Archive for January, 2013
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I always try to give proper credit for every quotation I use, but there are a very few profound quotes to which I can no longer connect a name. So the best I can do is state unequivocally that I am not the author of the following: “You can preach motherhood to death and no one will remember a thing you have said. But if you can get us to smell the burped up baby formula on Mom’s worn and faded sweater-then you are really preaching!” That is the sort of preaching you get from the prophet Jeremiah. His lyrical diatribes conjure up the terrifying image of approaching armies. His laments paint the most poignant portraits of sorrow imaginable. When Jeremiah speaks of the new covenant in which God’s will is written on the hearts of God’s people, it is as though the sun were breaking through the darkest storm clouds.
Yet in this week’s lesson Jeremiah seems somewhat less than confident in his ability to answer God’s call. Or perhaps he doubts that any words he speaks will be heard over the drums of war and the clash of empires. I can relate. Sometimes I too doubt the power of words. Distracting words flash at me from either side of the highway: Dunkin Donuts, Target, Hot Bagels, Liquidation Sale. Words flow out of the radio and television set filling the house with chatter. The rise of the internet has given everyone with a computer (including yours truly) power to broadcast their words across the entire earth. It is no longer necessary to find a willing publisher or rely upon an agent to get a book published. No one decides what is worthy of print anymore except the author. Sometimes I worry that the voices of prophets and poets will drown under this deafening verbal cacophony. I am concerned that artists who love words enough to use them with care and who labor over the construction of each sentence will get lost in all the mindless jabber of thoughtless voices clamoring for attention.
Despite both Jeremiah’s and my own misgivings, the word remains God’s weapon of choice. It is through speech that God called light out of darkness and being out of nothingness. It was through the call of Abraham that God drew a people to himself. It was through the words of the Torah that God shaped the mind and heart of Israel. Through the words of the prophets God called her back again and again to faithfulness and obedience under Torah. In the fullness of time, the Word of God became flesh and came to dwell among us. When Christ the Word of God returns in glory, “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations.” Revelation 19:11-16. Speech, not coercive violence, is God’s way of dealing with this sometimes unruly world. We might wish for a different sort of divine power. We might prefer a God whose exercise of power is more like that of kings, dictators and presidents. But our God will conquer through speaking to us words of patient and longsuffering love, persistent forgiveness and undying compassion. We have no choice, then, but to trust in the power of God’s Word “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Like Jeremiah, the church is called to speak that Word faithfully, creatively and with conviction trusting that it will be heard and heeded in God’s own good time.
For an excellent overview of the Book of Jeremiah, see the article by Professor Terrence Fretheim of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org. In this Sunday’s lesson, the prophet Jeremiah receives his call from the Lord. It is hard to pinpoint the precise timing of Jeremiah’s call. The opening lines of the book state that Jeremiah’s prophetic career began in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Yet there is no reference in Jeremiah’s preaching to the extensive campaign against idolatry undertaken by this king that would surely have been favored by Jeremiah or to the king’s untimely death. This has led scholars to suspect that Jeremiah’s call may actually have taken place during the reign of Josiah’s successors. Some scholars have suggested that Jeremiah perceived his first basic encounter and call from God to have occurred before he was “formed in the womb.” Thus, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign may have been the prophet’s birthday where God “consecrated” him. His call might therefore have taken place after Josiah’s death.
More important than the precise date of Jeremiah’s call is the general historical context. It was the beginning of the age of empires. Assyria had dominated the middle east for nearly a century. When its power began to wane, young Josiah stepped into the power vacuum expanding the borders of his country further than at any time since the days of David and Solomon. He also launched a campaign to purge Israel of all pagan influences and restore the proper worship of Israel’s God. The king’s political success and his religious reforms proved short lived. Josiah lost his life opposing Egypt’s failed attempt to prop up what was left of Assyria now under siege from the rising Babylonian empire. Judah once again became a mere vassal of an imperial power, this time Egypt. In less than a year, she would be under the king of Babylon. Thus, Jeremiah was born into a turbulent era of transition. The age of city states and petty regional kingdoms was coming to an end. The age of empires had begun.
Prophets are often characterized as idealistic dreamers out of touch with geopolitical realities. Reliance upon the Lord is a pious, but unhelpful piece of advice to the king of a tiny nation caught between multiple superpowers. But Jeremiah was no novice when it came to analysis of political realities. Better than any of the kings to whom he prophesied, Jeremiah could see clearly that the world was changing. He understood the difficult truth that Israel’s rulers could not comprehend: that there was no future for Judah as an independent kingdom under the line of David. Trying to restore the glories of that kingdom in the present age was a sure recipe for disaster. If you have read the entire book of Jeremiah, then you know that his message was rejected by the Judean leadership which was hell bent on winning independence for Judah from Babylon. Jeremiah saw this stubborn determination to pursue a hopelessly impossible dream as a rejection of Israel’s God and a lack of trust in God’s ability to deliver to Judah a new and better day.
“Before you were in the womb I knew you.” We should not get too caught up in speculation about God’s foreknowledge and how much of Jeremiah’s life was “predestined.” The emphasis should be placed on the words, “I knew you.” The Hebrew word for “know” used here denotes a particularly intimate sort of knowledge. The indication here is that Jeremiah is to be more than a message boy. His career will be one of intimacy with the God who called him from the womb. This relationship between the Lord and his messenger is in some respects analogous to a marriage. If you read on in this marvelous book you will discover that this “marriage” was frequently rocky. Jeremiah sometimes complained bitterly that God had let him down, deceived him and left him to the mercy of his enemies. Jeremiah 20:7-12. God was often less than gentle in responding to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 15:15-21. But that only underscores the freedom Jeremiah felt to express his deepest sentiments to the God whose word consumed his entire being.
