Archive for December, 2013
EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD
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.
At Trinity we will be celebrating the Epiphany one day early on Sunday, January 5th. My rationale? I believe that Epiphany is a critical chapter in the gospel narrative. My chances of gathering a congregation to observe it on Monday, January 6th are nil. Faced with a choice between moving or neglecting Epiphany, I chose the former. Liturgical purists will no doubt wince at my taking such liberties with the church calendar. But it seems to me that if even the Ten Commandments written with the finger of God can be set aside for the sake of human well being (see Mark 2:23-28), how much more the liturgical calendar.
There is no shortage of subtle humor in the Epiphany gospel. Can you imagine the scene? Herod is sitting on his throne, swaddled in his kingly robes. The wise men are ushered into his court with pomp and high ceremony. Then they ask Herod, “So, where is the real King of the Jews?” It must have been all poor Herod could do to control his apoplectic rage! How ironic that these wise men, probably pagans with little understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, have come to know through their pagan arts that Israel’s messiah has been born, but the Bible jocks who are supposed to be on top of things like this must go racing to the library to answer Herod’s questions. The outsiders find their way to the messiah. The insiders are clueless.
It is hard for us today to imagine a church that was entirely Jewish; a church that identified fully with the rest of the Jewish community; a church in which gentiles (which includes most of us) were outsiders. Though openness to faith among the gentiles appears to have been an aspect of Jesus’ ministry from the start, it was the Apostle Paul whose vision and missionary work opened the door of Israel’s covenant relationship with God to outsiders like us. So it is that Paul declares: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all people see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:8-11. What is that mystery hidden for ages? It is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Ephesians 3:6.
Even as we celebrate this good news, however, we need to keep in mind the great cost of our inclusion. The conversion of the gentiles was not recognized as good news by everyone in the ancient church. To the contrary, it was probably one of the most divisive issues facing the earliest disciples of Jesus. We can see evidence throughout the New Testament of opposition to inclusion of the gentiles. Many sincere believers had serious doubts about welcoming gentiles. What would be the consequences of opening up the church to outsiders who knew little or nothing about Israel’s history, her scriptures and ancient practices? Would these newcomers bring with them false understandings and worship practices that distort or dilute the teachings of the church? Would their differing moral values undermine church discipline and order? These were, in fact, serious concerns. As early as the First Century, the church was being flooded with pagan religious doctrines, philosophical constructs and lifestyles antithetical to the preaching of the gospel. Radical hospitality is a risky business, but the Holy Spirit seems to have decided that it is a risk worth taking. As St. Peter learned from Cornelius and his family in the 10th chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit calls a person into the church, not even an Apostle has the authority to keep that person out of the church. See Acts 11:1-18.
I believe that the church faces much the same kind of challenge in every generation. There are still some among us Lutherans who can remember how the increase in English speaking members within our ethnic northern European churches necessitated translating our liturgies and hymns from the mother tongue into English. It is no small thing, surrendering the language of one’s faith into a foreign tongue that is, at best, secondary. Something always gets lost in translation. Many people today feel the same way about contemporary worship crowding out the hymns and worship styles we have grown to love. I expect that similar fears are, in part, responsible for the difficulty we have had in welcoming gay and lesbian persons into our congregations. The fear so often expressed comes down to the effect such welcome will have on our teachings, practices and values.
There is no question that the radical hospitality and openness to which the Holy Spirit calls us will change the church. But that ought not to frighten us as long as we remember that the church belongs to Jesus and it is for him, not for us, to decide what shape it will take in the future. Faith trusts the Holy Spirit to guide the church, correct the church and deliver the church as the bride of Christ. The celebration of Epiphany reminds us that we also were once outsiders, looked upon with suspicion, distrust and fear. We had no right to claim the riches of the covenant promises God made to Israel. But in the limitless generosity of Jesus, we have been drawn into the covenant so that we “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Ephesians 2:19. Christ’s church most be no less generous than Christ himself.
Once again, we have yet another reading from the third section of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). This section contains oracles spoken to the Jews who had returned home to Palestine from the Babylonian Exile. This return was authorized by the decree of Cyrus of Persia who conquered Babylon in 549 B.C.E. During the next two decades, waves of returning exiles made their way back home with high hopes of rebuilding their nation and Temple. These hopes were dampened by numerous hardships including the presence of hostile peoples in Palestine opposed to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. It must have seemed to these dispirited settlers that they had been deceived by the glowing promises of the prophet of the second section of Isaiah who had assured them of God’s support and a glorious future for Jerusalem. See Isaiah 40-55.
The Epiphany reading constitutes the opening of a larger section (Chapters 60-62) widely regarded as the “nucleus” of the third section of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1969 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 552-553.
“Following the lead of not a few recent editors we may regard these three chapters as the basic nucleus of the matter gathered together in chs. 56-66. They form the corpus of a self-contained message of salvation quite distinct from that of Deutero-Isaiah [Isaiah 40-55], yet having at the same time, in many ways, a clear connection with it. If we may speak at all of a prophet called Trito-Isaiah [Isaiah 56-66], the chief support comes from the corpus contained in these three chapters. They lead us to presume that they are the legacy of a definite person, a prophet active in Jerusalem and Judah not long after the return [from Babylonian Exile].” Ibid.
Unlike the prophet of the second section of Isaiah, this prophet does not associate God’s promised act of salvation with a specific event, such as the fall of Babylon to Persia. The salvation of God lies in the indefinite future-though not on the other side of some apocalyptic, universe transforming judgment. The transformative event that will bring about Jerusalem’s liberation is to occur within history and within the framework of the world as we know it.
The prophet’s use of “light” as a metaphor in this reading is reminiscent of the frequent use made by St. John in his gospel. The glory of the Lord will be made manifest to the nations through Israel. The nations of the world will be drawn to Jerusalem and inspired to rebuild her ruined city, to worship at her restored temple and to serve her people. The prophet is short on specifics when it comes to describing exactly what will cause the nations to recognize in the remnant of Judah the glory of God and how that glory will draw them to Jerusalem. It may be that the prophet assumes we are familiar with oracles of the first Isaiah who prophesied at the end of the 8th Century B.C.E., such as Isaiah 2:1-5. There it is the Torah going forth from Zion which inspires the nations to declare, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob.” Isaiah 2:3. Our lesson declares that the nations will bring with them, in addition to their wealth and animals for sacrifice at the restored temple, all the Jews remaining in exile such that a full return from exile will be made. It should be noted that the initial pioneers returning immediately after Cyrus’ decree constituted a mere trickle-hardly the full scale re-population envisioned by the prophet of the second section of Isaiah.
This promise of salvation must have been a difficult sell to a people that had already staked so much on an oracle of salvation inspiring them to uproot themselves, make a dangerous journey across the desert and attempt to rebuild their community in what was now a ruined and hostile land. The prophet had the difficult task of prophesying hope into a dispirited and despairing community that might very well have felt that it had just such a prophesy of hope to thank for its present plight. Yet the prophet’s words must have done their intended work. You need not travel any further than the nearest synagogue to see their fruit.
For my general observations concerning this psalm and the first seven verses thereof, see my post for December 8th. I would only add that verses 12-14 are of particular importance as they spell out what kingship entails for rulers in Israel. The throne is not an object of entitlement, but a yolk of responsibility. As God’s agent, the king is to implement and enforce the terms of God’s covenant with Israel taking special care to see that justice is done for the most vulnerable members of the community. This understanding of monarchy constitutes a profound departure from that of the ancient near east generally, which viewed kingship as a matter of privilege. The question, of course, is what sort of king is capable of so ruling? Given our world’s history of violent and coercive rule, we find it nearly impossible to separate the doing of justice from the exercise of coercive power. We are incapable of imagining a powerless ruler doing justice. Yet that is precisely the kind of King Jesus turns out to be. As St. Paul notes, this “weakness” of God is precisely the wisdom and power of God. I Corinthians 1:25.
For some good background info on the Letter to the Ephesians, see the Summary Article on enterthebible.org by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul MN.
The Epiphany reading from Ephesians 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.) 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.
