 58:1-9:

Shout out, do not hold back!

Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

Announce to my people their rebellion,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

2Yet day after day they seek me

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness

and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,

they delight to draw near to God.

3“Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers.

4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today

will not make your voice heard on high.

5Is such the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the LORD?

6Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator shall go before you,

the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;

you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Repentance that is all about ritual formalities like fasting, wearing of sackcloth and ashes falls far short of what the Lord requires. Repentance is turning back to the Lord and one cannot do that without turning toward the sister or brother in need. One of the most ancient and urgent commands in the Mosaic law is that “You shall open wide your hand to the poor in the land.”  Deuteronomy 15:11.

The temptation here is to jump too quickly from John’s admonitions here to a more generalized charity that reduces the poor to an abstraction. Note well that both the prophetic passage from Isaiah and John’s preaching is directed toward Israel, not the world at large. These proclamations make sense only to people living in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel such as Israel itself or disciples of Jesus who are united with that God through baptism. This is particularly important for us American Christians to keep in mind as we frequently confuse America with the people of God. The Bible was written to shape the life of the church, not to reform the structures of American society. Furthermore, the sharing that John speaks about is to take place within the frame work of a covenant people called out of the rest of the world to be a “light to the nations.” So the “poor” here are not the starving masses, but the fellow in the next pew who lost his job and cannot afford coats for his kids. John is not asking us to immerse ourselves in the war against poverty. He just wants the extra coat in our closet for the brother without one.

I might be criticized here for lack of a social conscience. One irate person who heard me make this point responded, “Don’t you think Christians should be concerned about social justice?” My response was that I think everyone should be concerned about social justice whether they are Christians or not. But social justice is not enough. Jesus did not merely feed the hungry. He invited them to the messianic banquet. Jesus did not simply make donations for the care of lepers. He touched them. The prophet Isaiah did not call upon Israel to build homeless shelters. He told them to “bring the homeless into your house.” There are disciples of Jesus who do just that. I know, for example, of families that have taken on several foster children, some of them with serious emotional problems and physical disabilities, all in an effort to provide for them a secure and loving home. I know of a church in California whose members regularly open their homes to families and individuals without shelter. In our own small way, I believe we are doing something along those lines with the apartment in the Greenhouse that we lease to Family Promise.

I have been told repeatedly that, while these individual efforts are commendable, the problems of homelessness and poverty are systemic and that we need systemic reform of one sort or another to solve them. That might well be true, but so is the converse. Systemic change will never overcome poverty as long as we continue to view the poor as social problems to be solved rather than as sisters and brothers precious both to God and to us. The church is called to be a community where the poor are welcomed as valued partners rather than tolerated as burdens. Let me add here that I think we could be and should be doing a far better job with this. That is one reason why we need to hear John’s preaching so much.

How, then, does John prepare the way of the Lord? Our lesson concludes, noting that “With these and many other exhortations, [John] preached good news to the people.” But in what sense is this good news? John tells us of this “coming one” that “his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is an unsettling image, but maybe that is the point. Can you really expect to be baptized with fire and not get burned? If repentance is about a radical change of direction, it stands to reason that some things are going to have to be left behind-like the notion that you can ride into the kingdom of God on the proper pedigree. Some things must be given up-like the extra food in the pantry and the extra coats in the closet. But the promise of health is well worth the pain of the cure. The judgment John proclaims is not one of doom, but of promise. The unquenchable fire is for purifying, refining and renewing-not for destroying. That flame is lit each time Jesus calls another disciple to follow him. Throughout the way that leads finally to the cross, that flame burns to strengthen, purify and refine the new creation.

I think a word or two should be said also about John’s words to the soldiers and the tax collectors. In all likelihood, the soldiers belonged to Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee under leave from Rome. We should not think of these folks as disciplined members of an armed service doing a patriotic duty for the good of their country under a strict code of military ethics. These “soldiers” to which Luke refers, were more like armed thugs hired to protect a local warlord. Their wages were meager, but that did not matter because they had a license to take whatever they wished from the local population to supplement their income. The tax collectors were not civil servants. They were free agents who through payment, patronage or some other means obtained the right to collect taxes for Rome within a given geographical area. They were told generally the amount they needed to collect for Rome and whatever else they could manage to extort was their living. The tax collectors most frequently encountered by Jesus and probably John as well were at the very bottom of the food chain. They were Jews recruited by regional tax collectors to do the dirty work of extracting revenue from their neighbors. Naturally, they also had to make a living and so collected a premium of their own. Thus, one must wonder how John could expect a soldier of Herod to make do with his wages or a tax collector to extract no more than what his principal required. In both cases, obedience would result in poverty.