“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” One thing most prophets seem to have in common is low self esteem. Jeremiah thinks he is too young and inexperienced. Moses felt he was not sufficiently articulate. Isaiah thought he was too sinful. Amos would not even accept the title of prophet. These are not the kind of extraverted, can do, positive thinking types that denominational leadership seeks for “mission developers.” It seems that genuine prophets come by their calling only reluctantly. As we in the New Jersey Synod, ELCA approach the task of electing a new bishop, I am wondering whether perhaps we should first identify everyone who is willing to assume the office-and then promptly eliminate them from further consideration.
This psalm is remarkably similar to Psalm 31. It also contains phrases and expressions that are nearly identical to other psalms. Consequently, some scholars have speculated that Psalm 71 is of more recent composition, having borrowed from these older psalms. That reasoning is not entirely convincing to me, however. There is no reference to any historical event that would allow us to date this psalm. Therefore, it seems just as likely to me that Psalm 31 and the other psalms borrowed from Psalm 71 which could as easily be the more ancient. I know. Who cares?
The personal details in this psalm are remarkable. If you read the psalm in its entirety, you will discover that the psalmist is an old man or woman. His or her “strength is spent.” Yet the psalmist is best by enemies who see his or her weakness as evidence that “God has forsaken him” and that it is therefore safe to “size him” for “there is none to deliver him.” (I should explain here that the use of gender in the Hebrew language is not heavily tied to the male/female dichotomy. Consequently, we cannot draw any conclusions about the psalmist’s sex from the fact that the English translators have consistently rendered the pronouns in this psalm masculine.) Though understandably concerned, the psalmist does not come to this crisis with a blank slate. The psalmist has experienced God’s salvation throughout his or her life. Because God has a track record of faithfulness, the psalmist is confident that, “Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.” Vs. 20.
Once again, this prayer illustrates the breadth of human experience found in the psalms running the gambit from youthful insecurity in the face of life’s complexities to the struggles of aging and confronting death. I cannot emphasize how important it is to make these psalms your friends. The earlier in life you do that, the greater the source of comfort, strength and wisdom they will become.
This is one of those texts known even to people who have never picked up a Bible. Just as the Twenty Third Psalm is a staple at every funeral, the Thirteenth Chapter of Corinthians is nearly universal at every Christian wedding. Though much of what Paul has to say in this chapter is applicable to marriage, that is not what was on Paul’s mind as he wrote these words. Recall that Paul is in the midst of a letter addressed to a divided and fractious church. In last Sunday’s lesson, Paul pointed out that the Church, even the sorely divided Corinthian church, is the Body of Christ. That means that we are all individually members of that church. We do not think or conduct ourselves as autonomous individuals. We harmonize our lives to the needs of the Body of which we are part.
Clearly, the congregation in Corinth was a long way from that kind of harmonious living-as is every church to which I have ever belonged. But Paul insists that his view of the church is not just an impossible utopian ideal. Nor is it merely an aspiration. The flesh and blood church of today with all its warts, short comings and sins is the Body of Christ. I repeat: this is not just a metaphor. Paul really means to say that the church is Christ’s resurrected Body. It is a broken and wounded Body, to be sure, but it is nevertheless a Body animated by God’s Holy Spirit. Though ever dying, it is always being called back to life again. It is always in the process of healing. How, then, do sinful and self centered men and woman live together as one Body? That is “the more excellent way” to which Paul referred at the end of Chapter 12 last week and discusses in Chapter 13 this week.
Though written in highly polished prose bordering on poetry, this chapter speaks of a love that is anything but gushy and sentimental. “Love is patient.” That means accepting the fact that the church is made up of people that are broken and, more importantly, that I cannot fix them. Still, I have to love them anyway even though they probably
will never change to my liking. “Love is not jealous or boastful.” That is to say, it often goes unrequited and that has to be OK. I may never be properly thanked for what I do to build up the Body or appreciated for all the sacrifices I make. But if that’s a problem for me, then my love is not the sort that Paul is talking about. “Love does not insist on its own way.” Not even when I happen to be right; not even when it is a matter of principle; not even when every thinking person would have to agree that my way is really the only way forward. That is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. When you have a vision for mission or a dream for your church’s future that seems heaven sent, it is hard to hear the rest of the Body tell you that they cannot see it or do not share it. It is at just such times that I am most strongly tempted to abandon the way of love and resort to more coercive political tactics.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” There was once a young pastor fresh out of seminary assigned to a difficult congregation. No matter what the young pastor did, someone in the congregation found fault with him. After one particularly discouraging day, Jesus came by to visit him. The pastor was overjoyed to see Jesus and began immediately to pour out his troubles to the Lord. Jesus listened patiently, nodding his head and giving the young pastor a knowing smile. “Yes,” said Jesus. “A pastor’s first parish can be a difficult challenge. I remember my first church. There were only twelve members. Not one of them ever understood a single sermon I ever preached. All they could ever talk about was who should be in charge and who was the greatest. The treasurer was constantly pilfering church funds for his own use and then he had the nerve to turn me into the authorities for just thirty pieces of silver. My congregational president, who promised to stand by me to the end, told everyone after I was arrested that he didn’t even know me. The rest of my congregation deserted me and left me hanging on a cross. But enough about me. You were telling me about the problems in your congregation.”