Of course, our witness has a global dimension. The church catholic transcends national borders, class distinctions, ethnic identity and racial classifications. Its primary loyalty is to God’s kingdom. A disciple’s deepest human bond is that of baptism into the Body of Christ shared with all other disciples. That is why “America First” is a patently unchristian slogan. Any disciple of Jesus who places his or her American citizenship ahead of his or her loyalty to the Body of Christ, even when that Body is located “behind enemy lines,” is committing idolatry. Putting loyalty to the Body of Christ first is how we demonstrate the “manifold wisdom of God…to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Vs. 10. The principalities and powers, whether they be imperial Rome or some modern day nation state, need to be reminded that they are not Lord. They have no authority to direct disciples of Jesus to commit acts of violence against Christ’s own Body or to threaten the wellbeing of those for whom Christ died.
The editors of the Christian Century magazine recently published an article on Christian persecution. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, 40 churches in Bagdad have been bombed and two thirds of the formerly 1.5 million Christians living in that country have fled. Last August 40 Coptic churches were burned and looted during rioting in Egypt. In September a suicide bomber attacked a church in northwest Pakistan killing 85 people. In Syria Christians are being targeted by both sides of the brutal civil war that has been raging for nearly two years. Persecution of Christians is not limited to countries in the Middle East. Believers in Nigeria, Kenya, Burma, India and North Korea are also subject to persecution and often violence. See Christian Century, November 13, 2013 p. 7. In most cases, the plight of Christians does not threaten vital national interests. Indeed, bringing pressure to bear on the oppressors might be considered contrary to those interests. But as disciples of Jesus, our primary interests are “the peace of the whole world and the wellbeing of the churches of God.”
We have an opportunity to show the principalities and powers pretending to govern our world both that they are not Lord and that Jesus is. By creating a caring global network of prayer, support and advocacy, we can witness to the world that we need not be governed anymore by self-serving commercial and political interests. The conflicts of the past need not determine our future. The walls separating us one from another have already been broken down on the cross. However important they may still be to the principalities and powers, they are of no import to disciples of Jesus.
The image of the three kings has become enshrined in Christian art and hymnody-even though the visitors to the infant Jesus in Matthew’s gospel 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 east 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. Given that they were guided by a star or some celestial phenomenon, it is likely that the magi were practitioners of some form of astrology. Whatever their origin, the magi were clearly outside the scope of God’s covenant with Israel and had no claim on Israel’s messiah. That is the important literary point made.
There is an obvious echo of our lesson from Isaiah in the reference to “gold and frankincense” vs. 11 cf. Isaiah 60:6. It is perhaps the allusion to this passage, which is prefaced by verse 3 declaring that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising,” that led to the traditional depiction of the magi as “kings.” As I said previously, there is no indication that Matthew understood them to be such.
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. That is not dispositive, however. Assuming, as the evidence suggests, that the magi were astrologers of some stripe, they would naturally have been scrutinizing the heavens with far more care than the general population. An astronomical phenomenon such as a faint comet might well have escaped general notice and thus historical notation, but not the careful gaze of the magi. This line of inquiry is missing the point, however. 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 followers of what Matthew would certainly 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. Stanley Hauerwas says it best:
“The wise men, heeding Herod’s advice, continue to follow the star that goes before them. The star stops over the place where Jesus is born, paying homage to the child and eliciting from the wise men overwhelming joy. These wise men, men schooled to appreciate the complexity of the world, see the mother and child, and they worship him. If this is not the Messiah, if this is not the one born to be king, if this is not the Son of God, then what these wise men do is idolatry. That they are able to see the worthiness of this one who alone can be worshiped was surely a gift from the Father. The same gift gives hope to all Gentiles, for though this child we have been called to participate in the alternative world signaled by his birth. Moreover, like the wise men, it turns out that God has given us gifts of bread and wine to be offered so that the world may know that there is an alternative to Herod.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. Brazos Press) p. 40.
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The gospel lesson is hard to stomach, especially as we are still basking in the afterglow of Christmas. Rachel’s weeping for her murdered children strikes a dissonant chord against the angels’ sung proclamation of Peace on Earth. She reminds us that, even as we gather in the warmth of our churches under the glow of candlelight to sing Silent Night, the victims of genocidal greed and lust for power are dying in appalling numbers. The figures below are taken from the website scaruffi.com. They reflect the deaths of civilian non-combatants occurring during military conflicts and/or civilians intentionally killed in “ethnic cleansing” operations.
- Armenia: 1,200,000 died between 1915-1923
- China under Mao: 49,000,000-78,000,000 died between 1949-1969
- USSR under Stalin: 7,000,000 died between 1932-1939
- Nazi Holocaust: 12,000,000 died between 1933-1945
- Vietnam/Cambodia U.S. action 100,000 died between 1963-1974
- Khmer Rouge: 1,700,000 died between 1975-1979
- Yugoslavia: 100,000 died between 1992-1995
- Rwanda: 800,000 died in 1994
- Liberia: 220,000 died between 1989-1996
While the precise accuracy of these figures might be disputed, King Herod’s atrocity nevertheless pales in comparison with the most conservative reasonable estimate you can place on any of these 20th Century horrors. When you consider that behind these numbers are greater numbers of bereaved mothers, spouses, sweethearts and orphaned children scared forever by the violence inflicted on their loved ones-the mind goes blank. Such an ocean of grief is unimaginable. Consequently, we don’t imagine or even try to imagine it. We accept it. The deaths of our own young soldiers are euphemistically glorified in our civil ceremonies as “the ultimate sacrifice” and the “price of liberty.” The civilian war deaths we inflict on our enemies are accepted as inevitable “collateral damage.” Rachel’s weeping is seldom heard in the situation room at the Pentagon or over the patriotic jingoism of our parades.
To anyone foolish enough to ask where God is in the midst of all this bloodshed and terror, Matthew’s answer is that God is with the victims of genocide asking where you are. Jesus comes to unmask the lying ideologies telling us that the use of violence is necessary to our safety and that killing must be accepted as a normal if regrettable part of geopolitical business. God comes to us unarmed, naked and vulnerable-an infant in a world of warriors. Unlike our own culture, which is just as willing to shed innocent blood to protect “or American way of life” as Herod was to protect his throne, God hears Rachel’s weeping. God makes absolutely clear that in Jesus he comes to be Emmanuel, “God with us.” The question is, are we ready to be with God? Are we ready to stand with God beside Rachel weeping for her murdered children? It is one thing to sing the angels’ song of peace on earth. It is quite another to believe in that message enough to go to the cross for it. That, however, is the extent to which Jesus will go to melt our cold hearts so that we can at last hear Rachel’s cries, recognize our sinful complicity in the death of her children and turn toward the path of reconciliation.
This passage is the opening section of a psalm of intercession, the complete text of which is Isaiah 63:7-64:12. The entire psalm should be read in order to get the context of the verses making up our lesson. These verses constitute the beginning of a historical prologue that runs to verse 9. They recall Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s leadership throughout her long journey to Canaan. Verses 10-19 acknowledge that, in contrast to God’s faithfulness to Israel, Israel has been less than faithful to her God. Indeed, “We have become like those over whom thou hast never ruled, like those who are not called by thy name.” vs. 19. The psalmist/prophet nevertheless appeals to God’s mercy and steadfast faithfulness to the covenant promises confident that this God’s longsuffering love for his people remains even now. “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou the potter; we are the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all they people.” Isaiah 64:8. Israel always understood what is expressed in the New Testament letter of James: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13. Therefore, Israel could be as insistent that God comply with his covenant promises as she was candid about her own covenant failures. God remains faithful even when his people are not.
This wonderful psalm comes to us from the third section of Isaiah composed by a prophet speaking to the Jews in Palestine following their return from Babylonian exile in the latter half of the 6th Century. They were resettling themselves in the land and seeking to rebuild their lives and their ruined city under extremely difficult conditions. The prayer makes clear to these people that their own unfaithfulness is largely responsible for the difficult plight in which they now find themselves. Nevertheless, they must also understand that while God punishes Israel’s unfaithfulness, he does not abandon Israel or cease to be faithful to his own covenant obligations. Therefore, Israel may indeed pray for and expect God to be merciful and lead her through these difficult days as God has always done for his chosen people. The bleak circumstances should therefore not blind the people of God to the promise of a future wrought in yet further acts of salvation.