Some scholars have suggested that Luke, who was writing in a time long after these events took place, was projecting into the story a more respectable means of taxation and a more developed military ethic than existed in the time of Jesus. In other words, we have an anachronism. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Luke consistently takes a very radical view of discipleship throughout his gospel. Sometimes the shape of discipleship is poverty, persecution and even death. I believe therefore that John knew full well that he was calling the soldiers and the tax collectors to a life that would put them at odds with their professions and their loyalties. But, once again, like the priceless pearl or the treasure in the field, the reign of God is worth letting go of everything else to pursue. Along with the rest of the multitude, the soldiers and tax collectors are promised a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Second Sunday of Advent

December 9, 2012

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Prayer of the Day
Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Greetings and welcome to the Second Sunday of Advent. The texts for today (at least three of them) set the stage for the appearance of John the Baptist who we will meet next week. John is a mysterious figure. The relatively few passages about him in the gospels raise more questions than answers. Numerous scholars have written reams about John’s religious outlook, his background and associations. For many years, it was thought that John was likely influenced by the Essenes, a Jewish separatist group that practiced ritual washing. But apart from the ritual washing, which might theoretically have been the inspiration for John’s baptism, there does not seem to be much similarity between John and the Essenes. John was no separatist. He made his appeal to a wide audience in a public way that attracted the ire of none other than Herod Antipas. The Essenes withdrew into separate communities and took on only the purest of the pure in terms of strict adherence to their interpretation of Jewish law. Though John had his own rigorous view of the law, his mission was not to attract a few dedicated followers. John came to call all of Israel to repentance. In my own humble opinion, research into the origins of John the Baptist’s religious outlook is a wild academic goose chase that is likely to lead nowhere but into a hall of mirrors. It is far more productive to focus on the role John plays in the gospels and his significance for the identity and mission of Jesus.

Malachi 3:1-4  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=221561920

Nothing is known about the prophet Malachi, whose name in Hebrew means, “My messenger.” The prophet probably lived between 500 and 450 B.C.E. after the Jewish exiles from Babylon had returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. He was fiercely dedicated to the reconstructed temple and highly critical of the priesthood he accused of corrupting its worship. Malachi also criticizes the people of Israel for their failure to support the temple, for offering sick and blemished animals for sacrifice and for a general lack of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God. In the concluding chapter Malachi answers his critics who claim that God has abandoned Israel. God is sending “my messenger” before him who will “suddenly come to his temple.” The question is not whether God will come, but rather whether Israel will be able to stand in God’s presence. “For [God] is like a refining fire,” a “purifier of silver.” This God will “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.”

The news is good in the sense that the ultimate result will be that “Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former times.”  Yet the purification process promises to be painful. The refining fire will consume all the dross and impurities from Israel. There will be a terrible cost for this purification. So also John is sent to “preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” The intent is to save Israel, but salvation cannot come without a painful transformation. That continues to be the case. To be baptized into Jesus Christ is to be baptized into Christ’s death. We are called daily to die to sin and rise up again to a new life of faith in Jesus. In the refining fire of the church, a community dedicated to following Jesus, we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness, compassion, faithfulness and hospitality. In other words, we are sanctified and made holy. It is a slow process, a painful process, a process that will not be finished this side of the resurrection and not by us. See Comments on Philippians 1:3-11. Yet it is a joyful process in which we discover just how wonderful it is to be a creature reflecting the glory of his or her Creator.

Luke 1:68-79   http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=221561979

You need to know the story behind this song before you can understand it. These are the words of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest of the temple in Jerusalem in the time just prior to Jesus’ birth. When his division was on duty, he was selected to enter into the temple and burn incense before the holy of holies. While he was performing this duty, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son and instructed him to name the child John. Understandably, Zechariah was incredulous. He was an old man and his wife was also long past child bearing years. They had never been able to have children before. So Zechariah asked the angel, “How shall I know this?” The angel identified himself as Gabriel, “who stand in the presence of God.” Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the birth of the child because he doubted this good news. So it was that Zechariah emerged from the temple speechless.

Elizabeth conceived and bore a son. Her relatives and neighbors began calling the infant “Zechariah” after his father, but Elizabeth corrected them: “Not so,” says Elizabeth. “His name is John.” Everyone protests that no one in her family has ever borne that name. Then they turn to Zechariah who would have had the final say in this matter. Much to their surprise, Zechariah asks for a writing tablet and inscribes on it these words for all to see: “His name is John.” At that instant, his tongue is set free and Zechariah breaks forth in the song that is our psalm for the day.