Though this story involves a pastor, it applies as well to anyone who takes discipleship and service in the church seriously. The church is not the place to come for coddling. It is where you go to be transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place you go to be built up into the Body of Christ. Love is the cement that holds a church together. Forgiveness is the tar that patches up the breaches in its walls. The church is not a gathering of people who are a moral cut above the rest. We are flawed and broken people who cannot heal ourselves, but who believe that the Holy Spirit working in our midst can bind us together and make of us more than we could ever have been on our own. Rev. Lester Peter, the pastor who ordained me, said in his sermon on that occasion: “Peter, you will meet in your ministry the kindest, most selfless and generous people the world has ever known. You will also meet the orneriest, most stubborn and unforgiving people the world has ever known. And here is the hardest part-they will be the same people.” That has proven true. I have my share of scars from living in the church. But I have far more memories of witnessing acts of extraordinary generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, extraordinary courage and faithfulness in the many churches it has been my privilege to serve. There is no question that churches fall short of their calling. They can be selfish, petty and narrow minded. Even so, the Spirit of God is at work in their midst pushing them beyond themselves, working miracles within them and accomplishing great things through them.
Most of what I have to say about this passage I said in last week’s post. I do not believe it is possible to understand fully Jesus’ proclamation from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth without reading what follows in this week’s lesson. I would only add that Jesus employs scripture here in precisely the way I believe preachers should. Recall that last week Jesus boldly proclaimed how Isaiah’s declaration of salvation for the poor, oppressed and blind was being fulfilled through his mission. In this week’s lesson, he appeals to two very well known stories in the Hebrew Scriptures to shed light upon Nazareth’s rejection of his mission. This is not the first time Israel has rejected a prophet sent to her. Elijah and Elisha both were persecuted by Israel’s royal establishment and lived part of their lives as fugitives. But their rejection, so far from thwarting their ministry, resulted in expanding the scope of their work beyond Israel’s borders. The widow who showed mercy on Elijah during his exile and Naaman the Syrian general who came to Elisha for healing experienced the salvation of Israel’s God. Consequently, God’s name was praised among the gentiles. So too, Nazareth’s rejection of Jesus will only further his mission and propel his saving acts further into the heart of Israel. In the same way, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem will spread the preaching of the gospel by the church into new territories. Acts 8:1-4.
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Prayer of the Day
Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
As you might have surmised from the Prayer of the Day, our readings for this coming Sunday relate in some fashion to the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is the one book that virtually all Christians have in common. Yet the same Bible has also been at the center of almost every controversy dividing the church from its inception right up to the present day. Throughout the so called “culture wars” that have peppered our political dialogue in recent years, the Bible has become a source of ammunition for people on every conceivable side of every conceivable issue. So it is probably fair to say that the Bible divides us at least as much as it unites us.
One fact is inescapable: Nobody comes to the Bible with a blank slate. We all have our own ideas about what the Bible is; about what it means to call the Bible God’s word; about the sense in which the Bible is authoritative for us. The message we get from the Bible is determined by the preconceived baggage we bring to it. I am no different than anyone else in that respect. I bring some significant baggage to my Bible reading. Let me unpack it for you.
First, I believe the scriptures are about Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are not a people of the book. God’s Word to us is finally the Word made flesh; the man called Jesus who God raised from death and whose Holy Spirit animates the church. So when I go to the Bible, whether the New Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures, I go there in search of Jesus. Of course, that is not the only way to read the scriptures, particularly the Hebrew Bible. The Old Testament books stand on their own and make their own sense without the New Testament. Jews and Muslims who read these texts as sacred literature are therefore not reading them “wrongly,” just differently. They are starting from a different place. In accord with Martin Luther, who once remarked that the Bible is the manger in which Christ lies, I start and end my reading of the Bible with Jesus.
Second, I believe that God’s Word to us through the scriptures is always a word of grace. This is so even when the scriptures speak judgment. God never wounds other than to heal; God never kills unless it is to resurrect. Though Jesus has been described as “A stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall” (I Peter 2:8), even this news is ultimately good. If you are running headlong down the path of self destruction, getting tripped up and falling on your face is the best thing that can happen to you. Therefore, scriptural preaching and teaching always draws people back to the God who yearns for them. It always redeems, restores and reconciles. If the church’s teaching alienates people from God and sows disharmony in the Body of Christ, it fails to interpret the scriptures in accord with the good news about Jesus.
Finally, the Bible is the church’s book. It was not designed for private consumption. I cannot hope to read and understand the scriptures properly unless I do so in the company of the saints. They keep me honest in my reading and reflection. As singer Paul Simon put it in his song, The Boxer, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Left to myself, that is probably how I would read the Bible. I would be likely to focus only on the words of the Bible that comfort and reassure me while neglecting those words that convict and challenge me. I would be prone to read the scriptures within the confines of my own little self contained world. That is why I need the perspectives other people bring to the scriptures. I need to hear from people different from myself reading the Bible out of their own life experiences. The Holy Spirit does not whisper sweet mystical nothings into the ears of individuals. The Spirit of God speaks through the members of the resurrected Body of Christ. Therefore, even when I read the scriptures on my own, I never read them privately. I always read them in the company of folks like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Douglas John Hall, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and all the members of my Wednesday Midweek Bible Study group.
That said, let’s begin looking at the texts for this Sunday.