This psalm is one of a group that begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” (Psalms 146-150) It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”
Psalm 148 is included in the song of praise sung by the three young men thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 3rd Chapter of Daniel. Don’t look for it in your Bible, though. It is found only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) and is omitted by most English translations that rely mainly on the Hebrew texts. It may also interest you Lutherans to know that this Apocryphal song is included in its entirety at page 120 of The Lutheran Hymnal, the official hymn book of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from 1940 to the late 1970s.
It is difficult to date this psalm. Most scholars view it as a post-exilic psalm composed for worship in the Jerusalem temple rebuilt following the return from exile that began in 538 B.C.E. That does not preclude, however, the possibility that the author was working from the text or oral tradition of a much older tradition from the period of the Judean monarchy.
For my take on Hebrews, see my post of August 11th 2013. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org. Suffice to say that I believe the author of this letter is striving to demonstrate to a Christian audience traumatized by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem how Jesus now fulfills the mediation function of the temple cult and its priesthood. This trauma was shared by the rest of the Jewish community (from which followers of Jesus were at this point inseparable). For what ultimately became modern Judaism, the Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) became the mediating agent of God’s redemptive presence. Worship in the Synagogue therefore revolved around the learning, study and application of Torah to the life of the community. For disciples of Jesus, Jesus himself was the mediator. He animated his resurrected Body, the church with his life giving Spirit made present through the church’s preaching and communal (Eucharistic) meals.
Here the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus fulfills his priestly office through offering himself in his full humanity. The sacrificial language permeating the letter can be off putting if we adopt the medieval notion that God needs a blood sacrifice in order to forgive our sins. This understanding (or misunderstanding) is common and underlies the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” namely, the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s act of justified punishment for human sin absorbed by Jesus so that we can avoid it. That is not how sacrifice was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sacrifices were more often than not offered in thanksgiving. Moreover, even when offered to atone for sin, they were not seen as “payment.” Rather, they afforded the worshiper an opportunity to share in a holy a meal where reconciliation and forgiveness could be experienced and celebrated. In the one instance where sin is transferred to the sacrificial animal (Day of Atonement), the animal is not killed, but sent out into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:1-22. Clearly, God does not need to kill anyone in order to forgive us.
Rightly understood, the language of sacrifice makes good sense. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the sense that loving another person deeply always involves a sacrifice of self for the wellbeing of the loved one. That is particularly so where the loved one is deeply involved in self destructive behavior and resistant to your efforts to help him or her. Parents who walk with their children through the dark valley of addiction know better than anyone else how deeply painful love can be and how much must sometimes be sacrificed. So also it cost God dearly to love a world in rebellion against him. When God embraced us with human arms we crucified him. Notwithstanding, God continues to love the world through Jesus’ resurrected, though wounded and broken Body. Such is the sacrifice that is Jesus.
As throughout his entire gospel, Matthew gives us a panoply of direct references, allusions and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The instances in both last week’s reading and this Sunday’s lesson in which Joseph is warned and guided by dreams remind us of another Joseph whose dreams ultimately led him to Egypt. See Genesis 37-50. Of course, the parallel between Moses’ escape from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s genocidal policies toward the Hebrew slaves and Jesus’ escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is also hard to miss. Jesus’ time spent in Egypt parallels Israel’s painful sojourn in that land of bondage and his return to Palestine shadows Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and return to the land promised to Abraham and Sarah.
Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Jeremiah is speaking here about the ten tribes forming the Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to Assyria in about 721 B.C.E. Much of the population was carried into exile and so the land, personified by Rachel-mother of the northern “Joseph” tribes-weeps for her exiled children. The brutality of Herod, the so called “King of the Jews,” is contrasted with that of the hated Assyrian Empire. It should be noted that Herod was not a Jew and there were few Jews who would have recognized him as their legitimate king. He was, in fact, an Edomite. Edom, you may recall from prior posts, sided with the Babylonians and took part in their sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Moreover, he was appointed King of Judea by the Jews’ hated Roman overlords. Though he sought to win the affection of his Jewish subjects through building a temple in Jerusalem that surpassed even Solomon’s, Herod was still hated by all but those in the highest echelons of power who benefited from his corrupt reign.
I believe that Matthew is consciously juxtaposing Herod, “King of the Jews” to Jesus who will also receive this title, though only as a cruel jest. The king who hangs onto his throne by means of dealing death is contrasted with the king who raises the dead. The king who rules through violence is contrasted with the king who renounces violence. The king who by desperate and despicable acts of cruelty seeks to hang onto his life is contrasted with the king who pours out his life for the people he loves. We are asked to decide which king really reigns. God’s verdict is expressed in Jesus’ resurrection. Herod is still dead. Jesus lives. That says it all.
Most scholars question the historicity of this account of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. They point out that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.-before Jesus is supposed to have been born. The birth date historically assigned to Jesus is mostly arbitrary, however. We cannot say with any certainty precisely when Jesus was born and a four year discrepancy is hardly conclusive. Although there is no other historical record of this terrible event, that too is not necessarily dispositive. Herod was well known for his paranoia and brutality. The appearance of an astronomical phenomenon accompanied by rumors that the descendent to arise from the City of David foretold by the scriptures had been born would surely be sufficient to trouble this tyrant who in his later years became increasingly paranoid and fearful of losing his throne. Herod’s cruel and inhuman command to murder all infants two years and under would hardly have been out of character for a man capable of killing his wife of many years and his own children. In a period during which the Roman Empire was still smarting from civil war, repressing revolutionary uprisings and seeking to crush banditry, it would hardly be surprising that a tragedy of only local significance should fail to find its way into these blood soaked annals of history. That said, it is also clear that Matthew employs this event as a literary device designed to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through parallels with Hebrew scriptural people and events. Thus, we ought not to obsess over whether and to what extent the slaughter of the innocents correlates with any particular historically verifiable event.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I don’t put much stock in dreams. More than half the time I can’t remember them on waking. The only dreams I do remember are the recurring ones. The most frequent of these is my dream about being back in college. An exam is coming up in a class that I have neglected all semester. I find myself in my dorm room or in the library or the student lounge surrounded by books and articles I have not read and some scribbled notes from the few classes I attended. Somehow, I must extract enough knowledge and understanding to survive the final examination. But there is too much to absorb in too little time. I wake up in a state of high anxiety.
Not surprisingly, this particular dream seems to afflict me at times when I am behind in my work with a looming deadline on the horizon. The interpretation is obvious. I am under stress. The dream doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. Or does it? Thus far, I have been fairly successful in meeting life’s deadlines. In spite of procrastination, some poor planning and my tendency to bite off more than I can chew, somehow I always have managed to finish up with the important things. But that won’t always be the case. Time finally will run out on me and I will be left with tasks undone. So perhaps my dream is telling me something. Maybe this is a subtle message about priorities. “You cannot finish everything. So what are the tasks that must be completed in the time you have left? What should be the focus of your time, energy and resources for the last couple of decades (God willing) of your life?”
In today’s gospel lesson Joseph has a dream that throws a monkey wrench into his well considered plans to break off his engagement to Mary quietly so that she can marry the father of her child. It seemed like the best solution to this embarrassing and painful situation. Mary could be with the man she truly loved. Her child would have a home. Joseph would be able to get on with his life. But Joseph’s dream reveals to him that things are not what they seem. The Spirit of God is deeply involved with what appears on the surface to be just another story of betrayal and unfaithfulness. There is more here than meets the eye, a mystery compelling Joseph to abandon his well considered plans and take Mary as his wife.