Though the birth of John is the occasion for this joyous song, the song’s focus is on the mighty works and promises of God. The promises made to Abraham and to David are evoked by Zechariah’s words. The “horn of salvation” is a symbol of might. See Deuteronomy 33:17. The covenantal language throughout the song unites the promises made to Abraham with those sworn to David. The “horn of salvation” raised up within the house of David will make the Abrahamic promises of blessing to all peoples a reality. This “horn of salvation” is Jesus. John’s identity and role is spelled out in this hymn only in relation to Jesus before whom John will go as a prophet of the Most High. John will prepare the way by giving people “knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins.”

A couple of things are worth noting here. First, there is an interesting interplay between Zachariah’s inability to speak and Elizabeth’s speech concerning the naming of her son-which is totally ignored by her relatives and neighbors who turn to Zechariah-who has no ability to speak! It is as though poor Elizabeth has no voice. But when the speechless man gives his full support to the voiceless woman, this beautiful song of liberation bursts forth, promising an end to oppression and violence, the dawn of a new day and a path that leads to peace. This is not the first time Luke’s gospel gives a prominent voice to women. We will see throughout the readings we encounter this year a deep concern for women and an intentional effort to give them a voice in the gospel narrative.

Second, it is important to note the wealth of imagery in this song taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to read the New Testament in light of those Hebrew Scriptures. Unless you fully appreciate the wealth of promises, the richness of hope and the textured narrative embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures, your view of the New Testament will necessarily be truncated and distorted. I am convinced that the most heretical book ever published is the New Testament printed apart from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philippians 1:3-11  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=221562031

A word or two about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is warranted since we will be hearing lessons from that book this week and next. The first thing to note is that the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Phillipi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:

ž  Phil A = Phil 4:10-20   (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

ž  Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

ž  Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23   (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

It is impossible to determine the timing of the first letter other than to say that it was between the start of Paul’s missionary activity beginning around 45 A.D. and his arrest in Jerusalem around 60 A.D.There is no mention of Paul’s imprisonment in this letter. It appears that the Philippian congregation sent a gift of money in support of Paul’s mission work in Ephasis by the hand of one of its members, Epaphroditus. This evidently was not the first time the congregation had sent support to Paul and he is overwhelmed by their generosity. Though Paul does not depend on material support from his congregations, knowing that God will supply his needs, he nevertheless rejoices in such support as it benefits his mission as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the supporting congregation. After delivering the Philippian church’s gift to Paul, Epaphroditus stayed with him to help in his mission to Ephesus. As a result of civil unrest generated by Paul’s preaching, Paul is arrested and imprisoned. (Acts 19:23-20:1; I Cor. 15:32; II Cor.1:8-11). To make matters worse, Epaphroditus becomes gravely ill. The Philippians are greatly distressed by both of these developments. Upon Epaphroditus’ recovery, Paul sends him back to the Philippians with the second letter assuring them that, in spite of the circumstances, he is well and that his imprisonment is furthering the cause of the gospel. The final letter appears to be a fragment from a larger letter, the remainder of which has been lost. Paul is writing to warn the Philippians of some rival missionaries who are teaching the Gentile converts that they must be circumcised in order to join the church. This issue is treated further in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Our reading for this Sunday comes from the second letter, Phil B. Though there is some dispute among scholars over where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter, it is clear that Paul was imprisoned at the time for activities related to his preaching. I find most persuasive the conclusion that Paul was in Ephesus at this time. It is noteworthy that Paul begins his letter not with a description of his own dire circumstances as a prisoner, but with a word of thanksgiving for the support and partnership he has received from the church at Philippi. If you read further on in this first chapter of Philippians, it becomes clear that Paul’s position is precarious. The proceedings against him could possibly lead to a death sentence. Though Paul would prefer release from prison and further fruitful ministry, he is prepared to die for his witness to Jesus. He is confident that his little church in Philippi is safe in the arms of Jesus and that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

I think this is about the most comforting word in the Bible. After all, life is full of loose ends. There are things I wish I had said to Mom and Dad when they were still alive. There are activities I wish I had done with my children, places I wish I could have taken them, time lost that I know I should have spent with them. Although I would like to believe I have grown in wisdom and understanding, I know that I suffer from the same insecurity, fear and anger I have known all my life. There are days when I ask myself, “Peter, are you ever going to grow up?” Now, well into the top third of my statistically determined life span, it is clear to me that I have not the time, energy or wisdom to tie up all the loose ends in my life. So it is good to know that, where I can make only a very poor beginning, Jesus promises to bring completion. I can die before the work is finished knowing that Jesus will heal what is wounded, reconcile what is estranged and restore what has been lost.