The book of Nehemiah and the book of Ezra (which precedes Nehemiah) are actually one book in the Hebrew Bible. Together they constitute our major source of information about the period following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. While Ezra, a renowned scribe, is credited with organizing the rebuilding of the temple, Nehemiah, a Jewish governor appointed by the Persian royal court, was chiefly responsible for the rebuilding of the ruined city of Jerusalem. Together these books tell the inspiring story of a broken people struggling to rebuild their community and live obediently under the covenant with their God in drastically changed circumstances. Our lesson comes at the completion of the wall around Jerusalem and the settlement of the exiles therein. Ezra the scribe calls the people together for a reading of the “law of Moses.” Though it is probable that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Pentateuch” is referenced here, it is not at all clear that the version Ezra/Nehemiah was working with is the same one we have today. Citations found later in chapter 8 do not appear in any of the five books we know as the Pentateuch.
The peoples’ response to this lengthy reading is lamentation and weeping. It is hard to know exactly what was on their mind, but we know that Nehemiah himself wept bitterly at the beginning of the section of this book bearing his name. He was weeping over the ruination of Jerusalem and the plight of the returning exiles eeking out an existence in that ravished land. He recognized, too, that this sorry state was in no small part the consequences of Israel’s sins against her covenant with her God. See Nehemiah 1:4-11. Perhaps the people were weeping for some of the same reasons. They had experienced the ruin of their great nation and it was clear that neither the rebuilt temple nor the reassembled community would rise to the level of Israelite greatness known under the kings of David’s royal line. At first blush, it appears that the best the exiles can hope for is a diminished future as a subject province in the Persian Empire.
Lament is that space between what is and what ought to be-so says Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, former pastor of this congregation and prominent leader in our church. I agree, but must ad that sometimes our laments run amok because we don’t always know so well “what ought to be.” As you know, I see a lot of parallels between the post-exilic Jews trying to rebuild their community and the mainline protestant churches (ELCA being one of these) trying to adjust to a post-Christian era. We spend a lot of time mourning all that we have lost. That is not necessarily inappropriate because we have lost a lot that was precious. I am old enough to remember a time when nearly all my friends went to church somewhere. I remember when even small churches like the ones in which I grew up had a youth group numbering between twenty and thirty kids. I have distinct memories of our Sunday School Christmas pageant that involved intense rehearsals of the nativity play conducted each year with near military precision. Growing up in a Christian community with a strong sense of the importance of church, discipleship and witness formed me into the person I am today. My own children did not come of age in quite the same intense cultural atmosphere of commitment to and involvement in church life. My daughter once remarked to me after a semester of college how “weird” it seemed to everyone she knew that our family went to church every Sunday. Worship is no longer deemed an essential component of the week. It is now an optional activity that some folks practice occasionally and only “weird” people do consistently. My grandchildren will likely grow up in a culture where worship on Sunday is altogether odd. That saddens me.
But lament does not lead to healing if its focus remains solely what has been lost. Nehemiah recognizes that Israel’s past, though glorious in retrospect, was not always characterized by faithfulness to God. Wealth and prosperity bred corruption, idolatry and oppression of the poor. Forgetting that she was once an enslaved people oppressed by the Empire of Egypt, Israel became something of an empire in her own right dominating surrounding nations and even enslaving and impoverishing her own people. The extensive network of statutes in the laws of Moses protecting the poor, the widow and the orphan were largely forgotten. The lure of wealth drew Israel’s ruling class to commercial treaties and military alliances with foreign nations whose false gods and false values soon displaced God’s passion for justice. Perhaps the good old days were not quite so good in God’s eyes.
I think we need to bring Nehemiah’s spirit of searching inquiry to our own laments over the state of our churches. The days of protestant denominational growth surely look like good times to us. Churches were full; financial support was seldom lacking and the Sunday School rooms were packed like subway cars during rush hour. What was not to like? But I am not so sure that these good years were quite so good in God’s eyes. The church in which I was baptized sat on a street with at least a dozen other churches within a half mile of each other (one of which was another Lutheran congregation). I never set foot in any of them and I doubt their members often passed our threshold either. We didn’t need them. Neither did we see any need to express unity in the Body of Christ. We were cocky and confident that our Lutheran brand of Christian faith (actually, our particular flavor of the Lutheran brand) was the best if not the only doctrinally correct form of church. We didn’t want to dilute our doctrinal purity by getting too close to our theologically confused neighbors. We gladly supported missionaries to Africa, but no one would ever have dreamed of extending a worship invitation to the African Americans in the neighborhood just north of us. “They have their own churches,” I remember people saying. It didn’t bother us that our church was just as segregated as the rest of the country in those days. In fact, segregation in general didn’t bother us much. I think God had at least as many reasons for cutting us down to size as for sending Israel into exile.
So maybe we need to expand our understanding of lament to include “that place between where we wish we were and where God needs for us to be.” Through the pain of conquest and exile, Israel learned that faithfulness, not greatness is what God desires. Is God trying to teach the church a similar lesson? Have we learned yet to lament properly? If our sorrow is only yearning for the past, then we have not learned anything. If our quest for change and renewal is nothing more than gimmicky strategies to increase sufficient membership and revenues to keep the ELCA machinery and its institutions running, then our lament has not yet matured into genuine repentance and openness to God’s future. As much “change, transformation and renewal” language as I hear coming down from denominational leadership, a lot of it seems to focus on saving the institution rather than transforming our vision. Much of what passes for “mission strategies” looks to me like the same failed marketing strategies that consultants have been peddling to the business community for decades. (It has been said many times that a consultant is the last straw grasped by a company with one foot in bankruptcy court and the other on a banana peel.)