The Spirit of God is forever challenging us to look beneath the surface and discover the truth often concealed by our careless judgments and hastily drawn conclusions. Dreams and visions rescue us from our bondage to a two dimensional universe where dialogue is increasingly cramped into shallow texts, tweets and Facebook posts. They challenge us to look past the news mediated through sound bites and interpreted for us by the angry rhetoric of talk show hosts. They call us to discern in what we see and hear the complex, layered and nuanced stories of real people in real life contexts. The gospel lesson reminds us that the truth is always more than the sum of the facts; that God is at work in all human affairs-even the scandalous, tragic and horrific events from which we instinctively turn away in anger, revulsion or disgust. In the midst of the worst imaginable catastrophe, God is at work striving for redemption. Emanuel. God is with us.
Imagine that you are a twenty year old prince growing up in a nation that has not seen war in a generation. Of course, you have heard rumors about the growth of the Assyrian Empire and its expansionist policies. But Assyria lies far to the north. Several nations stand between your country and the empire. Assyria is not seen as an immediate threat. Suddenly, your father dies and you find yourself king. No sooner do you ascend the throne than you are confronted with a military crisis. Several of your neighboring kings hand you an ultimatum: join with them in a military coalition against Assyria or face war with all of them. You have three choices, none of them good. You can join the coalition, which seems doomed to defeat, and then face the destructive wrath of Assyria. You can resist the coalition and stand your ground against the bellicose threats of your neighbors-a doubtful proposition for a nation whose army is practiced in little more than marching in parades. Or you can act preemptively. You can reach out to Assyria and offer to become its vassal state. That way, you gain Assyrian protection from your enemies and preserve your throne. Such protection comes at a cost, however. Assyria will demand a punishing tribute that must be financed through taxation of your people. You will also be required to erect a shrine to Assyria’s god Asshur in the Temple of Jerusalem. That will offend the priests and rile up the prophets. But they must be made to understand that these measures are diplomatic necessities, matters of national security over which the crown exercises sole authority.
Enter, the prophet Isaiah. There is a fourth way, he says, that you have not considered. Do you not recall how God intervened to give Sarah and Abraham a son when their line seemed doomed to extinction? Do you not understand that you live and breathe only because God faithfully kept his promise to this patriarchal couple? Do you not remember how God intervened to rescue your ancestors from slavery in Egypt and bring them into the land where you now live? How then is it that you have come to believe in a world driven solely by geopolitical forces? How is it that you have made your decisions in such a way as to leave no room for the saving intervention of the God you have to thank for the land you live in?
That is precisely the situation in which we find King Ahaz in our lesson from Isaiah. He has chosen to seek refuge from Assyria and accept all of the attending consequences. This, he maintains, is the least offensive of three bad choices. Isaiah urges the prophet to reconsider. There is another choice the king can make; a faithful choice; a life giving choice. “Take heed, be quiet, and do not fear.” The prophet begs the king to ask for a sign of God’s faithfulness, but the king replies: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Vs. 12. This seemingly pious response is in fact a curt dismissal. The king is a Niebuhrian realist. Faith has no place in geopolitics. The Sermon on the Mount is all well and good when it comes to governing behavior at church picnics. But it has no place in determining how one should deal with the likes of Al-Qaeda and Kim Jong Un. Real world threats call for real world solutions.
Of course, that begs the question. What is more real for you: the specters that threaten your security or the covenant promises of your God? For Isaiah, God was the overwhelming reality. His graphic encounter with this God in the Temple of Jerusalem governed Isaiah’s outlook on all else. (Isaiah 6:1-5) There Isaiah recognized that neither Israel’s king nor the king of Assyria reign over history. The Lord of Hosts is King and he alone deserves ultimate allegiance. This God is the only one worthy of trust. So what would have happened had the king listened to Isaiah, refused both the anti-Assyrian alliance and his counselors’ urging to seek Assyrian aid? We can never know where the road not taken might have led. But we can confidently say that if Ahaz had put his trust in God’s covenant promises, his decision would have made room for yet another saving act of God. What shape that act might have taken we will never know.
As I have said in previous posts, it would be a mistake to characterize Isaiah as an idealistic dreamer whose visions were divorced from reality. Isaiah understood the geopolitical landscape better than Ahaz and his advisors. He could see that the dawning age of empires held no place for small, autonomous kingdoms like Judah and Israel. But that did not mean there was no place in that future for the people of God. Far from it! In the coming age of violent imperial warfare on a scale the world had not yet seen, a light for the nations would be needed more than ever. More than ever before, a faithful covenant people would be necessary to show the world that life does not have to be the way we have made it. There is an alternative way to be human, a social reality different from the hierarchical model of master and slave. The challenge for Israel: how to be this people of blessing in the age of empire.
Though he refused a sign under the pretext of humble piety, Ahaz receives a sign anyway. “The young woman* is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Vs. 14. Though as we shall see, Matthew recognizes in the birth of Jesus the fulfillment of this prophecy, the immediate meaning for Ahaz is quite different. Biblical scholars continue to dispute the identity of this promised child. It has been argued that Immanuel must be 1) a child of Ahaz; 2) a child of Isaiah; 3) a general reference to all Judean children born in this time of crisis. For numerous reasons, the discussion of which would be far too tedious, none of these interpretations really fits. Nor is it clear what is meant by Isaiah’s declaration that the child shall be eating curds and honey by the time he knows how to distinguish between right and wrong. It is clear, though, that by this time the nations now pressuring Ahaz to join their anti-Assyrian coalition and threatening Judah with invasion will no longer exist. The implication is that Ahaz need only have waited and trusted in the Lord. God would have seen to the destruction of his enemies. There was no need to seek Assyrian aid. But now that Ahaz has ventured down this faithless path, he and his nation will bear the consequences-Assyrian oppression and tyranny. According to verse 17 (not in today’s reading) “The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” Though couched in terms of realism and practical necessity, Ahaz’ decision to seek Assyrian protection was in fact short-sighted and foolhardy. So far from preserving the liberty of his nation, he exchanged one tyrant for another that would in time prove far worse.
Prior to the formation of the Davidic monarchy the tribes of Israel were bound together in a lose confederacy. It was customary for the people to assemble at a central sanctuary located at Shechem (See Joshua 24) and later at Shiloh. See I Samuel 1. Three such assemblies were required by covenant law: Festival of unleavened bread (later associated with Passover); Festival of first fruits (also called “weeks” or “Pentecost”) and the festival of ingathering (also called Tabernacles). See Exodus 23:14-17. Of the three, the most significant was the Feast of Tabernacles which evolved into a covenant renewal ceremony in which Israel recited God’s faithful acts of salvation and pledged her allegiance to this trustworthy God. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) pp. 168-69. This tradition persisted after the division of the Davidic monarchy into the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel following the death of King Solomon. According to I Kings, Jeroboam, the first king of Israel in the north, instituted an ingathering festival “like the feast that was in Judah.” I Kings 12:32-33. The liturgies from these festivals naturally found their way into the psalms, the hymnals of the worshiping communities in both Israel and Judah. It is believed that verses 8-11 of Psalm 80 (not included in our reading) constitute the portion of the liturgy in which Israel recites the saving acts of God.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
After the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C.E., its psalms, scriptures and worship traditions were brought into the southern kingdom of Judah by refugees and incorporated into Judah’s worship. Psalm 80, which references the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, was one of the psalms so transmitted from north to south.
As it now stands, Psalm 80 is a prayer for national restoration. Unlike Judah in the south which benefited from the presence of Israel and the Phoenician states to the north acting as buffers against Syrian and Assyrian aggression, Israel was exposed to the brunt of such aggression. Israel did not enjoy the stability of a ruling family such as the line of David which provided a measure of political stability for Judah. Israel’s government was volatile, unstable and subject to frequent coups and revolutions. Such violent changes in leadership were sometimes viewed as acts of salvation and were even instigated by prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. Divine leadership for the nation was sought more in charismatic individuals raised up by God’s Spirit to meet national emergencies than from dynastic succession. Hence, the prayer that God would “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” Vs. 17.