In this season of Advent our focus is on what Paul calls “the day of Jesus Christ.” I think that Paul’s word here must be set against warning of Malachi. Yes, the prophet Malachi is correct. God’s messenger comes as a refining fire to burn away all the chaff. That will not be pleasant. But as unpleasant as the refining process is, the objective is to heal, purify and perfect. Burning away the impurities is simply part and parcel of bringing to completion the good work begun at our baptism into Jesus Christ. Malachi poses the question: “Who can endure the day of [God’s] coming and who can stand when he appears?” The answer, according to Paul, is everyone who clings in faith to Jesus’ promise to use that fiery day to complete in us what he began.

Luke 3:1-6  http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=221562077

Luke’s introduction of John the Baptist begins with a roll call of all the movers and shakers in the ancient Mediterranean world. Tiberius, emperor of Rome, was the successor to Augustus Caesar, the man credited with imposing the “peace of Rome” over the world (or a good portion of it anyway). Tiberius was a great general responsible for expanding the imperial borders. As an emperor, he was much less effective. He was known to be moody, timid and disinterested in affairs of state. In many respects he was an inept leader riding the coattails of his illustrious predecessor. Pontius Pilate, who we will meet later on, became prefect of Judaea in 26 A.D. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising in about 37 A.D. Herod the “tetrarch” (meaning ruler of the fourth), was a son of the infamous Herod the Great, known in Matthew’s gospel for the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Also known as Herod Antipas, he was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. Unlike his father who ruled all of Judea, Herod Antipas ruled only the region of Galilee. Philip the Tetrarchwas also a son of Herod the Great and a half-brother of Herod Antipas. Philip inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom, Judah. Little is known about Lysanias other than that he was probably another regional ruler appointed by Rome as were Herod and Philip. His territory was to the north of Judah.

High priests were selected and appointed by the Roman authorities, often with little input from the Jewish people. This practice did much to discredit the priesthood in the eyes of the Jewish people as a whole. So also did the onerous taxes collected for the support of the temple and the commercial activity in the temple courts-much of the proceeds of which went directly to the coffers of Rome. Thus, Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple not only offended Jerusalem’s religious elite. It was also a shot across the bow of Rome. Annas was high priest until 14 A.D. when he was deposed by the Roman authorities and replaced with his own son in law, Caiaphas. It seems clear from the passion accounts in the gospels, however, that Annas continued to exercise a significant degree of authority behind the scenes. Indeed, Luke goes so far as to name both men as high priests, though technically there could only have been one.

“The word of the Lord came to John the son of Zachariah in the wilderness…” This is a common formula used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:1-3; Ezekiel 1:1-3; Micah 1:1-2. The word of the Lord comes to a prophet, but never in a vacuum. The word comes in specific times, in certain places and during the reigns of particular kings. These contextual settings are important because ours is a God that takes history seriously. The word of God is always addressed to a specific audience in a specific circumstance. To put it differently, God is one who gets involved with the messy details of our lives. So much so that the Gospel of John can say that God’s Word ultimately becomes flesh and blood, entering into the messy business of birth, childhood, adolescence, suffering and death. The world into which this Incarnate Word comes is a violent, corrupt and dangerous place. This is not a fairytale we are about to hear. Yet because this is our world, a world filled with destructive evils we have made for ourselves and because we cannot seem to escape the consequences of what our hands have made, the news of Christ’s coming into the midst of our self made mess with the healing touch of God is incredibly good.

John the Baptist is introduced with a passage from the first chapter of Isaiah. These words were addressed to  the exiled Jews living in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E.  The prophet sees in the immanent fall of Babylon to Persia a God given opportunity for his people to return home to Palestine. The “highway” through the desert refers to the way God is making from Babylon to Jerusalem for the exiles’ return. The people in Jesus’ time were exiles in their own land. They were governed by rulers appointed from Rome and the produce of their nation was being extracted by Roman taxation. Roman troops, ever present throughout Judea and Galilee, did not hesitate to crucify anyone who dared challenge Rome’s authority. Into this violent and conflicted land the word of the Lord came to John. What then will this word be? What powerful forces will it set in motion? What news will break forth from the mouth of this prophet? We will find out about that next week!

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