I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that God is not looking for a powerful church exercising political muscle in the halls of Congress, capturing the attention of the media with its liturgical pomp & circumstance and running dozens of agencies doing every conceivable sort of good. As wonderful as our denominational agencies are and as much good as they do, maybe God does not need them. Rather than an expression of faithful obedience to God’s call, perhaps our desperate efforts to preserve our structures speak more to our own need to prove to ourselves that we are, after all, important. Maybe God needs a church so poor that it has nothing but the Word to depend on. Perhaps a small, broken and scattered church made up of the weak, the foolish, the low and the despised is a more faithful witness to Jesus than the larger, stronger and influential church we are trying so hard to preserve. But that’s just me and St. Paul. What do we know?
In any event, there is a good word for us here whenever we are ready to hear it. God is not done with us. God has a future for the church of Jesus. It might not be the future we envision or the one we would choose if we could choose. But because God is good, we can be sure that it is the best future for us-and the world to which we have been called to bear witness.
This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthy psalm 119, praises God’s law. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory.
We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to a collection of practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Mechanical obedience is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.”
This psalm is a perfect illustration of the point I was trying to make in my introductory remarks. The scriptures are not an end in themselves. They were given so that through them we might be drawn into a closer relationship with our God.
Paul is continuing a discussion he started at the beginning of this chapter last week. (See post for Sunday, January 20, 2013). To this congregation filled with persons insisting that their own gifts or offices in the church confer upon them a superior status, Paul points out how ludicrous their bickering really is. As I pointed out last week, Paul’s reference to the church as the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. The church really is Christ’s resurrected body of which we are all members. That being the case, it will not do for the various members of the Body to seek either control or autonomy. Disembodied eyes, ears or hands would be useless for any purpose even if they could survive apart from the rest of the body. The health of the body, and therefore the health of each of its members, requires that all bodily parts function harmoniously in the service of the whole body.
Now you might argue that no church you have ever seen actually functions like a body. You would probably be correct. Certainly the church in Corinth was a long way from anything like a body. Nevertheless, Paul says in verse 27, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” That is because God did not merely take on flesh, but “sinful flesh.” It is God’s intent to indwell less than perfect communities like the congregation in Corinth and like the church at 167 Palisade Avenue. We are the workshop of the Holy Spirit. God is in our midst shaping us into the kind of people who one day will live as members of a single body. God does that by placing us into communities of people who hurt our feelings, break their promises and disappoint us. How else will we ever learn to forgive as we have been forgiven? How else will we ever learn to preach and to practice reconciliation? The church is not the place you go to get away from it all. If you want to be coddled and pampered, go to the spa. If you want to be sanctified and made holy, go to church.
According to commentator I. Howard Marshall, this passage is the oldest known account of a synagogue service. Based on ancient documentation preserved from other sources, we have a basic idea of how such worship services were conducted. See Commentary on Luke, I. Howard Marshall (Paternoster Press, Ltd., c. 1978), p. 181. Typically, such services began with public confession of the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Thereafter came prayers followed by the readings of scripture. A passage from the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was read by several members of the congregation in turn. There was a lesson from the prophets followed by yet another prayer. Next came the sermon if there was someone in the synagogue competent to give one. The service then closed with prayer. It is not known exactly how universal this format was in Jesus day, much less whether it was used at the particular service described in our lesson. But it could explain why the scroll of the book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus. Moreover, given that Jesus had already gained a reputation as a teacher in other parts, it would not be unusual for some to accept him as a teacher in the synagogue at Nazareth. Equally as well, it would not be unusual for others to question his credentials in view of his evident lack of formal rabbinic training.
The scripture Jesus read in the synagogue is from “Third Isaiah.” See post from Epiphany of our Lord, January 6, 2013. This prophet addressed the exiles returning from Babylon to their homeland in Palestine as they struggled to rebuild their community. This community was indeed poor, captive and blind to any hope for its future. The prophet announces that God has anointed him/her to bring the good news of liberation to these people. Bear in mind that this is a community that has already experienced the failure of a previous prophet’s vision of a glorious return from exile on a garden like pathway through the desert. If they were skeptical of yet another prophet proclaiming yet another such liberation, you can imagine how the congregation at Nazareth some five centuries later must have reacted when Jesus told them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Some folks must have groaned, “Oh pleeease! Not again!” Others evidently were sufficiently impressed with Jesus to give him a hearing. But everything seems to go south when Jesus makes the point that it was also to gentiles, not just good Jewish folk, that the prophets Elijah and Elisha touched with healing hands. The hostile reaction of the crowd to this message prefigures both Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and the rejection of the church’s preaching in many (but not all) synagogues throughout the Roman Empire seen in Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts.
The remarkable thing about this passage is Jesus’ reading of the scripture from Isaiah. He tells his audience not that the scripture will soon be fulfilled-as did the prophet who uttered it, but that it has been fulfilled. The reign of God has begun with the anointing of Jesus for his mission. The opposition to this message, however, is a clear indicator that this new reign of God takes the shape of the cross in a world bound and determined to reject it.
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 20, 2013
Prayer of the Day
Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is no getting around it. John’s story about Jesus’ first miraculous sign is mystifying. First off, something can only be a sign if other people see it. Nobody other than Jesus, his mother, a few servants and the disciples ever even know about this sign. The couple whose marriage feast was spared, the parents of the bride who would likely have suffered extreme social embarrassment had the wine given out and the guests who would have had to endure a dry reception-none of them witnessed this “sign.” Second, the occasion seems less than fitting for Jesus’ first manifestation of power. You would think that the inbreaking of eternal life would have come about through something a little more dramatic. Giving sight to a man born blind or raising a man from death-now there is a sign of something big! But a shortage of wine at a wedding celebration? That is hardly a matter of life and death.