A prayer for God to raise up a savior for God’s people is an appropriate one for Advent. Yet if we would read this psalm faithfully as Jesus’ disciples, we must juxtapose this prayer for deliverance to the kind of savior Jesus is and the powers from which he saves us. Rightly understood, this psalm brings into sharp focus the scandal of the cross: the Messiah is Jesus the crucified one. If we are looking for a more powerful, more effective and more efficient savior to implement the new creation by force of arms or other coercive means, we are bound to be disappointed. Jesus implements the kingdom of heaven by the slow process of limitless compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking. That means his disciples must live also in this slow and often seemingly ineffective process. Such a life tests our patience and endurance. That is why we have the Book of Psalms.
Why would our lectionary include a reading that consists only of the formal opening for Paul’s letter to the Romans when we will not hear from this letter again until Lent? The only rationale I can see is that Paul’s reference to Jesus as descended from David according to the flesh” sort of fits in with the gospel lesson-if that gospel lesson had included the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 (it does not). Otherwise, I am tempted to conclude that this Sunday in Advent came rather late in the day for the lectionary makers who at 4:45 p.m. wanted only to call it a day and go home.
The reading constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style. It begins with the name of the sender and that is important when you consider that these letters were originally produced as scrolls to be opened and read from top to bottom. If the letter were merely signed by the author at the end as we do today, you would not know the identity of the sender until you had finished reading the letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader understands from the start the audience being addressed.
Paul expands on this classic form by using it to express the content of his faith and to give us just a hint about what is to come. First, Paul establishes his credentials as an apostle set apart by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Vs. 1 Second, he articulates his understanding of that good news as the proclamation of Jesus as God’s Son through the testimony of the scriptures and the testimony of God expressed by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vss. 2-4 Finally, Paul zeros in on his particular calling to bring about “obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” Vs 5
Paul calls himself a “slave” of Jesus Christ (translated as “servant” in most translations). He understands himself therefore to be the property of Jesus. It is not lost on Paul that Jesus exercised his Lordship through servanthood. That is why Paul can also say that he is a slave of the church for Jesus’ sake. II Corinthians 4:5. Paul’s understanding of the church is radically anti-hierarchical. Though Paul is not at all shy about asserting his authority, he emphasizes that such apostolic authority has been given him for one reason only: to serve and build up the church. II Corinthians 13:10.
Paul refers to himself as having been “set apart” for the gospel of God. The Greek word he uses, “aphorisemenos,” has the same root meaning (translated from the Hebrew) as the title “Pharisee,” which means “one who is set apart.” That linguistic link could not have been lost on Paul, himself a Pharisee. The irony here is that through his calling Paul has been set apart, not to be isolated from the rest of the world, but to be propelled into it. He is set apart for the mission of bringing together the new people of God under Christ Jesus. This expanded salutation is a great wind-up for the pitch Paul is about to make: his lengthy discussion of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant relationship with Israel through the faithful ministry, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus.
While I can understand why you would not want to include the lengthy genealogy preceding this week’s gospel lesson in the readings, I also believe that it is impossible to appreciate Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth without it. That genealogy traces the ancestry of Joseph all the way from Abraham and through the lineage of King David. See Matthew 1:1-17. Then, after having established Joseph’s Abrahamic and Davidic credentials, Matthew goes on to explain that Jesus’ conception had nothing to do with Joseph. We are told that Joseph’s espoused wife was pregnant with a child not his own. So what was the point of the genealogy? If anyone’s genealogy matters in this story, it would be that of Mary, and we don’t know squat about her family tree.
I think Matthew is doing a couple of things here. For one thing, he wants to make it clear that God is doing a new thing. The Holy Spirit is again brooding over the waters and the birth of this child is a new creation. God does not need Abraham to produce his Messiah. The Baptist has told us already that God can make children of Abraham from stones. Matthew 3:9. Neither does God need the line of David to produce a new King. To be sure, the Messiah is first and foremost Israel’s Messiah and is given according to the covenant promises made exclusively with her. But the Messiah is a gift of grace to Israel no less than to the Gentile believers who will follow.
Mary’s virginity and the miraculous conception of Jesus have become foundational in so much thinking about the Incarnation. These topics are far too complex for this brief post (and this preacher) to tackle. Nevertheless, I believe it necessary to take a close look at what Matthew is saying (and not saying) here. It is obvious that Mary is pregnant and that Joseph is not the father. It is also clear that the child conceived in Mary is “from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 1:20. That means quite simply that the Holy Spirit was active in bringing about the conception of Jesus. Matthew does not tell us how the Spirit operated in this case, whether by some human agent or through what we would call “miraculous” means. The Spirit, we know, can work either way. Furthermore, it is well known that the Hebrew text from our Isaiah reading, cited here as having been fulfilled by Jesus, states only that a young woman will conceive and bear a son. Isaiah 7:14. It says nothing about her sexual history or marital status. This does not rule out either Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception or that the conception constituted a miraculous intervention without any other human involvement. But one cannot look to Matthew for support in arguing these assertions.
Finally, although the genealogy preceding our gospel lesson is not a part of the appointed text, I think a couple of comments are still in order. First, anyone examining them with care will soon discover that they contain significant discrepancies from the genealogical records of the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t believe Matthew found that at all problematic as his use of them was not intended to provide a credible pedigree for Jesus. As noted earlier, Matthew did not believe such genealogical grounding to be necessary. For him, the genealogy is a literary device intended merely to show that the Messiah, though born into Israel, is not a product of Israel and his mission extends beyond Israel. For a very thorough discussion of where this genealogy came from and how it might have come into Matthew’s possession, see Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 69-70.
What I find most interesting about the genealogy is the inclusion (in addition to Mary) of four women. Such inclusion of women in an ancient Jewish genealogy is itself unusual as lines of ancestry were traced exclusively through male descendents. Even more intriguing is the choice of women singled out. First is Tamar, the rejected wife of Judah’s several sons who posed as a prostitute in order to conceive Judah’s child. There was Rehab, the friendly prostitute of Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies in scouting out the city in preparation for attack. According to Matthew’s genealogy, she became the wife Boaz, the husband of Ruth, a woman of Moab, whose own seductive measures won her marital status. Finally, Bathsheba is noted as the one through whom the ruling line of Davidic kings proceed. For the story of David and Bathsheba, see II Samuel 11-12:25 or refer to my post of Sunday, June 6, 2013. These women have the dubious distinction of being outside the lineage of Israel or of having borne children outside the legal bonds of wedlock. One cannot help but wonder whether their inclusion is intended to reflect on Mary’s situation and illuminate the work of the Spirit in her life as in theirs.
I must also confess that I have often wondered whether the Gospel of Matthew was not composed or edited by a woman’s hand. Perhaps the inclusion of these women, all of whom played active and often assertive roles in the divine drama, was the author’s way of reminding us that “we are in this too, you know.”
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
When asked by messengers from John the Baptist whether he was “the one to come” or whether John and his followers should look for another messiah, Jesus replied: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Matthew 11:4-5 In a recent speech given at Biola University, Christian activist Shane Claiborne reflected on this exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples and asked whether Christians today could say of their own lives that they demonstrate the same life giving message preached and lived by Jesus. He then went on to speak about a recent survey conducted by the Barna Group out of Ventura, California soliciting the views of young people outside the church on Christians. The results were published in a book entitled Unchristian authored by David Kinnman. They are depressing, to say the least. They tend to show that most young people have lost respect for the church. Here are the study results as summarized by Godquest, an evangelical online publication: Read it and weep.
Hypocritical—Outsiders think that Christians say one thing and do another. They believe we do not act consistently with our beliefs and claim that Christians pretend to be something on the outside that is not real.
Too focused on getting converts—Outsiders often feel more like targets. They feel as if we merely want to get them “saved” and then move on to another accomplishment. Few report feeling genuinely loved by Christians. According to most outsiders, we are not good listeners. The majority of young outsiders do not feel that Christians show genuine interest in them as people.
Anti-homosexual—Young outsiders largely view Christians as hateful, bigoted, and non-compassionate in their dealings with homosexuals. They tend to view Christians as focused on “curing” homosexuals and using political means to silence them. According to many young outsiders, hostility toward gays is synonymous with Christianity (91% agree with this). Christians are often viewed as self-righteous and arrogant in their dealings with homosexuals, the opposite of how Jesus was perceived.
Sheltered—Outsiders largely think that Christians have simplistic answers to the deep complexities of life. We are viewed as old-fashioned, boring, behind the times, and not in touch with reality. Many think that we live in our own world, isolated from the real problems and complexities of life. Christians are largely viewed as ignorant and uninformed.
Too political—Christians are often viewed as synonymous with right-wing Republican conservatives. The majority of young outsiders think we are largely motivated by political interests.
Judgmental—Nearly 90% of outsiders say that the term judgmental accurately describes Christians today. Only 20% of outsiders view the church as a place where people are accepted and loved unconditionally. We are known much more for our criticism than for our love.
For further elaboration, See, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, Godquest, a site maintained by Worldview Ministries.
You might argue that these perceptions are unfair; that they are the result of excessive media coverage for organizations like Christian Coalition, Women Concerned and Westborough Baptist Church that claim to speak for all Christians but propagate their hateful ideological agendas in Christ’s name. There is some truth to that, but we cannot place the entire blame for our image problem on the backs of these organizations or the news coverage they receive. At the end of the day, we are responsible for our public witness. If we are getting shouted down by the likes of Fred Phelps and his deranged disciples with their cries of “God hates fags,” then we just need to speak louder and more forcefully the good news that God loves all people-especially the hated-and be willing to stand with these children of God sharing the persecution they have known all their lives. If we don’t want to be known only for what people think we are against, then we need to start demonstrating what we are for-and show that we are ready to make real sacrifices to achieve it. Churches need to get away from the notion that they are supposed to be the guardians of decency, order and morality. Jesus didn’t care much for any of these things. What he cared about was inviting people into the life giving ways of his Father’s kingdom. That is worth getting excited about. Would to God the church would rise up and make it heard!
For a quick overview of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, see the Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. To summarize the summary: The first part of this long book (Chapters 1-39) contains messages of judgment and warning similar to those of the other 8th Century prophets against hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act with justice for the poor. As illustrated by the readings for the last two weeks, the prophet also speaks poetically and with graphic imagery about God’s coming messianic kingdom. The second part of the book (Chapters 40-55) brings words of comfort and hope to the exiles in Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century B.C.E. This section contains the “suffering servant” passages we commonly read during Lent and Holy Week such as Isaiah 53. Part three (Chapters 56-65) is made up of warnings and promises for the Jewish community after its return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.
If only it were really that simple! In fact, all three sections underwent editing by other prophetic authors who composed their own material or wove oracles and sayings from other sources into the collection of sayings they had received. Further editing and inclusion of sources took place as these three sections were brought together into the Book of Isaiah we have today. Thus, for example, our reading from today, though included in the collection of sayings made up primarily of the 8th Century prophet Isaiah, is likely a product of the 6th Century or perhaps as late as the 5th Century B.C.E. The parallels between this passage and similar verses in Second Isaiah such as Isaiah 55:12-13 suggest to some scholars a connection with the prophet of Second Isaiah or his disciples. Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c. 1962, SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 128. Some Hebrew scripture scholars also suggest that the prophetic utterance is even more recent dating from after the return of the Jews from Exile. They maintain that the “Holy Way” of which the prophet speaks is not only a return route from Babylon, but a multifaceted highway leading from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem by which Diaspora Jews (“the redeemed of the Lord”) may safely travel to the Holy City on pilgrimages. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 362. A few authorities still maintain that this passage should be attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century. They interpret the miraculous highway described therein as one for the return of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom conquered and carried into exile by the Assyrian Empire around 721-23 B.C.E. Mauchline, supra, p. 228. For reasons far too boring to discuss, I lean toward the late 6th to early 5th Century dating, but all of these theories are plausible.
As far as the canonical context goes, these jubilant verses of salvation, growth and renewal follow a withering oracle of judgment decreed against the nations in general and Edom in particular. Geographically, Edom was located south of Judea and the Dead Sea. See map. From the time of King Saul, Edom was subject to varying degrees of Israelite rule and suffered severe military reprisals for its efforts to win independence. Not surprisingly, then, Edom sided with the Babylonians in their final war with Judah and joined the Babylonian army in plundering Jerusalem. This perceived act of treachery was long remembered and the Judean thirst for revenge, chillingly expressed in the final verses of Psalm 137, was deeply impressed upon Israel’s psyche.
Though some scholars characterize Isaiah 34 as “apocalyptic,” I believe the label is misplaced. While the judgment in this chapter refers to cataclysmic cosmic events such as the stars of the heavens falling and the sky rolling up like a scroll, such hyperbolic language was common to prophets of the 8th Century when pronouncing God’s judgment within the confines of history. Furthermore, while the transformation of the desert into a garden-like highway free of intemperate weather and wild beasts is surely a miraculous event, it is no more historically improbable than Israel’s rescue at the Red Sea. I therefore believe that both chapters 34 and 35 have more in common with the earlier prophets’ preaching from the Exodus, Wilderness Wandering and Conquest of Canaan narratives than with the later apocalyptic writing such as that found in Daniel.
As with the lessons from the previous two weeks, these promises of salvation, reconciliation among the nations and world peace are spoken against the backdrop of an unstable and violent geopolitical landscape. The good news for such people “who lived in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2) is that it does not have to be this way, nor will it always be so. In the very midst of all this chaos, injustice, meaningless bloodshed and cruelty, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. Isaiah was no ivory tower theologian. He was deeply involved in the social, political and military issues faced by his country as Chapter 7 of Isaiah demonstrates. But the prophet and his later literary descendents recognized that the realities of violence, injustice and oppression were not the only and certainly not the final realities. They were convinced that the future belonged to the gentle reign of Israel’s God who alone is worthy of worship and ultimate loyalty.
This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.
The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.
But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established. This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms, though even when Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 8:17; Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean rulers, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.
Once again, the lectionary people have committed exegetical malpractice, cutting the reading off before the most important verse, that being James 5:11: “Indeed, we call those blessed who were steadfast…” Not in this country. We call those blessed who are “over comers,” “high achievers,” “result getters.” Too often, the church falls into step with these false values. Mission strategies too often aim at institutional growth and stability instead of faithful witness. Congregations judge their pastors on membership growth, giving levels and building projects instead of faithfulness to the work of sacramental ministry, preaching, teaching, evangelism and public witness. Congregations are judged by their ability to support the denomination’s programs and initiatives. Results, not steadfastness are the measure of a disciple’s worth in this twisted understanding of mission and church.
James points out that patience is a principal virtue for disciples of Jesus. There is nothing a disciple can or must do to make God’s kingdom come. God has that covered. Our task is to recognize the reign of Christ as the only genuine future there is and live accordingly. We don’t ask silly questions like: “How do I know that my contributions to hunger relief will bring any measurable improvement to people’s lives? How can I be sure that my efforts to achieve reconciliation will succeed? How can I know whether forgiveness of my enemy will only be seen as weakness and so invite more aggression?” The simple answer is that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Disciples feed the hungry, seek reconciliation and forgive their enemies because Jesus tells us too. That is enough reason. Let God worry about the results and how they fit into the future God is preparing for creation. That is not a bad message for those of us who have been waiting for two millennia for the consummation of God’s reign.
Last week we met John the Baptist at the peak of his career baptizing the crowds coming to him from all over Judea. Now we meet him near the end of his career, languishing in Herod’s prison. We know so little about John’s religious outlook that it is difficult to know what expectations he may have had for Jesus. Like Jesus, John proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and called for repentance. Matthew 3:2. He proclaimed the coming of one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Matthew 3:11. The “you” here refers to the people as a whole rather than to individuals. Such fiery baptism would purge the people, separating the chaff from the wheat. It is in anticipation of this baptism of fire that John’s baptism of repentance is offered. So from Matthew’s perspective, John’s question seems to be whether Jesus is the one to bring about this baptism of fire that will cleanse the people of Israel, thereby making them fit for the coming reign of heaven.