But a sign is more than a miracle. Jesus’ opponents witnessed several of his miracles and remained unimpressed. Most of the people who were impressed with Jesus’ miracles failed to receive them as signs of who Jesus was and what his ministry was all about. Even the disciples failed to see in the miracles the crossword direction of Jesus’ path. According to the Gospel of John, it was often not until after Jesus was raised from death that all of his puzzling parables and confusing acts finally began to fall into place.
I take some comfort in all of this because I am not one of these people who sees signs of God’s guidance and presence in every step of my life. I often experience the day I am living as the absence of God’s presence and influence. It is usually only in the rear view mirror that I recognize God’s fingerprints in my life. Often these “signs” of God’s presence are not events that seemed particularly significant at the time. As it turns out, my life has been altered most profoundly by ordinary decisions about things that didn’t seem to matter much at the time. The college class that so altered my thinking and shaped my sense of call was one I took only because I needed the credits and it fit into my fall schedule. I met the pastor who first started me on the path to parish ministry because I decided (for reasons I cannot even remember) to go to a mission fair with the youth at my church rather than to a movie with my friends. It was not until years later that I could finally see these turning points in my life for what they really were: signs of God’s presence. Perhaps it is only when we allow the light of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ to flood into our lives that we begin to see God’s purpose and plan unfolding for us. I think that must be what the term “epiphany” means: Jesus revealing himself as the guiding star for all who look to him for salvation.
This reading comes to us from the third section of the book of Isaiah. (For a more thorough background on the Book of Isaiah generally, see my post for Sunday, January 6th, Epiphany of our Lord; See also the article of Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota at enterthebible.org. The prophet is speaking to the dispirited band of Jews who answered the call to return from their exile in Babylon and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem and its temple. These returning exiles no doubt left Babylon in high hopes of accomplishing their task of reconstruction in short order. The land to which they returned, however, was inhabited by peoples who now considered it their home and did not desire to see Jerusalem rebuilt. The odds against these returning settlers achieving their grand plans were long at best. Decades after the Jews began to return to Palestine, the city of Jerusalem was still in ruins and rebuilding of the temple had been abandoned even before the foundation had been completed.
So you can see why the prophet’s grand vision of Jerusalem as “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem in the hand of your God” hardly comported with the reality experienced by his or her audience. Of course I do not know how this prophet was received, but I suspect that this preaching might have generated some hostility. After all, it was another prophet, the second Isaiah, whose preaching motivated these people to leave what was now their home in Babylon and return to Palestine, a land that most of them knew only from the stories of their elders. The miraculous “highway through the wilderness” promised by second Isaiah did not materialize. The reconstruction of Jerusalem and the temple proved enormously more difficult and complex than they had expected. They had exchanged the relative security of their Babylonian community in exile for an environment of hardship, danger and disappointed expectations. That is what comes of listening to prophets.
In many respects, this is the life of prophets in all ages. These are people of vision speaking of realities that do not yet appear. Sometimes, like Jeremiah, the prophet must speak hard and fearful truths that people do not want to see. Other times the prophet is called upon to speak words of promise to a people whose hopes have been crushed so many times that they find it nearly impossible to trust words of comfort and glad tidings. Obviously, our prophet fits into the latter category. He or she is preaching to a people who have forgotten how to hope and who no longer believe that they have a future.
Were the words of this prophet fulfilled? In some respects, we have to say yes. The fact that Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt is testimony to the effectiveness of the prophet’s ministry. But in another sense, the prophecy remains unfulfilled. The temple that was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah did not match the splendor of Solomon’s temple which it was meant to replace. Ezra 3:10-13. Jerusalem remains to this day, not the center of peace and justice for which the prophet hoped, but a flashpoint for conflict and violence. So we might be tempted to say that the prophet’s critics were right and that his or her visions were merely pipe dreams. But, as my grandfather would have said, “Day’s not over yet.” John of Patmos reminds us that the new Jerusalem where God will dwell among human beings is yet to come. Revelation 21:1-22:5. Moreover, as I said in my post for Sunday, January 6th Epiphany of our Lord, God may yet have a saving and redeeming role for the brick and mortar Jerusalem that stands in Palestine today.
This psalm of trust has been the victim of censorship by the lectionary police. Therefore, I am giving you the whole psalm to read so that you can appreciate what is really going on here. The psalm begins with a graphic description of evil people who, confident that they need not fear any consequences of their evil behavior, boldly concoct ever more mischief. Perhaps the folks who gave us the lectionary felt that we should not dwell upon evil people and the harm they do, but rather focus on the faithfulness of God that is extolled throughout verses 5-10. “Accentuate the positive” as the song goes. But in so doing, I think we lose the thrust of what the psalmist is telling us.
Let’s begin with the obvious. There are wicked people in the world. I am not talking about people who make snide remarks about your potato salad at the church supper or your neighbor who lets her dog do his business at the edge of your yard and doesn’t bother to clean it up. These folks are thoughtless and rude, but not evil. I am talking Osama Bin Laden evil here. I am talking about the one who “in his bed plots how best to do mischief-” (see vs. 4) like shooting down school children with semi-automatic rifles. How does one deal with evil like that?
According to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Well, the psalmist does not agree. “You [God] save humans and animals alike.” “All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings…for with you is the fountain of life.” The psalmist makes it clear that God’s “righteousness is like the mighty mountains” and God’s “judgments are like the great deep.” It is not for human beings to take judgment into their own hands and determine who must be punished, who must live and who must die. The “good guys” according to this psalm are those who do not carry weapons or trust in them but rely wholly upon God. That is why the prayer concludes with verses 11-12 (also conveniently omitted) in which the psalmist asks for God’s protection against the wicked.
Once again, this prayer strikes a dissonant chord in our culture of violence that has been indoctrinated by westerns and police dramas in which the underlying message is exactly that of Mr. LaPierre: the only way to stop violence is with more violence; the answer to gun violence in our schools is more guns in school, etc. The church’s story is altogether different. Our hero is the man who warns us that all who take the sword (good guys and bad guys alike) perish by the sword. Our role model is the man who refused to retaliate or exercise the right of self defense when confronted with deadly force. This is why, once again, I recommend two psalms each day just like vitamins, one in the morning and one at night. They help to immunize us against cultural programming and form in us the mind of Christ.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. First off, understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” or gifts given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until you try using a keyboard without it or it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. However, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each of member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes it clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church. Sadly, it seems today that we lack the imagination, creativity and vision to function without hierarchy and our own ELCA is no exception to that rule. But don’t get me started on that.
This makes for a delightful story, simple in the telling yet layered and textured. Jesus and his family are invited to a wedding feast. This is no small thing. A wedding is about the closest thing to a holiday little Galilean towns ever know. One of the town’s few animals will be slaughtered and roasted. Wine will be served in abundance. For once everyone will eat and drink freely-as though they were wealthy. There will be singing, dancing and joy. Weddings provide an island of sheer jubilation in this ocean of back-breaking work, grinding poverty and ever-present hunger that the common people of Galilee know as life. Small wonder, then, that Jesus frequently used the image of the wedding feast to describe the reign of God. It is a time when sorrows are forgotten; tears wiped away; food, wine and dancing in abundance. Wedding feasts are a sign of what God intends for human life. A wedding is a defiant “no” to what is and a yearning expression of hope for what might be. So I believe that Jesus’ quiet miracle for the preservation of a wedding feast is a more profound sign than might first appear.
Jesus’ mother (John never refers to her as Mary) calls to Jesus’ attention the situation with the wine. “What is that to us?” Jesus responds. That strikes me as a reasonable response. This is not their wedding and, as far as we know, Jesus and his mother had no part in planning it. Let the family of the bride worry about the state of the wine. Jesus mother does not argue the point. She simply instructs the servants with whom she has been conversing to follow Jesus’ directions. Mom seems determined to get her son involved, seemingly confident that he can be of assistance. I would very much like to know what was in Mary’s mind. What was she expecting of Jesus? A miracle? This would seem unlikely. As far as we know from John’s perspective, Jesus has never before performed any miracles. Nevertheless, Mary feels that it is important for Jesus know that the wine has run short and she seems relatively certain that he will be able to do something about it.
Rather than dwell on these imponderables, however, we should focus on what John tells us is the point: that through this act Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. There are several subtle images of God’s reign in this story. John tells us that the six stone jars the servants filled with water, ultimately becaming wine, contained between twenty and thirty gallons. So we are talking about 120 to 180 gallons of wine. I don’t know how many people were at that wedding, but this strikes me as a lot of wine! Such an abundance of wine is associated in the Hebrew Scriptures with the joy of the final days. See, e.g., Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12. Jesus seems to be all about abundance in John’s gospel. Where the wine seems to have run out, Jesus comes through with an abundance of wine that is better than the best. Jesus feeds five thousand people in the wilderness with just a few loaves-and there are leftovers. He promises the woman of Samaria enough water to last for all eternity. He offers abundant life. In a world that moans about deficits, austerity and want, Jesus promises abundance for all. The specter of scarcity has no place in God’s reign of abundance. The disciples saw more in this event than a magic trick. They recognized the dawn of the messianic age; the inbreaking of abundant and eternal life. This story should be seen as “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
Baptism of Our Lord
January 13, 2013
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, 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 season of Epiphany. It will be a short one this year and that is unfortunate. I say that because I believe we in the Lutheran tradition need a good dose of Epiphany. The focus of much of our teaching and preaching has been on justification by faith in God’s saving work of atonement through Jesus’ suffering and death. I don’t fault the reformers for grounding our confessions of faith in the cross. That is entirely consistent with the New Testament witness. But unless it is seen through the prism of Jesus’ life and ministry, the cross can easily be misunderstood. In his book, The Nonviolent Atonement, J. Denny Weaver, a professor of religion at Bluffton College in Ohio, discusses at length how Christian attempts to explain Jesus’ saving work over the centuries have too often led us to violent portrayals of God. For example, the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement,” still popular among many Christians, views Jesus as a “substitute” victim offered in our place to appease the wrath of God that should rightly fall upon us. God invariably comes off either as a vengeful and blood thirsty tyrant who must have his pound of flesh for each and every transgression against his law; or as a helpless victim of his own regulations who would really like to let us off the hook-but you know how it goes. Once the ticket is written out, the meter maid cannot simply rip it up and pretend it never existed. As much as her compassionate heart may bleed for you and the fact that you had to get your sick child into the doctor’s office and had no change for parking-the rules are the rules. So the long and short of it is that there is no way for us to get back into God’s good graces unless somebody pays-with blood. Consequently, God sends Jesus to the cross where he pays the ticket.
Defenders of substitutionary atonement would surely criticize me for caricaturing their understanding of Jesus’ mission and ministry. To be fair, there are many thoughtful and articulate defenders of this understanding of atonement who have written extensively to explain their theological approach in ways that do not lead us into such a dark and distorted view of God. I appreciate these efforts. Nevertheless, it still seems to me that when you have to work that hard to prevent your teaching from being misunderstood, you need to ask yourself whether there is not something about the teaching itself that invariably lists toward misunderstanding.