There is good reason for John’s doubts. So far from separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus associates with the chaff, the “sinners” and outcasts of his people. He touches people who are unclean and violates the Sabbath-hardly the sort of behavior you would expect from someone sent to purify the people of Israel. Though Jesus has established a following, he also faces stiff and perhaps insurmountable opposition from the powerful Pharisees and the Sadducean leadership in Jerusalem. Moreover, John’s reward for baptizing and endorsing Jesus is prison and ultimately death. It seems that Jesus has some explaining to do.
As is his usual habit, Jesus does not give John’s messengers a direct answer. He merely tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him what they have seen. “You be the judge,” says Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” What’s your verdict? Vs. 5. That might sound like a no-brainer. Much of this comes straight from our lesson in Isaiah and the rest goes considerably beyond. If works like these cannot convince a skeptic, what can? And yet, Jesus goes on to add, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” Vs. 6.
What does Jesus mean by that? I suspect that part of this stems from John’s imprisonment. Jesus must be a poor sort of messiah if he cannot save his messenger, the promised Elijah, from the clutches of a penny ante thug like Herod Antipas. How will he fare against the Roman Empire? Jesus seems unaware or unconcerned that the jaws of powerful historical currents are closing in upon him. In view of all this, what difference do all these wonderful signs make? To what use is sight restored only to see more injustice and oppression? The relief Jesus provides to the individuals he touches means nothing if the rest of the vast creation remains untouched and enslaved to systemic sin. Even now the offense of the cross is in view and John’s question seems to be: “If Jesus winds up getting himself crucified, as seems likely, will there be another to whom we can look for salvation?” The answer is “no,” there will be no other and that is the core of the offense.
Jesus’ remarks about John’s role indicate clearly that something is dying with John. Notions of messianic salvation molded on tactics of violence, whether through military action or through imposition of morality, whether they are grounded in the scriptures or elsewhere, have no place in Jesus’ mission. Our efforts to build a moral society through just laws and procedures are doomed to failure. Whatever hopes we have for salvation through political or military might, through education and knowledge or through gradual human progress die on the cross. History is not something made by great societies or influential individuals. God is directing history toward his own chosen future which is revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. The way lies through the cross-suffering endured as a result of living the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount in a world that is, for now, hostile to the way of life it portrays. It bears repeating: it is not that the Sermon provides a blue print for a perfect church or a better society. Rather, it reflects the future Jesus promises and invites us to live in even now. What prophets like John could only foretell Jesus inaugurates-under the sign of the cross.
Second Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Last week Isaiah promised us a day when the nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. That is, to put it mildly, politically implausible. This week Isaiah declares that the messiah to come from the broken line of David will bring about a time of peace in which carnivorous animals will live in peace with those now their prey. “The lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Isaiah 11:7. This is ecologically impossible. Without some radical physiological changes to its metabolism, a lion won’t survive long on straw. We know that predator/prey relationships are part of the “balance of nature.” If all of us carnivorous beasts were to become vegetarians tomorrow, we would soon be overwhelmed by all of those animals we used to eat. It is hard to imagine how Isaiah’s vision of harmony can lead to anything but ecological disaster. But imagine we must, because there is no other faithful way to read prophets.
Sadly, imagination is not highly valued in our 21st century culture, shaped as it still is by our 19th century faith in empiricism, the belief that the truth is simply the sum of the observable facts. According to this narrow two-dimensional viewpoint, the only truth worth knowing is whatever can be derived from equations and controlled laboratory experiments. Nowhere is this antiquated prejudice more evident than in education funding. In today’s world of high stakes testing, the arts are being pushed aside as a “non-essential” subject. School administrators faced with tough budgeting decisions put financial backing into subjects that are tested in nation-wide assessments to ensure more federal funding. Consequently, funding for the arts is increasingly being cut from departmental budgets in favor of so-called “core” education classes like math and science. From early on, students are discouraged from pursuing careers in graphic arts, music and literature. The well paying jobs are in business management, science, law and engineering. These are the areas, we are told, in which our society must excel in order to remain great.
Naturally, I have no objection to anyone excelling in these areas. But I worry that fewer and fewer people seem inclined to excel in the arts. I am not at all convinced that artistic imagination is irrelevant to the overall advancement of society. It was a scientist who observed that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Attributed to Albert Einstein) The scriptures challenge us to imagine alternatives to the world we know. The God we worship invites us to imagine a world without national borders, without armed forces, without hunger, poverty or injustice. Indeed, we are invited to imagine a world without death, mourning or tears. That’s impossible for the universe as we know it. So you must either become imaginatively open to Isaiah’s radical alternative to what we know; or, like a good modernist, you must interpret Isaiah’s bold promises as mere metaphors for something that fits within the strictures of the knowable-like full employment; a living wage; free pre-natal care or a Starbucks on every corner.
Frankly, if Isaiah had nothing more to offer than metaphors for social progress, I would say to hell with him. We don’t need a prophet to help us fix potholes. I am convinced, however, that Isaiah fully understood just how wildly impossible his visions were and how greatly they differed from his people’s own lived reality. He had no illusions that he or any movement he might organize could bring about the peaceable kingdom he proclaimed. He understood from the outset that his visions were from the Lord and that, as far as establishing the peaceable kingdom, “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” Isaiah 9:7. Because the God of the Exodus has a hand in the affairs of the cosmos, Israel dared to hope for the fulfillment of a promise that seems impossible to fulfill. Her faith was not defined by what she knew to be the facts, but by what her prophets taught her to imagine.
Again, I am all for teaching our kids to read, write, solve math problems and understand the physical sciences. If education ends there, however, we will eventually become a nation armed with powerful technologies and no imagination. That is truly a frightening prospect!
Though obviously connected with verses 1-9 by references to Jesse, the father of David, most scholars view verse 10 as part of a unit separate from these preceding verses. See, e.g., Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c 1962 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 129. Verses 1-9 speak to the character of the promised Davidic king whereas verse 10 and following speak of his role in gathering together the exiles of Israel. In my view, adding verse 10 onto the end of the reading detracts from its powerful conclusion in verse 9: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Isaiah 7:14 speaks of the birth of Emmanuel. Isaiah 9:6-7 describes a child born to bear the weight of governance on his shoulders and who is given several names descriptive of his attributes. This Sunday’s reading form Isaiah 11 must be considered in connection with these verses. There is some dispute over whether the new branch representing the messianic king grows merely from the line of David or whether use of the word “stump” suggests a tree that has been cut down. If the latter is the case, one would assume that the utterance took place during a time of national disaster threatening the existence of the Davidic line. Consequently, some commentators date this oracle in the post-exilic era attributing it to a prophet other than Isaiah. I am not convinced that the language is clear enough to make a firm determination. Moreover, even assuming that the stump denotes a denuded kingdom, such a condition also matches the state of affairs existing in the aftermath of the ruinous raid by Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. That invasion nearly obliterated the kingdom of Judah. However one might date the oracle, though, the prophet obviously looks for God to act through a descendent from the line of David.
The Spirit of God will rest upon the savior king. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit signifies God’s energy, vitality and life force which can be communicated to human beings. It can express itself in skill (Exodus 31:3; Exodus 35:31), wisdom (Genesis 41:38), courage (Judges 6:34) or prophetic insight (Numbers 11:25-30). The Spirit’s involvement here is not unlike Paul’s view of the one Spirit conferring numerous gifts upon the church. I Corinthians 12:4-11. Verse 2, declaring that upon this leader shall rest “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” is prominently featured in our baptismal liturgy as well as the confirmation and ordination rites. At first blush, it might sound odd to hear that the messianic savior’s “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Delight and fear are not words I am used to hearing in such close proximity. Nonetheless, any intimate relationship that does not have an element of awe, wonder and, yes, fear in it probably isn’t worth having.
Verses 4-6 are critical in my view because they undermine the “myth of redemptive violence” that has gained nearly creedal status in mainline Christianity. Note well that when this king “smites” the earth he does so with “the rod of his mouth.” When he slays the wicked, he does it with “the breath of his lips.” God exercises his reign through speech-through the Word and Spirit-not through violent and coercive means. This shoot from the stump of Jesse is not simply a kinder, gentler Caesar on steroids. There is a reason why Jesus would not accept the political power and glory of the world’s kingdoms when offered to him on a silver platter. There is a reason for the observation that when the church seeks to shape history by seizing the levers of power, the world seldom gets any better but the church always becomes worse. Coercion, whether it comes in the form of naked military power or in the more subtle guise of a “political solution,” cannot bring about the state of affairs God desires. Only the Spirit working through the relentless proclamation of the Word can bring about the peaceable kingdom. Not until the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” can Isaiah’s vision become reality.
Obviously, the state of harmony among living creatures is contrary to everything we know about ecology and animal physiology. Clearly, one ought not to take these images as literal truth. Isaiah’s point is that the fear and hostility experienced by human beings from destructive carnivorous animals will end as the savior king’s reign extends even into the realm of nature. It is easy to lose sight of this point living as we do in a world where such animals have far more to fear from us than we need fear them! Still and all, this vision testifies to God’s end (telos) for creation that shatters all expectations based on our current understanding of the universe and its ways. Thus, we ought not to castrate Isaiah by turning his marvelous visions into mere metaphors of social progress. Such sermonic slop is hardly worth giving up a pleasant Sunday morning with the New York Times, a fresh bagel with cream cheese and a good cup of coffee.
This is a royal psalm probably used either for coronation ceremonies or the annual commemoration of God’s covenant with the line of David. The prayer has many similarities with those of Israel’s neighbors. For example, a hymn celebrating the accession of the Egyptian monarch, Ramses IV sometime around 1160 B.C.E. reads:
They who were hungry are sated and gay;
They who were thirsty are drunken.
They who were naked are clothed in fine linen;
They who were dirty are clad in white.
They who were in prison are set free;
They who were fettered are in joy.
The troublemakers in this land have become peaceful.
Pritchard, J.B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 379 cited in Rogerson,, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 113. The difference, of course, is that for Israel, the blessings arising out of the king’s rule are not merely incidental to strong leadership, but flow directly from faithfulness to the Davidic covenant making the king an agent of God’s justice. Consequently, justice for the poor, the widow and the orphan are the king’s particular concern. As the prophets point out, few if any of David’s descendents lived up to their covenant obligations. Even David himself sometimes fell short. Disappointment in Israel’s monarchy led the people of God to wonder whether any human agent is up to the task of doing justice and practicing righteousness. But perhaps that is the wrong question. Jesus’ messianic mission questions not the ability of human beings to rule justly, but the political structures, methods and strategies by which they attempt to do justice. Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection demonstrate, among other things, that violence does not work. Ever. Not even when it is used to achieve a greater good.
In its usual concern for protecting the sensibilities of graying, white, upper middle class, slightly left of center protestants, the lectionary has excised a chunk of this psalm in which the psalmist prays for the expansion of the king’s reign over “all” the nations. If you wish, you can read it here. Evidently the editors did not feel the expression of such imperialistic ambitions appropriate for worship. If you ask me, though, it is no more offensive than singing “Jesus shall reign where ‘er the sun, doth its successive journeys run.” If Jesus is who we say he is, then the song is perfectly appropriate. So, I would argue, is the middle of this psalm. Again, the question we must bring to this psalm is: “What sort of king are we talking about and what sort of reign does he exercise?” Regardless of what the psalmist or the worshipers who first sang this song may have thought, for those of us reading the scriptures through the lens of the cross this is a king that smites the world with his life giving speech, slays the wicked by convicting them through Word and Spirit and extends his rule over the nations by welcoming them into covenant. Our reading from Romans illustrates that very point.
Though this brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to have been lifted out of the text with no thought to context, it nevertheless contains several verses well worth talking about. Verse 4 speaks about the purpose of the scriptures-which is to give us hope and encouragement. Yet how often haven’t we seen the scriptures used to judge, condemn, exclude and criticize? Instead of encouraging us to live in harmony, scriptural preaching has often been used to disrupt harmony, widen fault lines within the church and promote schism. There are volumes to be said on this score alone.
Hope is a recurring theme throughout this reading. It is said to be the focus of the scriptural witness. Vs 4. The messianic shoot from the root of Jesse is said to be the hope of the gentiles. Vs. 12. The reading concludes with Paul’s prayer that the Roman church “may abound in hope.” Vs. 13. This is certainly an appropriate topic for Advent!
Verse 7 is also a great starting point for speaking about hospitality. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.” That would seem to exclude just about every rationale thinkable for denying entry into the church of Christ. Paul is often faulted for his lack of emphasis on Jesus’ life and teachings, but behind his instructions and admonitions to his churches you can find every parable Jesus ever spoke along with the Sermon on the Mount.
John the Baptist often gets a bum rap in biblical art. Frequently, he is portrayed as an angry sourpuss threatening his hearers with the wrath of God. He actually does that when the Pharisees and Sadducees come on the scene. But his preaching to the general public begins with a call to repentance framed in the context of Isaiah 40 which opens with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1. The voice crying out for preparation of a way in the wilderness from Isaiah 40:3 is one of ecstatic joy. Repentance, therefore, is not to be understood as the woeful, breast beating, and self punishing sort of exercise that twisted medieval piety has made of it. Rather, it is a joyful turning away from self destructive attitudes and behavior toward new possibilities opened up by the intervention of a gracious and loving God. So forget the John you met in all those 1960s Sunday school leaflets. Matthew’s John laughs out loud and smiles.
More than any of the other gospel writers, Matthew makes clear the connection between the ministry of John the Baptist and Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return. See Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:12. Nevertheless, just as I do not believe Matthew ties Jesus exclusively to any one particular Hebrew scriptural character, so also I think it is probably not a good idea to make too much of Matthew’s identification of John with Elijah. Just as his allusions to parallels between Jesus and Moses, Joshua, Elijah and the ancient people of Israel serve to illuminate Jesus’ identity from as many angles as possible, so too I think that the comparison between John and Elijah serves more to explain his prophetic ministry than to fit him into the framework of a master plot. See my post for Sunday, December 1st.
Why would the Pharisees and Sadducees be coming to John for baptism? That seems out of character from what we learn of them in the chapters to come. It is possible that this is merely a literary device designed to introduce us to the hypocrisy of these representatives of Judaism. Yet the gospels seem to agree that John was widely respected by the general public, so much so that the leaders were afraid to criticize him in the presence of the people. See Matthew 21:23-27; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8. It is therefore possible that members of these two groups were drawn to John’s preaching and perhaps even sought his baptism. Their lives, however, were not transformed so as to produce fruit befitting repentance.
John’s ire against the Pharisees and Sadducees seems to be directed principally at their insistence (mutually antagonistic) that they represent the “true” Israel. In point of fact, God doesn’t care about “roots” (upon which the ax of God’s wrath will soon fall) but for “fruits,” that is, the quality of a life transformed in anticipation of the Kingdom of heaven. It is hard to know whether the lectionary makers saw the irony in juxtaposing Isaiah’s focus on the “root of Jesse” as an image of hope and John’s dismissal of rootedness even in the expansive line of Abraham. So what is it preacher? Roots or fruits?
It is possible that in all this talk of making children of Abraham from stones, Matthew (or his source) is alluding to Isaiah 51:1-12. There the prophet invites his discouraged post-exilic hearers to “look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him and blessed him and made him many.” Isaiah 51:1-2. Clearly, God remains faithful to Israel and her people. But God’s faithfulness should not be taken for granted. Just as God made of the aged Abraham and his barren wife a great people, so God can “hew” another people from barren stone should the need arise. See Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Text Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 144-45. Such an allusion is quite possible and would further emphasize Matthew’s insistence on repentance and transformation in anticipation of the coming kingdom over any claim of pedigree.
Matthew ties John’s ministry closely to Jesus. Their respective messages are identical: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 4:17. Nevertheless, their respective roles are as different as night and day. For Matthew, John is a transitional figure. He represents the end of the line of Israel’s faithful prophets. As such, he is worthy of honor and recognition. But his mission consists in making way for Jesus whose coming initiates the new age of the Kingdom of Heaven. The least among the children of this new age is therefore even greater than John. Matthew 11:11-15.