Focusing on Jesus’ mission and ministry during Epiphany shapes our perspective on the cross. We see that the forces threatening to destroy Jesus rise with the star that led the wise men to the messiah. We hear in the declaration “my beloved son,” an echo of the pathos experienced by Abraham as he made the journey to Mt. Moriah with his own beloved son, Isaac. As we see opposition mounting against Jesus as he does the compassionate work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, speaking truth to power and proclaiming good news to the poor, it becomes clear that the cross is the shape faithful obedience to God takes in a sinful world. Did God send Jesus to a cruel death on the cross? I would prefer to say that God sent Jesus to live a life of compassion perfectly reflecting God’s love for us, knowing that such a life in our sinful world could end in only one way. You could say that the cross is the price God was willing to pay for the incarnation, for being “God with us.” It is both a damning indictment of our perverse rejection of God’s compassion and the victory in God’s heart and on this planet of compassion over the powers that reject it. Jesus’ resurrection, then, is God’s resounding and eternal “yes” to us and to the life and way of Jesus.
For a more thorough discussion of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the place of this reading within it, I refer you back to my post for Epiphany, Sunday, January 6, 2013. Suffice to say that this Sunday’s lesson comes from Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah, which 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 in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine.
I have a fondness for these verses. As a matter of fact, this lesson was one of the readings for Sesle’s and my marriage service. I cannot remember what my thought process was in making this choice. In retrospect, however, I can attest that God has indeed been with us through some pretty rough waters and has gotten us out of some fiery predicaments over the years. Perhaps I was thinking that a marriage is a very fragile thing. It needs a lot of help to become strong, to remain healthy and to survive. I expect that the Babylonian exiles were probably feeling pretty fragile also. Having lost the land they called home, the temple that was the symbol of God’s presence in their midst and the line of David that gave them a national identity, they were now living in the land of their conquerors as a community of foreigners. I expect that they were struggling to pass on their identity to a new generation of Jews who knew nothing first hand of Israel’s past glory and saw only the social and economic benefits of blending into the surrounding culture. Little by little their language was becoming a relic used only in worship. The prophet’s call for these defeated and demoralized exiles to make the long and dangerous journey back to a ruined land was a daunting challenge laden with risks and uncertainties. The odds against the returning exiles were even more formidable than those facing a marriage.
But the people of God do not make their decisions on the basis of statistical probabilities. They live their lives in the light of God’s promises. That is why we enter into marriage with promises to remain faithful until death parts us-knowing full well the statistics on divorce and separation. That is why I baptize infants of parents who promise to bring their children to the house of God, teach them the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments-even when I am fairly confident that they intend to do no such thing. It is God’s faithfulness to God’s promises that make the difference-not our own faithfulness which is fickle at best. So with each baptism I pray that the infant will pass through the baptismal flood to a new creation; be purified, but not consumed by the fire of God’s Spirit and be brought at last into the Sabbath rest of all people called by God’s name. I continue to stay in touch with these families-sometimes to the extent of making a pest of myself-in order to keep alive their tenuous connection to the family of God. I do that because I believe that when God adopts someone and says to them, “You are my beloved,” God means it. So I strive to keep the door open as far as possible.
Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther composed hymns from drinking songs.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of hurricane Sandy. Was Sandy God’s doing? Did God send Sandy or just allow it to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by our insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
I must admit that I don’t know what to make of this brief snippet from Acts. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word. But one of those things or both seem to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this, I prefer simply to take this passage as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.
A couple of things are worth noting here. First off, the Holy Spirit falls upon Jesus well after he is baptized by John and while he is praying. The voice from heaven addresses Jesus specifically in the second person. It is not even clear that John is still present when this occurs. In verses 15-17, where John disavows any messianic role, he also downplays the significance of his baptizing ministry. “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Thus, John’s baptism, whatever it might have accomplished, did not confer upon those baptized God’s Holy Spirit. According to Luke, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit seems to have occurred separately from his baptism by John.
The other significant aspect of this text is its location. In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit still sopping wet from his baptism out into the wilderness to face temptation by Satan. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit is followed by a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. One cannot help but see in this the foreshadowing of what will occur in the second chapter of Acts where the Spirit falls upon the disciples who then preach the gospel in tongues understandable to a multitude of people from all corners of the known world. Jesus will be the conduit through which the Spirit of God will reach all peoples. Just as Jesus begins his ministry “full of the Holy Spirit” at the beginning of Luke chapter 4, so the church at Pentecost will begin its ministry filled with the Holy Spirit. If we would read Luke rightly, we need to keep the Book of Acts on the horizon. The same Spirit that animates Jesus’ ministry in Luke will likewise animate the mission of the church in Acts.
“The heaven was opened,” is a term used frequently in apocalyptic literature (such as Daniel and Revelation; see discussion in my post of Pentecost 25). The Greek word translated “to open” here is milder than the term “ripped open” used in Mark’s gospel to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. In both cases, however, the rending of the heavens is a literary device used to announce the radical intervention of God. In Isaiah chapter 64, the prophet prays, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” That is precisely what is happening here as Jesus prays. The heavens are rent and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus through whom God will now act.
What do all these texts have to say about baptism? The take away for me is that, when all is said and done, this is God’s act. We have no idea what we are unleashing when we stir the waters of the baptismal font over which the Spirit hovers and take the creative Word of God upon our lips. We can no more channel the power of God’s Spirit than we can control the raw energy of a storm. At most, our worship makes room for the Holy Spirit to enter in. But the Spirit blows where it wills.